A raccoon with a jar on its head

One Sunday afternoon, I came home to find a neighbor in our backyard.

“There’s a raccoon with a plastic jar on its head,” he said. “I called the police. Animal control doesn’t work on the weekend.”

Indeed, there was a small raccoon in our garden with its head stuck inside the kind of jar that might once have held peanut butter. It was young, with long skinny legs, like a gangling teenager. We watched each other intently until the policeman showed up.

baby raccoon

Not our visitor, I was too busy fretting to take pictures. This is another raccoon in the same predicament that I found on the web. 

“I don’t really want to touch him,” the policeman said. “They carry so many diseases.” Nonetheless, he pulled a pair of thin, black gloves out of his pocket and put them on. “Okay, let’s see if we can get this thing off him.”

He stepped forward and the raccoon backed away, its ears flattening against the top of the jar. Aren’t raccoons supposed to be good with their hands? Would an older animal have known what to do? And where was its mother? I was distressed, although probably not as much as the raccoon.

We spent the next few minutes trying to corral the poor thing while it skittered up and down the length of our back fence. The neighbor had a flash of inspiration and ran home to get a hockey stick. That almost worked. For a heartbeat, he had the raccoon pinned down with the short end of the stick, but before the policeman could grab the jar, it wriggled out from under—and went up a tree. The plastic jar went tump, tump, tump. I thought my heart would break.

The policeman sighed. “There’s nothing else we can do for now. Try to ignore it and I’ll let Animal Control know in the morning.”

Ignore a raccoon with its head stuck in a plastic jar, in a tree in my back yard? Not likely.

It sat, with its plastic-covered head resting in a convenient fork, for a long time. Every few minutes, distracted and worried, I’d check to see if it was still there. Just as the sun started to set, I heard, tump, tump, tump, as the youngster climbed down the tree. It wobbled off across the lawn and I followed. When it disappeared behind a house down the street, I had to finally admit that there was nothing I could do and went home.

As it happens, on the town website, there is a page of other resources we could have contacted. One is for North East Wildlife Animal Rehabilitation Coalition, an organization of volunteers who work out of their homes (including one in our town, Arlington, MA) to help with situations like the one our little visitor had experienced the night before. While I hope not to need them again, I’m determined not to forget that they’re there should the need arise.

In case you, too, are feeling anxious now, there’s no need. I called Animal Control the next day and was told that someone else had also reported the raccoon and another police officer had been able to free it from its plastic prison.

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Writer’s pity party

There is nothing attractive about a person who spends all their time bemoaning how hard it is to do whatever it is that they’re having a hard time doing. And it’s doubly annoying when the person in question hasn’t actually been doing anything for months. Sometimes, however, it can’t be helped. I perused my blog backlist to make sure I hadn’t subjected you to this before (which would make the behavior even more egregious) and determined that I was overdue for a pity party.

In 2010, I wrote a post called The end is just the beginning. I had finished my first manuscript and was excited about my prospects. You might want to revisit that post if you need a refresher course on how publishing works, but in short, you send a cover letter and the first ten pages to agents to try to convince them how marketable your book is, and then it’s out of your hands. It doesn’t matter if your manuscript took three months or ten years to write, it all comes down to the thirty seconds the agent (or their assistant) spends with it. (It should come as no surprise that writers spend an inordinate amount of time rewriting the first chapter.)

keyboard and ms

My current manuscript is a middle grade, contemporary fantasy. I’ve submitted it to quite a few agents. While many are never heard from, some have been kind enough to provide the rationale for their rejection. Comments I’ve gotten include:

  • “This is a fun and fresh story but to my ear, the voice isn’t hitting the right notes.”
  • “I love your opening descriptions and felt Megan’s impatience viscerally, but some of the submission read as a bit dramatic and choppy.”
  • “You’ve nailed the family dynamics in this story, that’s for sure… Even with this potential, I’m afraid I found the story a bit too simple and wished it were more developed…”
  • “Right now, the story gives us a little too much play-by-play… This will make the pacing seem slow…”

This manuscript has been critiqued by fabulous readers, published writers, and a few honest-to-goodness industry professionals. I’ve listened, learned, and revised. I’ve taken classes, attended conferences, and yes, paid for professional help. I’ve tried to address the agents’ concerns, some I didn’t agree with, and some have been too overwhelming to think about. In any case, unless an agent invites you to revise and resubmit it doesn’t really matter, because, as they all tell you, another agent may feel differently. But then again, they may not.

You can see how crazy-making it can be.

I have a few options at this point. Give up my dream, start a new project, or pull up my big girl pants and go back to work on my current manuscript.

I know what I should do. The question is, can I motivate myself to do it?

Ready to respond

When it comes to friends, people fall into two categories, those who reach out and those who respond. Some responders find it difficult to reach out because they have been emotionally hobbled in some fashion that they have yet to overcome. I know, because I am a responder.

As all fellow soul-searchers know, it is impossible to look deeply at one’s self without running smack into a parent’s influence. Since my mother is alive and well—and reading my blog—I write what follows with some degree of guilt. However, I trust that she knows that I love her and that I am not casting blame, just seeking clarity. That said, let’s start with my father’s part in my inability to reach out. (He’s alive, thank you for asking, but unlikely to read this.)

As children, my sisters and I were allowed very little time on the phone. My father, the doctor, was often on call and in the days before call-waiting he was loathe to risk the phone being busy because the answering service might need to reach him. When your father barks, “Get off the phone, I’m on call,” you learn quickly not to get on the phone in the first place. That early training accounts for my phone-phobic nature, but is not the entire story.

The fear of reaching out can also be a learned behavior.

My mother is a responder who often exhibited an unwillingness to do even that. We would give her a message, “Mom, so-and-so called and wants you to call her back,” and she’d say, “Oh yes, I really must do that,” and then wouldn’t.

After my grandmother died, I suggested my mother get in touch with her aunts. Her response was something like, “Oh, they don’t want to hear from me. I’m just their sister’s daughter.” I was, as the British say, gobsmacked. We rarely saw our extended family, but I experienced my great-aunts as warm, loving women. I am certain they would have welcomed a call from my mother.

When I was no longer living at home, I rarely spoke to my mother on the phone. I asked once why she never called me and she said, “I assumed if I wasn’t hearing from you that everything was fine and I didn’t want to intrude.”

You see the problem.

What I’m trying to say is that even if I don’t reach out, I’m here for you, as my mother is for me. I scan Facebook to see what you’re up to, read your blogs, occasionally even Google you. I cherish our shared memories. But I don’t want to impose, to bother you.

Perhaps the people I consider friends will tire of reaching out one day. Maybe you already have. Maybe you’ve always been a responder, like me. Whatever the case, I don’t judge. If I don’t hear from you for years at a time I will assume you are well and happy. If not, and you need me, reach out. I promise to respond.

Curmudgeon in training

It’s quiet and peaceful on my back porch today, but it won’t last. New neighbors are on their way, a couple with three young children.

It was inevitable that someday we would get new neighbors. The couple next door are 94 and 95. (I struggled there with whether to use “are” or “is.” I know a couple is a singular thing, but when I turned them into individuals to tell you how old they were, they turned plural. I have a dear friend who blogs about words. This minor dilemma doesn’t rise to the level of interesting language usage that she writes about, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate the diversion.)

In any case, our lovely, elderly neighbors moved to an apartment in the center of town so they wouldn’t have to deal with stairs anymore. He’s been going back and forth to clean out the house and ready it for sale and now, I’ve heard, the deed is done.

Once upon a time, the house was a barn. It’s built into a hill and the back door, which appears to be upstairs from where I sit, opens onto a flat bit that’s blocked from view by a fence. The side yard is separated from that bit by the same fence. A picture should make that clearer. Here you go:

neighbors house

The gazebo jumps out at you, doesn’t it? In twenty years, I’ve never seen either of my neighbors sit there. Because no one uses it, I’ve been able to enjoy it as the bit of backyard kitsch it is. Once filled with children, however, I have no doubt that it will lose its dubious charm.

Maybe the new neighbors’ children will be quiet, clean, charming little things. But when they move in it’s likely that I’ll spend more time on my front porch where there’s no gazebo in sight.

People watching – short fiction

 

A tall man in a blue work shirt yanked open the door to the bank. He pulled off his yellow, Caterpillar baseball cap and whacked it against his thigh. He ran his hand through his hair and looked around before making his way to the coffee bar near the front window. After contemplating the setup for a moment, he picked up one of the disposable coffee pods and brought it close to his face, squinting as if he couldn’t read the label. He returned it to the counter, not bothering to put it back in the bin it had come from, and chose another one. Satisfied, he put it into the machine and pushed a button. With no haste, he put a plastic-coated cup in place just in time to catch the hot stream.

When the cup was full, he took a sip. No sugar, no cream, no need to stir. He didn’t remove the spent pod, either.

On his way back to the door he paused. “You’re outta Southern Pecan,” he said.

“I’ll make a note of that, Sir,” said one of the tellers.

He flipped his cap back on and left.caterpillar hat

Mia must have been staring, because the teller who was helping her said, “It happens all the time. We’re like Starbucks, only free. Did you want a cup?”

“No, thank you. Why don’t you tell them it’s for customers?”

“Because,” she replied as she fit a stack of bills into the automatic counting machine, “that guy could be worth millions to the bank one day.”

That guy?”

“You never know,” she said.

The other teller, a young Indian woman wearing a blue blazer, came hurrying out from behind the counter. She held open the door for a man in an electric wheelchair. He had no legs, not even stumps. He was a torso with arms. There was a tray across the front of his wheelchair, the kind you’d find in the seatback in front of you on a plane.

The young woman followed him to the counter, but didn’t go behind it. Instead she stopped with him and asked, “The usual?”

Mia couldn’t hear his response, but he reached into a black leather bag hanging off the side of his wheelchair and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. The teller took it, went behind the counter, and returned with a roll of quarters.

“There you go, Mr. Price. All set?”

He must have said yes, because she said, “Right then. Let me get the door for you.”

Mia watched as he rolled to the sidewalk and waited at a cross walk. When the traffic stopped, he propelled himself across the street onto the opposite sidewalk. She watched until he was out of sight.

“Miss?”

She turned back to the teller, who handed her her cash with a small envelope.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, thank you,” she replied.

“Sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?”

Mia smiled. “Maybe next time.”

Friend debuts first collection

Some years ago, I met Theresa Milstein at the annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She fascinated me. She was teaching grade school, working towards an additional master’s degree, taking care of two children—and writing. I was in awe of her dedication and energy. A couple of years later I convinced her to join my critique group and we began to read each other’s work. Theresa was sharing fantasy for young adult and middle grade readers with us, but privately she was indulging her passion for poetry. Her first collection, Time & Circumstance, a mixture of poetry and prose, will be published by Vine Leaves Press on March 21.

time_circumstance-cover

I asked Theresa how she got started writing her small pieces. She explained, “Ever since I began writing seriously, I’ve been signing up for workshops, conferences, and retreats to improve my craft. At some point, a poetry workshop was offered at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I thought learning how to write more sparely and lyrically would improve my longer pieces. I signed up. Nothing I wrote during that workshop was salvageable, but I learned a lot. In between novel-length manuscripts, I kept writing poetry. Here and there, I started submitting to literary journals.”

The prose pieces in her collection are quite short. Theresa calls them “vignettes.” I asked what sparked her interest in that particular literary form. She said, “Vine Leaves Literary Journal began as a platform for vignettes. Unlike a story, which has a beginning, middle, and end, a vignette is a moment captured, something that could fit on a vine leaf. The journal thought both prose and poetry could be vignettes, so I began submitting both. Vine Leaves accepted one of each in 2012.”

And her book, Time & Circumstance, how did that come to be?

“At some point, I sent the editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Jessica Bell, a few poems for a project she was considering. That project fell through but she asked if I had enough pieces to make a collection for Vine Leaves Press. I knew I didn’t have enough poems, so I asked if I could include prose too. She agreed. Terrified, I sat on the idea for months. One day, I pulled all my vignettes into a single document. If I could find cohesion—and muster enough bravery—I would send the manuscript. It took a long time, but I finally hit the “send” button. It was accepted and now an actual book is coming out next week.”

Time & Circumstance is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and electronically for both the Kindle and Nook.

 

I miss the Nigerian prince

It’s been years since a Nigerian prince offered me untold riches if I would supply him with my banking information. It’s also been some time since someone was robbed in Europe and couldn’t get back home unless I sent money. Today, cries for help are coming from ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews by way of Monsey, New York.

The latest is from Reuven Boltin, a resident of Modi’in Ilit, Israel. He says that he is fighting for his life and needs “…NIS 40,000 ($10,500) a month” for medicine.

He makes quite the case. Included in the mailing is a letter from his local Rabbi attesting to his need, and an official-looking clinical summation from the Oncology Institute Clinic. Both documents also appear in their original Hebrew (I assume) to give the appeal the appropriate verisimilitude. The mailing came with an envelope that has a Monsey, NY, address in case you want to send a check.

While I am normally an empathetic person, this missive just made me mad. Why, you ask? I suspect the answer is guilt—with a smattering of fear.

Guilt, because the letter elicits no sympathy from me, and maybe it should. It begins, “My Dear Fellow Jew.” They’ve got that part right: I am, indeed, a Jew. But I am an American Reform Jew, which is a far cry from an Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew. Modi’in Ilit is a Haredi community, a group “…characterized by a distancing from post-modern secular culture,” according to Wikipedia. I know very little about Israeli Haredim except that they are typically insular groups who practice their religion guided by the ultra-Orthodox equivalent of my way or the highway. I find it antithetical that they would not shake my hand because that is too intimate, but they can ask me for money.

The fear comes from being identified as a Jew by an unknown third party. It’s not that I mind being Jewish, as a matter of fact, I’m quite proud to be a member of the tribe. Look, here I am, outing myself to all you readers as a Jew! But there’s something ominous about getting a letter from someone I don’t know, preying on my Judaism.

I suppose the 64,000-dollar question is, is Reuven Boltin, of Modi’in Ilit, Israel, really ill? The url for donations (www.tovvchesed.org/boltin-fund) makes one think that there must be a www.tovvchesed.org, but one would be wrong. The url takes you directly to a PayPal page and there is no tovvchesed.org. There is, however, a .com by that name, which purports to support needy children. At that site, there is also a link for “special situations” that reads, “At Tov V’Chesed, we stand at the sides of our families through the unexpected financial struggle that results from a medical crisis by ensuring that the daily needs of the suffering family is [sic] provided for until they are zoche to welcome their family member back home in good health.”

So maybe it’s not a scam. Maybe Reuven Boltin, of Modi’in Ilit, Israel by way of Monsey, NY, really needs help. If he does, I hope he gets it. I’m waiting for my prince.