On Babies, Death and Jamey Genna

Throw the baby away? Can we imagine that? I’m not talking abortion, I’m talking about a mother who throws her baby away…into a garbage dump. Is that person a murderer? These are the thoughts that rocketed through my head after reading Pushcart Prize nominee, Jamey Genna’s short story “The Wind Chill Factor Kicked In.” The prose in this short-short story is tight and searing:

Then, one day during the search, the deputy found a strange note—it was scribbled on an envelope.

The baby is here, it said, or it said, look here for the baby.

That’s what they said it said. The winter was a long one, mild in December, but during January—the wind chill factor kicked in.

Look for the baby here it said.

Jamey Genna writes literary fiction. She writes short essays and poetry. Her recent book, Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral, is a compilation of fiction. The stories, twenty-one in all, are gritty, realistic pieces, the kind of fiction Jamey would call Dirty Realism, which is a name for a sub-genre that focuses on the tougher side of life in spare, lean language.

Some of the best stories in this collection are very short and fit the description of Dirty Realism at its best. The language is often mean, hard and lean. And it is also quirky. When you first pick up a story by Genna, you question the word choice, the syntax, but you soon get it…this is the voice of a narrator who speaks to us in a quirky vernacular that may be a result of family influences, regional dialect…but who cares. The voice mirrors the subject matter of the stories; family, lovers, husbands, all revealed as if caught beneath the glare of a police interrogation lamp. We see the shadows and nicks, the wrinkles caused by sadness, and yes by laughter. The characters in this collection are complex…they do good things and they do bad things. They covet, they cheat, they love, they admire.

The folks in these stories really talk to me. They are like the women and men I’ve known in my life. That’s why I prefer to read literary fiction. Unlike popular fiction where the plot generally drives the narrative, the characters in literary fiction—in Genna’s tales—are unpredictable, like many of us. And that unpredictability creates plots that keep us on edge because we don’t know what these people are going to do.

One of my favorites in Genna’s collection, a story I first read almost fifteen years ago, is “The Light in the Alley.” This story captures the death of an infant in a large family. The parents fumble and stumble around as they try to cope with the loss of this precious child. But the story is much more complicated than just a rendition of an infant’s demise. It exposes the family’s…how should I say this? complicity? inadvertent participation? involvement? in this child’s death. And despite the narrative’s complications, these people are truly stunned by the loss, their sadness indicative of a spiritual evisceration.

Another of my favorites, a very short-short story titled “Dry and Yellow,” shows us a young woman spending some time with an ex-husband, Lee, and his mother. The prose is hard and tough and poignant. An excerpt:

I hadn’t divorced just Lee, I’d left her behind, too and hadn’t wanted to maintain a relationship because of Lee’s new wife. And because it hurt to see his new life sitting on his mother’s mantle. What I mean to say is that his mother must’ve loved me too, and she didn’t get any explanation. Just like my mom saying, “I loved him. But you don’t suppose he’d ever stop by or call if he was in town.” And I said, “No, mom, I don’t suppose he would.”

Most of the pieces in this compilation have been published in periodicals and magazines, both print and online. And if you like stories with flawed characters who have tough rows to hoe and whose choices may not be in their own best interest, then I recommend Genna’s book.

You can find Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral on Amazon at here.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.

My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.

As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.

When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?

I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.

I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).

My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.

Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.

As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.

The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.

I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.

I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.

I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.

He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.

My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.

On Pruners, Prose and Metaphor

Betty and I have been on the road it seems all winter and the early weeks of spring. So when we returned home to Boise eight days ago, our yard looked a little haggard, as if we needed to spend some serious work time. Pruning and digging and raking and planting all need to be done, now. But I cannot do it all now. So I decided to begin with….with a pair of pruners and a better attitude than what I felt last Thursday when I first looked at all the work. When I whispered to myself, “I am tired, I can’t do all that; I don’t want to do all that.”

So I began with pruners and snipped and pruned, here and there, one bush at a time and now I have made significant progress. Maybe that approach could work for my writing.

I mention my writing because I’ve been hearing from a number of friends and acquaintances about the dearth of personal blogs coming from me. I have often wondered how much those blog pieces I used to regularly pound out meant, if anything, to anyone. But evidently they are read and printed out and shared and maybe even talked about. So I have decided to get back into the habit of writing the Not-So-Regular, Regular Friday Blog.

Writing is a lonesome business and is often done best at five-thirty in the morning before full consciousness kicks in, or the strong coffee, or both, when the breeze that announces first light still rattles the rain gutters.

Sometimes, with me, and probably a lot of other people, the writing comes like a blast of hot water that cannot be dammed. The images tumble out of the unconscious and into the mind so fast they get tangled up and trip all over themselves. When the inspiration overmatches the perspiration, you think you can write forever and write well.

But sometimes the work isn’t like that. Sometimes it’s like punching postholes in limestone. Joint-shivering work, metaphorically speaking. Knuckle-busting; and of course I am being metaphorical but I am a creative writer so metaphor demands to become part of the toil.

When the writing is difficult, like it has been lately, the metaphors seem frayed, as if I have applied them so many times they’ve lost their collective breaths. When that occurs it is difficult, very difficult, for me to get to the desk and compose.

Maybe metaphor exhaustion comes about because all the stories a man has to tell, or stories that are worth telling, are tapped one too many times from what the psychiatrist Carl Jung called humanity’s “collective unconscious.” I am not positive, but I think those archetypes, those collective myths we all are a part of, can get worn out after telling and telling and telling from the mouth and hands of the same man over years of yarning and writing.

Among other tools of yarning, metaphor is one of the ways—one of the shovels—we employ to dig that hole in the brittle ground of imagination…the telling of the quest, the conquest, the resolution of our journeys from the beginning of life until the end.

When tackling metaphors and their expression in the borrowed archetypes, I want to portray in a way no one has ever created. Even though the stories are as old as the species, they need to be expressed in a fresh way. They need to be new. And that means new metaphors.

But first, I need to get a fresh piece of paper—a blank one—and get some words down. Like putting the point of my shovel into the hard clay at my house. Or get the pruners sharpened and oiled. For the first time this year. This new year for story and metaphor.

And blogs.

Thanks to my friends and acquaintances who asked for getting me motivated to blog.

Real Cowboys Didn’t Go to “Cowboys”

Last weekend I attended a workshop given by teacher, raconteur, cowboy poet, rope twirler, guitar picker, yodeler and warbler extraordinaire, Ernie Sites. The event was held in downtown Boise and sponsored by Elaine Ambrose of Mill Park Publishing in Eagle, Idaho.

I like to write poetry but the cowboy poetry genre often confounds me. I’m not sure if it’s the rhyme and meter of it or something else. When I first started penning poems I guffawed at rhyme and metrical schemes as flighty and unavailable to me in terms of expressing true, angsty meaning…mine or any other poet’s. But after some time studying Shelly and Wordsworth and Yeats’ poems and cowboy poet Buck Ramsey’s masterpiece of the cowboy genre, “Anthem,” I have changed my mind. Not about writing such poems, but about rhyme and meter’s importance in the larger genre of poetry.

Rhyme and metrical schemes place restraints on the composer and like so much in life, constraints of many kinds force us to be creative. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write rhyme and meter, but it does mean I appreciate the poems more for what they say and how they say it.

I wrote a poem in that workshop and although it was metrical and had internal rhyme, I wouldn’t name it cowboy poetry. There were some good poems composed by almost everyone in the session and some of them fit the classic definition of cowboy poetry.

Along with poems and music, there were cowboy hats and boots one would expect at a celebration of something cowboys call “Cowboy Halloween.” The boots especially, bright red boots, Lucchese boots.

I really like how things cowboy keep working their way into milieus that are not western at all. I wonder if the cowboy scene is making a comeback, like it did in the mid-sixties when I was, to quote an old cowboy homily, feeling my oats. A lot of us bought boots and wanted to bronc around on wild horses and not knowing fear, threw ourselves into the world of rodeo, bull riding and calf roping and bull dogging.

Non-cowboy cowboying made another comeback with the general public in 1980 with John Travolta and Debra Winger as Bud and Sissy in Urban Cowboy. People who had never owned a set of cowboy boots or hat were now walking into their offices hoofed in Tony Lama full quill ostrich leather boots with a riding heel and widebrimmed black Stetson cowboy hats. Mammoth honky-tonks with mechanical bulls opened all over the country. Charlie Daniels and Merle Haggard and the Statler Brothers, among others, were wailing Country and Western music out of radios and boom boxes. Folks thought it was Cowboy Music. It wasn’t, but it didn’t matter to the consumers as they danced the Cotton-eyed Joe and the Texas Two Step.

I lived in Arizona at the time and they opened a big cowboy bar in Tempe called “Cowboys.” I was working in the livestock business then and had been for a number of years. I figured the joint had nothing to do with the real cowboys I hung out with and worked around. But still, it was a bar, and still, I was curious.

One of my best friends at the time was a real cowpoke named Ray Fred Kelly. Ray, who passed on to the Happy Roping Arena late last year, much to my sadness, was raised in the cattle business and could build a loop and throw a Houlihan with the best of them. At the time, Ray was managing, among other things, an animal health wholesale outfit in the Valley of the Sun. One afternoon I went up to argue bid prices on health products with him for a feedlot I was helping run. After we argued in his office, we began to argue in a local bar, and as the argument went on, we proceeded north for several hours, hitting most of the bars he knew about. Arguing all the way.

About eight in the evening we got tired of wrangling and decided to head home but before we did I said I thought we should go check out this joint called “Cowboys.” I wanted to see some cowboys in downtown Tempe.

Fred chuckled and said, “There aren’t any real cowboys in ‘Cowboys.’ Real cowboys don’t go to ‘Cowboys.'”

But I was fired up and liquored up and, since I was driving, demanded that we go to “Cowboys”. He chuckled again and I drove over there. The parking lot looked like it could serve the needs of a college football stadium and the cars were Chryslers and Fords and Camaros. As I parked my pickup in one of the only open spots, I noticed a paucity of pickups, and deep down inside I probably knew right then that real cowboys didn’t go to “Cowboys.”

At the door, two very large men stood in fancy boots and hats, western suits. They didn’t smile and they had their hands crossed in front of them like undertakers do when they are running a burying.

Ray Fred wagged his head as if we were walking into an ambush, but I stomped right up to the front door and pulled it open. The men each threw their long and massive arms up and held the door closed.

I said, “What’s the matter?”

Ray Fred stood back.

One of the bouncers barked, “No Levis.”

I said, “What? No Levis? What kind of cowboy doesn’t wear jeans?”

Both the bouncers looked at me, then one of them pointed at Ray Fred and said, “Besides, he’s wearing tennis shoes.”

I looked at my manure-caked boots and said, “What about these?”

“Nope. They are not clean.”

I snorted as Ray Fred cleared his throat. I walked up to the one who was doing the talking and wagged the index finger of my right hand right beneath his nose and said, nodding back at Ray Fred, “That man is a real hand. He can build a loop and doctor sick calves, he can sort and brand and castrate and…can you do that? And,” I said, “he can throw a Houlihan.”

The man just frowned at me. As Ray Fred cleared his throat again, I went on, “You gunsel SOBs wouldn’t know the butt end of a steer from its head. You wouldn’t know a bull from a cow and you ain’t ever sat a horse that knows how to cut and sort.”

Earlier in this essay I talked about constraints and how we are forced to adapt our actions to reflect those restraints.

When neither of those gunsel bouncers moved their arms from barring the door, nor wore any kind of expression other than no expression at all, we left, me throwing cuss words and indignities over my shoulder as Ray Fred said, “See, I told you. Real cowboys don’t go to ‘Cowboys.'”

On Cowboy Poetry, Elko, Teresa Jordan and Blogging

Betty and I will soon be off to Elko, Nevada for the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of the American West and an effort to preserve our western heritage.

This year we are going early so that I can attend a two day blogging workshop taught by writer Teresa Jordan. Teresa is noted for her books of non-fiction. My favorite is Riding the White Horse Home: A Western Family Album, which is a memoir of her younger days on the family ranch north of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Sometimes I think that those of us not out rounding up and branding calves think that cow folk have vastly different lives than we do. Teresa’s book shows us that though they may have a hard physical life, ranch people have all the same issues the rest of the world deals with. I like knowing that our trials and tribulations tie us all together.

Teresa is also a great blogger so I am hopeful that attending the workshop and hearing more experienced bloggers talk will spur me into writing timelier and better blogs. I write two blogs and like most things in my life, when I began them I had lots of torment and anxiety to write about and I think some of the blogs were pretty fair country writing. But after two years, my energy has waned and I am tired of the routine, the demands I have created for myself. So…on to Elko

I recall reading in a book that a lot of the academia responsible for educating America’s writers is concerned about the level of writing and reading in America today. People aren’t writing nor are they reading, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But after becoming a blogger, I have discovered an immense community of young people out there both writing and reading blogs. It’s not Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway, but a lot of the stuff I have read is very well composed, whether in a technical vein or something more in the creative non-fiction milieu. I suppose blogging doesn’t match up to Homer or Virginia Wolfe, but I still think that since people are writing and reading that writing, discourse and democracy and thought and discussion are still going on and that’s what matters. And some of the blogs are really well written…downright exciting.

Some things about blogging are technical. How to set up a page and put in plug-ins and widgets and compose in HTML. A lot of the technical stuff is beyond me. In my earlier years I would have crashed into the technology head-on, but these days, if I can’t figure it out ricky-tick (as Michael Deede, one of my sergeants in Vietnam used to say), then I hire a pro or flounder around.

But a lot of things about blogging have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with story. Is there a compelling conflict, or obstacle the blogger or someone the blogger writes about must overcome? How that conflict or obstacle is tackled is what makes the blog work, or not work if the writing doesn’t meet the challenge thrown down by the task. It is not so important if the obstacle is overcome or not, but how it is written that matters.

Besides obstacles, are the people in the blog interesting? Can we see the people through the images the writer chooses to describe them? If there is a setting, is that visual and are all the five senses involved in the writing? We are visual critters, but words that evoke smell, sound, touch and taste also add to the complexity and rich texture of a blog. Is the language peppy and musical and appropriate to the mood of the piece?

Is the blog about something important? When I say that I mean does it delve into the essential questions that we encounter in our lives. I’m not saying it has to be composed as if the blogger is Plato or Francis Bacon or George Santayana, but we often read to discover how someone else solves the common problems we all deal with: love, hate, war, death, and the wide array of emotions that rise from the bottom of our cowboy boots to the tops of our Stetsons, every single day.

Just standing here composing this is energizing me to get down to Elko and work with Teresa and the rest of the people who will help me become a better blogger. While in Elko, we will also be taking photographs, talking about making films, talking about music and poetry, listening to music and poetry and prose, talking about the past and future heritage of the American West. And yes, I will do some blogging.

On Beowulf, William Safire, Old English and the Constitution.

“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
— William Safire

William Safire, the late columnist for the New York Times, a delightful mind and fearsome writer, described himself as a “libertarian conservative.” I have professed conservative credentials from time to time myself and have also been accused of being libertarian and rightly so. Neither label has caused me shame, nor has the moniker, “liberal.” I have held and still clutch close important beliefs from all three of those approaches to life and how it should be communally experienced.

I have often agreed with things Safire said about the world, but one of the places we have veered off mutually inclusive paths is with the subject of language. I began this blog with a semi-tongue-in-cheek quote from Safire about how one should write, and I suppose, as a continuance of his notion, how one should speak. I think Safire was interested in keeping language, especially written language, consistent within itself and within its history. And I would expect him to feel that way, given his conservative bent.

But I have a bone to pick with that notion.

Above, Safire says “Don’t and don’t and never and unqualified, and improper and avoid.” Although he semi-toys with us, Safire held an underlying belief in strict rules for English. All through school we had rules, and in the world of editing we have rules. So with all the rules we have one would think that English today might look like it did one hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, since no right-minded writer or speaker would break the rules. But that is not the case. Below I have quoted the first four lines of the epic poem, “Beowulf,” composed in Anglo-Saxon, which, in the year 800 AD was English. Below it I have given a rendition of those same four lines from an early twentieth century translation by Francis Grummere. Both are written in the English of their times. Note the difference between our ability to understand the words in terms of the English that we spoke and read twelve hundred years ago and the English we speak and read now.

THEN: Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc

NOW: Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,

Beowulf is a Danish-Viking story but it has come to us in Old English, which was the Anglo-Saxon lingo of the late first millennium. About the time that Beowulf was being written in Old English, Danes and Vikings were raiding, plundering and then settling the British Isles. With them, they brought some words that we have added to our language. Words like: Mink, flounder, cog, lug, spry, nudge, wicker.

If we had obeyed all the rules for keeping Old English pure, then those words would not have been added to our panoply of utterance. English would not have changed. Our language would be poorer, in my estimation.
In 1066, William the Bastard led an invasion of England that changed the history of our language some more. French became the official language of England, and of course the number of words that came into our language was quite large. An example of some follow: Archer, bacon, embezzle, gutter, salary, venison, vicar.

A couple hundred years after William’s Norman troops pacified the Anglo-Saxons, the diplomat and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his famous narrative poem titled, “The Canterbury Tales.” I have included a four-line segment so you can see how much our language changed in a five hundred year period. Although Chaucer’s lines are hard to read, you can see that there are quite a number of recognizable words. Right below Chaucer I have included a translation that illuminates the full gist of his words.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
There was a duc that highte Theseus,
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour.

Once upon a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror,

You can guess where I am headed. If we listened to thinkers like William Safire, our language would still look like it did when that first monk in an English abbey wrote Beowulf in the native tongue of the land. About three hundred years after Chaucer wrote, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes composed the following words in his famous philosophical work, Leviathan.

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?

Again, you can see how our language changed over a three hundred year period and now, after another three-hundred-fifty years, our language has changed a lot more. Today, we have a large number of words that were not in the original Anglo-Saxon: Rodeo, raccoon, substitution, constitution. That word, “constitution,” comes from Latin, and also exists in French and very likely came to us with the Normans.

It is fascinating to me that although we have an old and famous language, one spoken world-wide, we still are subject to the necessities of time and change. What was said and written in the time of Beowulf is not how we write and speak today.

Before I quit, I want to go back to this word, “constitution.” Right now, our notion of that word as it regards our country’s “Constitution” is subject to a lot of argument regarding what it is and what it is not, what it means and does not mean, what was originally meant by its framers. I suppose I come down on this subject sort of like I do with language. Constitutions change. The meanings of words change. Times have changed. A lot of my good conservative friends believe that what the framers wrote, literally, is how the constitution should be interpreted today.

But I wonder about that. The Constitution, although it did not mention slavery, did say that Congress could not prohibit the importation of people held to service or labor. We had to fight a war to get rid of that “peculiar institution.” Yet, prior to our Civil War, no amount of argument, legislation, legal activity could get rid of slavery. So I wonder, is that the original Constitution my conservative friends want to go back to? (I think I just broke one of Safire’s grammar rules here.) Or the one that said you could not vote if you were a woman? Or the one that said you could not vote unless you were a property owner? Or the one that said that when counting population for purposes of districting congressional representation and distributing taxes that African-Americans only counted for three-fifths of a person? Are we to believe that the language we speak and write now is exactly the same language written by Franklin and Adams and Jefferson? Do the words and their intent mean the same thing now as they did then? And besides, the Constitution exists to regulate the behavior of men, and does not stand on its own above and beyond that purpose. No people…no need for a constitution. And people and their necessities change over time.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the Constitution we had two-hundred-thirty years ago has changed, mostly for the better, and having said that, it seems evident that it is a changeable document that has modified over the years to meet the times and the trials of our country. So, to me, like language, the Constitution has evolved to match the age we live in, and is not some immovable object that cannot deal with the crises we face today, tomorrow and the next day.

1. “Beowulf, from the website http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/main.html
2. Francis Grummere, , from the website: http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/beowulf/
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, from the website: http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury_tales.html
4. ibid
5.Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan, http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1451508&pageno=7

Feral Kittens

This week Ken’s blog features California teacher and short story composer Jamey Genna, whose writing is quirky, poignant and her irony will knock you off balance.

Well, what I constantly have been thinking about for the past three months are these three feral kittens I trapped, that don’t seem to be all that feral.  They are costing me a mint.  How can that be?  I captured them so I could take them into Fix our Ferals and get them fixed for free, then take them back to nature and set them free—where they could keep the current cat population to a minimum, along with any undeserving population of mice and birds. 

Okay, so I kept them from mid-December to late January in my home studio—a shed I have out back—a sanctuary for writing and painting, for both me and my husband.  The shed stinks of cat litter, spray, and dander now, no matter how many times I clean it and empty out the box.  Cat litter: 4.99 a bag.  Cat food: 4.99 a bag.  I had one mama cat and three two month old kittens.  That’s a large bag of litter and a large bag of cat food a week.  Two teachers from my school donated $25 each.

Okay, so the deadline for the Fix our Ferals—the phone line filled up within the first few minutes, so I got put on the waiting list.  Then Oakland called and said I could bring them in there at 8 a.m. one at a time.  That means one cat per visit.  That’s four sick days.  So I brought Mama cat into Oakland and I was there first.  I took the day off from work b/c I had a doctor’s appointment at 11.  Then eight people showed up to get cats fixed.  Since I had a feral mom who was still feeding her overgrown kittens, I got bumped to the top of the list.  There were four of us with lactating females.  They only take three.  We drew cards.  I never win at these things.  I drew the low card—a four…the number of cats I am currently trying to get fixed.  I had to go home.

On the way home—a thirty minute drive from Oakland to Rodeo, I remembered this place up in El Sobrante that fixes cats for free.  I went up to the Animal Care Clinic off the dam road.  They said, yes, we can take her today and yes, you can probably/maybe get a voucher.  Here was momma cat—hard to trap and then re-trap…stressful.  So, I said, I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you my credit card and if they don’t give me the voucher, I’ll just pay for it.  When people say, “You’re a good Samaritan for doing this for these cats,” I think, that’s not what you’re really thinking.  You’re really thinking what a fool I am, what an idiot.  Let’s get it straight.  First of all, I had no intention of catching the mom,  I only wanted the little gray and white one that was the friendliest, but once I got started  I couldn’t stop.  It became an addiction.  Then a service to the community.  Then I began to fall in love with the three kittens I did catch, and even momma cat—she was special because I could pet her if I cornered her.  She was clean and healthy and beautiful after a month in my studio.  White underbelly, calico back, scared owl eyes, and three kittens who adored her.  She hissed every time I came near.  I’m never sure if she purred or was shivering in fear when I touched her, but her eyes would relax and always, for a few moments she looked happy.

That day after dropping mama cat off in El Sobrante, I went to my doctor’s office where my appointment had been cancelled without my knowledge.  Then the voucher people called me and told me I made too much money to get a voucher—no amount of finagling got the treasured voucher out of the phone lady from the county.  I have three more kittens at home that need to get fixed.  Here we are the middle class, getting screwed again because we make way too much money.  By the way, the Oakland SPCA won’t fix them for free if they are at all handleable.  Too late—I’d already been working with them.  The kittens could be cornered, caught, petted, and kissed with a minimum of hissing.  Never mind that the gold one and the black calico—a tortie, I’m told—run for cover as soon as you come in the room.   One momma cat fixed: $120.  It cost more than my local vet and no shots were included.  Holy cow!  But momma was fixed.  Now, where to let her go?  My backyard or back up at the school where I found her.  If I let her stay, she might fight with my own two cats or my dogs.   She could do some damage, that one, but I like her.  I don’t want her wandering the school grounds scrounging for food.  HOWEVER:

I got home from work the other day and my husband is sitting on the couch in the nearing dark, not saying anything.  “What’s the matter?” I ask. 

“Nothing,” he says. 

I come back in the living room a few minutes later and he’s still sitting there.  I say, come on, something’s wrong.  What is it?  He still claims nothing, but later, he says, “I got the PG&E bill this month.”

How much was it?  I ask.

Almost $800, he says. 

This is in part from the changeover in January, but I’ve also been heating the shed for the kittens. 

I take momma cat up to the school the next day and set her free.  I still have to get those three other kittens fixed.  They are lined up right now for a low cost spay and neuter program in February.  That’ll be another $150.   I’m hoping to keep Silver, but Goldie and Phoebe Bear gotta’ go.  I’m not complaining.  I’m not.  I’m not asking for advice.  I’ve heard it all.  From Midwestern hard-core practicality—throw em’ out in a snow bank.  Why are you heating that shed?    To sympathetic cat-loving sentimentality—here’s some money.  How are your cats?  You’re a saint. 

That’s not why I did it.  I did it because once I started, I couldn’t stop.  And when you’re responsible for something, you’re responsible.  Make any analogies you care to.

Jamey Genna teaches writing in the East Bay area of San Francisco. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with her Masters in Writing. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have been published in many literary magazines such as Crab Orchard Review, The Iowa Review, and Georgetown Review. You can read her most recent work on-line at Oxford Magazine, Eleven Eleven, and Switchback.