Saturday, May 31, 2014

Under the Spotlight: Having my Writing Critted

Having my Work Critiqued - 

A Frightening (?) Experience

The Ten Copies

Several months ago, I joined a local writer's critique group. I'd been looking for a group for some time, searching for other dedicated writers who would meet in person on a regular basis, discuss writing-related issues, and who could help me identify flaws and weak spots in my writing - as well as give me the thumbs-up when a piece is working well. It was time to bring more people onto the "Gail Bridges, author" team.

My husband is my primary developmental editor. He does a stellar job treading the dangerous waters between: "This is wonderful! Send it to your publisher - now!" and: "This chapter goes nowhere, does nothing, and is boring. Do you even know where your story is heading?"

He isn't known for mincing words. 

When I approached him about joining a critique group, he agreed with me that it would be helpful to bring in other voices, other opinions, other feedback.

"Give it a try," he urged. "What can it hurt?"

An online friend invited me to join her critique group. The group - No Safeword Writer's Group - seemed like a perfect fit. They're affiliated with (or used to be, it's hard to tell) The Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle, Washington. According to the group's blurb, a person is a good fit for the group if he or she has:

1. Written something that you thought was erotic,
2. Read erotica at least once. (Your own stuff counts!)
3. Learned to respect yourself...along with other people and their writing,
4. Decided you're ready to share your work.

Okay. According to those parameters, the group would be a good fit for me and my work.

I went to an introductory meeting. Nice people, great conversation, and an interesting, well-informed critique session for the person who was sharing her work (which turned out, coincidentally, to be my internet friend.) I joined the group, right then and there. I also signed up to share a chapter of my novel-in-process, Over the Edge, at the next meeting.

The Meeting

The Chapter...With Plenty of Red Pen Marks

The day before the meeting, I went to the copy shop and made ten copies of the fourteen-page chapter. They made a nice little stack.

I wasn't nervous. No. Not me. Uh-uh.

The day of the meeting, my husband and I went to the restaurant, a dingy, dim, throwback fifties-style place with booths running along each long wall and a jukebox in the front corner. We went into the back room, the room with surprisingly charming stone fireplace, and took our seats. My internet friend was already there, wearing a gorgeous hand-knit scarf. We ordered lunch, chatted, got to know the other people - and all the while those ten manuscripts were getting heavier and heavier, burning a hole in my shoulder bag. I had a hard time concentrating on the conversation. My thoughts were running rampant: What will people say? Will they like the chapter or will they tear it to shreds? I won't burst into tears...right?

No, I wouldn't. I could take whatever they'd dish out.

I knew how to take constructive criticism. I'd done this sort of thing before. In Art school I had my work critted (the way the cool people say it) many, many times.  I'd even had my writing critted in Creative Writing courses at the University of Washington. So I'd had plenty of experience - but, somehow, that didn't make it any easier as I looked down the table at the faces eager to see my work.

It was time. Catching-up-and-chatting time was over. The food had been served. The group leader motioned for me to pass out the chapters, and she handed around red ball-point pens. "For the next hour or so, we'll eat our lunches and read your work - and write comments," she explained in her rich Texan accent. "Then we'll discuss it for maybe another hour after that. All nice and tidy. Sound good?" She turned to me. "Ready, hon?"

"Yep," I said, smiling, trying to seem confident. "go for it."

"I can't wait to read your work," said my internet friend, settling in with the manuscript. She popped the cap off her pen and held it at the ready.

Then passed the longest hour in the history of writing.

It was grueling. I nibbled at my hamburger while the people around me slashed and burned their way through my manuscript. At least that was what it looked like from the clandestine peeks I stole. Every time someone put pen to paper, I cringed. One person made slashes so large I could see them from where I sat. Another person wrote a paragraph of tight red writing on the margin of the page. Yet another had an entire list of things. When I couldn't take it any longer, I ate a French fry.

And then there was my husband. He had a red pen too. He, also, was slashing and burning. "Weird," he murmured, raising an eyebrow my direction. "...I didn't see this when I read it before."


The Critiques

All in Good Faith

"It's time," said the group leader. "Put your pens down. Who would like to start the discussion?"

A slim man immediately spoke up. He looked from the manuscript to me, his eyes bright. "I'm looking at the first sentence. It could use work." He tapped the paper with the pen, leaving little red dots on it.

"I liked it," said the group leader.

"I don't know...I think if she switched the words around, it would be stronger."

"She could use a stronger word, maybe," said the man sitting at the end of the table.

"Or eliminate the sentence altogether," said the first man.

The woman shook her head. "Don't listen to them, hon. Keep it like it is."

"I agree," said my internet friend.

And so it began.

I took notes, my husband took notes. We filled our own copies of the manuscript with hurried, cramped, barely-legible writing, trying to put their suggestions into our own words. These people were good. The suggestions were right on, most of them. One after another, without respite, they suggested places I could tighten up this, expound on that, provide a bit more background...and so on.

After the discussion wound down, the leader collected the marked-up manuscripts. She patted them into a neat bundle, set them on edge, and tapped the top. "Remember what I said, hon. It's your story. It's your voice. You get to make the decisions." She handed the bundle to me. "But here's the thing. If only one person has a suggestion about a particular thing, think about it. If six people all say the same thing...really think about it."

"Thanks," I said, stuffing the papers into my shoulder bag again. "This was amazing. I'll think about everything, for sure. I'll go over the notes with a fine-toothed comb."

"We both will," added my husband.

The leader put her long-nailed, black-polished fingers on my arm. She leaned in close. Her breath smelled like French fries. "Hon. They loved your work. They never get this excited unless it's for something they're absolutely crazy about."

I grinned. Nice to know.

Working on the Changes

Was it worth it? Absolutely. 
Was it frightening? A bit, but in a good, helpful way
Will I do it again? As often as they let me!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Emergency at the Coffee Shop

Help Me - Please!

Today's Drama at the Coffee Shop

She staggered into the coffee shop, making strange noises.

I was at the table by the door, writing. I looked up from my novel as the woman crossed in front of me, her arms flailing, her shoulders shaking. All around me, heads turned, conversation stopped, chairs pushed out from tables in a collective gasp. Was this woman an oddball, come to disturb the peace? Was she insane? What was she doing? Why was she making such strange sounds? And why was she heading straight for the handsome young man ordering coffee at the counter, as if to accost him?

"Wrrrr grrrr orrr grrrr!" the woman howled. "Orrrr grrrr! Orrrr grrrr!"

I stared at her. I couldn't help it. We were all staring.

The woman was young, twenty-five maybe. She wore a black t-shirt and dark jeans. She carried a leather handbag. Her black hair was cut into a chic bob, and - I gulped - her jaw hung open in a most horrible way. As in, not straight. As in, hanging almost to her neck. Obviously, this woman was injured. She needed help. Everything changed in an instant.

Hands went to chins all around me.

"Wrrrr!" she cried to the young man, stopping in front of him, invading his personal space.

The man's eyes widened. He didn't back up. But he was nervous. He didn't reach out to help her, not right away. The barista leaned over the counter, a cell phone in her hand, about to call for help.

"Hrrrr eeee? Eeee?" moaned the woman. This time, the meaning of her words was clear: Help me? Please?

"What can I do?" the man said, making his decision. He set down his coffee, staring at her jaw.

"Hrrrr." She whipped a laminated sheet from her handbag and jabbed her finger at it. The man took it and narrowed his eyes.

"You want me to do this?"

"Essssss!" She leaned forward, neck extended, face tilted hopefully up at the man.

I was still staring at her. Everyone was staring. The man at the table next to me stood up, as if to help, but he soon sat again. Two women and a child chose that moment to wander into the shop. They stopped in their tracks, suddenly aware of the scene which was unfolding in front of them. The older woman clutched at the arm of the younger one, who took the child by the hand. They stood to the side. Waiting. Watching. With the rest of us.

"Oooo eeee," said the woman. Do it.

The man looked again at the paper. He rubbed his palms on his pant legs, took a deep breath, and put both hands to the woman's jaw. Then he gently placed both thumbs inside her mouth. There was dead silence in the shop. Not even the clink of a spoon against a coffee cup. Only the woman's heavy breathing. The two of them - and the barista - stood locked in place, a tableau that sucked the air out of the rest of the shop.

The man pulled gently on the woman's jaw. Her face went white, the cords in her neck strained, but nothing happened. A high, thin sound came from her, the sound of distilled pain. The man took his hands away.

"Do you want me to call 9-1-1?" asked the barista, leaning so far over the counter that her hair brushed the napkin dispenser.

The woman shook her head. She pointed at her jaw again. "Eeeeee? Eeeee?"

The man put his hands to her face again. And again. And then again. Finally, he threw up his arms. "I'm sorry, it's not working. I can't do it."

"Shall I make the call?" asked the barista.

The woman's shoulders slumped. Defeated, she nodded. Slowly, she raised her hands to her mouth, which hung open, dripping saliva. Moaning, she touched her chin. She leaned against the counter, her chest heaving, as the barista quickly and calmly explained the situation to the responders.

"Are they coming?" asked the man.

"They'll be here in a second," said the barista. "Honey, can I get you a chair?"

The woman shook her head. She just stood there, rooted in place, looking miserable.


She shook her head again. Time slowed to a standstill. The man who'd tried to help shifted his weight from foot to foot, but he stayed put. I looked away, unable to take the pain in the woman's eyes as she waited for help to come. Sounds started up again in the shop. A chair scraping on the floor. A child's voice. A coffee cup rattling on the table. We were waiting, all of us.

When I looked up again, the man had enfolded the woman in a hug. He patted her back gingerly, and rocked her back and forth. Even from where I sat I heard her sobs.

"Let's try it again," he said.

She nodded. She stood still as he put his hands to her face again.

This time her jaw snapped into place. She jerked. She put her hands to her lips, and smiled at him. "Oh! Thank you!" she said with a hitch in her voice, so near to crying I could almost hear the sobs breaking through. "Thank you so much." She worked her jaw up and down, back and forth, slowly, carefully, as if it might suddenly pop out again. Maybe it would. "I hate it when that happens!" she said as she stuffed her laminated instruction sheet back into her purse. "I just hate it."

"How often does it happen?" asked the man, looking flushed.

"Too often. Oh! Listen. They're coming."

Sirens in the distance.

In another moment, a fire truck pulled up out front and four firemen came hurrying in, surveying the shop. They looked around, not knowing where to go, who to help. There was no blood, no yells, no-one in obvious distress.

"Over here," said the barista.

"I'm fine now," said the woman, facing them, abject embarrassment on her swollen face. She gestured to the man. "He fixed it for me."

The firemen talked to her for an additional few minutes, then they filed out the door and were gone. The woman hugged the man who'd helped her, but this time, the hug was a quick, bashful one, not the soul-breaking one of earlier. "Thanks again. Really. I mean it. I won't ever forget your kindness."

And then, she turned around, clutching her purse to her side and gazing straight ahead - because, of course, everyone in the shop was staring - she left.

And that was that. As if it had never happened.

But it had. And it did something to me, all that pain, all that helpfulness, all that witnessing, and it made me wonder ... what if it had been me at the counter instead of the young man? Could I have done what he did? I hope I would have, but I'll never know.

I hope the woman's jaw stays put. I wish the best for her. But I'm afraid that sometime, someplace, her "How To Help Me" laminated sheet will be pulled out again to be thrust at strangers in utter desperation.

I only hope she finds someone as kind as the young man at the coffee shop.

Not an ordinary day at the Coffee Shop

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reality Bites (Eavesdroppers Anonymous)

The Intrepid Eavesdropper

She's at it again.

The Intrepid Eavesdropper has been gathering One-Liners, tiny little morsels that have quite a punch to them. Each of them makes me wonder about the rest of the story: What happened in Rwanda? What is a Rodeo Commissioner, anyway? So - before I give them all away - here are they are.

Reality Bites: One Liners

1: "Hey. Tell me about Rwanda."

2: "She studied so hard. She took forty-five practice tests! When she finally took the test and sent it off to them...well...she never heard back. Never heard a thing. Nothing. Why? Why is that? Why would they do that to her?"

3: "How did you write it? I mean, seriously—how did you do it?"

4. (Extremely outraged.) "You never told me you had another grandkid!"

5. "The rodeo commissioner is coming on Monday with his score card."

6. "You know what Molly said to me this morning? 'Mommy! Mommy! My goldfish recognizes me now! He just did tricks for me in his bowl!' Isn't that too cute? I couldn't bear to tell her the truth."

Looking cute is a trick, right?

Snippet Number One: We'll Do Great Things

Two men are at the next table. Both have crew cuts. They're in their fifties, or maybe their sixties. One guy is doing most of the talking. He's excited. He talks fast, his words clipped, his voice full of excitement. He teeters on his chair, leaning back, leaning forward, rocking even. The back of his neck is pink from too much sun, and the bottom of his crew cut sticks straight out from his head like a bristle brush. Evidently, the two men are Christian film-makers, discussing a collaboration.

"I was in Ethiopia, doing a project," says Crew Cut. "I was working with Jeff. You remember Jeff? We were dragging our stuff around the villages, you know, doing our jobs, talking to people, spreading the word. We had the support of five churches, maybe six. I got back to my hotel one night, looked at my camera, and ... BANG! I said, why don't we make a documentary?" Crew Cut bangs his chair onto the floor, as if he were doing sound effects.

"How did it begin?" The other man is soft-spoken, but I feel that he is the one with the power, the one that Crew Cut is trying to impress. "Tell me how you got it going."

Crew Cut leans forward. "I knew I could make a documentary about what we were doing. I sat down that same night and planned it all out. Stayed up all night. I wrote it all down on a white board, every last idea. The story board, you know. In the morning I showed the story board to Jeff. He got behind it right away. He was all excited."

"Yes. He would be, wouldn't he?"

Crew Cut is in such a hurry to tell his story to this man that his words are starting to slur. "So we began filming, like two days after. We already had a camera, you know? Other people helped us. We had a driver, and Christian kids from the local church." Crew Cut crosses his legs, then uncrosses them. He leans forward. "The locals were confused about what we were doing, but we ended up with a knock-out film, you know?"

"You showed it around, if I recall?"

"Absolutely. In churches all over the country. People loved it. Craig Wright especially put his weight behind it."


Crew Cut's voice lowers. "But it all went sideways. Jeff got ran over when it went sour. He took the brunt of it."

"Yes. I heard about that."

They're silent for a long moment. They drink from their coffee. Then Crew Cut leans forward again.

"We're going to start a new project," he says. "We're going to bring Rick and Bobby in."

"Good thinking."

"There's a story there - I'll tell you the whole story if we end up working together. Rick fired Bobby's guys, the specialists that he'd brought in, and that didn't sit well with Bobby. It's like politicians, you know? They're jerks."

The quiet man regards Crew Cut. He seems to come to some sort of decision. "I like you," he says. "You're a great producer, and you're part of a good community. You have people backing you. "

I can tell that Crew Cut is almost weak with anticipation. And then it comes, the words he's been waiting to hear:

"I'd like to work with you.We'll do great things."

Why don't we do a documentary?

Snippet Number Two: A Special Case

Two women are squeezed into a nearby table. As in Snippet Number One, one of the women is doing eighty percent of the talking. I find her voice very irritating, very loud and gravelly. She talks with lots of animation, hand movements, shifting around in her chair, bobbing her head - she could almost be Crew Cut's twin sister. She has neck-length curly blond hair and sunglasses perched on her head. The second woman seems to have only two positions she's comfortable in: she's either resting her chin on her hand, or she holds her hands clasped primly together on the table. It's a sunny day. I get the feeling that Prim Hands would rather be anywhere rather than here, talking with Gravel Voice. It's my guess that both of them are administrators for the Seattle Public Schools.

"Those kids were wild," says Gravel Voice. "I went in there to help the teacher because she couldn't control them. I told those kids, no inappropriate touching. Absolutely no touching, ever. No touching other kids, even through clothing."

Prim Hands nods. "There were problems in that class, yeah."

"Where was the principal?" demands Gravel Voice. "The class was eroding! The parents were in an uproar. The kids weren't happy. The teacher was falling apart." She sets her coffee cup on the table. "The Principal didn't lift a hand to help that teacher. But you know what? She wants a readerboard!"

"I heard about that."

"She wants it to be up for 2018 - so we gave the school ten thousand dollars last May."


"But she's a worthless principal. She won't see about getting a second person in that problem class."

Prim Hands sighs. "It wasn't part of my contract, but I did look into what we could do about her. Not much. Principals are a special case."

Gravel Voice coughs. "Excuse me," she sputters. Maybe her voice sounds the way it does because she has a cold? "Sorry about that. Horrible sore throat. Anyway, they said she was having a hard time. With her daughter." She pauses. "Do you KNOW what happened to that ten thousand dollars, by the way?"

"No. I didn't hear anything."

"She mislabeled the money - can you believe it - and they lost it!"

"No way."

"They have no idea what happened to the money we gave them. They must have spent it on other stuff. So now we're out ten thousand ... and they still want a readerboard."

Sorry, not yet, guys. You lost the money.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Guest Author Anais Morgan

Gail's Place Welcomes Author Anais Morgan

I'd like to welcome fellow erotica writer Anais Morgan to my blog. She is a talented author, and a fellow member of my favorite writer's forum, Absolute Write. I'm so glad she could join me here today. Best of wishes for her new release, Bite of the Recluse, from Evernight Publishing.


Two years ago while Tristan and his boyfriend were enjoying some privacy, a recluse demon attacked them and his lover paid the ultimate price. Since that day, Tristan has dedicated himself to finding the demon. After all, an eye for an eye. All evidence points to a recluse named Damon.

Like all spider demons Damon knows about Tristan’s mission and is forced to stay on the move. But fate has a wicked sense of humor and they must team up to fight the real killer. But when she's closer than Tristan expected, his and Damon's relationship is tested before it can begin.


He placed his hands on his hips. “I need to see. I need all the pieces of the puzzle.”

Kill me now, God. “I have a sore spot. It started hurting shortly after Marcus died. I’ve always meant to go to the doctor, but looking for Marcus’ killer became priority.”

“Okay. Well, where is it?”

Please God, kill me now. Not only did I not want to drop trou, but in front of a demon? More importantly, in front of Damon, and those magnificent eyes, gorgeous body, and desirable lips? How in Jesus’ name I became attracted to him blew my mind. For that matter, when? Completely out of left field. It hit me suddenly. We were driving, talking, at the mountain, and suddenly I felt it. A passion I’d forsaken years ago. Yet, here I was, my cheeks reddening. Fuck it. I sighed, stood up and began unbuckling my belt. I slid my pants down.

Damon backed up a few feet. “Umm, what are you doing?”

“The bite is on my thigh.” I lifted my boxers to just the bottom of my butt cheek. “My upper thigh.”

Damon gazed over me skeptically before kneeling down in front of me. I felt his warm fingertips touch my skin. To my surprise, I had to do everything in my power to stop from shivering. The way his touch felt, his fingers dancing over that sensitive spot… It normally hurt, but Damon was so gentle with me that it caused a different reaction. A different, dangerous reaction.

I glanced behind me. Damon looked up, his gorgeous silvery eyes gleaming with…lust? No, that couldn’t be it. But I thought it was. I drank in his gaze, the power behind those eyes. I had the urge to push him on the bed and allow our feet to entwine as we spent hours in bed together. Instead I pulled up my pants. Much smarter move.

“What do you think?” I asked.

He stared at me, a look of confusion crossing his face before he smiled and moved back to his seat. “Definitely recluse. I’d say my sister bit you.”

My skin burned from his touch. I wanted to, desired more than anything, to ask him to touch me again. I peered at him from below my lashes. He was doing the same. Fuck it. I rushed over to his chair and placed my lips upon his, claiming his mouth. The way he slipped his tongue past the barrier made my cock harden. I did the same, and our tongues danced with one another’s. He was warm, inviting, and didn’t hold back. My breath became harsh as I stilled, afraid of what I had just done.

I quickly pulled away and ran for the bathroom. Once inside I closed the door and pressed my body against it, hoping that if Damon came knocking, he couldn’t get in.

I knew I stunk. Plus I had a massive erection in my jeans. I turned on the water of the shower and got it to a nice temperature. After undressing, I stepped beneath the spray.

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Character Interview:

What was your first reaction when you saw each other?
Damon: I thought: “Fuck, he found me. I’m so dead. Hope they still have my bed made in Hell for when I return. In pieces.”
Tristan: I was happy to see him, but not in a good way for him. Since I had been under the impression that Damon killed my lover, I saw those silver eyes and thought pay day had finally come.
When did you first become physically attracted?
Damon: I was attracted at the get go. Right when we exchanged glances. Couldn’t say anything though. Trying to force back a massive hard on was difficult, even if I knew what he was there for. To send me straight back to Hell.
Tristan: I have no idea. It had been all business between us, and then it hit me how gorgeous he was. Those eyes, that soft expression…I was hooked as soon as I got my head out of my ass.
What physical quality to you like best?
Damon: I really like Tristan’s ass. Gorgeous in his stone-washed blue jeans.
Tristan: Have you seen Damon’s cock? I guess not, since he doesn’t whip it out every chance he gets, but it’s magnificent. The curve, the head, just mouth watering.
What physical quality do you like least?
Damon: His knees. They’re just bulky and kind of dry-looking.
Tristan: His split ends. Damon is in need of a haircut.
A secret?
Damon: Secrets. Uh, do I have a lot. But the biggest secret of all is that a demon’s time on earth isn’t infinite. We are from Hell, many of us are sent for reasons, and there are only two situations in which a demon is sent back to hell. Death or because the big man down under has called us back. I fear my time may be up soon and I don’t dare tell Tristan.
Tristan: Even though Damon and I have a blast, I’m afraid to let go of my ex, Marcus. I truly loved him and am afraid that I can never give my heart over to Damon. And I hate wearing socks because my feet get claustrophobic.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Elephant Crashed My Wedding

An Elephant Crashed My Wedding

A True Story, Illustrated with Original Digital Artwork

(The events of this story took place three years ago, on my 20th wedding anniversary.)

Pre-Wedding, in Botswana, on a Safari Jeep

     I was being kidnapped, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

     It was evening. My husband, Richard, and I were on a trip of a lifetime to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary - a tented Wildlife Safari in three Southern African countries - and at the moment we were deep in the savanna in Botswana. We were returning to our lodge from a late afternoon game drive, tired and dusty, yet exultant from having seen lions and leopards, and giraffe and alligators, and so much more. All I wanted was a shower, some food, and my comfortable bed in our delightful tented hut. It was amazing, how beautiful the savanna and forest were, how utterly gorgeous our open-air camp was, better yet than the pictures in the brochures had promised. I was in love with the Lodge. It reminded me of a tree house, straight out of Swiss Family Robinson, or those old Tarzan movies.

Our Lodge

     As we drove up in the Jeep, I noticed a huge bonfire nearby, in a cleared-out area in the forest near the Lodge. This was new, there had never been a bonfire on the previous nights, so what was up? Stranger yet, the minute I climbed down from the Safari Jeep, a group of women surrounded me. Firmly and insistently, they took my arms and whisked me away down the raised boardwalk toward the lodge.

     "Richard!" I called over my shoulder.

     "Happy anniversary," he said, grinning.

     "It's a surprise!" the ladies said.

     One of them took me by the hand, turned me toward her, and said she was going to be my honorary Auntie for the evening. Ah! Aunties! I knew about them. Our guide, Samantha, had already explained to us that in this part of Africa, "Aunties" and "Uncles" assumed an important parenting role in a person’s life. They were advisers, go-betweens, and confidants. All very well - but why did I need an Auntie?

     My "Auntie" and the other ladies – my other female relatives, they explained – took me to a tent and presented me with a lovely brown-and-white, African-style dress. "It's for you," my Auntie said bashfully, "We made it! All day, we worked on it when you were with the lions. It is your wedding dress! We chose the fabric, we cut it out, and we stitched it by hand." She held it up to me. "It will be so pretty on you. Here is the matching head-dress. You will tuck your hair up under it. I will help. You are getting married tonight!"

     I gaped at them in surprise. Married? I was getting married again? Here? How had they known it was my anniversary? Richard must have something to do with this! He was always full of wonderful surprises. This one promised to be the most amazing of them all.

     "Put it on," said my Auntie.

     I held the dress out in front of me to admire the tiny stitches and to hide the tears that were starting to drip down my face. The dress was beautiful. They'd even set in a zipper on the back. I couldn't begin to think how much work that zipper must have taken, to do by hand. I held the wedding dress out in front of me and let it fall to its full length. And then my heart stopped. It was tiny. The dress was gorgeous but not in a million years would it ever fit me! Even so, the ladies urged me to put it on. Afraid that I'd rip the poor thing, I wiggled it over my head - carefully - but it was no use. The zipper gaped open, leaving a bare place the width of the Zambezi river running down my back.

     "Oh ... this is ..." said one of the ladies, biting her lip.

     "...not so good," my Auntie finished.

     "We will fix this. We will put something around her shoulders," said another lady. After a flurry of alarmed-sounding conversation in their own language, a dainty white shawl was procured. They draped it artfully around my shoulders, then stood back and admired their work. My Auntie smiled in approval and put an African headdress on me. She tucked my hair under it, then proclaimed me ready. But before I could be presented to my prospective husband, I had to be educated.

     My Auntie gave me a very solemn speech about the duties of a new wife:

     1)   I must always respect and honor my husband. I must always feed him first, kneeling, and keep my eyes averted in his presence at all times.
     2)   I must never question anything he does.
     3)   If he comes home six hours late from the fields and smells of alcohol, I must not ask him where he's been.
     4)   If he comes home with a second wife, I must accept it and not complain.

     I told her I'd do my best. Except for the second wife thing, I thought, keeping the horror of such a thing to myself. Did my Auntie have to share her husband with another woman? I couldn't imagine accepting such a thing. Oh, yes. You'd better believe I'd complain if Richard came home with a second wife.

Waiting for the Wedding

     When the ladies were confident I would make a good wife, they herded me to the clearing in the forest by the bonfire, where the others of the tour group, and Richard, my intended, were waiting. Richard had his own "Family" too, just as I had mine. He was dressed in a white knee-length tunic and a woven hat. He'd been educated by his "Uncle," but his education was along the lines of: "Treat her well. Her skin is perfect and un-blemished, like polished glass. She is delicate. Do not break her." Richard told me later he thought this was code for: "Do not beat her."

     The two family groups, Richard's and mine, began to dance and jump and sing. They were boisterous and energetic, so enthusiastic that it didn't much matter that we couldn't understand the words. Their singing got louder and louder until it dawned on us that they were trying to out-sing each other. We got a sketchy translation later.

     My family was saying: "You don't deserve this woman. She is worth a lot of cows. You can't afford her." 

     Richard's family argued back: "We already paid for her. Send her over so she can start serving her husband! What is taking so long?"

     The two groups eventually stopped singing and began arguing. Of course, we had no idea what was going on. Why was Richard's Uncle yelling at my Auntie? Why was one of the men on my side of the family stomping his feet, flapping his arms, and shouting? All Richard and I could do was watch and wonder. 

     Later, it was explained to us that since this was the first time the Lodge employees had ever staged a wedding for guests, it wasn't exactly clear how they ought to proceed. In a village, a real wedding would have many rituals associated with it, and the wedding would take place over three full days. Obviously, a good number of important things would have to be left out of our wedding. The other reason they were arguing (they also explained) was that the people playing the roles of our families were from several different local tribes, each with slightly different traditions - and everyone wanted to use THEIR traditions for our wedding.

      And I'd thought they were arguing because my husband's family was refusing to pay the ten cows for me!

      The arguing stopped. Consensus had been reached, the wedding could go on. My Auntie sat me in a chair and put a veil over my head. “You must sit here patiently and wait for your husband. Look at the ground!”

Trying To Be A Good Wife
(My "Auntie" and Richard's "Uncle" Are Standing Right Behind Us)

       I sat, studying the gravel below my feet. Then Richard pulled my veil up over my head and kissed me. Everyone hooted and clapped. Later, he told me his Uncle had adamantly told him: “under no circumstances are you to kiss the bride. It is not done. It is disrespectful. Don’t do it!” Richard had dutifully agreed. But then, to his shock, the very same Uncle led him over to me, still sitting there in my veil, still looking at the ground. He told him to lift the veil and kiss the bride.

     "Really?" said Richard. 

     Uncle shrugged, grinning. “We wish to incorporate some Western traditions! Go for it!”

      Richard did. We had our first kiss as an African husband-and-wife.

     After that, they sat us down and told me that my first duty was to serve a meal to my new husband. On my knees. I filled a plate with bush food for him - stewed meat and vegetables and corn mash. Then I knelt, as I'd been instructed. The ladies giggled. They thought my kneeling technique left something to be desired. Richard did too. At least I managed to keep my eyes averted, like a proper wife.

      And then came something no-one had planned for, something that made us all gasp, freeze, and forget all about the wedding ceremony. There was something in the jungle! And it was coming toward us, crashing and snorting and making a huge amount of noise. All heads turned toward the place where the noise came from. The lead Safari Guide reached for his rifle. I reached for Richard. For the first time, I truly understood what "my heart in my throat" meant.

     Crash! Crash! 

     An enormous bull elephant plunged through the surrounding trees. His impossibly huge head and ears and shoulders intruded into our little clearing, looking like a monster from a horror movie, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. The elephant stood there, wild-eyed, dazed by the firelight. After a moment, he shook his head, flapped his ears, every bit as startled as we were. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Safari Guide level his rifle. Nothing moved for a very long minute. Then the elephant raised his trunk and trumpeted, backed up, and disappeared into the forest like an apparition fading into the darkness. All of us, tourists and guides and honorary wedding parties alike, stared after him in disbelief. It had all happened so fast, a matter of only perhaps ten seconds. 

     The elephant's visit was so frightening and unexpected that nobody managed to take a single picture, even though - as dedicated tourists and avid photographers - everyone but Richard and me had cameras around our necks. The memory would have to suffice. And what a memory it was.

The Same Elephant?
We saw this one earlier, from the Jeep, and he was none too pleased

     Richard's Uncle laughed, breaking the spell. “Good omen," he said, nodding. "Very good luck!"

     "That's the first time an elephant has ever come in here," said my Auntie.

     "They're usually afraid of fire," said another.
     The head Safari Guide inspected the surrounding trees. "It must have smelled the food." He instructed the other Guides to take up positions around the clearing.

     "Time to eat!” said Richard's Uncle. A universal sigh of relief went through the group. Everyone went to the bonfire to heap delicious traditional African finger food on aluminum camp plates. The last person to eat was the poor bride. According to tradition, she must wait patiently and loyally until the men, especially her husband, had eaten. Only then was she welcome to the leftovers.

     It was a wonderful evening. I’ll remember my African wedding for the rest of my life, and maybe the elephant will, too. Best of all, I am now properly married. I only hope Richard doesn't come home with a second wife.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Ecuador - an Art Show

In the Tour Van in Ecuador

Today I am sharing a series of digital artworks that I've just completed. These wonderfully evocative images all originated on my family's trip to Ecuador in the summer of 2011. I have chosen the best ones and painstakingly altered them. I've distressed them, added things, subtracted things, juiced up the color or taken away color, scribbled on them - so fun, all of it! - in the quest to make the images we took on our trip into digital artworks that will hopefully have universal appeal.

Many of the images come with wonderful little stories. I do hope you enjoy this glimpse into my life.

Quintessential Ecuador

Panama Hat Weaver

Gathering Firewood


Waiting for the Bus

Americans in Ecuador

Goofing Off at the Llama Farm

Goofing Off on the Train

 A ride in a Volcano Cauldron - Really!

Me, Modeling a Panama Hat

My Son, Modeling a Panama Hat

Admiring the View on a Cold Morning

A Visit to a Secluded National Park

A Tender Moment in the Biting Wind

Me, With the Amazonian Warrior
Thank you!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Intrepid Eavesdropper

And...She's Back!

The Intrepid Eavesdropper has had very slim pickings lately. Warm spring weather this past week has lured her subjects out of coffee shops and into the wild blue yonder, causing her to go days on end without adding to her eavesdropping notebook. But fear not. Today it rained. And rained. It rained so long and hard that people were driven back inside where they belong, where they could go back to having fascinating conversations for the sole benefit of an eavesdropping writer.

Oh Dear. What Shall I Do If They Don't Come?

Today's eavesdropping snippets were gathered in a few short hours at Zoka, while it was raining cats and dogs. I am sharing two short snippets and a longer one that I found particularly poignant. 

Snippet Number One:   Prime Bear Habitat

Two women are making their way slowly through the coffee shop. They're on their way out, and one of them is on crutches. She's hobbling in a slow, painful way, her foot encased in one of those newfangled shell things that isn't a plaster cast but isn't just for pretty, either. She grimaces with each step, but is trying to go quickly for her friend's sake, swinging the crutches in wide arcs with a clack-clack sound.

The friend is trying to cheer her up. "You're moving with those things! Speed Racer, you are."

"I'm talented, that's what."

They stop to let a mother and child pass.

The injured woman takes another tentative step. "But you know what? If a bear was after me, I'd be toast."

The friend pretends to look over her shoulder. "It's dangerous around here."

"No kidding. This coffee shop is prime Grizzly habitat."

They laugh, wrapped up in their own little drama. The friend holds the door open so her buddy can hobble out. I see them going slowly down the sidewalk, chatting and laughing all the way. Too soon, they're lost to sight. Lucky for them, the bears all seem to be hibernating.

"Speed Racer, you are."

Snippet Number Two:   Whatever Happened To Allie?

Six middle-aged people - four women and two men - sit at the large table across from me. The way they're carrying on, they must be old friends who haven't seen one another in a long time. I assume they're old high school buddies at a rare get-together. Loud laughter comes in waves from their table. Since my back is to them, I have a hard time attributing lines to certain people, but it doesn't seem to matter.

A woman howls with laughter. "Does anyone remember that night? Because later, people told me I had too much to drink."

"You did!" agrees a second woman. Her voice is thick, as if she's fighting a cold. "Seriously. You had way, way too much to drink."

One of the men says, "We all did."

"I don't remember that night but I do remember the night before," says a woman with a bit of an accent. She's German, maybe? "Some wild dancing, that's what I remember."

"We were drunk by the time we got there," says the man.

The first woman is laughing again. She stops suddenly. "Hey! We danced in the street outside the door, remember?"

"We did!" says the man.

There is generalized merriment, the sort of sounds made by people who've known one another for a long, long time. These men and women are comfortable together. They don't have to show off. I am surprised by a sudden desire to be part of their group. What high school had they attended, anyway? Had they gone to Garfield, my own high school? I grew up here in Seattle, so it's not impossible. I strain to hear any mention of a school, but they're intent on reminiscing about their wild party.

"I said some obnoxious things, right?" asks the woman with the loudest voice.

I hunch over my laptop, shaking my head as I type her words. Clearly, the woman could become obnoxious without too much extra effort.

"Oh my god," says the woman with the cold. "So did Allie. She said some pretty outrageous stuff too."

"Allie!" says the German-accent woman. "Allie! She was ... awful."

The comment brings forth a new wave of laughter from the entire table, and I wonder: was Allie awful in a "you're nuts but you're part of our group" way? Or was Allie awful in a "please get lost and leave us alone" way?

"Allie had such a great voice, though," says the second man, who has been quiet up till this point. "But she was so loud. God, that girl could talk. And she wasn't loud at the right times, you know?" He paused. "I wonder whatever happened to her?"

"She sent an email to me," says the almost-obnoxious woman. "Before that last thing."

"Me too," says a woman who'd barely spoken. She has a cute bleached pixie haircut (I looked). "I was going to answer her email, but I forgot about it in my inbox. I never wrote back."

The first man sounds wistful. "She sent me one too."

"And me," says the woman with the cold. Her voice sounds even more hoarse now.

"I didn't see her after that night," says pixie hair.

"Me neither," says German accent woman. "But my god. That party..."

"...was memorable," the loud woman finishes for her.

This is met with prolonged laughter. They've forgotten about Allie. They've moved on. Perhaps that was the way it had always been with them.

"I've got some video," says one of the men. "Of that night. Can you believe it?"

"You do?" says pixie hair. "Seriously? You have to send it to us!"

He promises he will. And then the conversation moves on. Their get-together goes on for another hour. But, dang it all. They have left me hanging! I want to see that video in the worst way. Is it of their "Memorable Night? It must be. What does it show? The dancing in the street? The obnoxious things they said and did?

Most of all, I want to see Allie. Awful Allie. Loud Allie. Allie who had a great voice, but whose email no-one had bothered to answer.

Which One Is Allie?

Snippet Number Three:   Have I Ever Let You Go Hungry?

There is a young family not too far away from me. Mom wipes crumbs from the table while Dad helps Little Boy, who is perhaps three years old, into a chair. Dad sets a napkin, a plate with a chocolate chip cookie, and a small glass of cocoa in front of him. Mom reaches over and breaks the cookie in half. This, predictably, sets Little Boy into a fit.

"Mamma! I want the whole cookie!"

Mom is gentle but firm. "We always cut it in half. Every time. You know that."

"But I want all of it."

"Look how big it is, honey. It's enormous. It's special."

"That's why I want all of it."

This makes me smile - I can't fault the little boy's logic. But he's getting pretty invested in the second half of the cookie - he's scowling. His arms are locked across his chest. Anyone can see that a tantrum is about to erupt.

But Mom doesn't seem to notice. "We don't usually eat so much sweet stuff," she says. "You're not used to it. You can have the other half later."

There is a weighty silence. Then, quick as lightening, the child grabs for the other half.

"No!" says Mom, somewhat less gently. "You heard what I said, Nigel. You can have half of it now and the other half when we get home."

Little Boy kicks the table leg whomp-whomp-whomp. "Daddy!" he wails. "Can I have it?"

"Mommy said no." Daddy sounds as if they've been through this before.

Little Boy begins to sob. He is heartbroken, as if he thinks he's about to die. But he quiets when Mom kneels beside him and takes him in her arms.

"Honey," she says, "have I ever let you go hungry?"

"But I want all of it!"