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some old people never get old

Today is the last day of your life, so far. 

So says Ben K, anyway. I’ve been at the end of my life for, well, forever. But apart from occasional aches that I didn’t notice when I was most definitely young, and the haunting comparison between my self-image (which is generally more positive than perhaps is warranted) and others’ image of me as reflected in the words, deeds or expressions of people who are unequivocally still possessed of youth, I can’t say that I feel too much older for the passing of the last few decades.

So what age is old? My grandfather wasn’t old when he went hunting for the last time at age 76. He was walking his deer carcass-laden horse down a mountainside that was too steep to ride, and he sprained his leg and concluded he’d had enough of elk hunting. Lucky the horse and its corpse cargo didn’t fall on him. But I’d say that the man wasn’t old.

I’m not sure how old he was when Granddad sold the riding lawnmower–somewhere in his 70’s–but he sold it to buy a regular lawnmower so he’d get exercise pushing that thing around his huge lawn in the Texas summer. So I know he wasn’t old then. And he wasn’t old at 80, when Grandma finally got him to stop climbing the huge walnut tree to spray for insects. When he reached his mid-80’s, he stopped climbing onto the roof to fix the antenna and the chimney bricks. But I think he only stopped because Grandma made him, not because he was old. In fact, I think he never got old until his brain stopped working and dementia took him places where his body could not follow.

Grandma wasn’t old when she stopped riding 10 miles a day on her stationary bike at age 80. She just used the treadmill instead. She didn’t seem all that old when she stopped working at the library once she reached 95. It wasn’t the driving to and from work that made her stop–she just had too many other things to do. She’s not young, of course, though her legs say otherwise, but her social life is far too social to allow her to really be old.

When my great grandparents took a boat to France to celebrate my great-grandfather’s 100th birthday, I’m not sure they were old, even when Grandpa Davis had heart trouble there and they had to fly back on the Concorde. He never did get old. He died at 102. Though when Grandma Caroline passed 100, she needed to be taken care of. So she was old for her last few years.

Another great-grandfather, Zalman, lied at Ellis Island to get into the United States. Immigrants were turned away if they were over 65, because they were thought to be a burden on the economy. Zalman was 75 but claimed to be 64. He ended up working in the U.S. for several more decades, and died at 106. So there.

Marci and I certainly weren’t old in 1988 when we started walking down the South Kaibab trail at the Grand Canyon–quite young in fact–though we felt old by the time we reached the bottom, and even older on the way up and out. It was late May, on our drive back from California. The temperature at the park was warm, but as we descended into the canyon the blazing desert sunlight felt hotter and hotter. We were young lovers then. We’re older than that now, and married. But still lovers. 

There isn’t any water available on the South Kaibab trail: that’s why we picked it for our descent. We planned to hike back up the Bright Angel trail, and we knew there were a couple of places to get water on that trail. People die or have to be rescued every year because they ignore the impossible-to-miss warning signs: Do not pass this point unless you are carrying at least 4 quarts of water per person per day! [and again in Spanish]

The lower we descended, the hotter it got. At one point, we were walking next to a black rock face; the heat waves coming off the rock must have been 140 degrees. We were very happy that we heeded the signs and carried plenty of water and Gorp. Good old raisins ‘n’ peanuts.

When we got to the bottom of the trail and set up the tent, we dragged our hot and swollen feet into the icy Colorado River–about 40° year-round because it comes from the bottom of the Eisenhower Dam–our feet promptly returned to their natural size and were completely anaesthetized within seconds.

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, between the Bright Angel trail and the Kaibab, the park service maintains a campground for hikers, and cabins for the folks who ride down on mules. By the way, I’d never ride those mules. When you hike down the main trails of the canyon, you’ve got a couple feet of stomping width: plenty of space to avoid any fear of heights or falling. There’s even enough space to hug the canyon walls when a mule train waddles by, and try not to spook them as they go, and hope they don’t poop on you. But on a barrel-bellied mule you can’t see the trail. Must look like your feet are hanging over empty space.

We heard that there was a large central cabin with a no-frills restaurant and ice cream, so after we had our camping dinner we clomped on over to treat ourselves to ice cream and lemonade. The place was crowded, and Marci and I joined an older couple at a table. They looked clean and very refreshed-good lemonade. Both of them were around 70, with silvery-white hair.

We talked with them for a while; I asked how the mule ride was, and I was mortally embarrassed when they replied they didn’t know. They’d hiked down the same trail as Marci and me. Well, they obviously weren’t old.

Since then, Marci and I have been passed left and right by hikers in their 60’s and 70’s. On the Appalachian Trail we met a retired couple in their 60’s who were starting a half-year through-hike of the entire trail. One day we were passed by a man hiking at high-speed. He was 72, and had just run in the Boston Marathon.

At Caprock Canyons in north-central Texas, I once met a mother and daughter hiking together. The daughter was in her 50’s, and her mother was 76. Bonnie and Bonnie. They were hiking to get in shape for a summer hike in the deserts of Big Bend. Ben K_ and I hitched a ride back to our tent site with them after our hike. They had a good-times van with the rear seats ripped out to make room for a mattress, and a cooler of beer. Definitely not old.

Meanwhile, my butt gets sore from sitting here typing too long, and I find my back groaning when I carry my not-so-little boy on my shoulders for significant distances, and I notice tiny lines in the mirror that seem to move in tandem with the rest of my face as I nod my head “no” back and forth to catch a glimpse of my growing scalp.

Occasionally I remind myself that I’m not getting old. I have to pace my aging since there’s so much of it to do.

 

http://www.dsbenson.com/

using Excel to track your characters and timeline

<spoiler alert: if you’re reading-averse, skip to the end, where I post my templates>

I had gotten only a few chapters into Califar when I realized that a character that I’d described as old was really too young for that description. Another pair of characters were going to hook up when the girl was too young (and probably get her author arrested). Thus the need for a better tracking mechanism.

Being of a technical bent, I fired up Excel and created a spreadsheet to track the various character names, their characteristics, ages, etc. This turned out to be a terrific tool. Of course, if you don’t have Excel, you can use a free tool like Google Docs’ online spreadsheets. Here are the basics:

  • list your character names across the top in columns B through whatever
  • in column A, row 2, type the first year of the activities in your book
  • then go across row 2 and list, underneath each character name, the age of your character at that year
  • fill out other events and do a bunch of math. Or, use my template!

As I add major events to the timeline, I note on the spreadsheet when those events occur and can see at a glance the ages of the major characters at that time. This helps avoid logic errors (such as having characters marry or have children too young, get described as old when they aren’t, participate in activities after they’ve died, live unnaturally long lives or consistently die too young, etc.).

Of course, doing the math yourself is no fun at all, so that’s where Excel’s formula calculations come in. Sadly, this is more work than you’d think (or at least, it’s more work than I though it would be!)–so I’ve posted a template that you can use.

Since Excel documents can have multiple ‘tabs’ for individual worksheets, I use additional worksheets to list and sort the names of my characters as well as their defining characteristics. This way I can ensure that I don’t, for instance, have 7 characters with very similar names, or bunch up all the names at one end of the alphabet. I hate when I’m reading a book with a lot of characters and I can’t keep the names straight because the author has used Harry, Harris, Harold, Hubert and Humbert. Listing all the names lets me ensure that my key characters are unique.

Now that I’ve set up that spreadsheet, whenever I’m writing a chapter and add some new description of a character (their eye color, etc.) I add that as notes into the spreadsheet. Naturally this came from need as well, having realized during an early re-read that I’d described a character as having green eyes and her mother as having blue eyes. Genetically, that won’t work!

Here’s the Excel template for old versions of Excel:
writers_excel_template.xls

Here’s an improved version for Excel 2007 (Office 2007 Windows)  or Excel 2008 (Office 2008 Macintosh): 
writers_excel_template.xlsx

 

http://www.dsbenson.com/

the electric kool-aid pregnancy test

My parents often said they were as lucky in pregnancy as they were lucky in love. Perhaps they said this more often than they should have. They used to tell us about it with some frequency, especially when they returned from vacations. Greg and I would pick them up at the airport and ask, “How was your trip?” and Mom would start talking about making beds creak and chandeliers sway. We didn’t really need to know that. 

Dad would invariably be off at baggage claim, talking to some distinguished businessman he’d met on the plane, when Greg or I would march up and announce, “Hey, Pop—we hear the sex was great!”

Anyway, Mom claims that nine months before I arrived on the scene she said, “Gerald, I think it’s time we had a b—” and instantly she was pregnant. My father, who claimed to be able to foretell the gender of unborn babies, said that he called my grandmother that day to say that her daughter was ten minutes pregnant with a firstborn son.

My wife doubted the veracity of that story. But then again, she doubted that my grandfather the urologist performed his own vasectomy, until my grandmother—who had been his nurse—confirmed the tale. Some things are just too cool to make up.

The circumstances surrounding my conception, appropriately enough, took place while my then-future parents were on vacation. Mom and Dad had gone to a resort in New Mexico that didn’t quite live up to its exciting brochure. The few other guests at the “dud ranch” were triple the age of my young folks and didn’t put in much of an appearance. The swimming pool hadn’t seen water in years. The golf course had completely reverted to nature, and the cuisine was of the canned variety.

So the big bop that resulted in my existence after Mom’s oft-repeated sentence interruptus had a boost from boredom. That doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, when I eventually came to grips with the idea of having a child of my own, about six months after my wife broached the selfsame subject with a similar sentence that I was kind enough to allow her to complete, I suggested that we start our family the same way: with a vacation.

This was five years into our marriage. Marci and I had planned a terrific vacation in Spain, and we thought it would be a great time to get started, but we reconsidered after reading that morning sickness can start as early as 10 days post-conception. That could have made Marci miserable on the last part of the vacation.

So we discussed starting our family atop a mountain during a camping trip. I said it would get our firstborn off to a good start and produce a strong child who shared our outdoor interests. I didn’t really believe that, but I thought the idea possessed a certain poetry. It’s important to schedule vital life choices around story opportunities: it makes the really important stuff easier to remember.

As it happened, we went the opposite topographic direction and planned a trip with eight of our friends to go caving deep in the limestone of the central Texas Hill Country. During a wonderful weekend at Colorado Bend State Park, tent camping by a beautiful river with our friends, we donned frayed, muddied and dissolving jeans; knee and elbow pads; helmets and head lamps, and climbed, crawled and slithered deep into the bowels of the earth. The most intense of these crawling cave tours ended with a long and difficult climb back to the surface, pushing our way through a rock tube so narrow that your arms had to remain by your side. We wriggled our way upward to sunlight through this birth canal, our helmets scraping the wall.

As romantic and suggestive as this underground adventure undoubtedly sounds, you may be surprised to hear that it didn’t lead Marci and me to immediate heights of passion. We remained somewhat muddy during the weekend and camped within ready earshot of our fellow mole-people, and so contented ourselves with gritty nighttime snuggling.

However, two hours after returning from the trip, I called my mother-in-law to say that Marci was ten minutes pregnant.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. That Sunday afternoon was in fact the first time it would have been possible for our chromosome carriers to meet (for the usual slip covered reasons), but we certainly didn’t expect results the first time out. In fact, due to Marci’s bout with cancer some years earlier and the radiation that got her through, we weren’t sure that we would be able to have kids at all.

But shortly later came the morning when Marci expected to have her monthly visitation. You could set a watch by Marci’s menstrual cycle. 7:30 AM, regular as clockwork. By 8:00 that Tuesday morning, we had begun speculating. I went to work that day thinking I was going to become a father. We didn’t tell anyone, of course. Most people don’t suspect that they’re pregnant as early as we did, and many pregnancies end without having much of a beginning.

A week or so later, I headed to a company conference in San Francisco to do product demonstrations on stage in front of excited hordes of computer geeks. Marci picked up an Early Pregnancy Test at the grocery store the day I left, and I made her promise to leave that little pink and blue box closed until I returned.

How could she wait? On Halloween night I called when I got back to my hotel room. It was 11:30, Dallas time. I sat on the bed in my dark hotel room, looking out the window at the downtown San Francisco lights, and Marci took the EPT test while holding the cordless phone to her ear with her shoulder. I made her promise not to sneak a peak at the results until our long three minutes of waiting were up, and we tried to think of things to talk about while we waited during that short eternity.

“It’s lines,” she said softly into the phone, “there are three pink lines…you’re going to be a daddy!” We both lay back on our beds and cried in happiness, and held each other as best we could; I would have crawled through the phone. Over a thousand miles apart, yet so close in that moment.

After we said goodnight and I hung up, knowing that I couldn’t tell anyone I knew, I walked the night-lit but never empty streets of downtown San Francisco. Bursting with emotion, I released my news to passersby, to strangers in a bar, to panhandlers on the street, and everyone I met that night seemed to reflect a warm glow.

Are you reading this, my son?

* * * * * * *

We Announce Our Fetusness

The night I returned from California after Marci’s positive pregnancy test, we went straight to the bookstore. By the following morning I had read the baby manuals from cover to cover and was ready to face the next nine months. For eight weeks, we discussed how to tell our families that Marci was pregnant. I had a reputation to uphold, and wanted to find a really good way to surprise everyone. In the meantime, we’d agreed not to tell anyone. Not our siblings or parents or friends. Nobody.

So I just told my friend, Ben. And Marci told her friend, Karen. After all, you gotta tell your wedding party. But we didn’t tell my brother, and we didn’t tell Marci’s sister. So apart from the two of us, and Marci’s doctor, and Ben and Karen, and assorted complete strangers I’d encountered on Halloween eve in San Francisco, nobody knew.

We decided to let our families know during Thanksgiving dinner, when we would all be gathered together at my parents’ house. For weeks, we managed to keep the secret under wraps. It therefore came very much as a surprise one morning when Marci hung up the phone after a terse conversation with her sister Gwen, turned to me and said, “She knows!”

“What do you mean, ‘she knows’? Did she say she knows?”

“No, but I know she knows.” Sisters are like that.

 

Brief digression. Ever heard of kishka? It’s a Ukranian/Polish/Yiddish dish. Years earlier, on one of our first dates, Marci and I had found ourselves in Katz’s Deli in Austin, Texas, at about 3 AM. I saw kishka on the menu and pointed to it.

“What’s kishka?” I asked. I’d never heard of it.

Marci struggled for the words. “Oh, you know, it’s…um…it’s like this.” Skilled as she is in sign language, she gestured with her hands by way of explanation, holding her right thumb and forefinger together to make an ‘o’ and repeatedly shoving her left forefinger through the ‘o,’ in the international sign language symbolism that indicates of course that kishka is a sausage-like dish of beef intestines stuffed with a spiced filling. 

“I’ll take it!” I said, brightly.

Years later, when she brought home a stray Russian Blue, I acquiesced to keep our new kitten if I could name it, and chose the name Kishka.

 

So back to my wife’s oblique conversation with her sister. A day earlier, Marci had taken Kishka the cat to the vet. We had read about toxicoplasmosis, a virus commonly carried by cats that gives the mother a short bout of flulike symptoms but can be very hazardous to a young fetus. As soon as Marci told the vet that she wanted Kishka tested, Dr. W asked if Marci was pregnant.

“Well, yes. But my family doesn’t know yet. We’re planning to surprise them. So if my sister or mother brings in their cat this week, be sure not to let them know.”

Dr. W. promised to be discreet. He asked Marci if he could just take a picture of her with Kishka for his picture wall.

“Because I’m pregnant?” she asked.

“No, I just like to have pictures of my patients and their people.”

The Polaroid went on the wall with other pictures of people and their pets, and Dr. W. and his office staff promised again that they wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. So Marci and I were understandably dismayed when Gwen called the very next morning to engage her in the aforementioned conversation.

“I took Mitzi to Dr. W’s office this morning. She hasn’t been eating.”

“Oh,” said Marci. “Is she all right?”

“Yeah, she’ll be fine. By the way, I saw your picture on Dr. Ward’s wall.”

That was pretty much the verbal part of the conversation, but Marci could tell Gwen knew Marci knew she knew. Marci called Dr. W’s office immediately and told them what had happened. Did they say anything to Gwen?

“Oh, no. We wouldn’t do that! Oh, no. We didn’t say a word.”

But truth will out. Gwen stopped by the house. “Out with it,” she said, after another few moments of pretense. And Marci confessed that she was indeed carrying an as-yet-unnamed embryonic lump.

 

Gwen had gone to Dr. W’s, and had noticed the picture on the wall of Marci and Kishka. Gwen pointed this out to Dr. W.

“Oh, yes—she’s pregnant. 

“She can’t be pregnant,” said Gwen, “she’s been spayed.”

But before Dr. W. could cover his tracks, the women working in his office exclaimed, “Dr. W! You weren’t supposed to tell her!” So our cover was blown.

 

Marci and I planned to tell the remainder of the family at Thanksgiving dinner. Since my brother wasn’t able to come in from Los Angeles, we set up the video camera to record the evening. We regularly did this for Greg’s benefit at the family events he wasn’t able to attend, so this was not unusual. At one point in the dinner, I led the family in a rousing greeting. Turning to the video camera, I raised my glass of wine and asked everyone to repeat after me:

Hello to Greg!
Hello to Greg!

We’re doing fine!
We’re doing fine!

Wish you were here!
We wish you were here!

Marci’s pregnant!!!
Marci’s pregnant!!???

There was a moment’s stunned silence before everyone at the table erupted into screams and laughter and jumped to their feet to embrace us and start in with questions. We still have the videotape, of course. It’s hilarious to watch the delayed reaction of everyone around the family table that night as they all go nuts.

All except Granddad, down near the far end of the table, who busily continued eating without looking up from his plate, and never broke stride. He shared the family joy, of course. You could see it in the way he chewed. Much later, we wondered if that was one of the early signs of his dementia. But at the time, it was just funny. And now that he’s gone and only the videotape remains, it’s funny again! Time will do that.

* * * * * * *

Hey, Son! Welcome To The Planet!

People will tell you that nine months passes very quickly. These are of course people who have already given birth. But for us, time did fly. Marci was blessed with an uneventful pregnancy devoid of morning sickness or other complications. The growing lump in her belly had been given a nickname, a special fetus name: we called it Mogo Pogo.

About a year earlier, Marci had a dream that she was pregnant with twins named Mogo Pogo and Pancake. So Mogo Pogo it was, and our families called our baby-to-be by its fetus name for nine months, as we stuck to our guns and refused to divulge Mogo’s actual name pre-birth.

By our calculation, Mogo Pogo was due to be born around the 4th of July. Marci’s doctor calculated the due date as June 27th. And we had read that often first babies are late.

On the evening of Father’s Day, at least two weeks before either expected due date, we were at my aunt’s house for dinner with the family. I had been working extremely long hours at the office to finish up a big project in anticipation of missing work for a few weeks, and as the evening was winding to a close I called the office and reached one of the engineers I’d been working with. I was surprised that he was at the office so late, but he said he was almost done with a feature and needed me to polish off the last details with him.

Michael and I were the only ones there that late on a Sunday night, and we worked in his office so we could use two computers side by side to get our work done in sync. By 1 AM we were starting to wind things up. We were getting rather punchy from being tired, working while listening to old Monty Python comedy albums.

As Marci entered the home stretch of her pregnancy, she had picked up a Baby Beeper for me, which I carried at work and whenever I was away from her. It had never occurred to me that because I hadn’t intended to be at work that evening, I wasn’t wearing the beeper. It never occurred to Marci either, so when her water broke at about 12:45 AM she paged me several times without realizing that the pager lay on my bedside table, turned off to conserve the battery (so I’d be sure it would work on the one occasion that justified its existence).

Marci had already called me at the office, but I hadn’t heard the phone ring since I was down the hall listening to the Parrot Sketch. In a message on my voicemail, which I heard several weeks later, she calmly said, “Hi, Doug. Please call me immediately.”

Apparently, she had called back a few minutes later, and sounded a little more concerned. “Doug—you need to call me right now!”

There was a third call on my voicemail. Marci’s voice was shaking. “Doug, my water broke and I don’t know where you are and I don’t know what I should do and you need to come home RIGHT NOW!!!”

Michael and I had reached a quiet point in the Monty Python album and I had momentarily stopped banging the computer keys. “Did you hear something?” I asked him. “I think I heard my phone ring.”

It took about six tenths of a second for me to go from “I think I heard my phone ring” to realizing that it was 1 AM and there was only one person who would call me and ohmygod I wasn’t wearing my beeper and by the end of that second I was already out of the chair and dashing for my office.

Marci said she was fine and wasn’t yet in active labor, though her water had broken. The hospital had told her to come on in. I ran for the car.

Normally, it took about 18 minutes to get to my house from the office. At 85 MPH, it takes considerably less time. As I sped homeward, I realized that I still had the Blockbuster movies in my car that we’d intended to return that evening. I’m glad there were no police around that night. I’m sure they would not have believed me that I was driving 70 through the Blockbuster parking lot in order to return videos so they wouldn’t be days overdue because I was in a hurry to get home so I could take my wife to the hospital to have a baby.

For that matter, Marci couldn’t believe it either.

I hope she thinks it’s funny now. She didn’t at the time.

 

http://www.dsbenson.com/

i woke up laughing

This hasn’t happened in quite a while: I woke up laughing, having dreamed a joke. Considering the economy lately and what it’s done at the office, my dreams of late have been anything but funny, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I was talking with an old friend; I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We were catching up about our kids. He has two, just like me.

“Do you have pictures of them?” I asked. Not really a Guy thing do do, but hey–it was a dream. Could happen.

He reached into his wallet and handed me a dollar bill. I turned it over and looked at it in puzzlement.

He said, “My older son, he has a round face, curly hair and a strong-willed disposition. He looks just like George Washington.”

“Ah,” I said. “And your other son?”

“He has a triangular face and ONE BIG EYE!”

 

http://www.dsbenson.com/

finally submitted a story

I would have thought I’d be much farther along by now.

I finished the last draft of my first novel, Califar, in the spring. Now it’s December. Time flies like a banana. No, wait. Fruit flies like a banana.

In the mean time, the global economy has collapsed and people have suddenly forgotten how to read. Bookstores are in trouble. Tumbling tumbleweeds fill Main Street, and unread newspapers collect in soggy drifts against shuttered doorways. What’s an aspiring writer to do?

Apparently, dither. I have found it hard to actually risk rejection of my novel by sending it blindly out to agents. I have no problem getting on stage in front of thousands of people, but sending my words out to a single person–oh, that’s tough!

Some wimp am I, apparently.

So in an effort to actually make some progress (apart from working on my second novel–more on that some other time) I stayed late at the office one evening, resurrected a short story from the past, and submitted it to the New Yorker.

Might as well start at the top if I’m going to collect my requisite hundred-an-one rejections. I’d feel pretty bummed if I got rejected by Podunk Press Online, but a New Yorker rejection seems a-okay.

Of course, I’ve heard nothing at all from them, and it’s been a couple of weeks. Time to pick up the pace. Now, where’s that online submission link for Podunk Press?

 

http://www.dsbenson.com/