L-R, Evelyn Scott, Shari Orser, Marlys Orser, Alma Drake

Since March is Writing Women Back Into History month, I thought I’d tell a little story about searching for the full story of my maternal great-grandmother, who died bearing the name “Alma Drake.” She died when I was about 3, so I don’t remember her. My oldest sister, Shari, has a photo, one that appeared in the Pierce County Tribune, the newspaper in Rugby, home to my maternal grandparents, and the Westhope Standard, the newspaper in Westhope, ND, that was founded by my great-grandfather, A.J. Drake, later continued by my great-uncle, Clifford Drake. The photo shows my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and Shari. Shari was born in 1951 (sorry, honey, but hey, nobody you know will read this!) and my sister Nancy was born in 1953; I’m not sure when this photo was taken, but Shari is sitting up nicely and has long blonde hair in ringlets, my mother’s favorite style for her golden daughter. And judging by early photos of my mother, it was her mother’s favorite style for her, too. Four generations in one photo — either Nancy wasn’t born yet, but it looks like Shari is older than two — or she didn’t want to sit still for a photo. I don’t know. It’s quite the photo, though.

I’ve known for as long as I can remember that Alma Drake came from Norway, and that she homesteaded by herself, and that she kept her homestead for a while after she married A.J. (who was apparently much older than she — I’ll get to that), and that my grandmother Evelyn, her first child, was born in the soddy with only “the Norwegian hired girl” to help with the birth. Both my mother and her only sister, my aunt Pat, told me that Alma wouldn’t speak about her life prior to coming to North Dakota; according to her, that was when her life truly began.

About a year and a half ago my sister Nancy and I started looking into geneaology, trying to follow the female lines back. Nancy brought me Alma’s obituary. It said that Alma Brown Drake was born in “Vickersund” in Norway, in May of 1876; that her mother died when she was a baby and her father remarried. The family came to the US in 1884, and settled in the Superior, WI, area. When Alma was 17 or 18, she and a brother moved to Bottineau, ND, which is in the same county as Westhope. It’s still not clear to me if Alma worked as a waitress in a cafe in Bottineau, or if she and her brother owned a cafe there. I have yet to find a city directory, or anyone who can tell me about Bottineau, ND, in the 1890s. I do have, from my grandmother Evelyn Scott, Alma’s brother’s Psalm book. It’s in Norwegian, and was printed in Norway. In gold on the front of it is printed “E. Brunes.” Inside the front cover, in pencil, is “E. Brown, West Superior, Wisc.” Emil? Elling? We’re not sure. It may be that they homesteaded side by side. Alma became a US citizen in 1901, and in that same record, from Bottineau County, were two other people with the last name “Brown.”

My sister Shari said we’d never be able to trace anything in Norway, because obviously “Brown” was a “made-up” name the family took when they arrived in the US. “Brunes” on the cover of the Psalm book says otherwise. The Norwegian government has a wonderful website. I found Vikersund (famous for some type of extreme skiing, as well as a small train museum) and learned that it is in the parish of Modum. That was a critical discovery because the parish records are available on-line, going back into the 1870s and further back in some places. The on-line baptism records for Modum parish are photocopied from the original book, and the spikey Norwegian letters are very hard to read, but I found that Alma Kristina Ellingsdotter, born in the 1876, and baptized in September of that year. Her parents, Elling Ellingson and his wife Karin are in the record, as are the names of her sponsors. The Ellingson home is listed as Brunes Farm.

It was at about that time that Norwegians began to give up the tradition of using the father’s name as the last name of the children (Ellingson, Ellingsdottir, etc.), and while some chose to keep one family name, like Ellingson (or Anderson, Pederson, Olson, etc. etc. — the ND phone books are full of them!), others chose to use the name of the place they lived, like Brunes Farm.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a death record for Karin, nor a marriage record for Elling and his next wife, or anything about the parents of either of them. We do have a picture of a young Alma and a rather unattractive older woman, and on the back is “Alma and her stepmother.” I don’t know if she was a wicked stepmother or not, but it does seem that Alma was in a hurry to get away from her family and start a life of her own.

She married A.J. Drake around 1898 or 1899, and my grandmother was born in 1900. A.J. had learned the printing trade in Minnesota, where he worked with his father. Either his mother or his grandmother (sorry, can’t find the notes in my heaps of paper…) was named Amy Collins, and some of our Drake cousins have traced her ancestry back to a colonist from England who arrived in North America (Massachusetts, I believe) in the 1600s. A. J. was older than Alma; he died of an apparent heart attack while visiting one of their children in Roundup, MT, in 1932. Alma never remarried. She lived with my grandparents, Evelyn and Bud Scott, for several years, including part of my mother’s childhood, and then moved into a nursing home in Westhope, where she died in her 90s.

So, now I know where she came from, and I would love to visit Vikersund some day and look at their records, see if Brunes Farm still exists, and if I have distant cousins there (I have Orser-side cousins in a different part of Norway, but that’s another story). I want to know more about her mother, and how she died — possibly complications from childbirth? Or was it some other illness? I don’t know. I also want to know about the restaurant in Bottineau, and who Alma’s brother was — did he marry? When did he die? Did my mother know him (she passed away in 1993, so I may never know). I might be able to research some of that after I finish the Spooky South Dakota manuscript.

But at least I know where Alma “Brown” came from, and who her parents were. I’m rewriting the family tree, one leaf at a time. (Giving credit where it’s due, much of this was done by my sister Nancy, although I was the first to find the baptism record!)


Overwhelmed by Deadlines?

February 23, 2010

Unlike most bloggers, I find it next to impossible to blog every day. Or even every week. Maybe it’s because I feel no one wants to, or will, read it, but mostly I think it’s because I feel overwhelmed by all that I need to do. And maybe that’s the best reason of all to blog.

What do I have to do? Well, there’s researching South Dakota ghosts. I have some books, one in particular; my current fear is that my book will sound an awful lot like that one. So I’ll need to tread carefully, and take lots of pictures. I also plan to send letters to the county historical societies in South Dakota for which I can find addresses. I have a partial list of addresses that I made in early January. It’s not finished, and not a letter has been sent. I have yet to look at the “haunted” or “ghost” website that listed ridiculous and false ghost stories about North Dakota, with one or two that actually had substance.

Then there’s Associated Content. I have, I believe, 8 articles due by the end of this week. I’ve researched one of them. I’ve known about all but one of them since, oh, the first of the month? And that other one, about a week ago. That’s the researched one. It’s about Bouviers des Flandres, a large Belgian dog breed in the Herding Group, for AKC followers. It’s also considered one of the most flatulent of dog breeds, which has finally succeeded in convincing me that I don’t want to get one. That, and my house is too small. A sleeping Bouv would completely fill my little kitchen.

I will need to do some editing/revision on Spooky North Dakota. I wish I knew WHEN. I’ve been waiting since the beginning of December for someone to contact me. I know that once it starts, I won’t have much time, so I rather hope it won’t be this week, but I’d like to get it done soon so I can be absolutely sure that the book will come out this spring. If it doesn’t come out until fall I’ll be terribly horribly disappointed. Although that might make it to the WWW conference. Not that I can go; it costs a bit too much.

I’m revising my first complete novel. Obviously not as complete as I’d like it to be. I want it to be good. I want it to SELL. I want to get an agent and a publisher and a three-book contract (do those exist anymore? Or do only people like James Patterson, whose writing, at least in my humble opinion, ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, get those?). I’m writing my second novel, although that exercise came to a complete halt in November, when I was in the crunch zone to complete Spooky North Dakota, and I haven’t managed to dive back in.

I want to write true crime books about two of the mysterious murders I included in Spooky ND. I don’t think there’s enough evidence for one of them; there were no diarists or letter writers in that family, and it was hard enough to find family members (The Minister and the Maid — see old post…). The other is a more involved story, but I need to find out if there are police records of the case that I can copy, and if there are court documents that I can copy. This can’t really be done until Spooky South Dakota is finished, because it will involve a fair amount of driving. And copying.

So what am I doing? Well, I revised Chapter 3 of the first novel today. Yeah. Uh-huh. 9 pages, double-spaced. Ooooh, I feel like it was — nothing. The Bouviers remain to be written about (and being active, energetic herding dogs, I can feel the entire breed nipping at my ankles; at least I can’t smell them!); three as-yet untitled beauty articles await my attention, as do two, or is it three? articles that are “replacements for Zappos blogs” until Zappos gives me new blog titles. (I guess they finally figured out that it’s a little late, or maybe now early, to write about fall festivals… and maybe that I know very little about mountain biking… shhhhh, that’s a secret!) And there’s this blog and Kimiko’s blog.

What is wrong with me? Well, I’ve been sicker than usual, and I’m so tired of winter that I’d be willing to take a trip with that humming Gnome with the British accent (I’ve got to get out of here…). I’m more tired than usual, in part because the unhealing sore on my right ear means I have to sleep on my aching left hip (OH, poor me… My sister the doctor said that the sore is probably squamous melanoma and I’ll end up with a notch in my ear, but I shouldn’t worry; she knows some good plastic surgeons. So upbeat, my sister the doctor… meantime, I’m taking antibiotics and I think it’s getting better, just not better enough!). And maybe I’m having the midwinter blahs. I feel lazy. When I write, I think of all the things I should be doing around the house. When I do anything around the house, I think I should be writing. And now it’s after 6:00 p.m. and my body says it’s time to get out of this chair, and my brain says “Huh? did you say something? Sorry, I missed it…”

So maybe I’ll catch up later in the week.


February 2, 2010

I received a much-forwarded email a few days ago, labelled “Sisters,” I think, with pictures (not photos) of bright butterflies and a ramble about what sisters really are. I enjoyed the text, but would rather not think of sisters as butterflies; butterflies are there for a season (or less), then gone forever.

Not all our sisters are born of our parents. Some are the very special friends who appear as if by magic (or serendipitously? Or is it a “God-thing” as a friend of mine would say?) just when you need them most. Some of them do only last a season, but some of them are forever.

I think back to high school. I was a misfit — not pretty, not in the “Demonettes” — the dance group, sort of, of the school, not in choir, not in band (well, I was, but I dropped it the first chance I got because I hated it. Too much marching music. I’m not really the marching militia type.), not in sports, not popular — and smart. Which then, at least, was a complete end to date-ability; no good-looking guy wants a smart plain girlfriend. And since my parents expected smart, I couldn’t pretend dumb. I would have been a total loner, but I was saved by three girls who pulled me into their group in German Club. Yes, we were all geeks, we were all the nobodies of high school, but we had each other. We tended to split into two pairs; Brenda and Darlene were the daring ones: they drank, and smoked, and may have gone out with college boys. Sue and I were the quiet ones. We had curfews, didn’t drink or smoke, and toed the line set by our parents. I’ve lost track of Brenda and Darlene, although I’ve heard that Brenda, ever the consummate actress, is working with a children’s theater group in New York. Susan has always been a friend. Sometimes we’re off again, on again, but we both know the other is just a phone call away.

My first day of college, alone in the dorm room after my parents drove away, wondering who my room-mate would be, I was surprised by a girl about my age who stuck her head into the room without knocking, and said, “Is one of you Lori?” I looked around the room (always sarcastic when cornered — it’s a defense mechanism) and said, “Well, I’m the only one here, so I must be.” She turned out to be the younger sister of my oldest sister’s best college friend, and we were tight all through college, although her path was different than mine. We still correspond. She never gave up on me, even through years of silence, and she’s still there. I know if I called her and said that I needed her, she’d be here on the first flight she could catch.

Later, still in college but with few casual friends in addition to the one above, I signed up for a spring field school (a contradiction in terms, since it started in March and spring rarely comes to ND before April or early May; we were snowed out the first weekend). I didn’t know many of the archaeology students, and didn’t know any of them well. I was waiting in front of the old building that still houses the anthropology department, to see who else would show up and how it would be, and another girl came up. She was dressed in a way I can only describe as “not North Dakota” although I couldn’t place it — maybe delayed hippie? I don’t know. She looked older than I (actually just 5 years, but at 18 or 19 that’s a big difference…) and I was slightly intimidated. But it was cold, and my body had its usual response to cold. I asked her if she knew where the restroom in the building was. She looked at me for a long moment, then said, “There’s one in the basement marked “Ladies” but you can use it anyway.” I knew at that moment that we’d either hate each other or become friends forever. The latter was true, of course. We were “partners in crime” for much of college, and she made archaeology more fun for me. In fact, without her, I might have changed majors AGAIN. She now lives a few blocks away now, and while I was gone for 16 or 17 years, any chance I got, I visited her, and we called when we called. If it was two or three years between calls, that was OK. We just picked up where we’d left off. I’ve watched her younger son grow from a four year old into a high school student, over 6 feet tall now, so I’m reminded how long I’ve lived back in Bismarck. And I know that I can call her anytime, for any reason. To share a joy, to share a sorrow, to ask a favor, or to offer help. She’s always there.

In grad school, I met the next-to-last sister I’d meet. She was an upper-level undergrad in anthropology, but I was in Linguistics and married to Thing One. In the summer of 1982, we went to Chaco Canyon for a field school dig at an archaic site in the park (NOT Pueblo Bonito, although the Pueblo loomed above us the entire time, and played a huge role in the web of our lives). She knew no one else on the dig, and I, only allowed to come as the cook, knew only Thing One, who focused on ignoring me (I don’t understand it so can’t explain it; possibly a cook-wife embarrassed him, but an archaeologist wife would have intimidated him, so it was a no-win situation). She and I bonded in my kitchen, since the students had to take turns being my “helper.” It would have been completely unbearable without her, and she felt the same way. We’ve managed to visit a number of times (she came to nurse me through a tonsillectomy, although I had to rent her a car since she couldn’t drive my manual transmission Toyota! And I drove from a meeting in Phoenix to her home in Tucson to see her and her 5-month-old baby, who’s now 17… and then visited her several times in Virginia, the DC metro area, where she lives now). We talk on the phone, and send each other books and other items we find that we know the other will love, and have proven that we are always there for each other.

My last sister, besides the two I was born with, I found practically in my own back yard. Right across the street, actually. We’re different in a number of superficial ways, but in our hearts and souls, we have become sisters; bonded over dogs and work and the neighborhood, and, well, the things that matter. Even religion, a topic I rarely bring up with people I’m not related to.

All of these women are more than friends; they’re sisters. I’ve had other friends throughout the years, but they were friends for a season, sometimes a “semester” and sometimes a few years, but they came and went, and are gone now. Something in all of us made that bond that is in many ways deeper than the ones I have with the sisters I was born with.

Don’t misunderstand: I love my biological sisters. I would do anything for them, anything to help them, and would knock out anyone who said anything bad about them. But that bond, though it’s lasted since I was born and was their “plaything” (they dressed me and pushed me around in the stroller… I was a living doll for a while, apparently), and over the years I’ve liked them, too, though more at some times than at others.

But these friend-sisters — I can tell them things I can’t tell my real sisters, and not be judged, or have them try to “fix” me. They accept me as I am, and don’t expect me to change to better fit some concept of what I should be. And I feel the same way about them. I feel very sorry for women who don’t have such friend-sisters in their lives; they’re missing out on the greatest love there is. Even closer than most husbands, at least in my (bad) experience.

One of my sisters said to me, a long time ago, that she didn’t have any friends, and wasn’t good at making them. I told her that to make a friend you need to be a friend. You need to reach out to them, and then to listen to them. Listen to what they have to say about themselves and their lives, their thoughts, hopes, and dreams. Listen and be kind, empathetic, and compassionate. Don’t dominate conversations or expect them to be your friend without being their friend first. And choose the most unlikely person you can, because she will probably be your best friend in the end.

January 30, 2010

I was beginning to feel that January would never end. First there was December, with blizzards that trapped me inside my house, and illness that trapped me in my bed. Then January arrived, beginning with a visit from my sister to lift my spirits, but she left, and more snow came, and then it feels like it has been dark and gloomy ever since. OK, Thursday it was sunny, but when the temperature is 2 (above! heat wave!) it can take the joy out of the sunshine, if you let it (and I think I did…). I can’t feel the days getting longer; the nights are still long and dark, there are giant snow piles everywhere, and I’m stuck in the doldrums of the bleak midwinter. Bah.

I visit my niece’s blog to get a smile(www.kateandkhan.blogspot.com). She posts pictures of Lily, her darling baby who is 18 months old, smart, cuter than a bug’s ear (although I have to admit I’ve never actually seen a bug’s ear, but if I had, I’m sure I’d still think Lily was cuter), and generally a happy, active, curious, and occasionally willful child. The photos are darling, but they make me want to visit. And I’ll bet the sun is shining in Florida.

Still no word from my Spooky North Dakota book editor. I’d really like to get that behind me so I can focus on South Dakota. Actually I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with South Dakota; I got a book called something like “The Road Guide to Haunted South Dakota” with dozens of places, a little bit of information about each, and driving directions. It’s a great resource, but I’m a little afraid to use it lest I sound like I’m plagiarizing. There are a few places that are written up in multiple sources, like Seth Bullock’s hotel in Deadwood, and the haunted bed and breakfast in Hot Springs, but unless I can find another source for a place, I’m not going to include it. And the problem is lack of sources. Maybe I can get people to tell me about some of them when I do photo excursions.

Another distraction from Spooky is the novel I’m revising, the one I hope I can find an editor or at least an agent for, based on having published the Spooky books. Foot in the door? Do editors really care that much if you have another book, different genre, already published? I want the manuscript to be so good that it knocks their socks off, so revision is the order of the day. Whether or not that will include a critique group seems to be up in the air at the moment.

And one more distraction is the silly articles for AssociatedContent.com. I feel like I’m selling my soul for $20. But I need the money, having lost 2/5 of my income because, since I could pick up my 14 pound Bichon, I’m clearly not disabled by a chronic illness. FCEs are worthless. They are 2-3 hour snapshot, and tell nothing about longterm (say, a week of 8 hour days…) ability to perform any job. Anyway, I really need to keep getting what cash I can from AC because I have new prescription insurance, and just filled a prescription that in December would have been $15 and now is $75. I’ll now have to start getting it by mail, and it will come all the way down to $150 for three months worth. Generics are still $5 a month, and that’s a good thing. It wouldn’t be a problem, except that now I have to get all new prescriptions at once, and that’s a lot of pennies.

We hear so much about health care reform, and affordable drug costs, and there’s no agreement about how it should be done. I certainly don’t know. If I didn’t have prescription insurance, my medications would cost over $900 a month. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to take them. The $75 one is one I must have, as is another that will also be $150 for three months. ACK.

I’m rambling, so I’ll end this post. I’m just glad that on Monday, it will be February (the month of the Hallmark Holiday designed to make single people feel like total losers… happy happy joy…)

On Monday, November 23rd, I mailed my “Spooky North Dakota” manuscript (on a CD; no paper except the original signed photo releases) plus all the extra files (marketing contacts, biography, about the book, picture file, caption file, and on and on) to my publisher by overnight mail. Since I’m in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota, and they’re in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, “overnight” translated to “second day” delivery, but that still beat the December 1 deadline for submission.

I’m not sure what I was expecting at that point. I knew that my “writing process” editor would be replaced with a book editor (which I’m not sure I’m happy about; I feel like I have a really good relationship with that first editor and working with her would have been so much easier! but we’ll see). I also knew that the first editor would go through my submission and make sure everything they needed was there before passing it on. On the following Monday (Nov. 30th) I sent two more photos and a revised caption list by email, since I HAD the two more photos by then (foolish oversight on my part the first time, but not a problem). And was told that my book would go to one of five editors who’d be handling the 25+ manuscripts that were due on the 1st.

Now it’s January 15th. I still haven’t heard from a new editor, and I am so ready to make whatever revisions I need to do (and I know of one typo that somehow both my first reader and I missed, despite the many times we went through each chapter; I also need to make a change in one story and give the real people false names because they’ve decided they don’t want the world to know it’s their house that’s haunted — which I understand because I did the same thing!).

I guess I didn’t expect much in December; there were holidays coming up, and probably “the editors” were just getting the books and deciding what order to do them in. Apparently they do one at a time, which seems strange to me, especially since the “Writers Guidelines” stressed the importance of speed in getting the “ready to print” manuscripts actually ready to print, and said that any time that the editor had to spend “fixing” things (like grammar and spelling) would come out of the author’s miniscule royalties.

But I thought that by mid-January (today, in other words) that I would at least have gotten an email saying “I’m your editor and we’ll start working on (fill in the date). I’m looking forward to working with you!” or words to that effect. But no, nothing yet. Is this typical? I have no way of knowing!

I did hear from the “process” editor, who will be my process editor through Spooky South Dakota (or, help me, Spooky CREEPY South Dakota…), that “Pete” had stopped by her office after looking over the Spooky ND manuscript, and told her that it was too late to switch ND to color photos (which I’d been assuming all along that it would be; some of the photos have exquisite colors, especially the ones in the Badlands) but that he thought South Dakota should be in color. “Pete” is the owner/CEO/President of the publishing company (woo hoo!!! seriously!)

I do realize that it costs a lot more to print in color than in B&W, so I’m wondering what I should think about this (other than that I need a WHOLE lot more photos, as they want one on each page if they’re going to print in color — not a problem). First I thought it was because he thought my North Dakota manuscript was so good. Then I thought it was because he thought South Dakota would sell better (let’s face it: South Dakota has a LOT more tourism than North Dakota, and in all those gift shops at National and State Parks, it should do well). Either way, I think it shows a faith in my ability to write it well and finish it on time. Can anybody with experience respond to that? Is it me, or is it the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore?

Either way, I’d hoped to be working at revisions by now, so that it would be over with well before I’m nose-deep in research for South Dakota. It’ll be late April or May before I can actually go to South Dakota and start getting photos (and on-the-ground research), because of Dakota winters, which are worse in the Black Hills. (Something to do with altitude, maybe?) Honestly, I think at least half the book will be in Black Hills locations. One could write an entire book about haunted Deadwood, I think.

But either way, I’m starting computer and book research for South Dakota, while writing articles for Associated Content (dot-com) where (don’t laugh) I’m now a featured beauty contributor. (Actually you can laugh; what I don’t know about make-up and skincare could fill many volumes; I rarely wear it, and my skin care regimen is pretty basic. Clean and moisturise with Cetaphil, and wear at least a 15 SPF sunscreen when going outside. Different sunscreen –gentler–for face. And if I’ll be outside for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time, it goes up to 30 SPF, reapplied every 2 hours. That’s it. Pretty simple. No serums, no revitalizing, none of that. Make-up if I feel I must!) But I digress.

I really want to hear from my book editor. REALLY. I’m not going to bug them, since I don’t know who to bug, but I’m really looking forward to finishing that book and having it in my hot little hands!

More years ago that I care to remember, I was in an Intro to Cultural Anthropology class at UND. The professor told us to compare cultural change to a train. Technology/Science is the engine; technology moves much faster than any other aspect of culture, and forces culture to scurry to keep up. Society is next, changing and trying to keep up. Religion (not spirituality, but organized religion with all the rules that entails) is the caboose, holding back the change as hard as it can. Think of Galileo and his discovery — he was almost killed by the Roman Catholic Church until he recanted the truth of the scientific discovery he’d made. And in the last 100 years, we’ve had more scientific and technological progress than the last, oh, 50,000 or so?

Language is in that middle car, changing to keep up with technology (raise your hand if your grandmother would have known what “gigabyte” or “nanotechnology” means!) and the changes in culture it makes. In France, there is (or maybe was; I forget) a government body whose task it was to keep track of “new” words that cropped up in common speech, and decide whether or not they could be included in the dictionary of “proper French.” That may be taking things a little too far, but as a writer who grew up with Strunk and White at my side, and a Latin teacher who taught me more about English grammar, and grammar in general, than any other teacher I’ve ever had, I’m dragging my feet at some of the changes that have been popping up. I refuse to consider them changes; in the pedantic little critic/editor corner of the brain, they remain just plain wrong!

First is the “new” expression, which if you spend time with anyone under, oh, 22, you’ll probably hear: “I could care less.” What? Do they get what they’re saying? If you could care less, then obviously you CARE — what they mean is “I couldn’t care less,” but that seems to have dropped by the wayside. Sadly.

Then we have the use of the word “nauseous.” According to MY dictionary, and every other one I’ve checked, if something is nauseous it makes you feel nauseated. A nauseous smell, for example, or a nauseous shade of green. Yet speakers and writers use “nauseous” to mean nauseated. “I felt nauseous” an otherwise excellent writer wrote; so is she telling us that she felt that she was making everyone around her sick? I think not; I think she meant she felt sick herself. Sigh.

Moving on to a Strunk and White example of a widely misused word, we have “comprise.” According to good old S&W, “comprise” isn’t a substitute for “consist” and shouldn’t be used with “of.” Their example (which I don’t like, but it works) is “The zoo comprises many animals.” I’d use it in a sentence like “My book comprises ghost stories and mysterious tales.” Not ever “My book is comprised of ghost stories and mysterious tales.” It’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, according to every dictionary I checked. But common usage is making it “right.”

The worst, for someone who has studied multiple languages that still use case with nouns as well as pronouns, is the disappearance of the objective case in singular personal pronouns. For non-grammarians (and non-pedantic linguists), what I’m saying is that objects aren’t different from subjects in English; “book” is “book” whether you say/write “This book is great!” or “I dropped the book.” Objects only remain in personal pronounts. ” I dropped the book, but the door hit ME in the face. Americans don’t seem to have much trouble with the plural (and second person “you” doesn’t change); “Let’s keep this between US,” for example. But divide that up, and “we” have problems. I hear it in dialogue in TV and movies, I hear it in conversation, and sadly I read it in the works of authors who should know better. “That’s between John and I,” say people who would never say “That’s between we.” It’s ME, people, it’s ME — That’s between you and ME. Do the misusers think “I” somehow sounds more, I don’t know, sophisticated? It shouldn’t, because IT’S WRONG. “That’s for us” is common, but so is “that’s for Mary and I.” Sorry, Mary, but “That’s for Mary and me.” If you’re saying “Duh — everyone knows that” that’s good — it means YOU know that. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that not everyone knows that.

Will common usage make these (few examples) acceptable? Common usage forced gender out of everything but third person singular pronouns in English. We’ve also lost case and several tenses. What I fear more than anything is that texting “vocabulary” will become acceptable in speech and writing. I already hear “OMG!” and “TMI” far more often than I want to. Yes, I use them in email, but I write or say the words everywhere else. “U” should never be a substitute for “you” in good writing, nor should “4” be a substitute for “for” (it’s probably fine if you mean “four,” though). And so many others that I’m too old to know or understand.

Who will be teaching English in 20 or 30 years? Will we lose words to clumps of letters, and will what is ungrammatical today become correct then? I don’t know if I want to be around to see it.

And yes, I’m a pedantic, foot-dragging linguist, who sees change coming and doesn’t much like it!

New Year, New Post

January 4, 2010

It’s 2010 — now we all have to decide if that’s Two Thousand Ten or Twenty Ten. Or we can all say it however we want. Probably a non-starter (po-tay-toe, po-tah-to). (TATERS!). Resolutions? Pooh! As someone else said first, why commit yourself to something important, then fail to adhere to it within the first month, and feel bad about yourself? I’ve done that enough times! My one thought each year about this time is to remember: there is more good in my little corner of the world, if I just look for it, than there is bad. This is really important, because it is a daily struggle to manage what my psychiatrist described as “a nasty little major depressive disorder.” Sometimes it is managed, but sometimes it isn’t, and remembering all that is good helps get me through those times alive. (Not to whine or anything — seriously, there IS more good than bad.)

My sister Nancy, who lives in Hugo, MN, left this morning; she’s been here only since the 31st. My sister Shari and I didn’t go to her house for Christmas because Shari, a physician, was on call. And if she hadn’t been, we probably wouldn’t have gone anyway because by Christmas Eve the weather was getting nasty, and on Christmas day, I couldn’t get my back door open. We only got 9 inches of snow, according to the weather station at the airport, but it was drifted past my knees outside my back door, and a little deeper further down the drive. I managed to push and push and push and get the back door open far enough that Kimiko and I could squiggle out, then I used my gloved hands and booted feet to dig and kick enough snow out of the way so that I could get the gate to her yard open, where she began to bound joyfully around the yard (at least someone was happy about the snow — which was STILL falling and blowing). I had an asthma attack so went in for a while, but then went out again and trampled, kicked, and dug (with my hands — couldn’t get to the shovel because if I opened the garage door, about 4 feet of snow would have fallen in…) and managed to clear enough that the door opened almost all the way, I could walk to the gate without falling, and the gate could open and close completely. But the car was still trapped. My driveway was finally cleared late the afternoon of Monday the — hmm — 28th? I get SO confused! I digressed extensively — we wouldn’t have been able to get to the Twin Cities if we’d planned, so it was just as well we hadn’t planned!

I love Christmas at Nancy’s. Besides having all three sisters together, I get to see my two nephews (Erik and Ben) and my niece (Kate) and her husband (Khan) and daughter (Lily), who’s now 17 months old and absolutely adorable, if apparently rather stubborn and independent (now where could she have gotten that trait from? Not me… maybe her mother? or her mother?). “New” Christmas traditions like the annual Ugly Ornament Contest. I had sent a glitter-covered styrofoam shoe that I thought was hideous, but it was beaten by a bug-eyed pickle in a grass skirt doing a hula dance. (Nothing says Christmas like a Hawaiian dancing pickle, apparently…) I love to see all the cookies — and usually bake my share of them, although not this year. I love to see the decorated tree, and to see when someone opens a gift that really was just right. And watching Christmas movies and playing silly games with that happy bunch of people. So I was not a happy camper, trapped in my house with my dog, on Christmas day! I must get a webcam, microphone, and SKYPE so that I can actually SEE people when I call them (although that’s frighteningly like 1984 — the book, not the year!).

But Nancy came here, and on New Year’s morning, in pajamas, we three opened our presents from each other (a remarkable number of them, since at least two of us had promised not to “buy” anything but stocking presents, and to “make” other gifts; I “made” Nancy a poem that showed, I hope, how I feel about her, and framed it; she painted pictures of my house, the side of my house with hollyhocks, and a close-up of hollyhocks). I am working on a summer sweater for Shari. I completed a little sweater for Lily before Christmas and sent it to Nancy’s house, so they had that “made” present from me. Somehow I can’t see the boys (they’re 29 and 33, not exactly “boys”) wanting to wear anything I knit for them. I gave Erik a scarf a few years ago, but Ben’s in Bellingham WA and I don’t know how much use he has for a scarf. It would probably just get wet!

I do hope to get more writing done this year — more that I want to do, not just assigned articles at Associated Content (where I am now a Featured Beauty Consultant — it cracks me up, since I also write outdoorsy blogs for a partner site, like white-water rafting trips and mountain bike tips! and frankly, I’m not all that great at any of those things…) or the Spooky (and possibly Creepy) South Dakota book. I learned just before Christmas that the photos in Spooky North Dakota will appear in black and white in the published volume (April or thereabouts?), but “Pete” wandered past my editor’s desk (he’s the owner/president of the publishing company) and looked at it, and decided that he wants South Dakota done in color photos, which means a photo per page. Now THAT is going to take some time… it’ll probably take more than the writing! But they can be background shots, pretty vistas, trees, abandoned houses or mines — whatever. They don’t ALL have to be haunted things. I think the research will be harder for this one, because I’m farther away from it, but the writing should be easier, now that I better understand what they want. I suspect that deciding how to organize it will be just about as difficult, though. (For North Dakota, by town or county just didn’t work, so I did it by type of haunt or spookiness: haunted houses; haunted churches; haunted businesses (hotels, stores, etc.); and so on.) I’ll decide after I see what I get.

One of my (unexpected and delightful) gifts for Christmas was a small digital video recorder. That could be quite handy, both in research and in general. Kimiko does some really cute things that I’d like to get on video. OK, it’s hard to think of giant Akitas as “cute” but when I say, “Anybody want a peanut?” and she raises a front paw with a look that says “I do! I do!” it’s pretty darn cute.

So, off to other writing. And yes, this is mostly for me, because hardly anyone ever visits my blog — but that’s OK.

Happy New Year, and New Decade!

(I wrote this for an Associated Content short story contest. Entries were limited to 800 words, and had to begin with one of three sentences that AC provided. You can see which one I chose.)

Someone was knocking at the door.

At the sound, the birds in the trees outside started cawing again. All that poison hadn’t done a damn thing. Gary sighed, leaned back in his chair and hoped the noise would stop. The knocking and cawing continued. Biting back a curse, he heaved himself up and stalked to the door. He cracked the door open enough to see a stranger in a messenger service uniform.

“Mr. Rhodes? Package. I need a signature.”

Gary opened the door and signed on the line, then took the package inside, set it down and dropped back into his chair. He hadn’t been expecting a package. He hadn’t been expecting anything but paper, after losing his job, his wife and his kids, and missing mortgage payments.

Curiosity won; he opened the box. Inside, amid a shroud of packing peanuts, was a bronze vase. No, he corrected himself as he pulled it out, an urn, with a plug in the top and a blank plate at the base.

He tried pulling at the plug; it stuck. He pulled harder and it gave. Instead of the ash he’d expected, nothing flew out. He examined the box. No return address. What kind of sick joke was this? Who the hell…

Gary looked around, and decided to set the thing on the television. If he’d had a mantel, he’d have put it there, but in this ticky-tacky tract house the builders hadn’t bothered with such niceties. He stood up again, put the urn in its place, carried the box to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. He took a beer from the fridge since he was there, then went back to the living room.

Chuckling wryly as he sat, Gary thought the urn could be a metaphor for his life: empty and blank. He mentally ran through the people he thought might have sent this to him, and came up with nothing. Nobody he knew had this kind of black humor. If it was humor. And nobody hated him enough to try to freak him out. Not that he felt freaked out; just curious.

He popped the bottle cap and took a drink. Urns are definitely funereal, he thought. Either they hold ashes, or they hold flowers at funerals. He drank again. Or people write poems about them, if they’re old. This didn’t look old. The bronze had been polished to a bright shine, although that was getting harder to see as the sun set.

Outside the birds set up a ruckus, and there was a sudden splat against the front window. He got up again and looked out. There was a reddish smear on the glass. He tried peering down, but saw nothing. Grumbling, he went out.

Just below the window was a black bird, its talons curved toward its body. Crow, Gary thought, or raven. No difference, right? He pushed at it but it didn’t move.

He went inside and got a trash bag, then went back out. He poked the bird again with his foot, harder. It didn’t move. In the dying light, he couldn’t tell if it was breathing or not. He put the bag over his hand so he wouldn’t have to touch the nasty thing and picked it up. It was limp, lifeless, so he pulled the bag up and tied the top. Walking into the garage, he put it into the big trash can there. This trash he didn’t want in his kitchen.

He walked into the kitchen from the garage and grabbed another cold one. He went into the living room to think about there might be for supper in the house, then stopped abruptly. The urn was on the coffee table, next to the empty beer.

Gary slowly sat down, setting the fresh beer beside the first bottle. He picked up the urn, and saw writing on the nameplate. His first name, in an old-fashioned flowing script. He hefted it to toss it across the room, but felt something move inside. He pulled out the stopper and shook it gently, then poured a bit into his hand. Ashes. Slowly he returned them to the urn and set it down.

Not funny at all. But who, and how? He hadn’t seen or heard anyone.

From outside the window Gary heard a screeching of brakes and a loud crash. He stood up, then heard a click on the table. He looked down, and saw a curved black talon next to the urn.

Dear God, his last name was on the plate, too. Gary walked to the window, saw two cars intertwined in the wreck. One was his. He knew whose blood was pooled on the street, and as another black bird dived for the window, he thought he knew why.

What’s the Matter Here?

September 10, 2009

The title of this blog is the name of a song that was a hit for the band 10,000 Maniacs on their “In My Tribe” album from 1990. It’s a song about child abuse, and how people turn away from it, and make excuses like “he’s their kid,” and “it’s not my business.” I have always believed that if I saw a child being harmed in any way, I’d step in and stop it. Apparently I was wrong.

I stopped at my bank at a small and old strip mall near my home, then walked down to the grocery store. This isn’t a supermarket, mind you; it’s a small store that’s been there since I was a child, and I used to go there with my mother. Most of the clerks and carry-out “boys” (many are retired men) know most of the shoppers, and have for years. As I was checking out, a mother and her young son, maybe four or five years old, were in the next lane. The boy wasn’t acting up; he was playing a little game with one of the younger carry-outs, where he’d take a few steps away from his mother, quietly, and the carry-out would pretend he was going to “get” him, and then the child would run back to his mother and giggle.

They left the store ahead of me, and he was lagging a little, like most children that age do. As we neared the end of the strip mall, where I was parked in front of the bank, we passed a dry-cleaners. Their front door was open, as it often is on warm days. The boy stopped to look in. He was fascinated. He bent over a little and just stared, wide-eyed. His mother was opening the car door and called to him, and I walked past him and said, “You’d better go to your mom now, they might clean you if you go in there!” He grinned at me and turned to his mother.

Not fast enough for her. She yelled, and I quote, “Get your butt over here, now!” in a very angry voice, and as she did she trotted up to her child and grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him towards her. I was unlocking my car at that point, and turned to see. She carried him to the car, swatting him on his bottom at least three times, then violently shoved him into the back seat. I heard another smack — but this one was skin on skin, so not on his bottom. I took a step towards them.

She said, loudly and in an exceptionally angry tone, “You are totally on a time-out, just you wait until we get home!” I took another step towards them, thinking the mother was the one who needed the time-out, and she looked up and glared at me. I stopped in my tracks. If I said or did anything, would it just make it worse for this little boy? If I did nothing, would he get a real beating when he got home? The morning had been chilly, so he was in long pants and long sleeves, and I hadn’t seen bruises, but still… She got in her car, slammed her door, revved the engine and took off before I even thought to try to write her license plate number down.

The little boy’s face, his soft blond hair and wide blue eyes and the little grin he gave me, haunted me all the way home, and long after. Maybe I didn’t have a right to intervene, but I think I had an obligation. I failed this child. At the very least, I should have written down that license number and called the police, so that a social worker could check out the situation. Maybe she’d had a bad day; maybe he’d been impossible to deal with earlier in the day, a “wild thing” like Max in the book, and she was at the end of her rope. Or maybe she was always that way. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to make her angrier, with only that child for her to take her anger out on — but I should have done something.

I know — all my “shoulds” can wear me down and take my focus away from now, and what is. I learned one lesson, though. I’ll keep my notepad easily accessible, and if I see something like that again, if I don’t feel I can intervene, I’ll write down the license number, and call someone who does have the right to intervene. No child deserves to be treated like that, and perhaps the mother needs help just as much as her son.

A Monkey Trap

September 1, 2009

As I’m trying to finish my first draft of “Spooky North Dakota” (belatedly), I find myself feeling like I’m caught in a bear trap. Reconsidering, I think it’s more like a monkey trap.

I’m not sure where I first heard about monkey traps; I suspect it may have been in a Rudyard Kipling story. But if you don’t know about them, let me explain. Monkeys are both greedy and curious. So, take a jar with a mouth just large enough for a monkey’s paw to get in, and fill it halfway or so with peanuts. Then tie the jar to a tree. A monkey will come along, and being curious, stick his paw in. He’ll feel the peanuts, and grab a handful. With his hand full like that, he can’t get it out of the jar. So, he has a dilemma. Give up the windfall of delicious peanuts, and leave, or sit there with his hand stuck? Usually he sits there with he greedy paw full of peanuts until whoever set the trap comes along and takes him.

It’s not peanuts for me. It’s the mystery and clues around one of the stories I’m including in my book. It’s not a huge haunting. In fact, it’s not a haunting at all. It’s a “spooky.” (Since I’m stuck with the title I might as well make the most of it.)

The story is that of a Lutheran minister, Heio Janssen, who  in 1938 poisoned his pregnant 16-year-old maid, Alma Kruckenberg, while his wife was out of town, then burned the parsonage down to hide his crime. (This happened in Krem, ND, which is no longer there, but the church is — and the lawn next to it where, they’ll tell you, the parsonage was before it burned down. Church members don’t volunteer why it burned.) Such things don’t stay hidden, of course, and the firemen found the body almost as soon as the flames were out, and the coroner found the pregnancy. Janssen denied quite stoutly that he had anything to do with it, even when the parents of the girl confronted him, begging him to tell the truth, since they’d entrusted him with their youngest daughter, who was “a good girl.”

He didn’t break down until he was shown her body, which was just a torso, and the jar that contained their child. Then he confessed, saying the devil got into him and made him do it. (Really. He said that.) He actually made so many conflicting statements that when he was taken to Mandan’s then-notorious “midnight court” (mostly to prevent a lynching) he was convicted of perjury along with all the other charges (rape, murder, arson, etc.).

The people of Marsh, MT, read about this. He had been their pastor from late 1915 until 1933, when he’d left abruptly. They recalled how he’d seemed close to Rosa Opp, the teenaged daughter of one of the church deacons. She disappeared in September of 1930, and her body was found a few days later in the Yellowstone River. The coroner said she’d died from drowning, and called it a suicide. No autopsy was done. Now the folks in Marsh began to wonder. Rosa was a happy girl. Just before she disappeared, she was preparing to be a sponsor to one of her sister’s children at his baptism, and was very excited about that, and making herself a new dress. No one knew of any reason why she would kill herself.

When questioned about Rosa, Janssen said he had nothing to do with her death. But then, he wasn’t facing her body or her father…

Then the people from his very first parish, Lincoln Valley, started to wonder as well. Lincoln Valley no longer exists as a town, but it’s near Harvey, ND. In 1915, just before he went to Marsh, his teen-aged sister-in-law, Margaret Monseur,  disappeared. She was never seen again, and no body was ever found. They went to the judge who’d convicted Janssen of Alma’s murder, and he ordered that Janssen be questioned about that, too. Under intense questioning, he confessed to having “relations” with his sister-in-law, and with at least one member of his congregation in Marsh, but still denied killing them.

These are the peanuts. I have a story — I have everything I need to put it in the book. But I can’t seem to let those peanuts go. I’m searching for information about Margaret. Did she reappear somewhere? I didn’t  find her with a Google search or in newspapers, or on http://www.findagrave.com — although a friend of my sister, who is helping me search, found Alma’s grave in a cemetery near the Krem church. But I already knew that. The friend also found the grave of a man who is more than likely one of Janssen’s sons, in Colorado. I want to try to find his children, if he has any, and find out what they know. I’ve been in contact with a man whose roots are in Marsh, and he’s sent me photos of Janssen with the church there, and stories from his late father and his 93-year-old aunt, who remember Janssen with dislike (their stories of finding Rosa’s body are much gorier than the actual death certificate tells — but make a great story). I want to know more from the people of Marsh. I want a seance, so I can talk to Rosa and Margaret, who by now is undoubtedly dead, even if Janssen didn’t kill her.

But, if I don’t let the peanuts go, I’ll never finish the book. I have all the story I need. I’m promising myself that when I’ve finished my commitments, I’ll return to the murderous minister, and search for more clues. Maybe there’s enough for a book, or at least a longer story. Or perhaps fictionalize it. Not so much a whodunnit, since the answer is clear, but a why. What makes a man of the cloth, top of his class in seminary school, become a rapist and murderer? What demons lived in his soul? Did something happen to him when he was growing up, or while he was crossing the Atlantic on a great ship? What makes a murderer — or was he born bad? I’m about 60 years too late. He died in 1946 in the State Penitentiary, of natural causes. But I want to know more…