April 16

Pitcher Plant Flowers

You may already be aware of my love of carnivorous plants. Now that the weather is warming, most of them are starting to bloom and their flowers are amazing. The pitcher plants tend to bloom the earliest in my little shop of horrors, and this year I thought it would be interesting to take a photo every day to capture the flower’s life cycle.

I initially created a gif, but the finished product ended up too small to appreciate the beauty of the flower. That, and the file size was a bit too large.

So I ended up tossing together a video. It’s only about a minute long, but it gives you a chance to see just how incredible these plants are.

I also wrote the music, too. In case you were wondering.

Hope you enjoy this short educational moment.

RB

April 12

Creativity as Therapy

I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.

But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.

Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.

For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.

Boy daydreaming.Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.

As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.

Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.

Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.

Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.

I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.

Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.

But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.

Woman dancing.
Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.

No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.

RB

April 9

Back in the Saddle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written any fiction. A few scribbles here and there, but nothing of substance. It wasn’t on purpose. My partner and I were caring for some elderly family members and that took up most of my time and effort. Afterwards, there was a lot to sort through. Not just estate-related issues, but also the PTSD of losing family.

But I didn’t completely shy away from the written word. I filled up a 240 page journal during that period, and I continued to post here on my blog. Just not as frequently. Fiction, however, was out of reach. I just wasn’t feeling it.

Until last night. I was laying in bed, half asleep, listening to the soft rain and wind outside my window. I was relaxed and straddling that fine, misty line between consciousness and sleep when a random thought caught my attention. You know how it is when you’re laying there in bed, drifting off. All those random thoughts and memories slip by like smoke in a breeze.

Image of open book.

I saw a guy sitting at a bar in a sleazy pool hall. He was nursing a drink, cheap bourbon, and stealing glances at a redhead sitting in a corner booth with two men. I let is slip away for a moment, but then it returned, like my imagination didn’t want me to miss it.

The scene replayed several times, then began to expand, unfolding like a piece of origami.

I don’t know how much time passed, but the entire story was there behind my eyes. I sat up and grabbed my phone, typing out as much info as I could while half conscious. I’ve lost too many story ideas by being lazy at night and not taking the time to write down some notes before drifting off.

And this morning, when I woke up, the story was still there, ready to go.

It felt good, invigorating. I think a small part of me was worried that I wasn’t going to write again. Not anymore. I have a solid story ready for the page, a return to form. I’m excited.

It goes to show that writers have to trust their imaginations, have to trust in their own personal creative process. I wasn’t done as a fiction writer. I just needed time to heal, to clear my head, to move on.

If you do get in a rut, feel uninspired, used up, don’t give up hope. Just be patient. The muse will return and you’ll be back in the saddle before you know it.

RB

April 7

Godzilla Can’t Compare

It’s not often one gets the opportunity to witness an epic battle in nature, but I was lucky enough to see two lizards lock up on my back patio wall the other day. My dog, Siri, alerted me and we watched with wide eyes as the two opponents circled one another looking for an opening. Then things got a little crazy…

My old girl loves to watch the lizards sunning themselves and often barks at them. However, I think she was a little disappointed in this match. As the heat of battle cooled, she let out a little frustrated sigh. Don’t worry, girl. I’m sure they’ll be at it again soon.

Now back to getting the patio straightened up.

RB

April 5

My Little Shop of Horrors

One of my favorite rites of Spring is watching my carnivorous plants come back to life. Most of the ones on my back patio are indigenous to my area, so they taper off and die back during the cold months, then slowly, stealthily, come back to life when the temperatures begin to rise.

Pitcher plant flower buds.
Poking their little heads up out of the sphagnum moss.

For my sarracenias (trumpet pitchers), the focus is on flowering. Initially, I’ll see these tiny, pea-sized balls breaking the surface of the sphagnum moss, then they quickly spring up on long stems. Over the next week or so they slowly open to reveal an alien-looking flower.

In theory, I should cut the flower stems so the plant can focus more energy on creating pitchers, which is how they get their sustenance. But I love the flowers and like to spread the seeds around for propagation.

This year I have a few new additions to my Little Shop of Horrors (as my partner likes to call it). This includes another type of pitcher that grows lower to the ground. What I’m proud of is the fact that the new pitchers are so much larger than the old ones. I interpret that to mean this guy loves his new environment and is ready to get to work on the local insect population.

Pitcher plant.
Look at those little red capillaries.

Of course, I always feel the need to clarify that having carnivorous plants on your patio doesn’t mean you’ll never need to call for pest control. They aren’t active bug hunters, laying in wait in the tall grass for the unsuspecting beetle to happen by. No, they are passive. Incredibly so. And they don’t always capture what I want them to. For example, I’ve found honeybees decomposing in the bottom of a pitcher trap, along with the occasional lizard that probably wandered down the tube thinking it was getting a free meal.

Fun fact: In Southeast Asia, some pitcher plants get so large that people have discovered small primates in the traps. One wrong turn…

The other issue is mosquitoes. Here in Florida, mosquitoes are a problem nearly year-round, and unfortunately, carnivorous plants like to sit in water and stay moist. In other words, their environments are breeding grounds for the little bloodsuckers. And no, carnivorous plants don’t attract mosquitoes. Every once in a while I may see one stuck to a sundew, but that’s just the result of bad piloting on the part of the mosquito.

Speaking of which, my sundews are doing exceptionally well at the moment. One is indigenous to the area, so that’s not surprising. What did catch me off guard was my Australian sundew. I originally purchased it about ten years ago from a local plant breeder (licensed to breed carnivorous plants). At the time, he told me the plant was sterile. It would flower and possible go to seed, but the seeds would never sprout. No worries, I thought, I can live with that.

And it did flower and go to seed. Repeatedly over the years. Unfortunately, two years ago it died back and never returned. That happens. Plants don’t live forever.

But to my surprise, early this year it rose from the dead and showed up in a completely different pot on my patio. So I guess that life found a way (to quote the book of Goldblum).

Australian sundew
A small forest of Australian sundew with pitcher buds.

My other sundew has become an eating machine. In this photo you can see the paddles covered in little bugs. Sundews are one of my favorites. In fact, I will occasionally bring them into the house and put them on a windowsill when a fly wanders inside. It usually doesn’t take more than a day or two for them to meet and my sundew ends up with a nice meal. Sort of like a watchdog, but with a lower profile and less barking.

Well-fed sundew.
A well-fed sundew.

I’ve also been tracking the pitcher buds as they rise up and prepare to bloom. I’ll post some shots of those soon.

Hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my little shop of horrors. You should visit some time. Audrey would love to have you for dinner.

Venus flytraps
Say ‘hi’ to Audrey.

RB

April 2

A Photo Moment – Azeleas

I think the prettiest time of year is spring, and here in North Florida, spring means the azaleas start blooming. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few of these shrubs in my yard and it’s always nice to look out a window and see these bright, colorful flowers everywhere. In fact, azalea flowers can last for weeks. This means that a bush can remain fully colored in pink, red, or white for a month or more.

Pink azalea blooms.
Blooming in the shade of some live oaks.

Azaleas are perfect for the average gardener, and even more so for the lazy ones. They are incredibly hardy with temperature extremes, can be propagated by planting cuttings, and need very little attention other than an occasional trim (if you want them to have a specific shape or keep it from becoming tree-like).

And here’s a fun fact for you: Every part of the azalea is toxic, even the nectar in the flowers. This has, in turn, inspired people in parts of the world to purposely feed azalea nectar to honeybees because it then develops into a ‘mind-altering’ – and potentially lethal – honey. In other words, don’t try this at home.

I’ll pass on the honey. Just seeing the blooms in my yard is enough to lift my mood and bring a smile to my face.

At the moment, I have pink ones blooming in my backyard and on one side of my house, along with a hedge in my front yard that’s displaying white flowers. If you look closely, you can see that they aren’t solid colors. The outer petals are pink or white, but closer in you can see they have this speckle pattern.

Pink azalea flowers.
Pink azalea flowers.
White azalea blooms.
Soft white azalea blooms.

Luckily, the weather is warming up and the pollen is finally being washed away with the spring rains, so I’ll be able to travel further afield soon. I’m looking forward to hiking in the local parks and forests, taking photos of the beauty I find, and getting some fresh air. I think my dogs are ready for it, too.

RB

 

 

 

March 29

Shattering the Illusion

We all live in a sort of bubble where we are the main protagonist of the story and everyone else is a supporting character. On paper it sounds selfish, but in reality it’s simply what we do. We live inside our own heads, hear our own inner monologue, make decisions based on what’s best for us. It comes with being human. The illusion that we are the center and everything revolves around us.

But sometimes we can get caught up in that illusion and lose focus on the big picture. What I mean is, we get so self-absorbed that we fail to realize – or recognize – how our words and actions can affect others. In a way, we can end up being the antagonist in other people’s stories.

It’s not that we do it on purpose or with ill-will. I know that in my head, I can get wrapped up in my thoughts and forget to think of my actions and reactions. What I mean is, I don’t take into account how my actions and the way I react to things affects others, the people around me. For example, I can get wrapped up in being angry about something trivial (as we all do on occasion) and not realize that I’m allowing that anger to taint my interactions with my partner. I may snap at her when she asks an innocent and unrelated question – without realizing that I’m doing it – and that, in turn, may ruin her mood or her day.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind with the short fiction I write. My stories revolve around a protagonist and how they deal with a situation, or several situations. I write about how it affects them and how they react to it. But what I don’t think about is the bigger picture, like how does my character’s situation affect those around him or her. My protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to see this or recognize this, but for the reader I think it’s important to show the bigger picture, the ripple effect.

It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. The rock breaking the surface is the catalyst of the story, and the ripples are how the event affects everyone. Those closer to the point of impact are the ones directly affected because that’s where the ripples are the biggest. The further away a character is from the impact, the less they are affected, but they still see a disturbance in their world. Ripples on surface of pond.

In other words, we ourselves can be the rock that disturbs the stillness of those around us, just like our main characters can disturb the supporting players, or vice versa. Everything is cause-and-effect. Everything is connected.

With fiction writing, we can focus on the main character and get so wrapped up in them that we can lose sight of the world around them. Even if the story only has one character, their actions and reactions are going to affect the world around them. The same applies to us. We should try to keep in mind how our moods, our attitudes, our actions, can affect the people around us. It doesn’t matter if we know them or if they’re strangers, we will still have some degree of impact on their lives.

I’ve been working on that lately, mostly in my personal life, but I’ve also been trying to apply this to the way I write my stories. I don’t want to be complacent either as a human being or as a writer. I want to work towards being the best version of myself in both areas.

The key is self-awareness, as an individual and as a writer. In my life I’m trying to think ahead, to consider my words and deeds and how they can affect others. The ripple affect. This isn’t to say that I’m not selfish. We all are to some degree, but we can manage the impact we have on the world around us by being cognizant of the ripples. Self-awareness allows us to better understand our motivations, our feelings, our desires and fears. The same applies to the characters we create.

As a writer, I’m working at being more aware of how my protagonists impact the worlds around them, and how the worlds impact them. It also helps me to better understand them and their motivations. This doesn’t have to mean implications for the plot or narrative (although it can, if need be). I’m thinking in more subtle ways, to make the story and characters seem more real, more believable. Fist shattering glass pane.

Will I succeed? I sure hope so, but I think this is one of those situations where the “Under Construction” sign will never be taken down. A work in progress. Shattering the illusion piece by piece.

RB

 

 

March 24

Order from Chaos

I’ve finally organized my books. It only took a decade. Maybe two. When we first moved into our current house I had fewer books, bookcases in various rooms, and everything was fine. But you know how it is, there are more books being published, which means more books to read, which means I have to buy them. The way I explained it to my partner is that I’m doing my part to support the economy. So in a way, buying books is patriotic, right?

Story collections.

More to the point, I’ve bought a lot of books over the years and, as noted in a previous post, those babies were stacked two deep on the sagging shelves of some extremely old bookcases. Fun fact: The ones that sagged were ones we got either from stores or from places we worked (surplus office supplies). The one bookcase that didn’t sag was the one I built myself when I was sixteen years old. It’s been my bedside nightstand/bookshelf for, well, many years and it’s still holding up.

A lot of books.

What I needed was a big bookcase, something that would fill an entire wall in my home office. Something sturdy, with glass doors to cut down on the dust and dog hair. And something that would hold all my books.

I considered building it myself, but that would be a major undertaking. I don’t have a wood shop and I don’t have all the tools I would need for the project, like a table saw. And I don’t have a garage, either, so no place to store them. That left me with the option to find something I like online and hope for the best.

I did a lot of searching, comparing materials, prices, colors, designs, but I finally settled on the Billy Bookcase from IKEA (and no, not an endorsement; I paid for them myself) because I liked the design. Of course, these are mass-produced products, so it’s not particle board/pressed wood instead of solid wood, but I can work around that.

My main concern was sagging shelves. The bane of all book collectors. But I have a workaround. Shelf supports. Basically, I can cut some 1 inch x 2 inch pieces of wood, paint them to match the shelves, then basically stack them from bottom to top, adding support to the center of each shelf. And all I lose is one inch of space on each row. A small price to pay. I also need to tweak the way the doors hang. They’re all a little offset, but easy enough to correct.

A collection of poetry books.

Now, of course, comes the fun part: The organization. So far, I have all my books on the shelves, and roughly organized by fiction, poetry, humor, collections, religion/philosophy, and non-fiction. I’ll break those down into sub-genres, then by author. My partner, however, thinks I should organize my books by color. I tried to explain to her that would make it difficult to locate books, but she can be persistent. I’m hoping I can distract her by suggesting she organize her shoe collection by color. I think she has more shoes than I have books, so that should keep her occupied for a while.

My bookcase.

For what it’s worth, I feel a sense of relief now that all my books are in one place, somewhat organized, and will be easier to locate when needed.

Next on my to-do list? My vinyl albums. Wish me luck!

RB

 

March 22

A Poetry Moment – V – The Kiss

I’ve recently been on an OCD-inspired clean up of my home office space. And to be completely honest with you, I’ve been a bit of a hoarder over the years. Mainly books and things I’ve written. I have a couple of filing cabinets filled with scraps of ideas, single paragraphs, maybe a line or two of verse.

While rummaging through these random pieces of paper, I re-discovered a file that had some old poetry I’d written years ago. A few were familiar, a few had been forgotten. One that stuck out to me was one I wrote for my partner not long after we first started dating (twenty-six years ago!). Although I was inspired by our first real kiss, I think anyone who remembers their first kiss with that special someone will relate.

Love and passion have always been a favorite theme for poets. So with that in mind, I present to you…

 

The Kiss

There’s that moment of awkward silence as 

we look one another’s eyes, drawing ever closer.  

I feel a smile tug at my lips and I try not to laugh, knowing 

that it would ruin the moment.  Then I feel the soft flesh 

of your lips as they press against mine and a rush of 

adrenaline and fear, 

nerves and arousal.  

 

I feel your tongue entwine with mine, tender and gently probing.  

I feel the heat and moisture of your breath, your body pressing 

so firmly against mine, and I can’t help but notice how wonderful 

your breasts feel pressed up against me.  

I can feel the beating of your heart.  

 

My hands squeeze your waist, pulling your hips up close while 

your fingers move through my hairs like ten exotic dancers, 

pulling my face down toward you.  

I can feel the warmth of your body as we share our first lover’s kiss, 

revealing our desire with surprising intensity, 

almost brutally, 

stopping just shy of pain.  

 

The kiss abates and we pull apart, 

just barely, 

and look one another 

first in wonder, 

then amusement, 

then with hunger.  

And the kiss begins anew.

"kiss" by Bert Werk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

RB

March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium
Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine
Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine
Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB