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May 2015

What I'm Reading: Nothing in Reserve

Nothing in Reserve: True Stories, Not War Stories.Nothing in Reserve: True Stories, Not War Stories. by Jack Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was introduced to Jack Lewis' writing when I edited it for Crosscut, and I admired it then as I do now. These essays cover a life before, during, and after service in the Iraq War, and as such, they offer an unblinking honesty about it all: the naive but proud notions of service, the valor and vices of battle, and the vicissitudes of middle age. Lewis is a clever wordsmith, and his playful prose is backed by a wealth of experience fully lived and amply analyzed. Readers should be prepared to be moved to tears, disgust, and laughter by turns in these pages. They may find themselves looking up from their Kindle to quote from the book: "Soldiers my come and soldiers may go, but the bureaucracy of armies is immortal and immutable." "There's no better tool in the world than a switched-on soldier." "Any problems more complicated than eating, sleeping, and mission prep could be saved until you got home. It's a savings plan for personal problems that pays you back with interest, compounded hourly." So while the military and motorcycle jargon might make one feel as if peering into a foreign world, there's so much here to grab any reader that the book shouldn't be relegated to only those looking for a good war story, especially since Lewis challenges our very notions about what that is.

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What I'm Reading: Casting Shadows Everywhere

Casting Shadows EverywhereCasting Shadows Everywhere by L.T. Vargus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You'll be drawn in by the first-person protagonist's quirky voice. It's a fun read, quick and engaging, though the writers could get a pro editor to polish it a bit further, for those of us who are nitpicky and distracted by errors ("effected" when it should have been "affected," for example). At turns philosophical and conversational, the writing here shows real talent.

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Cat in the Flock Excerpt: Training with Granny Grace


Chapter 2

Cat was sitting in full lotus, with both legs crossed, a foot resting on top of either thigh. It was a position she had never been able to do; she knew right away she was dreamslipping in her grandmother's dream. All around her on the floor were bills Granny Grace couldn't pay: the heating bill, another in an exorbitant amount for her cell phone, a medical bill, and others, along with receipts for the money she continued to give to charity. But Cat could feel that she shared her grandmother's thoughts and attitudes in the dream, as if her and her grandmother's minds were fused, so despite the bills, she felt at peace. In front of her was a Buddha statue, and in his palm were coins. He winked and said, "Bless the bills, my Grace. Bless them."

Then the paper bills on the ground around her morphed into hundreds of butterflies--orange and black monarchs and viceroys, pale yellow swallowtails, iridescent blue sulphurs, and delicate cabbage whites. They flew up and covered the Buddha statue, where they sat flexing their wings in the sun. She watched them there, a feeling of peace flooding through her. Then the butterflies rose into the air as if they were one being, circled around her for a time, and then flew off into a ray of sunlight.

Cat woke early, still on St. Louis time and worried about her grandmother's financial situation, despite the odd feeling of peace the dream gave her. Was the dream accurate? Was Granny Grace having financial trouble? She tiptoed down the hall to her grandmother's study. She knew she shouldn't snoop, but the quiet in the house told her Granny Grace was still asleep, and she would have to do a bit of detective work on this one, as her grandmother wouldn't tell her the truth even if she asked. Granny Grace had an overdeveloped sense of pride; she carried herself well and was never one to accept help but was always helping others. Cat certainly had no intention of sponging off her grandmother forever, but if she were having financial trouble, there was no way Cat was going to accept her help in getting the PI firm started, no matter what cryptic, New Agey messages Granny Grace got from the Buddha.

Cat was seated at a rolltop desk, absorbed in the saga of her grandmother's financial life and didn't hear the septuagenarian enter the room behind her.

"I thought you came here to train as a PI, not serve as my personal bookkeeper," Granny Grace said.

Cat turned with a start. "Gran, why didn't you tell me about this?" She held up the cell phone bill, which included calls all over the world, with a balance upwards of five hundred dollars, most of which were past due amounts carried over.

"My cell phone habits are none of your concern, granddaughter," said Granny Grace, ripping the phone bill out of Cat's hands. "Besides, I'm in negotiations with them right now to get that lowered. They're going to fold it under a special 'international friends and family' plan."

"Grandmother," Cat said sternly. "You're giving money away, and at the same time, your bills are piling up." Cat pulled out the statement from her financial advisor. "And judging by this, your investment accounts took a huge hit."

Granny Grace ripped that statement out of her hand, too. "This is none of your business, Cat. And you should know better than to use a dream this way. You've got a lot to learn."

Cat took a step back, realizing how far over the line she had crossed. "You're right," she said. "I'm sorry. Let me make you breakfast, and we can calm down and talk."

She toasted sourdough bread and put out preserves, butter, a bowl of fruit, and a pot of tea. Her hunger satiated and her grandmother cooled down and seated across from her, Cat had to ask, "What exactly does 'SPOETS' stand for? You gave them a couple hundred last year." 

"Specialist Pogoists of East Tacoma," Granny Grace quipped. 

"Grandmother," Cat groaned. "Be serious."

"Sound Patternists of Elementary Tea Services." 

Cat giggled, and Granny Grace smiled. "They're a group of citizens devoted to the study of the largest earthworm in North America," she said.

Cat stared at her. "Earthworm?"

"That's right," she replied. "It's the Society for the Protection of Earthworm Triticales Somas."

"Triticales somas?"

"Yeah. T. somas. That's the Latin name. I'll have you know it's several feet long and almost as wide. It lives entirely underground on the Washington Palouse."

"I didn't know you had a soft spot for earthworms."

"Only this one. It's special. Not to say the ones you use in your garden aren't special as well, but this one is unique."

"But Granny Grace, why didn't you tell me you were having trouble?"

"I'm not. Weren't you there, in the dream, Cat? I could feel your presence. So you know that bills are to be blessed."

Cat wouldn't be put off so easily. She pressed her grandmother further. "But why do you give so much away when you're not in a position to do that? You gave another small amount to a group that studies a rare type of moss that only grows on the eastern side of the Olympic Mountains. And the Dykes with Bikes? Do they really need your help? I think there's even a Bisexual Basket-Weaving Bar Mitzvah group in the mix."

"Oh, I only wish. If there's one thing a bar mitzvah could use, it's more bisexuals weaving baskets." Granny Grace crossed her arms and leaned forward on the table. "Look, Cat. I'm seventy-seven years old. This karmic approach to money has held me in good stead for many years. You get back what you put out in life. It works. You wait and see."

"Okay, but listen," Cat said. "You told me I could stay here for free and that I wouldn't have to work while I trained for the PI exam. But I don't think that's practical. I can't do that. I'm going to get a job."

"You'll be putting everything off that way," Granny Grace countered.

"There's no way I can let you support me," Cat said. "I'll keep training with you and working toward my goal, but I'm going to pay my own way." She nodded her head affirmatively, as if to seal the deal.

"Well, if you insist..." her grandmother replied.

"I insist," Cat said. 

There was a long silence while they sipped their tea before Granny Grace changed the subject in a tone that meant she was resuming Cat's training there and then.

"You broke the first rule of dreamslipping this morning," she said. "Don't ever use the information gleaned from a dream to invade the privacy of someone you love."

"But isn't dreamslipping by its very nature already an invasion of privacy?"

"Yes, it is," Granny Grace said, a shadow of sadness flickering across her face. "Why do you think I live alone? That's why you can't ever use what you learn like that again. I know you were doing it with concern in your heart, but you crossed a line."

"I'm sorry," Cat said.

Granny Grace reached over and squeezed her chin. "Don't be sorry, Cat. Just remember the rule."

"I will."

"Good. By the way, don't chide yourself for invading the privacy of your dreamers. That's a waste of time. This thing is involuntary--it's not like you can turn it off. Believe me, I've tried. That's why I call it dreamslipping. We can't help slipping into other people's dreams."

Cat sighed, feeling pressure inside her chest release. "Thank you for telling me that," she said.

"Our first appointment today is with a meditation guru," said Granny Grace, clapping her hands together. "Your training has begun."

The guru--Guru Dave was his name--held meditation classes on the top floor of a record store, so in addition to the singing bowls he employed, there were the ever-present strains of whatever music the clerks downstairs happened to be playing. For Cat's first class, it was polka music, which the hipsters must have been playing ironically. So when the guru asked her to empty her mind of everything and to cultivate nothingness, she couldn't help but picture a bunch of men in lederhosen and women dressed as Heidi hefting huge beer steins into the air.

When Guru Dave spoke, he drew out his syllables so that it took him twice as long as everyone else to say the same thing, but the effect on the listener was trancelike. "Let goooooooo of attaaaaaaaachment," he intoned. "Reeeeeleeeeease your eeeeeeegooooo."

The only thing Cat felt herself let go of was the contraction in her lower abs, the "root lock," as Guru Dave called it, which she was supposed to hold, it seemed, for an eternity.

At the end of class, which consisted of sitting cross-legged (Granny Grace was in full lotus, of course) till her lower back hurt and her brain was screaming insults at Guru Dave, he asked what insights she had to share with the rest of the class.

"The rhythm of life is in everything," Cat said. "Even beer."

Guru Dave thought this was profound, and Cat inadvertently became his star pupil. But nothing got past Granny Grace. After class, she teased Cat. "You've been to one too many Oktoberfests."

"I could use a little bit of the rhythm of life after that class," Cat said. "This tea isn't quite cutting it." They both burst out laughing.

That first couple of weeks in Seattle were a whirlwind for Cat. She accompanied Granny Grace to more meditation classes, and while nothing broke through her skepticism about them, she did find herself enjoying both the time to sit and think, as well as the strains of music from the store downstairs, which ran the gamut from classic rock to folk to R & B. They practiced yoga twice daily--an energetic round in the morning at a studio near the house and a slower style called yin that Granny Grace led in the Yoga Yolk each evening to wind down. 

Her grandmother also took her shopping, and over protests that they didn't have the money, she helped Cat create a wardrobe "more befitting a PI." Granny Grace had a knack for how to find deals at consignment shops, cobbling together a selection of well-made pieces with less expensive accessories, so that the overall look was sophisticated and fun.

There were more direct lessons in dreamslipping as well, but Granny Grace took her time. Instead of showing Cat how to do "fancy tricks," as Granny Grace called them, they were taking an inventory of Cat's dream life up till now, which for the most part meant excavating through some awkward revelations Cat had had about her various boyfriends and how the dreamslipping had interfered with her ability to have what she called "normal" relationships with them. For example, she'd dated an emotionally unavailable soccer player for far too long, mainly because he wasn't an active dreamer, and there were no issues to confront. Prior to that, she'd dated a psych student whose own dreams bordered on disturbing, and he was only too willing to spend hours analyzing them, to the point where Cat felt she should be charging him for her therapy services. 

"You can use the information in dreams to solve a mystery or catch a crook," Granny Grace said, "but healing someone like that--that's a different kind of work."

"Yeah, and I'm not cut out to be a psychotherapist," said Cat.

"It's really hard to know things about people that you can't talk about with them," said Granny Grace, as if she were thinking about her own past. But then she shook it off, changing the subject, and Cat didn't want to press her.

Cat also immediately set about looking for a job, with dismal results. She tried to find something as close to her chosen profession as possible. She sent out more than fifty résumés, interviewed with six recruiters, and heard nothing in return. She couldn't even get a part-time job at a supermarket, as the hiring manager there said she was overqualified and would be gone at the first opportunity. She sent résumés into the ether, and she imagined them evaporating into ones and zeroes in some large central database where bored clerks sat typing all day.

What finally got her a job were her grandmother's connections. 

Granny Grace took Cat to a fundraiser for one of her favorite charities, City Goats, which promoted goats as an alternative method for removing noxious weeds from vacant lots, as well as a more environmentally friendly way to trim back grass lawns. The fundraiser was at a hotel on the Seattle waterfront. Dale Chihuly glass sculptures tastefully referenced the shapes of goats everywhere you looked, from the horned chandelier above the ballroom to the bearded chin sinks in the bathroom. 

Granny Grace was busy networking for future PI clients; Cat could hear the melody of her laughter across the room. Cat took a breather from the talk to stand at the window facing the Sound. She watched as two green-and-white ferries, their lights reflected on the water, passed each other on their ways to and from Bainbridge Island. She remembered her first ferry ride in Seattle, when she and her parents came to visit when she was six. She thought Puget Sound was a river like the Mississippi, but it startled her for being so blue. The Mississippi was muddy, like coffee with lots of cream.

"We hear you're starting up Grace's PI firm again," said a voice that brought her back into the room. It was Simon Fletcher, one of her grandmother's best friends. Following close behind him as usual was his partner, Dave Bander. The two were never separated; they seemed to function in every respect as a unit. They both wore immaculate tuxedoes that looked tailor-made for them as opposed to rented, and both men's hair was close cropped and spiked slightly with gel. 

But it's not as if they were truly twins. Dave worked for a nonprofit with a creative, accepting environment, and, particularly at fancy events like these, he wore makeup--a little "manscara," as he called it, and sometimes "guyliner." Simon, an architect, had a Roman nose, stylish frames perched gallantly upon it, as if he'd personally designed the sweeping features of his own face.

"Hello, Simon!" Cat said, giving him a hug. "Word does get around. Yes, I'm hoping to take over Granny Grace's firm. But she's training me first."

"I bet she is," said Dave, who gave her a kiss on the cheek. "There's no better teacher than Amazing Grace."

"What did she ever teach you?" Cat asked.

"Didn't your grandmother ever tell you how we met?" asked Simon. 

"No, she didn't."

"Well, Dave here went to her for spiritual guidance. He was forty-two, unhappily married--to a woman, let me add--and working as a corporate lawyer for a chemical company. After a couple sessions with your grandmother, he filed for divorce and quit his job. I met him two years later at one of Grace's legendary cocktail parties."

"My grandmother, the matchmaker. And now you're helping those in need," Cat said, finishing the story. Dave was a lawyer who represented women pressing charges against abusive men.

Dave put his hand in Simon's. "But most importantly, now I'm happy." The two smiled at each other.

"I didn't know Granny Grace counseled people," she said. 

"It was part of what she did as a volunteer for a meditation center," Dave explained. 

"Yes, that was back when Dave was dabbling in New Age spiritualism, trying to find himself," said Simon, a teasing hint to his tone.

"Don't mock it," Dave said. "It led me to you, didn't it?"

"True," he admitted. Then, turning to Cat, he asked, "Has your grandmother taken you to her meditation class?" 

Cat laughed. "You mean, have I sat in the presence of Guru Dave? Yes, I have. And my spirit has transcended the physical sphere and is entirely without ego attachment."

Simon snickered. "Oh, God. It's all over once the chanting begins."

"At least I don't have to shave my head," Cat said. "Guru Dave thinks shaving hides what the divine has created."

"I once had my chakras realigned," Dave said. "My heart chakra slipped down to my butt." The two men roared with laughter.

"Now, how are you really doing?" Simon asked once the laughter died down.  

"Honestly speaking," Cat admitted, "I'm having the hardest time finding a job. I can't even get work as a barista. Of course, it would help if I'd ever made something besides my mom's drip coffee."  

"It's rough out there these days," said Simon, and Dave nodded in agreement. 

"We've halted construction on one of our condo projects," he continued. "The irony is, we have to pay to have a security guard on the premises."

"Say," Simon faced Dave, looking as if a lightbulb had popped up over his head. "Maybe she could be our booth guard."

"Yeah, yeah," agreed Dave. "The guy they've got out there now just sleeps all day. Cat would be great!"

They turned to her. "We know it's beneath you, sweetie," Dave ventured, "but think about it. We'd love to have you as our rent-a-cop!" 

As they moved to greet some friends of theirs, Dave, the bigger jokester of the two, squeezed her arm. "Hey, Cat, did you see the satyr in the bathroom? Crazy what that Chihuly can do with glass, isn't it?"

Simon pulled him away, making tsk-tsk noises. "Dave, I think that's only in the men's room." Then turning to Cat, he winked and said, "We'll call you about the guard gig."

And that was that. Cat had her first full-time job. At first she thought it wouldn't be so bad. She imagined she would be like the security guards at the hospital where she'd been a candy striper: sit in an office all day, maybe even watch a little TV, walk around the building every hour, piece of cake. 

But when she showed up for her first day--make that first night, since she'd been given the highly despised 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift--she met Tony, the security company's general manager. Tony only came up to Cat's shoulder in height, and he had a row of broken, crooked, yellowing teeth. He smelled of cigarettes and mothballs. 

"I'm here to guard the building," Cat said by way of introduction. Conscious of favoritism, she didn't mention Simon and Dave.

"You're not guarding a building," Tony barked at her.

"I'm not? Well then, what am I guarding?"

"A construction site."

"Well, yes, I know they're not done building it. Am I guarding the equipment?"

"No equipment," he replied. "The contractors cleared that out already."

"Um, I don't understand," said Cat. "What is there?"

"About three floors of an eight-story condom project," Tony said. He leered at Cat to see if she had heard his mispronunciation. 

She decided to ignore for a moment his attempt at wit, and the fact that this constituted sexual harassment. "I know that, but what am I protecting? Are they afraid the copper pipes will get stolen?" She knew copper was sometimes stolen out of abandoned buildings and sold for scrap.

"Yeah, that's part of it, smart girl. The other part is liability. Someone gets hurt there, they sue your fairy friends." He made a little flying Tinker Bell motion with his hands when he said the bit about Simon and Dave.

So Tony already knew her ties to the owners. This was not going in a good direction, and Cat hesitated to ask the next question--after all, this was Seattle, and it had been raining for the last three days. 

"Is there a roof?"

"Only in part of the building, but that don't matter none to you. You'll stay outside the condo in the hut."

Tony hadn't lied about the booth, and she thought maybe his word for it, "hut," was more accurate. Cat spent her first week sitting in a four-by-four hut with one tiny window. She had a radio that ran on batteries, her flashlight, and a clipboard of papers on which she was supposed to record her rounds. The bathroom was a port-a-john about ten feet away. 

To make the job even duller, Tony had carefully instructed her about how this security thing worked: "You make your rounds every hour on the hour. You take ten minutes to make the rounds, no more, no less. The rest of the time you stay in the hut."

"Won't that make it kind of easy for someone to avoid security?"

Tony looked at her with contempt. "Listen, smart girl, here's how it works. We contract with the client to provide security. In the contract we specify exactly what we will do, and we do exactly that. If a representative from the company comes by to check on you at five minutes after the hour, and you are in the hut, you are fired. On the other hand, if he comes by at fifteen minutes after the hour, and you are not in the hut, you are fired. Do I make myself clear?"

"So what if someone steals something at half past the hour?" 

Tony had a surprising ability to convey disdain with his expressions. "It's an empty building. And you'll spot the thieves before they ever get around to ripping out any copper, trust me."

The only bright spot for Cat was that Granny Grace let her drive Siddhartha to work, since by bus it would have meant three transfers and more than an hour-long trip to the Eastside. Granny Grace had taken Cat out in the old Mercedes for an instructional test run. The car handled beautifully; it was the smoothest ride she'd ever driven. On Cat's first day of work, Granny Grace had been on hand to bid her bon voyage. 

Cat sat in the driver's seat while her grandmother assessed her from outside. "The only thing missing is your attitude," she observed. "You look like someone borrowing a Mercedes for the day. You need to drive it like you own it."

"Now how am I supposed to look like that when I'm wearing a rent-a-cop uniform?" Cat asked.

"Put these on," Granny Grace ordered, handing her a pair of her Jackie O. shades. 

"Gran, it's dark and rainy outside."

"So what? Now stick your chin out."

"There. That's my granddaughter." Granny Grace smiled her approval. "Don't let the birds poop on Siddhartha," she added, patting the car's fender as Cat started it up. "He's used to the garage."