Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recommended Reading: Territory by Emma Bull

Readers often ask me what my favorite books are, so I'm going to start sharing them here. I enjoy fiction, creative nonfiction (what this blog is all about), memoirs, and sci-fi/fantasy, among others. I'll also post books about writing that aspiring authors may find helpful.

Territory is an interesting twist on historical fiction, blending elements of drama, myth, and magic around some very compelling characters. Newspaper typesetter and aspiring author Mildred Benjamin finds her life turned on its ear after meeting traveling horse tamer Jesse Fox. Fox, although white, has been educated in the ways of Chinese language, medicine, and magic by his friend and mentor Dr. Chow Lung. This education gives him a unique insight into the goings-on of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 during the reign of the Earp brothers. What seems like an ordinary power play opens up to reveal a dark heart of sorcery into which Mildred and Jesse find themselves inextricably bound.

I enjoy straight-up fantasy, but I find even more compelling a story in which the reader is never sure if the events are ordinary or magical. Emma bull achieves that effect in Territory, leaving the reader wondering for some time afterwards what "really" happened.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A New Job, Part One

The stress of working at the humane society was taking its toll. Anyone who has worked in this field is familiar with the term “compassion fatigue.” Now a recognized mental illness, compassion fatigue occurs when animal lovers go to work at a place where they believe they can save animals and make a difference … and then end up killing them. “Euthanasia,” as it’s more commonly – and gently – called, is done for a number of reasons: the animals are too young, too old, too sick, or too aggressive to be adoptable. In high-volume shelters, many animals are euthanized simply because all cages are full and there is nowhere to put them. If that isn’t bad enough, shelter staff face abuse from the public in the shelter and at large. Upset customers shout and curse at front desk staff, blaming them for their problems. Members of the public donate to wealthy national animal welfare organizations but refuse to give to their needy local shelter – which they insist on calling the pound -- because “they just kill all the animals.” Animal Control Officers are called “dog catchers” and lampooned in movies. It’s an unglamorous and soul-crushing industry, to be sure.

I’d never heard of compassion fatigue – all I knew was that I was drinking heavily, I couldn’t sleep, and I got stomach cramps every time I thought about going into work. I realized that I couldn’t do it any more, physically or psychologically, so I turned in my resignation. I knew I had a few weeks’ vacation that would be cashed out, so I had a little time to job search.

Miraculously, as soon as I turned in my notice, the symptoms went away. I woke up the next morning refreshed and walked down to the local coffee shop to get a newspaper. This was before the internet days, so I was doing my job searching in the classified ads. I sat outside in the pleasant San Mateo sun sipping my latte and circled anything pet-related: pet supply shop, veterinarian, groomer, and something about in-home pet care in San Francisco. Downing the last bit of coffee with all the sugar on the bottom of the cup, I got up and walked to the payphone (yes, this was also before the cell phone days) and called each potential employer. Some of the positions were already filled, and some were too low-paying or only part-time. For the in-home pet care I got a voicemail, and left a message.

Checking my voicemail the following day, I listened to a long rambling message from a woman about care giving, dog walking, and a bunch of other stuff that made no sense. Dog walking, I wondered. Isn’t that something people do in New York with like 10 dogs on leashes? I’d never seen such a thing around here. Since none of the other jobs had panned out, I went ahead and gave her a call back. After a few rounds of voicemail tag, we managed to set up an interview for the following week.

I shivered as I rolled down the window and drank in the San Francisco fog. I was parked next to Golden Gate Park in the Sunset district, just a stone’s throw away from the beach. Krystal, the owner of the in-home pet care business, didn’t have an office; she operated out of her home. I stepped out of the car, zipped up my jacket, and walked up to the old, small house. I knocked and rang the door bell, but got no response and heard no sound coming from inside. After a few chilly minutes, I got back in the car to wait. I checked my watch and it was 3PM, our scheduled time, but there was no sign of her. Oh well, I thought, she must be running late. I picked up a magazine that was on the floor of the car and started to leaf through it.

About ten minutes later I heard a car honk and I looked up, then did a double take. Crossing the street from the park was a slender lady dressed in pink sweat pants and a too-big man’s undershirt. Her longish hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. She was walking three dogs on retractable leashes, and they were going in three different directions. She had her hands full, and she looked lost. A car was stopped in front of her and the driver looked cross – this must have been the person who honked. Despite the fact that a car was waiting for her on a busy street, she did not hurry to get out of the way; rather, she seemed to be talking to one of the dogs, a fluffy small terrier. I marveled as she conversed with the dog, apparently in an attempt to get the animal to follow her instead of run off after something more interesting. The driver honked again, the terrier decided to follow his mistress, and I wondered who this wacky person was … until I saw her pull out keys and open the door that I was just knocking on. Oh lord, I thought, that’s my potential boss.

Collecting myself, I got out of the car and walked up to the door. It took her several minutes to respond to the knocking, and when she saw me she looked surprised.

“Hi, I’m here for the job interview,” I said.
She blinked, then said, “Oh, oh, come in.”

I stepped into the house and immediately breathed the scent of funky dog. The two terriers, one fluffy and the other wiry, jumped about my feet. The third dog, a large tan female of uncertain origin, sat in the corner and kept her eye on me. I looked around and saw that the whole living room was an office. There were stacks of papers on a large desk, more papers on the accompanying chair, and yet more papers on the floor nearby. There was no other furniture in the room except for a futon couch, which the two terriers parked themselves on, leaving no room for me. I stood by the desk for the “interview,” which basically consisted of Krystal telling me all about the job, and how her last employee had made a variety of mistakes then decided to quit. I’ll admit I was getting some red flags from this lady, but the job sounded very appealing: I was to walk dogs and feed dogs and cats in the clients’ homes. I would start with a few clients, but build up a busier schedule over time. Best of all, I would be working alone and managing my own time. By the end of the conversation I realized she was offering me the job. I mentally calculated my last day at the humane society, then said I could work a couple days later. She gave me some paperwork to take home, fill out, and sign.

I drove away, paperwork on the front seat and a strange sense of excitement in me. Little did I know of the long, rewarding journey on which this new job would take me.

To read Part Two of this story CLICK HERE.