Monday, December 12, 2011

Cicada and Hummingbird

Cicada and Hummingbird fell in love

Because their wings made the same sound
each mistook the other for a mate

So they dressed up to the max
and went out to dinner and a movie

They don't speak each others' language
but who needs talk when you're in love

when romantic foreignness and
odd looks and inflections
says it all and they'll always have

that moment when her wings
answered his, song for song

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Butterfly Woman and Other Tales

Available in two e-book formats, each $2.99 or less.

Kindle format. If you don't have a Kindle, try the excellent Kindle Reader, available for PCs, Macs, and mobile phones!

Paperback version and EPUB format, from the Lulu Store. Looks great with the free Adobe Digital Reader. This book is now available for iPad and iPod too.

"A bit of magical realism, a taste or two of natural realism, even a bit of fantastic hilarity. Author Michael Robertson presents a sampler of short stories, the perfect length for a morning's read after breakfast, or an afternoon's relaxation on the deck or beach of your choice.

"'Butterfly Woman', the title story, gives us a glimpse of a woman who turns kisses into insects. Or spend a few moments with a woman in Hawaii who longs for her youth as a surfer beyond the beaches of Waimea. An artist who loses words and gains world fame. A shocking moment in the life of the president of a small coastal country.

"We enter the minds of a drug dealer with a big heart, a former aid to a powerful Russian bureaucrat, a boy hiding in the winter woods of the Ozark hills, and a young man who has lost his past but discovers his future. And more. This little book presents a medley of portraits of real human beings in defining moments.

"Whatever your taste in fiction, this little book will whet your appetite and tease your imagination."

Friday, September 23, 2011

How My Parents Met

Mark met Melanie online, through a friend. It wasn't a romance. Not even close. The connection was professional. Or at least creative. Both were writers of fiction. They exchanged some Facebook comments about their work and eventually shared their stories with each other. Their conversations were funny, flippant, sharp and clever, but only mildly flirtatious. Each needed feedback from the other about the craft and effectiveness of his or her work. Each agreed to become beta-readers for the other's new stories.

They lived in different states. All of this was on the Internet. They hadn't met in person. When Melanie came to Mark's town to visit old friends, they agreed to meet in a local coffee shop, finally in person, each with a laptop, each ready to write as well as exchange ideas.

Mark knew what Melanie looked like from her Facebook icon, assuming it was a recent photo and more or less accurate. It was, but Mark was surprised when Melanie walked in, briefcase in one hand, books in the other. It wasn't that he was expecting anything. It's just that, well, she looked great. He knew she was smart--very smart, judging by her stories. He knew she had a great sense of humor. Everything she did and said expressed that. What he hadn't expected was how incredibly sexy she was.

That, of course, was a problem for him. How could he concentrate on writing, on creating a new story on the fly while sitting here next to her? How could he keep his head down and keep his eyes off of her amazing face and body and concentrate on the craft of writing?

He tried. After a bit of chatter and slightly embarrassed smiles, they both sat quietly, eyes on their laptop screens, considering. Listening to the muse that would start their respective short stories. Or so it seemed. Finally Mark looked up at Melanie and was surprised to find she was looking at him too. He waited for her to speak first.

"What?" she said.

"What? What do you mean?"

She said, "I'm sorry, it's almost like you're thinking out loud. Is it your story? What's bothering you?"

"My story. Yeah." He glanced down, considered for an instant. Realized it was not going to be possible, and would be pointless, to try to fool her.

"Okay, yeah," he said, looking back up at her. "Here's the thing. I can't think about my story right now."


"It's, uh, embarrassing. I'm embarrassed to admit why."

"Well, tell me. We're here to write, right? Let's talk through whatever is blocking that, if possible. Then let's write."

"What's blocking that for me is you."

"Me?" she said, brows furrowed. "Why me? I'm not doing anything."

"See, I told you it was embarrassing. I don't mean you really. Me. It's me. I just didn't expect you to be .…" He stopped.


"So attractive. So damn good looking. So sexy."

She held his eyes but said nothing for what seemed a long time to Mark. "Okay," she finally said. "Thanks. I get it now. You're distracted." They both glanced away and nursed their coffees for a moment. "Can you just get over it so we can get down to writing?"

Mark said, "Maybe. I don't know. You can. Maybe I can. I know I should be able to anyway. Direct this energy into my story somehow."

"Right," she said. "Okay then."

They each turned their attention to their laptops for a few minutes. After typing a bit, Melanie looked up again. "Hey. For what it's worth, I'm having the same problem."

That's all she said. That's all Mark needed to hear. He pushed his laptop cover down out the way, stood halfway up, leaned forward, and kissed Melanie on the lips. Slowly. Gently. Lingeringly. She didn't pull away, didn't resist.

The rest is history.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Serena's Cape

This is a story of epic proportions, a mythical historical drama, featuring a powerful evil villian and an heroic female protagonist who thwarts him, with a smile and great attitude, and a single sentence. All of this in 175 words. I hope you enjoy. ~Mike

"Forgive me mistress, but you must know you'll die if he finds out. We all will!"

Serena continued weaving, eyes and hands steady. She looked only at her work and remained silent in the face of her servant's entreaty. Then she said, as she had said the day before and the day before that, "You've distracted me, Melanie. Now I've found a mistake. I must tear out this day's work and start again."

As her mistress began tearing out thread after thread, Melanie ran from the chamber, weeping.

The next day, the lord master of the realm arrived with his vast army. He came immediately to Serena's chamber, accompanied by the still weeping Melanie.

"What? Not finished? When will you deliver me my Impervious Cape?" Rage and impatience flamed up in his eyes. "I return to battle this day. I must have it!"

Serena looked up at him with a grim smile. "You've distracted me, your Lordship. You've caused me to make a mistake. I must tear out this day's work and start again."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mark Twain On Style, and Writing with a Pen versus Typewriter

Mark Twain Autobiography, p. 224

"Within the last eight or ten years I have made several attempts to do the autobiography in one way or another with a pen, but the result was not satisfactory, it was too literary. With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traveled an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

"With a pen in the hand the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice; the gait and style and movement are not suited to narrative. That canal stream is always reflecting; it is its nature, it can’t help it. Its slick shiny surface is interested in everything it passes along the banks, cows, foliage, flowers, everything. And so it wastes a lot of time in reflections."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mowers and Reapers

Ed Jackson was a real pain in the ass to work with for the first couple of weeks. Arnie and I had met a couple of months before when we both hired on to do lawn maintenance and warehouse work for the new community college. We got on right away. Arnie was streetwise scruff, no college but smart, a little younger and a lot shorter than I am, but focused and calm and handsome in a dark, Italian way. Me, I was the white-bread boy, veteran of three different colleges and four years in the Navy, but forever the beginner at everything I did, newly married, just finding my way. We discovered right away we were both musicians and that eliminated any need for shyness. Musicians, serious ones, share more than an interest. We speak a common language that makes little sense to others. We harbor brotherly feelings toward other musicians, as if we were a subspecies of humans with our own set of challenges and passions. Which, of course, is exactly what we are.

Then Ed hired on and it was Arnie and me working one side of the big garage, and the new guy working the other side for a couple of weeks. He struck me as standoffish, a loner, not interested in conversation, though truthfully Arnie and I made little effort to get to know him.

Then finally we all three ended up on a job together, mowing and hauling clippings and rakings. Arnie and I talked about music, about gigs and instruments and venues we'd known, and groupies. Ed heard us but said nothing. Until lunch, when he surprised us by walking over with his sandwich and sitting down only a little ways from us.

"So you guys play?" he said. "I play too. A little."

"How little?" I asked.

"Been playing guitar for a few years. And writing songs."

Arnie and I looked at each other and grinned. Arnie played guitar, a little, but mostly blew mouth harp. But his real background was sound reinforcement. For me, that meant he was one of the wizards behind the curtain who made it possible for hired-gun bassmen like me to stand on stage and be heard. He, on the other hand, was in awe of musicians with the chops and balls to get up in front of an audience. We shared mutual respect for each other. But we both knew there was another kind of musician who had a kind of natural talent so rare it actually (sometimes) made it possible to make a living at music: the songwriter/singer.

"Really. Arnie, you have a guitar tucked away somewhere here, don't you? How about you sing us something, Ed?"

He did, and we were blown away, and we became a trio after that. We huddled and traded jokes and songs and gig stories. Soon we started skipping out to a local abandoned house that Arnie spotted in order to eat our sandwiches in private and then share a doobie for dessert. Then our conversations would get loud and raucous and silly for the sake of silly. We would have partied together after work too except I had a new wife looking for me to come home each afternoon.

Of course I wanted to start a band. We'd need a drummer, so I called a friend of Arnies he recommended. I got a tentative yes, so I went to Ed. "What do ya think? You, me, Arnie, and Arnie's friend Jesse? We could make a few bucks, drink a few beers, have some fun?"

Ed said no. Didn't even think about it, just nixed the idea on the spot. "Sorry Mike, I don't have the chops for one thing. I've never played with a band." Didn't have the chops didn't fly for me. I'd heard him play. His songs were good, well written, great rhyming and alliteration and, well, they moved me when I heard them. Deeply felt. Authentic. A little sad, most of them, but some were just the opposite, as if he had written them to cheer himself up. And his playing - not the usual three chord blues-based changes. Unusual but appropriate passing chords, closer to jazz than to rock. He may be shy, but the guy was a real natural.

I asked Neese, my wife, if we could use the sun porch of our little house to jam in, or maybe even practice for a gig. She didn't mind, so I invited Ed and Arnie over. Saturday afternoon worked for everybody. I didn't tell 'em, but I'd invited Jesse to bring his drums over too. "It's just a jam," I answered Ed when he saw the drums. "No big deal." I dragged an old guitar amp my brother had given me from the attic and set up an extra microphone so his acoustic guitar could be heard over the drums. It didn't do any favors for his guitar's tone, but it more or less worked. Ed played rhythm guitar and sang, Arnie wailed on harp between verses, Jesse turned out to be better than I'd hoped on drums and kept his volume down, and I played bass through my practice cab. The result? Pretty damn good for a first jam, I thought. Jesse and Arnie did too. They both agreed right away to do it again the next week, same time same place. Ed did too, reluctantly.

Over the next year, the fun factor and the music just got better, to everyone's surprise. Arnie invited an old friend who used to play lead guitar in a blues review band but had quit when he injured his hand in a work accident. Mel was quiet and humble and apologized constantly the first few times, but he had a fine ear for melody, got along well with the rest of us, and grinned with gratitude at the end of each song we played. One of his old band mates owned a club in town. The next thing we knew, we were on stage, wailing and making all kinds of joyful noises. Thus took birth Mowers and Reapers, the town's newest blues/jazz group. We played for three years straight, never made any money to speak of, always had a good time, and, though we dissolved the band finally, remained friends for the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Bully

Every day after school on the way home it was the same thing. I sat quietly at the back of the bus for the twenty minute ride. John - I don't even know his last name - sat somewhere in the middle with two friends. They'd laugh and make fun of someone. It didn't seem to matter who it was. When their target ended up in tears, they shifted their attention to someone else. As often as not, that someone would be me. He kept coming back to me, I think, because I refused to give him the satisfaction of crying or groveling. In fact, I almost never said anything to him. So every day it was more of the same and every day he tried harder, got meaner and more threatening.

Now I'm sitting on my bed, waiting for my dad to get home. I've got to tell him what I did. I think I'm okay, but I can't quite tell with him. He might smile and say well done. Or he might whip me with his belt just to remind me what it feels like. Trouble is, I'm not sure what I did. I might have killed him for all I know.

The bullying had gone on for weeks and recently it had gotten a lot worse. The bus driver could see what was happening. I could see his eyes in the wide mirror above him, glancing back at us. He wasn't afraid of John, of course. He was an adult, much bigger than any of us, and he could have stopped it. But it would mean stopping the bus and making everyone late and he'd have to explain that to someone and maybe it would get him in trouble. He looked troubled, even sad, like he wished he could stop it somehow, but he didn't know how. To his credit, he'd tried yelling at John and Benny and Joe when they got loud and especially when they jumped out into the aisle to get into their victim's faces. But it was no good. It helped for maybe five minutes, then John would start up again.

I complained to my dad about it, once. He didn't hit me but he looked like he wanted to. "Why do you let him do that?" he said. "You can stop him. Are you a coward?" That's when he looked sore at me and I figured I might be in for a whipping. Then he stopped himself and said, "Look. I'm going to tell you how to stop this kid. The next time he does this to you, here's what I want you to do. You listening?" I was, but he must have thought I wasn't because I was looking down. I felt humiliated and a little scared. "Look at me. Look at me!" He hunkered over in front of me. He's a big man, very strong, an ex-green beret who fought in Vietnam. "Son, you need to pick your moment carefully. Let him get in your face. Let him get agitated. Maybe he'll push you - all the better if he does, but you've got to keep your balance and above all, you've got to stay calm. Whatever you do, don't show fear. Just watch him carefully. There's going to come a moment when he thinks he's won, when his guard will be down. He'll probably grin and taunt you even more. He's showing off, see. He may look back at his friends. He'll need their approval. That might be your moment. If he looks away from you, he feels like you can't do anything to him. He's vulnerable then. You got that? You listening?"

I was watching my dad then. I knew he knew what he was talking about, that his advice might be good, might be just what I needed. So I calmed my breathing and held his eyes. "Yes," I said.

"Okay, like I said, you're watching for a certain moment when he's least expecting you to do anything to protect yourself. That moment when he thinks your'e beaten and he can do anything he wants to you. Then, son, you listening? Then you're going to plant your fist right here ..." he pointed to the place right at the top of my nose, just between my eyes. "You're going to aim carefully and plant one with everything you've got right there." He smiled then, showing his teeth. I could see cigarette stains all around the edges of his gum lines and down the sides between them. He did his best to keep them clean but he smoked a lot, my dad. "You can't give him any warning though. Try not to telegraph it, especially with your face. Be the stone at that moment."

"When you do that, if you do it right, here's what's going to happen. He's going to go down. Right on his butt. His legs will just fold and he'll drop. His buddies won't do anything to you. They'll try to get him on his feet and out of your way. Trust me, they won't come after you. They may make threatening noises , but it'll be from a safe distance. See, you will have completely surprised them. Here they thought you were soft as pudding, a sheep. When they find out you're a cobra - fast, cunning, not afraid to hurt them even more than they've been hurting you, son, they will leave you alone after that."

Today I'd had enough of John's bullying and I remembered my dad's training. The way it went down, John had been taunting me for maybe ten minutes, getting louder and meaner and more physical every time he taunted me and I didn't react. He was determined to send me off the bus in tears. I knew I didn't want to stick around afterwards, so I waited until we were almost at my stop. I was like a stone - I said nothing and tried to show no emotion. I made a fist and held it behind my butt and tensed my muscles and aimed very carefully. When I struck, John went down just like my dad said. He dropped instantly without making a sound. He dropped hard on his butt and after a few seconds made a gasping sound. I could tell the pain he was feeling must be so bad he couldn't even take a breath with which to yell. I didn't feel good about that. But I didn't feel bad either. It was like I was suspended over a ravine, and I'd land on my feet, or I'd die. The two boys behind him looked dazed. My hand hurt but I ignored that. I picked up my books and stepped over John and pushed past Benny and Joe. I refused to look to either side and strode straight to the front of the bus. Before he opened the door to let me out, the driver whispered "I saw what was going on back there. I don't blame you one bit. You don't need to worry about anyone complaining." Then he let me out the door.

Now I wait. Maybe there'll be a phone call from John's parents. Maybe the police will show up. I'm ready. Just as long as my dad doesn't beat me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Literary Fiction: Tastes Good and Good For You!

Where do story ideas come from? What sparks a story? Obviously, there's no single answer, or even class of answers. One challenge writers of fiction face is the fact that there are infinite possible stories. The trick is to cut down the numbers to something more manageable. That is what a good story spark does: it narrows the possibilities. An image, a few suggestive words or a phrase, a "what if", a name or face of a character, some simple action out of context. Through training and creative openness, any of these may suggest a story line, even if vaguely. The rest is discovery, like mining for gold.

To serious writers, that gold is meaning. I may tell a million stories and none of them be worth the time it takes to type them. Better for everyone if the story that emerges has some significance, some resonance to the reader, some reason for being told. It may instruct or entertain or tickle memories or ideas in ways that leave readers a bit more willing to explore the question of who they are as humans.

Stories about real people, then, are important. Stories about our peculiarities, our habits and culture and the assumptions upon which we try, sometimes feebly, sometimes with confidence, to build our identities.

Drama is a useful tool for this end. Small or large, conflicts which our characters succeed or fail in overcoming always teach us something of ourselves. Vicarious beings that we are, they are also highly entertaining, especially if they are believable. Situations you or I might actually find ourselves in, and the struggles to survive or thrive when our needs are threatened, that's the stuff of good stories.

Literary stories differ from others only in that the drama, while still present, is dampened down to a level closer to our daily reality, while character choices and actions result in multi-level revelations about those characters. Minimal or moderate drama, along with layered truths, often subtle, doth good literature make. None of us are simple creatures, though few of us are blessed (or cursed) with insight to our true natures. The power and importance of a story increases as it reveals more complex truths about us. Literary stories seem to emerge from a great stew of knowledge and experience. They give us glimpses of truths about ourselves we would rarely experience otherwise. They do so, however, at the expense of being less entertaining, at least to most readers. The exceptions are skilled readers who are broadly educated in the liberal arts and psychology, and who are, as a result, erudite, reflective, critically self-aware and philosophical. Such readers, familiar with the work of the world's greatest thinkers, have access to a broad range of values and ideas, and are well equipped to synthesize concepts, see patterns, and see through bullshit. To these readers, great stories are not only deeply meaningful, they are also highly entertaining, in ways that simpler stories cannot be. Great stories not only taste good, they are truly nourishing.

Unfortunately, to less well trained readers, this may seem elitist. No one wants to feel judged for her skill level, especially regarding something which seems trivial and no more than light entertainment. And quite right. Light entertainment has its place in our culture too. It may be useful to remember that skilled readers know better than to judge others, and similarly, deserve no judgment from others. Some love sports, some soaps, some talk shows, some Star Trek or fantasy novels. And some love the chewy intellectual challenge and literary delights of a Nabokov or Dostoevsky or Huxley or Graham Green. And some love both high and low culture equally. It's all good.