Short Story: Office Exchange

In every edition of the Writer’s Digest magazine, there is a contest where people can submit a short story of less than 650 words based on a photo.  I submitted a short story based on the photo below for the July contest.  My story didn’t get selected, but that is A-OK and I thought I’d share my story here instead!

 

Your Story Writing Contest
Writer’s Digest Contest #91

Tracy, standing tip-toed in her worn, black flats, peered over the beige wall separating her cubicle from the cubicle of her co-worker Megan.  In his glass-walled office at the end of cubicle row, Jeff sat behind his imposing, wooden desk; his chubby fingers folded on a pile of papers while he spoke with Megan, her back facing Tracy.  Tracy slowly sat down into her chair feeling her heart begin to pick up.

Just a normal Thursday, she repeated like a mantra between deep breaths.  This morning she had left home with her shiny thermos of coffee, dropped off her two youngest at the home of their daycare provider and the older two at Forest Lake Elementary School, as she did every weekday. Tracy parked her crushed-cracker carpeted minivan in its usual spot in the parking garage and greeted her co-workers with a smile before she sat down in her cubicle, flipping through spreadsheets and expenditure accounts with all the casualness of a Thursday morning.  But once Megan was called into Jeff’s glass-walled office, all of the heat in Tracy’s body raced to her face.

She heard the door of Jeff’s office door close and kept looking at her computer screen, willing herself to not look up once Megan had returned to her cubicle.  A loud sigh punctuated the random keystrokes Tracy was making and she heard Megan thud into her chair.

“Did you know about this?” Megan whispered suddenly.  Startled, Tracy looked up at Megan who was draped over the wall between them.

“Know about what?” Tracy whispered back, trying to hide an awkward swallow.

“The layoffs?” Megan said, speaking so that only Tracy could hear.  “Jeff just let me go.” Megan said incredulously, rubbing her temples with a hand.  Tracy pushed back from her computer and put her hands in her lap; she hoped her face looked as sympathetic as when one of her kids came to her with a world-ending scrape or scratch.

“Megan, I’m so sorry.  I knew profits were a little lower the past few quarters but I had no idea there would be layoffs. I can’t believe it!”

“I have rent payments!  I have my car payment.  What am I going to do?”

“You’ll find another job.  You’re smart and great at what you do.”  Tracy said soothingly.

“Yeah, well not good enough apparently.” Megan huffed, collapsing into her chair again.            Tracy turned back to her computer and felt the veins in her arms turn into frozen rivers when she lifted them to the keyboard.

The memory of the discrepancies in the accounts and hesitantly walking into Jeff’s office replayed in her mind for the hundredth time that day. She had been mentally reenacting that conversation with Jeff, evaluating every word she said and the exchange he made with her.  For the price of a few adjusted numbers, she could remain in her cubicle.

Anyone else would have done the exact same thing.  This wasn’t personal, it was about the four little faces in the rearview mirror this morning, keeping a roof over their heads and the student loans they would have someday.  Being a parent meant making the tough decisions.  Without looking up, Tracy heard the door of Jeff’s office close again as another coworker shuffled back to their cubicle.  Just a normal Thursday.

Table For One, Please

As a woman, eating at or exploring a new place alone can seem at worst, dangerous, and at best, lonesome; but I’ve found it instead to be life-giving and empowering.  The first time I ate alone in a restaurant, and not just to eat a quick bite or grab a cup of coffee, was at an Indian restaurant when I was a junior in college.  I had wanted to try this restaurant, Taste of India, for months and had planned to go with my then-boyfriend as our first date after I returned from studying in Kenya.  Shortly after returning to the U.S. however, I endured a messy breakup with said boy all while experiencing reverse culture shock.  The restaurant fell to the back burner as I locked myself up from the outside world.

Continue reading Table For One, Please

Summer Poetry Series: July 15-21

This summer I decided to challenge myself to write a poem every week throughout June, July, and August.  Typically, I write a poem then let it sit and marinate for a while, sometimes up to a year, adjusting words and phrases every so often; but this summer I wanted to shorten that entire process to a week.

I’ve read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” every day this week.  I love the imagery and have been especially moved by the fourth stanza.  I co-opted his rhyming scheme for a poem I wrote this week, which was strange because my poems usually don’t rhyme.  As I re-read “Desert Places”, I kept finding different alliteration patterns that added to the mood and meaning of his poem, creating a lyrical quality.  My poetry doesn’t have this sense of details yet, but hopefully by studying some of the greats, I can learn.  Even if you don’t read my poem, read and re-read “Desert Places”, you’ll be moved.

Desert Places

By: Robert Frost,

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
WIth no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

 

Prairie Places

By: Kjersten Oudman

Tallgrass bending and bowing in the breeze

And by the absence of the trees

I know this place

Where soon all will succumb to freeze.

 

Oh, if these prairies could recite tales

Of the bold who traversed the trails

Clashes of the old and new

And the lands not ours given in sales.

 

Here heartbreak, ecstasy, and land are fraternal

Connected from soil to kernel

And though others may pass on by

The roots of this place are eternal.

 

For so long I was determined to keep away

Yet the soil mixed with my blood to make clay

For all the roaming, the tales before me

I know in this place I must stay.

Are cheap vegetables worth it?

This post is in response to an article in the Washington Post about cheap vegetables benefitting people’s health.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Please feel free to push back against my thoughts, I’m in a constant state of working through thoughts on the food system. 

Food prices don’t matter.  Farmers, specifically the smaller-scale, family farmers, are drilled to believe the prices we assign to produce is the make or break factor in whether people buy.  This is a false assumption.  Except for people who are actively trying to stick to a budget, prices are inconsequential.  What really matters is desire and knowledge.

There are plenty of veggie prescription programs and non-profits that provide vegetables at a reduced cost to people, but we know very little about what is happening once those cheap vegetables have found their home.  If the average American wastes half of the produce they buy, we can make an educated guess that even some of those cheap veggies are finding their real home to be the dump.  The primary argument of the cheap veggie is access.  People who live in food deserts, or areas that have no place to buy fresh food within a square mile, have no ability or outlet to purchase fresh, nutritive food at no fault of their own.  This is inequality in the system that needs to be addressed.  However, the current solution is often times erecting a mobile farmers market that sells vegetables at subsidized prices.  I have been a part of two organizations that used mobile farmers markets to address food access.  While I laud the compassion and vision of people who want to correct inequality, I grow frustrated at fixes that barely seem to be making a dent.

In the small-scale farming world, farmers markets are king.  If a farm is close to a “good” farmers market (i.e. one close to a middle or upper-class community), they can charge whatever prices they want because their customers want the product.  But that’s the key.  The customers want the product.  It’s not just because middle and upper-class people have more discretionary money to spend, it’s because they want eggplants and know how to cook them.  Eggplants could be a quarter each and if people didn’t want them, they wouldn’t buy one.  No amount of discount can make anyone suddenly desire a product they didn’t want before.  The only customers who groan and whine about prices are the customers who deep down didn’t even want the peas or radishes on the table.

While we want cheap vegetables to fix the vegetable consumption and access problems, they could have unintended consequences.  First, cheap vegetable prices aren’t fair to farmers and farm laborers.  The National Farmers Union shows that farmer take home money is paltry.  For a pound of lettuce costing the consumer $2.79, the farmer only gets $0.29.  If this price gets lower, the farmer loses even more.  Farmers do a service, they provide our sustenance, yet frequently have to work second jobs or take out massive loans to make ends meet.  Lowering the price of vegetables could force many farmers to quit farming all together.  Secondly, cheap veggies lead to devaluing the product.  We all intrinsically know that the cheapest products in any store are also the lowest quality.  Whether we consciously acknowledge it, lowering the prices of veggies can lead to subconscious beliefs about the inferiority of vegetables, making them even less desirable.

If making vegetables cheap isn’t the best solution, then how do we encourage people to eat more vegetables?  Very slowly.  Encouraging vegetables is a long-term game. If the “olden days” were really as great and vegetable-filled as some would like to believe, then it took us at least sixty years to fall away from eating fresh produce.  We better recognize it will probably take sixty more years for vegetable consumption to increase.  I don’t know how to make vegetables more desirable. I’m the wife of a farmer and still grimace at kale.  Some people suggest cooking classes or easy-to-understand recipes to go along with vegetables.  These are good ideas.  But once again, it will be a slow process dependent of people who finally get the courage to try heirloom tomatoes or arugula.

Summer *Photo* Series: July 1-7

This summer, I challenged myself to write a poem each week.  But with festivities surrounding the 4th of July and undertaking a cross-several-states road trip, I didn’t write a poem.  Instead, I found some of my favorite pictures I’ve taken since December and decided to share these instead.  Since I didn’t write a poem this week, perhaps one of these pictures will spark something creative in you, dear reader.   Tune in next week for a poem.

Frustrated with the time-consuming tasks of adults, he is anxious for the fun to begin. December 2017
Lying on the wood chips while the lilies and daises tower above.  July 2018
Lip-licking excitement for a pepperoni treat. December 2017
The tractors of old, ripping up new land. May 2018
Cultivating weeds in a vegetable hoophouse. June 2018
Reflections of peacefulness. March 2018
Light, glass, and beasts on museum display. February 2018
Curling wind-dancers. February 2018
The city within the city. December 2017
A hibernating milkweed, a cold wooden bench, both patient for the return of the pollinators. December 2017
Solar-scorched leaf tips. July 2018
Flowers and snow. December 2018

 

 

Summer Poetry Series: June 24-30

 

This summer I decided to challenge myself to write a poem every week throughout June, July, and August.  Typically, I write a poem then let it sit and marinate for a while, sometimes up to a year, adjusting words and phrases every sooften; but this summer I wanted to shorten that entire process to a week.

Some weeks, inspiration is my constant companion, but some weeks pass with no sparks or flickers.  This week was the later.  I finally cranked out a few haikus yesterday because I had to write something.  Of course, my haikus are about vegetables.  When you live on a farm and constantly discuss the different vegetables with your husband, vegetables don’t just creep into your thoughts, they are houseguests who become family members.  Enjoy my veggie themed haikus!

Camouflaged in wait

pea green splotched among vert

pods on the offense

 

Bohemian chard

dark ruffled frond of enigma

on prismatic stalks

 

Carrots never grow

while the watchful yearn in hope

from below they taunt

 

so common a veggie

yet in ripples it explodes

the grace of lettuce

 

The sheen of cosmos

Wrapped in a robe of midnight

The aubergine’s dream

 

Picture courtesy of: https://bonnieplants.com/product/swiss-chard/

 

Summer Poetry Series: June 17-23

The minute world of spores through a microscope. The big white cluster is a mass of fungal spores – their reproductive cells.

 

This summer I decided to challenge myself to write a poem every week throughout June, July, and August.  Typically, I write a poem then let it sit and marinate for a while, sometimes up to a year, adjusting words and phrases every so often; but this summer I wanted to shorten that entire process to a week.

I wrote this poem in my head while doing little tasks around the lab that didn’t require my full mental attention.  I think a lot about what a strange environment a science lab is.  It’s not the environment of the stereotypical “mad scientist”, it’s just a work environment with a lot of sterile equipment and chemicals. But the work done in the lab is still peculiar; all these little tasks to understand minute details of the universe.  There’s something incredible about understanding the universe in great detail, but also, at least for me, something unbelievable.

 

I work with the unknown,

this sounds adventurous,

the cluttered blacktop benches

with bottles of strange clear, yellow, orange liquid

could be a choose-your-own-adventure-story.

Will this liquid cause physical harm?

Probably not.

Probably shouldn’t try though.

 

I work with the untamed,

now I make it sound mysterious,

but I can’t help but stare

at the microscopic spores

and wonder if they want to

crawl out of the petri dish

and colonize the exotic world.

 

I work with the unidentified,

it’s a little like code-breaking

except my codes only

involve four little letters: A G C T,

can’t spell many words

with only four little letters,

but you can apparently write the

instructions for life.

 

I work with the uncertain,

most times, the uncertainty flows from me,

How can minuscule bacteria

take down entire orchards of trees.

How do those four little letters

create cells and proteins.

I am a doubting Thomas,

sometimes unbelieving in the

magic we call science.

 

Summer Poetry Series: June 10-16

This summer I decided to challenge myself to write a poem every week throughout June, July, and August.  Typically, I write a poem then let it sit and marinate for a while, sometimes up to a year, adjusting words and phrases every so often; but this summer I wanted to shorten that entire process to a week.

The other day, I smelled diesel exhaust and was instantly reminded of my time in East Africa.  This also happens with fire smoke and sometimes, depending on the season, with rain.  I’ll be physically present in one place and mentally across the globe all because of a smell, an invisible tug on my memory.

 

With the curling tail of smoke

or the exhaust of a diesel engine

I am removed,

transported to the phantom middle land

where sensory and memory convene.

A middle land where I walk on two streets

the physical street of my reality

and the streets of

Makutano, Kimana, or Mto wa Mbu

of my memories.

Shadowy visages of thorny acacias,

boys and their goats,

school children in matching uniforms,

kanga-wrapped mamas

overlaid on the upright maples,

dogs on leashes,

women pushing strollers,

rumbling flow of traffic.

That vapor, tangible and all at once

impossible to hold

explodes from the nooks in my chest

where the memories have been

Waiting,

nestled and hibernating

until stirred.

 

Summer Poetry Series: June 3-9

This summer I decided to challenge myself to write a poem every week throughout June, July, and August.  Typically, I write a poem then let it sit and marinate for a while, sometimes up to a year, adjusting words and phrases every so often; but this summer I wanted to shorten that entire process to a week.

This first poem I wrote after canning applesauce with frozen apples from the previous fall. Certain family traits seem to skip generations, which is the case for canning and myself.  I found myself inexplicably drawn to canning perhaps because of an unknown thread between my grandma and myself, a thread now materialized through her gift of her water bath canner.

 

Before I left South Dakota,

Grammy lead me to the basement,

into the laundry room with shelves

of holiday glassware,

assorted kitchen gadgets,

stacked cans of green beans and corn,

and placed in my hands, her water bath canner,

an inky, midnight-blue pot

with white speckles like constellations.

It jostled and rattled in the backseat

on the bumpy roads to Michigan.

 

How will you ever find time to can in grad school

people asked.

 

Isn’t canning a little old-fashioned.

people insinuated.

 

Aren’t you worried about botulism.

people supposed.

 

My Grammy preserved the produce

my Papa planted

and they had four kids and several jobs between them.

 

Rhubarb-strawberry jam,

where the rhubarb floated to

the top of the jars,

was my first.

 

Cherry-raspberry jam,

with cherries from forbidden trees

and on-sale raspberries,

was my second.

 

And so on it boiled.

asparagus, pickles, beets,

applesauce, cherries, peppers, tomatoes,

blueberries, peaches, apples, dandelions.

Every jar, a sugared gift from Grammy.

 

Jars pulled from the boiling water

in my kitchen, the descendants of the

jars pulled from the boiling water

in Grammy’s kitchen,

the bounty

shared and preserved.

Home

What elevates a place, with its sidewalks and local restaurants and smattering of churches, into a home?  How does one gain or cultivate the sense of belonging in a place that is new? I’ve lived in Michigan for two years now, my husband Dirk for almost a year and a half, and yet outside of our apartment, we look on the town we live in as observers cataloging the unfamiliar behaviors of the locals, never considering ourselves as residents.  When asked if we’ll stay in Michigan forever, we quickly respond “No”.  But why is Michigan not our home?  What is so different in the configuration of the neighborhoods and communities from the places we have considered home?

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