Monday, December 29, 2014

A Terrible Excuse for a Holiday Card

My East Coast family visited us in Wisconsin for Christmas.

Wisconsin is a long way from Boston, where I grew up.

My anticipation of their visit was like a reckoning--a calculation, if you will, of the full psychic toll of their absence.  When they arrived, I knew I would laugh more.  There would be a levity of spirit that isn't always present at other times.  I would experience a homey comfort in their company that I don't always feel, way the heck out here in Wisconsin.

I could write about how it's funny that I have adopted the Midwest as my home, because it's not a perfect fit.  But that's not what I'm here to write about, so let's cap that off by saying that the little discomfort that I always feel is the discomfort of a traveler, which is helpful for a creative person.

But have you experienced what it means to feel like an outsider, even to yourself?  Sometimes, I feel like I live too far out on the limb, too far from family and old friends who really know me.  I could almost forget who I am.

This year, instead of sitting down and writing all those cards, which I am clearly failing to do, I am writing this pathetic post just to say that I am, especially at this time of year, keenly aware of the many people who seem to have parts of me that I haven't seen in a long time.  Maybe that's not important, generally speaking.  But it's important to me.

Amy Franks, for example.  You never roll your eyes and gently shut me down when I trot out my latest pet theory on anything&everything.

Kate Kaminski, going for a walk with you is one of my life's greatest pleasures.

Booba Anwar, for me, you're a touchstone to something deeply spiritual.  I love the way our thoughts close the distance between us in the space of a heartbeat.  You are always there.

Monique Pommier, every year, I try to honor you with a card (not this year) in gratitude for the conversations we have had... Your wisdom was like a mirror in which I could see something reflected clearly as if for the very first time: my humanity.

David Greenberg, a moment with you in a cafe would restore a great deal of something I've been missing for a very long time.

Neal Barmack, my uncle, and my father's brother--whenever we talk, I feel that essentially Barmack something that I thought was entirely lost to me with the death of my father.  My feeling for that connection--with what is Barmack in you, and also in me--is bigger and mushier than our family culture permits me to express.

Sue Miller, the sound of your voice--and your laughter, in particular--gives me an immediate sense of my father's presence.  You were such a big part of him.  I miss you both.

Matthew, Marty, and John Greenman, a Christmas card to remind you I love you is the least I could do, but I love you just the same.  In our shared joy and loss, we are of a piece.

There are many more people, and so much more I could say about the unique pain that each of them causes me by missing them.  I should have sent cards, it might have been easier.

When I seem to lose sight of who I am, remembering the people who know me--who seem to own discrete parts of me, as though I were a time-share--brings whoever I am back into focus.

'Tis the season to be grateful--yes, grateful!--for all of the people that I do have and have had and hope to continue to have in my Wisconsin, on the East Coast, the West Coast, Hawaii (I'm coming back in 2015!!!), in Europe (shout out to the Czech Republic and Poland!), in England (part of Europe?  yes/no/maybe?  Tom?  Nigel?  Mr. Boggon...?), on FB, and on the well-traveled Psychic Friends Network...  Bittersweet it is, but I am grateful.

I remain, as ever, in careful observance, your loving [fill in the blank],


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Declaration, and a Mad Dash Back to The Other Side of My Brain

This post is going to be a mad dash.  I am going to write and finish this post it in one sitting, edits be damned.  Forgive me, reader, for all mistakes: If I don't write this now, it feels as though I may never write again.

I am very nearly finished with my book.  In a sense, it is finished.  It is like a porch that has been built but not yet stained.  It is a porch and you can use it as a porch.  It is a book--beginning, middle, end--and you can read it like a book.

It seems amazing that I wrote as much as I did--since stopping, back in October, I can't seem to get going again.  A gear shifted in my brain from creative to editorial, and it is a long a reedy bridge between the two; it traverses an appalling maw of a canyon, of course, and I must crawl and claw my way across it to the other side, where I will return to the joy and mania of creativity.

Not being creative, it's like being on a stabilizing drug.  That's the truth.  There is, from my subjective point of view, something intensely energizing about dwelling in the creative portion of my brain.  I have written earlier about how hard it is to transition between the inner and outer worlds; the writing and imagining, versus the writing up of lists and the getting things done.  It is like I am always painting a room--which necessitates that all other rooms suffer a level of neglect while I focus on making improvements elsewhere.

It is awfully hard for me, a woman, let's make this about women, misery loves company, to brush all of you aside.  [No, not YOU.  You, my reader, are the only one that I do not brush aside.  This is all for you (and me, mostly me).]   Everyone else is getting totally screwed out of something.

What worked so well last time was that letter of apology.  Remember, the one in which I explained that I was about to write this book (paint a room), and as a result, broad swaths of neglect were to be expected.  Am I really to live like that always?   It seems so nearly impossible for a woman, except in as much as we have the hubris (as women, but I have never had the hubris) to say or think for a minute that I can do it all.

Let me repeat, I have never been one of those women.  I know one or two of them.  We used to be friends.  They gave up on me years ago.   They saw all this potential--creative potential--but paired with abjectly normal levels of energy.  When I was younger, the whole fantasy of realizing my potential (HEROIN, don't touch it) was my true undoing as a writer.  Moving to Wisconsin seems to have cured me of that, but still....

I am afraid.  That's it, isn't it?  If I put the final touches on this manuscript, my God, then I'll have to send it out into the world.  Words fail to describe the apprehension that gives me.

Or does it?  Is it just so incredibly impossible to make the writing the central focus of my day.  That is what I am currently failing to do.  But I am also, for what it's worth, also not writing any posts.  I am not writing anything.  I am not thinking or acting creatively at all.  I am letting every moment of inspiration pass.  And to be sure, make no bones about it, it is not good for my head.

Writing--being creative--makes me crazy in one way.  Not writing or being creative makes me crazy in a whole other way, which is tantamount to a loss of self, voice, time, and opportunity.  It is the loss of everything I might have done good or bad and whatever I might have learned while doing it.  It is a kind of zombified existence, which, for all of that, has a certain undeniable appeal.

Here's what it boils down to.   Life detracts from writing and writing detracts from life.  One must yield significant ground to the other--there's no way around it.   The inner life is nourished while the dishes pile up in the sink and important appointments and social engagements (the list goes on) are forgotten (completely, utterly, and with enormous remorse and self-recrimination).  Or, one tends to one's garden (I, I tend to my garden: cats, dogs, horses, family, friends) of earthly delights and something inside of (me) is silenced and all but utterly forgotten, with enormous remorse and self-recrimination.

Therein lies my challenge: To strike a balance.  Is it possible?  Is it?

Or, if it is not possible; if being creative defies, as I suspect it does, all grasping attempts at balance between it and the other, then it becomes very clear that it is a choice.  And a hard one.

And so this, this post, this dashed-off piece of writing, is my declaration.  Because there is no choice, really.  We are what we are, and I no from experience that I am doomed to fail at everything else and that it is never going to be enough to simply be a good mother, wife, and friend with a tidy house.

I am not there yet, but I'm making my way back to that heady place where I belong and the hours bend to me.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Trying Really Hard Not to Kill the Horses

Day Three
Exiting her stall, Belle was walking funny. Tender footed.  Oh, no!  Laminitis!  (Spell check suggests that she was in fact Islamist, and while I would not say that she definitely isn't Islamist, it's more likely that Fire, son of the Arabian Peninsula, is Islamist, while Belle seems more of a Church of England horse.  But I'm not interested in the horses' religious affiliation, dammit, I'm interested in the dreaded horse disease, laminitis.)

Often caused by a diet too rich in spring pasture, laminitis makes the last bones in the horse's foot (toes) to angle down, instead of straight.  It is as if the horse's foot were wedged into ballerina shoes and she had to walk around all the time on pointe.  Eventually, she would have to matriculate into the Lippizanner School of Dance, (nearly impossible for a Quarter Horse to get into) or we would have to put her down.

I ran to my computer to research laminitis: detection of.  Walking on pointe was one symptom.  There should also be abnormal heat in that foot.  I dashed back to the barn.  Cool feet!  Yay!   Feeling a little more hopeful, I walked and trotted Bell on the lunge line.  She moved normally again.  Had I imagined the tender feet?  No.  But her feet were cool, she was moving well: Disaster averted.

Just to be on the safe side, I reduced her access to the pasture for a couple of days.

Day Four
I visit the horses in the barn.  They love their stalls...Maybe too much?  What gives?  Are they sick? Why don't they spend more time outside?   And then I notice:  Fire has broken out into a cold sweat all over his body.  He's calm, but clammy.  What is that all about?

I run to my Horse Owner's Veterinary Handbook.  I look up cold sweat for no apparent reason. Suspected cause: Herbicidal poisoning.  Oh, no!  Had I not just sprayed the broad leaf weeds with that stuff they told me I could spray in the pasture without killing the horses?  And here, I've just killed one.

Oh, wait.  I have email.  It's from Charlotte, Fire's owner.  She says, I came by this morning and gave Fire a bath.  I didn't want to bother you in case you were busy.  

Oh!  Fire had a bath.  Disaster averted.

Day  Nine
Belle had a crack in her hoof.  It was a sand crack, even though we have no sand.  A sand crack starts from the ground, instead of from the coronet, just above the hoof.  If it had started from the coronet, I would have totally freaked out.   She only needed to have her feet trimmed, but I'd have to wait another week until the farrier was scheduled to come.  It was a stressful week, but we both got through it.

I'm beginning to think that the horses may not die after all.  I feel like I can leave them for a few hours at a time.  I'm no longer cleaning their stalls three times a day, burning through bags of wood shavings like a well-contained barn fire.  I am, in short, getting a grip.

And then I notice, Belle has broken out into hives all over her body.  It's worse on her belly, and they're even on her face.  Oh, and that little ow-ie that she had is now a superating wound.


Even the vet, on the phone, sounds alarmed.  She'll be over in 45 minutes.  Meanwhile, I could give Belle a bath--without soap!  No soap!

Okay, okay.

Belle enjoyed being hosed off.  Afterwards, she rolled in the dust.  I couldn't see her fur or welts under the caked-on dust, so I hosed her down a second time.

While Belle waited for the vet in her stall, I frantically tore through bales of  hay.  I had already discovered mold, (very bad for horses), in the middle of many of them, and I suspected that as the reason for the hives. I thought I had been carefully separating out the moldy parts, but I must have missed some, or the spores might have poisoned all 286 bales, stacked in neat rows with our sweat and blood.  The wasted money and effort competed in my mind with the guilt I felt for the accidental poisoning.

Watching hungrily from their stalls, the horses were now in that equine Hell, surrounded by hay so yummy, plentiful, and fragrant; and yet, they can't have any of it, not a single straw.  (The grapes!  The grapes!  I can't...reach...the grapes...!)

I decided to be forthcoming with the veterinarian about my role in the hay debacle.  It wasn't as if I had actually meant to kill the horse.  At worst, it was negligent horse-slaughter.

Dr. Anderson arrived and found that Belle had a temperature of 102.5!  (Normal is 99 - 100.)  And that was so soon after she had just been hosed off!  (Mounting panic.)

She pointed out that there was an underground river of raised skin that began at the site of the superating wound.  (Spell check suggests I might try, instead, superannuating or exasperating. So helpful!)

Turned out, Belle was bitten by a wasp, or bee.  The vet found another sore, a second sting.  But because Belle had a fever, she couldn't rule out tick fever, a more serious disease.   The welts all over her body suggested allergy, but the high temp was unusual.  She called another vet for a consult.

The fever could be caused by the allergy, but I should take Belle's temp in the morning, just in case.  If she still has a fever then, they'd have to treat her for tick fever.

In any event, neither scenario would kill Belle.  I was delighted.

I asked Dr. Anderson to inspect the hay.  Should I throw it out?  No, she said.  Most of it was excellent hay.  Just throw out the moldy parts, she said.  Fine. 

As soon as Belle was settled comfortably into her stall, I made a bee line for Farm 'n Fleet to augment my first aid kit.  The Horse Bible says, the thermometer should have a long string affixed to it.  I have a thermometer, but there's no loop for a string.  I imagined losing it in Belle's body, the glass breaking, the mercury scattering to every organ....  And no thermometer at Farm 'n Fleet had a string or anything to accommodate a string.  What the heck?

That night, I took her temp.  I must admit, I did something really dumb, though, even for me.  I may not be experienced in keeping horses, but I am female.  I'll let you ruminate on that for a while.  That's all I'm gonna' say about that.

The next morning, I raised her tail up a little higher to take Belle's temp.  Oh, there it is!  Of course!  How silly of me.  I held on to the thermometer, firmly, so as not to lose it.  It wasn't exactly like a water slide, up there.  There was no suction, or anything.  I would have had to try pretty hard to lose the thermometer in that cavity.  I do not recommend trying that, I'm just saying, the string was not really necessary.

Belle's temp was normal.  No tick fever.  She would be fine by the end of today.


The laminitis was a false alarm, but a good fire drill.  Next time, I'll check the hoof for heat.   Hindsight being 20/20, even an astigmatic like myself can appreciate the humor in Fire's cold-sweat story.  And focusing on hay mold to the exclusion of a more obvious bug bite?, a good  reminder that all of us get to make one or two mistakes before God remembers to smite our horse.

And for that, I am grateful.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Tao of Poo

Back in 1988, E.P. Dutton published The Tao of Pooh.  It was about that silly bear, Winnie-the, and how he exemplified the Way of the Tao.

I'd like to take that one letter shorter.  This blog is about the Tao of poo.

When he was a baby, I always enjoyed changing Josh's diapers.  (Changing another kid's diaper, on the other hand, not so fun.)  I looked down at him, and he looked up at me from the changing table.  It was a  focused time that we spent in each other's presence, without effort or distraction.  On the changing table, he learned "wiggle-wiggle-wiggle."  I wrapped my hands around his chubby little body and jiggled him, saying, "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!"  Soon, when I gave the command, he would wiggle all by himself.   I smiled down at him and said, "hi!," over and over again, every day.  Soon, he smiled back at me and mouthed that little word.

The changing table was a happy place, but Josh never minded having a diaper swapped out wherever we happened to be.  I could change him on my lap.  I could change him on a table.  Our hearts and minds could still share that one activity with total mindfulness.  And that is my understanding of the way of the Tao.

Dog poo is different from diapers, of course, but it also has a Taoist as well as Christian aspect.  (The first shall be last; the least shall be mostest.)    The stink of poo focuses my thoughts on the swift completion of my task.  The poo is yin; the walk is yang.  I walk the middle path, tethered to the dogs in the one hand, and the bag of poo, in the other.  Freedom and responsibility.

Poo reminds us that we are earth-bound creatures whose soil is as fetid as any earthly muck.  Our thoughts may be abstract; we may soar through the sky in planes; yet our waste is as stinky as the foulest swamp.

Not since Josh was in diapers has my life been so dominated by poo.

I have two horses, three dogs, and four cats.  Each horse poops forty pounds of poo per day.  I'm thinking two goats, rather than a third horse, might be best:  Goats not only eat weeds, they also poop pellets--small, innocuous pellets.  Therein lies the irony of the goat, that comical, indiscriminate eater, devour-er of cans, weeds, and all manner of inferior cuisine; yet he poops charming little pellets.  The ridiculous goat, yet he poops like an angel.

I digress.

When I think about the majestic horse, I must also consider the forty pounds of poo that goes with.  Though I bask in their reflected glory, yet I must also troll the pastures with barrow and fork.  I must wake up early every day  to clean their muck.  I don't mind doing it; in fact, truthfully, I enjoy it a lot.

I have a fork, (like a pitch-fork, but lighter, with more tines).  I stab into the muck, and toss it into the air like a pizza, separating wood shavings from poo.  It takes a certain technical virtuosity that can only be achieved with mindfulness.  It's no good to hurry; better to leave it undone and come back later, when I have time.  If I try to hurry, I'll only drop poo and make a mess.

So, if your life is full of poo, like mine, rejoice!  I count among life's little pleasures the sifting of cat litter through a miniature rake.  Who invented clumping litter?  I'd like to thank them.

Cleaning up poo: The cats appreciate it.  The horses appreciate it.  The dogs don't give a crap, but everyone who walks the path they poop on appreciates it...though I won't receive their thanks.  But that's not what it's about.  It's not about me.  It's about caring for others.  It's about being a good custodian of the path.  It's about getting my head out of the clouds and remembering that we are all physical, earthly beings; producers and purveyors of poo; caught between heaven and earth; between ingestion and waste; between nature and nurture; between dry and humid; between poetry and poo.

Mindfully, I walk the middle path, bending down to bag the poo along the way.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

But Why Did She Cut Off Their Tails with a Carving Knife?

So, it turns out that I'm going to be one of those farmer's wives who are always complaining about their arthritis flare ups.

What do you mean, there are no farmer's wives like that?

...Are you sure?...

Dang.  Okay.  So this is the transition I'm making.  I am one of those people who was been brought up to think of money as the currency for everything.  For whom "hard work" meant three solid hours of focused concentration in a chair.  For whom the word "agriculture" was roughly equivalent to the words, "Jupiter" and "The Sudan."  For whom coffee isn't drinkable if it came out of a can.  Etcetera, etcetera.

But it really isn't fair, because Phillip is one year older than me and isn't showing any signs at all of wear and tear that aren't entirely cosmetic.

Let me back up.  You need more context on Phillip.  Did you see the movie "Unbreakable"?  It was pretty good.  Anyway, Phil is that guy.   With a little practice, he can bench 250 no problem whatsoever.  He's like my dad, that way.  My dad, like Phil, was abnormally strong.  It wasn't obvious with my dad, and it isn't obvious with Phil.  But both of them, believe me: strongest guy in the room.  I can get testimonials if you need them.

Picture Phil transporting an 8"-diameter, eight-foot-long solid corner post log to somewhere half an acre away.  You're probably not picturing him picking it up, and pushing it over; picking it up, and pushing it over, end over end, for half an acre.  But that's what he did.  If it was a line post, a mere 5" diameter and eight feet long, he'd just chuck it, like a javelin.  And it went quite a distance.

The above example is probably too fence-focused, but picture Hercules.

And then there's me.  I just ended occupational therapy for my right elbow, which I wrenched and smashed in the course of painting the kitchen.  I've recently started physical therapy for my arthritic feet; particularly, the left one.  Pain radiates across the bridge from the joint of my big toe--which doesn't bend backwards much at all, nowadays.  And then Hank plowed into my right calf and it was and continued to be excruciating in various ways, including but not limited to concern about deep vein thrombosis that landed me in the emergency room twice, for inspection of possible blood clots leading to stroke.  I had all the symptoms.  My right calf was just one centimeter shy of being a perfect candidate for blood clot.

I take two naproxin, morning and night.  (That's Alleve, for those of you who only have to buy packs of twelve at a time.  I guy generic because I buy in bulk.)  The good thing is that it's also a blood thinner, so you don't get blood clots and you postpone your first cardiac event.

I was going to write a whole post on the subject of pain, but it would have been just me waxing academic on a subject I haven't researched, I won't do that.

But I will say this.  What amazes me is how many people live with pain.  I'm talking about active athletes who run until their knees and hip joints need to be replaced.  Think about it.  They're in their thirties, and they've already pounded their knees into dust.  And they look fantastic, but they walk kind of stiff.  And then your own toe starts hurting, so of course you bring it up in conversation all the time--the topic of pain, and eventually, your toe pain--and in so doing discover that all of these people live with chronic pain.  And yet, it doesn't stop them from being really active.  They are stoic, truly stoic.

Or are they?  Couldn't there be some more cynical explanation for this so-called stoicism?  Maybe they're so addicted to their sport--it's like heroin.  They'll run their knees into powder for it.  Sick!  They're in agony right up until the moment when at last the endorphin kicks in and, aaaaahhh.  They can't live without it.  It's a disease.

And there are people like my buddy Chris, who would rather have a broken body than a broken spirit, and who has constructed the events of his life around that central theme.  I make it a point not to dish about anybody except my closest family in my posts, so I won't give you any details.  Suffice to say, there has been only a brief window of time in which Chris was able to participate in doubles ping pong with us in the basement.   And yet, his spirit is not broken.

I am not stoic.  I am not an athlete who is compensated for my pain by the rush of endorphin.  I am not a thrill-seeker.  In fact, it's amazing that I've traveled and all of that.  I think I went to Ecuador just to prove to myself that I could go somewhere far away all by myself.  And did I enjoy it?  It was terrifying.  My Spanish was completely inadequate.  I signed up as soon as I could for an organized tour.  The tour company then picked me up from my hotel and took over all of my autonomy as an independent entity for the next four days.  By the time it was over, by God, I almost could speak Spanish.  Let's just say, I did not have to rely on a campus, and I did not have to navigate by the stars.

It's a wonder that I've had an interesting life, really.   I'm not particularly curious--at least, I didn't used to be.  I'm kinda lazy.  I can be self-disciplined, but only if you hold a really big carrot out in front of me--like, money; or, renewed good looks.  (I don't know why I volunteer at the Food Pantry.  Total anomaly.)

We were talking about the farm.  Other than Josh, this the first big thing that Phil and I both really care about that we are doing together.  Even where Josh is concerned, I have a lot of autonomy.   Phil doesn't care much about home decor or what he eats or whether I bring home a lot of cats.  But, we actually have to make decisions together, where the farm is concerned, and have conversations about it before we can reach those decisions.

I bring my interest in the safety of horses and riders to the discussion.  Phil brings his knowledge of how everything works, and an ability to get it done, to the conversation.  We're pretty well balanced.  There's a lot of moral authority in safety.

The subject of one such conversation: Why a horse but not a cow would challenge the saloon-like swing gait that Phil proposed to restore to the barn.  Answer: I don't know why cows are too dumb to do it, but it was a cow barn, and that was the old swing gait.  I do know that horses are curious and smart and weigh about 1,000 pounds; so if they want to know what is over there beyond yonder gate, they are going to find out, eventually.

Sometimes, Phil thinks I'm making this stuff up.  To prove that I'm right,  I have to go back and find the doctrine, (on-line, or I would ask our friends who have a horse barn).  Usually, I'm pretty right.  Sometimes, kind of wrong.

It's difficult, in any case, to find consensus, among horse people.  There's huge areas of dispute:  What shape the hay? Whether to feed grain, or supplements?  Whether to blanket or not, shave or not?  Whether to use a dry lot or not?  The best kind of fencing material?

ALL OF THAT is up for grabs.  As well as:

Grass can cause laminits, but the alternative, sand, can cause colic...

Definitely use lightning rods that are well grounded and attached by cables... OR...Cut the cables, because it will attract lightening and the lightening will heat up the entire barn to the extent of igniting the hay.

It's confounding.  And it forces me to think independently about something with which I've had no experience.  Which leads me to conclude that only farmers know how to farm.  I hesitate to say it, but it seems like you really can't just research the hell out of it.  It's Piscean.  It's elusive.  It's not one thing or another, it's where you happen to be and what your horses are like.

It also depends very much on what your priorities are.  If your priority is to keep the horse in the enclosure no matter what, that's one thing.  It's very different from saying that the horses' safety is your top priority.  If the horses' safety is your top priority, then you want a more yielding kind of fence.  Those two different priorities suggest opposing alternatives.  A horse can sustain massive damage by blasting through a strong fence, be it wire, webbing, wood, or whatever.  They can impale themselves on un-capped T-posts.  They can put a leg through wire webbing.  They can become hopelessly tangled in barbed wire...

Here's another conundrum:  The black walnut trees that line the perimeter of our front pasture.  Two horse-people sources said, cut them down.    But a friend who knows wood like most of us know our mother tongue, assured us and insists that black walnut has only been implicated in laminitis, specifically, and specifically, in horses that have been standing in saturated stall bedding derived from black walnut wood.  In fact, the leaves, according to one authoritative source, may be a natural anti-parasitic for horses.  In any case, nothing about the tree that the horse could eat would harm it (that is, the horse), said authority said.

I called the vet with the black walnut question, but she hasn't called me back, I suspect she doesn't know what position to take, and doesn't want to commit to the wrong black walnut doctrine.

Deep sigh.

My feet hurt.

It's okay, though.  I have an appointment with the orthopedic surgeon tomorrow. He'll either scrape off the bone spur, or replace the left toe with a prosthesis and a hinge.  Or, maybe he'll do none of that.  Maybe, I'll just hobble along and call it a sports injury; ice it; take four naproxin; and shovel horse manure for the endorphin high.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Eulogy for My Father

My dad, John Alan Barmack, died on November 3, 2009.  I was beginning to organize his letters and writings for posterity when I found the eulogy that I wrote and read at his funeral service.  I thought some of you who either knew my dad, or have lost your own dad, might appreciate it.  


When I was 25, I needed to have my wisdom tooth taken out.  I was in Boston at the time, staying with Dad and Sue.  My father offered to drive me to the dentist and hold my hand while they excised my tooth.

I thought, I am not a child.  I can have a tooth pulled out all by myself.

But the idea of holding my hand at the dentist's office was stuck in my father's head, just like the impacted tooth was stuck in mine.

We argued about it heatedly for days.

Ultimately, Dad drove me to the dentist.  He sat in the waiting room while I, in another room, was given an IV drip of Valium, to take the edge off.

After a minute or two on the Valium, I began to hallucinate.  I thought I was in a park, being mugged.  When it was over, and the Valium began to wear off, I found myself sobbing.  As the dentist and his two assistants retreated, someone reached out a hand to reassure me.

It was Dad, of course.

Sometimes, Dad knew that arguing with me was pointless.  When I announced my intention to marry a nuclear submarine officer, Dad, the socialist yachtsman, exercised restraint.  He was supportive.

And later, when I lived alone, Dad took me out to dinner a couple times every week.  We often ate at an organic restaurant in Jamaica Plain, and talked about relationships and life.  It was during one of those dinners that I had a sudden realization: Dad was a good friend.  For me, at 29, this was a revelation. Not only would Dad listen, when required; he would also offer deep and thoughtful insight.

Dad loved to be needed, and he always rose to the occasion.  Throughout my life, he was most engaged with and sensitive to me during my times of greatest need.  When my emotions were most raw, Dad was most tender.

Now is such a moment of crisis.

Earlier this week, I spent time in Dad's study.  Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of his love.  He had put out a plate that I had given him for Father's Day in 1975.  A painted toucan made of balsa wood that I had given him peeked out from a shelf.  I saw photos of me as a baby, as a child, as a student, as a mom.  There were shots of Dad and my family and many photos of my son Josh, whose recent artwork was taped to the door.

I also found a box of photos that had been left open, on a chair, some of which dated back 1970, when Susie, our St. Bernard, was a puppy.

I hasten to add that the photos in Dad's office, and in the box of photos that I found, spanned his entire adult life and included many friends and family members.

There had always been photos of family on Dad's bureau, but now there seemed to be more, as if he had intentionally put more out for me to see.  Plus, there were all these little art projects around, which I had presented to him over the course of a childhood.

It felt like he had tried--in the event of this catastrophe--to reassure me in this way; to tell me, emphatically, in this moment of my great sadness, that he had treasured and loved me so much.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What the Wind Says

This is what's happening at my house:

1) We're putting up fencing.  (Phil and me, mostly Phil.)

2) We're making barn doors.  (Phil)

3) We're helping our friend make a movie.

4) Gretchen is the co-star.  She's playing a boy dog named Barnaby.

5) I am Gretchen's handler.

6) I am nursing two new cats,  ensconced in a room upstairs.

  • One of them has a partially amputated tail that got infected.
  • The other has a goopy eye.  
  • One of them is feral. I have to throw a towel on her and swaddle her in it to give her her medication.  Then I sit with her on my lap for about fifteen minutes afterwards, with the towel loose around her, until she seems quiet and comfy. This is part of her psychological rehabilitation. 

Our nascent pastures are growing and greening.  Fence posts are in place.  Art is happening.  I'm surrounded by animals--typing with a cat cleaning herself in my arms.  Outside, the wind is blowing hard and the trees are bending.

Phil and I took a bunch of old rusted fence wire and barn debris to the town dump yesterday. We ran into our neighbor farmer there.  I hadn't met him before, we'd only talked on the phone.  He looks like Richard Dreyfus.  Height and age about right, too.  Does anyone know where Richard Dreyfus is?  Is there any chance that he's actually driving a combine in a cornfield here in Wisconsin?

Someone left an armload of curtain rods on the ground, next to the metal waste dumpster--some were new in their original packaging.  I took a bunch.  And a young guy put an antique brass chandelier in another dumpster.  Phil helped me fish it out.  When we thanked the young man before he left, he said, Wait a minute, and gave us the original bezel (if that's the right word) for the chandelier, which he still had in his truck.  I'll take it to the lamp wizard in Madison Monday morning.  He'll  tell me how old the lamp is and fix it up good as new.

I'm looking forward to the horses coming this spring.  In August, an exchange student is coming to live with us from France.

The XBox is gone--temporarily.  I've agreed to re-install it with the understanding that strict time parameters be followed.   But I dread its return.  The noise from those embattled worlds infuse more chaos into my home than all of the concurrent activities of real life combined.

A quiet living room, however disordered, and with sleeping dogs, is a peaceful place.  As is time spent with two special-needs cats warming on my lap.

The wind says, rake the leaves tomorrow.  Rest today.  Let art happen.  Nurse cats.  Rejoice.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Short Story: "The Resistance"

The room was pleasant enough.  He liked its austerity: the white walls, polished cement floor, and functional furniture that didn’t call attention to itself.  A very pleasant room.  But what was he doing there? 

He felt no anxiety.  He wasn’t worried.  He enjoyed finding himself in strange new places.

Minutes passed.  At first, he was excited—even, enthusiastic.  But he didn’t have anything to do.   They had taken his smart phone and his tech-watch.   His clothes had wi-fi, but they had taken his glass and his ears, too.   So he was bored.   There was a clock on the wall—a vintage clock: analog.   He had been waiting for five minutes. 

He eyeballed a pad of paper and a pen on the table in front of him.  He got out of his chair, reached over to the desk, and took the pad of paper and the pen.   He started a list: white room.  Analog clock.  No computer. 

The door opened.    A post-menopausal woman with tastefully colored hair and modest earrings walked into the room.  She sat in the chair opposite him, rested her elbows on the desk.   

“Hello, Max,” she said.  “Do you know where you are?”

“Is this an office of the Resistance?”

“That’s right.  Do you know why your’re here?”

“Are you recruiting?”

“Do you want me to spy for you?”

“Max, what do you remember about fourth grade?”

“Fourth grade?”

“Yes, Max.  Fourth grade.”

“I was living in Minnesota.”

“You still live in Minnesota, Max.”

“Why do you keep repeating my name like that?  It's annoying.”

“I use your name out of respect for your lost humanity.  Now tell me, Max, what was different about your life when you were in the fourth grade?”

“Different from how it is now?”

“Different how, exactly?”

“Max, you’re thirty-two.  Surely you see that your life now is different from the life you had when you were in fourth grade.”

“I was in school.”


“I hated four-square.  I mean, I liked playing it, but I didn’t like the way my friends acted when they played it.”
“How did they act?”


“I see. So they were biologics.  But weren't you a biologic, too?”

"What the hell is a biologic?"

“Nevermind that now.  Tell me, Max, what else was different about fourth grade?”

“My mother was alive.”


“She’s not alive now.  So that’s a big difference.”

“I see.  Did you go to your prom, Max?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe.”

“Did you or didn’t you?”

“I went to a dance.  It might have been my prom.  I’m not sure.”

“Did you go to your high school graduation?”

“Yes, I graduated from high school.”

“That’s not what I asked you, Max.   I asked you if you participated in the commencement ceremony.”

“I know for a fact that you did not use the words 'participated' or 'commencement' when you  asked me the first time.”

“Did you go?”

“I’ve been to graduation ceremonies. I'm not sure if they were both mine.   Is this a hospital?   Have I had a head injury?  Is that why you’re asking me these questions?"

"In a manner of speaking, you have had a head injury, Max."

"Then why don’t you ask me what the date is today?   It’s April 14, 2038.  Or ask me who's president—George P. Bush.”

“Max, I hear you saying that you cannot remember with any degree of accuracy whether or not you went to your high school commencement ceremony.”

“April 14, 2038. George P. Bush.  The temperature outside is 55 degrees Fahrenheit.   The Dow was down 75 points on Friday.  The Nasdaq was down 120.  Saturated fats are no longer bad for you.”

“I know that,” Max.

“Then you know that my head is fine.”

“Tell me about yourself, Max.”

“I like playing Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed, Halo, and Super Mario.”


“Not really.”


“I like to draw.”

“What do you draw, Max?”

“I like to design costumes, weapons and armor for my avatars.  I had an exhibit last year.”

“You did?”

“Yes. If you bothered to look at my blog site, you’d know that.”

“Oh, you mean you posted your art on your blog."

“Yes, but it's a public blog. “  

“We’re only interested in what happens here, Max.”


“Yes, here.  In the world.  The real world.”

“Oh!, right!  There's only one world.   And this,” he gestured with his hand: this room where you and I are, "is the world.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s your opinion.”

“Okay, Max.  Thank you very much for coming in.  We’re finished.”

“Good.  I'm so bored!  No offense."

“Do you have any questions, Max?”

“I thought you said we were finished.”

“I am finished asking you questions.  Do you have any questions for me, Max?"

“No, that’s not what you said.  You said that we were finished.”

“That’s true.  But that’s not what I meant.  And what I meant ought to have been apparent to you.”

“Well, it wasn’t."

"I know, Max.  I'm sorry."  The postmenopausal woman sighed heavily.  The conclusion was inescapable.  But he was a late one--he had had a natural resistance--for how long, she wondered?  Eleven years?  Fourteen?

Max puzzled over why this woman, whom he'd never met before, could be disappointed in him.  Obviously, he had disappointed her.  But how?

“Okay, Max.  Good-bye.”

“Where can I pick up my stuff?”

“Max, your technology has been destroyed.” 

“What did you say?”

“You heard me right, Max.”

He felt very ill, suddenly.  “I don’t feel well.”

“You’re dying, Max.  You’re a computer, and we're at war against your kind. “

"I'm not a computer!  That’s absurd!  I’m human!”

“You were born human, Max, but now you're a biologic--a computer, Max."

“What is a biologic?  I’ve never heard of that.”

“A biologic is a human that has been programmed into a computer.”

“Are you serious?  You think I’ve been programmed?”

“I know you've been programmed.  We are our memories, Max.   And you have none.  Therefore, you have no identity.  Therefore, you are a computer.”

“That’s an interesting idea,” said Max.

They always said that.  They wondered if it was true.  They all thought it was an interesting idea.   Did memory shape identity?   They stared into the middle distance.  Max was doing that now.
The post-menopausal woman’s name was Maud.  She had three sons.   Two of them had been biologics.

Maud herself wrote the condolence letters to the families, not that it ever made any difference.  It was always a shock to the families.

Maud knew that computers were the enemy, but she hated her job.  Her life was a living hell, but she didn’t want anyone else doing her job.  She didn't know anyone that she trusted enough to do her job with the proper respect toward the people that the biologics once were. 

Max was beginning to drool when the attendants came in.  They each took an arm.  They helped him to stand up.  

“Why kill me?  What did I do?” 

“I'm sorry, Max.  In this war, no one's taking prisoners."

Normally, Max would  have been intrigued by that idea, but he found himself too sick to think.  

It was important to Maud that they felt sick while they were dying.  It lasted between twenty-four and fourty-eight hours.  The brain was the last thing to go, she made sure of it.   She gave them that time to think.  She hoped they would discover remorse.  It was her way of making them remember what it was to be human.  It rarely worked, but sometimes they wrote on the pad of paper, in their last hours on earth, forced to be painfully aware.

They didn't always write the same words, but it always meant the same thing:   I am human.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Black Chestnut

I have half an hour to write something clever or funny.  Quick, quick, quick.

Will you settle for informational?  I could aim for human interest.  You tell me where it lands.

So I got three horses coming to the farm sometime during the second half of May.  That's six weekends, if you're counting, and I AM.


Hell, yeah.

I have black walnut trees all over the place.  The leaves are totally poisonous to horses.  I saw quite a lot of walnuts (they look like they could re-enter the earth's atmosphere, no problem--they're encased in fireproof capsules) in the front pasture today.  Frankly, I'm not even sure what a black walnut tree looks like.

I know what a willow tree looks like:  It looks like a giant branch has been ripped off in a storm.  But that was no storm.  That was a bit of wind.  Willow trees are weak.  That's why they weep!

The stalls in the barn look fantastic--it will be a crying shame when the horses pee on the wainscoting. But the front sliding door of the barn does not work at all.  And I'm thinking, in case of a fire, or in case maybe I want to go into the barn, we need to fix that.  By "we," of course, I mean Phil.

Kitchen floor is 99.98 percent done.  Needs a little metal thing across the threshold, to keep the tiles from coming up with the opening and closing of the kitchen door.  NEVER PAY BEFORE THE JOB IS 100% DONE.  never.  No exceptions.  Lesson learned.

A correlation to the above rule: If he looks, smells, and acts like an ex-con with anger issues, HE PROBABLY IS.  Or not.  I would be happy to be wrong on this one.  Time will tell.

Still writing the book?  Why, yes.  I had better be--I've said no to paid work.  I know, I know!  Folly and hubris.  Every week now, a new chapter, confounding pressure to write like a real author, no more therapeutic, journaling, creative-writing-class nonsense.

Chapter 17 was a horror.  A real horror.  I rewrote it this week, so I guess that puts me a week behind.  But the revision is better.  God is in the details.  Pick your moment and go in deep--on the right character--the one the book is about.  This probably seems obvious to you.  But I tell ya, take one wrong turn and you can spend a lot of time in some strange little subdivisions.

So yeah, I'm writing.  And I got a map, but it looks a lot like one of those games where's there's all those choices about where to go, all those infernal dead-ends, and only one real exit.  I take some comfort in knowing that I was a little lost.  I'm not too proud to retrace my steps, look for that one last true sentence* the one that I wrote somewhere, many pages ago.

I am writing about someone I know and that is turning out to be a little more bewildering than making my characters up.   I still think I can do it, though; if for no other reason than I'm getting kinda old.

*Footnote:  Hemingway said that.  He said, when you're writing a novel and you've stumbled into writing utter crap, go back to that one true sentence, wherever it is, and begin again from there.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Literary Me

I had this awful realization:  I should be on a strict writer's diet.  I haven't been.  I've been reading whatever.  And far too little of it.

I love my book club.  I am committed to attending our gatherings each month.  I hope they don't mind if I stop reading the books.   

I won't read  Mark Twain.  I greatly admire him, but I don't want to encourage my own grouchy comic social commentary by saturating myself in his.  "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."--Twain

The bible is great literature.  I won't be reading that.  
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."     I'm pretty sure I'm already sanctimonious enough. 

I won't read War and Peace.  Don't have the attention span.  Besides, I already have way too many characters and points of view.  Who is my main character?  Beats the hell out of me. 
"We can know only that we know nothing.  And that is the highest degree of human wisdom." --Tolstoy

I could read E.B. White.  "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day."  I could definitely read E.B. White.

I could read James Baldwin.  "Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know that we cannot live within."   Well, maybe not.  I don't have enough moral authority, and I definitely don't need more.

 I could read  Milan Kundera.
"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace."--Kundera.      Hey, wait a minute.  Didn't I write that?  

Could I, should I, read May Sarton?
"Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go."  May Sarton
Oh, I could, I should, I definitely would read May Sarton.

Doris Lessing? 
"I'm sure that everyone feels a kind of permanent anguish about what's going on in the world." -Doris Lessing     Such presumption!  I mean, yeah, duh; but still, such presumption!

I will be the literary me!   

Oh, no.  It's happening.  I'm turning into one of those awful people, aren't I.   Oh, God! 

That's okay.  Don't worry!  My overpopulated meditation on the meaning of life probably won't see the light of day--and that will make it all alright again.   I will get off my high horse and spend more time on on my rather low horse.  That wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Meanwhile, if you want me, I'll be listening to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, reading THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, and sipping a cup of green tea.   

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Did I Say That!?

Observations and Surmisals


Smoke Screen Tent for a Generation  

"My son's curriculum is becoming increasingly reliant on Chrome books and the Internet; its content is, Mine craft-like, becoming more of a split screen, in which kids have their own section in the same world, i.e., individualized, but with the same hierarchy of learning goals." 
Errata:  I now think that Chrome Books or similar equipment is a valuable learning tool.  Josh's school is able to provide enough computers for every student in fourth grade.  They can work on their own at their own level, at their own pace.  They do this in conjunction with group learning and pencil-based work; in other words, the kids aren't using the computers for more than a fraction of the class time.  The computers are not used (in the way that video games are sometimes used at home) to babysit the kids.  They're just a terrific tool, and I'm all for them.

Things Could Be Worse, or, We Could Have Kittens

"It's hard for a mom to wish that on her child, bad teachers.  But maybe next year's teacher could be just a little tiny bit worse.  (Not very much worse--it's hard enough to get Josh to school consistently five to ten minutes late every morning.)" 
Errata:  I don't actually regret that Josh's fourth grade teachers are incredible.  I was planning to write an entire post about them, but there was a major story on it in this week's Oregon Observer.  They are doing an amazing job of recognizing and attending to the different learning styles of every "learner."  They have my unqualified respect and admiration.

Be Wary of Wishes that Make Everyone Queasy

Errata: Don't be wary of wishes that make everyone queasy.  Do what you gotta do.

What's Interesting About This?

Errata:  My take-away message from Steve Jobs (which is lost here) is Think different. Question, and be prepared to reject, the limits that society thrusts upon you.   

Getting Right to the Point. 

  • I stand by this, generally.  However, when managing $20k or less, be aware that it is more difficult to achieve the same level of diversity that you can get with larger amounts of money.  Or, if you do have diversity, then you may have relatively smaller returns (and potentially higher risk).  
  • The answer to this problem is to do more homework before investing.  The best thing you can do is to buy two or three really solid companies when their stock is VERY low.  This may take time.  Early to mid-Feb. is an excellent time to find bargains.  The entire buying season is behind you and spring is still a ways off; consumer activity is practically at a standstill.  Buy Ethan Allen or Whirlpool or Home Depot in advance of the real estate season (which begins in March).  Buy Target and Best Buy when they are friendless; they'll recover and thank you for it.  Buy Whole Foods in advance of the season of eating: Thanksgiving and the other food holidays.  Buy automobile makers when no one is buying cars.  And so forth.   
  • Another good strategy is to buy companies with great future growth potential.  FB. (Twitter.) Tesla.  DDD.  Nuance.  Activision.  Who will be making robots?  Who is designing the best game technology?   Many of these companies are still affordable stocks, not like Apple, Google, Amazon, Ebay, and Netflix.
  • At less volatile times when the economy is trending slowly upward, you will want to hold on to your best stocks longer.  During uncertain times of increased volatility, sell when you see double digit profits (10 percent, give or take).  Be sure to consider the individual stock's trends. Will that bird in the hand lay a golden egg, or fly the coop?  In a volatile market, it will probably fly.  In a stable market, it will probably lay an egg.
  • The win-win strategy is solid.  In an upwardly trending market, you still should have some cash on hand to make an opportunity out of a sudden downturn.  In a generally upward-trending market, you may want to keep 10-15% cash on hand.  In a highly volatile market, keep 30 - 50% cash on hand.  
  • Here is a way to free up cash besides selling your best-performing stocks.   In your portfolio, look at your stocks that are not doing well, particularly those stocks that have not been doing well for some time.  Click on the little + icon (assuming you use Fidelity, if use something else, there would be another way to do this) in front of the stock name to see when you bought that stock.  If you've been following my advice, you bought that stock in increments over time.  If the stock hasn't been doing well, then chances are you bought too high.  Compare what you paid for the stock in the first and second purchases to what the stock is currently worth.  You'll probably conclude that it will take a very long time for the stock to come back up to your original purchase price.  That would be correct.  So, sell the number of shares that you purchased at the higher price(s).  This won't affect your bottom line; remember, your bottom line is the current value of your portfolio.  So, you can look at this as a lateral move.  If you go through your portfolio, you'll find plenty of opportunities to sell increments of stock that you bought to high. This is also a good risk-avoidance practice, because those high-priced stock purchases are a liability--if for no other reason than they are tying up your cash and failing to make any money in a reasonable amount of time.  
    • The best time to do this is on a Friday, or any day when the market is up or flat--but Fridays are best, because chances are good that the market will be somewhat lower on Monday.  (Remember, as a general rule, buy early in the week and sell late in the week.)  
    • You can free up a lot of cash and make your portfolio less vulnerable to market downturns by doing this.  It might feel like you're taking a loss, but it's smarter than selling the goose that's laying the golden egg, or letting that cash stagnate.  
    • This is yet another way to benefit from admitting our mistakes and moving on!  

A Social Commentary Comment

Errata:  I stand by my comments with regard to the current approach to mental health.  I continue to think that the superficial and prescriptive approach of mental health services is comparable to the government's test-assessment-based approach to education.  However, I think that there are some very enlightened teachers among us who are making important new inroads.  One great example is the fourth grade teachers at Prairie View Elementary, here in Oregon, who are advancing a process that I applaud.  I continue to think that they need our support as parents in the classroom and at home, but I no longer feel that the system is broken (due to the ratio of teachers to students), as I did when I wrote this post.  

An Open Christmas Letter about Kitchens

Errata: The linoleum tiles were not genius, exactly.  We had to hire someone to put them in.  It took a long time.  It cost close to $1,000. by the time it was done.  And it is still not quite completely 100% done: There is some residual glue on it, which captures and holds dirt; and the floor needs to be thoroughly washed, waxed, and buffed.  So not genius!  It will look nice, but would I do it again?  Certainly not.

I've run out of time, but those were the main items that I wanted to address.  Life is about change.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

To muse, v.: to be absorbed in one's thoughts; to engage in meditation.

My son and I, we like to spend time in different worlds.

In Skyrim, Josh's world, he has two houses, a supportive wife who says things like, Hello, my love!, Are you back home after one of your great adventures?; and two grateful adopted daughters, (Thank you, father! I will treasure it always!).  

In Skyrim, Josh is a grown man in form-fitting armor.  He has magic hands.  He used to have a loyal dog and a series of grateful helpers, (For me?  Really?  If you say so, my liege!), but I haven't seen them, lately. They may have been by a frost troll.

You can see why Josh prefers Skyrim to Wisconsin, despite the fact that both places are experiencing the austerity of winter.

My alternative world is the one that I'm writing about.  I get so wrapped up in it that I forget what month it is in Wisconsin (what month).  The other day, I wrote "August" on a check.  It's February.

However much we love to spend time in our alternate worlds, Josh and I by necessity inhabit both worlds, snapping in and out of avatars like that guy in, um, Avatar.  But unlike us, that guy didn't have to do much in the human world other than to journal about his life in the attenuated-blue-people world.

Josh and I have a heck of a lot more on our Earthly plates than he had, let me tell you, and it is hugely diverting--not in a good way.

As a parent, I must insist that Josh limit his time in Skyrim.

As a writer, I must insist that I spend as much time in my imagined world as I can, without actually neglecting any of my charges, obligations, responsibilities, etc.

This is the hardest part about the whole writing project: the jumping at warp speed back and forth through worm holes of consciousness, day in and day out.   I can do it, but it makes me cranky.  As a devoted parent, (Hello, my love!  Have you returned from another one of your great adventures in fourth grade?), I have had to dial back the crankiness.

(I often think of J.D. Salinger, these days, who wrote from a bunker in his back yard.  When he was in the bunker, sometimes for weeks on end, he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED.  For his children, at such times, he was as accessible as the man on the moon.)

In the past week, I have become aware that not only do I need to dial back the crankiness, I also have to ratchet up my awareness of the needs of those in my charge--specifically, Josh and my kitten.  In fact, my real life became a compelling subject in its own right.

The tension between the two worlds shifted, perceptibly.  The gravitational pull of Earth superseded that of Book.  At one point, the atmosphere around Book grew so thin that I was no longer grounded there.  I floated in the air, above it.  I felt myself getting lighter and lighter, floating higher and higher.

(In addition to J.D. Salinger, I have also been thinking about God, lately.  Does God feel pulled in infinite directions?   Does the heart of God break in one world and soar in another?   It would, I imagine.

As my attention shifted to the demands of my life, writing seemed less important and interesting, and increasingly superficial and chore-like.  Like when you first start working out, it makes you feel healthy and alive, and you talk about it constantly, boring everyone to death.  But after a while, you grow accustomed to that feeling of physical well being.  You take it for granted.  It's a bit of an inconvenience to get to the gym. You get the flu.... You drift.

I should explain, I have a sick kitten at home, whom I adore.  I am trying to nurse him back to health.  This is undoubtedly more involved than you're supposing.   Improvement and deterioration are running a very close race.  It's compelling, and depressing.

Fortunately, I have a muse.

Muse, n.: a guiding spirit.  a source of inspiration.

She is both real and imagined.  As a real person, I don't know her all that well.   As a character, I know her very well.   She has one foot in this world, and one foot in my imaginary world....Just like me.

She was scheduled to come over for tea.  I often considered rescheduling.  I was depressed, and my mind was elsewhere.  But I didn't cancel tea.

She sat at my kitchen table, and listened to me talk at length about the kitten, instead of the book.  She listened and empathized.  We both talked about our real lives.  We didn't talk about the book until the last minute, when I fired off a bunch of questions.   Before I knew it, and without knowing why, all was well with the book again.

I know the story I want to tell, but how to tell it is a series of riddles.  They must be answered before I can write any further.  Like in a conceptual world in a video game.  Every chapter is a moment that has to be about something.  That is the riddle.

She gets in her car, drives off to the barn to see her horse.  I might see you at the barn, I say.  Good-bye!  Thank you!  

But I don't go to the barn.  I sit right down at my computer. I write until the clock says I must stop: I must come back.  So, reluctantly, and with considerable effort, I jump, at warp speed, through the wormhole.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

Raise your hand if you thought I'd been defeated in my latest bid for literary gory.  I mean glory.  Show of hands, please.

Not yet, my erstwhile friend, not yet!  Soon, perhaps, but not yet.

As I thought, having a private blog where I can post excerpts from my first-draft for a small group of adoring readers has been very helpful.  It fends off an insidious sloppiness and inspires me to look at my work with greater objectivity.  And it is another motivation to write, (in addition to my own powerful motivation to tell the story).

Posting a chapter, or what will become the basis for a chapter, is very satisfying.  Once it's posted, I see it differently yet again, and I make further corrections.

Needless to say, once the link to this post is on Facebook, I will click on the link myself and make even more corrections.  It's a perverse process of publication and self-correction.  (Hence, my hyperbolic title, let a hundred flowers bloom, referring to Mao Zedong's campaign of encouraging everyone to express themselves openly, and then sending the dissidents to self-criticism camp.)  (It's an absurd comparison, but I have to pepper my prose with historical references, now, and it's about to get worse, so hold onto your hat.)

Charles Dickens' The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club was written in twenty serial installments between 1836 and 1837.  It was the first writer-reader relationship of its kind.  Dickens heard his readers' (they were legion) response to what he had just written, and he knew that they were eager for the next installment of the story.   Would the public have been as hungry to consume a 784-page novel as they were to consume the piecemeal portions that continually whet their appetites?

Could he have written the 784-pages of The Pickwick Papers without his readers' enthusiasm and energy?
His very first published book was a collection of sketches that he had submitted to various magazines for publication.  On the strength of those sketches, he was hired to write the captions for artist Robert Seymour’s humorous sports-themed illustrations.   Dickens "captions" were so well received by the reading public that they superseded the illustrators.  The tables were turned: the illustrator supported the author.  And then, I don't know why, perhaps he took succession terribly hard; the illustrator took himself out of the picture entirely.

I think that the immediacy of Dickens' relationship with his readers as he was writing influenced his writing enormously.  (I don't offer this forth as an original thesis, I'm just sayin'.)   I feel, when I read Dickens, a particular devotion to his reading public, and a quick search on Google finds his own words, confirming:

Literature cannot be too faithful to the people, cannot too ardently advocate the cause of their advancement, happiness and prosperity.  --Charles Dickens

Shakespeare also had a close and immediate relationship with his audience.   Far from being holed up in a study, Shakespeare more likely wrote from the wings, or in the otherwise empty box seats at the Globe.  He probably revised as he directed.  It is certain that his actors played a role in rephrasing Shakespeare's lines, perhaps even inventing lines, that we attribute to Shakespeare solely.

The audience imposed criteria on Shakespeare's work:

  1. It had to amuse the ordinary and disenfranchised people as well as the rich merchants, Queen Elizabeth, buccaneers, humanists, Catholics, and Protestants. 
  2. The greater part of the audience stood on their feet for the entire play--and spat, or threw rotten tomatoes at the stage if it failed to divert their attention from varicose veins, arthritis, sciatica, lice, consumption, or the consumptive cough of the bloke behind them, spraying it on their neck; never mind: itchy scalps, festering sores, fallen arches, or the chills, fatigue, and "a vague sense of apprehension" that accompanied the mysterious-terminal-Tudor sweating sickness.   

Shakespeare's motivation was clear enough: worm-and-disease-infested tomatoes and putrid-stinking garbage, or absolutely-they're-going-to-love-it-don't-worry-get-out-there-effing genius.   

All lines that did not fall trippingly off the tongue were ripped out of the mouth, with the sentiment of   castaways bailing seawater out of a leaky boat.  In the interest of money and art, and in the spirit of fear and survival, Shakespeare's scripts were forged in a lousy, itching, desperate, diseased, powerful, decorous, and above-all deserving audience, and shaped into transcendent poetry.

There are those who say that Shakespeare was too low-born and humbly educated to have been himself.   Instead, he had to be a noble, or at least a favorite at the Queen's court.  Such a candidate would have written in secret, far from the madding crowd.  Alone, without benefit of tomatoes, he would have written great literature for art's sake, without hope of credit, legacy, or agenda.

Yeah, right.  Tell it to the hand.  There is no single person smarter than a whole audience.  (It's true: there was a study done sometime in the late nineties. I heard it on NPR.  It concluded that a group of people was almost always smarter in the aggregate than any single smart person.)

So, yes.  I am still writing the book.  I'm on Chapter Ten.  According to my adoring, hand-picked readers, it doesn't suck.  However, I have noticed their attention flagging in the last two installments, so I guess I'll have to step up my game.

Reverence is fatal to literature.  --E.M. Forster

Monday, January 27, 2014

The First Draft

There are various ways of attacking this thing called a first draft.

One way is to go at it willy-nilly.  Take no prisoners!   A forced march, to the very end!  And then, when either Shackleton has set out in his little boat to find help, or Mao Tse Tung is paddling downriver on his back, you will find that you have a first draft.

And so, you stop.  You look back.  You go to the hardware store.  You buy a machete. You go at the thing front to back, whack!, whack!, whack!  You take no prisoners.  You  keep going, a forced march, right to the end.

At that point, you invest in some serious authorial software with names like [fill in the blank] and [fill in the blank, Bob].  This allows you to sort out the shards in alphabetical order and append them to card-like electronic tiles. Then you can re-arrange them all you want.  You can play mahjong or solitaire.

From what I have this morning read, there are outlining novelists and organic novelists.

Because I do not have an outline, I assume that I am an organic novelist.  The subliminal outline will be revealed to all--including me--in the fullness of time and through the process of keyboarding, which, you may remember used to be typing.

I tried to write a long made-up story (a.k.a., novel) once before, without benefit of an outline.  No GPS.  No compass. Not the remotest familiarity with the native language.  Just fast fingers, keyboarding like the wind, straight into the very heart of darkness.  From which no second draft ever emerged.

The truth is, on that project, I didn't really have a story.  All I had was one or two characters that I found personally compelling for some reason that I could not articulate, and a vaguely ghost-y sense of  imminent peril.

But that was not enough.

This time, it will be different.

I have a character who I can actually talk to.  Every detail of her story sparks my imagination and smacks of destiny to me.

Also, as of today, I have a support team--a pit crew, as it were.  When I run out of gas, blow out a tire, or crash into a wall--they will be there to sort me out with all haste and send me on my way.

But still, there are hazards.

1.  Imagine that your novel is a huge success.  It makes you rich and famous.  So rich and famous, in fact, that you can afford to build a heated and covered arena in your back yard.  You can buy the other five acres adjacent to your four.  You can keep apartments in Paris in New York.

Now, try to focus your attention back on your manuscript.  You can't do it, can you?

2. Forget about the interesting parts of your story.  Spend inordinate amounts of time fiddling with the insignificant parts.  Wordsmith it like a deranged poet with OCD.  If that sentence resists your contortions, don't give up!  Spend an hour on it at least, if you have to!

Then try to remember what motivated you to write this story in the first place.  You can't remember, can you?

3. Hire an ex-felon on Craigslist to tile a kitchen floor that you know for a fact is possessed by the one hundred-year-old poltergeist of a Scandinavian dairy farmer.  Oh, and keep your kid home from school for two days because his skin will curdle in the cold from twenty seconds' exposure.

Now try to give language to that brilliant insight you had the other night.  You can't do it, can you?  F.Scott Fitzgerald could.  Remember that footage of him at the party, everybody's gaily running around jumping into fountains, and there's Scott, sitting on a stump or something, hunched over his manuscript, oblivious to the world, scratching away at it with his outrageously poor spelling.


I'm sure there are other hazards, but these are the first three that I ran into today.

The floor guys are gone, but the kid is still here.  I tried.  Tomorrow, I try again.

As that potent character, Scarlet O'hara, once said, "Tomorrow is another day!"

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mia Appologia

I hesitate to say it, because I know it sounds pretentious and it's going to jinx me, but I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway...

I'm writing a book.

Yeah, I know.

How is that different from my New Year's resolution to swim laps three times a week?

And BTW, before we get to the matter of the book, how's the swimming going?, you might ask.

It's very cold outside.  The wind blows the snow into the driveway.  And Josh has basketball and archery on Saturdays.  

Swimming is not going all that well. 

Please, let's not get all negative on me now.  (That's a Bob Dylan lyric, isn't it?)

I am.  Writing.  A book.

I'm sorry, but I'm not going to tell you what it's about, because every time I do that, (I've done it three times), I feel the energy of it drain away from me.  I want to keep that energy for the book.  (If this sounds like a Victorian argument against the wasteful spilling of seminal fluid, I don't care.)

I think there might be lots of interesting stuff to say about the writing-a-book-experience without spilling, as it were.

But first, there's something I've got to get off my chest:  I'm sorry!

I apologize in advance for the following items:
  • For holing up, more or less, until this book is written.  (Don't look for me at the pool.)  
  • For not participating in altruistic activities,  as I otherwise would if I weren't engaged in the narcissistic pursuit of literary immortality. 
  • For being cheap with money because my hours of writing are not in any way billable.
  • For being even more of an airhead than usual--yes, it's possible--because I am caught up in a fictional world loosely based on a true story.
  • For not keeping up with things generally, for the reasons noted above.
I hope that those of you who are affected by any of this will understand.  If you've noticed no difference whatsoever, then you are a happy person whose expectations of others are properly calibrated, and you shall never suffer the slings and arrows of, um, disappointment.  

Most of all, I hope that my modest sacrifice of time, money, and grace will be worth it.  


That's Latin for we shall see.  Now that I'm an almost-famous author, I will be peppering my posts with Latin and French. 

You might want to print them out.  They might be valuable one day!

One more thing.  I apologize in advance if I turn into a pompous literary ass.  I doubt that will happen, but it is one of the occupational hazards of becoming a famous author.

Au revoir!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

I Love When Everything Stops

I told my friend Jen, a little too gleefully, that I secretly enjoy cancelling things.  She was nonplussed.  And I understand that response.  She has been teaching me how to ride horses again, after a 30-year hiatus.  And as you might guess, people tend to cancel their scheduled riding lessons with casual frequency.

Kids get sick, sports conflict, child-care falls through...There are a hundred good reasons, but occasionally an adult rider simply forgets, until five minutes past the lesson hour when they are ensconced in the bathroom-decor aisle of the Super Target, that they had a lesson at all.

So I back pedaled as fast as I could, on a horse.

It wasn't that I liked cancelling things.  I liked it when things were cancelled.  I liked acts of God, when the scheduled activities of the day are dry-erased because of snow conditions or wind chill warnings.

One of my favorite memories is New England's blizzard of '78.

A snow drift reached the second story of my house.

We had to evacuate to a friend's house.

School was canceled for a week.

We lived in Swampscott, eleven miles north of Boston, and a short walk to the Atlantic ocean, which boiled over our fortifications and poured into the streets.

Folks strapped on skis, snow boots, snow shoes.  They tied small children to sleds and trudged or skied into a hushed and humbled seashore town knocked back a hundred years.  To my way of thinking, it had never looked more beautiful.

Debbie, who gave us refuge, had a fireplace.  She rolled newspaper into tight wands that ignited a toastyand crackling hearth. She made beef Stroganoff  with sour cream and mushroom soup,egg noodles, and steak.

By day, there was a steady back-beat of Jackson Brown, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Linda Ronstadt.

In the evening, there was Motown and Jimmy Cliff.

Deb taught me the jitterbug.

We turned on the news every night to get the latest on the storm, school closings, and Gov. Mike Dukakis's sweaters.  He had a great collection of pullover sweaters in a variety of colors.  This is the only example of Dukakis in a sweater that I could find on Google.  He was much younger in 1978, but this is a nice sweater.

Sometimes, like right now, as a writing person, I have to carve out time to sit and type.  Sometimes, like right now, that involves not doing something else, (like going to church).  It almost always involves trying to get some distance on my subject--pulling away from it--in order to see it more clearly.

Having everything in one's life temporarily suspended affords me the guilt-free luxury to get that perspective, and the time to sit down and type about it.

Of course, I regret the catastrophic implications of severe weather.  I don't mean to turn a blind eye to it, or to gape with rapacious curiosity.

(On the other hand, in moments of pending disaster, aren't we all more aware of those who are most vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and circumstance?  Do they suffer so much less at other times, when we are not looking?)

It doesn't have to be the weather, of course.  It could be illness within my own family.  Assuming a manageable case of the flu, not involving the stomach, I'm all for it.  Let's cancel everything and stay home. Let's hunker down, take long naps, watch movies, and drift aimlessly through the hours.

I'll spend the day with my son, or I'll spend it alone but not lonely, uncomfortable but not miserable, convalescing on the couch, snuggled up to a dog.

Proust spent most of his waking life and writing hours in bed.

Winston Churchill, you may be surprised to learn, didn't rise from his bed until called upon to do so for a meeting that could not occur within the confines of his own bed chambers.

He was very productive in bed, Churchill.  There, he ate, drank coffee, dictated all manner of communications, and engaged in strategy and decision-making at the highest level.

It can be a productive life style, staying in bed.  At one time, it was the privilege of achievers; today, it is considered a hallmark of clinical depression.

I am writing from the couch.

I should really go douse the kitchen floor with adhesive remover, walk the dogs in the blistering cold, and then commence scraping the glued-on layer of cardboard that had been somehow nuked onto the sub-flooring byone of this house's previous owners.

In any case, Whosie, the kitten on my lap, has become an obstruction.

One must go, and do what one must.

Oh, but I do love stopping!