Friday, January 31, 2003

Reading a collection of short stories by Garrison Keillor just now. He has the ability to take the most ordinary of life's events and turn it into hilarity. I keep trying to think of some incident in my life that was hilarious. Of course, all those memories flee for the darkest corners of my mind when they know I'm looking for them.

The only ones left are the ones weighed down with some element that is definitely not funny, some whiff of cruelty or personal tragedy or loss (which was probably what made them so funny to begin with, by way of contrast), there they trundle for the closet, desperately trying to get away, trundle trundle Ohmygod here she comes! No! No! Not me! I can't stand the light of day!

Then, when I'm about to leap and pounce, it turns on me and bares its fangs: No! Wait! you'll be sorry! Don't you remember, it turned out that in the uproariousness of the moment you forgot to go pick up your mother from the doctor's and he'd just told her she had a suspicious lump and she'd have to have a CAT scan and they wouldn't know for two weeks whether she had cancer, so there she stood for an hour and a half in the pouring rain, terrified and abandoned, while you and your gang of idiots drank wine and laughed the afternoon away?--

and by golly that's effective. The whole thing doesn't seem so funny any more. I let it skitter off under the baseboards.*

And the description of physical pratfalls--Keillor is a master! How does he do that? Lord knows I've had my share of those. But to be able to write about them so they're funny? No way. It ends up reading like an engineer's deconstruction manual. Yawn.

I would love to be able to write humor. Oh, sometimes in my stories, when I read them to the writer's group, they'd get laughs--but always where and for what, took me completely by surprise. I hadn't meant it to be funny. Fortunately, those laugh-points were okay, I didn't have to pitch the story, or re-write it; they didn't hurt, and probably helped the stories.

But it makes me wonder. When I wrote it, there was no humor in my body. I wasn't thinking of it as humorous. Yet, it was. Man, people have told me all my life I'm weird. I guess I really must be!

*Note: this event is made up. But don't worry, I've been just as much an ass in other situations. It's close enough.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

It's become apparent to me that this novel I'm working on, and the daily exercises in writing I've been doing, are having more impact than just "writing a story." I'm having to delve rather deeper into myself than I'd ever anticipated. For one thing, I'm discovering that one source of the problem I've had, and am having, with the novel is that I haven't yet fallen in love with the main character. Her being a girl would probably explain that. In the first half or two-thirds of the book, I focused on the two men who came into her life when it had almost been extinquished. *Them* I love. Why can't I love the main character in my whole book???

Yikes. Could it be that I need to learn to love myself first? Now, anyone who can say that, probably has things in their lives that they'd just as soon not explore, thank you. But I've got this need, this desire, this urge, to finish this story so maybe the world will read it, pushing me right up against what I don't want to investigate. I thought I'd gone through all that self-examination years ago. Done that. Been there. The beer was lousy.

So, I've dragged the boxes and sacks of old photos down out of the attic. I tried to go through them awhile ago and found the process so depressing that I put them away almost immediately. This time I'm going with a different purpose. I want to find the good, the fun, the laughter, the happy memories in those old pictures, not just the hurts and the losses. I decided I'd just take out a handful, and go through them slowly, and study each one, and plumb it for all the memories it would yield. Maybe all I'm grieving is the fact that I had to frickin' GROW UP!!! That would be the pip, wouldn't it? What a jerk, feeling sorry for myself because I couldn't stay in that Candyland childhood I'd conjured up for myself.

It's not even that my childhood was so horrible, don't think that. I just haven't dealt with a lot of things, things that aren't uncommon, and I think it's holding me back from understanding, and maybe forgiving myself. For what, I don't know. That's probably why I've avoided the photo-tour!

So I'm going to pull up my socks and look at some of them tonight, and let my mind wander through those long-gone days. Maybe I'm just saddled with a lot of Lutheran guilt ("Doom, gloom, tomb, with the emphasis on Good Friday," one fellow Luther-Leaguer said years ago) and I'll discover that there isn't that much to loathe myself about.

Heck, it's worth a try. I really want to get this darned book finished!

Monday, January 27, 2003

I was out of the office for two days, and when I returned someone had left a bolt, a nut, and a washer on my desk.

I looked about for something that was falling apart. Nothing apparent. I turned my swivel chair over; nope, it has completely different kinds of hardware.

Monday morning, and they're still there. No one has mentioned them. I'm baffled. Is this perhaps *not* a prosaic furniture situation? Is it perhaps cosmic? Is Someone trying to tell me I'm getting old, and falling apart? I wouldn't call that a news flash. At 52, I'm pretty well aware that parts are starting to get loose and fall off, or out.

Or is this a science fiction adventure? Are these three little parts perhaps lost objects from another universe? Maybe this happens all the time, and we just don't realize it. Everyone knows that laundry dryers are gateways through which single socks escape to some happier sock-heaven. Maybe these errant items--all kinds of things that get lost everywhere--*all* turn up, unexplained, un-noticed, in other universes. I'm pretty sure I've seen a few at rural estate sales. There are always one or two items--usually in the kitchenware or out in the barn--whose purpose is a complete mystery not only to me but to everyone I ask. Now I suspect that they were created in another universe to do jobs that exist only Over There. If we could reverse-engineer them, maybe we'd find out what the other universes are like. Then the question would be: who cares? Don't we have enough to do trying to exist in our own?

On a more down-to-Earth level, maybe some workman did something with the lights or mysteries above the false ceiling, above my cubicle, while I was gone. If so, that begs the question: what's dangling by one-too-few bolts up there, gently swaying in the super-ceiling breezes, waiting to drop on my head when I least expect it?

The scariest question of all: Did I request this hardware? I certainly don't think so, but hey, this is government, and I might have wanted a bolt, a nut, and a washer four and a half years ago and sent in a request for them, and then with the turning of the calendars' pages, forgotten all about it. Or I might have ordered it last Tuesday and forgotten all about it. How would I know, if I've got lacunae in my memory? Am I going crazy? Do I have Alzheimer's--and how the heck would I tell, anyway, when I've been prone to forgetting things all my adult life (I don't remember what I forgot in my childhood)?

On the other hand, someone might have placed them here just to drive me nuts. So to speak. Just to set off this very cascade of ever-more-panicked ruminations. What diabolical mind would *do* this to someone?

--Just a sec, the phone's ringing--

Back now. Where was I?

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

We went out to a pancake house for breakfast yesterday morning. As we ate, I saw a middle-aged couple get up from their booth to leave.

She was tall, with a piled-up hairdo making her look even taller. She wore dark pink lipstick and a puffy knee-length winter coat. There was something sparkly nested in her coif.

He wore blue jeans too small for *me* to ever squeeze into, and a turquoise Western shirt with pearl snaps on the pockets. He walked stiffly on bow-legs, as though he'd ridden too many broncs. His tummy pushed out on the Western shirt. He had combed several long hairs from over his left ear to his right ear to cover his bald head. He had metal-rimmed glasses and a leathery sun-burnt face. His gait was a macho-man's roll, one I've seen on numberless older cowboys. And he was packing heat: at his hip bobbed a heavy retractable tape measure. The label said "30'," clearly legibile from twenty feet away.

I described the couple, then the tape measure, to my husband. "It's all about measuring," I told him.

Tall wife, short man with a tape measure. If I'd put those two in a story, that detail would be criticized for being too obvious. But so often we do put out clear signals about ourselves.

Thin, horizontally-striped sweater, a size too small, and corduroy pants; add a thin leather choker and pillow-mashed hair and you've got an Indie kid.

Blue jeans too long in the leg, a black Final Conflict tee shirt stretched across a drum-sized belly; greasy hair long overdue for a trim, black-rimmed glasses taped together with a band-aid (r) at the bridge, and orange-stained fingers: if this guy doesn't live in his mother's basement with six computers and a Tomb Raider poster, I'll eat my hat.

I could go on for days with stereotypes like these from all walks of life: the Mexican motel maid's junk-heap of a car; the politician's injection-molded hairdo and professionally manicured fingernails and smile; the Chad refugee's tall, skeletal thinness in thrift shop double-knit pants and a tan-and-brown windbreaker in 10 degree weather...

The question for a writer is when to use these images to lend truth to a scene--because all stereotypes are born in the truth no matter how distorted by evil they become later--and when to turn one upside-down or inside-out to create a surprise, an insight, on the page.

A stereotype can be used, legitimately I think, to establish that recognition in a reader: I know this Indie kid! And at the same time to engender trust: this writer knows the scene. Trust is very important, particularly when you intend to do something later that's outlandish, because it may help your reader keep believing, so he or she won't throw the book away when they get to the outlandish part.

A stereotype is even more useful to a writer when it's used counter-intuitively. The poor Chad refugee who turns out to be a war criminal on the lam, cleverly and coldly disguising himself as a Lost Boy, one of his own victims. This character would not only earn my enmity as a reader, it downright gives me chills.

I've seen this suggestion for writers often: Keep a notebook of character sketches, and jot down actual people you see. I think I'll start doing that.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

For my writing exercise this morning, I decided to start by using the made-up words in this morning's Musings. That's a great little program for writers, by the way, and you can find it at Grim Software. It worked, it got me going for further writing. Here's one of them:


Remove yourself to a remote Scottish castle for the sake of the handsome man within it. Gradually have unexplained, disturbing and distressing events, conversations, encounters and thoughts build up until you're afraid he's going to 1) kill you, or 2) confess he's really a ghost.

At the height of your fright and anxiety, leave the castle in the middle of a winter windstorm, and travel, alone, the narrow winding footpath to the edge of the 2,000 foot cliff overlooking the lead-grey, storm-tossed sea.

Gaze fearfully into the churning black clouds with your tears freezing on your face.

There, you're mandering.

And in the morning, you can tell your sinister but excruciatingly attractive husband: "Last night I went a-mandering again."


And no, I am *not* ashamed.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Have you ever watched a mosquito liberate itself from its pupal case at the surface of the water "by a dorsal splitting of the pupal integument"?

I thought not.

The fancy part of that question, by the way, is lifted almost verbatim from the wonderful Freshwater Invertebrates of the United States, 2nd Ed., by Robert W. Pennak. My bible.

To go on--I have. And under what I think were remarkable circumstances. It was 1991. I had stopped at my alma mater's bio lab to study up on aquatic invertebrates, on the way to interview for a job I desperately, passionately, wanted. Anyway, after perusing their extensive collection of preserved specimens, I dipped a dollop of water, algae and assorted minute animals out of their aquarium, and put the dish under the dissecting microscope (the one that only magnifies to 4x or so).

To my amazement, there were mosquito larvae in the sample I'd drawn. They were in the pupal stage, with their siphons clinging to the surface tension of the water. They seemed to have white heads, and several were squirming spasmodically. I lost myself watching their jerky exertions.

Then, one of the pupal cases split open, and a mosquito head the size of a pen-tip burst through. It was emerging! Right before my eyes!

I held my breath and watched the creature struggle to free itself from the body of the case. It writhed and snapped, and I urged it on, "You're almost there! Keep trying!" It looked so hard! Such huge effort for such a tiny creature. Then, its narrow tail-end squeezed free, and an adult mosquito stood on the water surface, its hair-thin feet making minute dimples on the water's skin. It spread its damp wings--miniscule stained-glass windows in the microscope's field--and in five seconds it disappeared. Lifted up out of the specimen bowl and vanished into the air of the cavernous lab.

I sat back, stunned. I felt like I'd watched a birth. How could I be so lucky, to take my sample just five or ten minutes before nature told this little individual "Its' time! To fly!" I'll never forget it.

I got the job, too.

If you're thinking, "Cool! Wish I could see that!" you just might be a biologist. If you're thinking "Yeuch! Why didn't she kill it!" then you're not a biologist. I won't hold it against you.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003


The drive home on the Interstate was a joy today as usual. I only go 65 (have I mentioned that?) due to being a cheapskate--it makes a significant difference in gas mileage between 65 and 75, and I'm not in that much of a hurry to get anywhere. But there's always your Certifiable Moron with the cell phone stuck in her ear, weaving back and forth in her lane--just enough to make you nervous--and going 60, or 57, or God help us 55.

So I passed her, and made sure to give her The Look. And then I wondered: Why do I do that? What's the point? She's not paying the slightest attention, and if she was she wouldn't care. I mean, she's already out in public demonstrating her idiocy, why would she care if I glared at her?

But it's like a compulsion, isn't it? When somebody's pissed us off in traffic (I'm not talking about in town here; when traffic is that slow, and cars are that close together, I don't look at anybody. People have shot each other in this town over nasty looks, I kid you not) and after miles and miles of frustration we finally get around them, we just have to give them a dirty look. Somehow it does help dissipate the aggravation, a little. Kind of an anticlimax. Like if you got Frodo and Sam all the way to the Crack of Doom, and Frodo pulled out the ring and said, "Oh drat! I've brought the wrong ring!"

[abrupt lane change ahead]

And what is it about American movie-goers and our need for really gruesome revenge on bad guys? I mean, they make the bad guys really gruesome, too, but how does shoving someone in a buzzsaw (or whatever clever trick they've thought of lately) accomplish anything except leave a big mess for the night crew to clean up? Movies sort of masturbate this puerile need we have to By God Balance The Scales. Whatever happened to letting God deliver judgement and punishment? Since when does Steven Seagal get to do it? I mean, Steven Seagal???

It's due to movie makers understanding that we *do* want justice. We don't want an anti-climax. That was the great thing about that hideous movie "Se7en," that even though Brad Pitt's character blew the bad guy away at the end (oh, you haven't seen it? Too bad. Don't. I still can't figure out why they made the thing) at least they'd laid the groundwork for that outcome. He just wasn't ready for that level of maturity, reason, balance (not that I blame him). They did a great job of showing how Morgan Freeman's character was trying throughout the story to bring him along. At least they conveyed a sense that Pitt's character had failed, when he went for the emotionally satisfying action at the expense of the higher purpose of the law. I don't care about whether a jury would've let the bad guy off, or a judge would've kicked out the case on a technicality or any of that rancid old '70's cop show crap. There are higher human qualities that we need to be reaching for and exalting. Unfortunately, amid all the grue in that film, I'm afraid the subtler message was lost. Had great opening credits, though (heh heh nine inch nails heh heh heh)!

Shouting in the wilderness, that's me. At least I don't do it into a cell phone at 62 1/2 miles an hour.

Friday, January 10, 2003

The weirdest thing happened this morning. I've been listening to Natalie Goldberg's tapes of her book Thunder and Lightning all week on my way to meet my carpooler, and then in the afternoon from the carpool to home. Today I drove the whole 120-mile round trip by myself, so I really had a dose.

I've loved every minute of the tapes. I've already started over on Tape 1. She's really helped me start to recover from this terrible desert of not writing that's lasted almost two years.

I've started trying her "writing practice" first thing when I get to work (I get there an hour before I actually need to start working). I sit at my desk, read a chapter of her Writing Down the Bone, and then write for ten or fifteen minutes without stopping. Then I put that aside, and spend the rest of the time until 7 a.m. working at my novel. (Two thirds done; hung up for more than 2 years; has been a terrifying iceberg in my path all that time.) It seems to be working.

But the weird thing this morning was that after I put my writing away, and settled down to get to work, the first thing I looked at was a trade industry journal, Stormwater (I'm a wetlands biologist and a project manager for the nonpoint source water pollution grants program for my state). I'd glanced at it hurriedly a couple of times since it landed in my mailbox Monday. This time I opened it to try to glean some education about new methods of protecting catch basins and inlets.

I began to read, and it seemed a lot more interesting to me than it had the first two times I'd looked at it. About one and a half paragraphs into it, I realized I was hearing Natalie Goldberg's voice in my head, reading to me about petrochemical and solids traps, phase-separated pollutants, and trenchless cured-in-place pipe repair.

I blinked, and went back to reading, keeping Natalie's voice in my head.

It became funny very quickly, because not only was she reading it to me, the way it was written fit her reading cadence perfectly! I read and read -- and understood and retained it! -- and started to wonder if maybe the writer had studied at her knee, or was a Zen practitioner.

To me, writing this now, it seems that *this* writing sounds just like Natalie Goldberg, the way she shapes her paragraphs and the logic of her idea development.

I don't know, do you think it's possible to overdose on a set of tapes?

Oh lord, even that sounds like something she would write! (And so does that...)

It reminds me of a game my husband and I play sometimes. Doesn't matter the subject; one of us thinks to say, "I made you say that!" and the other comes back with, "I made you say that!" and it goes on and on until we're both either fed up or laughing so hard we've forgotten the original subject.

It's probably very Zen.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

There are three trees along the Interstate highway, eastbound I-80, at mile marker 419. They stand in a row, the farthest-west one the farthest from the shoulder, the middle one a bit closer, and the third one a little closer yet, so it seems as though they are greeting the east-bound traffic.

They are as identical to the eye as makes no difference: height, about 25 feet; the girth of their gray trunks, maybe 30 inches; the generous and symmetrical spreading of their now-naked branches to the sky. Their limbs may even touch one another as though they're holding hands. I am sure that when they're leafed out, their green fingers patter together in the breeze.

I call them the Three Sisters, and I try to watch for them every day, and when I pass I sometimes nod, or salute, and often say out loud, "Hello, ladies." I imagine that they can feel my love and admiration as I whiz past at 65 or 75 mph.

I want to start photographing them, and I will, over the course of the next year, to capture their elegant serenity through the seasons. I want to capture their beneficient grace on film, because I know that they are doomed.

In the next ten years, the Department of Roads is going to add another lane to the outsides of both directions of traffic between Omaha and Lincoln, and the Three Sisters are within the Right-of-Way of the new lane. Unless the DOR can be persuaded to move them--a costly procedure--they will fall beneath the tractor's scoop, be piled with dozens of their neighbors, and then either burned or carted off to a wood-chipper to make mulch for people's landscaping and park trails.

This breaks my heart, and I will write to DOR, and call my friends there, and do anything else I can to save them--but I fear it will all be for naught. It doesn't pay to fall in love with any roadside feature in Nebraska. Too often they're already slated for destruction even before you've discovered them.

So I want a little album of the Three Sisters. If I can, I might just stop one day this spring, and collect a leaf from each of them. Maybe I could make a collage with their leaves, and photographs.

They're beautiful, and beneficial, and benign, and they should not be forgotten.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

Seen in the grocery store parking lot today: two women pushing a full cart. Tiny, wrinkled Mom, with curly white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, crept along in her too-big camel wool coat. She clung to the cart handle peering and smiling out at the world. She'd powdered her face and put on cranberry-red lipstick, very carefully.

Her daughter matched her pace, awkwardly, with Mom's halting steps. Her henna'ed hair was a helmet of curls. She wore a Land's End jacket with suede trim, pressed blue jeans. Her nails were polished and perfect in their coats of blood-red. Her lips, the same color and stark against her white-powdered face, were curved in an identical smile. She could have been 70, or 60, or even a prematurely-aged 50. With all the make-up it was hard to tell. They looked like they enjoyed one another's company.

I wondered about the heavy make-up. Did Daughter learn the art at Mom's knee? Does she get up every morning and apply it just the way Mom taught her? Or does she only apply pale powder to her cheeks, and vivid gleaming red to her lips, when she's going to be with Mom. Is this how she avoids a reprimand: "You're going out in public like that? Without any make-up??"

But then I wonder about anybody who wears pancake make-up (except TV newspeople; *them* I know about). That's just me. I wear hardly any--indeed mostly, none. I think I've always been a little weird about that. It's a mental block: I don't understand why (for example) a man would find the same woman more attractive with a bunch of pigments and paste on her face. It's the same woman! Maybe someone should give him a present of a make-up kit, then he could stay home and adore that.

Like I said, I'm a little weird on this subject.

Friday, January 03, 2003

Happy 2003, everyone!

[Caution: The following scribble contains asterisks (*, **, etc.) which, unlike in my other blog entries, mean "look down to the bottom of this scribble because there's a note relating to this."]

I've started listening, during my commute, to Natalie Goldberg's reading of her THUNDER & LIGHTNING: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft cassette tapes. I've had a looong dry spell in my writing*--oh, two years, anyway--and now I dimly remember that I was feeling like I needed to "take it to the next level**" but that sort of got forgotten in all the thrashing and writhing in the anguish of the extinguished fire.

Now I'm thinking, Goldberg's tapes are just what I was needing but didn't know it at the time. (No, you'll be sorry to learn, she doesn't advise writers not to write run-on sentences.) I've only got through the first side of the first tape so far, and I can already tell I'll be listening to these over and over again. For one thing I have a poor memory for things I hear as opposed to things I read. For another, the things she says are very meaningful, dense with import, despite her simple, clear presentation. There are layers of implications that will take me several hearings to absorb.

The first thing she says (and do get the book or tapes and enjoy her own, infinitely better, expression of them) is that writing will make you miserable. I laughed out loud at that. Don't be put off though. Fact is, life makes you miserable. It also makes you joyful, fearful, rageful, hopeful and love-full. You're a human being; those states are natural to us, and above all--transitory. If you're a writer, writing is all you can do about it.

I won't go on and on about this. Except to add that what she is teaching, advocating, for writers is extremely scary, exciting, and affirming. And it has helped me write. I'm working on the novel again.

* - my fiction writing, I mean. I've still been writing letters, message board entries, grocery lists...

** - I hate that phrase. It reeks pomposity without content. I use it here as a sort of self-mockery.