Thursday, February 27, 2003

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve been a writer all my life. I started a journal as a young adult, and I started college intending to get a double major in biology and journalism. I took journalism classes, and in junior college I served as editor of the school paper for one semester. But it goes back much farther than that.

When I was 5 I think I wrote my first story. It was maybe four lines long, an illustrated work. It concerned a little girl getting a birthday present and discovering it was the same toy as someone else had already given her. “Oh well!” she said laughing. I think the gist was, if one is good, two is better. I showed it to my parents, who reproached me for this evidence of greed.

Later on, in grade school, I found science fiction. I read a lot of Andre Norton, Robert A. Heinlein, and a bunch of others I don’t remember. I’d spin elaborate tales in my head and start to write them down, but my small hands tired quickly of the effort, and I lacked the patience to finish them. I remember standing frustrated in the middle of my room one summer day and wishing, mentally creating, as it were, a marvelous machine into which I could speak, and it would do the hard job of writing my words down. I imagined that this machine wouldn’t be invented until far, far in the distant future that my favorite books told about, and grieved that I wouldn’t be around to see it. I said I was a writer back then, not a good prognosticator.

I had a lot of dolls and stuffed animals, and I’d cast them in my adventures and adopt different voices and many, many scary predicaments--and some happy endings. When I had playmates I’d try to do the same with them. No wonder I got chided for being bossy more than once.

In junior high, in the grip of Beatle fever, I penned a long Beatles story, and Lindsay Bloom, one of my Beatle-loving girlfriends typed it for me. It ran 40+ pages, single-spaced. Lindsay went on to the role of the secretary in Stacy Keach’s Mickey Spillane TV series, and I’ve heard she married one of the actors in The Dukes of Hazzard. I wonder what ever became of that manuscript. Probably ash-canned 30 years ago…or else Lindsay’s holding onto it until I become a world-famous author. Yeah, that’s probably it.

Friday, February 21, 2003

Wow, five days since I made an entry here. Well, it's not because I haven't thought about it. But every time, I'd slough it off with "I don't have anything to say. Why junk up the internet even more with my own useless drivel when there's plenty already?" But between that first thought of "" and "Why junk up...?" things were going on in my decision-making machinery. I knew that, I just whizzed on past it. Don't worry this isn't going to be a heavy soul-searching. [Whew! I can hear you say.]

Lately it seems like my mental space has been crowded with too much, and it's all my own doing. I've got a little party I'm hosting tomorrow [Eek! Tomorrow!] and the carpet cleaner came twice this past week, so we had all the dining room stuff stuffed into the kitchen, and hubby's been down with a miserable cold so I've been doing all the cooking and of course I had to ram my toes into the cedar plank bookshelves that were stashed *directly* in the footpath into the kitchen and I think I've got a broken toe,


and while I was waiting for the carpet cleaner Thursday, and hubby was waiting, miserably, for his cold to lighten up, my new notebook computer arrived so *there's* a couple of hours wasted oohing and ahhing and poking and scowling at the User's manual and it snowed 8" last Saturday so every morning I've had either snow and ice, or heavy frost--latterly *mud* since it's now 50 degrees to clean off my car before heading out for work at 5 a.m.--

gasp gasp!

and I've started a family web site that various members of my family have been clamoring for for several years but no one's showing up to look at it, and I've started sorting through the bushel basket of photos going back to the 1940's (before I was born) and that has been an emotional adventure let me tell you...and I've been maintaining my momentum with the return to my writing after two long dry years of blockage, so I've been thinking a lot about writing, and about *what* I'm writing, and the morning writing exercise has dredged up some stuff I suppose I need to deal with since it pains and bugs me every time I think about it...and I'm behind with the laundry and the kitchen's a mess--

Ye gods. I'm back in the squirrel-cage ferris wheel. This has got to stop! No good can come of it.

So, you see, I really *don't* have anything to say here--that's worth saying. Except I don't need to let my mind be cluttered with such a cacophony of crap. It's high time I made time in my life daily to just Be Quiet.

Let's see, where's my PDA...yup, I've got a free quarter-hour between 2 and 2:15. A.M.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

I just laughed myself sick at Jim Lilek's column "Back Fence" in the Minneapolis Tribune (URL at end of this entery; I want you to read *mine* first) about life in the basement during a Chemical Or Biological Weapons Red Alert.

I often disagree with Mr. Lileks on politics but there's no one better--funnier, truer--on home relations (that means FAMILY, silly! Didn't you notice there was no "land" grafted onto "home"?). When he's funny, I end up with my gut hurting from laughing so hard. When he's touching, I weep, and think about his words for the rest of the day. For the many days when he's neither, he's just recording what his life was like today, it's a touchstone for my day. And I love his dog, Jasper.

It takes a real knack to turn everyday life details into something interesting or funny or moving enough to read every day. I mean, I have *my* everyay life going on, too, how dumb would it be to try to "live" a *second* life if all the guy gave you was his daily To Do List?

I can write to everyday details--sometimes. Mostly my imagination fails. I drive 120 miles round trip to work every day. That's the same stretch of I-80 day in, day out. Virtually the only thing that changes (aside from the seasons) is which section of the Interstate is Department of Roads tearing up today?

OK, OK, I know; each minute each inch of that highway is different than a) the inch to either side of it, b) different than it was the minute before, and c) different than it will be in the next minute.

Fine. You go gaze regardfully at that stretch of I-80 with the perspective of a Hindu god. I have to get back to Omaha to visit my mom in the nursing home.

A visit which Lileks could probably turn into a hysterical knee-slapper and a heartstring-tugger. Too bad for you, I can't.

Oh, here's that Lileks column link.

And just for good measure, here's his personal web site. Don't MISS the Gallery of Regrettable Food! The Bleat.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

I drive every morning 60 miles through the dark cold. Stars watch me from far away glowing blue-white to show their indifference--but they still watch even though they've long ago moved away from where they first trained their bright beams upon the earth.

Cold night air. Through my life I've been out in the cold dark air many times, and how could such an experience not leave its traces in me?

One late night in frigid northern Iowa in the 1970's I went out into our big front yard. We had a foot of virgin snow out there and where the cold moonlight brushed the snow crystals, millions of tiny stars answered their older mightier brethren. Is this the only answer Earth offers to the haughty gaze of those vast fireballs?

Humans have invented artificial lighting and now our planet is a sphere wrapped in a network of glow. We have embraced our lights as though by keeping the dark at bay we can vanquish that distant hauteur. But the stars continue their stately glide through space, their light speeding for millions of years to strike our ephemeral retinas as though that was the reason those particular photons began their journey long before humanity's ancestors had even developed notochords.

So I drank up the stars and the moon, and the millions of reflected beams from the snow; saw the blue waves of snowdrifts spread across our quarter-acre front yard; saw the darkness between the stars and blanketing the countryside between farmyard lights as not black but the blue so deep it's almost infinite.

I inhaled the night air and felt it freeze the moisture in my nostrils as a sharp, dry, pinch. I thought of myself out there under the mysterious universe as no less a mystery, only so small and brief, it was unimaginable.

Nothing stirred. No bird called, no cow lowed. Even the highway two miles away lay silent, respecting the weight of all those billions of years and all those rays of cold starlight.

You are nothing, the stars thought. Compared to our majestic eons you are less than a breath, a blink.

Ah, I said, but I'm looking back at you.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

[This is a very long blog today, and I apologize for that. But I dedicate it to my friend Gregory Koster, and to all librarians everywhere. You're my heroes!]

When I lived in the old farmhouse outside Rutland, Iowa, I became well-acquainted with the librarians in Humboldt, the nearest town large enough to have a library. They were unfailingly patient, diligent, encouraging, good-humored and amazingly knowledgeable.

I researched Anthony Zerbe’s theatrical career there after becoming intrigued with his work on “Harry O.” I discovered the series of books called “The Year’s Best Plays.” I’d look Zerbe up in the Guide to Periodical Literature and go hunt down the references--usually those annual “best of” books, but sometimes a magazine reference. Doing this I was teaching myself library resource skills I would later use heavily in grad school. I also found every play Zerbe was in, and read those, too.

I learned that my sympathies in “Othello” were with the bad guy, Iago. This was partly because that was Zerbe’s role in the play, but mostly because it seems to me that Iago’s the only character without his head up his ass. He’s the only one smart enough to know what’s going on--well to be fair, that’s because he’s instigating most of it--and it seemed like none of the others were aware enough to even feed themselves, let alone cotton onto the outrageously transparent machinations of Iago.

It was the early 1970’s, so environmental issues were in the air. I subscribed to Jacques Cousteau’s 20-volume series on life in the oceans. I had an organic garden, and subscribed to Organic Gardener & Farmer, and applied a lot of their ideas to my own garden. I found, somehow, the book The Organic Gardener by Catherine Osgood Foster, and that *really* turned me on.

All the reading I did, and poring over the pictures, opened up more questions: What is a “cation” that Foster writes about in her description of soil as a living community? I pronounced it “casshun” until I got into chemistry class in college because I didn’t know about ions and how that was the important part of the word.

I stared for hours at the jewel-like fish schools in Cousteau’s books, and the clown fish nestled in its sea anemone protector. How do these masses of fishes know to turn the same direction all at once? How did an anemone know that this was its clown fish and not some interloper?

I read a library book titled The Abyss and thrilled to its first chapter’s description of all the poop and dead microorganisms and creatures’ body parts as a stately, constant rain of nutrients down onto the inhabitants of the sea floor in their eternal night.

One book would prompt dozens of other questions, and send me back to the library. I discovered Inter Library Loan when I’d read every book on biology that Humboldt’s library had.

And still the questions came, springing up out of the pages. I felt insecure about what I was learning, afraid there were some basic things I didn’t know. My thoughts turned to college. There, I thought, my learning would be structured by textbooks and lab experiments and by teachers who really knew it all. I could go forward knowing there were no gaps in my understanding.

My concept of college was built on Dorothy Sayers’ descriptions of Oxford in her Lord Peter Wimsey series; by my one disastrous semester at Dana College--and my rich and highly enjoyable though challenging course in French there under Dr. Sarah Penick; and by a single comment made by one of the college-age senior counselors at Circle R Bible Camp, where I worked the summer after my sophomore year as a junior counselor. “It’s really hard,” she said. “I had no idea how hard it would be.”

I began hungering for that grueling, difficult challenge. I thought all colleges were like Oxford--full of brainy students working around the clock just to keep up, and demanding, if inspiring, professors.

When I at last started at Iowa Central Community College, with a schedule of English, Algebra, Biology, and Chemistry, it was with a wind of terror and excitement at my back. I threw myself into it with all I had. I was almost disappointed when I got all A’s that first semester. How can this be? I’ve never been a straight-A student in my life! This wasn’t that hard!

Of course by the time I graduated from ICCC, my expectations of college and its denizens had altered to a realistic view. Few places were like Oxford--probably Oxford wasn’t quite like my Oxford fantasy had been. But at least I was on my way.

What led my interest, back in that isolated farmhouse, to biology, the subject I’d hated in high school?

Just being there, I guess. Observing the plants (I still remember that the very first plant I keyed out on my own was a spiderwort in the road ditch) and animals (from an abandoned quarry I collected strings of toad eggs and put them into that ditch in front of our house, and couple of weeks later when I went out to the mailbox, there were dozens of pencil-eraser-sized toadlets hopping all over the place) and nature itself (we saw magnificent, eerie aurora borealis almost every winter in that northern-Iowa location).

And I’d been raised with a love of reading. A passion for reading. The library became my lifeline, my connection to a larger world, much larger and deeper than even TV could supply. The farmstead, my family, the local social relationships (community theatre, the saddle club) were not enough. I had a hungry mind, a vivid imagination, and voracious curiosity. The library fed it all, and gave me a step up into the world I wanted to know. I wonder now what those librarians thought of me. Crazy woman? Maybe. I wish they could know how they helped transform my life.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

This is how pitiful our computer system at work is: I use a database that was written by our IT guru 12 years ago to store my data on the state's mainframe computer.

Two weeks ago one of the IT people came through while I was out of town and updated my computer and some of its programs. When I got back, I discovered that now, instead of the 1/4-screen, light-gray eye-ruining screen I'd been stuck with for several years, I can now mazimize the data entry screen, it has a black background with big blue, red, green or white letters, AND -- this is the REALLY BIG THING: it now, after these long, 12 years of toil, actually has a Macro capability! This means that all those "clients" for whom I have to enter data multi-times throughout the year and often, in one day? I can just use a macro and fill in all the repetitive data. ("I know, dummy--that's what Macros are for!" -- Well, WHO KNEW??? Certainly not our IT people!)

Isn't it pitiful, in 2003, to be so delighted with a database program that has a Macro facility???

On the other hand, there's something to be said for being so happy with such a small thing that most other people doing this kind of work take for granted. Easily pleased, that's the ticket! Expect nothing (and you learn to do that, working for state government, believe me) and anything, any crumb of novelty or convenience (which in itself is a novelty), reduces you to tears of gratitude.

The only thing I can imagine is that they're fixing to take the whole program away soon, when I'm just getting used to this wonderful "new" feature, and make me keep records in cuneiform on clay tablets.