Archive for February, 2007

Waiting for the other shoe to drop (and ignoring the thuds in the background)

February 28, 2007

A very strange week this has been already. Part of it is the weather (Yeah, I know, here I go harping about that again). But we’ve had about 15 inches of rain this month. Yesterday we had two inches of snow (the bocce ball court was completely unusable ;^} ). Today we had more rain and hail and lots of sun in between.

I went to town for a writing group. It was productive for me for the first time in weeks, but more about that in a minute. I also bought scotch (a vital nutrient) and a whole bunch of groceries. When I got home, Ben said, “The weather forecast I just heard was so depressing I’m not even going to tell you about it.” But of course he did: 11 inches of snow for tomorrow. I’ll believe that when I see it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more than 6-8 inches out here. Of course, that’s enough to keep us from getting up our 20% grade driveway (except maybe in the Subaru now that it has the right tires or the RTV). But I bought enough fresh food to last a week or so, and of course I’ve got 3-4 weeks of canned goods and assorted packaged stuff. And if we run out of scotch, there’s the vodka, gin, bourbon, rum, and about 3 cases of wine. We’ll probably make it through. . .

Now, yesterday I celebrated the successes of some friends of mine. I even got a note from Heath (see comments in the previous post) about a new book of poems he has out. So I’ve been sort of flaggelating myself for being such a slug. I’ve definitely been in a post-grad-school slump, don’t have quite the right poems to finish my manuscript, don’t even know for sure what they are, can’t get inspired to send anything out, and so on.

But this afternoon at my friend Carla’s, my writing workshop (this is a “generate new material” workshop, not a critique group) started working. I got two rather good drafts of poems and a piece of prose that hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be yet.

Then I got home and found a note from the editor of an anthology to be issued (in April, I think) requesting a bio ASAP. She loved the work I sent her and said some awfully nice things about my writing. Then I thought about the friend who solicited work for the online arts journal Perigee. I sent her some work and realized I had no idea what had happened to it. So I looked. Lo and behold, they’ve published two of my poems in Issue 15 (also known as Vol. 4 Iss. 3). If you want to read them, they’re online. This link will take you to the first poem; just click next poem at the bottom to see the second one.

Then I remembered that I’ve been invited to read at the Silverton Poetry Festival in their grand finale “Feast of Poets” on Sunday April 22. This is a bigger deal than it sounds like, and I was very excited when I got the invitation. But then I immediately pushed it back in my head and got glum again.

But here I am tonight with a string of successes and some new work that’s actually promising, and the world is looking better all the time.

Night before last, it rained all night. We sleep with the windows open, and I woke up from time to time to hear it pounding down. Then, about dawn, it got very quiet, and I thought, “Cool. It’s stopped raining.” Then I opened my eyes to see these silver dollar sized clumps of snowflakes coming down.

It’s raining a bit outside right now, but the temperature is dropping even as I write this. We may very well get more snow tonight. But the pantries are stocked, no commitments in town for another week or so, a new NY Times Sunday puzzle awaits, and life is good.

Now I’d better publish this before the generator runs out of gas and I’m left trying to ressurect a draft. Then I’ll go bank the fires and just go to bed.

Suddenly everyone I know is famous

February 27, 2007

This morning I finally got around to opening up the Sunday Oregonian that I bought on my trip home from Fishtrap yesterday. I always go first to the “O” section. It has the crossword puzzle and the advice columns.

When I whipped it out of the 5-pound paper, what greeted me but a terrific photo of my friend and compadre Josh Bancroft. Josh and I worked together peripherally at Intel. He’s the one who got me started blogging. There are days I curse him (he must have known I have an addictive personality, and the fourth time I told him something and he said “Great! Have you blogged about it?” I started developing another obsession), but most of the time I bless him for his generosity in sharing his technical expertise and encouragement.

Josh is a terrific guy, and if he is representative of the near future, I am suddenly more optimistic.

Then I turned a page or two, and here is my friend Oz Koglin with her wonderful poetry featured in honor of Black History Month. If you haven’t run across Oz but you bought the paper, take a few minutes and read her work. She is an amazing poet.

Then I turn another page and find a review of Fishtrap’s Mary Schlick. Mary will be featured as one of the “Found at Fishtrap” authors at the 20th anniversary extravaganza this summer. She has two books now about her experience living on Indian reservations.

I’d love to put in electronic links to these various pieces, but I am finding The Oregonian Live a totally hopeless Web site. So I can only offer you Josh’s article, which he was kind enough to post a link to. Here is the link to the article about Josh.

Back from Fishtrap: I think I’m getting old and cranky. . .

February 26, 2007

I sailed home tonight (if you can call 10 hours of traveling sailing home) between major storms and arrived safely. Ben wanted me to stay in town tonight. He claimed he was worried about me traveling in some pretty foul weather, but I think he was secretly enjoying his time alone with no one to nag him–he almost admitted as much. But I was sort of dodging in and out of snow storms and hail and rain, and I elected to keep driving. I wanted to be home.

Fishtrap was wonderful as always. I saw a number of folks that I count as close friends even though I only see them at these twice-a-year events. But I also confess to a certain anomie after this particular session.

This winter session’s topic was “The Great Divide,” and the program proposed to explore the various ways in which we ensile ourselves and separate from others. The presentations were very good. Howard Berkes, NPR’s rural affairs beat reporter kicked things off. Bill Bishop, a journalist from Austin, presented some fascinating numbers about the changes in U.S. demographics in the last 30 years. And David Romtvedt, poet laureate of Wyoming, presented a very entertaining look at red and blue politics in Wyoming.

On top of all of this, we had wonderful music and dancing, a very funny recap by Jonathan Nicholas of the Oregonian, very good food, and terrific accommodations. So why the anomie?

Here we had 50 smart people and (for the most part) talented writers. But they couldn’t stay on topic. The breakout sessions for discussion disappointed me. They kept degenerating into views of the large abstractions like global warming and the war in Iraq.

Now, before you jump all over me and point out that the war in Iraq is not an abstraction (point conceded), let me say that it is also something that I’m not sure that, as individual citizens, we can have much of an impact on. What I was hoping for from these sessions was an exploration of the things that we can do together as individuals to promote an environment in which, in the immortal words of Rodney King, we can all just “get along” and in doing so make our world a better place.

You don’t get along with other individuals by insisting that everything be your way. But the first step to getting along is to acknowledge that there may be very different views of the same situation. Once you have done that, you can begin to explore moral issues, acceptable compromises, and so forth. But when a participant says “I am [political party] because I am smart and you are [political party], therefore you must be stupid,” I just have this sinking feeling of all possibility of realistic dialogue going right out the window.

I think in part I’m tired of focusing on divisions. The things that make us alike are so much more numerous (and so much more important) than the things that divide us. What would happen if we focused on common ground and then just worked out the details of the rest of it?

I’m glad to be home.

Some thoughts about civil rights, responsibilities, the role of writers, and other crap

February 22, 2007

I’ll be MIA for the next few days. I’m off tomorrow for the Wallowa Mountains to spend a few days at Winter Fishtrap in conversation about “The Great Divide,” that circumstance that feels to me like an increasing polarization of the society with which I am most intimately acquainted, life in the good old U. S. of A.

I’m not taking my laptop. I’m giving myself the gift of just being present for a few days with people who like to think and talk and write, preferably not all at the same time. I love the comments and notes I get, and I will still answer them all, but probably not until Monday night.

When I told Ben I was giving myself this trip as a birthday present, he said, “Fine. You can always go. But you do realize that society has always been polarized.” Then he managed to refer to some classical Greek and Roman stuff and to a long series of circumstances in U.S. history that by virtue of his ability to read the driest books I’ve ever encountered he is somewhat an expert about. And of course he’s right. But I’m going anyway. If we are all ever going to “just get along,” I think it starts with dialogue.

I also am running into this in those letters of E.B. White I keep yapping about. White talks about civil rights being closely tied to civil responsibilities, a position with which I am in firm agreement. It’s the old cliche: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts.” How do we reconcile all of these demands? I just want to spend some time thinking and talking about it.

And when the universe starts pointing a lot of things in the same direction, I pay attention.

My immediate reaction to the topic is that much of what I find wanting today is the result of a loss of civility. I haven’t checked Webster’s (or any other dictionary for that matter), but for me civility is about respect. Good manners demand respect. They don’t demand agreement, just an acknowledgement that others might have a different perspective.

There’s a lot in common here with the Ten Commandments. If you respect someone, how can you steal from him, hurt him, seduce his wife, etc., etc., etc.

Civility used to be taught. At the risk of sounding like Pliny (“Things aren’t what they used to be”), I don’t think manners and civility are taught anywhere anymore. Parents are too busy with their dual-income lifestyle. They want the schools to do it. Schools are too busy with Federal and state requirements that generate ungodly amounts of paperwork to worry about the socialization of their little charges. And children learn by example, and the example they’ve been getting for the last 30 or so years is “I want mine. To hell with you.”

Writers, to my way of thinking occupy a rather special place. This may be disappearing, as all indications are that our society is becoming less literate rather than more. But since at least Aesop, writers have used the power of the pen to deliver philosophical ideas into the brains of non-scholastic readers.

This is an extraordinary power.

But like all extraordinary powers, it can be used for evil as well as good. So I just want to go off and think about these things.

Good Lord, this post is going on and on. The bread is rising downstairs and about ready to go into the oven, so I need to see if I have a razor blade sharp enough to slash it without distorting it. Julia Child’s slashes are always perfect, but I suspect she is profligate and uses a new blade each time.

This is one of my forms of social responsibility. I’m abandoning Ben for several days. I know from experience that when I am gone he lives on things like canned minestrone soup, canned chili over freshly cooked rice (this is a major endeavor for him), canned tuna with lots of mayonnaise, and the like. So the least I can do is leave him with some real food (home-cooked spaghetti sauce, great ground beef, salad fixings, and the like). And his favorite homemade bread will encourage him to take advantage of it.

Ciao, more on Monday.

Laundry, weather, and the letters of E. B. White

February 21, 2007

Some weeks ago, Jeff asked about the effect of my rather abrupt move from city girl to country housewife on my writing. I said it was too soon to tell. It probably still is, but I’m discovering some things about this that I’d like to share.

These things are front and center in my brain right now because I’m reading Letters of E.B. White, a collection that was recently reissued and updated by his granddaughter with letters from his later life, after the original was published.

E.B. White is one of a number of writers that I would give a large portion of my retirement fund to spend an afternoon/evening with, nibbling on snacks, drinking good wine or scotch, and just talking. Some of the others are Italo Calvino, Rex Stout, William Stafford, and Isaac Asimov. About the only thing they have in common is that they are all dead, so I guess my retirement fund is safe.

Today I did laundry. That may sound fairly mundane, but if I tell you that since moving out here I do laundry only about once every two months, you’ll get some idea of the scope of the project (also the level of sartorial expectations and the number of surplus clothes Ben and I have). The driver is generally when we’re running out of clean sheets for the spare bed.

Doing laundry here is more like what my grandmother used to do. Here is what doing laundry involves (unless, of course, I drive to town to a laundromat where I can do 6-8 loads all at once):

1. Load laundry, soap, bleach, book for reading, journal for writing, glasses, hot cup of coffee, assorted snacks into the car and drive up the hill to Ralph and Brenda’s workshop, our shared laundry room.

2. Start a fire in my cranky old cookstove (which is now in the shop), the one I replaced with my new Heartland last summer. This is harder than it used to be, because the chimney is shorter than the one we had at the house and has to be preheated, and the wood in the workshop is, I suspect, put there to dry out, not because it’s primo firewood. This is also a seasonal thing. In another month, we won’t need a fire in the shop to sit there comfortably.

3. Start the 3 Kw generator–simple, it has a key start. The washing machine needs full power, the dryer only idle.

4. Turn on the propane for the gas dryer (on the opposite side of the building, underneath an overhang).

5. Insert first load in the washer.

6. Read or write.

7. Move first load to dryer, start second load in washer. And so it goes.

The dryer takes much longer than the washer, so there’s a lot of waiting and stalling and deciding what can be better dried on the rack in front of the heat stove at home. But today I got a significant amount of laundry done in about 3.5 hours. It would have only taken me about 2 hours at the laundromat, but that’s a 2-hour round trip, so it’s a wash, pretty much.

But I was reading E. B. White’s letters while I was doing this, and I was struck by his comments about how hard it is to write when you’re living in the country. There’s just always so much to be done. And I can’t imagine writing anything of significance with Ben running in and out to see how I’m doing and whether I need help with the fire and if I’m still smiling about the whole process.

The radio was tuned to a local station. The noise was distracting, but every time I started to turn it off, the song being played was one that I really liked (the station was a local 60’s-70’s rock station), and so I just let it play in the background.

But the weather today came in waves of arias (dramatic songs, according to the latest crossword puzzle): We had hail and rain and sun and more hail, hail the size of peas, not the petit pois of the gourmet section at your local grocery store, but the big fat ones in the garden that have to be used today before the sugar all turns to starch and they get tough.

So, Jeff, I still don’t know the answer to your question, but Mr. White, the gentlest of gentle men who could also display a great passion, is making me feel less guilty about not being able to answer it.

Very cool Web site at Cornell U.

February 20, 2007

One of the frustrating things about living in the forest is that you can see and hear birds, but rarely both at the same time. The ones I can see, I can make a pretty good job of identifying with my bird book or Audubon field guide, but it’s difficult to match them up with the random sounds from the trees. And this year we seem to have an inordinate number of calls I’ve not heard here before.

So I was really happy to discover the Macaulay Library (Cornell University) Web site with its amazing collection of calls and animal noises. I’ve already identified a couple. Birds aren’t all they do, just what I’m looking for right now.

Yesterday a very large Pacific loon flew right across the meadow. I’ve never seen one that close before.

A short update on the progress of spring here

February 17, 2007

Today was about as perfect as a February day gets on the Big Elk–about 60 degrees, sun shining brightly until just a little while ago. Now it’s clabbering up for a little more rain from the look of things.

Bulbs up everywhere, even places I didn’t know I had bulbs. I think once things start to naturalize (I’m more and more coming to the conclusion that this is what happens when the gardener neglects them, although the fancy garden magazines would have you believe it’s a planned strategy), they hit critical mass and become as out of control as everything else around here. But in the case of spring bulbs, I guess that’s a good thing.

Still haven’t figured out what the pink shoots in the flower bed are, but I’m pretty sure they’re not blackberries. They’re not growing fast enough. . .

Snowdrops and early daffodils in bloom. Larkspur up down by the river, buttercups everywhere. I think my dogwood tree is finally going to bloom this year. It has one definite fully developed flower bud on it and what appear to be many others forming. Hurray! It was just a 12-inch stick when I planted it some years ago. My redbuds bloomed last year, so now I’m just waiting to see what happens with the hawthorn.

My brother and his wife are visiting this weekend. We’re all doing a fine job of ignoring the elephant in the living room and eating and drinking well instead.

Now I’m off to make chili.

Poetry on the Big Elk

February 16, 2007

I met this very cool salamander today. The reason I thought he was cool was that he was clearly focused on achieving a particular purpose. I have no idea what it was.

I stepped outside this morning to go see what was happening in my flower beds. A flash of movement caught my eye, and I saw this little animal moving in the bed closest to the house. He was reddish brown on top and sort of a pinkish-orange underneath.

He stopped when he felt me move. Then he started off again.

The salamander was only about 6 inches long, from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. His legs were only a little over an inch long. But, although he hesitated to see if perhaps I was a predator, when he decided I wasn’t, he moved off with such determination that I couldn’t help but admire him.

His legs moved nearly two inches with each step, as he could rotate them nearly 180 degrees. He was moving in a pretty straight line, but not particularly fast. He stepped from the flower bed into the driveway, and I was worried. Ralph was due back from town. What if he came zipping through in the Ram Charger and ran over the little guy? So I stood in the driveway until he was safely across.

I wanted to know where he was going with such fierce seriousness.

I wish I knew where I was going. . .

I’ll probably never post another poem here

February 15, 2007

Boy, does the WordPress interface suck for special formatting. <EOM>

Valentine, my valentine: The trouble with love poetry

February 15, 2007

The poems arrived on Valentine’s Day, which I suppose should be seen as appropriate, but it got me started thinking about love poems.

A few days ago, my phone rang, and it was an old friend from out of state. We chatted for a few minutes, and then she said, “I suppose you know why I’m calling.” I said, “Isn’t this about the time of year you’re usually looking for judges for the poetry contests?” She laughed, said I was right on the money, and asked if I would judge for her organization again this year. “I’m looking for ‘good’ judges,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened to some of my regulars. I think they may have died. I called your number at work and discovered you weren’t there any more. So I tried this number instead.”

Death is one of the hazards of poetry judging. By the time you get old enough to develop any real perspective on other people’s work, you’re always looking over your shoulder for the guy with the scythe. (I made him a black Labrador dog in one of my short stories, which was probably a disservice to this very people-friendly breed.)

“Would you judge the love poems?” she asked, and I cringed. “Well, I might have a very different idea than most folks of what constitutes a love poem,” I said. She told me that was fine, and I agreed to do it.

So this morning, the poems arrived, 71 of them, and I found what I had feared: a lot of overused images and paeans to “great love.” There were also a few lust poems and several anti-love poems (“You were a real jerk, but I’m a lot smarter now”). I read them all and set them aside. That’s one of the tricks to judging. Read everything without judging, then come back to it, several times.

Here’s the problem with what most people think of as a “love poem.” If you’ve read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the sonnets of Shakespeare, you know that it’s already been done better than you can ever hope to do it. Besides, we know longer speak in the language or even the concepts of a couple of centuries ago, and to try to cram our current relationships into shapely ankles, swollen lips like cherries, eyes of unfathomed depth, and the like just sounds phony.

For me, a love poem should say something very personal about the one you love without pounding people on the head with it.

Yesterday I went to town for my Tuesday workshops and an evening reading at the Newport library. Because of the reading, I was coming back fairly late, in the dark and the fog. I called Ben when I was leaving town with the understanding that if I wasn’t there in something just over an hour, he’d come looking for me.

It was a miserable trip, poor vision, eye strain, all of that stuff. But when I got to the the bridge, Ben was waiting for me with the gate open so I could sail on through. That’s above and beyond.

Here’s my idea of a love poem. I should tell you Ben really likes this poem. He’s kind enough to say that he likes all of my work, but I think this one has a special place.

Two Old Geese

They scrabble around the gravel drive
together, looking
for the stray grain of corn, the heart-
shaped seed from a ripe sunflower.

They do this all day, sometimes
closer together than others.
If he intrudes and the sun is hot,
she might peck at him, or he at her.
Then he offers her a slug.
She takes it in her beak,
juicy bit of contrition.

But when the Shurtles’ setter bounds
into the yard and wants to play,
the gander makes himself
three times as large, his wings a shield,
his hiss and honk a warning.

The gander dances with the dog, always
between the goose and danger. He struts
when the dog retreats, and when
she has admired his bravery,
they return to foraging.

They spend their days this way.

At twilight they retreat to the safety
of the shed. Settling her feathers
around her feet, she sits and sinks
into a cloudy mound. A last look back
to where he stands, still watchful
in the dimming light, she tucks her head
beneath one wing, becomes a pillow
of goose dreams and eider.

Satisfied, the gander settles
beside her,
lays his neck across her back.