Tag Archives: Writing

Blogging for the Future


Here is how I find my most productive place to write, during a chaotic day.

First, I shut my eyes, and then I try to take a few deep breaths. That’s right folks: I type with my eyes closed. Then I focus on what the sounds are that are running through my head.There are so many other sounds here in the living room. Alex grunting on the couch; the cat yowling at my feet (apparently we starve the poor guy); and Judi watching the Outlander program she loves so much. Outlander is loud, with people speaking in English/Scottish accents. It’s so compelling. It’s hard to type when Scottish people are compelling.

And then I feel the pressure of the keys against my fingers. They just feel right somehow, the way right things should feel: the pad of my fingertips know the way to go, to produce the messages I want to say, when there is one. sometimes there is just no message though. Sometimes there is just nonsense.

Today, I am thinking about my family history.

I have been thinking of my past; specifically of the old folks I knew, but I didn’t really bother to learn from. Uncle Stanley and Aunt Elizabeth. Wilma Walker. Uncle Bob and Auntie Millie. Enid Hurst. Elma Ismert. My grandma Myrt’s sisters, Elanor and Wanda. These folks were all uncles and aunts and distant cousins. But almost never did I take the time to sit down and have a really good chat with them. Not to discover basic family facts, like birth dates, nor even deeper facts like what their schoolhouses looked like. But what I lament is that I never got to learn if they were sarcastic, or loving (I’m not entirely convinced these two are opposites), or angry, or prideful, or covered in some secret emotion nobody has discovered yet. My list is long. I knew so many of these people ,but I didn’t really know them. I mowed their lawns and did odd chores around their houses: (my great grandmother’s sisters Aunt Gladys & Aunt Mabel, for example) but I let all those opportunities slip past.

It’s too late to complain now. I’m doing what I can to gather up information about them. But how do you really know a person?

Here’s an example of something. My Grandpa’s grandfather was shot and killed by his son. He died in the hospital in Auburn, California. I just found this “Admitted to Placer County Hospital March 12, 1905, Age: 45. Resident of Lincoln. Gunshot Wound – shot by son Claus, age 14. (Doesn’t mention if it was a accident.)” Was my great great grandfather a kind man? the one picture I saw of him and his wife, they seemed happy. She was touching his arm a bit more intimately than you usually see in pictures of that era. But who knows if this is really what he was like? Was he a violent drunk? Was he abusive one moment, and charming the next? Maybe it really was an accident and my Uncle Claus was totally innocent.

And there was another great grandfather, who died around the turn of the century. He joined the Union army in Iowa, marched with his company down to a swamp in Arkansas, got sick, and was shipped home a couple months later. He was given a tombstone by the government for his service. But what service?

This is, partly, why I write blogs today. I don’t want my grand-descendants to say “Who was that guy?” I’d be a series of dates and nothing else. There is a bit of pride involved, but more than this, I feel like I have something to say sometimes. Or do I? I mean, look at today’s blog. It is pretty inconsequential, and I’m typing with my eyes closed, for goodness sake. What kind of information can I push to forward generations with my eyes closed? So that’s my fixation with Genealogy. Maybe one or two people will even remember my name in 2115. Even if I am a footnote, as long as I can leave some kind of imprint on the earth, I guess I can live what that.

Zahnie (Part 4)


Asa Crook was a real person. I am trying my best to give utmost respect to historical persons in my writing. If I failed, please understand that I mean no ill will toward any readers who might be related to him.

*****

People want land for different reason. For some folks, land is subsistence. We live on a piece of land, and we can’t ask much in return. It tolerates us, as we take what we need. It would just as soon open up a hole into nowhere, and  bury us all inside it. It is strong, and inexorable. The land belongs to itself unequivocally.

And then, for some folks, land is power. Land grows things despite itself. If you convert the product of that land into something that people want; lumber, or butter from the cattle you have raised, or gold you have sluiced off a riffle, you can exchange the fruits of the land for something you want. Something more, something better. If you own more land, you own more power. Power brings you riches and fame, which allows you to buy more power.

I’m not sure where I land on this (the pun was intended). Maybe someplace there is a middle ground (Ground. Get it? Never mind. Alpharetta is the only one who ever liked my jokes). I’m no railroad baron or mining company boss. But I’m also not going to roll over the moment my homestead is four feet underwater when Pistol River overflows its banks.

And if land was power, certainly my friend Asa Crook had lots of both. Recently the county had elected him as their representative up in Salem. He was a small, rounding man, dressed in a black wool suit. What was left of his mousy hair was parted just-so to the side, and an anemone mustache that curled over his mouth. I don’t know how he wasn’t sweating through that black suit of his. Maybe you don’t feel the need to sweat when you own more land than the Walkers, and the Lawrences, and the Ismerts, and the Prestons all put together. Not that he was a stranger to hard work. He was quite a stout fellow in his heyday.

We had been clearing brush all morning with Coalman Gillespie and a bunch of hired Indians, when Ace rode over schoolhouse ridge looking all sensible and organized. A huge smile was under that mustache. “Friend William,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your place is looking fine. Fine indeed!” He was a human magnet. Everybody outside his circle wanted to be inside. And those inside his circle generally wanted to be even closer.

I smiled back, and shook his hand. “How is your wife?”

“Oh, Ellen, you know her. Working hard, working hard.”

Coalman sidled up next to me and squinted. “How you doin’, Mister Crook?” he said, removing his floppy felt hat to wipe his brow, his bared forearms all coiled and sweaty.

“Mister Gillespie,” Ace nodded.

“Won’t you come inside?” I asked politely. “Alpharetta’s just pressed a fresh batch of apple juice.”

“Do you know, I believe I will.” He exclaimed, and he dismounted, tossing the reins to Coalman without looking at the boy.

“Coalman, could please you take care of Mr. Crook’s horse?” He glared at nobody in particular and led the horse to the hitching rail. I went inside, beckoning Ace to follow me into the house.

The kitchen was whitewashed, with a plank table occupying most of its center. We walked inside and with a jerk of my head, I motioned for Asa to sit on one of the long benches. Our home smelled of smoked meats and baked bread and of the onions hanging out of the way in the dark. To our left, an eternal pot of red beans was simmering on the stove, next to another pot, kept at a low boil so we had hot water. The room had been gloriously well lit ever since I had put in a window on the eastern side of the room. Alpharetta loved watching the sun rise while she kneaded dough in the morning. I pulled out two large pewter mugs from the cupboard and drew golden liquid out of the oak barrel in the corner, setting one in front of Asa. I threw a leg over the bench, and sat across from him.

“Now, what can I do for you, Mister Crook?”

“Come now, Zahnie. How many years have we known one another?”

“I came to Pistol River twenty years ago, I suppose, give or take a few years.”

“That’s right. So you’ve more than earned the right to call me Ace. What’s with all this Mister Crook business?”

“Well, look at you!” I gestured to the somber black suit he was wearing. “It’s like you’re headed to a funeral, or posing for picture. You might be a politician or something.”

“Damn right I might be.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”

“Zahnie!” He acted shocked, but his eyes sparkled with a story. “Remember that time we were up in the mountains on the Preston place, catching the wild cattle?”

“I sure do. You hired two men just to haul Ellen’s stove up into the woods, piece by piece, so she could cook for us. And I remember who had to haul it back, too.”

“Wasn’t it glorious?” He looked up into the rafters, letting his arms drop to his sides.

“I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”

“They say you should lift with your legs and not your back, Zahnie.”

“Shut up, your honor.” I smiled at the memory. Remember how we were just young and crazy enough to build that cattle chute in a breezeway between the two cabins, and connect the whole thing to a corral? They were so wild they wouldn’t come near the cabins and so smart they wouldn’t come near our cattle chute.”

“And then that one bull came running through at full speed when I was standing in the chute. Something spooked it out of the woods.”

“Yellow jackets can be pretty angry certain times of the year.”

“I’m pretty sure your jacket was brown, Zahnie.”

I grinned. “I’d never seen anything move as fast as you. You just leapt up both sides of the chute, grabbed the rafters, and straddled the bull while it ran straight underneath you.”

“Almost lost my nuggets that day,” the short man laughed.

I snorted. “You probably deserved it.”

“I supposed I did,” he said with another chuckle. “Ah. Those were days. Times were hard. Hard but good.”

We were both silent as we took a few sips from our mugs. Then we set them down simultaneously, pewter rapping the planks. This brought him out of reverie.

“Well, Zahnie, I’m a politician now.”

I nodded, once, to my old friend. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

He blew out a puff of air.

“What do you need, Ace? Just come out and say it.”

“I’m that transparent, eh? Well, all right then.” He thought about his words for a minute. “Zahnie, do you have everything you need?”

“Of course I do. I have this place. I have Alphie, and I’m happy.”

“What about that day? What if you had more?”

I went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. What if, on that day, you’d had the right supplies?”

I said nothing, so he continued. “They wouldn’t have died you know. At least not all of them. What if you had a sluice to bring water down from the hills? Or maybe a house built from brick instead of this, this…” He gestured around himself. “Hewn timber. What if you had linens and medicines? What if you had coal oil instead of wood fires? What if you had ammunition? Can you say, honestly, in your heart of hearts, that they would have all died?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” I told him quietly.

“I know you don’t, Zahnie, but you have to listen to me. I’m simply saying, having the right tools could have made all the difference. You’re smart. You had people who love you.”

“I still have Alphie,” I interrupted.

“Yes you do, and she’s as fine a woman as can be found in this county. But I’m saying, what if Hiram had lived? What if Mary Lee or Sarah or Elias had made it? This country is a harsh one and it does not give itself willingly to us.”

“What are you getting at?” I demanded.

“What I’m getting at is this. If you’d had medicine, if you’d had bandages, if you had neighbors who could be here in ten minutes instead of six hours, your children would have lived. You wouldn’t be homesteading. You’d be a land owner.” He took a huge swallow from his mug and slammed it onto the table. He wiped his mustache on a sleeve. He was getting loud.

“That’s all I’ve got to say. If your friends had a way in, if you had supplies… If you could even get supplies. What we needed is roads through here. Not just a ship that docks at Arch Rock every six months, trades our butter and wool for …” He grasped for words. “For the things we actually need. Flour. Sugar. Pins. Cast iron stoves. For God’s sake, man. For medicine.”

I was furious. I spat out, “You brought my children up because the county needs roads? “Damn you, Ace.” Tears began to run from you eyes. “Just… Damn you…”

“No. You misunderstand me. We need what the roads can bring. We all need…”

At that moment Alpharetta came in, wiping her hands on the canvas apron she wore. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun and she shook her head, sweat flying off.

“Whoo!” She exclaimed. “It’s hot as August out there. Of course, now that I give it some thought, it is August, ain’t it?” She smiled. “The new boy just told me some news. I was cutting brush out there with the Indians, and he just come up and tells me that the honorable representative Asa H. Crook was here, in my very own kitchen?”

We both stood. I blinked away tears and just as quickly replaced it with a smile. Ace might have knocked over a bench. He recovered quickly and clasped hands with my wife. “Missus Zahniser! What a pleasure to see you! My compliments on the fine crop of apples this year!”

“Why thank you. They are Gravensteins. From Denmark. Sweetest apples in the country. But this year the apples was all my doing, and only me. Mother Nature, God bless her, had nothing to do with them. I’m just sweet enough.” she winked. “And just the right amount of tart, I might add.”

Ace smiled broadly. “Indeed you are! And, Madam, if you ever tire of this big lanky drink of water… I’m sure I know a man who would fall head over heels for such a beautiful woman as yourself.”

She blushed slightly, but rejoined with “And if I ever needed a tree stump with a sea lion mustache, I’m sure I know right where to find him.”

We all laughed. Alphie winked at me, and I felt better somehow.

“Now what’s this about roads, Ace?”

“Oh. You heard that?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Hard not to, what with two grown men shouting in my kitchen,” she added. “If you make my bread dough collapse and there will be hell to pay.”

He began again. “About that dough. What if you had all the flour you needed? What if you didn’t have to store it up, and pick out the weevils? What if…”

“Cut the crap, Ace. Nobody likes a politician around here.”

His face went stiff, but he nodded. “All right. The county needs your bit of property adjoining the river. We need to build a road through, and then put a bridge on that land.”

“Is that all? Now that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” asked Alphie in a sugar-sweet tone. “You just needed to ask.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.

“And if you ever bring up the children around Zahnie within my hearing: I swear, Asa H. Crook, you will catch my own personal version of hell for you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said again.

“Now finish your apple juice and get out of my kitchen.” We had been dismissed. We both tipped back our mugs, nodded to my wife, and left through the back door, meek as schoolchildren.

“You boys rinse out those mugs and bring them back, you hear?” she shouted.

Asa cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s one formidable woman.”

I nodded, the thin patch of once-blonde hair falling into my eye. “Why do you think I married her? She *made* me.”

We rinsed out our mugs and brought them right back to the Missus.

Danger: Here Be Truth Dragons!


“People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you’re telling them is true. The thing I’m telling you is true, but it did not always happen to me.”—Dorothy Allison.

Stories that Could Be True—Collection of poems by William Stafford.

*****

Continue reading Danger: Here Be Truth Dragons!

Hapax Legomena


Honorificabilitudinatatibus: that’s a nice long Shakespearean word to start your morning. Hope you’ve had your coffee!

Shakespeare used it only once in his entire body of work. To use a word only once in your entire body of work is called a Hapax Legomenon. These are remarkably important words for people (and I admit I am used to be of them) who count and rank words for a living. Continue reading Hapax Legomena

The Writing Circus


A friend of mine was feeling dejected at her writing group earlier this week. Like me, she’s been blogging for few years now and has derived some sort of pleasure from cranking out, on a regular basis, a short piece that the online world can enjoy. She tells me at her writing group, she feels like a second-class citizen because the others “keep hoping to catch up” on her blog but never seem to. She feels that, as a blogger, she’s a second-class writing citizen because her aspirations to write a novel or pen poetry have been put on hold for this less-than-artisan form.

Continue reading The Writing Circus

Two Journalists and a Newt


I got three short-topics today.

I write like Karl Marx!

karlmarxI watched an interview with Jonathon Sperber, who wrote a book about the brains behind the Communist ideal, and I realized two things about the man that I could identify heartily with.

He was much more comfortable writing short pieces. He was first and foremost a journalist, so it was uncommon for him to pen  anything more than 2,000 words. He really struggled with his larger works.

Secondly, he paced when he wrote. I’ve done this as long as I can remember.  I’ll write a sentence, walk around a minute, do a ridiculous little dance when I’m inspired, and write a new sentence. I seldom go back and edit. Walking around helps with this, although I’m not clear why. It’s just what I do. It’s also what Karl Marx did.

Who would have ever thought I had anything in common with a hairy German stump of a philosopher from the 19th century…?

*****

SISKEL  EBERTI was deeply saddened by the death of film critic Roger Ebert earlier this week. I’ve been sitting on my butt trying to write a quick obituary for the guy, but nothing has been forthcoming. I was a fan of his, I guess, because he could clearly articulate, usually in less than a thousand words, what I struggle to say in 2000.  For me, he wasn’t a film writer so much as a blueprint for consise, clear writing with a sense of humor, about topics that are tough to get one’s head around. I have been following his blog for 3 or 4 years and although I’ve been less connected in the last 12 months or so, I’ve been deeply honored to have him respond to my comments on his blog–an honor and a rarity, as he gets hundreds, if not thousands, of comments per post. He was unabashed about his agnosticism, and his political liberal leanings. He reminisced about growing up in suburban Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s, and his pieces read like Jean Shepherd’s “The Christmas Story”. His topics were only sometimes about film. He’d rather talk about science, or global warming, or Hyde park, or attending Catholic school, or Steak ‘n’ Shake.

For the last few years, he’s been unable to speak or eat, but his presence online has never been felt more stongly.

I’ll miss him. I’ve spent the last couple days reading his obituaries, which seemed to saturate all the major news and entertainment webistes. None of them seemed to say what I wanted to say.

The man made me comfortable as a writer with (maybe unpopular) questions. He made me aware of an audience, how to state things clearly, and with passion eloquence .

Oh. And he also reviewed films. I’ll miss him for that too.

*****

ImageA propos of nothing, anybody in Oregon remember these? Locals called them waterdogs. There’s a good chance they had other names, like Pacific Newts, but in my mind they’ll always be water dogs.  We used to round them up by the hundreds at the side of creeks, and build makeshift dams to collect them. Nothing says fun like 300 waterdogs in a 2’x2′ watery pit of fun. Sometimes I’d sit in the pit with all the waterdogs. Oh. So you know, they make terrible bait.

It’s one of those content-free blog days. Enjoy the picture of your waterdog!

I know I did.

 

Bildungsroman


This morning, I woke up after a long dream that was loosely tied in with Harry Potter characters.  I do this somewhat frequently; maybe once a month; maybe more; where real and fictional characters who have deeply affected me, wind through my dreams. A short list:

  • The Beatles (including the two dead ones)
  • The cast of Friends
  • Characters from Lord of the Rings
  • The cast of M*A*S*H
  • The characters from the Harry Potter books
  • The cast of Northern Exposure (this was a few years ago, when it was still on TV)
  • The characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

I don’t know if this tells me anything in particular; I’ll leave the dream interpretations others more skilled in the Psychological Arts than I am.

My grandparents and great-grandparents (all dead but three, now) also visit my dreams fairly frequently. I don’t know what that means either. Maybe I have some unresolved business with them? They’re never trying to warn me or anything. I just … dream them. We’re going to visit them, or coming from visiting them, or organizing a huge meal. Sometimes I don’t want to wake up from these dreams because, well, people who are very important to me are there, and acting the way they should act, and aren’t in a box or urn someplace. I usually wake up pensive, with a quiver in my heart after one of those nights.

But why the heck do I dream about Harry Potter and his magical world? I haven’t been seventeen for far more than seventeen years. I don’t usually go around saving the world from Voldemort, except in  my mind, where he’s always present, and has to be beaten back before he brings the world to a chaotic ruin and kills Albus Dumbledore (who is never dead in my dreams).

There’s a German literary term, Bildungsroman,  that basically means “coming of age novel.” Huckleberry Finn is a fine example of one of these. So is Burroughs’s Running With Scissors (in case you don’t read books over 30 years old). This type of work has always appealed to me. I like seeing things through new eyes; the process of discovery of a young person is fascinating; often they notice things I wouldn’t. Many Fantasy novels have a heavy dose of the Bildungsroman in them which is, in part, why I enjoy reading that literature so much. There’s something heartening and often cheerful to see a character, and watch them grow and learn. A novel, even a long one, I can usually finish in 8 or so hours, and enjoy the arc of a story that ends (preferably) with somebody growing up, wiser, and better, and maybe with a touch of magical power.  Seeing it in real life with my two sons is rather slow-motion version of the same thing. I guess it’s why I like being a father so much. There’s magic in watching them mature. If I could condense their lives into a three-hundred page novel, I surely would. And they’d probably sue me for revealing all sorts of weird stuff about them.

But that’s life. You gotta live it, and you gotta dream it.