July 9, 2014

Embracing the Hard

There is a funny mystique about writing.  When I think about writers I imagine the life as romantic -- a quiet place, a contemplative author, a message spilling forth from the abundant fountain of words the writer carries within.

I do it all the time even knowing, from personal experience, that it's a big bunch of hooey.

Writing is no easier, or beautiful, or magical than any other creative task.  And some days it's not any more romantic or wonderful than laying bricks.  Some days that's what it feels like, including getting hot and sweaty as you lay the words down in a line with kids in the background fighting over whose turn it is for the game station.

And if it's hard for me, I assume it's just ME.  There is something wrong with ME, because I'm certain that JK Rowling and Stephen King are just sitting around with umbrella drinks or fancy coffee typing 180wpm while listening to classical music and being caressed by a perfect spring breeze through open windows facing the beach or a mountain view.  Oh, and their first drafts are ALWAYS perfect.

I'm certain this is how it is for every writer except me.

And so every morning in the shower I whine pathetically to myself about how hard writing is because I have trouble plotting.  Plotting is my nemesis.  There are writers out there who could plot while disarming a nuclear bomb under heavy fire without breaking a sweat.  I'm not one of those.  For me, it's an uphill battle constantly.  I am in love with the imagery of writing, of building characters and animating them.  These are my strengths and these tasks come easy for me.  And probably because they do I get angry because the rest doesn't come easy. In my weak moments it smacks of unfairness and, yes, I complain.  (Although I generally try not to do it out loud. Sort of like what I'm doing at this very moment.)

Lately I have been reading The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman.)  And it's fascinating because the entire plot is "a big group of boys walk down the road as an endurance competition that only one can win and survive." That's it -- the entire book is a group of boys walking down a road. If you came up to me and told me to write a story about boys walking down the road, I'd assume you'd left out part of the instructions.  But King manages to create a grim, robust miracle out of that single idea.

This book made me think of other stories like it, with plots that are spare but stories that are fat, juicy.  Doris Lessing wrote a wonderful story ("Through the Tunnel") about a boy's efforts to swim through an underwater tunnel.  There is little more action to it than that and yet I read this story when I was a teenager and never forgot it.  Same with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (spoiler alert) about a man's visions while dying. Then there is the fascinating and unforgettable "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien -- stories revealed by what Vietnam soldiers carried in action.

I'm sure there are more, but those ran through my mind as I pondered how such a big story can come from a small seed and how easy it is to make an excuse out of what you consider a shortcoming.  George R.R. Martin's Thrones series is amazing in scope, but it is no more wondrous than making a memorable, expansive story about boys walking down a road.

So what, plotting is uncomfortable for me.  So is being a runner with one leg and yet how many marathoners overcome that "little inconvenience."  The romance is not the writer sitting in a quiet, bookshelf lined study.  The romance is the sweaty writer who overcomes the challenge and gets the job done, who makes an amazing story out of nothing.  That's the magic.

Under the rain of the shower as I leaned my head against the cold tile I thought of Steinbeck and Atwood and King and Jackson and O. Henry and all the other authors I love and how they are allowed to be called writers because they didn't let "the hard" get in the way of revealing the story.  The statue doesn't come out of the stone unless you whack it with a hammer and reveal what's underneath.

But you have to keep whacking or else all you have is just a hunk of rock.

May 16, 2014

The Peripatetic Goat

Yesterday I was driving down the road and saw a guy on a four-wheeler with two baby goats in his lap.

I thought to myself, "Awww, how cute... a guy on a four-wheeler with two baby goats in his lap!"

Then I realized my first thought was not that there was anything at all strange about this sight.

* * *

Once I had a client who needed to sell her 2nd home.  I went there to show it to a buyer and when I walked through the privacy fence gate I was greeted by several goats.  I called her from my cell phone.

"You know there are goats at the house?"

"Yes," she said, nonchalantly.  "We've run out of weeds and trees for them to eat over here, so we moved them. The buyers don't have to take them.  They are negotiable."

* * *

A colleague of mine has had some surgery and his health is not the best. He is short on stamina and his wife worries about him taking care of the many acres of land they have.  He walked into my office recently and said, "We bought two goats. Baby goats."


"Well, I was thinking maybe they would eat all the weeds and stuff and that would be less mowing for me."


"And when the season is over I think I can sell them to some Mexicans.  They eat a lot of goats."

* * *

There is an article on the Internet about why you should eat goats.  At this time in my life I am verging slowly toward going meatless.  It has nothing to do with anything you've read so far.

* * *

One of my favorite places to drive used to be way down Highway 16 West in the hard left-hand curve that is intersected by Eagle Road.  On the left side of the highway is a big open field that eventually rolls gently down to a no-undergrowth mini-forest that provides shade for hundreds and hundreds of tiny white goats.  In the field is a large herding dog sitting upright, surveying his charges.

The goats have a distinct personal space.  When one goat moves, the others around it move an equal distance in order to maintain a uniform open perimeter around themselves.  When I noticed this I pulled over to the side of the road to watch.  The behavior persisted, so it must be a goat thing.  Goats have a bubble.  Like me.

I asked someone why the man who owns this field has so many goats.  I was told it was because of Cinco de Mayo.  I drove over there last week and, coincidentally, there were no goats to be found.

May 11, 2014

Adventures in Straw Bale Gardening

I'm not a gardener by any means. Even in the most loose sense of the word.  I don't like the sun.  I don't like the heat.  My mother used to make me help her pull weeds as a teenager.  I don't know which I hated more at the time... her or the weeds.  The first experience I had planting a garden was helping my mother when I was 9.  She let me plant the zinnia seeds.  I sprinkled them in a line and then she yelled at me for doing it wrong.  Clearly, gardening was not intuitive.  Or a great child-rearing activity.

So, fast forward 8,000 years and I've matured.  I have kids of my own.  I am starting to care about what I eat.  I get the idea a few years ago that I should know how to grow my own food, but I'm a busy mom with a jillian jobs and a back that aches all the time.  Gardening?  Bah.

Heirloom Cucumbers
Fast forward three more years and I'm reading about square foot gardening and straw bale gardening and I cannot set aside the persistent drive to grow some of my own food.  But I'm also realistic about taking on too much.  I've learned my lesson dozens of times over.  My passion and confidence dictate that I must DO IT BIG.  Reality leaves a wake of half-finished projects set aside because someone needs help with homework or housework or clients need things or I just want to finish that really good book before my library expiration date.

This year I gave myself permission to do something small.  Straw bales.  Six of them.  I fell in love with the look of straw bale gardens.  It seemed so manageable, and cheap.  About $22 for the bales and I already had soil and fertilizer.  Another $15 for organic heirloom seeds.  No tilling.  No weeding.  No kneeling and bending.  It seems like an adventure that was fairly risk-free.

I set the bales up with space all around them so I could get to the plants from all sides.  I thought maybe they would need the room.  Or I would need the room.  Honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing.  I'm just doing it.  I needed to finally just DO something about gardening to break the ice.  Hello, gardening, nice to meet you.

The buckets and ice chest are for water collection.  We catch rain water from the gutters and when we run out of that we fill the buckets from the hose and let the chlorine from the water outgas before putting it on the plants.  I don't know if it makes a difference but chemicals are chemicals and less is better.

Ants. Ants. More ants. And more ants. And still more.
We have a ton of ants.  Everywhere.  There are mounds and mounds and mounds of ants.  Ants are in the bales.  I think that's okay, but I have no idea.  "Ants are aeration," sayeth my mother.  Today I saw an ant carrying something red that I hoped was a chigger.  Maybe ants are removing chiggers from my yard.  One can hope.

I read somewhere that you are supposed to plant your tomatoes deep, like halfway bury them.  I have no idea if this is true, but in the parking lot of the grocery store I mentioned this to an old-timer who nodded and said it was definitely true.  It's hard to know what is true.  People make things up.  The Internet lies. But also people are wise.  And also the Internet knows everything.

My mother likes to quote Deuteronomy 19:15 which says, "on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established."   So I ask her, I ask the Internet, I ask the old guy in the parking lot.  They all three think tomatoes should be planted deep, so that is what I do.

They seem happy, the tomatoes, and already have blooms.

Everything else I planted as seeds. The lettuce came up first.  I planted an heirloom mix.  I love all types of lettuce and it will be a surprise what comes up.

I have pangs when the seed package tells me to thin the seedlings.  I know it must be done for the health of the ones I don't pluck but it seems wasteful and cruel in a way.  The neighbor busted me cheating.  I plucked a tiny seedling and instead of throwing it on the ground I tucked it into the side of the straw bale.  He squinted his eyes at me and asked what I was doing.  I told him I was thinning the lettuce and he looked at me sneaking the seedling into the side of the bale and said, "Hmph."

Okay, I know it's ridiculous.  I know it's going to die, but I'm giving it every chance to survive.  And, strangely, today both the seedlings I stuck in the side of the bale are growing.  So, take that neighbor.  He's an entomologist anyway.  What does he know about lettuce?

When the carrots first came up they looked like weeds, but now they have crinkly tops that look like carrots are supposed to look.  Not that we ever see that in the local grocery store where everything is bagged in plastic.

Lemon Thyme
I read you can plant things in the side of the bales so I bought a plant called lemon thyme.  I broke it into two pieces and planted one in each bale.  The bales are very difficult to dig into and I didn't do a very good job planting these.  One half made it; one half did not.  Every day I look at it and think "that thing is going to fall right out of the side of that bale."  But it hasn't yet.  Which proves that even when people do things half-assed it can sometimes turn out okay.  Not that I recommend that method.  Do your best, really.  It's better than later bragging that you did it half-assed and it worked out by accident.

The only really alarming thing is the mold I found today.  Some kind of mildew or mold.  The Internet says I shouldn't worry about it.  The Internet also says I should be VERY worried about it.  My mother doesn't know.  I re-read the passage in Deuteronomy again just to make sure it said "testimony of three" and not "testimony of two, none of whom seem to agree."

So in the meantime, I sprayed it with a mixture of baking soda and oil mixed with water because that didn't seem like it would hurt anything.  And I'm waiting for additional testimony.

In the meantime, feet up.  It's Mother's Day.