Friday, September 13, 2013

Black morning

Coffee, coffee,
Coffee, and a
Little more
Whir the beans
In the grinder
Twenty seconds
Fine grind,
Fine dark,
Black roast
Sittin' in the
Fill it up with
Cold water
Drip, drip,
Wait, wait,
Drip, wait --
It's DONE!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The West at its Weirdest

Photo by Susan Mark
Tomorrow, Cheyenne Frontier Days begins. For 10 days our quiet little city is invaded by herds of steers and herds of tourists.

This morning, I head for my pre-work bicycle ride on the path around Sloan Lake in Lions Park. I can hear the horses neighing in their pens. Along Eighth Avenue, the traffic barriers have gone up to funnel people along the streets of least resistance. A faint hint of manure tinges the air.

This is the calm before the chaos. I live one long block from the rodeo grounds. You can see the stadium from my back yard. I don't need concert tickets: we can simply put out lawn chairs in our driveway and listen. Sadly, this means I also am "at" the concerts when they book Kiss or something equally dreadful. The only escape is indoors with all the windows closed, sweltering.

For the other 355 days of the year, it's the most peaceful, quiet neighborhood I could ask for. I take these 10 days in stride as best as I can. I no longer look twice when people on horseback ride through my alley. I was even late to work once when my car was blocked by a high school band practicing parade marching. My boss understood completely.

They call it the "Daddy of 'Em All." It started in 1897 and is claimed to be the longest running annual outdoor rodeo in existence. Downtown is bedecked in ribbons and readied for the not one, not two, not three, but four parades. If Cheyenne has a claim to fame, this is probably it.

The Kiwanis Club fires up its griddles to serve tens of thousands of pancakes at three free breakfasts. The lines snake through downtown. As you get near, you see the cooks flip the finished pancakes high in the air while Boy Scouts run around with foil lined trays to catch them. Pancakes, a couple of pats of butter, a splash of syrup and a slice of ham on a foam plate later, you can sit on hay bales and listen to live music.

It's concerts and drinking and dancing. It's watching men try to wrestle 600 pound steers to the ground. It's a second Christmas in July for the downtown merchants. It's parents trailing children baked too long in the sun and young girls in cowboy boots and little else streaming up and down our street.

I call it the West at its Weirdest every time I try to talk someone into coming to see it.

Living so close, we've had our headaches. One year someone stole my husband's license plate as a souvenir. We've had to call the police for street fights between teens high on testosterone after the carnival closed. We've yet to see someone urinate in our yard, but one young man did vomit on our walk.

Still, most people are wonderful. We meet nice folks from all over the country. They're just here to have fun, spend some money, listen to some live music and watch a few bull riders get flipped like cheese omelets.

If I didn't live here, I doubt I'd ever be here for it. Just not my cup of tea. Given a week off and a little spare cash, I'd rather go rent a cabin away from people without a television. Introverts do not do crowds and noise well. At least this one doesn't.

Still, if you like this kind of thing, it's just a hoot. And it's only for 10 days.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Avoiding "writing by committee"

Photo courtesy of Aaron Brown on Flickr, made
available under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license
One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:

Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

The other night, I came back from a critique session last night with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Carpenter Wyo, then and now

Carpenter, 1907. Photo from the J.E. Stimson Collection, Wyoming
State Archives, Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. 

Per Wyoming Places, Carpenter got its start in the first decade of the 20th century. It was named for J. Ross Carpenter, president of the Federal Land Company. Mr. Carpenter seemed to be in the business of selling a lot of Wyoming land to a lot of Iowans. The town, 25 miles southeast of Cheyenne and right along the now-vanished tracks of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, got its first post office late in 1907. It makes its first appearance in the Wyoming State Business Directory in the 1908-09 with a grand total population of 15, going up to 50 in the 1910-11 edition.

The primary livelihood listed in the Wyoming state business directories was farming. The Crow Creek runs through this area. Today a Google Maps satellite view shows irrigated land around the town. The Colorado, Burlington and Quincy Railroad ran up from Hereford, Colo. through Carpenter and the now ghost-towns of Arcola and Campstool before heading into the big city of Cheyenne. I'm not certain when the railroad shut down, but the rails disappear from the Official Wyoming Highway Map in 1992.

Main Ave. in Carpenter, looking east
Mrs. Glenn (Loretta Ellen Noyer) Jewell wrote the history of Carpenter in 1968 in Homesteading the Prairie, illustrated with drawings by Ruth Oliver. In her dedication, she said she wanted to "etch the names of the people who lived here into history -- other than a name engraved upon a tombstone."

She, in turn, quoted from the Cheyenne Trade Review for a portrait of Carpenter in 1910. What's amazing to me are the number of businesses you find in those early years with only 50 people total, although distances were a different thing then and self-sufficiency more important:

"The town of Carpenter has two well-stocked general stores, one drug store, two hotels, one livery, one hardware store and a lumber yard which draw trade from practically seven hundred and fifty people in the surrounding district." 

The Trade Review was a publication of unabashed boosterism for Laramie County. They made the point that, "The climate is healthful and bracing; the invigorating effects are noticeable by the healthy, sturdy people found here," and subsequently the stunning claim that "Many of these came here semi-invalids and are now enjoying perfect health." No word today on whether the National Institutes of Health will fund research into the miraculous curative benefits of southeastern Wyoming. It's a wonder we need a hospital at all.

The Trade Review made a pitch that Carpenter would be a great place for an attorney or a bank to locate, but the town never seems to have gotten its bank. From 1925 until at least 1955 (the last state business directory I could find), Hereford, Colo., eight miles south, was listed as the nearest banking point. Unless they took the CB&Q, it must have been quite the trip. I can't find anything but dirt roads on the Official Wyoming Highway Map until 1939, when the town was blessed with a stretch of crushed gravel straight north to U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway.

Hereford has no bank these days and is so small it doesn't show up in U.S. Census population listings. In fact, some websites classify it as a ghost town although it still hangs onto its post office and the Hereford Bar and Grill at the crossroads. I've often thought out West that all you seem to need for a town is a post office, bar and church -- church optional.

Playground at Carpenter Elementary
As mentioned earlier, distances were just a different thing then. In fact, the April 17, 1916 Carpenter News reported bitter opposition against a proposed school bond from the town of Campstool, a mere 10 miles down the road:

"Camp Stool people contend that they will not saddle a tax upon themselves, if possible, for the erection of a new school house at Carpenter at such a distance that they will not derive any benefit from it." 

The article goes on to say that Campstool residents were lobbying to split off into their own school district. I suspect children come from farther than 10 miles today, considering that Carpenter Elementary has new-looking school with an official K-6 enrollment of 83 in a town with a population just under 100. Either that, or the residents are fecund beyond belief.

St. Peter's Catholic Church.
The town still seems to have a heart, if not a business district. Here, the bar turned out to be optional, but two churches stand. St. Peter's Catholic Church seems to  be in slight need of a paint job, but the sign in front says Mass is celebrated twice monthly. The cemetery is neatly kept and, on Memorial Day, is decorated brightly in honor of those who have passed on.

I do not truly know that much about Carpenter from the outside looking in. I could have the place entirely wrong. Mrs. Jewell does know. She still lives in Carpenter, I am told. I would like to meet her and hear her tell the stories she shared in her book. In her dedication, she wrote: "The people who settled here and stood firm in the belief that it was their home possessed integrity, pride, honesty and persistency." She knew them; I did not, so I can only trust her assessment. Maybe every small place that hangs on needs people like that.

Cheyenne Trade Review. [Denver, Great Western Publishing Co., 190-?]
Jewell, Loretta. Homesteading the Prairie[Carpenter, Wyo. : Evans Implement Co., 1968- ].
Wyoming: Official Highway Map. Wyoming Dept. of Transportation.
Wyoming State Library, Wyoming Newspaper Project.
Wyoming State Library, Wyoming Places.
Wyoming state business directory : with live stock department, wool growers' department, classified department. Denver, Colo. : Gazetteer Pub. Co. 1908-1909 to 1941-42.
Wyoming State Directory of Business and Industry. Colorado Springs, Colo. : Rocky Mountain Directory Co. 1950; 1953/54; 1955

Monday, April 29, 2013

Place writing prompt: random maps

The 1932 official Wyoming highway map
from University of Wyoming Libraries.
I like something both physical and random in writing prompts. This one has a little of both.

In the West, place is itself a character: one that appears to suffer from bipolar disorder, weather-wise. But anywhere you set your story, a good sense of place informs both characters and plot and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story.

 In Writing Fiction Step by Step, Josip Novakovich (gesundheit) writes:

"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."

So let's go on a blind date with a place and see what happens, shall we?

Maps place prompt
Start with a stack of road maps from different states. Everyone picks one randomly. Switch out if you get a place familiar to you. Open the maps and quickly pick a place. Go by instinct, not by reason. Don't think about it too much.

Now that you have your place, here are some options. Write about a character or from the perspective of a character:
  • Who lives there, loves it and can't imagine living anywhere else.
  • Who lives there, hates it, and can't imagine why they stay.
  • Whose car broke down there.
  • Who always dreamed of living there and finally moved there.
  • Who grew up there and is coming back to visit friends or family after a long time away.
  • Who is seeing this place for the first time.
Use the map for clues -- how big is it? What places is it near? Often, road maps given out for free will have more information -- are there any festivals listed for that place? Is there a population given?  Now fill in the blanks. What is Main Street like? The neighborhoods? What kind of industry (or lack of) is dominant.

Give it about 15-20 minutes on this one and see what happens!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Riding the donut to Casper

On the west edge of Glenrock on the Old Glenrock Highway, there's a pullout with a historical marker where John Fremont's expedition camped and the pioneers wrote their names on the rock. It's just past the HOME OF THE HERDERS sign -- quite possibly the least intimidating high school mascot ever.

I was driving Etta, short for Henrietta, the hail-damaged Taurus. Yes, I name my cars so they'll know they're wanted and will last longer. Like many irrational humans, I believe I am the car whisperer (link NSFW).

I stopped, took a picture, then heard a sound ... hissing.

Denial is always my first plan of attack. No, that can't be what I think it is. The car always makes a few creaks and pops and noises when I stop, right? But it's pretty clearly continuing and pretty clearly coming from the right rear tire. I call the husband who directs me to the tire pump with a gauge in the trunk. Oh, that's low. Definitely low. It keeps hissing. Etta has an owie in her foot. I feel around the tire for a nail or something, but come up with nothing.

It's 8 a.m. on a Sunday and I'm in Glenrock, Wyoming, population 2,576 per the highway sign on the edge of town I'm next to. Something tells me there's no 24-hour tire store a block down the road. Thank goodness I bought AAA. I am a 45-year-old woman with poor mechanical skills and questionable upper body strength. I've never changed a tire in my life, and I don't intend to start now. The last time this happened I relied on the kindness of a stranger. This morning, I call for a tow truck.

The call center people are extraordinarily helpful and what really impresses me is the very first question they ask is "Are you in a safe place?" Am I safe? I'm pulled well off the road on the edge of a small town right next to a church. I'm as safe as anyone ever is in this universe.

An hour and two poems jotted in my notebook later, one sleepy young tow truck driver arrives to put the spare on. By the time he arrives the tire is FLAT, flat. Mushed all the way to the ground flat. He takes off the tire and puts on that goofy little spare they provide. I've never driven on one, and I know you can't drive on it forever. I ask him where I can get it fixed and he says back in Casper at Sam's Club. He reassures me I'll be fine driving the 24 miles on it: "I've seen people drive on those things for a week."

The driver's manual says to not exceed 50 MPH, so I set the cruise at 45, turn on the blinkers and head back. Once one thing goes wrong, it's hard for me to quell the anxiety that something else will. I keep imagining a wheel will fall off.

The tire is unfixable. Of all things, it has a razor blade in it. A razor blade? My first thought is "Who hates me that much?" But I certainly couldn't have driven this thing from Cheyenne this way. Plus it's jammed in sideways. I ask the man at the service counter how this might have happened.

"Were you anywhere with a lot of construction trucks?" he says.

"I think so. I was out on the Old Glenrock Highway."

"That could be it," he says. "I see all sorts of people out on that road with flats."

So the verdict is it probably came off a truck and I kicked it up. As they say in NASCAR, I cut a tire down on the straightaway on some debris. Lesson learned: don't drive that road.

One new tire and five hours since the first time I left Casper, I leave Casper. I would have liked to have gotten better acquainted with Glenrock, but there will be no dawdling now, just a straight shot home on I-25. I make one stop in Glendo at the little store with the brightly painted tables and get the poor man's frou-frou coffee -- half vending machine French vanilla cappucino and half coffee.

About 30 miles out, I watch the mile markers and count down every mile. Twenty-nine miles, 28 miles. It's an uneventful rest of the trip, and when I walk through the door I am grateful beyond grateful to be home.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The road to Chugwater, Wyo.

North out of Cheyenne on I-25, the electronic highway sign warns NO GASOLINE FOR 65 MILES. A few months ago, a less than rational human rammed his car into the only gas station in Chugwater,  the next town on the route, 45 miles away.

Meet me in Chugwater for chili, beer and milkshakes.
Once past the last outcropping of trophy homes and the Little Bear Inn steakhouse, there’s a whole lot of nothing on this highway. It’s open land: rolling hills with washes labeled as creeks that I've never seen hold water. We've had a late April snowstorm, and white covers the ground. Tomorrow when I drive back it will have a faint and hopeful green cast.

This stretch is punctuated only by telephone poles on the frontage road and the occasional herd of cows or old style windmill in the distance. Cell phones cut out. At night, you'll see little but the glow of your headlights on the pavement in front of you; it's hard not to be hypnotized into sleep. In winter weather, once you leave Cheyenne for Chugwater or the other way around, you are irretrievably committed. Nothing but ranch roads, so there’s no safe place to stop and shelter between. There are plenty of white knuckle driving stories.

It can be harsh. In places like this, I see why homesteaders broke themselves trying to break the land, and the women went mad and walked into storms to die. But there is a certain beauty to it. The sky goes on forever. It's early, and the clouds turn from pink to peach through the passenger window with the sunrise. I breathe deeper in a way I never do in town.

Chugwater, population 212, is in Platte County. The town’s first post office was established in 1872 before the county itself was formed. South of town, you begin to see hills and rock outcroppings and the line of bluffs to the north where the Indians hunted buffalo by stampeding them off the cliffs. This was the origin of the name, per Wyoming Places:

When buffalo were hunted in early days they were driven to the bluffs and shot. They usually fell from the rocks into the water, making a sound like "chug". (WPA) Located on the Chugwater River, so named because, when buffalo were driven over a nearby bluff by Indians and fell from the rocks into the water, they made a sound like chug: the Indians called the stream "the water at the place where the buffalo chug," and the name was shortened to Chugwater by white settlers. (Annals of Wyoming 14:2)

No buffalo are falling off cliffs this morning. The gas station is just off the exit. The pumps still stand, but there's no building. Mercifully, after a morning of too much coffee, the rest stop across the street is intact. There's a sign in front of the station that I think should say, “Closed due to lunatic.” Instead, it directs drivers to the Buffalo Grill for a meal or a room.

Chugwater now has as its claim to fame the best chili spice mix around, courtesy of the town's Chugwater Chili Company, which has been around since 1986 Each summer, there is a chili cookoff and a Tour de Chili bicycle ride on the roads leading from town. On Ty Road, the main street through town, the soda fountain offers both milkshakes and beer, I assume not in the same glass. Of course, they serve up bowls of Chugwater Chili here, too. It's one of those places I can picture myself living, until I open the car door and get hit by the wind. It howls down this eastern edge of Wyoming.

I'm a little hungry, but I'll wait for Wheatland down the road. I’ll stop at the soda fountain for a bowl of chili and a beer milkshake another day.