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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

See the lost city of love-starved cat-women!

I have a new favorite movie.

We killed the cable about a month ago, figuring five channels of nothing on for free was better than 50 channels of nothing on for $50 a month. "Reality" shows have killed television. I miss the days when I could watch earth-ending asteroids on cable instead of Honey Boo-Boo.

Cat-Women of the Moon trailer

So last night we hooked up the laptop to the television for the first time ever and randomly picked a full-length sci-fi flick off YouTube -- Cat-Women of the MoonSomeone, I'm sure, made this in all earnestness back in 1953. What a find. The funniest movies are usually those that are unintentionally hilarious.

From the toilet paper tube rocket to the exotic alien women in heavy eye makeup and black leotards, this was top-quality cinema. The best was the spider attack. Remember being in 3rd grade art class? It's October and the leaves are changing and you had to wear your jacket that morning. They hand you a pile of black pipe cleaners so you can twist them together to make a spider for Halloween Maybe you get some googly eyes to stick on top with the Elmer's glue, to make it really scary.

Now take that sucker and put it in the Miracle Expandomatic Machine and blow it up to a 5-foot diameter. Dangle it up and down on a string above a pretty young actress's head. Watch her scream. Have the four manly men stab and shoot it. Repeat with a second spider.

They gave you enough pipe cleaners for a second spider, didn't they?

Coincidentally, this morning, I was happy to discover that the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming had a blog post on this same movie recently, courtesy of AHC Intern Shaun Milligan. (Go read it. It's great.) The AHC's Forrest J. Ackerman Collection had a Cat-Women of the Moon promotional poster in the files, that urged people to "SEE: THE LOST CITY OF LOVE-STARVED CAT-WOMEN." Ackerman was a promoter and collector of science fiction who amassed so much memorabilia that it takes up 184 boxes (94 cubic feet) in the archives. It's one of the many amazing collections over at the AHC.

This is a movie firmly in the "so bad it's good" category. My husband, who'd finagled all the cables to get things connected, said "It was worth it to hear you laugh like that." I haven't been laughing much this winter, but I literally laughed at this one until I couldn't breathe.

The full length movie is on Youtube here. Put it on a big screen. Make some popcorn.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In the wake of winter storm Walda

"Mad" as in half a bubble off, not angry.
This morning, I feel deep gratitude to the inventors, produces and purveyors of sweater tights. Also high on my list is the first person, deep in the mists of history, who decided to turn a rabbit inside out and make a hat of it. This was a morning for the thrifted mad bomber hat.

Winter storm Walda has come and gone. Per the National Weather Service, it looks like Cheyenne got 9 inches of snow on the dot between April 8 and April 9. With the accompanying wind, that translates to 4 feet in spots at a friend's house and a trace on our north-facing sidewalk. The front steps are situated perfectly to catch the drifts, hence pre-office shoveling so the mailman doesn't end up consulting an orthopedic surgeon. Spent some time hacking at packed snow with an old hockey stick blade so the garage door would close, too.

Daffodils that may or may not survive
Other parts of the state were hit harder. Sinks Canyon reported 28.5 inches of snow.

 I suppose I could grumble more, but snow always gives me hope. Snow is sitting at the kitchen table in 4th grade listening to WHIO radio, hoping to hear school called off or at least delayed. It's snow forts and angels and avoiding snowball fights since I always lost and didn't like getting pummeled. It's snatching icicles off the neighbor's garages, pretending we're jewel thieves.

 Snow is arriving at Denali National Park in Alaska my one summer up there. It's the first winter living in Utah, learning how to ski. I'm probably the only person in town who's a little disappointed when they plow the surface streets, as it kills the base for cross-country skiing.

Snow is the moisture that we desperately need here to fill the reservoirs and stave off drought.

 This storm was timed perfectly and was just bad enough that there was no snow day or snow morning, just an unpleasant experience getting to work. They did give up and send at least some of us home mid-afternoon as the city started shutting down. College closed. City offices closed. Library and stores locking the doors, waiting until the wind and snow died down. And the cold. It was so cold.

 The author Margaret Coel told me a New York editor once called her questioning her inclusion of an April blizzard in one of her books. That couldn't be right, could it? Oh yes, it could.

 So thank goodness for warm clothing. And a special shout out to the rabbit who gave his life to keep my ears warm this morning.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Saturdays are the hardest

Mom and Dad in their slightly younger days about 10 years ago.
It's been three weeks today since my mother died, five weeks since the last Saturday when I called her. In the middle of our last conversation, she said, "My arm's shaking like I'm cold." A moment later, she stopped talking and I could hear her breathing heavily.

I thought it was odd, but she had been recovering from pneumonia. Two of my sisters were there, so I didn't worry and went about my day. It was my Saturday ritual: coffee, more coffee, then call Mom. Only then did I really start my day.

A few hours later, my sister called to tell me Mom had been taken to the emergency room and I should probably come home now. She had gone into acute respiratory distress. There was such a strong focus on keeping her breathing that they only realized later she'd had a stroke.

The next Saturday I was with her in hospice, taking my turn with her in the evening. Her ability to talk had been taken. She could nod yes or no and motion with her left arm. Swallowing was difficult. All her foods were pureed and her liquids thickened. When she needed something she would motion and we would play 20 Questions. Are you hungry, Mom? Do you need something to drink? Do you need to be repositioned?

That night she seemed so tired, like the fight was leaving her.

As I sat, I crocheted a scarf with big, looping stitches that grew quickly. Before I left, I showed it to her. Would you like it, Mom? She nodded yes and I tied off the last stitch before laying it over her shoulders, not knowing what else to do. It was like a child giving her a school drawing. Look what I made for you, Mom.

The hospice room had a star machine that projected lights on the wall like multicolored stars. I turned it on in the dim room and watched the pinpoints of light, some moving gently, on the wall. Do you like it, Mom? She nodded.

I left her under the stars and flew back to Wyoming Sunday morning. The next Saturday my oldest sister called me and simply said, "It's over."

Every Saturday since she had the stroke has felt wrong. Each week, I think I should call her. I drink my coffee, and there is nothing to do after, no transition into the day.

We rarely talked long or of anything of much importance. There was always the exchange of weather reports, then the update on what my siblings and their offspring were up to. She was the central news agency, the hub we all revolved around.

Although she rarely talked long -- perhaps a habit ingrained from the days when long distance was expensive -- she always kept up her side of the conversation. That was why the heavy breathing on that call seemed so strange. Maybe if I had asked. Maybe if they had known it was a stroke up front. Maybe, maybe, maybe. There are always those questions in the aftermath.

One Saturday I will wake and not reach for the phone. Just not yet. Not yet.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writer's heaven or hell

There’s a joke where a writer dies and meets St. Peter on the other side. Peter gives her the option of spending eternity in heaven or hell. She asks for a tour of both first. He shows her Hell, where writers are toiling over keyboards in a pit of fire while demons whip them into working until they faint. Then he shows her Heaven, where writers are toiling over keyboards in a pit of fire while demons whip them into working until they faint. When she says she doesn’t quite see the difference, St. Peter says, “Oh, that’s easy. In Heaven, your work gets published.”

I have been in no longer care about many things mode lately. Among them, whether I live in Writers’ Heaven or Writers’ Hell. I will write badly at times -- probably often. It doesn’t matter. The late Ken Rand always put it succinctly: “Anyone can say you can’t write. Let no one say you don’t.”

The blog name bears some explanation, and requires the infliction of poetry. I am a transplant to the West and sometimes think of it as finding home, while other times I wonder what I am doing here. I love the open vistas, but I miss trees. I like the low population, but miss people and activity. As with any human, I can be a study in contradictions.

I wrote and published this over a decade ago, although it's been edited slightly Like many writers, I am horrified when confronted with earlier work, no matter how proud of it I was at the time. I interviewed W. Michael Gear once when he told me how relieved he was when packrats urinated on the only copy of his first novel attempt and his wife finally let him toss it. He had lived in fear that he would die and that someone would publish it posthumously. I’m saving myself that fear and putting it out here now:

Bluegrass and bindweed

Kentucky bluegrass, scraggling desperate to the slope
down and down to the walk, where it pokes through,
drying brown in cracks, crying for water
each week, each day in hot Wyoming wind.

This grass and I are kin, my clan
comes from gentle hills, horse country
where bluegrass drinks deep in humid Kentucky summer.

Each spring, I dig bindweed from my garden plots
Trace tendril roots from the soil, from plant to root,
from root to mama root, to big, fat grandmama root,
fat stores of sunlight for infant weeds.

Bindweed feeds its young ones well
Grandmama roots hide dug deep
in foundation cracks
Each summer it returns
When I leave, it will take its land again

Some things I plant survive here.
I’ve learned plants born to barrenness,
Ones that have known bindweed as neighbor
These bounce back from hail, bend in wind,
live hurried lives between frosts,
unthirsty in poor soil.

My roots are not as deep as bindweed,
more deep I hope than bluegrass.
I spread arms and feel wind pushing,
threatening to blow me east
where bluegrass thrives.

Will these roots hold in harsh Wyoming soil?
Or will wind pull me as I pull weeds,
toss me across the Plains
drop me in my birthland
Too torn to reroot?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Eve in Carpenter, Wyo.

Main Ave, Carpenter WY
Yesterday was a gray and drizzly Saturday, some of the most beautiful weather you can hope for in the arid West. I went for a drive to Carpenter, Wyoming, to indulge my fascination with small towns and take photos. Carpenter is unincorporated, and its official population is just under 100. It is that rarest of Wyoming towns: it has no bar, although there’s one 8 miles up the road in Burns.

I stop at a house that catches my eye with red pillars and an eclectic collection of things in the garden, including the gnarled root ends of tree stumps, gray and weathered.

The owner, an older woman, walks out the back door, surely wondering what the stranger in the hail-damaged Taurus is doing. I explained my oddball hobby, although she didn’t understand what allure her house held. The stumps, she said, came from a neighbor when he pulled them from his yard. She put them in to try to keep the dogs out of her garden.
Helen's garden fence.

We introduced ourselves by first names only. She lit up when she heard my name. She had a Susan, she told me, who died of cancer and left her a granddaughter to raise. Her granddaughter now has a little boy. They lived nearby where she could see them

I was adopted and raised by my grandmother and was a child of her heart, although I did not share this with Helen. It was chilly, and I had left the car running. I didn’t talk long.

I asked if I could take her photo and she of course protested that she looked awful. So many of us do. I promised I wouldn’t publish it. I don’t have a great display on the back of my camera, so I can only tell I have a photo, not its quality.

Until I download it at home, that is. She is beautiful, radiant, in sunglasses and a wide smile, white hair short and neat. In the background, I see the red pillars that caught my eye.

Today is Easter, and I want to call my mother and wish her a happy one. I cannot. Two weeks and one day ago, she died in the aftermath of a stroke. When I visited her in hospice, I told her how much I loved her. She smiled with the side of her face that still worked and squeezed my hand.

In so many photos, Mom looks grim, probably protesting that she looked awful. I have one where she and Dad are laughing, where I must have caught her at the right moment before she could protest. She looks beautiful, radiant.