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?