June 29, 2012

The Good in People

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My daughter is a hugger, much like I was at that age.  Apparently, my parents had worried about me for my penchant for sitting on strangers’ laps.  I had no filter nor no caution.  So, like me, my daughter loves the attention and just loves people.  My son too, but he’s more cautious.

We’ve been visiting a lot of relatives lately and they’ve been visiting us.  So my daughter and son have been around a lot of cousins.  They’ve just been having a blast.  Some are cousins they’ve known all their lives and some they’re just meeting, but they invariably look forward to meeting them and they miss them long after their gone.  They haven’t seen their cousins Luke and Pa’eta (pronounced “Bod”) from southern Montana for something like three years, but they still ask, “When are Luke and Pa’eta visiting? I miss them.”

And I am continually amazed at the good will of kids.  Sure, sometimes they are selfish and want everything for themselves, but it feels honest, in a strange way.  But more often, they’re generous and kind.  Their cousins Jade and Julia from Oregon are visiting, and my daughter saved the donuts I bought for her after her dentist’s appointment to give to them.  My son quit playing his video game, which he loves, so that his cousins could play.

It really restores my faith in human nature.  I’ve always been an optimist, and as a kid I fervently believed in the good in human nature.  Sure, people did bad things but only because they were forced to.  Then growing up shook this belief.  When I began to think that people might be bad, I wondered what was the point of life, then?  If it was true that people were essentially evil, then why not cap myself and get it over with? 

But now I’ve arrived at the belief that people are essentially self-interested, and it is the job of civilization and our institutions such as governments, religions, and families to urge us to be better people.  And it is our responsibility to try to overcome our baser urges. 

But when I see my son and my daughter being such good people, I’m taken back to a time when I believed, you know?  A more innocent time.  My own personal Garden of Eden.

June 28, 2012

Nora Ephron, or Be Nice

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A great tribute to Nora Ephron in the New York Times.

What I love about this ~ and about Nora, of course! ~ is that it points out how irrevocably nice she was.  How she did nice things, how she was spontaneous and warm and kind.  Even though she was ambitious, she did not fit the mold of the castrating bitch that we are told to expect from ambitious successful women. 

I’m a strong believer in being nice, in making the world a better place with your presence.  I don’t think it’s unrealistic or too Pollyanna.  (And what’s wrong with Pollyanna, anyway?) I think it’s damn near a sin to make yourself objectionable day after day.

Sure, sometimes you need to be hard ass to get things done, and if your job is to effect political change or create a revolution, then I suppose you have license. 

But what I object to is the shittiness that stems from selfishness.  Get over yourself, I always want to say.

So, random acts of kindness for everyone!

June 27, 2012

Secret to Success?



Just a short post today.  I was out on vacation over the weekend.  We went to a family rebellion (reunion) in Omaha.  Lots of fun. 

Then today I took my six-year-old daughter an hour away to get an expander.  She took it in stride ~ which is way different than she was six months ago.  Six months ago, she said, "There's no way. I'm not getting braces, Mommy."  She does that. She gets very afraid.  Her mind works and imagines the worst.  She's always been this way. But today, it went off without a hiccup.

Which made me think about the many challenges in our lives.  They are inevitably painful and transformative and looking back they're necessary. But at the time they're very scary.

Do you suppose one of the secrets to success is being able to discipline yourself in the face of these and to grow, sometimes very painfully?

June 26, 2012

'I Feel A Change Comin' On' by Bob Dylan

Since we're doing cool poetry, how about a little Bob Dylan today?  In honor of me moving offices from one floor to another.

Via

I Feel A Change Comin' On

by Bob Dylan


Well I'm lookin the world over
Looking far off into the east
And i see my baby comin'
She's walking with the village beast
I feel a change comin' on
And the last part of the day's already gone

We got so much in common
We strive for the same old ends
And I just can't wait
Wait for us to become friends
I feel a change comin' on
And the fourth part of the day's already gone

Well life is for love
And they say that love is blind
If you wanna live easy
Baby, pack your clothes with mine
I feel a change comin' on
And the fourth part of the day's already gone

Well now what's the use in dreaming
You got better things to do
Dreams never did work for me anyway
Even when they did come true

You are as porous as ever
Baby you can start a fire
I must be losing my mind
You're the object of my desire
I feel a change comin' on
And the fourth part of the day's already gone

I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver
And i'm reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don't have one single rose
I feel a change comin' on
And the fourth part of the day's already gone

June 25, 2012

Limericks!

Today is a good day for limericks, don't you think?  We'll keep to the clean ones.




There was a young lady from Leeds
Who swallowed a package of seeds.
Now this sorry young lass
Is quite covered in grass,
But has all the tomatoes she needs.

There once was a girl in the choir
Whose voice rose up hoir and hoir,
Till it reached such a height
It went clear out of seight,
And they found it next day in the spoir.

There was an old man of Peru
Who dreamt he was eating his shoe.
He woke in the night,
With a terrible fright,
And found it was perfectly true.

For more, go here.

June 22, 2012

June 21, 2012

"Tiny, Smiling Daddy," by Mary Gaitskill

Reread Mary Gaitskill's short story "Tiny, Smiling Daddy" last night. Rips your heart out, just like at the end of Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." An excerpt from the end.

Via

He thought of his father. That was too bad too, and nobody was writing articles about that. There had been a distance between them, so great and so absolute that the word "distance" seemed inadequate to describe it. But that was probably because he had known his father only when he was a very young child; if his father had lived longer, perhaps they would've become closer. He could recall his father's face clearly only at the breakfast table, where it appeared silent and still except for lip and jaw motions, comforting in its constancy. His father ate his oatmeal with one hand working the spoon, one elbow on the table, eyes down, sometimes his other hand holding a cold rag to his head, which always hurt with what seemed to be a noble pain, willingly taken on with his duties as a husband and father. He had loved to stare at the big face with its deep lines and long earlobes, its thin lips and loose, loopily chewing jaws. Its almost godlike stillness and expressionlessness filled him with admiration and reassurance, until one day his father slowly looked up from his cereal, met his eyes, and said, "Stop staring at me, you little shit."
In the other memories, his father was a large, heavy body with a vague oblong face. He saw him sleeping in the armchair in the living room, his large, hairy-knuckled hands grazing the floor. He saw him walking up the front walk with the quick, clipped steps that he always used coming home from work, the straight-backed choppy gait that gave the big body an awesome mechanicalness. His shirt was wet under the arms, his head was down, the eyes were abstracted but alert, as though keeping careful watch on the outside world in case something nasty came at him while he attended to the more important business inside.
"The good parent in yourself."
What did the well-meaning idiots who thought of these phrases mean by them? When a father dies, he is gone; there is no tiny, smiling daddy who appears, waving happily, in a secret pocket in your chest. Some kinds of loss are absolute. And no amount of self-realization or self-expression will change that.

June 20, 2012

Living a Full Life

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For some reason, yesterday afternoon I got to thinking about those people who are all in.  You know who I’m talking about.  Those people who don’t reserve themselves, who don’t have protective shells, who give everything to what they’re doing.  They’re like little kids in that way ~ they don’t filter, they don’t edit, they just do it.

And then last night I watched Man on Wire, the documentary of Philippe Petit who in 1974 walked a highwire between the Two Towers.  (Great documentary ~ see it if you get a chance.)  He was ~ and is ~ someone who is all in.  And he is someone who knew what he wanted from an early age.  He always liked to climb on things and be up high, and then in a doctor’s office when he was 17 he saw in a magazine the plans to build the Twin Towers.  That became his goal.

Don’t you envy people who just know what they want to do from an early age?  It’s few and far between.  My brother Jim is one of those people.  He was taking apart clocks and fixing them and putting them back together from a young age.  He always just knew he would be an engineer, and he’s a damn fine one.  (He is making waves with Innovari Energy and Endeavor Engineering.)

So this got me to thinking about the ways we are able to live a full life, to go all in.

We are our own worst enemies sometimes.  We put roadblocks in front of what we want or need to accomplish.  And then of course the world has so many demands on us, we’re pulled in so many directions we just get overwhelmed and do nothing and avoid.  Maybe I should speak for myself.

Anyway, I was thinking about things that I do to make myself more productive, tips for living fully. Here’s what I came up with.

Dream big.  If you don’t allow yourself to think about what you love, to daydream, to imagine what a full life would be for you, you’ll never have that full life.  Give yourself permission ~ and if you can’t, I do.  I give you permission.

Set priorities.  There are things we have to do.  We have to do our jobs and take care of our families.  Then there are things that we want to do, that we desire with all our hearts.  We have to balance this.  Yes, the kids need to be fed and, yes, you have to do your job, but ~ you know what? ~ if the laundry isn’t done to perfection every week, so what?  If sometimes you let things slide for the sake of doing those other things that are near and dear to your heart, you will thank yourself in the years to come.  As the cliché goes: do you want your tombstone to say, “She always had the laundry done”? Yes, you have to be a bit selfish ~ you don’t want to be too selfish ~ but you know what, you and your dreams are worth it.  They’re worth something.

Set boundaries.  Say no sometimes.  My husband makes me practice:  “No.  Okay, now you try.  Say it.  Say no.” Hehe.  Once you set those priorities, have the self-respect to weed out the things that are not important, the things that are getting in the way of your full life.

Make a list.  Very important.  The to do list keeps you focused on your tasks, so that when you finish one task you don’t turn to the internet and waste two hours. I like having a list of personal to-dos, a list of work to-dos, and then a daily list of the order of tasks I want to accomplish.  Yes, frequently this last one is blown out of the water, but having it keeps me focused.

Break things down into smaller pieces.  It’s so easy to get overwhelmed.  A great way to get past that is to not look at the big picture and focus on the steps that need to be taken to get there.  Sure, sometimes you need to think of the big picture, but most of the time, focus on the list of concrete tasks.

15 minutes is not too small.  When I was a kid, a teacher once told me, “See that Johnny Mangus?  One of the secrets of his success is that he takes every opportunity to do things.  When he has 15 minutes, he starts working on something.”  That made a huge impression on me, and it’s so true.  When we have upcoming appointments, we tend to put off starting things, but if you resist that and just throw yourself into it, you can get a lot done in 15 minutes.  And then you find yourself not resisting when you have an hour.

Use a timer or other desktop program.  When I’m overwhelmed and pulled in way too many directions, the single biggest tool I have is my free desktop timer.  I tell myself, okay, I’ll just work on this huge project for 1 hour, or 2 hours, and I set my timer, put on my headphones, and go.  You’d be surprised what you can do in an hour.  I don’t open the internet during that time.  I try not to answer the phone and I resist interruptions.  I go all in and focus.

Get some exercise and eat right.  If your body is healthy, you will not only get more done but you’ll feel so much better.  You’ll be able to appreciate life and feel like you’re living life fully.  We take it for granted when we’re well, but there’s nothing like being sick to remind you of your mortality.

Have some down time.  It may seem like a paradox, but you cannot go go go 24 hours a day.  I used to very much equate my worth with what I accomplished, and what ended up happening was that I would get totally overwhelmed and I would start to avoid everything, hence getting nothing done and feeling really shitty about myself and the whole endeavor.  But then I realized that I need down time.  It’s okay to read a book or veg in front of the TV for a while or to sleep in.  If I allow myself that, I’m much more productive during the other times.

Have a date with yourself.  This is from Julia Cameron's The Artist’s Way.  Sometimes, to regenerate you need to have a date with yourself.  It’s a time to just have fun.  There can’t be any commitments and you can’t have a date with yourself and someone else.  Just you.  It’s time just to unwind, to be you, to have fun.  It refills the well.

The list above sounds like just a be-more-productive list, not a live-a-fuller-life list. It’s both.  I know in my own life I have times when I feel like the energy is stopped up and I’m getting nothing done, and other times when I feel like a vessel through which energy flows and I’m creating and getting things done in my professional, creative, and personal lives.  It feels like a full life when I’m like the latter.

As my friend Toby says, “Go big or go home.”

June 19, 2012

Moreau vs. Frankenstein

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Via



I just finished reading The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G.Wells.  A fascinating book on so many levels. 

H.G., the ultimate science fiction writer, was prescient in so many ways.  He predicted nuclear weapons, biological warfare, the moon landing, genetic engineering, lasers, and World War II. Course, we aren’t yet able to be invisible or travel in time.  Give it a few years.

Moreau was the book upon which H.G. made his name.  He called it “an exercise in youthful folly” and I think I read somewhere that he was surprised at the outrage it caused ~ which of course only made it more popular.

You probably know the story or have read it.  Edward Prendick’s ship goes down and he’s in a lifeboat with two other men, and right away we’re thrust into the thick of it.  In the first couple of chapters, the boat’s three inhabitants decide to draw straws to see which one gets killed for water and food. Gack! Reviews don’t often mention that part.

Then he gets picked up by a boat going to a mysterious island that has repulsive animalistic men on board. Montgomery is in charge there, but then he’s a drunkard and turns out to be the right-hand man of the evil genius Dr. Moreau, who tries to “mold” animals into men through vivisection, which of course is also ghastly torture. 

I can’t help comparing it to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  Same themes ~ the power of science to create and destroy, an investigation into human nature ~ but very different books.  Frankenstein aims higher and achieves more, somehow.

The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. You might remember that Prometheus was a Titan who taught humans the arts of civilization and brought them fire.  For that, Zeus punished him by having his liver (or heart) eaten out every day by an eagle, only to have it regenerated.

So it is with Frankenstein.  He is a monster that is created by Dr. Frankenstein, and in the beginning he is good (saves a little girl’s life) but he has no love.  He tries to get the Dr to make him a mate, the Dr refuses, and the monster turns bad and murders the Dr’s family.  Like Prometheus, he does good but his maker rejects him and tortures him.

The difference between Moreau and Frankenstein is striking.  In Moreau, H.G. tries his best to shore up the difference between animal nature and man’s higher nature.  Sure, he does undercut it at the end by making humans seem nothing but animals, but he never seems to raise the animals to human level.  He has them strive but inevitably be pulled “backwards.”  My modern sensibility kept expecting some kindness ~ not just loyalty ~ from the animals, something that would turn the stereotype on its head, but we don’t get that.  The animals remain animals.

In Frankenstein, the monster is more human than the Dr.  He is capable of kindness, while the Dr is consumed with science and his own selfish needs.  The book seems to say that the monster, the animal, is more capable of human kindness than the human.

Also, in Moreau, we are firmly resting in Prendick’s point of view.  And it’s not a very likable point of view.  He’s kind of a dick, all the way around.  Self-interested, hateful, just as soon “put someone out of their misery” as anything else.  He doesn’t seem to have much compassion, and we’re stuck in his head for the whole book.

In Frankenstein, we’re in the monster’s head too, and we empathize so much.  Here’s this helpless newborn, even if he is a monster, who is thrust out into the world all on his own, and he has to learn how to feed and clothe himself, to learn language, to figure things out, and he has the disadvantage of being horribly repulsive.  And the one who should care for him the most, his maker, rejects him utterly.

It’s going to make me think a lot about craft, about how the monster is such a sympathetic protagonist, even as he eventually does horrible things, while Prendick comes across as pretty unsympathetic.  What are the craft considerations behind it?  What would have made Prendick more sympathetic and the monster less?

June 15, 2012

Black Soldiers in the Johnson County War

A little known confrontation ~ the Suggs Incident ~ during the Johnson County in 1892 involving the black soldiers of the 9th Cavalry.  I wrote this with the invaluable help of the lovely archivist Leslie Shores Waggener of the American Heritage Center and the Simpson Institute for Western Politics and Leadership, and it was published in the Casper Star-Tribune on February 24, 2005.  I thought I'd repost it.

by Laurence Bjorklund


Range and Race

by Tamara Linse

A saloon in a tent town just ahead of the railroad. An insult, guns drawn, reinforcements, and then a shootout.

This is what you might expect from Wyoming history, especially during the Johnson County War, except that some of the combatants were African-American soldiers.

On June 16, 1892, Pvts. Abraham Champ and Emile Smith, "buffalo soldiers" of 9th Cavalry, were insulted by a man waving a gun in a saloon in Suggs, Wyo. The next evening, 20 soldiers returned and exchanged gunfire with locals. One soldier was killed, and two soldiers and one local were wounded.

"They were thrust into the tense, volatile situation created by the invasion of Johnson County," wrote Frank Schubert in "The Black Regular Army Regiments in Wyoming, 1885-1912."

A racial insult might have been the spark, but the tension brought on by the Johnson County War invasion was the wood, and one man - an invader named Phil Dufran - was the tinder.

The conflict

The Johnson County War erupted from years of friction between the cattlemen with large operations and the smaller landholders (the "rustlers"). Before 1892, four men and one woman who opposed the cattlemen were lynched or dry-gulched (shot by hidden gunmen).

Many of the cattlemen were powerful politicians and members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and many of the smaller landholders were former cowboys who had worked for the cattlemen and then struck out on their own. Cattlemen claimed that smaller landholders stole cattle, or "rustled," and the smaller landholders objected to the Maverick Law of 1884, which favored the cattlemen.

"Wherever we looked during those spring days, we could see riders, all heavily armed, on the tops of each of the high hills. Wherever long-range view could be obtained, a solitary rider would be seen with field glasses always searching the country," said Charles Hayden, surveyor for the railroad.

On April 5, 1892, 49 men, including 25 hired guns from Texas, invaded Johnson County. They killed two men at the KC Ranch before Sheriff Red Angus of Buffalo and a large force of men cornered the invaders at the nearby TA Ranch.

Gov. Amos Barber telegraphed U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who sent in troops from Fort McKinney. The invaders were removed to Fort Russell near Cheyenne to await trial.

On June 1, the cattlemen sent a blunt message to U.S. Sen. Joseph M. Carey: "We want changes of troops made as follows. Send six companies of Ninth Cavalry from (Fort) Robinson to McKinney. The colored troops will have no sympathy for Texan thieves."

The 9th Cavalry

The soldiers of the 9th Cavalry were disciplined, battle-hardened African-American men from Louisiana and Kentucky, commanded by white officers.

"As they are more temperate in habits, more readily disciplined, they take greater pride in performance of military duty, and therefore as a rule are better fitted for soldiers than white men," reported Major John Bigelow.

Their rate of desertion was much lower than white troops, and their morale was high.

The soldiers were small - they averaged 5-foot-6, as regulations mandated that they be under 155 pounds to place less of a burden on their horses.

There are two stories about the name "buffalo soldiers." One is that the Indians thought their hair resembled that of buffalo. Another says that the soldiers fought like cornered buffalo, suffering wound after wound but recovering.

Before 1892, the 9th Cavalry fought for 26 years in the "Indian Wars" in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas and Oklahoma. During these campaigns, 11 members of the 9th received Congressional Medals of Honor.

The 9th Cavalry was stationed at Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska in 1892 when the Johnson County War began.

The Suggs incident

The 9th Cavalry entered the Johnson County conflict on June 13. The expedition consisted of 310 enlisted men and officers, commanded by Major Charles S. Ilsley, and they set up Camp Bettens four miles south of Suggs in southeastern Sheridan County (near present-day Arvada).

Suggs was an end-of-the-tracks tent town. It offered drinking, gambling and prostitution. The Burlington & Missouri Railroad grade had been built, but track was still being laid.

Locals consisted of rough drifters and rail workers, as well as the more-permanent small landholders. A log cabin was converted to a saloon and labeled "Rustlers Headquarters."

Rumors surfaced about why the 9th Cavalry had been called in. Some thought they protected the railway workers from Indian attack, but others said they were tools of the cattlemen.

Wyoming believed in rough justice. As historians such as Michael Pfeifer have pointed out, Wyoming was more apt to hang a person, white or black, for property violations than for anything else. Between 1878 and 1918, 60 percent of those hanged were accused of property crimes.

However, between 1878 and 1918, 10 blacks - 28 percent of those hanged - were killed for everything from theft to rape to murder, this in a population of about 2 percent African-Americans.

Add to this mix one Phil Dufran, who was sent as a guide. Dufran had been the city marshal of Buffalo in 1885-86 and a stock detective, as well as one of the invading cattlemen.

Dufran incited the soldiers against the locals: "He took no pains to conceal his hostility, and the soldiers had offered to escort him into Suggs and defend him," one man later testified.

Dufran also incited the locals against the soldiers. The Buffalo newspaper printed Dufran's claim that he would come back as a U.S. marshal to arrest everyone, and he would bring a regiment to back him up. Consequently, Dufran's presence among the 9th Cavalry signaled to locals that they were there to punish small landholders.

Suggs showed open hostility to the soldiers. "Repeated and constant insults were heaped upon the soldiers by a certain class on account of their being colored," Ilsley said.

On June 16, Pvt. Smith rode into Suggs to put up fliers advertising for freighters and, unauthorized, Pvt. Champ went with him. Champ heard that a prostitute who "dispensed her favors regardless of color" was in Suggs, a woman he had known. He went to see her, but she was now living with a white man and refused entry, so Champ and Smith went to a nearby saloon.

Soon after, the woman's lover entered and put a gun to Champ's head. "Are you the soldiers who kicked on my door?" he asked. Then he insulted Champ, saying, "Ain't your mother a black b- - - -?" Smith pulled his gun.

The situation was defused by the bartender, who led the two soldiers out the back door. Doubled up on the horse, they raced away. One hundred yards from camp, they were fired upon, and Smith took a bullet through his hat.

That night and the next day, the camp was in an uproar, but Major Ilsley did his best to lock it down. Firing was heard at 10:30, and roll-call revealed missing soldiers but no missing horses or mules.

About 20 of the soldiers had snuck past the guard and went into Suggs. Town Marshal Jack Bell tried to dissuade the soldiers, but they pushed past him. One solder pointed to a saloon and said, "There's the place. Close in on it." A signal shot was fired into the air, and then a volley was fired into the saloon. One man in the saloon was grazed on the arm, but otherwise no one in the saloon was hurt.

"The action of the men was more in the nature of braggadocio than a desire to inflict bodily harm, as their shots were in the main too high to hurt anyone," Capt. John Guilfoyle later reported.

Men in the neighboring Rustlers Headquarters returned fire. Two horses tethered outside the saloon died immediately. The soldiers retreated.

People scattered. Men, women, and children tripped over tent guy wires as they ran. A Mrs. Potts ran into the night with her nightgown flapping and her baby Sadie over her arm. She heard the Chinese who owned the bake ovens across Wild Horse Creek talking excitedly.

E.D. Baker, a resident of Suggs who told the story in the 1945-46 Westerners Brand Book, said, "It was about the liveliest three or four minutes I ever saw."

Pvt. Willis Johnson was killed in the street. He was shot twice in the back of the head, the bullets exiting under his right eye. It is unknown whether he was killed by locals or from friendly fire. Champ was shot through the shoulder, and Pvt. William Thomkins through the hand.

Shortly after, Guilfoyle arrived at Suggs with two troops, the Hospital Corps, and a Hotchkiss gun rumbling behind. He reassured the town and gathered people from the sagebrush. He arrested soldiers for being absent without leave.

Dufran said he was sorry that they hadn't killed a whole lot of people. He was escorted to Gillette shortly thereafter.

Johnson, three-quarters of an inch over 5-foot-6, was buried next to a cottonwood tree. It had been Johnson's third enlistment, and previously he had served under the Hospital Corps. He was 31 and came from Dresden, Tenn.

Champ, Smith and Thomkins spent three months in jail awaiting trial and then were fined 50 cents. Champ later fought with the 10th Cavalry in the Spanish-American War, and Smith became a teacher and librarian at Fort Robinson.

The Army buried the incident, and Wyoming citizens turned their attention to the cattlemen. In the years that followed, historians took turns villainizing first one side of the Johnson County War and then the other, but few wrote about the buffalo soldiers.

Leslie Shores of the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center contributed to this article.

Buffalo soldiers in Wyoming

Buffalo soldiers served in Wyoming almost continuously from 1885 to 1912:
* Fort McKinney, near Buffalo, 1885-90 and 1893-94 (9th Cavalry).
* Fort Washakie, near Lander, 1885-91, 1895-98, and 1901-07 (9th and 10th Cavalry, 25th Infantry).
* Fort D.A. Russell and Camp Carlin, near Cheyenne, 1887, 1898-99, 1902-04, 1906-07, and 1909-12 (9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry).
* Camp Bettens, near Arvada, 1892 (9th Cavalry).
* Camp Pilot Butte, near Rock Springs, 1898 (24th Infantry).
* Fort Mackenzie, near Sheridan, 1902-06 (10th Cavalry).

June 14, 2012

Finding Inspiration

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I'm a big believer in hard work over inspiration.  What's the Thomas Edison quote? "Genius is ten percent inspiration, ninety percent perspiration." 

But, you know what?  A little inspiration never hurt. Or a lot.  I recently came across this great list of 31 ways to find inspiration by Leo Babauta over at WriteToDone, and I thought I would share part of it.  Click over there to get the full list.

  1. Blogs. This is one of my favorites, of course. Aside from this blog, there are dozens of great blogs on writing and every topic under the sun. I like to read about what works for others — it inspires me to action!
  2. Books. Maybe my favorite overall. I read writers I love (read about my current loves) and then I steal from them, analyze their writing, get inspired by their greatness. Fiction is my favorite, but I’ll devour anything. If you normally read just a couple of your favorite authors, try branching out into something different. You just might find new inspiration.
  3. Overheard dialog. If I’m anywhere public, whether it be at a park or a mall or my workplace, sometimes I’ll eavesdrop on people. Not in a gross way or anything, but I’ll just keep quiet, and listen. I love hearing other people have conversations. Sometimes it doesn’t happen on purpose — you can’t help but overhear people sometimes. If you happen to overhear a snippet of interesting dialog, jot it down in your writing journal as soon as possible. It can serve as a model or inspiration for later writing.
  4. Magazines. Good magazines aren’t always filled with great writing, but you can usually find one good piece of either fiction or non-fiction. Good for its writing style, its voice, its rhythm and ability to pull you along to the end. These pieces inspire me. And bad magazines, while perhaps not the best models for writing, can still be inspirations for ideas for good blog posts. These magazines, as they don’t draw readers with great writing, find interesting story angles to attract an audience.
  5. Movies. Sometimes, while watching a movie, a character will say something so interesting that I’ll say, “That would make a great blog post!” or “I have to write that in my writing journal!” Sometimes screenwriters can write beautiful dialog. Other times I get inspired by the incredible camera work, the way that a face is framed by the camera, the beauty of the landscape captured on film.
  6. Forums. When people write on forums, they rarely do so for style or beauty (there are exceptions, of course, but they’re rare). Forumers are writing to convey information and ideas. Still, those ideas can be beautiful and inspiring in and of themselves. They can inspire more ideas in you. I’m not saying you have to read a wide array of forums every day, but if you’re looking for information, trawling some good forums isn’t a bad idea.

June 13, 2012

The Objective Narrator, or the Merged Narrator

Two-face, by Bruce Timm

A recent book deal posted on Publisher’s Marketplace (by my lovely agency):
Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Emory University Clifton Crais's HISTORY LESSONS: A Family Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Wonders of the Brain, part memoir, part narrative science and part detective story, using the tools of his training as a historian, the author reconstructs his own personal history, and examines the neuroscience of memory and forgetting, from the ways in which experience shapes the developing brain to the mechanisms that cause the chronic childhood amnesia from which he suffers, to Dan Crissman at Overlook, by Jessica Papin at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (World English).
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

But what really struck me about this description was the narrative stance of the book.  It’s a memoir, so it’s about personal things, yet Crais also brings in his expertise and gives an “unbiased, objective” point of view.

Just to be clear.  Every book has a narrator.  It represents the storyteller’s voice in the text, but it is not the author ~ even in books with narrator’s named the same as the author.  It is a creation, a character.  In journalism and nonfiction, it’s that even-toned voice we know so well that we don’t even think of as a voice.  In third-person fiction, the narrator is sometimes very prominent, hopping from head to head and telling us what to think.  In first-person, the narrator and the protagonist are merged.*  (For a fabulous piece on narrators, read “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists” by Frederick Reiken in the AWP Writer's Chronicle, 2004-05, Volume 37, no. 4, p. 55.)

This makes me think about the many manifestations of the objective narrator. We’re used to the objective narrator in journalism and nonfiction ~ the “unbiased” voice that gives it to us straight.  It inspires confidence in its approach, and we believe what it says.

But the above deal post made me think about the objective narrator in forms of memoir and fiction.  Memoir and fiction are all about point of view, about the personal experience, and so we don’t often think of the narrator as being objective.  But often the best memoir has a narrator that is both deeply invested but also pulls out her professional or scientist hat too.  The above description is a good example.  It enriches the work if the narrator gives context as well as personal experience.

And we see the more personal tone much more in nonfiction these days ~ sort of an acknowledgement that the world is subjective.  The narrator ~ most often identified as the author ~ addresses the reader. 

Handling your narrator is very tricky.  You don’t want to overmanage, and the omniscient narrator is out of fashion, but you don’t want to have no narrator at all.  Your reader wants to feel sure that he is in good hands.  That’s where a seemingly objective narrator comes in handy.

Even though we live in an age of irony and skepticism and Everything's an Argument (a book about rhetoric), we still need a narrator.  And it helps as a writer to be very knowledgable and deliberate about our narrative choices.

It would take a book itself just to sufficiently address the subject.

*Although not totally merged. See Reiken's great essay for more detail. Sorry ~ it's not online.

June 12, 2012

Lbs., the Movie



I watched Lbs. the movie last night.  I love this kind of lower-budget character-based flick (another is A Cool, Dry Place).  I love how it balances the expected story arc with unexpected twists.

I love the two main actors ~ Carmine Famiglietti (Neil) and Michael Aronov (Sacco).  They did such a fabulous job, and the two worked so great together.  (Two scenes that shone like the sun was where they are arguing at the trailer about their respective addictions and at the end when Sacco is a homeless addict yet Neil imagines what he would have been like if he’d gotten clean ~ so charming and beautiful.)

The story is about an Italian man, Neil, in the city who is overweight and addicted to food.  He has a heart attack while driving a bus for his father’s business and ruins his sister’s wedding.  He takes off and drives into the country and buys a rundown trailer in a rural area.  And he tries to figure it all out.  He convinces his buddy Sacco, who’s a drug addict, to stay with him and try to get clean.  But they fight and Sacco leaves.  There’s the neighbor woman who’s a love interest. 

The ending is predictable yet unpredictable at the same time ~ great balance.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I love how we get the satisfaction of the ending we want, yet there are surprises.  I think about things like that a lot.  How do you give closure without resolution?  When should you resist the happy ending and when should you let it happen and when is it cliché and how do you do have a happy ending without cliché?

And Carmine makes this huge physical transformation.  I haven’t read much background on the movie, but I wonder whether they filmed the last part, where he’s fit, first or second.  Either way, he really transforms himself, an amazing thing. It’s like the movie The Machinist.  Christian Bale is concentration camp thin, and I found myself so repelled and transfixed by that that I had a hard time watching the movie. Why would an actor do that to himself?  Because he wants it so badly, he’s willing to really commit his instrument.

I could talk about many things related to Lbs., but maybe I’ll just leave it with this.  Like Carmine the actor, we artists need to leave in on the page, on the stage, on the screen.  We need to make the commitment and give it up for our art.  It shows in  the final product.  But there are lines that make it become spectacle, like in The Machinist. A very delicate balance.

June 8, 2012

That’s One Tough Mudder


Via
I have a friend who is participating in the Tough Mudder on Saturday in Beaver Creek, Colorado. It advertises itself as “probably the toughest event on the planet.” All you have to do is watch the video on the website and you feel like running with the bulls.

Here’s what the website says:

Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. With the most innovative courses, half a million inspiring participants, and more than $3 million raised for the Wounded Warrior Project, Tough Mudder is the premier adventure challenge series in the world.

As I was running my measly 1.5 miles today (working my way back up to 3), the thought crossed my mind that training for and attending events like these are like writers going to the best and most challenging writing conferences.

Bear with me here (and quit rolling your eyes).

I’ve written before about how running is like writing. 

Writing conferences are competitive. You compete to get in, and also you compete for scholarships. You also feel a little competitive while you’re there because there are all these great writers doing all this great stuff. Just like the Tough Mudder.

You train. Oh, how you train. You write every day ~ or feel guity if you’re not. You read like your life depended on it. You obsess. You read your workshop manuscripts. You lose 10 pounds. You practice your presentation reading. You research the other participants. Just like you’d do hardcore training for Tough Mudder competitions.

But more than that, writing conferences are about being with others of your kind, of rubbing antennae with the other strange bugs. About finding your tribe. And what else the Tough Mudder but people coming together to find other people like themselves. Sure, they’re competitive too, but I bet more than anything they think of the others there as their kind and those who don’t compete as the nameless mob. Much like writers do at writing conferences.

So, as I sit here thinking about how crazy this friend of mine must be for wanting to do the Tough Mudder, I have to remember that many people think I’m just as crazy to want to write a novel. But crazy is good, I think. It means you’re passionate about something and you’re throwing your heart and soul into it. It means you’re living your life ~ with emphasis on both the living and on your life.

June 7, 2012

Intrusions, by Ursula Hegi



Imagine a novel with two parallel storylines.

 The first storyline is an insightful literary tale in third person about a young woman, Megan, trying to figure out how to be a wife and a mother. It follows her from the death of her parents as a kid to her being raised by her aunt and uncle, their divorce due to the uncle’s infidelity, and her finding her own husband and having a child. The story is wonderfully nuanced and non-cliché, with the woman experiencing highs and lows in unexpected ways.

The second storyline is in first person and about a woman who’s a writer working on her first novel. We don’t get nearly as much background information about this woman, and she directly addresses the reader. As she’s trying to write, she gets all these interruptions ~ intrusions ~ into her writing time from her young kids and from life. We all know how it is to try to write a novel ~ it takes a long time and the world wants you to do what it wants you to do. In fact, it’d just as soon you not write at all. As it turns out, this is the woman who is writing the story of Megan above, and she talks a lot about her process as she tries to work out Megan’s story. She gives us interesting background about minor characters and all the other things you try to work out as a writer of a novel.

But it gets even more interesting. The characters start talking to the writer, arguing with her about why she made certain choices and left out huge chunks of their lives. It’s not just Megan who talks with the writer (named Ursula, by the way) but also Megan’s husband Nick. They say they the characters have been talking amongst themselves.

I’m only about halfway done, but as a writer of novels I am fascinated by this book ~ Intrusions, by Ursula Hegi. Don’t you love finding a point of view of someone who is way into what you’re obsessed by, whether it’s writing or engineering or tying flies? You love to hear the gory details of the work, how they used an egg hook instead of a nymph bend and they added a bit of Hungarian partridge feather in with the snowshoe hair.

And this type of metafiction is interesting in its own right. We live in an age of meta where we question everything ~ from the ironies of convention to the way we tie our shoes. Putting this questing into our work is a productive technique that can yield fascinating outcomes, but it also has to be balanced with convention so that the reader isn’t left wondering what the heck is going on ~ or worse, bored to tears.

I’m not drawn to metafiction or experimental fiction generally, but there are some fascinating experiments out there. Intrusions makes me think of Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over, where the characters break the third wall and address the reader directly. Or the movie Stranger Than Fiction, where the writer played by the wonderful Emma Thompson is writing a character played by Will Ferrell, and she’s the type of writer who always kills off her characters ~ will she kill him off? Or the movie Adaptation in which a screenwriter must adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s work as a film, and there is this wonderful shift when you realize that the screenwriter gave in and turned it into genre. (Any screenplay by Charlie Kaufman is weird and wonderful and meta.)

Have you read or watched any of this wonderful meta self-aware narrative? I would love to hear about it!



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June 6, 2012

The Great Virginia Woolf

Have I mentioned (a few hundred times) how much I respect and admire Virginia Woolf? She's one of my writer-gods.

Virginia Woolf at Monk's House, Rodmell

"Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works." ~ Virginia Woolf

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June 5, 2012

Am I Crazy?


Via

I keep reading about writers who write a whole novel ~ blood, sweat, and tears ~ and then query something like 10 or 12 agents and then just throw up their hands and self-publish.  (Not that self-publishing isn’t one of the tools in our toolkits.)  I queried almost 130 agents on my first manuscript and something like 64 on my second before I got an agent. That was eleven years and two novels written and rewritten, not to mention getting published in litmags and going to conferences and setting up a website and so much more.

Query 10 agents and then give up?  What’s up with that?

You're going to need a lot of patience and sticktoitiveness to get anywhere, no matter which route you take.


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June 4, 2012

A Vegetable Garden, and How It Relates to Unrealistic Expectations



We put in our vegetable garden this weekend, and I’m bit sunburned and a bit sore—but very happy. 

We put in a garden every year, but the last number of years my husband has been doing all the work.  He loves growing things and working in the yard, and all things being equal he would have loved to have been a farmer.  But this year I was struck by a bit of romanticism about it and was ready to pitch right in. We always had a garden when I was growing up on the ranch.




All gardens can be a bit challenging, but we have our own here in Laramie at 7,200 feet above sea level.  You’re not supposed to plant until June 1, and even then it can be iffy.  The growing season is three months at the outside.  You can’t grow melons or okra or sweet potatoes or pumpkins.  Corn’s a bit iffy, though you can get a few ears of the short-season variety.  You might think tomatoes are out of the question, but my husband has had really good luck with cages and walls-o-water.  We always get a good crop of tomatoes.  What we grow particular well are cole crops like lettuce and spinach and things like that.  In fact, there used to be lettuce farms here in the Laramie valley, apparently.




The kids and their grandmother put in some flowers that the kids chose into the planter on the porch.  Next weekend, I think I’ll work on the other flower and herb beds. 

I heard on NPR the other day that whenever a recession hits, people take to growing vegetables.  Makes sense.  But that implies that most of the time people don’t grow vegetables—not enough space, more concerned with flowers, too much effort involved, etc.  In my own case, it’s sometimes not a priority, and plus we’re members of a CSA farm, so we get vegetables every week from June to December. 

But that got me thinking about how that’s just another way we’re disconnected from the natural world.  We can go throughout our whole lives without being exposed to nature more than the walk from our house to our car and then from our car into work or school.

And then I was thinking about the metaphors that we take for granted. The metaphor we use the most nowadays is that of exponential growth.  In the financial arena, we should always get raises and businesses should build and everything goes on an upward trajectory.  In our personal lives, we should be improving ourselves and aiming ever higher.

All this upward seeking, though, creates ever higher expectations—and hence ever higher disappointments.  In the U.S., which arguably has the highest standard of living in the world, we are more frustrated and disappointed than people in less prosperous countries (see there, I almost said, “less advanced” and that in itself shows how the metaphor extends throughout our lives).

But if we all grew vegetable gardens, if we were all closer to the natural cycles of the earth, wouldn’t our basic metaphors change?  Wouldn’t it be the cycle of life and death, not the ever-increasing ledge of expectation?  And wouldn’t we be happier, then?

Potatoes, now there's a goal in life.




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