More Writing Advice (Remember: You Get what You Pay For)

Stories. Some writers don’t know when to start their stories and offer pages of irrelevant background before getting to the story. While I can’t speak for every reader on the planet, I don’t think most people want to dredge through 30 pages of preliminaries before learning why and what they’re reading. Humans are hunters and unless something is moving along that horizon, they’re likely to look away.

There’s even a fancy term for this; in medias res, which means starting the story in the middle of the action.

This advice is irrelevant if you happen to be Proust in which case you can write 200 pages or more about the lace curtains on your grandmother’s windows.

Quotidian Update 031.2c.vii

The featured photo has nothing whatever to do with the weather here in Heaven today. It’s a nostalgia shot from the 12+ inches of snow we got somewhere in the dim past, which is to say 2019. In the litany of my life’s regrets is the one where I pine over not having skied every single day that year. Never never never again will I be so profligate with snow. One problem, though, is that it’s as much fun to walk a dog in snow like that as it is to ski on it. Less exhilarating, maybe, or differently exhilarating. Anyway, it’s only January so I continue to hope that the snow is just delayed but still might come. March is often the snowiest month in Colorado. FYI, the boots in the photo are 12 inches high. Sigh…

For my birthday, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog was sent a bed of her own. She loves it. It’s immense, as it would have to be as she is — in the word’s of Elizabeth’s son, “A small horse.”

I wasn’t sure she would use it. She doesn’t like change, but the first night she went right to it. The friend who sent it to me has one for his dog, Frosty, and she loves his. Either Frosty is a good host or he thought, “Damn, she’s big!” and lets Bear have his bed when we visit. It’s fun to watch her dig into it and turn around in it (both directions) making it just right before she lies down. The good news for me is that I can now get rid of the easy chair she destroyed and used to contort herself to sleep in, though now Teddy thinks the chair is his bed. Probably the answer is to get him a bed, too.

This place is really going to the dogs, I guess. I’m thinking of turning the studio into a living room for people, you know, with a sofa, etc. but I know that the dogs would just follow me in there and I’d miss them if they didn’t. Besides, it’s cold in there.

Animal Stories

Many people write animal stories in which they project human qualities (desired or actual) onto the animal and then the animal talks. It’s a lot like Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. I’ve spent a lot of time out there with animals — my dogs, a few people, and whatever wild animals happen to be out where I am. I know one thing about these animals (dogs, hawks, eagles, cranes, coyotes, cougars, deer, cattle and horses). They are NOT human. They might seem to hang out with us, but that isn’t what they’re doing. They’re doing THEIR thing, not our things. Personally, I think there’s a lot to learn from that.

I used to hike with a mated pair of red-tail hawks. Seriously. I’d hike, they would be flying along with me. I was 100% convinced I’d found my spirit guide. One day, I was sitting on a promontory and one of these hawks came and flew directly at my face, hovered in the air, and looked at me. Why? It was cool, but he wasn’t saying, “I’m your spirit guide.” He MAY have been saying “Thanks” in red tail hawk language, something like, “thanks for bringing your dogs because they really help us find food.” But we were not “at one” in some mystical hawk/woman union of souls. It didn’t make the experience any less spectacular that there was a human/hawk moment happening in hawk terms. To be suddenly in the terms of a wild creature is pretty amazing but that can include being attacked and eaten.

I have watched a red tail hawk attack a human. That stupid woman had no idea what was going on, because SHE was listening to her Walkman (back in the day) as she ran up a hill that was famous in San Diego for being a “work out.” Listening to music through earphones in a landscape that is home to rattlesnakes. Stupid. The whole world is fucking commodity for humanity. The hawk really didn’t like this woman — her sound? Her way of moving? I have no idea. But the woman kept flailing her arms around and yelling and the hawk kept attacking. My friend and I were on top of the ridge watching this. We’d just “worked out” up that hill though for us it was something else, something like transportation. A hill has the right to be a hill; not an outdoor gym.

“I wish I were her,” said my friend. I just nodded. I really wasn’t sure. I didn’t know why the hawk was so incredibly pissed off. Oooops. I just projected. But it’s true that my friend and I liked hawks. We watched them all the time. We were rooting for the hawk. We didn’t like the woman AT ALL.

To be KNOWN by wild animals requires ONE thing and that is frequent, regular, predictable presence in their world. They just want to know that we’re not going to kill them or kill their young and when they can expect us to be around so they can go for shelter or not, depending on their species. (They might think of us as food at 6 pm, but you know…) But most wild creatures go for cover. That wild animals want safety is an argument for leashed dogs, but I have not always leashed my dogs. I think I made that change after I watched a young dog I owned spy a pack of coyotes and run down the hill to join them. Nothing bad happened — the coyotes knew us because we were up in their world almost every day at 6 pm or so.

Domestic animals. I’ve lived with 27 dogs (and more than a dozen cats, an iguana, a few different snakes and two tarantulas) at this point in my life. All very different in their motivations determined largely by their breeding. They have loved me, and I have loved them, but the terms for that love require a few steps from me into the dog dimension and a few steps from them into the human dimension. Dogs are the BEST at teaching people this important point; they are not human, but they’ve learned over the eons that it is to their advantage to learn to live with us. Horses? I’ve only known one and when I think of him I think, “We humans think we’re so damned smart but, BROWNIE?” He’d learned to communicate in human terms — no, not with words, but gestures, eye contact, humor, telepathy? Why? Because it was the language most often “spoken” in his life, I guess. He didn’t just do that. He was a good teacher to me of HIS terms. I was a very willing student. I knew when he needed hay. I knew when he needed fresh water. I knew when he was lonely. I knew when he thought his owner was funny. I knew when he was glad to see me. He wasn’t even my horse. I was just the most consistent animal presence — besides two of my dogs — in Brownie’s world. Still, I’m not putting words in Brownie’s mouth. That would be disrespectful.

Animals have their nature and we have our own animal nature, too. Most of us live pretty far from that — whatever it is but I think the more you live with animals the more likely you are to acknowledge that you are motivated by hunger, thirst, fear, exhaustion, the need for safety — and, interestingly, curiosity.

Our abstract notion of “love” is not animal. “Love” in animal language is nurturing a baby until it can function on its own. That can be a very harsh thing for an animal because due to high water or something it might need nurturing past the “abandon by date.” I’ve seen that, too. It’s why I don’t watch animal documentaries. I don’t WANT to project my human values on what an animal MUST do in order to survive. BUT from those animals I learned that survival really matters, my PERSONAL survival matters and not only that? It might further the survival of my species.

Take that anti-Vaxxers.

P.S. the stuffed animal is a red-tail hawk I got for my birthday. I love him. He doesn’t say much, but time will tell… And yes, Bear and Teddy “talk” on this blog but you know, 1) we’re together basically 24/7, 2) who else am I going to talk to? 3) their body language is extremely articulate, 4) it’s just for fun. And Bear really does love snow.

Advice to Writers

Mondays can happen even when you’re retired. They are the days when your coffee boils up and over your Bialetti and spatters all over the now 30% functional cheap electric stove that came with your house. Yep. But the big picture is that (so far) 30% of the stove works and your coffee is hot and tasty as always.

My job as a reader is great training for coaching people who hope to self-publish. So many things are instant turn offs and, sadly, fewer things are instant turn-ons. LOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG self-justifying introductions are advertisements to the reader that the book can’t stand on its own, and/or the writer isn’t sure of his/her message. Audience awareness — a writer might have a twelve year old in mind, but writes something that the average 12 year old won’t sit still for. Grammar may or may not be a big deal, but persistently poor grammar (not just a few awkward sentences) can come across as a lack of respect for both the reader and the book’s message. The purpose of grammar is to help a reader understand someone else’s writing/thinking. In one contest I read a book with a VERY important message, but it was such a mess grammatically that some of the people who needed it would be lost in the morass. I felt so bad for the writer! Inconsistent voice is another way to (literally) lose a reader. Sources! I have read (paper) books where the author offers — for sources — a catalog of long URL addresses. What’s the reader of a paper book going to do with that? Audience…

Hiring an editor — and listening to that person — would help a writer resolve most of these problems.

It’s not about a contest, either. It’s about the life of the book. Yesterday I read a textbook. In the introduction the author said, “This isn’t a textbook. It’s something else. It’s indefinable.” I was sort of cool with that though I wondered how that would work. Still, I’ve used and reviewed thousands of textbooks in my life, and if this is something else? Well, I’m all ears, uh, eyes. As I read — or tried to read — I found myself lost in a book that was a lot like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The irony is the book was a communication textbook. With that book, and some others, I wonder if the writers have let their work sit in a cupboard for a year or so. Then, with a clear head, brought it out and read it. Writing can be intoxicating and writers fall in love with their work. I’ve been in love with everything I’ve written at the time I wrote it — and I still am. I love my books, but they aren’t the same books for me they are for anyone who reads them. For me they represent not just themselves, but the experience of writing them, all-consuming emotional commitments to an idea against which most other relationships can’t hold a candle. But — as I learned the hard way — if you love something THAT MUCH it deserves the best possible chance to live and breathe on its own.

Still, I feel privileged to have this opportunity. I have found some beautiful books in this go-around, and I’ll let you know when the whole thing is finished.

Lamont and Dude Discuss Fire

“Humans.”

“You’re a human, Lamont. You keep forgetting.”

“I never forget. If I did, I’d end up at the museum in LA dressed in a Wooly Mammoth suit performing for kiddies.”

“Ha ha. I’d take you down again, Lamont, and you know it. But what’s wrong with humans NOW???”

“I was reading an article here by a noted educator, in his own eyes, anyway, who says knowledge is created. What a dumb shit. The tools for acquiring knowledge might be created, but knowledge? It’s not a ‘creation’.”

“You need to surf more and read less, Lamont. I’ve told you that about a million times. It would really make this human iteration a lot more pleasant. Isn’t that the whole point of these iterations? To enjoy life and then die?”

“That’s your philosophy, Dude?”

“Well, yeah. What else is there? Being human in this iteration living in this particular place isn’t what I’d call a nightmare. And, remember; there are always asteroids. You know that, I know that, and all of this — ocean and all — is inflammable.”

“Water isn’t inflammable.”

“If the perp is an asteroid, everything is flammable.”

“Not exactly. And an asteroid isn’t exactly a ‘perp’.”

“You’re going to argue this, Lamont? Seriously? Vita brevis. Asteroid, Smilodon, Bear, whatever. There’s an end to the road. I’m heading out. The waves are breaking clean and high. You want to come?”

“Sure. Let me get my board.”


Lamont and Dude are characters I came up with a few years ago. They have the uncanny ability to remember many of their past incarnations which gives them a unique perspective on life, the universe and everything.

Chapeaux

I love the comedian Eddie Izzard, and one of his routines (older routine) involves the grim reaper, grandmothers and hopscotch. As I approached this mystical number — 70 — I thought of that routine and laughed. One of the bits is that when women reach a certain stage of life they get the “gran coat” and wear a “cake on their heads.” (Think Queen Elizabeth.) That always cracked me up because I grew up in an era where grown up ladies wore fancy hats.

Yesterday, as my friends and I proceeded on the legendary “doing of Del Norte,” of song and story, we passed a general store/antique shop/thrift shop and in the window of that shop was a hat tree and on that hat tree were — cakes! I mean gran hats.

Anyway, it was an awesome birthday full of sweet surprises and friendship. I appreciate everyone’s good wishes here! The dreaded day couldn’t have been better. It included a video call with my step-family in Indiana during which we discovered we could do cool things with our phones. Afterward my step-daughter-in-law put together this “card.”

I wouldn’t say I’m starting out a new year with a clean slate since I have a lot of projects hanging fire, but I’m glad the “milestone” is behind me.

Alles Geben…

I’ll be honest. I’ve been feeling pretty oorie about my upcoming birthday, but like many other kinds of dread, once it’s upon you it’s pretty OK. Also, remembering that I share my birthday with the happiest little dog on the planet helps, too.

It’s funny how we are, but I know that some of the dread is linked to the heightened awareness of how close we are to the end of the story. That leads us to wondering if we’ve done anything worth doing with our 3 score and 10. The pope coming out and saying people who opt for pets over children are “selfish” didn’t help. (Ha ha). How would he describe himself and all the other celibate priests and monks and nuns, etc.? Are they excused? How does that work?

I still don’t know and probably will never know if I did good or not. I’ve pretty much toddled along with the idea that not making things worse was the best I could do. I’m hopeful I’ve succeeded in that. Anyway, it’s a self-indulgent preoccupation, regardless how normal it is.

In book reading news, after reading a wonderful book, I picked up (ie. opened my laptop to) another eBook and found a morass of intellectual density, a textbook no kid would ever make it through, written by a retired professor of some stripe or other. My English teacher brain kept yelling at him, “Where’s your thesis statement!!!” I finished evaluating the book, losing an hour in my ever shortening life, and opened another — also by this author. Well, it turned out to be as inscrutable, dense and oblique BUT the subject interested me. I can’t judge a book on that, but I was inspired to look up a term the author had defined because I wanted to know more. Guess what? The definition offered in the textbook was word-for-word from Wikipedia. OK, the question is, “Did the author write the entry in Wikipedia or copy it?”

I breathed a deep sigh of relief because I don’t have to find the answer to that. I don’t have to do anything. The book wasn’t going to win any prizes anyway as readability and value to the audience are two important criteria.

What was the term? It doesn’t matter. My exploration led me to conclude that the word refers to something indefinable, so what’s the point? As I was thinking about it, I thought of how poor old God in Deuteronomy attempted to get the point across to Moses and couldn’t. “God, here’s the deal. Those Hebrews down there are a very skeptical lot and if you don’t give me a name for I’m not going to get anywhere with these stone tablets.”

It seems that in our need to communicate with each other we have invented language, and over time we confuse our terms for the realities toward which they inadequately gesture. OH well. It’s a poor worker who blames his/her tools. At least we have poetry.

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, and then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson, ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’.

Photo: Smiling kid, my cousin, Linda. In the high chair, me, age 1. Behind Linda, Aunt Martha, Aunt Kelly (Linda’s mom) in the middle, my mom holding a gift. It was a puzzle, I mean the gift not the entire future. 😉

My Smart Little Dog

In other news, I took the dogs out on this spring-like day (grrrrrr) for a walk. I’d hoped only to go with Bear but Teddy is smarter than both Bear and I. On the first half, Bear walked beside me while Teddy pulled to the left and smelled things and left his own smells along the way. On the other half, Teddy decided to walk beside me at heel on my right — Bear’s side. Noticing this, I loosened my hold on Bear’s leash and let her ramble and smell to my left.

To my total amazement, Teddy walked at heel on my right the whole way back, allowing Bear to sniff and pee and roll in the snow. He has learned this ON HIS OWN and decided to do this BECAUSE HE WANTS to. Until now, if Bear was going to get a slow dog-ramble, I had to take her by herself. I can’t let each of them walk loose-leashed because they are pretty powerful together and will find things to fascinate them that are in opposite directions. 😀

I’m so impressed by the intelligence of that little guy. As we walked along he kept watching me to be sure he was doing it right. It’s not like I didn’t teach him this; I did but this is the first evidence I’ve ever had that he remembered the hours of training back in 2019 when we had more opportunities. He seems to have put the whole thing together and determined that if Bear gets to ramble and sniff on our walks, he gets to go every time. He discovered the appropriate compromise.

The Prescience of Art

I watched a few 1960s Cold War movies recently, most recently 7 Days in May which is interesting because it has the cast of the 2021 Insurrection in the costumes of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and a bunch of other actors who were kind of before my time. Lynn Cheney is played by Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster plays Donald Trump. Frederick March plays Joe Biden, though there’s a little shifting around in the movie to fit it into 1 1/2 hour. The obligatory babe is played by Ava Gardner. She is a kind of 1960s Stormy Daniels.

The short jist of this film is that Kirk Douglas alerts the president to the fact that all but one of the Joint Chiefs is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the duly elected government, that they have even developed a secret base in the desert (it’s always the desert) from which to launch their coup. The film makes the point that the Constitution is very clear that in this country the leader of the the government is chosen by a mandate of the people. Kirk Douglas (a Marine Colonel) personally agrees with the evil generals (led by Burt Lancaster), but he’s taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and that’s what he does.

The tech of the time was fascinating. Among that tech, in the office of the admiral (John Housman who plays the sole dissenter to the insurrection planned by the Joint Chiefs) was a Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio exactly like my dad’s (fuzzy feature photo). When they wanted to get video of some of the conspirators they had to haul a full-on Hollywood movie camera into the woods. Everything was analog. The computers, of course, were immense and essentially mechanical. Tubes, not printed circuits, not even transistors. ❤

Since I grew up during the Cold War, and the Cold War supported my family, it’s intrinsically interesting NOW but not so much then. Back then it was the ambient reality. We lived 2 miles from the second major target the Soviets would go for so though we had a kind of bomb shelter in the basement, we’d have been vaporized. I learned this directly from my dad one night when I couldn’t sleep after watching On the Beach on TV. My dad was a war gamer for SAC and an adviser to the Joint Chiefs. Yep. Well, this knowledgable man comforted me by saying, “Don’t worry, MAK. We won’t have to worry about fallout. We live on a target. We’ll be vaporized. We’ll just go stand out in the yard and watch the whole thing then we’ll be gone.”

“OK, dad.”

“Now roll over and go to sleep.” And I did.

A little while ago, I watched another Cold War film from the 50s — 1955? — when the government was trying to SELL the American public on the Cold War and the development of a fantastically armed air force to keep the peace. I didn’t even KNOW such a sales pitch had ever been necessary but there is a film, Stategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allison that is pure Cold War propaganda. It’s very pretty with romantic cinematic shots of the B-36 (Giant airplane) in orange sherbet clouds with uprising music in the background and, with Jimmy Stewart as the hero? Who’s NOT going to love the Strategic Air Command?

BUT…by 1964 it seems that some Americans had caught on that developing bigger and “better” bombs was a dangerous con, and 7 Days in May opens with a demonstration between “hawks” and “doves” in front of the White House. The demonstration that turns into a fist fight. My adult life has brought me into contact with a lot of hawks and a lot of doves, the birds, and hawks don’t act that way and doves are not all sweetness and light.

Featured photo: My dad and his Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio on which we used to try to listen to Russia but usually only got Mexico

Another Blog Post Goes to the Dogs

The book reading continues apace (never got to use “apace” before). Yesterday I picked up (meaning opened on my laptop to) a really really good book, and I was so happy. It put a song in my heart it’s so good, and it just happened to hit me at the perfect moment. I can’t tell you what it is other than it’s a book most people would never pick up — but as far as I can tell four chapters in — most people would enjoy it and get something from it. Anyway, when I CAN tell you, I’ll post a whole review here.

As there is still snow on the ground, the dogs and I went out to seize the day yesterday. I got a full-on dog compliment from Bear. As the three of us were walking along — Teddy pulling to the left, Bear mostly at heel to my right — Bear stopped to roll in the snow. This is a thing about putting an animal’s scent into her fur. Well, the animal tracks she was rolling in were mine. ❤

Dog compliments are always given in “Dog” which is sometimes an uncomfortable language for humans. My dog, Dusty, who had been picked up beside the freeway in California, beaten and terrified, taken to a shelter, declared “unadoptable,” (ha ha showed them!), was so incredibly happy to have a real HOME, dog FRIENDS and his own human that, for the first year or so he lived with me, he pissed on my foot the moment I came in the front gate after work. “MINE!!!!” I dealt with that by wearing rubber flip-flops in the car so I could wash my foot before going into the house. He stopped marking me, but he never stopped “marking” his favorite mother/sister, Lily T. Wolf, and till the day she died, he peed on her hind end as she was relieving herself in the morning. Not a full-on micturition such as a Nihilist might do on a carpet that holds the room together, just enough to mark her. I don’t completely understand this behavior but I have a couple of theories. When he came to live with us, he had three Siberian Husky mothers/sisters. He began this behavior when Jasmine died, but he ONLY marked Lily. He didn’t mark Cheyenne.

Dusty at 6 mos. with his Siberian Husky mothers/sisters, back to front, Jasmine, Lily and Cheyenne

So, every morning for 14 years I cleaned up Lily before she came into the house. A valiant effort, but there is really no way to get 14 years of dog pee smell out of the multi-layered fur of the Siberian husky. On the day I took her to the vet to be put to sleep, I held her in my arms, tightly. I did not want to let go. Eau d’Dusty was pretty powerful that morning because I had had no chance to really clean her up before our last journey together. I remember thinking that I wished Dusty’s method would work and hold her there, but I knew better.