Archive for August, 2012

Putting our Best Paws Forward

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Right from the start, our dog Izzi has had a special quality of patience. Shortly after she came to live with us, I started to think she might be a good therapy dog and we might someday volunteer in the Reading with Rover project.

John reads to Izzi.

Reading with Rover’s mission is to: “Inspire children to discover the joy of reading while developing literacy skills and confidence in a safe environment, using Reading with Rover dogs.” The dogs are willing listeners for child readers at schools, libraries and bookstores.

Our Izzi turned six this year. We signed up for a pet therapy training class this summer. She is one of five dogs – with two great Danes and two labs – who gather for weekly sessions at MyPuppyNanny near Snohomish to prepare for the Reading with Rover certification test.

Monday’s tasks included walking calmly through an area of busy people, sitting, and staying. Then came the task that our instructor, Annemarie Kaighin, called “the deal breaker.” She would bring in another of her dogs from the adjacent kennel. The five dogs being trained must remain quiet as the new dog entered the room.

Izzi barked. My heart fell.

But all is not lost. Annemarie coached me to train Izzi not to bark at strange dogs. So Tuesday, Iz and I hung out at a nearby pet store. Every time a new dog came in I gave her treats. She seemed indifferent to the dogs but loved the chicken bits.

Wednesday, we walked around Green Lake. At first I gave her treats each time we saw and passed another dog. Pretty soon she’d see a dog and look to me for the treat. Mostly she ignored the other dogs or sniffed toward them with interest. Apparently she thinks dogs in pet stores and dogs on the walking path are not bark-worthy.

How can I replicate an indoor situation where strange dogs come by and I can treat her for not barking? We are both scratching our heads, and not because of fleas.

Meanwhile, Izzi and I are working on all the other stuff. She sits reliably at my side when I pause during our walks. She walks well on a leash. Whether or not I am able to teach her not to bark at new dogs, it is truly fun to work with her to sharpen our skills.

And I still hold out hope that our patient pup will pass the test. Stay tuned.

Izzi waiting for John to come home with her best friend, Hudson, our daughter’s dog.

Writing the Beach

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

First posted July 26, 2012, on the blog of the faculty of Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults, WriteatYourOwnRisk on posterous.

Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of

newspapers.

The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.

 

I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and buoy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.

 

 

 

Pay Attention, Report Back

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally appeared July 20, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable on WordPress.com.

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

The Private Lives of Books

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted June 22, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

You rarely know what becomes of your book once it goes to live on other people’s shelves. Sure, you hope it is treasured, read and re-read. But mostly books don’t write home after they leave.

Luckily, every now and then I hear about one of my books’ lives out there in the world. Like this story.

A young mother who has three kids under the age of 7 told me how they played Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door. I assumed the oldest, Betsy, would have played the bossy older sister Zelda. But Betsy was magnanimous and let her younger brother, David, 5, play Zelda. She assigned the youngest, Gus, 3, the role of the owl who is featured only in illustrations (see above).

The kids set up their sleeping bags and acted out the third chapter, “Camping Out,” in which Zelda sings Ivy to sleep while watching for shooting stars. Their mother fed them the lines, which they repeated, adding actions. David belted out The Ants Go Marching One by One and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but was less sure of The Star Spangled Banner.

I like to imagine them in their living room: David/Zelda and Betsy/Ivy tucked in their sleeping bags, Gus the owl perched on the top of the sofa; kids and mom engaged. My book having a great life.

Doozying Up Vocabulary

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted May 25, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

I expect that every tribe over the years develops a few useful words or phrases that make up its unique lexicon. Here are a few from my tribe that you, too, may find useful.

GMAZEL – an extra stop or errand. This recalls our friend LeRoy Gmazel and the winter day he drove us to the ski slopes. On the way, he made not one, not two, but three side trips: picking up skis, dropping off a bag of potatoes, returning a friend’s chainsaw. Thus in our family when you ask for an extra stop along the way, you request a gmazel.

WOLVERINE! – the opposite of crying wolf. Wolverines are serious, fierce animals. When you call “wolverine,” you really mean it. A family member will rush to your aid. Especially useful if the tp has run out.

MIMI HAIR – hair that sticks up in every direction. My friend Emilee Birrell’s childhood doll Mimi had the most unmanageable of unmanageable hair. Emilee’s mom bought Mimi a new wig– and still the wild hair persists. (Thanks for the photo, Em.)

“IS THERE A DAY YOU DON’T DISAPPOINT ME?” – a smart alec phrase used to get family members moving. We encountered this one on the Greek island of Kea. The innkeeper came by early one morning with maps and advice and helped us plan out the day’s hike. Two hours later, we were still sitting on the porch when he strolled by again. He called to us, “Is there a day you don’t disappoint me?”

Eventually we hiked to the ancient city of Karthaia and the ruins of a 6th century BC temple to Athena above this beach. Beautiful.
Zelda doozied up Ivy’s tail.

When you are creating the world of a story, you may find that words and phrases particular to that world begin to emerge. In my own Zelda and Ivy stories, the sisters  “punch paws” in solidarity, “woozy-weasel promise” to seal a deal, and “doozy up their tails.” These turns of phrase are part of their fox-tribal lexicon.

Now it’s your turn. What words and phrases are unique to your tribe?

A Rock Solid Story

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted April 4, 2012, at our critique group blog, Books Around the Table, wordpress.com.

Last week, the guys from B&D Rockeries built a long wall along our driveway to stabilize the steep slope below the house. While they were down there working, I was up in the house constructing a revision of my middle-grade novel-in-progress.

B&D is a partnership between Neil Eneix, 62, and his dad Clayton, 81. Neil sets up their projects and Clayton runs the installations from his seat high in the track hoe. By manipulating levers that control the big boom, the dipper and the jaws, Clayton can land an 800-pound rock with the precision of a mama bestowing a kiss on her baby’s forehead.

I watched them lay out the materials: soil for filler, and the one- and two- man rocks. Then, in 20-foot stretches, they started to build. Working with both the track hoe (Clayton) and shovels (the rest of the crew), they cleared the way for the new wall by digging into the hill, working around big tree roots.

Rocks were placed one by one. Clayton selected from the rock pile with an expert’s eye. Then he maneuvered the track hoe to lift each rock, turn and lower it into place. At the jaws end of the track hoe, Mark, who’s in his 40s, settled the stones in place, making smaller adjustments. Clayton and Mark have been working together for nine years and seemed to communicate telepathically. Mark’s son, David, 22, shoveled to backfill as the wall grew. Four generations working together to build our wall.

Our new rock wall has a traditional, purposeful design. The biggest rocks were laid first, creating a sturdy base along the bottom. Next came the smaller secondary rocks filling the voids between the big stones, and finally the top course, providing a flat and finished top. As Neil told me later, “Every rock has its home.”

The B&D Rockeries Crew

Back up in the house, I considered my novel in stretches, too: beginning, middle, end. It’s the middle that has my attention lately. The big stones are in place and seem to have found their homes, but I am playing with the secondary pieces, moving some around, discarding others, finding new pieces that are a better fit. I’m trying to find a combination of chapters and scenes and beats and even words that builds a story as interdependent as our new rock wall. A story where every piece matters. In a way, I am working across generations, too. This story has roots in my father’s childhood. If only he were still here to pull the levers and guide the construction.

The rock guys completed our wall by early afternoon. In one day they built a thing of beauty and utility that will be here long after we’ve left the scene. I can only hope to create a story as enduring.

Our new rock wall

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