02 Sep


Man On The Street Moments

Statistics would show that, like a long string of heads or tails-only coin flips, there’s nothing special about encountering a series of off kilter or even seemingly sinister moments after a dry spell of mundane normality. Closer observation would probably show that we swim in all manner of circumstances constantly and swap our observational and perceptual filters like flips of the coin.

These events took place during a recent sunny day along a 5 block span of Portland’s Pearl district. I’m pretty sure that I’m the only common thread. I jotted them here in first person because it worked for me during the writing.

* * *

Outside Powell’s NW entrance, a 40ish man in worn jeans, t-shirt, sneakers, and puffy leather cap stands gripping the handle of his shopping cart and staring at a young tree growing from a hole in the pavement. As I pass, he plucks off his cap and glares at me.

“Do you think it’s funny? Because there’s a breeze? Because it feels good on your skin?”

He shouts, “It’s not, and it NEVER WAS!”

“There are millions of leaves,” he mutters.

He replaces his cap and returns to the tree.

Three blocks down I follow a trail of dried blood for half a block to a brick wall where the trail ends or begins. There’s about a 8 foot overhang here where homeless sometimes shelter from the sun or rain. The space is empty today.

Outside the door to the office, two girls stand at the parking meter, one fishing for coins and narrating in rough language while the other is texting and nodding like she’s taking dictation. “I told that girl, bitch, I said, bitch, don’t tell me that *you* *don’t* *know* what I mean, you going to fucking die, bitch. Haha, she don’t fucking believe me.”

Inside the office, there’s a human-sized wooden crate open and standing on end, with the name “Natalie” taped to the front. I don’t think that Natalie knows the girl outside, but I head upstairs just to make sure.


An alternate explanation is that Natalie, a prodigious and often brilliant worker, simply wore out and was sent to the factory for maintenance and upgrades.

Above, I intentionally did not describe the physical appearance of the two girls at the parking meter, but will say that neither was African-American.

There’s a good exercise here for me to review these minimalist scenes and figure out descriptive bits that would help readers visualize them better. Then I wouldn’t need notes like “BTW, they weren’t African American girls, just in case that’s where your biases led you, and if they did, well shame on you.”

11 Jun

Where those ideas come from

Where do those ideas come from (a handout):

  • They slither out of the sticky sweet fog at the margins of sleep to hiss snake songs in your ears and flick at your eyes
  • They creep like blackberry brambles, sharp and clutching, the fruit not always ripe
  • They wait outside the commuter train window for you to pass–a heron poised to strike in the runoff marsh, a thick uprooted tree with one craggly branch reaching over the fence to the highway, a guy in rags shambling along the tracks and swinging his green shopping bag around his head ready for takeoff
  • They are geese. Canada geese. They honk, they flock, pair up, inspire us with their unity, then fly south to the marshes where hunters wait shivering up to their bellies in reed blinds
  • They’re boogers–if you have a bunch, you can’t stop pickin’ at them
  • They can be purchased for a buck a jar from a old troll who lives across the river in a grand house dug into the slopes of an extinct volcano
  • They hide in the husks of anise seeds, exploding when you crunch down
  • They’re honeybees. Picture that sweet nectar gathering action
  • They’re paper wasps, whose accretions have made the page you’re reading
  • They’re pranksters, sticking out their tiny legs just as you pass the corner
  • They’re eyeflash miracles, flaring when you squeeze your eyes shut and vanishing as soon as someone makes you look
  • They’re semen–you have to spend thousands, millions, to fertilize one good story
  • They are not other people’s ideas. Except for the traitorous, One Ring kind, ideas tend to stick to their owners, no matter how much owners try to shake them off (see boogers)

When someone asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” they really mean, “Where do you get your implementations?” They just don’t know how to ask. And the answer, well, is sort of boring. So keep the mystery alive–when asked, make stuff up. It’s sort of expected.

27 May

Response to: The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

I’m not much of a Western lit reader (maybe one ever few years), but my mother’s family is from E. Oregon (Baker, Pondosa, La Grande, Pendleton), with many surviving friends who are ranchers, farmers, or townspeople. My maternal grandmother left home at 17 in the late 1920’s and worked for three years gentling horses using techniques similar to those in Hearts of Horses. I’ve spent many years in many seasons on vacation (from W. Oregon) tromping, driving, fishing, and hunting in the land around Elwha county, and buried my grandfather on a butte in Union county. I’ve read Gloss’s other novels (with relish, hearty chutney-style) and so I bought this book–“for my mother.” Who finished it in a few days, then shoved it back at me and said, you need to read it. And, now that I’m done, I can’t think of when I’ve been so rewarded by a book as I have with this slow story (slow like honey dripping, not slow like water set to boil) about people and community and hearts and the land. And horses. Maybe my background makes me a perfect target audience for this book–you could say that I loved the book because the people and land resonated with my experiences and those of my family, but I would not have loved it less otherwise, and hated to see it end. It could have been longer–twice as long–and I would have been doubly satisfied. I read much of it on the commuter train to work every day and there were parts that made me turn to the window away from other passengers–a difficult situation for a grown man on public transport. I also laughed out loud in places. If you buy, borrow, or steal this book, you’ll have a true story in your hands–I’ll let you work out the parts that are true, but it’s very likely that your heart will inform your head.

(Yep, that’s it, no plot rehash, just a direct response to the novel. You can find plenty of details at Amazon, Powell’s, and other bookseller sites.)

15 May

A Gardener’s Pedagogical Revenge Fantasy

Instead of spending much time working on Sea of Tigers this weekend, I’m finishing a website (for supplemental income), adding paths to the garden that we’ve created out of our front yard, and building cages to protect our strawberries from the thieving gang of squirrels that work out of the neighborhood trees.

I only resent spending time on this last task. We grow up sure that squirrels are lovable pets given to us by Nature: chipper, whiskered, frisky, a great source of entertainment in making any cat look like Sylvester trying to catch Speedy Gonzalez. And then they eat your entire strawberry crop when the berries are too green to pick. You start to root for the cats. And you long, maybe a little, maybe a lot, for the days when all you had to do was level your rifle or shotgun out the kitchen window to pick ’em off (and, in the pioneer spirit, reuse or recycle them).

Cats aren’t bright and aren’t likely to learn from their squirrel hunting mistakes, no matter how often I dangle the promise of treats while savagely pointing at the chittering little demons in the plum tree out front. But I have something better than cats: little kids, who with the proper financial and intellectual motivation, might get the job done right.

Teaching practical math at our house in 2009 to Noah (10) and Sophie (4):

Kids, I’ll give you a dollar for every squirrel that you trap and kill on our property, as long as you pay for the bait. If you capture 1 squirrel a week out of the starting population of 23, and the cost of bait is $4.29 for a 6 oz package (where you need one half-ounce ball per squirrel), and the squirrels reproduce at a rate of 1 per month, how long will it take you to earn enough to buy either a new copy of Pokemon Platinum or Hello Kitty: Direct Impact for the DS*? You may also supplement your income every two weeks by picking dandelions out of the yard at $1/bag, at a maximum of 1 bag each per harvest.

Assume you will waste 10% of the bait due to weather, mishandling, or neighborhood cats.

To be paid, you must both solve this problem and get rid of the squirrels. You can do the math intuitively or try to work out the answer on paper, as long as you can describe how you went about it.

Bonus: properly tanned squirrel hides are worth $5 each.

*Built-in assumption: they know the current retail price of said games at a given retailer.

15 May

Life does not get in the way

Neil Gaimain on why writers should be respectful to readers but not feel like they work for them, or, as he says in the new colloquial vocabulary:

“[Your favorite living writer] is not your bitch.”


This is in response to a correspondent politely wondering about writers’ priorities (really thinly disguised whining). He turns it into a realistic and sometimes lyrical look at deadlines and priorities (that includes a couple of great lists). Unpublished writers shouldn’t look to it for excuses, but they will recognize that they face the same impediments to finishing even their first major piece as full time authors who’ve decided to make a living at it.