Sunday, June 24, 2007

Word Stringer Together-er

The Cork County Library system is sponsoring a short story contest. After I read about this in the Lee Valley Infomercial Magazine (or whatever they call the slim, cheaply printed publication that contains local news and adverts for machine hire, restaurants, and houses), I was very excited. The listing said that the story could be on any topic, was not to exceed 2,000 words, and must be received by 29 June.

Fantastic. I've had that horse story sitting on my hard drive for two or three years now. Might as well turn it in. Last weekend, I went to the library to collect an entry form and was crestfallen to find that although the story could be on any topic, it must involve a relationship between an older person and a younger person. I tried to convince myself that I could either adapt my story to fit the requirement or could write a new story before the deadline.

Every time I tried to think about this story, my mind sputtered like an old car on a cold winter morning. I couldn't picture these people in my head. Couldn't conceive of a situation in which to place them. Couldn't imagine fashioning a story line that wouldn't end up in some trite resolution that trumpeted the wisdom of age over the folly of youth. I bored myself before I'd even written a single word. I had one image, a writing prompt I found on McSweeney's, but the thoughts it brought to mind were devastating and depressing. I wasn't sure I had the fortitude to write it, let alone permit strangers to read it.

In the last six or seven months, I've had to think a lot about what writing is and how I'm doing as a writer. The InkWell Writer's workshops have helped me see that I'm not so much a writer as a word stringerer together-er. I love writing this blog and my travel reports because all I'm really doing is piling up words in a pleasing fashion to report what happened or how I feel about something. There's no character development, no plot twists, no themes to imagine. It's just telling what happened. I love words, I know how to construct readable sentences and I could diagram those sentences if needed, but I am less capable of inventing a story out of whole cloth.

I have two novels now where I've gotten to a certain point, about half-way in, and realised that the people were not who I thought they were in my head and that the story has lurched off course, stumbling down a blind alley like a drunk after closing time. Shaping a story and characters with realistic dialogue and tightly plotted events are not yet weapons in my arsenal.

Writing a short story is one of the more challenging tricks in writing. I know, it seems like they should be easier than novels. It doesn't work that way though. Novels have the luxury of developing slowly, of giving you acres of blank space to define yrou characters and lead them through the events of the story.

A short story doesn't have the luxury of space. Every word must be precise and do several jobs. There's no space for casual asides or throw-away subplots. In the case of this contest, I have seven pages in which to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Seven pages to capture the essence of the characters. Seven pages to craft a theme.

No pressure there, right? In a way, there's not any pressure. It's something to do for the challenge, to enjoy stretching the boundaries of my abilities. Knowing where my limits are helps me figure out how to get past them.

I have five days. Well, four, really, since I'll need one day to get the story there through the post. I just bought some chocolate and the Sunday newspapers, hoping that between the two, inspiration will strike. One word at a time, I hope to move from word-stringer-togetherer to writer.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nevermind the Bullocks

With the exception of Thursday night and all day Friday, we had some miserable weather this week in the Middle of Nowhere. It rained - a lot - and was quite chilly and windy. Sometimes, it felt more like November than June. The long days were the only hint that it wasn't winter, although we didn't see much of the sun.

I tried looking for my keys once, early in the week, but didn't have any luck. I decided I would wait unitl the weekend, in the hopes the weather would be a bit better. Plus, the landlord had moved his cattle into the field so I was hoping they would munch down the grass enough to magically reveal my keys.

After my big trip into Macroom this morning, I pulled on my wellies and grabbed my hurley. I was optimistic that the keys would have surfaced. Peter was pessimistic, claiming that the rain and the cattle would have trampled and further buried them. Funny that we would both look at the same factors and come to completely opposite conclusions.

I had some small bit of apprehension, entering a field that was home to 8 sturdy bullocks. Peter thought I was being a bit silly. I thought I was being realistically cautious. I've worked with horses a fair bit - you never know what a herd is going to be like and just blundering around telling yourself the creatures are gentle and tame doesn't change the fact that they are unpredictable, half-ton animals.

I slipped under two sets of barbed wire fences at the bottom of the garden and checked for the cattle. They were over at the base of the hill, far enough away that neither they nor I was bothered. Two of them did stand up to get a better look, but they mostly just watched with a little startled interest.

When I crested the top of the hill, I saw two more cattle, the big black Angus pair, resting very near the area that I'd concentrated my searches. One stood up and watched me closely, an act that would have been intimidating except that he had a long stalk of grass hanging out of his mouth, reminding me of the caricture of the taciturn Midwestern farmer. Even so, I pulled back my search area and kept half an eye on the livestock.

When the second bullock stood up and took forceful steps in my direction, my heart rate quickened and I started to head toward the exit. When I stopped, he stopped. Then when I started walking again, he paralleled my progress. OK, so he wasn't a threat and I was being silly. I shook my head and noticed a big bare patch of grass. Last week, it had been a shag carpet of grass that was nearly a foot long. This week, it was clipped down to golf course length.

In the middle of this cattle-manicured oasis lay my keys, slightly rusty but in good shape considering they spent a week in the elements. I carried them home triumphantly and burst into Peter's office, brandishing my hurley in one hand and the keys in the other. My perseverance and stubborn belief that I would find my keys had paid off.

But, if it hadn't been for the cattle, I don't think I would have been successful in my quest. First, they uncovered the keys for me, then they nudged me in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mooching Around

Oh boy! I can't remember the last time I was so excited about a web site. (Maybe it was 43 Things.)Thanks to Claire - I have fallen in love with BookMooch. It's a book trading site wherein you create an inventory, gaining 1/10 of a point for each book you include. Then you get points (3 if you're sending internationally) for books you agree to send out. You are deducted 2 points for each book you have sent to you. Simple, but effective.

The best part is that you're not excluded if you don't happen to live in the States. This afternoon, I off-loaded the disappointing Charmed Thirds to a girl in Hamburg and sent the unspeakably creepy The Killer Inside Me to a guy in Chicago. I'm waiting to get a book about German Shepherds from a person in Nevada and a memoir called Self-Made Man (about a woman who does an anthropological study by passing herself off as a man) from somebody in the UK.

You can make a wishlist and search for books you want to mooch. The site design looks good and works pretty well (although it's a bit slow at times).

It's the perfect site for someone like me who loves books, isn't fussy about used books, and doesn't mind trading in books. Check it out. (You can see my wishlist here - if you promise not to judge me.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Know Your Farmyard Terminology

I've always had a fascination with all things agricultural. Peter and I joke that there must have been a mix-up somewhere along the way and I got sent to the suburbs and the perfect mall rat ended up spending her life "stuck" on a farm. The goal within the next five years is to get a few acres, build our own house, and then get some animals - a couple of cows, a few goats, and a horse or two.

Our landlord is a cattle farmer and we see his herd in various fields in the area. When they were in the near fields, I nicknamed the more recognisable ones - Beefy, Bruiser, Chuck, Stripey, Brownie, Blackie. I was a bit puzzled though since when I turned to the Internet to help me identify the breed, I couldn't find one breed that encompassed the variety in the herd.

The landlord was over this weekend to work on the garage and I decided to ask him about his herd. Peter has been pushing me to talk to him and offer to help out so I could learn more about the care of cattle, but I am shy and have a deep and abiding fear of authority figures.

"How's it going there? Ah yeah, it's a grand day. I've been meaning to ask you, what breed of cows do you have?" I asked. "I don't have any cows," he replied.

My mind tried to process what he'd said. He has a fierce 'West Cark' accent but I was pretty sure I'd heard him say he didn't have any cows. Then what, I wondered in my head, were those four-legged, grass munching, cud chewing, mooing creatures I'd seen in his fields?

He was able to decipher the look of confusion on my face and explained, "I haven't got any cows. I have bullocks. A herd of cattle." "Oh," I said sheepishly, cursing my high school for not having a Future Farmers of America chapter, "I use the word interchangeably. What breed are they?" Turns out they are several different breeds - Hereford, Angus, and Shandley. (I know about the first two but I hadn't heard of Shanleys before. When I asked the Internet, it looks like I misheard the answer and my best guess is that the third breed was Shetlands.)

As a public service, here are a few of the more obscure farm terms, so that the next time you're talking to a dairy farmer or a horse breeder, you don't embarrass yourself.

Bull - Intact male bovine of breeding age.

Bullock - Mature castrated male cattle used for beef production. In the States, these are called steer.

Heifer - young female bovine who has not had her first calf, or has had her first calf and is still producing milk. Heifers become cows after they have their second calf.

Hogget - castrated male sheep usually around a year old. (Tom would often complain that what was sold as lamb was actually hogget.)

Wether - male sheep castrated before reaching sexual maturity.

Gilt - Young female pig who has not yet given birth.

Gelding - castrated male horse.

Hinny - offspring of a female donkey and a male horse.

All research to produce this public service came from h2g2, which claims to be 'an unconventional guide to life, the universe and everything.'

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Object Lesson

My intention for this morning was to wake up and get back into my writing routine and then, as a reward, write a blog post. I haven't been much in the writing mood recently. I think it was Charles Bukowski who said something like "Writing is easy. Just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." Given that I've felt emotionally anemiac the last few weeks, I just haven't been willing to open a vein. Or even the tiniest capillary.

Today was going to be different. I planned to get back into my 2-page quota mode and read the newly cut down draft of my first novel. I had some notes on ideas to organise and a little bit of research to do. A cheerful Sunday morning close to the summer solstice - the opportunities for recharging, regrouping, and restarting my projects could not have been better.

But then I lost my keys. I'm 95% certain that they fell out of my jacket pocket while I was frolicking with Toby in one of the nearby fields. Peter and I went out there after dinner so he could take a few photographs. I didn't realise my keys were missing until I went to lock the door before bedtime.

So, instead of going to sleep while thinking about my books and then waking refreshed and ready to work, I went to bed worried about my keys. I knew no one was going to walk off with them from a cow field, but I did not like that they were out of my possession. Outside my control. I woke up several times during the night, in a cold sweat, thinking "I need my keys!"

Shortly after waking up at 6, I put on my wellies and went out to search for the keys. I spent an hour looking, but I didn't find them. All I got for my trouble was wet jeans and countless midge bites. I could narrow the search area to about the size of a movie screen, but the grass is very long and dense.

After an hour, I conceded it wasn't going to be a quick job and went back home for breakfast. Then I returned to the field with my hurley and spent another hour searching. I even tried crawling on the ground, since my jeans were already wet. Although the grass was flattened in some places, it's so thick that anything as heavy as keys would probably fall right through it. I could have been looking right at my keys, but the curtain of grass could completely obscure them.

I took a break and went home, where I wanted to do something that I could easily accomplish and feel good about. So I filled out my amended tax return for the US government. (I filed without all my paperwork and it turns out that they owe me a tidy refund.) The form was byzantine in is directions and the technical writer in me was horrified. I was also frustrated and angry. Plus, I really wanted to find my keys. It had become an obsesssion. I even asked the Internet how to find my keys. (The delightfully retro Professor Solomon provided a helpful 12-point plan, but it didn't include any tips about searching through grass that was at least a foot-long in some places.

Still wanting to check another thing off my to-do list, I went for my daily run. The clarity I get from running gave me a great idea - the problem with the search is that the grass is too thick to see through effectively, but it's too much of a pain to crawl around on the ground looking. What if I walked around in my bare feet, which would certainly register the feeling of keys if I stepped on them? Touch seemed the only useful sense in this case. (Well the legendary sixth sense would have come in handy, but I am not so gifted.)

In the end, I could only bring myself to walk around in my socks. The idea of cow pies, slugs, beetles, and hook worms made me crave a layer of anything between my foot and the elements. A thickish sock was nearly as good as bare feet but seemed less prone to creating a moment of horrible, disgusting discovery.

An hour and a half later, I had nothing to report but nettle stings and a sinking feeling that the keys might be well and truly gone. They are either in that field, hidden inadvertainly in some weird part of the house, or were stolen by faeries. I had no choice but to move on to the secret 13th principle of Dr. Solomon's 12 step plan. Summed up in five words: let the lost item go. He waxes philosophical about it: "Until then, accept that you are being offered a lesson: in patience…or humility…or nonattachment to the things of this world."

On the short walk back to the house, carrying a hurley in one hand and my shoes in the other, I thought about what lesson was on offer. Is it a test to see how well I can shake something off? Was this about patience? Was this about knowing when to give up?

When I explained all of this to Peter, he shrugged and said "The lesson is keep your keys in your pants pocket."

Monday, June 04, 2007

Last Impressions

Peter's father, Tom, died on Saturday morning. He'd been varying degrees of sick for the better part of three years, the unlucky recipient of a long-term chronic illness with a big name I can barely remember, let alone spell. Since Christmas, it became apparent that he was nearing the end stage and the last six months have been puncuated with stays in the hospital and doctors gravely giving him "a few weeks to live." Eventually, the doctors were going to be right, but Tom hung in there way longer than someone unfamiliar with his character would have expected.

Tom died at home, in the company of his family. Even when death isn't a surprise and when you know your loved one is no longer suffering, the weight of your grief is not lightened. The hole in your life is not any smaller. The shock and disbelief that you will never see the person again is not diminished.

Every annoying job search web site admonishes you that you never get another chance to make a first impression. I suppose there's some truth to that, but if there's anything I learned from my relationship with Tom, it's that if you're willing to look past the first impression, you might be pleasantly surprised and even enriched by what you find.

Tom and I did not get off to a good start. It was the spring of 1995 and I'd just dropped out of law school and moved to Ireland to be with Peter. He was supposed to be re-taking his first year in college, but instead he was fooling around on computers. (And, ironically, learning the skills that would eventually have him making twice my salary, college degree bedamned.) Peter's parents were concerned about his studies. Once, when I rang, they begged me to talk to him about buckling down and making good on all of his potential. They said that I had a responsibility to make sure he did the right thing.

Undoubtedly, turning up unannounced to them in Dublin and luring their son into living in sin in a bedsit was not what they had in mind as the right thing. Peter's official abandonment of college had been deteremined in his mind long before my plane landed in Dublin airport, but you can see how his parents saw causation in the correlation. Which brings me to first impressions. Peter's dad and I had what Dick Cheney would call a "frank exchange of views" on the matter of my relationship with Peter. It wasn't the prettiest or proudest moment for either of us.

At the time, I was outraged and angry. My feelings were hurt and I felt unfairly maligned. Looking back, I can see that Tom was just a concerned father, hoping to protect his nineteen-year-old son from making a horrible mistake. I was an unknown quantity and I could easily have ruined his son's life. I imagine that Tom's worst case scenario involved Peter and I living on the dole in someplace like Ballymun with several squalling, dirty children, dead-end jobs, and deader-end drug habits. I now have an admiration for Tom for telling things as he saw it, for saying to my face what most people would only ever have whispered behind my back.

The only common denominator between me and Peter's parents was Peter himself. Because our love for him was greater than the animosity and distrust for each other, we found a way to move forward. I'm not saying that we magically forgave each other, forgot everything, and became a happy family. I am saying that we papered over the cracks and moved on because it was important for Peter. By the summer, Peter and I were going to his parents' once a week for a family dinner. It was a small gesture, but each time they welcomed me into their home, the foundation of our relationship became a little stronger. By the end of the summer, I had to move back to the States and a year later, Peter followed me over.

Peter's parents visited us our first year in Chicago. It was a good visit, fairly easy and enjoyable. On their last night, we all went out to dinner. At one point, Peter went to the bathroom and his mom went outside for a smoke, leaving Tom and I alone. In the dim neighbourhood restaurant, Tom apologised to me for our rocky start and I counter-apologised for it. He didn't have to bring it up - we could have quite easily carried on ignoring the past, but his forthright determination to clear the air and have a good clean start was very appreciated.

From a disasterous beginning, my relationship with Peter's father moved on to cautious acquaintance, through amiable friend, and finally settled into comfortable family. Tom was a gracious person, willing to learn from his mistakes and open to changing his mind. When we moved over here two years ago, he welcomed me into his home as his daughter.

I value the time we were able to spend over here. Of course, we had to manage the daily annoyances and difficulties that come from living in each others' pockets, but I wouldn't trade the time for anything. Making the decision to move to the Middle of Nowhere, West Cork was difficult and bittersweet. I was getting open spaces, green hills, cows and horses, but I was giving up living with my second family knowing that it wasn't going to exist in its whole state for much longer. Saying goodbye to Tom and climbing into the moving van was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I didn't cry when I left my own family when I went to college, or when I moved to Chicago, or when I moved to the other side of the world. But I cried most of the way to the M-50 after leaving Tom.

So maybe, first impressions aren't really all they're cracked up to be. Maybe what you should worry about are last impressions. On that count, you couldn't really do much better than Tom.