Last Week of Summer at UCM

Last week, which was the last week to this year’s summer, I visited Phong Nguyen’s Writing for Publication class. The students were generous in asking questions about The Universe Playing Strings and then we just discussed writing—whether or not to seek an agent, how to do it, about valuing one’s own voice, goals, and choices, about revising and revising, about researching and honing skills when goals are elusive.  I realized how much I miss interaction with young writers and miss teaching (I’m afraid to claim that’s what I did and do, since my learning from the students and their learning from each other was the largest transaction in class).

When I came to campus, there was a small church where Black Box theater occurred, a huge fountain on the east side of the Student Union, somehow sad and sluggish, and many trees that lined the walkway north of Martin.  At least I recall those trees. I think they were taken down because of an act of violence on campus.  That may not be true. Sometimes my fiction gets in the way of my best memories.

This year, campus seemed particularly beautiful, and I took many photos of the campus.  I was looking for a stranger to take the shot for me, but since I’ve caught on to the selfie method (giving up some vanity for the speed of the process), I just took it myself. I can remember the campus in many phases, both public and private, and together they seem like a separate life–no ivory tower, but overall, a good life, round and full.




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Our Community Rose Garden

These photos are of the Community Rose Garden in Warrensburg, located on the northwest corner of Burkarth and Gay.  The garden is maintained primarily by members of the Pioneer Garden Club (Chairwoman Sue Evans) with assistance from the Master Gardners. The city provides water and mowing.  It’s an orderly place, well kept, sunny in some spots, shady in others, with little alcoves and benches.  It looks inaccessible, but a huge parking lot on the north side is only steps away.  I took the photos in mid-afternoon of a warm day, and the garden was empty.  I imagine people have small, quiet parties there.  If not, they should.  It would be even more charming in moonlight.

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For the Love of Books, Today One in Particular

Many books I’ve loved caught me with just a few words. I’m sure the conflict was at least hinted, but what hooked me was not the conflict. It was the draw of language and tone, authority or beauty, or both. Knowledge. I trusted the writer, wanted to follow the voice. That happened with Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake—so many. Memories of them well up right now and I want to read something that strong this minute. And write something that strong, either this minute or tomorrow or ever.

A few days ago, I picked up Paulette Jiles’ News of the World—historical novel, setting 1800s, Wichita Falls, Texas.  It had been lying by my bed for a while and I opened it at random, probably twenty-five or so pages in, and read a paragraph. I read another. I went to the first page.  Then an obligation made me put the book down and live my life for a few days.  I couldn’t remember the first page. I wasn’t sure about the conflict.   But I knew I wanted to read the book. When I had time last night, I read straight through—fought sleep and hunger to finish it.

Actually, it does have a strong, clear conflict and a skeletal plot.  An old soldier, leader, widower accepts the responsibility of returning a kidnapped child to her remaining relatives. She’s nine, fierce, speaks no English, and does not want to go.  But that is not the hook.  It’s the beautiful realism of the world around that journey, the myriad details about the country, the land, the clothing, language, people, customs, concerns, and the remarkable lack of visible artifice, such as punctuation or cues for shifts of perspective or time. The story unfolds easily from observation and seamless movement from character to effaced narrator. The characters’ dialects are natural, not through butchered spelling, though phonetic spelling illustrates the difference in languages for the hearer—English, German, Kiowa.  The characters are intelligent and good. The pacing is steady. And some descriptions make you—me—pause, to see and feel that moment of beauty or insight again.

This is the kind of book I would recommend to a writer who wants to write a good story but who worries about structure and techniques and rules. Love the subject. Write from your heart. Use the best of your language. Then polish.

Admittedly, there are as many kinds of writers as there are writers, probably.  But this is an excellent book to read for story and for craft. And for inspiration.



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Why Quote the Bully?

The media should take the high road and not repeat any bully’s ugly words.  If a bully is mean enough, he might delight in having his humiliation of others broadcast, his very words repeated over and over.  Maybe he wants to instill fear in the whole country. Bad boys always draw supporters. Maybe report on a bully’s tweets only 10 seconds an hour or maybe only 10 seconds a day or 10 seconds a week.  But whatever time the tweet warrants, only report—do not quote.  The bully might lie awake thinking of good ugly phrases to immortalize.

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Heads Up! Anyone Find the Wrong Treat in Beggin’ Strips?

We discovered this morning that the package of Purina Beggin Strips we purchased held a different treat, something similar to a pig-in-the-blanket.  I took photos of the packaging and the contents, then called the 800 number provided.   My intent was just to advise someone of the problem and then to return the package to WalMart and get the right product.  Of course the call took longer than I was prepared for, but the representative was pleasant and quick enough.  She requested bar code number, packaging number, description of the item, and place purchased. That was easy.  But now, rather than exchanging the package, we’re to send them two cups of the contents. Purina will send a prepaid mail-in container, which will arrive in 10 to 14 days.  We’ll see this through, and keep the bag and contents and send Purina what they need to determine what occurred and where. We weren’t seeking a refund. I’d pay that small amount again to avoid the niggling steps.  BUT.  If it were poisonous or in someone else’s hands, I’d want them to take the steps to get it identified and off the shelves.  Also, I’d rather others know before two or more weeks.  So, heads up!.

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Fiddling “Put Your Little Foot”

I’ve been practicing the fiddle this morning, “Ragtime Annie,” “Put Your Little Foot,” “Midnight on the Water,” “Rosin the Bow,” “Cajun Waltz,” and a few others.. I don’t sound “sweet” or “true” yet, but I’m better than I was a year ago. Pearly, the resident critic cat, sometimes stays in while I practice. Lily, our hound/lab mix has always been tolerant. She’ll lie in the floor and fall asleep. She has some nice traits.

While listening to versions of “Put Your Little Foot,” I relearned the steps, and also learned a little history about that dance form and that particular tune.  According to one on-line source (see the video) the dance, a varsouvianna, started out as a mazurka over 250 years ago and spread.  It’s also played as a polka, and is in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s the same melody. I can do that dance now! In a speedy search, I found it had been recorded by Bob Wills, Stacy Phillips, Calvin Vollrath, and many, many more well known fiddlers. Missouri’s Charlie Walden plays a sweet version (of course) and has provided a three part arrangement which I am taking to today’s Sunday jam.


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Humming Giraffes, Purring Cats, Loving Animals

I read Mark Trail panels in the Sunday comics yesterday and learned that giraffes, though they make no vocalizations when around humans, hum at night when they’re alone. (I guess video/audio surveillance captures this.) Scientists are exploring whether the hum is akin to snoring or if it is communication among giraffes. I hope it’s the latter. I sort of know it is–humming a message at night. How real that sounds. Recently, I watched Spy in the Wild (TV documentary). The hidden camera captured a group of giraffes paying a visit to the remains of a deceased giraffe, as elephants do to their relatives. It was a touching scene.  I’ve no doubt they have many sensibilities we humans do not recognize, possibly some good ones we don’t have.

The hum could be like purring, which to cats is a communication and a comfort. They purr, I’ve read, even when dying. My female cat, Pearly, has at least two distinctive purrs. One is a straightforward, steady purr. The other is a split sound, the steady purr accompanied by a faint bubbling water sound (not liquid in the throat). It’s very charming and always brings out the best behavior in me. She has other vocalizations requesting something. One is a short, spurted Mew, that indicates emergency–the stray cat ate all the food.  She gives me slow blinks when all is well. I blink back, squeezing my eyelids down a bit to make the blinks match hers.

It’s humbling to discover the intelligence and emotions of animals. It’s also frightening. I don’t have a concept of “dumb animals” anymore. Everything is a personality, an entity, and if I dwell on that, the responsibility of it gets overwhelming. I can’t save everything or support all the causes. Documentaries like Blackfish  (on killer whales) and Shirley and Jenny are uncomfortable knowledge. I regret enjoying water world shows and circuses.  I can’t visit zoos. And so on.  But there’s a danger in being too precious with one’s own sensibilities–scrupulosity. Let me avoid that.

So, I balance my concern thinking with pleasure about the sheer wonder of the animal world.  Occasionally, I howl with my dogs. I stand on my deck and whistle back at birds.

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