before and after

Posted August 20, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

So it’s not all grandkids and sneaking off to my cabin around here (or sneaking off to Kentucky or having guests from Kenya staying at my house)! I’ve actually be doing some writing.

You know about the various mutations of the story I’ve called “Spring Fever.” I — once again — think it is finished, and I’ve got a good first draft of another story: “Deadfall.”

I’ve pretty much decided that these two stories, comprising more than 7,000 words together, are going to be added to One-Match Fire, to bracket what had been the second-to-last story, “Little Gray Birds.” I fought this idea for a long time since these two were intended to be part of the sequel, Nature Always Wins. But the more I worked on them, the more I could see how they were tied to the events and themes in One-Match Fire. They fit nicely there, though once again “Little Gray Birds” needs some work. I had adjusted it to accommodate “Spring Fever” but now that I’ve decided “Deadfall” will follow it, I need to adjust it further.

And then I need to do a read through of the entire novel since the addition of those two stories more or less compromises the narrator I had been writing from. Now I don’t know who is narrating the stories, and I’ve always thought that you ought to know your narrator at least as well as your characters, even if the narrator does not appear in the story. It’s more a way for me to keep control of the tone and voice than anything else, and now I have to come up with something. (Half the tale is in the telling!)

As for Nature Always Wins, I’ve written four stories for it. The two I mention above, another called “Fire Sermon,” which has been published, and the fourth, called “Forest Succession,” which I’m shopping around. I have a clear idea for a fifth story in that collection (hint: it involves running a marathon). But even if I write that, I don’t know if there really is enuf further material to achieve the critical mass of a novel. Still, One-Match Fire began as a one-off about a cabin in the woods, and look where it went.


heralds ~ Skywatch Friday

Posted August 17, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic


I took this photo (through a double-paned window) on Tuesday of this week, about mid-morning, looking west. These massing clouds were heralds of an afternoon rain that we sorely needed. And they seemed to be the first wave of rain storms or overcast days that came to us daily through the rest of the week (including during my bike ride, forcing me to shelter under a park pavilion along with forty or so female high school tennis players) and are forecasted into the weekend.

my correspondents

Posted August 13, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic


Considering the fact that I have no friends, I have an unlikely number of people I correspond with regularly. Pen pals, if you want to call them that.

Chief among these is a fellow writer who lives in a nearby, Midwestern state and who invited people reading his blog to send him an actual letter (on paper, in an envelope, with a stamp) and he would respond in kind. I was up for the challenge, and I think the first letter I sent him was nine handwritten pages. (The paper being the leftover sections of my grad school notebooks. You can see one of them — depleted — here. Scroll down.) He sent a multi-page letter back to me, and we’ve been exchanging long and short letters for years since. We also descend into mere postcards sometimes, generally when either of us is traveling.

My second long-term correspondent is a person I met when I was in a running club a few years ago. She was talking (around the rehydration table at a post-run establishment) about her upcoming trip to Belize. I asked her to send me a postcard while she was there. She didn’t, and we joke about it to this day — that the card must be lost in the mail and will still arrive. But after that, whenever she would travel, she would send me a card or two. And I would do the same. I get postcards from places like the Galapagos Islands; she gets them from places like Paducah, Kentucky.

A third correspondent is another writer who had a story published in the same magazine/issue as one of my stories. He looked me up on Facebook and we connected there. He invited people to send him postcards from museums they visited and he would do the same. We’ve been sending cards back and forth for about a year now, though I understand he has moved, and I don’t yet have his new address. (I don’t think he reads this humble blog either.)

A fourth correspondent is a surprising newcomer. One day I received a Facebook message from a name I didn’t recognize, asking if I was the same person as someone with my name who grew up in St. Louis. It turned out she was writing on behalf of her husband (who disdains Facebook) who was searching for his childhood buddy, who was me. I had lost touch with him not long after I moved to Kansas City (thirty-one years ago), and when I tried to find him in the phone book to get an address, I had no luck. (No phone books anymore either.) His parents went to the same church that my mother went to (before she moved to Paducah, Kentucky), so I got occasional updates from her about the parents but not about my lost friend. But then his wife found me. He and I exchanged email and snail mail addresses, and now he is sending me postcards like crazy. I received five from him last week, and it appears he was in Metropolis, Illinois the same weekend that I was literally just across the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky. I met up with him last winter when I was in St. Louis (overnight, delivering a couch to my son’s bare apartment). I would not have recognized him if I saw him on the street, but his voice was the same. And his handwriting in his postcards is the same as when he was a boy. (Mine, happily, is much improved, which I attribute to keeping a hand-written journal for nearly forty years.)

I’ve thought about signing up on one of those pen pal sites to begin corresponding with some random person somewhere in the world, but I don’t think I have the commitment for that kind of responsibility.

But the art of letter writing creeps along. I imagine us as coelacanths, living fossils. But I don’t mind. I like the mini adventure of visiting the mailbox each day with the hope of a personal card or letter waiting for me.

fire Friday

Posted August 10, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

So, some weekends ago I went to my cabin for an overnight, mostly to burn stuff since rain was in the forecast.* I don’t like having fires there unless I know that rain is coming (or passed through recently) so that I don’t have to worry about catching the forest on fire.

Months ago I had stopped in at a little faux Hippie beads and crystals shop and came upon these packets of (no doubt nasty) chemicals that when added to a fire, cause the flames to take on interesting colors. I bought a few packets with the intent of using them to impress my grandson the next time he and I were out to the cabin and had a fire. (After the fire he “helped” me build there in December, he used a black marker to draw a fire on the wall of the cabin — with my encouragement.) I wanted to experiment with one of the packets to see how dazzling it would be.

I may have done it wrong. I threw the packet onto the coals rather than into the flames. The packet shrank and curled and spit a few small green flames. But then I moved the packet up onto the fire itself and got a better results.

I don’t know if this is as good as it gets, but neither will my grandson. So when the time comes, I think he’ll be impressed.

*I was also there to meet a man about repairing the spillways on my dam that have been washed out for more than a year. Rain is both good and bad for me. The man looked at the job and quoted me a price. I swallowed hard and said I didn’t mind paying for getting a job done right, but it was a little more than half the price another man had quoted (and then never showed up to do).

when in the South

Posted August 8, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic


I was chided once after a visit to Kentucky (to see my mother!) for claiming I was in “the South” when I hadn’t actually eaten that most Southern of dishes: biscuits and gravy. (“Biscuits and gravy or it didn’t happen!” was how the chiding was phrased.) Over the last weekend, when I made yet another visit to Kentucky (to see my mother!) I made a point to enjoy a plate (plate and bowl?) of biscuits and sausage gravy. (I understand there is a white variety of the gravy as well.)

While it wasn’t the most amazing moment of my four-day weekend there, I can see how people could like/love the (salty) stuff as well as how I should probably limit myself to having it only on my twice- or thrice-yearly visits to “the South.”

There were other amazing moments. The intent of the visit (aside from seeing my mother!) was to meet my son’s new mother-in-law. She is in the States for several months to meet her daughter’s family and see how her new life here is going. They are from Kenya, and my son met the woman who would become his wife when he served there with the Peace Corps.

Gifts were exchanged between families, including two new shirts for me in the African style. But simply giving these shirts was not culturally appropriate. My son’s mother-in-law, Mechtilda, had to dress me in the shirts. She had to pull them over my head and direct my arms through the sleeves, tugging them down and fixing the neck/collar. This was the proper way for her to present such a gift. (I’m glad it was limited to shirts.) My wife got a matching dress.

A second, unexpected amazing moment happened in the parking lot of the hotel where we stayed while in “the South.” As we were heading out on Saturday evening, I saw a van unloading a bunch of children, a haggard mother, and a grandmother who I saw only from behind. Yet she looked familiar. When I looked at the plates (tags?) on the van, I saw it was from my part of the Midwest, so I spoke to the grandmother, using the name of the woman I thought it might be. And it was she! There we both were, far from home, and yet our paths crossed in the parking lot of a random hotel. I work with this woman; her cubicle is just down the hall from mine. And since she got back to town sooner than I did, our random encounter was the talk of the office before I returned.

Also, I started work on a new story.


Posted August 6, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

You’re too polite to ask, but I’m sure you’ve been wondering: what’s the status of “Spring Fever,” that love story that ties in to the One-Match Fire universe?

Well, I’ve pondered it, revised it, shortened it, deepened it, and more or less struggled with it, and now, at 4,300+ words, I think I’ve finished it. I introduce a new character and a new relationship (one that might threaten the dynamic of my One-Match Fire family or one that may broaden and enrich it).

But it ain’t that simple. The story ripples and I still need to revise “Little Gray Birds” (currently the penultimate story in One-Match Fire) as a consequence.

And if/when I do that, I’m finding that I’m left with some unfinished business in that novel. There is a consequence to “Spring Fever” that can’t be left unspoken in the story line. So I see myself writing yet another story for One-Match Fire. (Recall that I had not been trying to submit the novel because I had this nagging notion that it was “not finished.” And here I am, not finished with it.) I’ve already begun making notes for that new story, and I even have a tentative title for it: “Deadfall.”

“Spring Fever” was meant to be the first chapter of a sequel to One-Match Fire, resolving the great mystery in the relationship between a father and son there, but now I’m thinking that maybe “Spring Fever” just needs to be added to One-Match Fire as its own chapter. There’s a place for it. The story would fit nicely in the narrative and it would add its heft to the novel, a novel that I always thought was a little short in terms of word count anyway.

And if I write that “unfinished business” story and add it to the novel as well, I’ll have a bit more heft and substance.

The trouble is that all of this requires a fundamental rethinking of the “resolution” of the conflict in the novel. Rather than being implied, it will be stated. I’m becoming more comfortable with this, but change is not always easy.

back to the woods for me

Posted July 26, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: ,

I had grandparenting duties on Saturday, and because there was a chance my son and daughter-in-law would be coming to Kansas City the following weekend, I took the chance to sneak out to my cabin on Sunday. (Actually, I wasn’t sneaking; my wife and the two dogs came along.)

I had no great agenda other than to survey any damage from yet another wicked storm that had moved through the area the week before. There were some downed limbs here and there but nothing serious. And since I remembered to bring the gasoline, I decided I would clear the scrubby growth around the overflow drain in the dam.

The overflow drain is the first line of defense when the lake exceeds full pool. It bleeds off the excess water and drains it out of a pipe at the base of the dam. It is built into the dam, near the top, and it’s basically a screen-covered catchment with a big drain pipe leading from it. But since it’s built into the side of the dam, plants grow up to and against it, and sometimes over it, covering the screen atop the catchment, thus hampering its ability to bleed off the excess water. (Are you following any of this?)

So now that I have that fancy weed whipper with the steel blade on the end, I felt equipped to take on the weeds around the drain. So I marched myself down there and began creeping down the steep side of the dam to get close enuf to the weeds that needed eviction. I whipped and whipped, then stopped periodically to collect what I had cut and (attempt to) throw it over the top of the dam so it wouldn’t wash onto the screen when the water was high again and block the drainage. The blade attachment on this whipper only works at the base of plants. If I tried cutting a stalk of tall grass from the top, the blade would just slap the grass out of the way. The blade needs the resisting force of roots to cut through the stalk. So my work on the steep slope around the drain involved poking the whipper into the denseness, trying not to hit too many stones or the concrete structure of the catchment.

I spent about a half hour at this, clearing an area large enuf to keep any falling or leaning plants away from the drain, but it’s the kind of work I need to do every few weeks all summer long, and the reason I’d made this my first chore of the day was because it wasn’t as hot then as it was going to get later, being a summer day and all.

Once finished with that, I walked back across the top of the dam, whipping this or that plant but hardly making a discernible difference to the lush growth. And then I worked on the open area below the cabin where I had whipped on an earlier visit but left parts unfinished. (I whip until I’ve used up one tank of gas. That’s about all of the nerve damage my hands can recover from.)

So that was done and that left the rest of the day.

I have limestone gravel around the cabin, in part to keep the area walkable but also to have a firebreak. But in the gravel grows a lot of unwanted plants. Because the cabin is close to the lake, I don’t want to use herbicides on this growth, and there are just too many little weeds to even imagine pulling them all out by hand. One method I use that I think I’ve mentioned before is to spread a tarp over the gravel, starving the plants of sunlight. In the growing season this achieves its effect in just a few weeks; I pull away the tarp and then rake away the dead weeds. It only lasts a year, and the tarp is in constant movement around the gravel.

But a fried who recently spread some gravel at her rural place had told me that one benign herbicide I could try is straight vinegar. (She also said a layer of gravel at least two inches thick is usually sufficient, so when I get mastery over the weeds, I’ll spread more gravel.) I was eager to try the vinegar method since it did seem harmless. So I brought along the remains of a jar of vinegar from our home in faraway suburbia and poured it into a spray bottle. Then I sprayed several areas around the cabin that were discrete enuf for me to remember the next time I visited. I could see if the idea worked. I don’t know how long it will take or how permanent its effect will be, but I do know that the cabin site smelled like pickles.

I was debating then whether to go for a swim or to do more serious work. It was certainly warm enuf for a swim, and the water was beckoning, but there is a project I’ve been wanting to get done with the fire ring for a long time, and somehow actual motivation overcame me and I did it.

I built the fire ring out of cottage blocks, and they’re designed so that when you stack a second layer, it is offset and set back a half inch or so. This is great for building a wall since the wall “leans” into the ground it is retaining. But it’s not so great for building a ring.

I had built the base with the blocks fitting nicely, just as they’re designed to do. When I put the second layer of blocks on the ring, however, I faced a problem. I was using the same number of blocks to build a ring with a smaller circumference. Everything seemed fine until the two ends of the ring met. The blocks didn’t fit. I had to misalign them to complete the circle, and while that doesn’t seem horrible on the scale of problems, if I ever wanted to add a third layer of blocks (because the ash from so many fires had grown that deep), it really wouldn’t work.

So my plan was to remove the top layer and then pull out the blocks on the base by a half inch or so, making their circumference larger than before so that the layer above it could have a better fit in its smaller circumference.

Here you see how I had removed the top layer. The next step was pulling out the lower blocks slightly and then returning the upper ring. My efforts paid off because the blocks on the upper ring fit perfectly. (And yes, I realize that if I ever add that third layer, I’ll have to do this all over again.)

So it was a productive stolen trip to the woods.