summer solstice

Posted June 21, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Today is the summer solstice, the official beginning of summer and the longest day of the year.

Depending on your outlook, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

rise up, or the sins of a writer

Posted June 19, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations

Tags: , ,

So I’m reading Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout right now. It is her first novel, from nearly twenty years ago, and I’m finding wording in it that bugs me.

One of you fine readers originally suggested I read Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge, and I’ve been delving into her works regularly ever since. Strout takes her time telling her story, giving a great deal of attention to minor characters and creating a world that is credible and tangible. Best of all, she writes sentences that often demand pausing and re-reading to get the full effect. I’ve copied some of her sentences and passages into my journal. (She’s also not shy about using sentence fragments for effect, my particular writing “sin.”)

But I’m finding a writing sin recurring in Amy and Isabelle that surprises me. Several times I’ve come across the words “rise up” and “gather together” and the like. The apparently unneeded redundancy has always bugged me; perhaps it is a result of the years when I was committing journalism (as the writer Sue Hubbell called it). I wrote lean in those days, and nearly any time I could shave out a word, I did. And what other direction can one rise than up? You can’t gather apart, so why do you need the modifier “together”? And so on.

Yet these occur repeatedly in this novel. Perhaps it does not bug her the way it bugs me. Or perhaps her editor suggesting cleaning these, but Strout insisted her words remain unchanged. (Iris Murdoch was famous for not allowing edits to her works.) I don’t know, but I do know that Strout has a new novel out, twenty years into her career, and if I read it soon, maybe I’ll find that she no longer sins in this way.

“what’s that?”

Posted June 16, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations

Tags: ,

I stopped into a local big-box bookstore this afternoon to pick up anything by Tracy Smith, the new Poet Laureate of the U.S., because I wanted a gift for my wife — an avid poetry reader — to have on her return home this evening from a week in Portland, seeing our granddaughter.

I could not find the poetry section and had to ask. I was then lead to a far corner of the store and to the four or five shelves devoted to poetry (which included Homer and all of the other Greek classics).

I told the woman helping me that Tracy Smith was the new Poet Laureate. She said, “What’s that?”

They did have a single slim volume of her work, Life on Mars, which I gladly bought.

I had a similar experience that I recounted here.

fun and games (as in, not all)

Posted June 14, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

It’s not all fun and games at my cabin. For example, take my overnight trip last weekend that almost didn’t happen and maybe shouldn’t have.

I had taken off work on Thursday because my wife needed to be at the airport in the middle of the day to catch her flight to Portland to visit baby Ela. The drive each way takes the better part of an hour, and I couldn’t see fitting it in to my lunch hour in part because I only get a half hour and in part because I never leave my desk — I just eat my apple and keep working. So a day off. And then it seemed awkward to come back to work on a Friday, so I took that day off too. My plan was to dart out to the cabin with the dogs on Friday morning, just as soon as the trash trucks came and I could put the bins back in my garage before leaving. (See this post for more about the bins.) My wife, who is usually home on Friday mornings, told me that they trash is collected in plenty of time for her to leave for work at around 9:00. Thus I could get the truck loaded, get the dogs excited, and get going early enuf to get to the cabin well before lunch time.

The trash truck was apparently running late last Friday. I dithered. I looked out the window too many times. I decided to take the dogs to the park for a walk, to mow the lawn. And as each minute passed, I was growing more discouraged about leaving. By the time the truck came, it was 2:30 in the afternoon. I could have left then and gotten to the cabin in time to begin building the one-match fire to cook my dinner, but my plans of getting all kinds of chores done were shot, so I gave it up.

Instead, I would go out Saturday morning (after a visit to the bagelry) and return on Sunday. (I had hoped to have Sunday to knock around the house as my last day before returning to work, but the trash truck had decided otherwise.) So I worked my new plan, getting to my cabin mid-morning on Saturday, only to find this:

You’ll recall the phoebe nest built on the front of the cabin under the porch roof. Well, two of the eggs had hatched, apparently that very morning. My coming and going on the porch sent mama phoebe flying, leaving her hatchlings unprotected and unfed. Normally I would sit in a chair on the porch and gaze at the (still full) lake below, thinking deep thoughts, but I didn’t dare do that and keep the phoebe away from her nest. So I had two choices. I could sit inside the cabin with the door closed (but the windows open) and do my brooding there, or I could occupy myself somewhere outside of the cabin, not within view of the porch so the phoebe would return. It was already a hot day, and I didn’t think the newly emerged chicks needed to be kept warm, but one time when I passed the nest, I saw a handful of flies buzzing over it. If mama were there that wouldn’t have happened.

So after brooding as long as I could stand it, I exited the cabin quickly and went over to where I am slowly extending a retaining wall beside the gravelly area where the fire ring is. The phoebe could still see me, but she apparently had other things to do. A third egg had hatched, and the babies were chirping to be fed. (I suppose by now the fourth has as well.) So she was flitting to and fro, apparently with insects for her babies.

My work on the wall was unenthused. I added a few blocks to the base and then their corresponding blocks above them, and I backfilled with gravel from my shrinking pile as well as from what seemed like a basement full of rocks and sea shells my kids had collected and forgotten. I did about as much work as I could stand and then sat in the chair before the fire ring and brooded some more. Eventually I began collecting the wood for my dinner fire/campfire, and I realized that for all of the work I had done on Saturday, I could have come down on Friday afternoon and been as productive. Sunset was still hours away, it was too soon to eat my dinner, the dogs needed out of the cabin. And that presented a new problem.

The ticks are thick this year. Apparently the conditions through the fall and winter were ideal for them. My larger dog, Flike, (in the top photo) is heedless of such things and dives into the deep brush. His black fur hides any ticks on him, and I only really know about them at around 2:00 in the morning when he is scratching incessantly, beside me in bed. The other dog, Queequeg, is a Pomeranian who thinks he is big, but his preferred activity is to hide under my truck, in the grass growing thickly there. His brown fur is more revealing of ticks, but his fur is dense, so it’s still harder to find them and even harder to extract them. So my wife had extracted a promise from me that I not let the dogs get covered with ticks. That meant limiting their outside time and restricting it as much as possible to the gravel. Not much fun if you’re a dog in a forest. This meant any long hikes were out of the question, and even the trimming I did with the grass whip here and there, exposed the dogs. So soon they were back in the cabin.

I did take a short hike down one of the washed-out spillways (the man who said he would repair it still hasn’t) and came upon the Prickly Pear in bloom:

We’ve known about a few patches of Prickly Pear in our woods, but in all of the years we have been coming here, we’ve never seen it in bloom. This time I did, but I paid a price for it. Not only did I nearly fall into the great gouge that was once my spillway when the gravel beneath my feet crumbled, but my route back to the cabin, up an old, unused and overgrown road, left my legs covered with ticks that I duly brushed and picked off (though I didn’t find all of them — nuff sed).

Eventually, I started my evening fire (one match!) and let the coals grow so I could cook my Salisbury steak. I drank a few beers, brooded more, and waited for the call of the whippoorwill, which still haunts me. I was rewarded. At first I heard them far away, across the ridge. But their calls grew closer, and eventually I heard one in a tree not thirty feet away. The owls were not as vocal on this night, and I didn’t hear any coyotes howling or yipping, but I got my campfire experience, and I retired to bed.

On Sunday morning I rose when the dogs woke me and we ventured outside into the cool air. I knew Sunday would be a repeat of Saturday only with no food aside from some nectarines, so I decided to pack up and head home, leaving the phoebe uninterrupted time in her home.

a couple of things

Posted June 12, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Humble efforts, short stories

Tags: , ,

I mentioned sometime back on this humble blog that I had snuck the word “enuf” into my One-Match Fire story “where late the sweet birds sang” and so was proud to be doing my part to evolve the language in print, in the Selected Places anthology. And I think I also mentioned that I felt I ought to read all of the stories in the anthology. Thus the other day I took down the anthology from the shelf by my desk to begin reading it. But first I wanted to see that word “enuf” in print. So I went to my story in search of it. And I couldn’t find it.

The editor, apparently, didn’t think it was an appropriate neologism to include in her collection. Then I began to wonder what else she might have excised. I started reading the story side-by-side with the file for it on my laptop. And in nearly every paragraph I found differences, mostly in the cases of verbs that were less “powerful” than the ones I’d written. But there was a whole paragraph of nice descriptive detail (the smell of a forest in November) that was gone.

I acknowledge that an editor can do whatever she wants with a story, but generally if it’s something drastic (such as this) then the writer gets a chance to review the changes and even withdraw the story if it’s too much. I was surprised that I hadn’t been given the chance.

It was only when I came upon the name of the dog that I began to understand what I was seeing. I had originally named the dog Jack (which was a name I was considering for my own dog, Flike), but a subsequent story in the cycle included the dog, Jack, as well as characters named Joe, Jon, and Jerry. A friend who read that story commented on the clumsiness of the names, and my wife tried to figure out what great literary shenanigans I was up to with them. So, Jerry became Lee and Jack (the dog) became Buddy.

But obviously this change had happened after I had submitted the draft of the story to the anthology. And then I realized that all of the discrepancies between my draft and the one in print were likely due to revisions I had made to the story subsequent to its submission. I found the original email when I had sent the story, and attached was the draft of the story at the time. And everything lined up. Mystery resolved. Still, “enuf” didn’t make it into print.


I received an email recently from the editor of If and Only If Journal saying that the publication had suffered an unexpected hiatus but that it was going to begin publication again after all. This journal had accepted my submission of “Travel Light” a long time ago. “Travel Light” first appeared in Penduline Press, but If and Only If was looking for such stories and would accept reprints. Thus my story would find a second home. But I hadn’t heard from the editor and the journal online hadn’t posted any news or updates. I assumed that though it was a valiant effort, it had folded as many lit journals do. But then came the surprising good news, reaching my inbox while I was out at my little cabin for the weekend where I am off the grid. Thus I didn’t learn of the email until I got home.

a trip to the cabin again (and scruffiness)

Posted June 6, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Uncategorized

Yesterday’s post about a misstatement I’d made about my trip to the cabin contained a misstatement. I’d said that I hadn’t done much work, but there was one big, long-postponed project that I did take on — and finish — while I was there.

I’ve had a fire ring in this spot for longer than I’ve had a cabin. I’d made it with a bunch of paving blocks that a friend had given me when he was re-doing his back yard. And that worked well for a decade, but it always looked scruffy to me, and as the ring filled with the ash of countless fires, the downhill side of the blocks was beginning to lean out, in anticipation of falling altogether. I knew for a long time that I needed to rebuild the ring, but I wasn’t too keen on putting in the effort just to reset the paving blocks that looked scruffy.

For months, though, I’ve had a stack of one hundred cottage blocks sitting beside the cabin, for the retaining wall in front of the cabin I’ve been slowly extending. I knew that I could rebuild the ring with those blocks and that it would look better as well as likely work better since each row is offset back a half inch, giving more retaining strength to its structure.

Being ambitionless that day, I thought I would just switch out a few pavers with a few cottage blocks to get a sense of how well it would work and how big the job would be. But I also planned to have a fire that evening, so whatever I did would have to leave a working fire ring.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t as simple as exchanging a few pavers for a few blocks. Soon after I got started, I realized that I would need to do the whole job. The pavers and blocks were different sizes, and they were staggered in placement, so any replacement I did left gaps that not only would allow ash to spill through (or muddy ash if there were a subsequent rain) but would look scruffy! And so I spent the (languor-denied) afternoon rebuilding the fire ring,

  • getting a job done that was long overdue,
  • doing a lot of heavy lifting (that I counted as exercise for that fitness challenge at work),
  • staying off the cabin porch so the phoebe could stay on her nest,
  • and feeling a little better about my sorry self.

Here you see the new fire ring in action:

I wanted the new wall of blocks to be more or less level (the ground here slopes slightly), so I took a lot of care when I was laying the first level, digging out the gravel in some places and supplementing it in others. When I was done, I had a snugly fitting first row, and I was proud of my work. Laying the second level, however, presented a problem.

The blocks have a lip on the back that requires placing each “behind” the one below it by a half inch. I knew this when I started, but I should have done a little math first. By being offset, the diameter of the second level of a circular wall is slightly less than the diameter of the wall below it. And because I had made the wall below it “snug” I found that the last block on the second level wouldn’t fit. It was too wide for the space left in the smaller diameter. This was only by a half inch or so, and some kicking and tugging (and perhaps some colorful language) got it into place, but had I had some foresight, I would have known to build some space in the lower ring to allow for the slightly tighter upper ring.

You can see the old pavers that I salvaged from the original ring in the photo above and below. I’m sure I’ll find some use for them.

Many years ago, my sons’ Scout troop camped at a “historic” camp south of Kansas City. No one at the time bothered to ask what was historic about the place, but I subsequently learned that it was the segregated Scout camp. It was where Kansas City Scouts of color were allowed to go for their week-long summer camp back in the days when Scouting never had an official policy of segregation but had an unchallenged practice of it.

Anyway, there was a fire ring there that was shored up with a rock wall that was more than three feet high. I imagine that contained the ash of thousands of fires. This lit a fire in my brain. What might be in all of that ash? What stories could that fire ring tell of the people gathered around it so many, many times? It inspired me to do the same with the fire ring I have at Roundrock.

And so we burn more than firewood in our ring. I once burned an entire wooden ladder in it. (The critters had gnawed the feet away to the point that it was unstable to use.) The hardware of that long-gone ladder is now mixed with the ash in the fire ring. Similarly, an old deer stand that had fallen out of its tree was fed to the fire, and its screws and nails mix with the ash. (That ladder you see leaning against the tree in the photo above came from that fallen stand. It’s too good to burn, and the critters have not gnawed on it, but I still haven’t found anything to use it for.) When it is time to retire a pair of used-up leather gloves, they go on the fire. (I once pulled a dead buck deer out of my lake — true story — and the gloves I used for that disgusting effort went immediately into the fire!)

We also bring scrap lumber from our house to burn. You can see the tip of a green fence picket in the photo above. For many years my wife had a wooden chair sitting on our front porch in faraway suburbia, but it did not hold up well in the weather and was falling apart, so we took it to the cabin and burned it. (This features in my unpublished story “Fire Sermon.”)

I am slowly building the ash in my fire ring, and I will be thrilled when I have done enuf to add a third layer of blocks to the wall around it. Unfortunately, the diameter of that ring will be even smaller, creating an even bigger challenge when the time comes.


trip to the cabin

Posted June 5, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: ,

I had said in my last post that the chest cold I’d developed (which I still have a tiny bit) prevented me from going to my cabin two weekends ago, but I wrote that before the long weekend had transpired, and it turned out to be a misstatement. My wife and I (and the dogs) did make it out there Sunday for an overnight into Memorial Day Monday. (And I don’t feel bad that I did not go to Kentucky to see my ailing mother as I had originally planned since I didn’t need to give her my cold, so the cabin trip was an acceptable fallback.)

We didn’t do a whole lot while there. I never fired up the chainsaw, for example, though there are some smallish trees around the cabin I’d like to remove. We only went for one short hike, and we penned the dogs inside the cabin while we did since the ticks seem to be bad this year. I didn’t add to the retaining wall I’m slowing extending from the cabin to the road.

But that doesn’t mean that the permanent residents in my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks weren’t busy. A phoebe has built her nest on the side of the cabin under the porch roof again this year. She had taken literally what the sign below says.

My son and daughter-in-law (the doctors) had given me that sign several years ago, and I duly hung it beside the door to the cabin. I thought the bear on the right looked a little odd — what is it doing in that pose? — so if you look closely you can see the football I put in its hands because that makes so much more sense. Anyway, on an earlier trip to the cabin I had noticed that the phoebe was adding mud pellets to several places on the front of the cabin, and I figured on a later visit I would learn which one she’d settled on for her nest. You can she where she did.

The female phoebe builds her nest alone; imagine how much work that must be without hands. She must collect enuf mud pellets to make the clinging base, and then she must get the softer nesting material to add to the top to complete it. (Which made my slacking visit more clear to me.) I had worried that the phoebe would not return this year because I hadn’t seen her nest work earlier in the spring as I usually did, but then I recalled what a drought we’d had, so perhaps mud was hard to come by.

Anyway, she finished her nest and promptly filled it:

One summer several years ago the phoebe — I don’t know that it’s the same one actually — raised three clutches, but she’s getting a late start this year. Still, it’s heartening to see this.

Unfortunately, we come and go a lot on the porch, and we have two comfy chairs there that we sit in to gaze down at the lake (still full!) for countless hours. And this is problematic for the phoebe since she is not habituated to humans and so will not remain on her nest when we are on the porch. Instead she will fly to a nearby tree branch and scold us. Given the temperature the thermometer on the porch was reporting that day, I don’t think her absence from her eggs was a problem for their development, but I tried to keep myself busy away from the porch as much as possible so she could return to her nest.

On my next trip to the cabin it may be that I’ll find chirping hatchlings in the nest.

As to the top photo, that fallen tree rests not too far from the cabin. You can see that it’s slowly yielding all of the solar energy it collected over decades to the earth. This is the log I put peanuts (unsalted, of course) on for the wood rat who lives within it as well as for the birds who come and take a whole one to a nearby branch to peck it open and get the good stuff inside. You can see some peanuts in the lower right of the photo.

Feeding wild animals is, technically, not a good thing since they can get dependent on their human source, but given my sporadic visits and thus sporadic feedings, I consider them to be a supplement rather than a meal replacement, so to speak.