the man with the notes

Posted September 25, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Process, Ramblings Off Topic

In a past life, in a different city, someone much like me only younger, say 30-or-so years younger, would spend his lunch hours freed from the office at the nearby library. He would pull the book he was reading off the shelf (unless it was checked out since his last visit) and read away his hour of freedom, feeling both righteous and blissed out.

There were plenty of regulars at this library, including one man who clearly had mental health issues approaching schizophrenia. He would sit at a nearby table, murmuring to himself for long stretches. Often he would pull out scraps of paper with notes written on them. He would generally just read his notes, but on rare occasions he would add to what was written there (using the stubby pencils that every library seems mandated to have). Then he would stuff them in his shirt pocket, only to take them out soon after to trouble himself over them again.

That fellow much like me (though 30-or-so years younger) would always wonder what the notes contained. Then one day the man rose abruptly and left the library, leaving his small pile of notes on scraps behind. Well, what was that fellow much like me to do but amble over to that table and fluidly slip those notes on scraps into his own pocket. Then he would return to his office nearby and read the notes.

Not surprisingly, he found that the notes contained gibberish. Inchoate and without context, the words made no sense outside of the schizophrenic man’s mental universe. That man much like me still has those notes somewhere, 30-or-so years later.

Fast forward 20-or-so years and that man is in a different city and participated in a book discussion group that attracted all sorts of people (what is it about libraries?), including one woman who rarely spoke but did often lift her purse from the floor and rifle her fingers through it, pulling out — yes — scraps of paper with notes on them. She would examine them, refile them, pull them out again, re-sort them, then put her purse down and seem to pay attention. All the while the rest of the group continued with the discussion of whatever book was the subject for the evening.

And then to the present day. That man much like me (now 30-or-so years on) is keeping his own notes on scraps of paper. They are ways to capture the brilliant thoughts he has for his stories when he is not before his computer (usually when he is working for the man though also when he is at his little cabin in the Ozarks). They are captured until they can be transcribed, for such brilliant thoughts escape him too often, hence his need to write them down.

And sometimes during the day he will take these notes from his pocket to re-read them, sort them, and even add a few thoughts to them. They all make perfect sense within the context of the stories where they belong, but one supposes that to someone who happens to luck upon them left unattended somewhere, they must seem inchoate and without context. But at least that man much like me doesn’t murmur to himself. Much.

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a fire sermon

Posted September 20, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: , , ,

Early in my college life I had decided that I needed to keep my handwritten notes for classes (do people even do that any longer?) in notebooks with my college logo on the front. As an undergrad, I attended the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL, which we said was SLUM spelled sideways). Grad school was at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC, which we couldn’t do much with but you see above that the mascot is a kangaroo, named Casey, the original of which was drawn by a fellow named Walt Disney, who was living in Kansas City at the time).

Though none of my undergrad notebooks have survived (and why would they? I was a business major!), I had kept all of my grad school notebooks for some reason, and now, decades later, I still have them and haven’t opened them once. Thus as part of my ongoing effort to declutter and simplify my life, I’ve begun taking the old paper things to my little cabin in the Ozarks to burn in the fire ring.

You see above the first of these to contribute their essence to the ash build up. This was from one of my lit classes; of all of the notes I might have/should have kept to reread for possible enlightenment, this would have been the one, but it was the first my hand fell on in the cull, and cull I must, so off to the pyre it went. In the photo above it sits on the bed of coals I’d already created on a recent visit to Roundrock. Note the green fence parts also there.

The notebook sat for a surprisingly long time on the coals before the flames kissed it. Perhaps I was being given the chance to reconsider my plan. But I didn’t, and eventually the paper and cardboard pages were transforming themselves.

I burned the notebook whole. I didn’t tear out pages to use as tinder, nor did I remove the loose papers that were handed out in class, folded, and duly slipped into the notebook by me at some distant time. It was consumed as a unit, though it went up surprisingly slowly.

And thus one notebook is gone, its pages transformed to fine ash and its spiral spine now twisted and resting on that ash, eventually to be buried itself in further ash. I think I’ve said before that it somehow warms my black and shriveled heart to think that all of these unlikely things are accumulating in the fire ring and that someday, perhaps, someone will come upon them and marvel at why they are there.*

I have perhaps a dozen more notebooks from my school days to consign to the fire. There are also various files for projects that I was once in love with but that never happened (mostly ideas for magazine articles), so I have plenty of material for future cleansing fires. Plus, now that the chainsaw is fixed, I find that I have far more firewood than I can ever use for my infrequent campfires on overnight trips to the cabin. Burn it all!

*My engineer son says that the chemical composition of the ash combined with rainwater will likely cause the metal in the fire ring to dissolve relatively quickly and that little of this story-telling evidence will remain after a time. See, these kinds of things are the reason my heart is black and shriveled.

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I also keep handwritten journals — I have for more than thirty years — in spiral notebooks with college logos on the front. I don’t intend ever to burn them, and at least one of my children has said that he intends to read them after I die so he can get to know me better, a task that might be better undertaken while I am still alive, no? My sister-in-law in Chicago has taken it upon herself to keep me supplied with these notebooks, and having raised three high-achieving children, all of whom have completed college and two of whom has completed grad school (with one currently in grad school), I am oversupplied with notebooks (Syracuse, Northwestern, Villa Nova, Loyola) and can’t write entries fast enuf to keep pace with her supply ambitions.

grandparenting is hard work

Posted September 18, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Ramblings Off Topic

In its own way, of course, with a different set of benefits.

The twins are now two months old and have grown more aware of the world they’ve found themselves in. That includes the face and cooing of their grandfather (though Evie seems more responsive to low tones so I use a deep voice with her more often). There have been countless diaper changes, plenty of spit up wiped, numerous outfit changes, much bouncing on knees, miles walked with babe in arms, and never-long-enuf periods of patting and swaying to keep the little ones asleep. Added to all of this is their older brother, Kenneth, who demands (and deserves) equal attention. I am reluctantly getting used to “Me” being used as the subject of a sentence. (“Me no want go to bed!”) Plus mom and dad, somewhere in the background. (And a dog.) I’m just about over calling Everett, Emmett and Evie, Ela, and I’ve gotten good about passing through a room with my gaze averted as my daughter is feeding her babies.

And all of it ends for me soon as my week in New York closes. (My wife stays a week longer.) Then back to my quiet Midwestern life, ransoming the dogs from the kennel where they’ve been chillin’, restocking my refrigerator, possibly mowing my lawn, maybe going to a book discussion the day I get home (The Things They Carried), getting reacquainted with my bed and pillow, and back to work to face the hundreds of urgent emails and many missed deadlines waiting for me.

And yet, despite all of it, I have managed to get some serious work done on that One-Match Fire story, “Special-Blest.” The story, which I had intended as a chance to visit again with two of my characters (three if you count the flashback and four if you count another character mentioned and five if you include the dog) and a way to flesh out some relationship background. The piece has swollen to 4,300+ words, which is about double what I had expected it would be, and right now the ending seems rushed and incomplete. Some of that bloat will fall before the red pen. Some may get reworked to become more concise. But the bulk of it, I think, will remain. It seems that I began working on this story nearly a year ago, which is not quite right. I must have begun collecting notes for a story idea then for that is the origin date for the file, but I certainly didn’t begin working on a story with form to it until this summer.

And then, a comprehensive re-reading of the entire beast of a novel, looking for opportunities to make oblique references and foreshadowing as well as to make the tone more uniform (the earlier stories are lighter). Then, ugh, submission time.

writing is hard work

Posted September 14, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Humble efforts, Rants and ruminations

Tags:

Not hard like farming or construction or breaking rocks or futures trading or writing poetry or countless other truly hard things are, but hard work in its own way.

I’m in New York right now, getting acquainted with my new grandbabies and trying to peck out a few words on my latest One-Match Fire story. (Once I have this one done and consolidated with the others, I’ll consider the novel finished and begin sending it out again.) My daughter’s household rises late in comparison to how I now live, so I was able to rise early on my first day here (despite sleeping in for an hour later than my usual time, though in retrospect, my actual usual time according to my body clock given the time zone change) and sit in the quiet darkness before my laptop, tapping away at the keys to spin gold from dross.

Or at least attempting to. The words come slowly. And I really need to get into the tone of the story I’m working on before the words will come at all, which means I need to re-read it from the beginning. Which in turn means that I need to revise it as I read it, perfecting this or that word choice, chopping or lengthening any given sentence, crafting the perfect metaphor, and on. So by the time I get to where I’d left the story my last writing session, enuf time has passed that the sleepy household begins rousing. Just as the words begin to flow, the solitude begins to end.

As problems go, it’s not so bad. As work goes, it’s not so hard. My visit here is intended to be a help to my daughter: rocking or changing either or both of the twins, playing with their older brother, and generally doing whatever I can to lighten her load. So it’s not like I begrudge the interruption in the writing; that’s not why I’m here.

But if I can get a few words in as well, I’ll be pleased.

(By the way, the story has a couple of flashbacks in it. I know this device is not currently in vogue, but I don’t care!)

Plaza 10K 2017 – my running lament

Posted September 12, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Running

Tags:

I suppose I should write something about this. I ran the Plaza 10K for the fifth year in a row over the weekend. And by “ran” I mean I ran and walked it. I’m pretty sure I ran more than I walked, but I haven’t bothered to analyze the stats my running watch recorded, so that might be wishful thinking.

This was the slowest I’ve ever completed this 10K and possibly every 10K I’ve run in my half dozen years of throwing my feet in front of each other. (But I haven’t bothered to check my statistics to confirm that either.) I accepted the medal they gave me once I crossed the finish line, and I drank five cartons of chocolate milk afterward, but it wasn’t a good race for me, and I was glad it was over. Oddly, of the nearly 3,000 runners, I was in the top two-thirds, which surprised me given my performance. There were more than a thousand runners who finished after I did. Nor was I last in my age group, which was a position I had regularly defended in my early days of running.

I haven’t written much about my running lately mostly because I haven’t been running much lately. And that’s actually on doctor’s orders. (The Plaza 10K was, obviously, done in defiance of my doctor.)

My running has grown miserable in the last several months. I just don’t seem to have the lungs for it. I can run at a decent, seemingly sustainable pace — and feel fine — and then have to stop and gasp much sooner than I would have on the very same route only a year before. (Two years ago I ran the Plaza 10K with a friend, and because she needed to walk some of the hills, I would run circles around her and even run backward just to stay with her, but I never had to stop running.) On Saturday mornings each week I would run the same route, and week to week I was finding my performance diminishing. I was stopping more frequently to catch my breath until I was down to quarter mile intervals.

I blamed it on training too much on a treadmill through the winter. I never selected a program on the mill but just trotted along at a constant pace for an hour, able to sustain this (with a good amount of sweat). So when the weather got decent enuf for me to hit the trails outside, and I didn’t have a constantly turning belt to establish and maintain my pace, I found myself going too fast, faster than my heart and lungs could support. So I told myself that I was having trouble reining in my pace, and that was why I was getting winded.

But that didn’t explain the week-to-week constant decline in performance, especially in the last few months. When an intended three-mile run was cut short at one mile, I called my doctor’s office on my misery-soaked walk home and made an appointment for the very next day.

The doctor took my complaint seriously and immediately had me give blood for some tests (all results within normal ranges) and submit to an EKG (also perfectly normal). I was then scheduled for a stress test — more treadmill running with sonograms of my heart action before and after — which turned up nothing. I’m sure the doctor initially thought that for a man my age, my problem was with my heart, but that hasn’t seemed to be the case.

Nor have I had any chest pains when I run. I’m pretty sure my heart isn’t the problem. (Though maybe my soul is.) Maybe it’s to do with my lungs, though I don’t know what could have changed recently and so significantly that I was having a decline in performance as I have. I’m supposed to do some lung tests soon too. The doctor had suggested other possible causes, including an endocrine problem, but I guess he’s ruling out the more likely culprits first. And in the meantime, he’s forbidden me from any vigorous exercise. I am allowed to walk my dog, but that’s about it.

Since I don’t believe I have a heart issue, I intend to go ahead with a 5K I have scheduled for next month at my old university, and I actually have a half marathon in late October I’m signed up for. And unless the doctor turns up something tangible, I intend to do the half. But if I do find a continuing decline in my running performance in the weeks before, I may decide for myself not to run it.

It’s disheartening. I’ve given up my goal of running a thousand miles this year (though I was on target for it as recently as July). I’m not eyeing the race calendar as I used to, looking for things I want to do. I’m going to give the medical possibilities a chance, but if nothing turns up, and if I can’t seem to turn the tide on will power alone, I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

There’s probably a story in this.

bits and pieces

Posted August 31, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Ramblings Off Topic, Running

I had intended to start off this week with a nice, chatty, informative post for you, gentle reader. But somehow that didn’t happen. And here it is, nearing the end of the week, and I’m scraping together some stray thoughts just to have something on this humble blog.

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I can report that I’m making good progress on that new One-Match Fire story I’ve spoken of a few times. The original title was “A Civil Tongue” but I never much liked that, and it didn’t seem to really fit with what I want to do with the story. (Still, it was better than two even earlier title ideas: “Up and Down” and “Forgive and Forget.”) It helped knowing the two characters so well, so I knew how they would behave in the scenario I was putting them in, including a flashback scene with some parallels. But what really helped was reversing the story resolution. Instead of a character doing what I had originally thought, I realized that he would probably do the exact opposite. And when I knew that, I could see my way to the end. Also, reading Sonnet 52 gave me the new title I especially like: “Special-blest.” I have another story in the cycle called “Twice Blest” that is from The Merchant of Venice, and the first story in the cycle is “where late the sweet birds sang,” which, of course you know, is from Sonnet 73. (I also have two stories in the cycle titled “Men at Work and Play,” and “Men at Rest.”)

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It’s not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with double spacing after a period. All of the “rules” are merely convention, merely what happens to be mostly agreed upon at the present. What bugs me about double spacing after a period is that so many people do it without any thought at all. They do it because they were taught that way and never again reflected on the “why” of it (that being a relic from the typewriter and typesetting days of yore). The same thing bugs me about people who put underlines betwixt words or characters in a file name. Men_at_work_and_play.docx, for example. I’m pretty sure the underline, that is, not allowing a blank space in a file name, is a relic from the old DOS days. People do it because that is what they learned and they assume, likely without question, that it must be done that way. I never put in an underline for any files I name, and those I’ve “cleaned up” by removing the underline don’t seem to have exploded or anything like that.

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I mentioned some months back that there had been a string of murders along the Indian Creek Trail that I run. Well, it seems that the killer has been caught. He has been positively linked to several of the murders (using DNA evidence among other things) and is suspected in the remainder. Apparently it was pure, random malice with no other motive. I hope that’s the end of it.

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I also mentioned some time back that I wondered if any of my children read this blog. That linked post was intended as a taunt. Well, none has come forward yet.

Roundrock, interrupted

Posted August 21, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

I made an abbreviated trip to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks over the weekend. The plan was for my wife and I, and the two dogs, to have an overnight at the cabin, with no real agenda before us but relaxing and maybe doing some chores if by some means mysterious we found the gumption. The weekend did not go as planned.

But first, a photo:

These are the stone steps leading to the cabin porch. There is a third one below these two. When the cabin was built on the sloping hillside, a good bit of gravel was pushed into place to create a level bed for the slab foundation. Once the work was done, the approach to the porch (from the east side, which is the view above) was a steep, irregular climb of a couple of feet. This arrangement persisted for many months, and my top priority during that time was to build a retaining wall in front of the cabin so that there would be no erosion (from the runoff of the roof), possibly weakening the support for the slab foundation. I got the retaining wall work done soon enuf, and future archeologists may, possibly, find wine and beer bottles in the backfill behind the wall.

Then came the eastern approach. I asked a man who has done some work for me out there if he could lay stone steps to the porch. I even showed him some large blocks of sandstone up the hill from the cabin that I thought would work well. He dismissed those and said he could provide stones much better, which he did. And now I have some rustic stone steps leading to the shady porch.

But it’s the topmost stone that is the point of all of this blather:

This is looking down on the top step and the second step, just where they overlap. (Would the lower step underlap?) What you can’t really tell from this photo is that the top stone step is actually polished from use. Many feet have tread on this step, many more than the two of us and our occasional guests could have provided in the time since the step has been there.

My idea is that this more regularly shaped slab of sandstone had graced the dooryard of some earlier Ozark home, perhaps going back to settlement days. But that’s the hopeless romantic in me thinking that. Still, it’s clearly seen use prior to coming to my little cabin. I wish I knew its story.

As for the weekend at the cabin, here is what happened. August is the peak time for horseflies in the Ozarks. Some years are worse than others, and this year has not been particularly bad with them, but you can’t tell that to my dog, Flike. He is terrified of horseflies. Never mind that he is 75 pounds of muscle and energy with a thick coat of fur and has nothing to worry about from a horsefly. If one buzzes across the porch while he is out there, he will quickly dart into the cabin and do his best to squeeze himself under one of the beds. Or into the tightest corner behind the mouse-proof cabinet. Or in my face as I’m attempting to relax on my pillow on the bed. He spent our entire time there in the cabin, panting heavily. He was terrified and traumatized.

When we saw that he wasn’t going to get any better, we decided to do him a kindness and just go back home where we could all sleep in our regular beds with no horseflies buzzing around us.