elsewhere (where else?)

Posted November 27, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Roundrock

Today being the day we set aside to pay our highest tribute to the gods of commerce, I will instead be elsewhere.

It has become my tradition to go to my cabin on Black Friday to escape peak crass consumer culture. So don’t look for me at the mall or the big box store or even online with my credit card in hand. I’ll be in my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks for the day.

fire!

Posted November 23, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , ,

Taking a mental health day from work, my wife and I (and the two dogs) went to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks last Friday. We had no agenda for the day other than to sit in the comfy chairs on the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake and relax. Sometimes we can even do that, but we only partly relaxed on this visit.

You see above what greeted us when we arrived. My neighbor to the west, who grazes cattle on the open parts of his land, was burning away the leaf fall and scrub in his woods, which is normally done in the spring since quenching rains are more reliable then. But the forecast called for rain on the coming weekend, and this man seems to have more energy than ten men, so I guess he was taking the opportunity.

If you look closely in the photo above, you can see the wires of his electric fence, marking the line between his woods and mine. He had created a fire break along the fence (something he needs to do anyway so that the scrub doesn’t ground his fence), and there was no wind to speak of that day. Still, the breeze was blowing smoke to the east — to my woods — and it wouldn’t have taken much to push the flames past the fire break and into my woods.*

This is a view of my forest just to the east of the flames in the top photo. Notice all of the combustibles on the ground. And those green cedars have needles that are filled with oil, just waiting to burst into flames and lift the fire into the canopy. (One of the reasons I “liberate” as many cedars as I can from their earthly toil.)

But my neighbor has all of the tools, and he said he couldn’t stop to chat, which I took as a good sign that he knew the risks of his operation and needed to get back to managing it.

We drove on to the cabin (the one with the shady porch overlooking the sparkling lake) and saw that it was still standing. It’s about a quarter mile from my western property line, so if the fire did get out of control, we’d have a fair amount of time to panic.

What you see here is the back of the cabin. Between the stone wall on the right (that’s Flike’s tail you see in the corner) and the wooden wall on the left, autumn leaves like to collect. This time of year, raking the combustible leaves away from the wooden cabin is usually my first chore on arrival, and it was especially so on this visit. That gravel verge is there specifically as a fire break — and it would have been wider if I could have dug into the hillside farther when I was building the wall — though a raging fire would likely cross it. Flike was eager to help me with the leaf raking this day, running back and forth through the pile I was accumulating.

The day passed without incident. We returned to the western line, which had been my plan anyway just to hike in the forest there, which we rarely do any more, and noted the progress of the prescribed burn and its mostly finished state.

My neighbor had a few extra seconds to chat this time, and I asked him why he was doing the burn. My guess had been that he intended to clear the scrub and then seed the ground with some grass that he could graze his cattle on, but that wasn’t the case. He told me he needed to clear some space to work in as he pushed down more trees for his father-in-law’s . . . runway.

His father-in-law, who has a very nice cabin about a mile to the west, is building an ultralight airplane that he intends to fly from a runway he is building on the ridgetop of their land. In a past life he was an auto mechanic, so he knows something about engines and is learning something about airplanes. He’s even built a hangar for the plane, which is currently in parts in the workshop at his cabin. The maiden flight is supposed to be in the spring, which I think will be sufficient time for them to complete the runway.

We more or less relaxed. We didn’t undertake any big chores. I need to spread more gravel, but I’ll wait until the winter winds blow more of the leaves away from the cabin so the preliminary raking of them is less of a chore. The fallen oak leaves lay crisply on the ground right now, so we could hear a lot of nearby rustling. It was mostly squirrels, I guess doing their last-minute things before winter hibernation. But I did manage to see a chipmunk and the wood rat who lives in the large log near the cabin. I had left an apple core on the log earlier, and just before we left for the day, I checked and the core was gone, likely taken deep into the log to be kept in the winter larder there.

There was rain in the area on the following day, and there is more in the week to come. (My diminished lake could use it!) My plan is to go back to the cabin this Friday — I always go on Black Friday as an antidote to the crass consumer culture — and I’ll be able to inspect the fire work again.

__________

*Years ago, a grass fire they had cultivated got out of their control and reached onto my land too. Fortunately, my new gravel road through the trees served as a firebreak and contained it. They apologized profusely, and the whole event cemented our now long-standing friendship.

bits and pieces

Posted November 16, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ouroboros, Ramblings Off Topic, Roundrock, Uncategorized

This is a picture of my lake at its “lowest point.” Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s before any water collected behind the dam (aside from that bit of ice you see). So this is the water-side of the dam, and at full pool, I would be under 18 feet of water here. See my old truck up among the trees? That white barrel with all of the holes in it is part of the drainage system. It is connected to a pipe that runs under the dam and has a valve on the opposite end. I can open the valve to let water out (though why?). The few times I’ve done this, I’ve seen dozens of small fish come out as well.

I think I told you that my son who lives down the road is moving to a new house in his college town and that my weekends of late have been devoted to either heavy lifting or grandparenting, which can include heavy lifting. Thus I haven’t been able to get out to Roundrock as much as this mild November weather has permitted. Closing is this week though, and the time pressure of all of the work will lessen afterward, so I’m hoping the weather will hang on long enuf for me to get some quality time out there.

__________

I mentioned here before that I intended to give periodic accounts of my submission effort with Obelus, but I’ve decided against doing that. One of the reasons I lost interest in running, I think, was because I had tried to quantify it too much. Instead of being in the moment as my feet were slapping the pavement, I was recording my runs (with my fancy running watch) and analyzing them afterward, anguishing over a slower pace or a shorter distance or some hill that defeated me. I think it focused me on the deficiencies rather than the overall purpose (which may have been fitness or may have been the pursuit of something outside of my normal). And thus I fear the same thing can happen with documenting my Obelus submission campaign. I don’t know how many queries I’ve sent but I fear that when I start tabulating the inevitably high rejection rate, I’ll get disheartened, which isn’t helpful. So blissful ignorance gets to reign. (Or takes the reins, or rains on me.)

Still, when I read some of the junk that gets published, and the occasional metafiction I find, I feel certain that Obelus does have a place and it’s just a matter of perseverance.

__________

I can report that my use of white noise (to silence the heartbeat I can hear in my right ear) has been successful. I think I am able to concentrate better without the constant throb. I’ve also stopped actively “listening” to the white noise and it just does its thing in the background. What’s especially interesting is when my writing session ends and I turn it off. Then the silence in the room truly is loud.

__________

When I’m not writing in the early hours or grandparenting in the others, most of my free time lately has been spent raking: the leaves in my yard and my fingers through my long quarantine hair. The trees around here are mostly finished dropping their leaves — except the oaks, which will dribble leaves all winter but only lose the bulk of them in the spring when the new growth comes out — so my efforts with the rake will stop seeming less futile soon. Still, my two long-haired dogs will find ways to drag leaves (especially the cypress leaves) into the house in their fur. That will be a clean-up task that will last all winter.

__________

Existential musing: All of my life, when I’ve looked in the mirror, I’ve seen my face. The same face as yesterday and the day before that. Going back to my youth and childhood, probably to when I first recognized myself in the looking glass. Sure, I’ve changed over the years, but the gradual pace of it has allowed me to see the “same” face each new day.

Except now. These days when I look in the mirror, I pause and wonder who it is looking back at me. My quarantine hair touches my collar now and billows out to the side around my neck. This is the longest my hair has ever been in my entire life and it makes me “not recognize” myself in the mirror for a moment.

I have no plans on getting my hair cut soon, and it’s getting time for me to get some of those rubberbandy things girls use to pull their ponytails together. (My eyebrows, on the other had, may get a mowing. They curl down and sometimes catch in my eyelashes, which is annoying.)

no NaNoWriMo for me

Posted November 11, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts

Tags:

In the month of November I began writing my next novel in earnest. I’m happy to say that I have 550 words down! They’re the hard ones, of course. The first ones. And I’ve struggled with them, changed them, rearranged them, deleted them. As one does.

This is not a blistering pace, but I am finding my way (and if my experience this time is anything like it was with Obelus, I don’t even know what that way is yet).

But 500 words in about half a month is still minuscule. I understand the participants in NaNoWriMo average 1,667 words each day, with the goal of 50,000 words in the month. I’m not going to qualify for that.

I’ve written about NaNoWriMo here before, and it’s not been favorable. Over the years, my thoughts have mellowed. It’s not for me, but if it works for another, then good for them.

white noise

Posted November 9, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts, Toolbox

Tags:

Due to some particular quirk of physiology, I am able to hear my own heartbeat in my right ear. If the room is quiet, and I am sitting still, which is pretty much the definition of my writing time very early in the morning, I can hear the pulse of blood through whatever artery is near that ear.

When I first noticed this years ago, I feared it was a sign of dangerously high blood pressure, but my numbers have always been low in that regard, and when I mentioned it to my doctor, he dismissed it as nothing to worry about. And so I haven’t for all of those years.

But I have found it to be distracting when I’m trying to write in the quiet of my early morning sessions. And so I’ve begun an experiment with white noise to override the sound of my heartbeat and let me drift along whatever creative waters I’m on.

Back in the days when I worked in an office, the building had pumped in white noise as a sort of damper to nearby cubicle conversations so individuals could work without overhearing others (much) and general clatter. This was believed to have worked, and I guess it did. (The Wikipedia entry on white noise does offer this caution though: “There is evidence that white noise exposure therapies may induce maladaptive changes in the brain that degrade neurological health and compromise cognition.”)

I found a YouTube “video” that plays a constant hiss of white noise (for ten hours!) that I’ve been playing in the background as I work. At first, and as expected, I found myself listening to the white noise, which is a truly unremarkable sound, but when I turned my attention to writing, I soon forgot that I was hearing it and just got to work. I think I will get better at this the more I use it.

And it works. I cannot hear my heartbeat when the white noise is hissing in the background. Whether that will mean a boost in my productivity, I cannot yet say, but I’m grateful so far to have this apparent success with it.

election day 2020 – recap

Posted November 4, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: , ,

I survived my day of volunteering at the polling station for my precinct yesterday. It was actually not at all as “bad” as I feared.

My day started early. I was up and showered and dressed and eating my breakfast by 3:45 a.m., going over one last time the training materials I had for my job, which was actually several jobs throughout the day. The polling station where I worked was only a few blocks from my house, in a Baptist church where I had voted several times before. When I arrived, a few other volunteers were walking in as well, so the official day began.

We had a lot of set-up work to do, not only opening the voting machines, but setting up tables and working out how we would snake the long lines of voters through the space. We were set up in the church’s cavernous gym, and there was a long front lobby that reached around the gym where we would direct the voters. Had the weather been bad (it was gorgeous for a November day in Kansas), we could accommodate several hundred voters inside as they waited, even with prudent social distancing. We set out signage. We checked our equipment. We were sworn in (with right hands raised). We were given a pep talk. We signed up for two-hour shifts in varying rolls. We geared up for a long and busy day.

My first role was as a greeter just inside the lobby. I was to direct the voters down the long lobby to where they would turn to enter the gym. I was also to ask any maskless voters if they would like the free one from the box I had. (Two did, embarrassed that they had forgotten them, and I’m told we had only one voter the entire day who refused to wear a mask.) When we opened the doors at 6:00 a.m., we had a line of about two dozen people waiting to get in. I did my thing and the voters disappeared around the far corner of the lobby. After that voters occasionally trickled in, and I directed them, but I noticed that no voters were emerging from the other end of the gym. (They would enter/exit the church by the main doors, having made a circle while inside.) As the minutes passed, I wondered what was going on in the gym and if the voters were piling up. (I would be working there later.) But then the first voter emerged, thanked me for volunteering, said how easy it was to vote, and left. My guess is that there were a few kinks to be worked out in the process, and by the time I was working in there, they were.

I worked my greeter shift for two hours. Voters came in steadily, though there were never any lines or throngs. I imagine these were the folks voting before going to work, though there were some young parents with babies and toddlers too. I chatted a bit with the other greeter. (I was inside the lobby. She was at the door to hold it open for voters.) The time passed and eventually someone came to replace me when the shift changed. My next duty was at the polling station.

Here I was in the gym, sitting before a tablet and checking in voters. Best of all, I was sitting. This work involved examining the voter’s photo ID (in nearly all cases it was a driver’s license, though there was a passport or two, which was legit ID). I had to visually confirm that the person was who they claimed to be, then find that person in the rolls via the tablet. This was a smooth process for the most part. Most people had up-to-date records and current addresses. Once or twice I was stymied and had to call one of the seasoned volunteers to help me. One man, a citizen though not originally from the U.S., had a three-word name I could not find in the rolls. I tried a couple of variations before I asked for help. It turned out that I had taken the wrong word as his last name; he was found on the voting list, received a ballot, and was ushered to a voting machine to exercise his right.

I spent two hours at this station, and for the most part it was easy work. There were a number of first-time voters, often with their beaming, proud parents behind them, and a few times with professional photographers documenting their experience. One of our (unofficial) duties was to call out first-time voters so that all of the volunteers could clap and cheer for them. Several older voters crept in with walkers or canes, and chairs were quickly produced to allow them to sit while we checked them in. We also had two voting stations where they could sit for as long as they needed to complete their ballots.

My next shift was at the final step of the voting process, where the voters feeds the completed ballot into the ugly black machine to actually cast the vote. Since voters could elect to use a machine station (which would produce a paper document reflecting their choices) or mark their choices on a paper ballot the old-fashioned way, I had to be at that ugly machine to make sure they fed it into the correct slot. This was tricky since I had to make sure they fed it right, but I also had to make sure I wasn’t reading their ballot right in front of me. (The printing on the machine ballot was too small for my eyes anyway, but I was diligent about stepping back or turning away as soon as I could regardless.) A few times the ballots were rejected, and I had to call over a seasoned volunteer. Often this was because there were stray marks on the paper ballot or because someone accidentally voted for two candidates in one election. These were corrected with fresh ballots, and the votes were cast.

The best part about working at the ugly machine was that I got to hand out the I Voted stickers, which are a big hit. (Voters also got pens this year. These pens had a conventional ball point in one end and and a rubber stylus for tapping the choices on the voting machines at the other end. Fewer fingers touching the screens meant less possibility of transmitting viruses.)

Somewhere along in there I had a lunch break, and the rest of the day I floated to whatever role needed filling. Mostly I worked as an escort, taking a voter who was just checked in to the voting machine and explaining how it operated. I also worked at the check-in station again, handing out ballots and pens. The day passed, and while the minutes sometimes seemed long, the hours didn’t. We kept expecting the rush to come — during lunch time, in the late afternoon once people left work, in the evening after dinner — but it never did. We were mostly steady with voters coming in, but we never again had lines, and the most people had to wait was a few minutes.

When the day ended at 7:00 p.m. one of us was going to have to go to the end of the line of waiting voters to turn away anyone who arrived after that. I dreaded being assigned that duty, but at 7:00, there was no line. One man came in at about 6:55 and was swiftly processed, but that was it.

After the doors closed, we volunteers had about a half hour of tear-down work to do, and then we were free to stagger home to watch the news.

I had feared that we would have a tense day with angry voters and possibly even intimidation and incidents. None of that happened. The only “offensive” clothing seen that day was on a man who wore an Oakland Raiders face mask, which the Kansas City Chiefs fans among the volunteers assured me was a taunt. We had no irate voters who had to be pacified. There were several voters who came in only to learn they were at the wrong precinct, and we were able to direct them to their proper polling station. No one complained about this minor inconvenience. The voting machines all worked. The power didn’t go out. The weather was ideal. It was about as perfect a process as one could hope for in such an otherwise raucous election.

And what impressed me most of all was how non-partisan the day was. Of course, it was a national election, so voters didn’t identify their party, but I don’t think that would have made a difference. I got to know several of the volunteers that day, and it was evident to me how they leaned politically, yet throughout the day I saw every single voter treated with respect and encouragement. The outcome of the election was never discussed among the volunteers during the day. All that mattered was helping the voters cast their ballots successfully. Young voter, old voter, every race and creed, broken English, poorly dressed, babies or toddlers in tow. Everyone got the election experience they deserved. It was moving to witness this.

I’m glad I volunteered to work this election, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Except I’ve been told there is a local election coming up next August and that I will be approached to volunteer for it. I expect I will.

election day 2020

Posted November 3, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: ,

It is now 3:43 a.m. I am up, showered, dressed, and eating my breakfast. I’ll pack my lunch soon and then drive the few blocks to a neighborhood church where I will work at the polls until the voting day is done.

We are a civilized, purple county in a red state, so I don’t expect any incidents of intimidation or vandalism, though I won’t be surprised if patience is worn-thin among those standing in line to vote (if the forecasts are correct for turnout).

I’ve never done this work before. Perhaps I’ll have stories to tell.

betwixt

Posted November 2, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Like many people, I imagine, I am in an in-between state right now. I speak not only of my writing, though that too.

I’m busy sending out queries for Obelus, but I consider that work “finished.” Despite what I said in my last post, I’m not really started on my next work. A few dozen words and a few dozen doubts, but I need to better know the characters (actually, the narrators, I think) before I get too far down a path that won’t work.

Aside from my writing, though, I am in an anxious, liminal state. Tomorrow is election day, and in a moment of civic earnestness, I had volunteered to work the polls. Tomorrow is my test. I’ve taken the training — I took one class twice! — and I have studied the handbook they provided. And I’ve talked to experienced volunteers about my worries. (“Just raise your hand. Someone will help you.”) So weeks of anxiety are about to be realized or dispelled tomorrow, and I don’t know which outcome it will be. (I may be too tired to notice. The day begins at 4:30 a.m., and though the official end is at 7:00 p.m., anyone in line at that time still gets to vote. Record numbers of voters are expected. It will be a long day.)

Aside from my writing, and aside from my volunteering, though, is the outcome of the election. Will there be change or will there be continuation? Either looks possible, and that is what it is. But not knowing and having to wait (perhaps weeks) to learn the outcome leaves me in that in-between state.

It’s hard to make decisions right now. Not just about important matters but even the small stuff. It’s as though everything is (or ought to be) on hold until this waiting period ends.

bits and pieces

Posted October 26, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts, Ouroboros, Ramblings Off Topic

I continue to send out queries for Obelus, and I continue to refine my letter, and I continue to keep the faith. I’ve even come up with an “elevator pitch,” which I think is crass (the need for one, not the pitch itself). What kind of service are you doing to your 100,000+ word novel by condensing its substance into two or three breathless sentences? Anyway, I spent two hours on Saturday morning reviewing potential agents, studying their interests, their submission guidelines, and managed to send only two queries.

__________

Also, someone please explain to me the wonder that is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I promptly read it when an agent who turned down Obelus had hoped it would have been more like that novel. A lot of people have said how wonderful that novel is, but I didn’t see it. Maybe I just had a crappy translation, but it seemed cumbersome, with characters I couldn’t engage with, and a plot that, while innovative (for its time?), was obvious.

Same with The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I’d classify it as “high metafictional” but it just wasn’t my thing. After I figured out the tone and style, I just wanted to get done with it. Yet people praise this novel.

__________

In the meantime, any work at all on anything else at all is pretty much not happening at all. I’m barely submitting even the finished short stories I have, and I’m not writing any new ones. I made a kind of decision over the weekend that I need to compartmentalize my time, devoting a certain amount to Obelus submissions and a certain amount to new writing.

And so, I began work on a new novel, which I’m tentatively calling A Short Walk in a Sad Place. I’ve been making notes on this since the middle of summer, and the “plot” has evolved considerably since then. This is how Obelus happened, becoming something far different from what I had originally conceived, so I consider it a good thing. A Short Walk will be another metafiction, and I think it will be fun to work on.

__________

My son, who lives a half hour down the road, is moving to a different part of his college town (to ensure his children get into a good primary school), so my weekends have been devoted to helping with that. My truck has proved useful, as has my back. My wife has provided childcare. There is currently some confusion about closing dates on the current and new houses and how their timing may/may not require time in a motel for this family of four (their three cats would chill in my basement). This hasn’t interfered with my “writing” time, but trips to the cabin have dried up.

__________

I’ve taken the two mandatory training classes for my election day volunteering, and I’m taking one of them again later this week so I can feel a tiny bit more confident about not screwing up too badly when I’m working at the polls. It will be a long day. I must be at the polling site at 4:30 a.m. (not a problem for me, and it’s just a few blocks from my house), but I have to stay until the polls close (at 7:00 p.m.) and then later to help close up the shop and complete all of the paperwork. So I’m taking election day and the day after off from work. Perhaps I’ll have some interesting stories to tell when I’m done.

__________

In an old college notebook, with some remaining unused pages that I jot spontaneous notes on as I’m writing or researching, I found an assignment for a class I took more than 40 years ago: a three-page paper about Ben Franklin’s autobiography. I don’t know what became of the paper I wrote, but the assignment sheet — a mimeograph — has my handwriting on it from that distant age. It’s surprisingly legible; I seemed to remember having terrible handwriting, but I guess not. The assignment sheet will go in the recycling bin, 40 years after its creation.

Obelus query status

Posted October 19, 2020 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ouroboros

Tags: ,

A friend once kept an account of the submission status of his novel on his blog, culminating in his publishing success, and I thought I might do something similar with Obelus.

I’ve mentioned before that I truly think submitting a novel — to agents and to publishers — is a numbers game, and success is more likely to be achieved through volume rather than precision. I think the factors in success are so variable that even the best written query, adhering exactly to a site’s submission requirements, can meet with rejection unless it reaches the right agent in the right mood on the right day. Something that might seem appealing on a Monday morning could get dismissed on a Friday afternoon. I realize that literary agents are professionals, and for the most part I don’t think they are capricious, and I’m sure they know their markets, but they’re human too.

I’ve visited hundreds of agent websites and studied their wish lists, and in my observation these are imprecise, suggesting an agent will just “know it when they see it.” Sure, many agents say, for example, that they are only interested in women’s literature or young adult novels. That’s precise enuf for me to know not to send my query. (What of a young-adult novelist? Is it clear what type of YA novel the agent is looking for?) But when the agent lists “literary fiction” as their field, just what does that mean?

Not much, and so volume approach.

To date I’ve sent 77 queries to agents, mostly by email though a handful were submitted via a given site’s online submission manager. I didn’t do a tally, but I think most of these have said they won’t respond unless interested. Several state that if there is no response within a specified number of days, the query was rejected, which amounts to the same thing. One said to expect a response in six months. Others have spans of a few weeks to a few months. It’s because of this that I’m not doing the conventional method of picking my “top ten” targets and waiting until I have a response from each before moving on to my next ten. I just don’t seen how that would be efficient given the variables.

In some cases, the agent will list their clients so that you can get an idea of what they like, but in nearly all of those cases, I’m unfamiliar with the authors or the list is of the last ten years of Pulitzer Prize winners. In a couple of cases the agent has asked for my “platform” and “marketing plan,” which I can see might make sense for nonfiction, but for reclusive, antisocial fiction writers, not so much. (I can’t ever see myself as an “influencer.”)

Of the 77 submissions, I have received 15 rejections. Most of those were automated and most came within days. As unpleasant as a rejection email is, I think it’s better than not getting any response at all. I have received two personalized rejections, including one that offered some praise and went into detail about why it was declined, even welcoming further submissions.

I think I’m about halfway through the potential agents listed in Duotrope. It’s a painstaking process, and on a good day, I can get about a half dozen submissions made. I expect a couple more months of this, all the while refining my query letter.

__________

Here’s a random picture of some round rocks: