Sunday, August 31, 2008

Another shot at the essay class--excerpt from Below Sea Level

“So Alex is afraid of guns.”

Eric finished another beer and tossed it on the ground. The Wasatch Mountains floated in the distance, an optical illusion from deep within the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Eric’s friend Trey, whom I’d just met, looked embarrassed.

“You’ve never shot one?”

“Just a Colt pistol and a Glock. Research for my anti-gun piece in the UW-Seattle paper. Boy, did that make me popular.”

“Too late for me to write my letter to the editor?” Eric laughed, heading for his Dodge and coming back with his prized .357 Magnum. His dare was unspoken but he knew I couldn’t resist. That drew him to me; my inability to resist a dare, regardless of what I believed was right. That was Eric, a walking dare.

“Trey,” he said, “step that can off thirty feet.” Trey took thirty uneven steps into the desert. He jogged back. It was cool for a June evening on the flats, but he looked warm.

Laying the gun on the grey suede seat where I’d accompany him home, Eric fished out three sets of hunter orange earplugs. He turned to me.

“Okay, here’s the safety. Slide this forward and you can’t shoot, no matter what. We want that off.”

Of course we do, I thought. I’d abandoned safety the day I met you.

“You cock it like any pistol—just like your cowgirl .22—by pulling this back as far as you can.” He winked at Trey.

“To aim, use the marks on the barrel. We ain’t shooting far so the bullet’s gonna travel pretty straight. Hold it with both hands, though, ‘cuz it does have a right good kick.”

“More or less than a Glock?”

“Worse, I reckon.”

I stretched out my hand.

“You’re shootin’ first?”

“Does it matter what order I humiliate myself in?” Eric flushed; Trey laughed.

Eric handed me the gun. It was heavier than the Glock. I released the safety and cocked it.

“Okay—careful…” Was he was worried about me or the gun? “This is a heavy gun with a very light trigger. It don’t take much pressure to go, so be ready.”

I found the can in my sights, held my breath, and pulled the trigger. The gun jerked my wrists, hard. The target spun and shot out ten feet. I slid the safety on and held it out at arm’s length.


“Son of a bitch, Eric, she shoots better’n you!” Trey shoved Eric, but Eric didn’t budge. Didn’t lose his cocky grin, either. That would go away only if surgically removed.

“Well, I guess we better see if she shoots better’n you, huh?”

Trey aimed carefully before taking his shot. The can didn’t move. He groaned.

“Sorry, man,” Eric said. “Did you bring your .22?” In one movement, Eric took the gun, raised it confidently, and shot. A chunk of salt flew up just inches from the can. Hit or no hit, I was impressed.

“Goddamn. Better get me a .22. Back to you, babe.”

The first time I knew I’d miss so I barely aimed. I was relaxed, with no expectations of success. Now, there was pressure.

This time the can jumped two feet in the air. Beautifully dramatic. I handed off to Trey.

“Shit,” he said. “I drank too many targets.” He passed off to Eric, who turned his head and spit out his Copenhagen. Stepping forward and squinting at the beleaguered can, he shot. The can sat undisturbed. Not so, Eric; though he worked to conceal it.

Taking more bullets from the pocket of his loose-fitting jeans—he was so lean that summer—he reloaded. Raising one arm, he shot, out of turn. The can jumped a foot and skidded out several feet. Eric was all teeth, smiling up to his brilliant blue eyes. His mustache twitched in delight.

Eric laid its weight in my hand. I raised it and shot—one-handed, like Eric. The muscles in my wrist snapped so violently I stifled a cry. The can shot into the desert as if kicked at close range. I no longer hid my delight. I had no idea I could kill beer before today. This, I thought, might come in handy someday. Eric hugged me close and rested his head on mine.

Roaring out of the flats, I grew fixated on the knowledge that these thirty thousand acres once hosted a lake the size of Lake Michigan—full of life. Hard to imagine that nothing would ever take root here again.
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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Count Your Blessings

Hurricane Gustav, left, and Tropical Storn Hannah, right. Reports that they are dating are as yet unconfirmed.

Childish kidding aside, we've got a hell of a lot less to worry about right now that most people.

Residents walk towards an evacuation center in New Orleans, Louisiana, ahead of Hurricane Gustav August 30, 2008. City officials could order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans starting early on Sunday if Hurricane Gustav holds to its current course, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on Saturday.(Lee Celano - UNITED STATES/Reuters)

A puppy stands on a truck carrying people to be evacuated from the area in preparation for the approach of Hurricane Gustav in Batabano, on the southern coast of Cuba, August 30, 2008.(Claudia Daut/Reuters)

A piglet is seen in a car trunk as people get ready to evacuate the area in preparation for the approach of Hurricane Gustav in Batabano, on the southern coast of Cuba, August 30, 2008.(Claudia Daut/Reuters)

Storm clouds gather over the open sea on Havana's coast August 30, 2008. Hurricane Gustav strengthened into a dangerous Category 4 storm on Saturday with winds of 145 miles per hour (230 km per hour) as it surged toward western Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.(Stringer/Reuters)

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Columbus Carriage Classic 2008

Dr Chet Thomas with one of his impressive Fjords.

Last weekend was the 10th Annual Columbus Carriage Classic. Floods forced the city to move the event from Father's Day to August, as few of the antique carriages were equipped with flotation devices, and the park was under several feet of water.

I volunteered for half a day, helping coordinate competitors are they prepared to compete in the lawn scurry. Picture a large field with several pairs of cones scattered seemingly at random within in. The goal? Be the fastest team to drive through each set of cones without knocking any over. Most had a blast with it, while others took their losses a little harder.

After that event was completed, I took off for home to get ready for the parade, which passes very close to my house. Mom and I both clicked away happily as our favorites trotted by.

Sunday I went just to fill digital space on my Kodak. Mission accomplished! I have uploaded about half the photos I took onto Flickr, as they proved to be a little too much for my blogspace.

They can be seen at

I'd love to stay and tell you more, but the Foo Fighters are calling me from Milwaukee, and I must fly!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Essay Class: Characters

This assignment had three parts to it. One and two--pieces of cake. Number three? Virtually impossible. How many of you have tried to put your own "character" on paper, in less than 500 words? Try it. Good and bad qualities alike. If you're anything like me, you'll give up and be eating cake sitting on your kitchen floor by the end of the night.

I have stayed with the same theme--characters and scenes from Below Sea Level. There is a method to my madness, and it is finishing this book, finding an agent, and finding a publisher. Piece of cake.

1. Write a description of someone you know, exploring the person’s positive and negative personality traits.

Eric slammed his right fist into the roof of the truck cab three times, hard and fast. The truck veered sharply over the center lane, and I grabbed for the wheel. My hand met his arm, solid as the steel he welded every day. Every vein stood out against his sunburnt muscles. The fuel gauge read empty, and we were barreling down Interstate 15 at close to 80 mph.

“That was the last Flying J,” he screamed at the windshield. “And now there’s not a goddamn thing for another 46 miles.” More fists into the roof. “We are fucked.”

We were driving to Utah to visit a fellow Texan, and only halfway there. His boss paid for gas at Flying J’s, but nowhere else. Eric had refused to stop elsewhere, and now we had nothing. He was in such a rage I was convinced he’d run us off the road, kill us both.

“Pull over at that stop,” I said, with as much force as I could.

“It’s not a fucking station; I can’t waste what I’ve got.”

“Pull over or I jump out of this fucking truck.” I was terrified, and had only anger to hide it.

He pulled over. I jumped out. We were officially nowhere, not another soul in sight. Every muscle screamed against my getting back into that vehicle with him. Let him leave me here, I told myself. Someone would come eventually. Maybe someone even crazier. Jesus Christ, I was in it deep. I’d known this was possible and still I’d come, to be “shown off” to his friends who’d never met me. After ten minutes of pacing, I returned. Eric was studying the map between the bathrooms. When he wheeled around, he was smiling. He walked back to the truck like he hadn’t a care in the world. For a moment he looked confused at my anger.

“There’s actually another stop in ten miles. It ain’t no Flying J, but it’ll hold us ‘til we find one. Don’t worry; I’ll still make those fuckers pay for it.”

Well thank goodness for that, I thought.

Later that night, as I waited for him to join me in the guest room, I seethed—at him for endangering us, and at myself for allowing it. I still heard loud voices, so I slipped down the hallway. Eric and Dan were comparing stories; the boasts, laughter and profanities flowing as heavily as the beer. Eric in his element. Then, I heard them pause, and a gentle clinking. Bested by curiosity, I crept in and saw them, three of them, arranged around Dan’s coffee table. Dan’s four year-old daughter had just poured the men another round of “tea.” I watched Eric lean over and thank her—so gentle, so genuine, his smile as wide as the rack of a Texas Longhorn. Then both men, still holding their tiny cups as delicately as any d├ębutantes, resumed their rough-and-tumble conversation. I fell asleep smiling.

2. Write an additional 250 words giving a physical description of the person you wrote about.

Eric was leaning against my car when I got home. I could tell it was him because I felt my knees buckle slightly before I even got close. He had one leg crossed over the other as he juggled a Big Mac, and didn’t notice me sizing him up.

Man, he was something else. His t-shirt and jeans were covered in oil and dirt, but you could easily make out the man underneath. His black hair was tousled and he was fighting to keep his Texas handlebar out of his burger. I never knew wiping your mustache on your sleeve could be so sexy. I felt like I was walking into a tawdry romance novel. I was walking into a tawdry romance novel.

He gave a quick nod as he saw me, and straightened to his full 6’2”.

“Need a hand here, Ma’am?” he joked. His eyes stood out in the boldest blue, backlit by the clean patches on his face.

“It died again.”

There we were, the cheesy stereotype: helpless little lady with her piece-of-shit car, and strong, competent, mechanic ready to save the day. I felt so vulnerable, though we’d already met, dated, and decided we weren’t compatible. What the hell was I thinking? Whatever it was, I forgot it by the time he got the car running. I was weak, but not stupid. Men like this didn’t just drop out of the sky for women like me.

This was one novel I could not put down.

3. Write a description of yourself, exploring your positive and negative personality traits.

Read on, if you dare.

I am a woman determined to survive.

As a child of twelve, I faced a broken family; a timid father coming out after a lifetime of denial, and a devastated mother hiding her grief by fleeing to nursing school. In their time of pain and turmoil, they needed a good kid, a quiet kid. I couldn’t do much, but I could do that. As a child of fifteen, I faced a school for rich kids in my worn-out clothes, cartoonish buck teeth, and back brace, all with a pathological shyness. The teasing was indescribable. But I was a good kid, never bothering Dad as he built a new life, never pulling aside teachers who were so kind and so busy, and never, ever lashing back. That much I knew: Hurting others is wrong, even if they hurt you first.

At eighteen, recovered from my physical deformities but still lacking any social skills, I became a professional college student. It was structured, it was sheltered, and by God, I was good at it. I lived on the praise of my teachers, and bothered no one. At twenty-four, the first love of my life found me—and I lay crushed like a penny on a railroad track when it ended two years later. Back to school I went, this time taking a fellowship in Cairo, Egypt, to prove just how courageous I was. I lived there a year, proved my point, and came back for more.

Nearing thirty, I lost my bearings when my social stigmatism short-circuited my Ph.D. Floundering financially and socially, Eric found me. Overnight, I became a star. To a tough young Texan who’d built a life on nothing but sweat, blood, and endless charm since early childhood, I was his renaissance woman. (His words, not mine.) In me he found a woman who never uttered a word to offend, never judged when witnessing his first bouts of alcoholism and, most importantly, wore her education quietly, not pompously. And he excelled where I did not—financially—thus we discovered a partnership made in heaven. Balancing our strengths and weaknesses, we would survive together.

But our union was nothing more than an act of desperation. In our fragile states, we simply pulled each other deeper under water. The harder I swam, the heavier the weight I bore. I shouted out directions so he could swim beside me, but I was not heard. So, I learned to let go. Going forward alone felt utterly purposeless, but I slowly began to understand the importance of one’s own life. As I swam, and breathed, I survived witnessing the slow death of a man I still loved deeply, who had unquestionably made tremendous sacrifices for my happiness. I watched in surprise as we each made our way to opposite banks of the lake we’d navigated together for years, gave him one last look, and turned to find my own path.

I am a woman determined to survive.

Gotta love 1974!

Left to Right: Sarah, age 4, Nancy, age 8, Jim and Mary, ages 29
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Monday, August 18, 2008

The names have been changed....

The Writers Online Workshop Personal Essay class has a little more bite to it. That's why I like it. I looked forward to all the assignments and found several that made me say "I can't do that." That's when I knew I needed to take the class.

The first assignment was as follows:

1) Choose a “first” in your life—a first kiss, a first communion, a first parking ticket, a first marriage, etc.—and write up to 500 words describing what happened and how you felt about it at the time it was happening. 2) Write an additional 250 words discussing how you feel about that same experience now, through the lens of hindsight.

For this one, I chose a chapter from Below Sea Level and took it from 3,900 words to 750. It was like moving all my belongings from my two-story house into my one-car garage. I think I will post the full chapter here as well (give me a day or two) for comparison.

Click on Read More for "First Commitment."

At 7:15 a.m. in the morning, adrenaline coursing through my veins like Turkish coffee, Eric climbed into my truck and we headed for Idaho Falls. The silence in the cab was deafening, so I reached for the radio. The Rolling Stones’ “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown” was just beginning. God has an unrivaled sense of humor.

“Do they know we are coming?” he asked.


“I’m supposed to be at work—”

“I’ll handle it.”

I had called the hospital at 4 a.m., an hour after I was convinced my husband was dead to the world. They expected us at 8 a.m.

I lost count of the drunken episodes in our years together, but that night was the worst I’d endured. He was delusional, paranoid and, I believed, having a nervous breakdown. I didn’t think he, or I, could survive another one. My anger finally trumped my fear, and when he was hung over and groggy at 7 a.m., I gave him two choices: Watch me leave, or go in for treatment. Could have gone either way. I had no idea where I’d go in a pickup with two dogs, a cat, and four guinea pigs, two thousand miles from family. I desperately needed him not to call my bluff. Thankfully, he did not.

Anyplace else, I’d have taken off when he started ranting against me, against the world, against himself; but that summer we were set up in an RV at the foot of the Grand Tetons, so unless you were a pack guide with a good rifle, there was nowhere to go at night without risk of attack by bear, mountain lion, or even wolves. After hours of “Fuck you!” all these possibilities started looking better than the situation I was in.

Shortly after eight, we pulled into the emergency room parking lot. Eric was still as death, yet alert as a rattler. I was shaking so hard at the reality of committing him I dropped the keys on the floorboard as I shut off the motor.

Two large men checked him in. They made him hand over everything which defined him: cell phone, massive key ring, some guitar picks, the hunting knife he always wore, and his Copenhagen. That was the only time I saw anger flash in his eyes. He relaxed after they assured him it would be kept behind the nurses’ desk.

I had never seen him unarmed, defeated, and I felt an overwhelming sense of shame at humiliating him publicly. This I had not expected. The man had disappeared, leaving only the child abused and abandoned so long ago. I felt criminal, and began to lose my resolve.

“It’s okay, babe,” he said. “You did the right thing.”

I collapsed into the nearest chair, pulling my knees to my chest just as I had all night long. I soon got looks from the staff indicating they were no longer sure who needed hospitalization more. They were right, and it was the first time I saw it myself.


Eric stayed a week at the hospital, and I slept better than I had in months. Together in counseling at the hospital, we heard the diagnosis “Borderline Personality Disorder” for the first time. It gave me hope—he had let himself be admitted, we had a diagnosis. He was finally going to get the help he needed…

It took fifteen months before the next hospitalization. Twelve until the next. I became an expert liar, covering for his job by fabricating stories about his dad’s sudden heart attack, etc. He’d do well for weeks, then run out of whichever drug they prescribed him (which he would always wash down with alcohol) and we’d be back at ground zero. I grit my teeth on such a regular basis I am surprised they survived the relationship.

Though it is unfair, I still blame myself for not having the strength to load up my truck and leave him in his drunken stupor that night (or any other night); yet, at the same time, I am proud when I remember taking that first step towards self-preservation, even if it was in the context of taking care of him. Just as you don’t fall into an abusive relationship overnight, nor do you escape from one in one night. Stepping out from under the shadow of the mountains is sometimes the most you can do, and it’s the only way to learn to become your own pack guide.

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Literary shenanigans

Jack, Julian and a buddy

I haven't spent all my time riding horses and watching movies this summer. I actually signed up for some edumacation.

Read any book on writing and the first piece of advice will be "Know your craft." I have spent far too little time learning about writing, instead wasting my time dreaming about my first published book, or my first public reading. I should write a book about putting the cart before the horse. (At least I have some knowledge of the latter...)

Since I cannot quit my day job to spend more time at a university (and good God, isn't 11 years of college enough for any person to suffer?) and I could not swing tuition at an online course the likes of which NYU offers, I settled for something less prestigious but still acceptably acceptable: Writers Digest "Writers Online Workshops."

I began with a course in grammar, which brought home a much-needed reminder that I do NOT know it all. Then, unable to wait for that one to finish, I joined another on the personal essay.

The biggest challenge in both of these classes was one I did not anticipate: word limits. Suddenly, I am expected to tell a story with six characters in three locales using dialogue and elaborately descriptive prose, all in 250 words or less.

I can't even tell someone my NAME in less than 100 words!

For example, our first writing assignment in my grammar class was the following:

In no more than 100 words, write a paragraph or two describing the room you're sitting in right now. Make an effort to use every part of speech at least once. Use all of your senses, not just sight, to try to give your instructor a real sense of the space you're working in.

How many of you have seen my office? Okay, not many. But it is a three-ring circus, and I laughed out loud when I imagined compressing it into 100 words. Here is what I came up with:

Frequent bouts of work-induced narcolepsy inspired me to create a home office featuring the best of the county fair; copious junk food, loud and varied music, brightly-colored wall hangings, and a genuine petting zoo. Alas, the city forbids goats, nor is there room for a Ferris wheel.

The intrepid visitor will encounter a multitude of scents upon entry. There is chocolate (cleverly hidden for its protection); hay and pine bedding of two loquacious guinea pigs; and the odors—oh! So subtle!—which waft occasionally from the canine assistants sprawled at my feet. It is no wonder the cat is disgruntled.

The instructor's feedback was mostly positive, with the standard criticism for any novice writer, "Show, don't tell." I can't argue with that, but when she said I lacked descriptive words I had to complain. How does one write with one's typing hand behind one's back? Where is there room for my adjectives? Still, I went back to the drawing board to add more color. I also added 48 words, but it came out a little better, I think. Here is the more colorful version:

Frequent bouts of work-induced narcolepsy inspired the design of my office, which includes the sounds of Lollapalooza, the tastes and smells of the county fair, and sights from a year abroad. Grunge riffs dominate, but songwriters of the 70’s occasionally interject a little love and tenderness.

Secret caches of Junior Mints and Hershey Minis drive visitors to check every drawer—if only they knew to check behind the books! World maps, oversized posters of the Foo Fighters and Soundgarden, and arabesque-patterned fabric from Egypt paint the walls in blue, red, green and yellow. My petting zoo comes complete with a white and brindle pit bull (tragically flatulent); a twenty pound, caramel-colored mutt—all legs!—who erupts in shocking fits of barking that only she will ever know the reason for; and two loquacious guinea pigs tunneling through mounds of fresh hay.

No wonder the cat is disgruntled.

So for the next few weeks in intend to subject you to some of my assignments. God knows I can't be happy with just an audience of one instructor and five fellow students.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Completely Gratuitous

Just finished watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age

I had difficulty finding flaws in this movie--all historical accuracy debates aside. You have unbelievable period costuming. . .

Spanish horses decked out the way Julian can only dream of. . .

and Clive Owen, with a very impressive sword (not pictured).

I believe my work here is done.

No horses were harmed in the blogging of this film.
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Friday, August 1, 2008

Student Show at Three Gaits Therapeutic Riding Center

It's time for the 2008 Student Horse Show

Sunday, August 3, 2008 • 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Join us for a fun and festive day at Three Gaits

It’s a Student Horse Show and much more!

Three Gaits riders will be in friendly competition on their favorite mounts, so come cheer them on as they win ribbons in classes throughout the day. (Nothing beats the smile of a proud equestrian on his or her favorite horse.)

At noon, catch the excitement as Oregon’s own teenaged barrel racer, Amy Holmes, takes her horse on blazingly fast runs through the barrel course and demonstrates her roping skills.

Family, friends, and Three Gaits supporters --
plan on sharing your day with Three Gaits riders!

8:30 - 12:00 Various classes of riders

9:30 - 2:30 Make your own art project at “Art on the Farm” with volunteer Holly Frederickson

10:00 - 2:00 Mobile exhibit from the Madison Children’s Museum

Noon Free Lunch Served

Noon Amy Holmes, Barrel Racing demo

Noon - 1:00 Meet the animals at the Vilas Zoomobile

1:00 - 4:30 Various classes of riders

2:00 - 3:00 Enjoy children’s singer/songwriter Ken Lonnquist

Contact me for directions or click on the blog title to get directions from the 3 Gaits' site.
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