Thursday, March 31, 2011

Truth Unplugged

I’m in Bakersfield researching the setting for several scenes in The Sheepwalker. I have some rewriting to do.

In my minds’ eye, the twin sisters who have never met are reunited at the Noriega Hotel. I’ve imagined the scene where they encounter each other in a private room off the hotel lobby. In fact, the Noriega Hotel was never a hotel, it was a boarding house for men, mostly sheepherders, mostly Basques, until the 1930s when it became more profitable to run as a restaurant and bar. This May, the owners will travel to New York to collect a prize from the James Beard Foundation for their culinary art.

Enter the Noriega from Sumner Street down by the railroad tracks. The Union Pacific brought the sheepherders to town in the early 1900s. Come in through the bar (no lobby) around 6:30 pm. Most patrons will be locals. At 7 pm a waitress will seat you at a long table for a family style dinner.

Unlabeled bottles of red wine grace the table and a succession of serving dishes pass across – listen up or you won’t know that you are supposed to add the beans and sauce to the vegetable soup after you’ve ladled it into your bowl. In the spirit of “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” I offer this list of what came after the soup:

Pickled calves tongue (I’m sorry, it was delicious)
Cottage cheese
Blue cheese
Beef stew
Spaghetti and red sauce
French fries
Ribs and sauce
Ice cream

I enjoyed conversation with my tablemates – a Sacramento transplant who manufactures and serves ice cream at Rosemary’s on F Street and a lady bartender who left teaching to tend bar for 25 years because if you manage to stay off drugs, alcohol and cigarettes you can pay off your house serving drunks who act like first graders, something teaching actual first graders who act like drunks won’t allow. Then I took my glass of wine down to the end of the table to talk to the sheepherders.

Okay, kill the scene where the oil company is the bad guy. The oil company and the sheep men are symbiotic – sheep keep the grass cut, which makes it easier to get to the oil. The bad blood was between the shepherds and the cowboys. Well we knew that, didn’t we?

The problem with writing a novel is that you have to amp the action. For those of us who find life’s daily routine compelling enough, this is hard. And people like my new Peruvian friend are no help. The most talkative of the bunch wasn’t one of the French Basque brothers or the Basque from Spain who spoke no English, it was the retired shepherd from Peru. He came to the U.S. because he wanted to be a veterinarian. On an exchange program, he discovered he had ambition that far exceeded what he would ever be able to do in Peru. In America, the Basques had already figured out which sheep to cultivate for meat and which strains would produce the best wool. There was so much to learn.

“It’s a lonely life,” I probed.

“Oh no! “ he said. “There is so much to think about. You have time to read books. Figuring out how you will feed and bathe yourself, how you will get exercise and stay healthy keeps you very busy. On my two week vacation, I went to night school to learn English.”

Would it surprise you if I told you he has four grown children who will never herd sheep? They are all professionals.

As I was leaving, the French Basque told me about the time the water truck came up to water the sheep he was tending.

“I stripped naked and threw myself under the stream of water to bathe before the sheep had a chance to drink,” he chuckled.

I think I can probably do something with that.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


When I saw the world through a child’s eyes monkeys in the zoo performed hilarious antics, tigers paced their cages with the thrill of the hunt in muscle memory, and lions lazed on warm rocks, allowing children to admire jungle royalty at a safe distance. We took for granted that wild animals were caged for our benefit, to develop our curiosity about the world and foster our appreciation of nature. The world was a big place.

Today the world is smaller, and the zoo serves a larger purpose. I reflected on this at the privately owned and operated Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium in Litchfield Park, Arizona.

South America is too small now to accommodate the Andean Condor, who has the largest wingspan of any land bird. Today this solitary bird spreads his wings in a mesh net enclosure.

An appetite for bushmeat in the Congo has sentenced an entire species of monkeys to life behind zoo bars. They will never return to the wild. If they are to be preserved, it will be in captivity.

Nothing inspires awe so much as God’s handiwork in the animal kingdom. What a fashion show – bold designs sported by big game in Africa are recycled in intricate detail on small fish that dart about in the Caribbean waters.

Every form of human behavior can be observed in animals – the ADHD otters constantly in motion, the parrot couple carping at each other – he talks incessantly in her ear, she lifts her wing to distract him, he smoothes her feathers, then gives her a rude bite on the foot. Her squawks are unintelligible, but his are discernable. He articulates a litany of English words. He is an abandoned pet.

The popular animals are the mutants – an albino alligator so white he glows eerily in his dimly lit indoor swamp, an albino boa conscripted into the animal show to demonstrate reptile habits – the freak show in the circus.

A hymn set to an English melody is a proper tribute to the animals who find sanctuary in the world’s zoos, and to their keepers who tend to them with respect.

All things bright and beautiful
all creatures great and small
all things wise and wonderful
the Lord God made them all.

With all due respect for the human need for space, food and fuel, let’s sustain as many of these marvelous creatures as we possibly can.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Desert Meditation

A Desert Meditation took first place this week in the FaithWriters weekly word challenge, advanced category.

Early mornings in the Sonoran Desert
eternity teases you off the treadmill of time
draws you up into the stillness of a moment.
Hold a pose then, like the Saguaro Cactus –
spiney arms goal posted to frame the sky
prickly limbs pointing – There! See?
shoulders holding a perfect port de bras of praise
so gather eternity inside you like water
feel it transpire from ramified roots
to cool and nourish the thirst in your soul.

While time hangs a misty veil over the valley
and eternity beckons you to the desert edge
walk the White Tank Mountain trail
stand where water pooled in the rocks
to sustain the Hohokam
let the Word petroglyphed on your heart
give mute testimony to the One who
walked this earth before time.

Like the Saguaro Cactus
know that your roots in this world are shallow
let your reservoirs tap Living Water
Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

Two weeks ago, we joined the caravan of sun worshippers leaving the snow capped mountains for the desert valleys. Today I’m warming up in Arizona, watching two cottontail bunnies build a nest out back under the watchful eye of a mourning dove.

Daddy bunny appears to be helping, but I suspect his motives. “C’mon babe, the nest is perfect. Let’s make some babies!” His honey must be an interior decorator bunny; she’s choosing straw for softness and fragrance, and she’s picky.

In a bit, I’ll walk four minutes to the fitness center and choose among a number of exotic classes – Zumba, Muscle Works, PowerUp Abs, Aqua Aerobics in the indoor infinity pool. After that, Joel will go to a Cactus League baseball game with the gang and I will settle down and write.

It is Week 10 of Stanford University’s online writing class, Gripping Plots, and young Seth has hit his stride. In addition to critiquing two of my classmates’ work, I have this blog to write, questions to answer on the forum and progress to make on my novel, but it’s all good.

I’m learning to be a more careful and critical reader – to post encouraging and helpful comments on my fellow writer’s work that go beyond, “I liked your story”. I labor to add value, like “Bob’s facial tics were a brilliant way of showing us he’s a nervous guy, but he went out for a smoke on page three and never came back. What’s up with that?”

I’m discovering my own lapses: “You didn’t get that Henry is Dee’s husband who died in Korea, not the father she never knew?” I better fix that.

I’ve work shopped the first few chapters of the Sheepwalker and gotten useful critique and encouraging response.

From Elisa, “There is a slow beauty that comes through in the lyricism of your writing.” I hope when she gets famous she’ll do a blurb on my book jacket.

From Terry, “It’s got secrets, romance, exotic and colorful places, generational issues and a very satisfying ending.” I’d want to read that book, wouldn’t you?

From Seth, a call for more clarity and better management of the information flow. So, I have my work cut out for me.

Revising the first draft of a novel is like putting together a 5,000 piece puzzle. Some of the pieces that appeared to fit where you first placed them actually don’t. You have to pull them out and refit them, and then more pieces will fall into place. Or you may determine they don’t belong in this puzzle at all and set them aside.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve had in the last ten weeks, besides getting to know some talented writers, is learning to kill adverbs. I may offer a contest when I send out review copies of my book: find an adverb, get a free autographed copy of the first edition. Adverbs seem to proliferate, like bunnies.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


When in Phoenix, don’t miss the new Musical Instrument Museum. Worth noting:

Open just 10 months, the museum first twinkled in the eye of Robert Ulrich, founder of Target. “No one has ever done a museum devoted to the instruments and music of every country in the world,” the purveyor of cheap chic said in a New York Times interview in 2008.
You will need two visits to fully appreciate the contents of this museum that sprawls across the Phoenix desert. Visit the cafĂ© for lunch. It features locally grown Arizona foodstuffs that taste as good as described on the whiteboard. For someone who felt like she’d been crawling in the desert for days looking for interesting food, this was worth the price of admission.

Music is the language of the soul, the expression of what we see and feel. MIM sets itself the task of showing how music is the thread that pulls through every tribe and nation, uniting us globally. Enter each music room and rest your eyes on instruments created from whatever clay is available – cedars of Lebanon or a Castrol oil can. Watch performance videos as you move from Greece to Turkey to Belarus and listen through the earphones MIM supplies – all timed to accommodate a carefully researched (I’m sure) attention span. For fun, take your eyes off the displays, remove your earphones and observe the people in the room. They all smile in wonder, delight or reverence, bop their toes and bob their heads like chickens to whatever beat they hear, sing along when they catch a familiar tune, unaware their voices join with others who are doing the same.

Music is entertainment and communication, ritual and rite – and right. In some cultures, only the anointed may play certain instruments or tunes. In some countries, only men may perform music. This breaks my heart.

Random thoughts:

Young musician from Belarus perform in other countries because of restrictions in their own. They are credited with bringing a new sound to the world stage, but their music sounds oddly Irish. I think there is a Masters’ thesis or doctoral dissertation somewhere in this observation.

You can fashion a bagpipe out of anything, including a cow and a dog. I’m thinking Stephen King could have a lot of fun with this idea.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Variety Show

The black oak in our yard pulled up roots in the last storm and threw itself across the back forty. The birds that hoteled in that tree will have to find new digs. Shortly after its demise, we also uprooted ourselves and headed to Arizona for respite – or maybe in spite of my superior attitude toward snowbirds. What? Not tough enough to last the winter in the place you’ve chosen to live? That’s why we live in California. Now, we also have flown the coop after a particularly gruesome start to winter.

A lot of my attitudes are being challenged here in the sunny Southwest. I’ll just say it. We are holed up in a Sun City, something else I thought I would never do. Don’t people go to Sun City to die? I guess not, because everyone here looks amazing! They zip around with a sense of purpose, on foot, on bicycles, or in cute little open air contraptions that look like golf carts on steroids.

I took an aqua aerobics class today in an infinity pool the size of Canada. No class for sissies, I punched and kicked and lunged and almost passed out with exertion. Yup, I’ve traded the oaks and pines for saguaro cactus, but mostly I’ve sold out for the amenities. This place has a fitness complex the size of our small town back in California, and it’s a 10 minute walk from our rented house on even pavement. It’s been over a week since I’ve had to dodge a deer on icy streets in the car. The only wildlife I’ve spotted here has been a cottontail bunny, and it dodged me.

I can’t get over how healthy and happy everyone here looks. Of course, I brought my bad habits with me. One hour in the pool does not a reformed exercise slacker make. I still spend hours at my computer writing, but at least I can step outside my door – without a sweater – and go stretch, flex and tone something. I can go with the flow yoga day or night, or tai chi, chi gong or zumba my way back to bliss.

I’m sure all that sunshine will get boring and I’ll be happy to head back to the land of leafy oaks and needled pines that filter the sun, host bird choirs, and shelter fox, deer, and the occasional black bear. Life is a variety show. I’m glad I have a ticket.

The Palm of Madagascar

The Palm of Madagascar won first place in the FaithWriters weekly writing challenge.  I get to move up a level --a writer high akin to playing video games.
Once in every hundred years
a Madagascar palm tree blooms
the sweetness of its flower spears
toward heaven and as quickly dooms
the nascent blossom full of life
dazzling in the summer sun
to lose its strength in deathly strife
and so its days on earth are done.
Just so are we allotted time
in which our bloom is but a flash
illuminating skies sublime
then cooling in a bed of ash.
In days of old were men endowed
with children over centuries
and yet it seems time disallowed
their progeny their God to please.
Though man may age ten times tenfold
Or seventy times seven years
It matters not how young or old
man’s worth exceeds his greatest fears
if love is borne like tiny seed
to nourish life afar and wide
the gift is in the loving deed
the wounded hands and feet and side.
By this we know that we abide.

1 John 4:12 & 13