Thursday, July 30, 2009

Away from it all

I’ve been gone for a week, exiled from the Internet, TV, and even (horrors) my cell phone.
When I returned, I had 148 e-mails, including 12 from a company that promised I could have a better erection if I sent for a free sample of their product, and a plea from a Nigerian lawyer to help him find a home for $10 million.
I quickly turned on CNN this morning, and found out that: Washington is still working on health care, there’s unrest in Iran, and a tornado touched down, somewhere.
I didn’t spend the week in the wilds, although that sounds wonderful. I was visiting my parents in a small town in Iowa, a less-than-wild place where the Internet is just an annoyance, where TV is an unnecessary distraction from the art of “visiting,” and where the day is spent trying to decide whether to “open up” the windows or endure the air conditioning.
My parents had the Internet once, but got rid of it. They have cable, and will turn it on for occasional reruns of “Rosanne” and for the 6 o’clock news (along with regular Weather Channel updates). They even have a combo DVD/VCR and a cell phone, but neither is ever turned on.
But when they have guests, they concentrate on the entertainment at hand – conversation.
I admit that I didn’t really miss anything important in my self-imposed technology exile.
And I rediscovered a life I had forgotten. In Iowa, breakfast is big; dinner is served at noon, and supper in the evening. And even though my family is several generations removed from the farm, you wouldn’t know it. Food – lots of hot dishes (that’s casseroles to you), and always followed by dessert – is important and it brings everyone to the table for, you guessed it, more visiting.
One of my relatives regaled us with a story of a wedding she had attended in a farming community. The bride had the audacity to serve her guests “gourmet” wraps (gasps here) and, instead of a cake, cream puffs. That might play in California, but in Iowa? Many fondly remembered another wedding, where the banquet featured thick marbled steaks.
But all that cooking makes for a hot kitchen, so my mom and dad (and as far as I can tell from extensive research, all Iowans over a certain age) follow each meal with a discussion about opening/closing the windows and turning off/on their air conditioning. “Do you think we should open up?” one will ask the other. “I just hate that closed-in feeling,” the other will declare.
So the windows come up and the conversation warms up, extending into the thick nighttime air and the evening’s entertainment – the glitter of fireflies.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Home, sweet home

One of our neighbors tore his upstairs deck off his house, leaving an ugly scar and a heck of a drop from his sliding door. That was two weeks ago.
Another one started mowing his yard for the first time this summer, ran out of gas, and stopped. That was three weeks ago.
I notice these things because they make me feel better when I procrastinate. All summer, I’ve written “to do” lists crowded with tasks such as “re-stain the deck,” “weed the flower garden” and the most ambitious, “terrace the back yard.”
The lists pile up on my desk, but eventually I guiltily bury them under more important lists related to my profession, which is writing.
One of the most difficult things about working at home is the insidious way that home gets in the way of work.
Maybe it’s a female thing, but I have a hard time sitting down at the computer in the morning if there are dishes in the sink or clothes in the hamper. And if our yard does need mowing, I have to keep the blinds pulled so the tall grass doesn’t lure me to the outdoors.
Even work-related tasks get preference before I actually start making money. Sure, I might sit down at my computer as the sun comes up, but I have to check my e-mail first. And I have to respond to e-mails I’ve received. And I have to send e-mails I didn’t finish the day before. And then, there’s Facebook and Twitter. Hey, I have to keep up with my networking.
Work is pressing on me as I check in on CNN’s web site for the headlines and then Google news to see if CNN missed anything. (It’s important to be informed, right?)
Then, it’s back to my e-mail to see if anything new has turned up.
By this time, it’s usually time to put another load in the washing machine. And before I know it, it’s lunch time (followed by more dishes).
I used be awed by inspirational stories of dedicated writers who picked up pen and paper every day at dawn; whose work transported them into another world where nothing mattered but their written words.
Now I’m pretty certain they remained focused with the help of both a maid AND a secretary.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lion vs. chainsaw

When I read the story about a camper in Wyoming using a chainsaw to protect his family from a mountain lion, I had one question:
Who takes a chainsaw on a camping trip?
I’ve been camping for nearly two decades in the Rocky Mountains, and I can’t recall ever hearing the whine of power tools on any of our trips.
I have to admit that we don’t even own a chainsaw. When my family camps, we embrace the Leave No Trace principles of camping. If we have a campfire at all anymore, it’s in an existing fire ring, it’s made of gathered dead wood and pinecones, and it’s just big enough to warm a pot of water for coffee.
Our biggest campfires have been on winter camping trips when we tried to keep warm as the temperature dropped below freezing.
But in July, when on a cool night temps might dip into the 40s? A chainsaw? Does anyone really need that much firewood?
I know that at this point, some readers who are all about power equipment and camping will label me a “greenie” or a “tree hugger.”
I’ve been called that before. Several years ago, we were in Alaska in January. During a week there, we stayed in the home of a lifetime resident whose home was decorated with animal skulls and whose breakfast table groaned with a bounty of moose sausage and reindeer steaks.
Still, we were getting along nicely until our host started grumbling about the “G-D-tree-hugging bunny-lovers.” “They’re trying to ruin everything,” he declared, certain that we shared his dislike for anyone who treasured trees OR bunnies.
We didn’t argue with him. After all, it was 20 degrees below zero outside, we were in a small town and there was nowhere else to stay.
But his attempt to denigrate me didn’t work. Of course I love trees and bunnies, and while I’m glad this renegade mountain lion didn’t hurt any people, I feel sad that he had to die.
After the Boulder Daily Camera carried the man-vs.-mountain lion story, readers sparred online about chainsaws, camping and wild animal encounters. There were basically two camps – those who cheered on the brave chainsaw camper and those who grieved for the mountain lion.
I admit - the mountain lion fans were my kind of people. You know – tree-hugging bunny-lovers. It’s an insult we wear proudly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Life in 140 characters

I just got started on Twitter, and I have 22 followers. I had 23, but I had to block some city in Tennessee. I’m not sure why they were following me, but the idea of an entire city in a state I’ve never visited hanging on my every word was just creepy.
I follow 49 people – a modest number, to be sure – but I’ve been careful, with a couple of misses. For about 12 minutes one day, I was a Pizza Hut follower. I’d read somewhere the restaurant chain was offering its followers free stuff, so in a fit of hunger, I signed up. But after my Twitter account became clogged with pizza ads and deep questions like this one- “Would an Italian taco be similar to just a thin crust pizza rolled up?” - I said goodbye to the Hut.
For now, my favorite Twitter friend is Sarah Palin. That woman can tweet! It’s as if her brain works in 140 characters or less. Earlier today, she wrote: “elected is replaceable; Ak WILL progress! + side benefit=10 dys til less politically correct twitters fly frm my fingertps outside State site.”
I read that and thought to myself, “Wow! I HAVE to start using abrev + shortng words + ad many more !!!!s. And I shld spell out words like politically correct when they make prfct sense abrev-ed.”
Following Twitter is like sitting in a crowded coffee shop and listening to random bits of conversation. Lance Armstrong says he would like to be Mick Jagger for a day. A guy traveling in Europe on a bus was forced to unpack all his luggage for customs officials in Romania. There’s a chipmunk in the house.
This is life, on a large scale or extremely personal. It’s solemn news from Washington and Iran sprinkled amongst Harry Potter trivia, British Open fan gossip and tips about a new restaurant in Seattle/Denver/London.
It’s at once mesmerizing and annoying, an enlightening view of the world and a colossal waste of time.
A marketing wizard says it’s the new way to brand yourself. A CNN news anchor says it’s the best way to make your voice heard.
Actor Ashton Kutcher has more than 2.8 million followers on Twitter. Barack Obama has more than 1.7 million. Even someone who calls himself “Fake Barack Obama” has more than 3,000.
I’d better get busy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Two cents worth

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s an old ad slogan-turned-cliché built around a simple truth – an image can do the work of many words.
So what is the worth of a word?
As part of my job as a freelance writer, I spend part of nearly every day looking for jobs on the Internet. I don’t rule anything out. I check government job postings, journalism job sites, newspaper classified ads, and on-line help-wanted pages at community bulletin boards.
I’m looking for writing jobs, but I tend to approach the ads with an “I could do that!” attitude and find myself dreaming about second careers as a veterinarian (too much school), EMT (I missed the age requirement) or dancer (don’t have to tell you why not).
Craigslist, the free classified ad site that publishes 40 million new ads each month, has proven effective but frustrating. Among the ads that have resulted in jobs (two) are an untold number of “experienced writer wanted” ads that play to a writer’s ego but not her wallet.
Many Craigslist job descriptions are written so poorly that it’s obvious they aren’t really looking for writers (unless it's to write their ads!) But even some of the most respected Web sites featuring good writing pay poorly – one offers a 10th of a cent per view, and many don’t pay at all, other than “the reward of seeing your work in print.”
When I worked full-time at a newspaper, I was paid by the week, not by the word. Most weeks, I churned out thousands of words for that salary; other weeks, fewer. I wasn’t getting rich, but I knew my craft was valued by my fellow writers and my newspaper’s readers. I was a writer. I had a job people respected.
Today, “writer” has been devalued, at least on the Internet, where a writer might never go beyond the 140-character syntax of Twitter.
My friends who are avid readers still cherish good writing. We talk often about books and outstanding magazine and newspaper articles. My friends who are writers still look for magical writing as well.
And I’m grateful that many people still understand the value of words as images and images as words.
Gaylon Wampler’s photograph of a sparkling aspen tree on a dark hillside ( is a visual essay that, without words, addresses the beauty of a singular tree, a fall night, and a chance encounter with nature.
And an essay by noted naturalist and author Ann Zwinger also paints a picture, this time with words that dance across the page: “Aspen has éclat, a glorious brashness in defiance of the rules, the flapper who does the Charleston in the midst of the grand waltz. The landscape would be dull indeed without them.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Not-so-empty nest syndrome

Let’s talk empty-nest syndrome. I’m thinking of this because I’m looking at a nest stuffed with six barn swallows at Fountain Creek Regional Park. The squawking babies are crammed together in a mud pouch, and their mother swoops and dives, returning again and again as she tries to get them all fed.
The nest in this case is definitely not empty, but soon it will be. The birds will learn to fly and will never return to this cozy (if a bit messy) home.
That’s how it goes in the bird world. The human world is more complicated.
Our daughter – our only child – graduated from college two months ago. She left home for college after high school, leaving me in the throes of empty-nest syndrome. Then, unexpectedly, she came back, living at home for six months after she transferred and she finished school nearby.
In May, she left again. “This time, it’s for good,” she told me. “OK,” I said, secretly hoping that she would return once more, because I like having her around. She knows it could happen; so do we. So many of her friends – college students and recent graduates – are struggling to find jobs and find their places in the world. Many are living with their parents longer than they ever thought they would.
It’s not the same world it was when we graduated from college, we told our daughter. It’s a lot harder to live on your own when jobs offer low pay, few benefits and little job security.
She’s luckier than many of her friends – she has a full-time job she likes, that pays more than minimum wage. She rents an apartment with two friends. Her car is paid off. She’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, but we tell her that will come.
We have tried to instill in her the quality of optimism. We want her to feel like there are no limits to what she could do. But we’ll always keep the nest ready, just in case.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dream a little dream

As we watched a kayaking drama unfold along the bank of a fast-moving creek Saturday morning, I remembered my first pair of hiking boots.
What, you may ask, do hiking boots and kayaking have in common?
I’ll explain. We had hiked to one of our favorite fishing spots Saturday morning; a rocky creek that’s really just a pipeline channel leading to a reservoir. From bank to bank, it’s about 10 feet wide at its widest point. As we sat watching the clouds move in and the jumping trout flash silver in the sunlight, a pair of kayakers approached. They were properly outfitted, but their gear was emblazoned with the logo of a local rental shop and we guessed they were visiting Colorado, or were at least newcomers to this particular sport.
The gallery of anglers grew quiet and studiously watched their fishing lines as the men passed by. Then, the lead kayaker hit a rock and unceremoniously turned upside down in the chilled, shallow water. In silence, he pulled himself and his boat out of the water and soon the pair headed back to the open water. No one was hurt except for maybe the kayaker’s pride.
Now, back to my hiking boots. In the mid-1970s, there weren’t a lot of choices for hiking boots in Iowa (where we lived). So my husband and I each bought a pair of leather Timberlands and set out on our Colorado vacation. The first day, we chose a 12-mile trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. About three miles in, we realized we were in trouble. Both of us had oozing blisters and shin splints from pounding on the rocky trail in our shiny, stiff boots. At one point, we met an elderly hiker, his own boots well-worn. “Did you break those boots in before you came here” he asked.
You know the answer. We limped six more miles and left the trail, catching a shuttle bus back to our car. We didn’t hike the rest of the week, but we still talk about that trip.
So here’s the point: Colorado is filled with people finishing the sentence, “I’ve always wanted to…” and realizing their dream. That’s why they come here. That’s why we live here. Isn’t it great?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The good, the bad and the really bad

“It was a quiet day, the kind of quiet that makes a person’s ears feel like they are stuffed with old socks, when Sally stepped out of her squeaky deck door to check on her bird feeder, an old but serviceable metal bucket perched on a card table, and was surprised by a sparrow alighting on her stiff hair; colorless, tangled and arranged on the top of her head like the foam on top of an especially ambitious café latte; a bad omen, she thought, remembering what happened the last time hordes of birds invaded her neighborhood.”

Stop! Before you start spreading rumors about the demise of my writing, read on.
I missed entering the most well-known (only?) competition for bad writing, the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction writing contest (, but I still wanted to try my hand at being the best of the worst.
The contest, begun in the ‘80s at San Jose State, is named for the author of the infamous novel that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Entrants are required to write an opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. This year’s winner, David McKenzie, was interviewed Tuesday on NPR, and said his sentence came to him “in a moment of bad inspiration.”
I can relate to that. But trying to write badly in a good way is a great exercise for the brain (and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to writing a novel).
Writers in this year’s contest were asked to keep their entries under about 60 words, but there was no way I could cut anything out of my opening sentence. I mean, what would you cut out?
It’s also fun and invigorating to read great opening lines. Here are just a few memorable ones:
- “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” Alice Seabold’s “The Almost Moon.”
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell’s “1984.”
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina.”
- “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides in “Middlesex.”
- “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler in “Back When We Were Grownups.”