You Have a Face for Radio

Being a writer has taken me into some interesting situations.  Last February, poet Dick Bakken and I were invited to be interviewed on Bisbee radio station KBRP (impossible not to think of it as K-Burp).

Dick was to be the poetry presenter at the Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration about six weeks later. I had opened my big mouth and told Leslie Clark, who was on the Celebration committee, that the one thing lacking was an open-mic reading. She instantly volunteered me to set up a couple of them to promote the event.

The military folks among our readers will recognize my tactical blunder. Isn’t “never volunteer” a military mantra?

I hadn’t been on radio before and felt nervous when we went on the air live. Dick had been on lots of times, though, and our DJ hostess, Chris Dowling, had everything under control. Between them, I started to feel at ease and have some fun.

Too much fun, apparently. Chris had asked us to bring our own poems to read. I had practiced mine at home with a micro-cassette recorder, working on just the right inflections. Never did I dream that there were still words you weren’t supposed to say on the air. It was 2011, after all.

By the time I caught sight of Dick’s and Chris’s faces, it was too late. That four-letter gaffe had already gone out my mouth, through the microphone, and over the airwaves.

Afterwards, I apologized profusely and said that if the FCC gave them grief about it, they were to call me, and I’d take the blame. It was my fault, after all. What about re-broadcasts? Chris’s engineer was able to suck that word right out of the digital recording. To people who heard only the replay, that verbal no-no never happened.

As Dick and I left the studio, I caught sight of a poster: You have a face for radio. I thought it was delightful, accepting. I don’t have a face for television or movies, never mind the figure, but here I had found someplace where I fit, just the way I was.

Except for my mouth. I was glad, at that moment, that relatively few people recognized my face.

The Rules

By a circuitous route well known to people who click from one Internet link to another, I found myself reading Jonathan Franzen’s rules for writing–and reliving my long-ago love of rules, real and fanciful.

For years, I had a poster on the wall next to my desk with versions of Murphy’s Law:  If anything can go wrong, it will. For me, the most memorable observation was an everyday one: Toast with jelly, dropped on the floor, will always land jelly side down.

I never conducted experiments to see if this hypothesis could be verified, but I clearly remember being eleven or twelve years old and making a chocolate-frosted vanilla layer cake for my father’s birthday, sans my mother’s help.

Somehow–did I put the oven rack in crooked?–one of the two square layers came out higher on one side than on the other. Bright idea:  Shave off the excess on the high side with a large kitchen knife. I ended up doing what people do when they cut their own hair: slicing too much off the high side, which made it the low side, so I compensated by carving some off the now-high side, and so forth.

At some point before the layer reached paper thinness, I gave up, frosted the bottom layer, settled the still-uneven top layer on it, and frosted that.

I rummaged in my mother’s junk drawer for birthday candles and lucked out, finding forty-plus yellow ones, so I wouldn’t have to figure out a pattern using multiple hues that wouldn’t look too dorky. Mother had recently suggested that we start using one candle for each decade for adults, but I wasn’t having it. I wanted that cake to look like a wildfire. I wanted to watch my father blow out all the candles at once to get his wish–not considering that he might wish his daughter was less of a smart-aleck.

As I turned back toward my culinary creation, a slow but accelerating movement caught my eye. The top layer of the cake, lubricated by a substrate of chocolate frosting, slid off as I grabbed for it. It passed an eighth of an inch from my fingertips, tumbled in mid-air, and splatted, frosting down, on the linoleum floor.

My mother came home from shopping to find me crying while I fended off our dachshund with one hand and tried to rescue the top layer of the cake with the other. Cushioned by a thick layer of chocolate, it was still whole.

Whatever my mother’s problems (mostly depression, self-medicated with martinis), she had a knack for softening the blow of these little domestic disasters. She lured the dog outside with promises of Milk-Bonesâ, patted me on the shoulder until I stopped sniffling, and pulled two broad pancake spatulas from the utensil drawer. Together we lifted the cake layer onto a plate and cleaned up the frosting. 

Here’s the brilliant part: She rummaged in the junk drawer until she found a box of wooden toothpicks. They were just long enough to go all the way through the bottom layer of the cake and stick up half an inch or so. She instructed me to press the top layer down on them. Voilà , it stayed put.

Fortunately, there was another box of frosting in the pantry. Mother made certain, when she cut the cake after dinner, to pull out the half-dozen toothpicks.

This tale demonstrates less about Murphy’s law than it does about the workings of this author’s mind and its propensity to wander off where memory, rather than logic, would lead it. I actually started out to write about writing rules. Maybe I’ll do that–in some future post.

Money

My pappy tole me it was always about the money, but I didn’t believe him. Probably ’cause we never had much and there was always somethin’ good to do or leastways look at up in the hills that didn’t cost anythin’.

I didn’t even believe Pappy when I went to the city and started workin’ for money. There was a fella I worked with wanted me to do somethin’ I wasn’t sure was right. I asked and asked if it was right and he kept tellin’ me there’d be money in it. And didn’t I want money? Money had to be the big thing for him, ’cause if it was friendship he woulda least asked where I was from.

On the big day, I went with him to earn some extra money. He just wanted me to drive a truck. And there was a lotta money. Bags of it. And he put the bags behind the seat in the truck and left me in charge of them bags for a few minutes. So I drove the truck off to the hills, ran it over a cliff into some deep woods. I left one bag in the truck for the bears, and walked the rest over a couple of hills to home.

Pappy was right. It is about the money.

Writing, with Parrots – Part 2

Four little free-flying parrots violate the first

imperative of writing: create a situation quiet,

calm, and insulated. The youngest thumps

onto my desk like a feathered rock, rips up

an eraser, fat-foots the computer keys

until the monitor spasms and seizes up. While I

huff and run a finger down the manual’s index

toward Troubleshooting, she wriggles

down my blouse, punctuates my concentration

like a possessive apostrophe.

This, as the unattached male squabbles

like a fishwife with the pair over leftover brunch.

He lights on the back of my chair, drops a sticky

tidbit of waffle onto my white shirt, scrambles

after it. The other two land in my lap and wipe

their egg-smeared beaks on my clean jeans.

A sharp-shinned hawk cruises the wild-bird feeders

at the fence line, and the parrots scream, launch,

orbit like comets trailing colorful tails. Down the hall

they wing to who knows what mischief, perhaps

a tasty snack of closet molding, curtain cord, or,

in a moment of better taste, the delicate,

Bible-like pages of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems

and a Song of Despair.

Anniversary

It was the fifth anniversary of the night she moved in with him. Five long, dreary years begun with so much hope. He thought nothing had changed, she could tell. He acted just the same, except for the cutting remarks he made about how her body had changed. There were changes he couldn’t see, what five years of tedium and hard work did to a woman.

She finally drifted off to sleep, and was disoriented when he smacked her butt to wake her.

He sat up in bed, saying, “I hate things that go bump in the night. If that’s not a branch banging on the roof, I’m gonna go up there and kill it.”

“Take the shotgun,” she said.

And when he stomped out the cabin’s only door, naked except for his boots, she quickly dressed and went out the window.

I’m a Selfish Critiquer

Full-disclosure time here: when I critique a work from one of the other members of my writers’ group, I have selfish motives.

Oh, sure, I want to help the author produce a better work. Absolutely. That’s part of the deal with a good critique group. In fact, it’s a core part of the deal, a sine qua non: without that, there’s nothing.

But the truth is, I do it for me, too.

Some people I know say they won’t give an early draft of a work a thorough look because the material might go away in later drafts. That misses the point. One purpose of a critique is to help the author identify both the strengths and weaknesses of their work, which will let them then build on the strengths and fix the weaknesses. That might indeed mean deleting material.

But failing to identify weak areas–a form of conflict-avoidance, perhaps?–does not help the writer get better. To my mind, that failure is a kind of faith-breaking with one’s fellow writer: refusing to offer help/advice/suggestions, even if they choose not to accept it, means denying them the chance to get better. I can’t do that.

So what does that have to do with selfishness?

The selfish part of a thorough critique is that when I look for, identify, and articulate the strengths and weaknesses in someone else’s work–and in the case of weaknesses, suggest improvements–I teach myself how to do the same in my own work. And since, in the process of giving feedback, I get feedback on the feedback, that’s a form of learning, too: what’s helpful to that other writer, and what isn’t, and what ways of giving feedback are or are not helpful. All of which can only help me.

Selfish, selfish, selfish.

Or is it? Perhaps doing a thorough critique is a form of “paying it forward,” of giving without really thinking about or expecting to get a reward, yet getting that reward just the same.

Or maybe I AM expecting (or hoping) that the more I give, the more I pay forward, the more I’ll get back. And maybe become a better writer myself as a result.

Yup: selfish, selfish, selfish.

Popcorn Kittens & Doggie Boots

Have you seen the Popcorn Kittens video yet? How about Doggie Boots? I could watch these ultra-cute, super-funny videos for hours. They make me feel good.

I’ve uncovered the dastardly truth, however: These seemingly innocuous diversions are actually a plot by more disciplined authors to reduce the competition. The great American novel, poem, short story, or parrot memoir? Not happening. I’m too busy watching dancing cockatoos and ticklish hedgehogs.

Isn’t the Internet great? You can play interactive, artistic-looking games. Or you can get serious and see how a model evolves in the makeup chair and on the computer, an insidious reshaping of our sense of beauty.

Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) might suggest that we need to stimulate our imaginations and nurture our creative selves. The wonderful videos out there certainly can do that. Of course, she might also suggest that compulsive YouTube watching is a creative block.

But how can you resist? And because I’m such a thoughtful blogger, I’ve included a list of the videos I’ve mentioned. Take a look. Sit back and relax. Click on the related videos. Couldn’t you just spend the whole day building your own kaleidoscope, going parahawking in Nepal, and watching the animals at the San Diego Zoo?  So much easier than slogging through those nasty old revisions.

Popcorn Kittens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDABjGGeZzM

Doggie Boots: http://www.dogwork.com/bss8/

Ticklish Hedgehog: http://www.dogwork.com/tickhe8/

Dancing Cockatoo: http://animal.discovery.com/videos/most-outrageous-dancing-cockatoo.html

Evolution of a Model: http://www.wimp.com/advertisingcover/

Neave Interactive Games: http://neave.com

Parahawking in Nepal: http://www.dogwork.com/pahk8/

Build Your Own Kaleidoscope: http://www.zefrank.com/dtoy_vs_byokal/

San Diego Zoo: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/videos/