Father Figures

Bernd, bundled up for a walk in the snow

My father loved me. I’m sure of it. He never really expressed it in words. It was more in the way he looked at me across the dinner table or stayed with me until I fell asleep on those nights that something troubled me. It was in the tenderness of his hand atop my head.

But he was a hard man to please. He wanted a son so badly that he wouldn’t let Mom even consider a girl’s name for the baby growing inside her. When she became pregnant with my sister, he did the same thing. When she turned out to be a girl as well, he made do with me as best he could.

When, years ago, I saw the first trailers for the movie, “Tree of Life,” I knew that it was one that I would not go see. I am a child of the Fifties. My dad was born in 1920 and knew beyond doubt that life was hard and that you had to be hard and perfect and committed to get anywhere in it.

He entered the Army with only a high school education and a year or so at college. He had enough intelligence (although intelligence in this case is debatable) and skill to get a position as a reconnaissance photographer in the Army Air Corp. He and his team mates (and the couple other crews) were some of the first Americans into much of the Pacific Theater. I still have some of the maps (printed on silk with waterproof dies) that were made from his photographs.

He taught himself calculus and even taught courses at our local community college in how calculus related to quality control. Quality control was the field he eventually settled into. He worked for the government, overseeing private sector contracts for the production of missiles and missile delivery systems. That was all I was ever allowed to know about it.

He was strong willed. He had always to be right. He couldn’t admit when he’d gotten something wrong. And he did his best to raise me to be just like him. But I never quite measured up to his standards. On the one hand, he would tell me that I could do anything I set my mind to. And on the other, he criticized every single thing I did. He never could accept that perfection is unobtainable. I will say this though, the striving for perfection that he insisted on had at least shown me that it’s never a bad thing to always do the best that you are able.

Dad died four days before my 17th birthday. I thought my world had ended. As tough as he was on me, he was my touchstone. His life informed mine about how to perceive the world and what my place was in it. Enter my science teacher senior year in high school.

In many ways he was the antithesis of my dad and yet also like him in so many ways. He was sure of himself, intelligent and caring, but emotionally undemonstrative. In one major way he was different … he believed in me and had faith in me.

At a time when I was desperate for a father figure in my life, my science teacher willingly took that place. When I would express doubts about an upcoming practicum, he’d make a bet with me about the minimum grade he thought I would get (I always lost the bet, usually a six pack of his favorite soft drink). His certainty gave me confidence and a feeling of pride that my father had never allowed me. He was just what I had always needed and hadn’t known it.

While I value both of their contributions to my life, I won’t say that they have made the biggest difference in it. Both of them regarded me based on performance. The one man who has made the largest and most lasting impression on my life is my husband. He has taught me more about myself than I thought I would ever know. His undying love, lack of judgment, confidence, and faith in me has meant more to me than words can ever express. He sees me as a “being” and not as a “doing.” He loves me despite my flaws and mistakes. He has allowed me the space to discover who I really am and to be that person.

My father and my science teacher set the stage, but Bernd, my husband, has helped me to fulfill the dream.

Reading for Inspiration?

Back when I started writing my first novel, Bernd (my husband) bought a book by Sheri S. Tepper titled “The Family Tree.” He read it and said that it was very good and that I should read it; with one caveat. He said I should not read it until I had finished my book. He had read enough of what I had written so far to decide that it might not be a good thing for me to read Tepper’s book.

I found myself several years down the road and not yet having finished my novel due to being busy with other parts of my life. I’d read all the new books on hand and didn’t really want to reread something and I remembered “The Family Tree.” I took it from the shelf, sat down and started reading. It only took me a few chapters to realize why Bernd had said what he said to me. I seriously thought about giving up on my book.

I think that very often, writers find inspiration in the works of others. But I imagine that, like me, they sometimes feel there’s no point to what they were writing because someone else has done it already and much better than they could ever do it. Or I’m just making that up to feel good and all the other authors out there are way more confident than I am.

The reality is that while my book shares a few concepts with Tepper’s, they are still very different. My story is not her story. In her book, she seemed intent upon delivering an ecological message as well as entertaining. I’m mostly concerned with entertaining. There might be a larger message in my novel, but I’m at a loss to see what it might be. Forest for the trees and all that. Or man’s face for the coffee beans, if you prefer.

If you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll give you a hint. Once I found it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Go figure.

Do not ask me why, but at the same time I started writing “Millie’s Adventures in Time,” I had what I thought was another great idea so I also started another novel I had tentatively titled, “Charisma Dirge and the Golden Locket.” Enter my erstwhile husband once again. He’d begun reading the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich and recommended them highly to me as being a load of fun; with one caveat. Do not read them until you have finished writing Charisma Dirge. Golly.

Well, that didn’t happen either. I’ve read a quite a number of the Stephanie Plum books and haven’t worked on Charisma since the first. I might one day finish it. You never know. I still think it’s a good story and I love the Charisma character. Right now, though, it seems doubtful.

For the most part, however, reading the works of other authors inspires me. I would love to be as facile with the descriptive phrase as Dean Koontz. I wish I could be as good at building an entire world from scratch as Anne McCaffrey. And she has built so many. For looking at the effects of technology on the human condition, Isaac Asimov can’t be beat. And for sheer gruesome inventiveness, we have Stephen King.

The list of authors that have inspired me to write and to better my skills is enormous. Too huge to list them all here.

So what’s an aspiring writer to do in the face of all those good books out there? Jim Butcher’s (The Dresden Files) advice is to just keep writing no matter what.

In Gratitude for Beauty

Copyright Dianne Lehmann

Now and then I am astounded anew by the incredible beauty and unimaginable complexity of the world around me. I feel awe and appreciation and gratitude for being allowed to be a part of it. I experience a closeness that gives me peace and a sense of purpose like nearly no other thing can. It is wonderful and awesome and so intense that I am actually thankful this feeling comes upon me only occasionally.

The thing that sparks this feeling can be small. It might seem like nothing at all. I will notice something, think nothing of it for a moment, and suddenly find I am overwhelmed with sensation.

Did the day just become suddenly colder? Did the sun just brighten? Had that fragrance been there all along?

Maddie, our dog, and I were walking the other morning. She stopped to poke her sensitive little nose into a pile of leaves. A light breeze was blowing and the leaves were falling from the trees around us. I glanced down at my feet and saw a dead cicada lying just in front of the toe of my shoe. And then it happened.

The feeling is fleeting, but immense. It rushes over me like a relentless wave. Indomitable. There and gone.

I sometimes wish that it would last longer. I think that if it did, I might be able to figure out all of life. But I can never hang onto it. And perhaps that is just as well.

In only a couple of seconds I see the life cycle of the cicada laid out before me. The leaves from the trees tell me about their lives as well. I hear in the song of the birds the message that winter is coming. For a few seconds, I consider it all. The worms in the earth, the tiny things living upon my skin, the beating of my heart, the life of my little dog. I feel connected in a way that cannot be described with words.

Occasionally, I will stand and stare into the far distance, the sun warm upon my head. I will listen to the wind in the trees and wish that I might slide into that other state of existence where everything is so incredibly clear. But the feeling never comes at my bidding. And perhaps that is also a good thing.

I stand in gratitude for all that has been given me. But I especially stand in gratitude for beauty.

Memoir vs Autobiography

Copyright Dianne Lehmann

Some years ago, I read an article in an AARP publication about writing a memoir. The takeaway was that the author thought everyone should write a memoir and that if you found it interesting, chances were that others would find it interesting too. I’m not certain that is always true, but decided to give it a try anyway. Some 45,000 words later, I am still working on it.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder whether it is rightly a memoir or if it is an autobiography.

The short definition of memoir is this:  1. A historical (I was taught it is “an historical,” but I guess things change) account or biography written from a personal knowledge or special sources. 2. An essay on a learned subject.

So that would seem to say that I could write a memoir about my husband or about how the United States was created. And indeed, this is the example that was given, “an important memoir on Carboniferous crustacea.” This is not really the intuition I had about what a memoir is.

So then I looked up autobiography:  an account of a person’s life written by that person. So it seems that a memoir can be an autobiography, but an autobiography does not necessarily have to be a memoir.

The AARP article, in encouraging everyone to write a memoir, did mention (if I remember correctly, and I may not) that it needn’t be read by other people to be of value. I think that was a polite way of saying that not everyone is going to be able to write an entertaining memoir. As a writer, I hope that everything I write (even this) is entertaining. Yes, I know, I flatter myself.

What I wonder is how do you know when a memoir is finished? Where do you end it? Do you decide in advance only to write up to a certain point in your life? Or do you keep adding chapters as your life evolves? And if so, when do you stop doing that?

I have this idea that I might like (like being a relative term, publishing anything makes me more nervous than I care to think about) to publish my memoir someday. To do that, I would have to decide that it was complete, finished, and as final as I could make it. But a part of me, that niggling perfectionist somewhat OCD part of me thinks that there is no way it could ever actually be finished. Except of course, on the day I die. Then someone would have to publish it posthumously for me and I don’t think that is likely to happen. And then what would they do? Would they write at the end of it:  “She died. So there won’t be any more chapters. This is it. Sorry.”

I’m sure that if I ever do publish it, my sister will have a thing or two to say about some of the chapters. But I do have a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning about the vagaries of the human memory.

I’ve been writing about the things that have happened to me and what I learned from them, how they have changed me, and how they have affected my entire life. Good things are in there and a few bad things as well. Decisions and choices made and just being swept along by circumstance all receive their due. I haven’t read any memoirs (I probably should just so I’d have an idea what a good one looks like), but I imagine they are all like that.

I could call my story an autobiography because it is certainly an account of my life written by me. But somehow “memoir” sounds more appropriate.

Jigsaw Puzzle Mania

Jigsaw puzzles! Hoo boy. I get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from putting jigsaw puzzles together. Nerdish? Probably. My husband, Bernd, enjoys it also, but not nearly as much as I do.

We’ve only recently begun doing jigsaw puzzles again. When we first moved to Arizona, we’d spend our evenings working on one together. But then our lives got super busy and we spent our evenings trying to recover from the day just past. We gave away all our jigsaw puzzles and I stopped thinking about them.

I got my first smart phone about a year and a half ago. Might be longer. As I’ve gotten older, I find I lose track of the passage of time. That’s why I’ve taken to writing on the calendar any “big” purchases we’ve made so that when Bernd says something like, “You know, I was hoping that new mattress would last a lot longer than it has,” I can go to the calendar (I move the notation forward with each new calendar, no OCD there, nope) and see just how long we’ve had it. We’re both usually surprised at how much time has passed between the purchase and the present time.

Anyway, until I got my smart phone, I had one of those small phones that slide open to reveal a keyboard. That was a real improvement on my very first flip phone. The keyboard made it so much easier to type text messages. By now you’re wondering what this has to do with jigsaw puzzles.

I resisted downloading apps on my smart phone for months. I was determined to continue to use it as I had my “dumb” phone; for calls and texts only. I refused to become welded to my phone and thought if I didn’t put apps on it that would suffice. Maybe it would have. I’ll never know. Bernd got his first smart phone a few months after I got mine and he had no compunctions about downloading apps. This did not, in the least, help me to keep my resolution.

I ran across an app for jigsaw puzzles. I immediately downloaded it and began sliding pieces all over the screen of my phone and putting puzzles together. I enjoyed it so much, I told Bernd about it and he enjoyed it too.

One day, after having gone through the entire library of puzzles available on that particular app at both a low piece-count setting and then at a higher one, the thought occurred to me that maybe we’d like some real puzzles again. So for my weekly shopping trip, I planned a stop at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart actually has (at least ours does) a large selection of jigsaw puzzles. There are some for very young people and some for adults. They ranged from 30 pieces to over 1,000 pieces. For our first puzzle, I selected a 750 piece alpine lake scene from Buffalo.

Our first jigsaw puzzle purchase

I don’t really know how many days it took us to put it together, but we had a lot of fun doing it. More fun than I remembered from years ago. So when it was done and I had only bought the one, we had to make an emergency jigsaw-puzzle-withdrawal trip to Wal-Mart. We bought two. Woo hoo! That was only the beginning.

We also like castles

Costco carries jigsaw puzzles around the fall/winter holiday season. I was there this past Friday on my weekly shopping outing and saw that they had a huge selection of D.O.W.D.L.E. puzzles. I purchased our first round one. Up to now, we’ve done only rectangular puzzles. The Buffalo puzzles are nice in that there are five main puzzle piece shapes, so if you have two sides to a piece in place you can limit the number of pieces you need to look through to find the next one. That is, providing you have pre-sorted all the pieces by shape. Which I always do.  And then by color. Might have to rethink the OCD comment.

But this new puzzle is not like that. With the exception of the perimeter pieces and maybe two dozen or so other odd pieces, all the rest are of the same general shape. And there are 500 of them altogether. We’ve worked on it for one evening so far and whereas with the Buffalo puzzles we would have the perimeter put together and started filling in the interior, we still do not have the perimeter put all together.

It’s not just the roundness that is slowing us down. The subject matter is particularly difficult. It is artist Eric Dowdle’s painting of an Aztec calendar. I must have been out of my mind.

Now I will offer a short comparison of the two puzzle companies. Buffalo’s pieces seem to click together much more definitively than the Dowdle pieces. The Dowdle pieces are, however, all in much better condition than the Buffalo pieces. Some of those from Buffalo will be severely bent or the printed side will be peeling off the backing. If you are into attractive packaging, Dowdle has Buffalo beat by a mile. But if fun is all you are concerned about, they rank about equal in that regard. Of course, it depends on your definition of fun. If fun is occasionally being frustrated out of your mind, then jigsaw puzzles, from whatever company, are for you.

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

“Dog On It” is the first novel in a series written by Spencer Quinn. The series is known as the Chet and Bernie Mysteries.

At a glance, it might seem like a run-of-the-mill mystery novel, but that notion is soon dispelled by the disclosure that Chet is a dog. Bernie Little runs the Little Detective Agency and is aided in his investigations by his dog, Chet. What sets these novels apart even further is that they are told from the perspective of Chet. And Chet is an especially fine narrator.

I bought this first book on a whim. I’ve read other books written from an animal’s perspective and not been all that impressed. The first few paragraphs in “Dog On It” had me hooked.

In this first adventure, Chet and Bernie investigate the disappearance of Madison, a teenage girl who may or may not have been kidnapped. Bernie is quick to take the case due to a cash flow problem that Chet doesn’t entirely understand. There is actually a lot that Chet doesn’t understand about the human world but that is what makes him so charming. Through Chet, Quinn helps us to see what is both wonderful and ridiculous about the human condition.

In the course of the investigation, Chet gets into some trouble that had me so worried for him that I almost put the book down. But I stuck it out and Quinn pulled Chet out of the metaphorical fire with finesse.

Quinn’s character, Bernie, is a likable, straight-forward kind of guy who doesn’t have a clue about a lot of things but is a great investigator. But it really is Chet who steals the show with his canine practicality and insight.

Quinn is a great storyteller. And he has a deep understanding of dogs that clearly comes through in his writing. I don’t currently have every one of the Chet and Bernie Mysteries, but I’m sure that eventually I will. Every one that I have read has been an absolute delight.

I think Stephen King may have said it best:

“Spencer Quinn speaks two languages – suspense and dog – fluently. Sometimes funny, sometimes, touching, and in a few places terrifying. Dog On It has got more going for it than fifty of those cat cozies. The best thing about the book is Chet, a canine Sam Spade full of joie de vivre. He’s a great character because he sums up what we all love in dogs, how they love life, and how they love us. My sincere advice to you is to rush to your nearest bookstore and put your paws on this enchanting, one-of-a-kind novel.”

Fallin

Microsoft Word Clip Art

Have you ever had a dream that was so real you thought surely you must be awake? A dream where you can feel the wind tossing your hair and the sun on the back of your neck? Where the sounds are so clear and the colors so vivid that it’s almost too real to be real?

I get those now and then. I will wake from them to see that the sun has not yet risen and go back to sleep, certain that the dream will have faded away by morning like most of my dreams. But upon rising, I find that it is still fresh and clear and compelling. So compelling that I have no choice but to sit at the computer and put it all into words.

This story is the result of one such dream.

Merrid has taken her laundry to the Edge to dry as she has done for countless cycles. Her young ones have accompanied her as they always do. Fallin, though, is no longer as young as she once was.

For many visits of the Goddess now, Merrid has dreaded the drying of the laundry. Ever since Fallin ate the Orcis, she worries that her eldest will leave her. Something in Merrid’s heart tells her that today is the Day.

Gillo rushes to the Edge as he always does. So full of young life and desire to know and to experience everything. She calls him away. She warns him not to go too close. But as always, he disobeys. As many times as he has perched upon the rocks and looked down, far below, at the Earthssea, you would think he had had his fill of it.

Only littlest Willid hangs back, holding to the hem of Merrid’s tunic, one finger stuck into her mouth and a look of worry playing about her young eyes. The worry makes her look older than her five cycles. Merrid wonders what that worry might turn into if today is indeed the Day.

Merrid works quickly to hang the laundry upon the frames built back from the Edge. They take advantage of the wind that always blows hard up the cliff. The clothes dry quickly here and so the mold is avoided. Merrid wishes there were some other way to dry the clothes quickly and avoid their ruin. But there is not.

Gillo finally walks back to his mother and asks if today is the Day that Fallin will Jump. Merrid looks to him with some dismay and then to Willid, who has now stuck an additional finger into her mouth. Merrid wonders if the tears falling down Willid’s cheeks are due to the harshness of the wind.

Merrid tells Gillo to be quiet and help her with the laundry. Just this season, he has reached a height that allows him to help as Fallin once helped.

Merrid looks to her daughter and calls to her where she is standing at the Edge. Fallin has left her hair loose today and it blows restlessly around her face. Fallin walks to her mother and looks her in the eye. Merrid had not realized she had grown so tall. Merrid thinks to herself that if she had more time, she might become taller than her mother. But Fallin ate the Orcis and so her days in the Settlement are numbered. Maybe, probably, today is the last.

Fallin stands before her mother. Her once golden brown hair has turned the color of the night sky when the Goddess does not grace it. It began to change a few days after Fallin ate the Orcis; growing out dark at the roots. Her fair skin has become a dusky brown. Like the husks of the grain at the end of the season of growth. But most disturbing are Fallin’s eyes. Once such a pale brown as to be almost yellow, they are now blacker than black. They seem to swallow you up and no one in the Settlement will look her in the eyes. Although whether that is the depth of them that is the cause, or that they know her eventual fate is hard to say.

Merrid cannot help herself and once again asks Fallin why she ate the Orcis. Fallin replies as she has each and every time her mother has asked her this. She explains that it seemed the right thing to do at the time and she is not certain she could have not eaten the Orcis. She felt so compelled to do so. Fallin reminds her mother that the Settlement, surrounded by the Earthssea and on this high plateau, can only support so many and that some must Jump that others might continue.

Listening to this, Willid has stuck yet another finger into her mouth. Gillo asks his mother if that is why Father ate the Orcis and Jumped. Merrid looks sadly at Gillo and tells him that her husband, Fillon, did not eat the Orcis. He ate the Trundau and he Jumped. Gillo asks if he will one day eat the Trundau and Merrid tells him that she hopes not because then he will be forever lost to her to the Earth.

Only one who has Eaten can know when it is time. Fallin has known for many days that today is the Day. But she has not said anything. She thought it was best for her family to have it done suddenly and then over that they might get on with their lives. So standing before her mother, she begins to remove her clothing. They are too precious a commodity to go over the Edge with her.

Merrid stands silently with the laundry flapping about her in the wind. Willid has removed her fingers from her mouth and Gillo looks on with some excitement and also fear.

Merrid thinks of the tales the Eldest tells around the fire in the evening. Of times when there was plenty. When there was no Earthssea. When the green hills stretched as far as the eyes could see. Merrid thinks they must surely be just stories. But the Eldest always insists this is truth. Merrid has known no other life than this and cannot imagine it. But right now, she is wishing that it were true and now was then.

Fallin has finished removing her clothing and has neatly folded them. She has placed them at the feet of her younger sister and told her that one day these clothes will be hers. Willid looks solemnly up at her sister and sucks her lips into her mouth not wanting to cry but feeling that she will anyway.

Fallin looks at her family and tells them that she loves them all and turns and runs for the Edge and launches herself into the air. Merrid, Gillo and Willid all run to the Edge and hold there at the furthest they can reach and watch as Fallin descends toward the Earthssea so very far below.

Before Fallin has reached quite a third of the way down, the transformation has begun. Just before she reaches the surface of the Earthssea it is complete. Where once she had arms, she now has wings covered in smooth black feathers that glisten in the sun and throw off little rainbows of color. Where once she had a petite button of a nose, she now has a formidable beak.

Fallin sleeks off through the air with ease as if she has flown all her life. And indeed, she has, but only in her dreams. She has never told her mother that it was those dreams that made her eat the Orcis. She suspects her father also had dreams.

Fallin does not look back and her family does not call to her. This is how it has been and how it will be. Gillo asks his mother if she thinks his father is happy as a fish. Merrid reminds him that his father is not a fish, but something else. Just as Fallin is not now a bird, but something else.

Willid looks to her mother and asks why. Just the one word, but Merrid understands all that lies behind it. She once asked her mother the same when her brother Jumped to claim the Air. Merrid looks at Willid and tells her what her mother told her. It is how the Mother has decided we shall live and survive and so we do.

Weird Words

Front The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition

It’s said that the English language might possibly have more words in it than any other comparable world language. People are always qualifying things and I have no idea what might be meant by comparable. Unless they mean a marginally (qualifier) related language like German or Dutch.

In any case, most accounts put the number of words in the English language at approximately 171,476 words in current use. The Oxford English Dictionary also contains over 47,000 listings for obsolete words. It seems a shame that words should become obsolete. Well, thinking about it for a moment, possibly it’s a good thing.

Most experts agree that the average English speaker has a working vocabulary of about 20,000 words and a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 words. It was not clear if they meant 20,000 in addition to the first 20,000 for a total of 40,000 or if they meant an additional 40,000. In any case, that’s a lot of words.

Vocabulary that is passive consists of words that the speaker knows but never has a cause to use. I find that to be sad. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could use all the words we know? Or maybe that’s not such a good idea either. Could get awkward.

I love words. I absolutely adore them in all their convoluted meanings, soundings, origins, and spellings. As far as I’m concerned, the weirder the word the better. I hope to make this something of a series with lots of weird words to describe and talk about in the future. There might even be a weird phrase or two, as in “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” How did that ever come about?

Patoot

“That smells like a horse’s patoot,” is a phrase that I became very familiar with. I was deeply involved with horses for a few years. I groomed them and mucked their stalls. I went over every inch of them. I rubbed their bellies and foreheads. I had my hands in their mouths (well inside their lips, but outside of their teeth, thank goodness) and found the very soft skin on the undersides of their tales.

I learned that horses have some very odd names for some of their parts (actually humans have given them these names, I’m sure that if the horses had a choice they would be far more practical in the naming). For example I offer stifle (the knee of the hind leg, on the front leg its just “knee,” go figure), pastern (if you’re talking about the hind leg it refers to the toe, which is not the toenail or hoof, but a single toe bone just above the hoof, and if you’re talking about the front leg it is like a finger bone) and hock (which is analogous to the ankle). Oh and the knee of the front leg is actually analogous to the human wrist. Horses are put together very strangely.

I’ve seen the undersides of their hooves and looked in their ears, but no one ever said to me while pointing to the pertinent part, “And this is the horse’s patoot.” Well, some of you more well-read and erudite individuals may all ready know what this means. I had a good guess (I was a fan of M.A.S.H.), but I wasn’t certain that what I thought it was, is what it is. Apparently it’s another way of referring to a horse’s behind, butt, backside, rear end.

You can’t spend any significant amount of time around horses and not come into contact with manure. They make it all the time. It’s what they do. A horse would stand and eat all day long if you let it. Statistics say that the average horse will take in about 15 pounds of food each day and excrete about 45 pounds of solid waste. Sounds a bit bass akwards until you take into consideration that they can also drink anywhere from five to 15 gallons of water a day and that one gallon of water weighs about eight pounds. They produce prodigious amounts of urine as well.

The manure that they deposit in their stalls must be removed (mucked out) and I found it is easiest to do this when it has first dried a bit. The manure they leave in the pasture is left to dry completely, and while it doesn’t smell as strongly as the fresh kind, it does retain the manure smell. It gets powdered by the trampling of the horses and rises as dust in the air. I learned very quickly not to lick my lips after a long day with the horses.

There is also the issue of intestinal gas. Horses fart even more than they poop. Being as short as I am, I would frequently find myself (and my nose) at a horse’s anus level. I came to the conclusion that horses have a very wicked and well developed sense of humor. Why else would they seem to save their farts for when I was grooming the back ends of them? I would try to move when I saw their tales go up, but was not always quick enough.

I’m fairly certain that after having spent a day at the stables (my husband, Bernd, has been kind enough to tell me so) that I smelled like manure. If someone had said to me that I smelled like a horse’s patoot, I wouldn’t have argued with them. It was probably true.

Zygodactyl

As a child, I would love to sit and read through my mother’s dictionary of the English Language. I still do this from time to time (not my mother’s, I have one of my own), but not with the same robust enthusiasm I had for it as a child. So it was many years ago that I came across two of my favorite words. One of them is zygodactyl and the other is the word that I once used to name my small business, syzygy. I let that website go when it was costing me more to maintain than it earned.

Looking at the word syzygy, it’s obvious (well it is, isn’t it?) why that would be one of my favorite words. Technically, there are no vowels in it. And it has a certain symmetry to it that is compelling; at least to someone who loves words and their etymology.

But zygodactyl caught my attention for two reasons:  (1) any word with the letter “z” in it fascinated me as a child, and (2) its definition. As a child I loved birds more than just about anything else, except maybe dogs and horses. Most birds have four toes on each foot. The majority of them have three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing back. Parrots and Budgerigars and many of the tree-climbing birds have two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing back. These birds are zygodactyl. As a child, I delighted in telling anyone who would listen (and many who were not really interested) about our parakeet and his funny zygodactyl feet.

Zygodactyl comes from Greek roots (most really odd words seem to, but I suppose they are not odd to the Greeks). Zygo refers to a yoke or a pair, and dactyl is simply a finger, toe or other similar structure.

The last word in my mother’s dictionary was zyzzyva (sounds dirty doesn’t it), which is any of a number of tropical American weevils which are often destructive to plants. I might have considered this word to be even more amazing than syzygy because of the preponderance of “Z’s,” but it has one actual vowel and so lost that potentially lauded distinction.

By now you are probably wondering what syzygy means. Even if you are not, I will tell you. That’s just the way I am; always a delight and full of fun and interesting facts. It is an astronomical term that refers to when three celestial bodies form a straight line with each other. This is as when the sun and earth and moon line up to create an eclipse.

As for patoot, I’ve been unable to find it in any of my many dictionaries and its origins are unclear, as may be the point of this article. But I did manage to get quite a few good words into it, didn’t I?

Writing and Letting Go



Copyright Dianne Lehmann
 

Quite a few years ago, I did a lot of writing for a website that, in exchange for content, allowed me to advertise my own website. It was a great arrangement. I got to hone my writing skills and, ideally, drive buyers to my jewelry “shop.”

I received a comment on one of my articles that caused me to think a lot more about it than I might ordinarily. For the most part, fellow authors on the site wrote most of the comments I received. Rarely would a non-author take the time to leave a few words behind to let me know they had read it. So when I got one of those, I took note. And when they were less than complimentary, I especially took note.

It’s one of my goals as a writer to always improve my writing skills. This goes beyond mere grammar and spelling (which Microsoft Word does a fairly adequate job of monitoring and fixing). The words one uses and the orders in which they are applied are essential to getting ones meaning across as unambiguously as possible. Still, as careful as one might be, things might still be misconstrued. I’ve sent a number of what I thought were perfectly clear emails that ended up creating a lot of trouble.

Because we writers are privy to our thought processes (hopefully, but sometimes there are things going on in my head that I just don’t understand), we sometimes leave something out or write something in our personal “shorthand” that the reader might not understand. That comment I mentioned pointed this out to me very well.

The authors on the site I have mentioned who read my articles on a regular basis had come to know me a bit. They had learned about the way I think and become familiar with how I express myself. The casual, off the cuff reader had none of that. And when you add in this particular reader’s not very well expressed comment, it led to a lot of confusion on my part and my poor little brain was working hard to figure it out.

It finally did do that about half way through a 30 mile drive I was making shortly after reading the comment. I had cleared my mind so that I could focus on driving and then the real meaning of the comment became apparent to me. I struggled for the rest of the drive to focus on driving because a part of me wanted to rewrite the entire article to make what I meant clearer.

By the time I returned home many hours later, I no longer had the compulsion to rewrite it. I did however, think about leaving a reply to my reply that would hopefully explain things better. Ultimately, I decided that what I had written as my initial reply was fine. This led me to believe that my initial article as it was published was probably fine as well. Maybe not perfect, but good enough.

When I first started writing, I had the hardest time letting go of my articles. I would agonize over them for days wondering if they were actually finished and as good as they could be. Did they really say what I wanted to say? Were they entertaining? Enlightening? Were they any good at all?

I never went back and rewrote a single one of the articles I wrote for that site (and there were something more than 250 of them). Yes, I might correct a spelling error if I noticed it or fix a typo, but an actual rewrite … never. I had to ask myself why.

When my husband, Bernd, was first teaching himself to paint with watercolors, the thing he had the hardest time with was knowing when it was finished. Could it use another duckling sitting on the water? Did that tree need a little more light in the crown? Does this shadow firmly anchor the potted plant on the tile? He would agonize sometimes for days. But finally, he would decide to let go of it. He has never gone back and modified any of his paintings. Although there is one that he started over three times. The first iteration ended up on the floor, upside down, and smeared liberally all over the carpeting. You’re probably thinking, hmm watercolors, no big deal. Well, not really.

I would upon occasion, reread some of my earliest articles. I tended to sit there and cringe. I could have fixed them. But I didn’t. They are a history of my progress as a writer. But that isn’t the real reason I did not rewrite them.

Once I decide to let go of something I’ve written, it is finished … at least to my mind. Done. As perfect as I could make it. And that’s pretty much how I feel about anything that I’ve created. So to rewrite it would be to say that I had not done the best that I could at that time. That I had let go of something that was not ready to be let go. That I had failed to do my best. I don’t really have a problem with failure. I do it all the time and I’ve become accustomed to it, more or less. But to not have given something my best shot is not something I want to do and to think that I may not have disturbs me. So I didn’t rewrite. There might be a little unwillingness to firmly face reality at all times in there. I don’t know. But I do know that at some point, you just have to let go of it.

I’ve spent some time over the years studying and learning from the Tao Te Ching. I have a favorite “verse:” 

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” This is from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.

Not only do you have to let go of what you have written, you have to also let go of the negative comments (it’s okay to hang onto the good ones). If you don’t let go of the negative bits it will undermine your confidence and tie you into so many knots you’ve no hope of escape.

Having written all that, I am, even so, now sitting here and wondering when this post will be ready for me to let it go. I will not tell you how many times I have reread and edited it.

Have I lived up to the implied promise in the title? Have I written clearly and unambiguously? Does it have a point? Was the point well made? And a more important question for me right now, when the time comes to hit the “Publish” button on my first novel, will I be able to do it?  I certainly hope so.

C. J. Box and Joe Pickett

A few years ago, I thought it might be nice to move to Wyoming. I looked at housing and income information, weather, and the availability of the basic necessities of life. For one reason or another, I shelved the idea. That was until I discovered C. J. Box and his Joe Pickett novels. They have me seriously considering moving to Wyoming again. My husband isn’t completely against the idea, but wonders about the winters.

All that aside, I find Box to be a compelling writer. His characters are like real people. His descriptions of the localities are lyrical. You can sense his reverence for his home state and all that it has to offer in the way he writes about it.

I bought one of his novels at our local Costco. Checking out, the cashier told me I was really going to like it and that there were very many books before the one I was buying. I reserved my judgment until I read it. I was instantly converted. And very happy that there were many more.

Joe Pickett is a game warden for the state of Wyoming. More often than not, his sense of what is right and what is wrong gets him into trouble. And it’s not necessarily trouble related to his regular job. He gets involved in solving all sorts of crimes and problems.

Joe Pickett is the kind of guy you want on your side and not the other way around. He’s at his best doing his job in the wilds of Wyoming and a bit inept in social situations, which just increases his charm. In many ways, Joe is the quintessential cowboy of the old west; polite, quiet, competent, and a good hand on the ranch. 

I now own all but the most recent novel. I could review a single novel in the series, but I’m not sure I could do it justice as a singleton. It really is more of a serial than a series with each new novel building on where the last one left off. Box immerses you in the lives of Joe Pickett and his family.

I can highly recommend them all. Box blends good description with great action scenes. He balances peril and danger with depictions of family life. These people could be your neighbors.

Box writes about his characters with dignity. He makes them so real that you are sure that if you were to visit Saddlestring, Wyoming, you would see Joe walking down the street with his Stetson firmly clamped on his head and a determined-to-set-things-right look on his face.

If you haven’t read any of C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, try one, any one. I’m sure you will be delighted.