Tag Archives: Writing

Changes coming to Crazybasenji

Although I’ve been a little reluctant to cede the place of honor in the header from Boomer — the original Crazy Basenji — to his heir and great nephew, Ramses (The Puppy), I finally did so. For one thing, the photo of Ramses was of a size that allowed me to crop a section that would fill the whole space without chopping off most of the dog…well, except for his legs. He doesn’t need those, though, he’s not going anywhere. I also discovered a way to change the layout of the page that would let me use the photo of Boomer as “featured content” in a larger size than what I could fit into the banner. Yes, I’m a little obsessive about that photo. Is that a problem?

I started this blog under the whole “Pro-blogging” explosion a few years ago, and I actually had a plan for what I was going to write about, and when, and how it would all eventually make some kind of income for me. Then I got sidetracked thinking I was going to find a “real job,” because I found some postings for positions that I was super qualified for and I applied. And then waited to hear. And waited to hear. And waited…and in the meantime my blogging plans sort of went south. I repeated this cycle several more times, and eventually I did get a “real job” — part time. Which didn’t do a lot for my self esteem, my bottom line, or my incentive to write. I didn’t want to write from that place of day to day sheer panic. So my blogging frequency suffered some more. And the topics I chose weren’t always cutting edge or of interest to anyone besides me and a few close friends who might just want to keep up with what I was doing.

The things that kept me going — and still do — are my dog(s), and books. And I discovered I could write decent book reviews, and could even get some of them published on a site dedicated to “reviewing books by, for, and about women.” Not long ago, my review of a book about the woman who mapped the ocean floor was chosen as review of the month.

For a while I’ve been thinking of branching out and writing a more specialized blog about books and other writerly things. I’m sure I’ll keep blogging at this site — for my four or five readers — but I’ll concentrate on only a few topics, such as basenjis, and art, and odds and ends of a personal nature. Crazybasenji is my “brand,” if you will, for good or bad, although I discovered that having the word “crazy” at the beginning of anything pretty much flags the site for a certain type of “interest,” shall we say? I won’t elaborate. Use your imagination and I doubt if you’ll come up with anything more bizarre or inappropriate than what I’ve seen in (deleted) comments.

I know I’ve hinted around before now about changing things up around here, which usually consists of finding a new theme. This time, I’ll be moving some of the content to the new site. All the book reviews — the whole category — will be moved. I’m not quite ready to launch the site yet, but it will be located at JudyKingWrites.com. One of the drawbacks to having a fairly common name is that the domain judyking.com is already taken, as is judyking.org, judy-king.com, etc. Since my name isn’t that difficult to spell, I figured it wouldn’t be that big a deal to tack “writes” at the end, which is also not difficult to spell.

Writing on two blogs is going to be more of a challenge. I’ve already tried it, with my Linux blog, which went nowhere. I also started what would have been a biology blog, when I thought I would be teaching biology at the local junior college. When the teaching gig fell through because my actual graduate hours in actual biology courses came up short, I lost all my forward momentum on the blog, as well.

I’ve made a few decisions since then. I’ve decided not to pursue the teaching, which would mean taking only one more graduate level class. I chose to view the cancellation of the offer as a message from the universe. Teaching is not for me. Or, at least, teaching in a classroom in a “traditional” school setting is not. Never been a big fan of traditional anyway. Never felt the “fire in my belly” about teaching, although I always thought I would enjoy engaging with young people interested in learning. My actual experience was more along the lines of trying to engage with young people interested in getting “A’s” without doing much real work. (They’re not all like that, let me be quick to point out. I just seemed to end up with a significant portion of them in my classes, the few semesters I did teach many years ago.)

Starting a new career — as in going back to school and learning a new “trade” is also not in the stars for me. I’ve taken a few classes recently, and finally decided I’m tired of school. I don’t want to take any more classes, do any more homework, take any more tests. I’m done. The only exception might be to get a fine arts degree, and probably then only if someone paid all my expenses and I could go someplace other than the schools available in the immediate area. Which is bloody unlikely to happen.

The upshot of all this nattering on is that I’m going to go with what I know, which is some writing, some art work, and what I can extract from my part-time employment to pay my bills and keep doing those other things. I don’t want to descend into writing about things I regret. It’s largely for that reason that I’ve let updates to my blog lapse a few times. I figure no one wants to read about all the things I wish I had done when I was younger, or would do if I could afford it. There’s no sense dwelling on those things, but in my private mind, I sometimes do, and it may keep me absent from time to time.

I’m hoping that doing more of what I truly enjoy will reduce the amount of time I spend imagining the worst and will increase the amount of time I’ll spend being creative and remarkable. We’ll see.

The Once and Future Crazybasenji

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about where I want to take my blogging/writing efforts, and how Crazybasenji fits into my plans. (Obviously I’ve been doing more thinking than writing…)

Now that I’ve had several book reviews published at StoryCircleBookReviews, I feel like I have some legitimate “clips,” examples of my writing that I can use to try and sell my skills in other places. Book reviews will continue to be a big part of what I want to write, since reading books is a requirement for writing book reviews, and there are few things I like better than reading. But I also want to write a better blog. Crazybasenji has been my classroom, and my muse. I had wanted a website called Crazybasenji ever since I came up with the name, inspired by the second basenji I owned, who was truly a crazy-eddie basenji. But I didn’t really have a consistent theme for the blog, and I didn’t work real hard at trying to get more traffic. I’ve studied all kinds of blogging advice books and articles — and blogs — so I know what I’m “supposed” to do. I just haven’t been sure enough of myself to do it… and I feel kind of protective of Crazybasenji.

I think there must be something about the name — because of the “crazy” part — that makes it a spam magnet. I figure more traffic at all will cause an exponential increase in the amount of spam I’ll have to deal with, not to mention the chances of being hacked. Moving the blog to the WordPress universe has made me feel more secure about the hacking part, although I can’t really say why that is. I’ve discovered I’m a lot more limited in the amount of “tweaking” I can do to my theme than when my blog was hosted elsewhere, and that’s a little frustrating. Not frustrating enough to make me put forth the effort to build my own theme, and I certainly can’t afford to pay anyone else to build one for me. So I must soldier on and make do with what’s around me.

In a sense, it’s likely a good thing that I can’t get distracted messing with the theme as much as I used to, since I should be concentrating more on what I write. (Duh!) How many ways is it possible to avoid doing something you’ve set as a “goal for today?” It seems that, even if your goal involves doing something you enjoy, you can find a way to piddle away the time doing other things. Writing is a great example. I think it’s safe to say that most people who start writing blogs do so because they “like to write.” Yet ditching the work of writing is something I see so many blog posts about that it has to be an almost universal phenomenon. You might have a lot to say. You might have a ton of stories to tell. But sitting down and organizing all those thoughts into a coherent whole is a pain in the ass. It’s that simple. One thing to think the stuff up, and quite another to group all those letters together so that it makes sense to anyone else who sees it. Am I right? I know I’m right.

And I’m getting off topic. See how easy that is? What I wanted to — sat down to — write about was my plan to start another blog in the near future where I’ll be more consistent in what I write about — if not in how frequently I post. I won’t abandon Crazybasenji completely, but I’ll try to concentrate more on stories about my dogs — although most of them will be about the ones who are no longer with me — I have a lot of stories I haven’t told. My new blog will be more about the books I read and some more memoir-like stories that I think might have a kernel of wisdom in them that I’d like to share. And I still have some more to write about on my Crazybasenji on Linux blog, about using open source software and how it’s possible to do that and still interact with computers in the proprietary world (Windows and Mac) without having to get a doctorate in computer science (not to mention computer-speak).

I’ve had an idea for the new blog for a while, and now I need to get some original content written before I actually launch it, so I can have several pages of fascinating stuff on there. And, of course, I have to do all this while working my part-time job and going back to school so I can prove to potential full-time employers out there that, yes, people over fifty can learn new things.

From the Land of Not-Quite

I live not-quite in a not-quite city, and it seems to suit me. All my life I’ve been not-quite sure who or what I wanted to be, so I have not-quite “arrived.” I was not-quite part of any group in school, and not-quite a great student – not-quite a rebel and not-quite an angel. Sometimes I feel like I’m not-quite even here. It’s a little like being almost a ghost – I sometimes feel like I can observe while unobserved, like the proverbial fly on the wall. But not-quite.

With people from all sides encouraging us all to “follow your passion,” and “do what you love,” I have not-quite been there or done that. And my problem seems to be that I’m not-quite sure which passion to follow – science or art, writing or painting, growing roses or building web sites. Let’s not forget reading. If I could kick back with a good book all day and make a living at it… heaven.

This past weekend I met someone you might call a guru of authentic living. Patti Digh is a writer/blogger that my friend, Tresha, has been following on line for some time. Tresha sent Patti some of her artwork, and one piece was published in one of Patti’s books – Four Word Self Help. Tresha gave me a copy of the book. Sunday, Patti Digh was going to be at a bookstore in Houston to chat and autograph her books, so Tresha asked me if I wanted to go.

Now Houston is not-quite on my list of favorite places to drive in my car on a warm day. My car is apparently going through menopause, and is prone to hot flashes – especially after I’ve been driving a while. So Tresha and I had to find a place where we could meet where I could leave my car – well away from the torture chamber that is the Houston freeway system. Did I mention that the air conditioner in my car doesn’t work? Yeah, that, too.

Anyway it’s a lot more fun to drive/ride into Houston with someone else, so we met in beautiful downtown Brenham, about an hour from where I live and two from Tresha’s home. And they have a handy public parking lot smack in the middle of the historic district – we sometimes meet there on a Saturday to eat lunch at “Must Be Heaven” and visit the funky little downtown shops.

But back to Patti Digh and why she’s in a piece about the “Land of Not-Quite.” I get the feeling she used to live here, too. Her 37 Days blog explains what happened in her life to cause her to want to leave the land of not-quite behind. She has since published books of collections of some of her blog entries along with contributions from some of her readers (like Tresha’s artwork). Her trip to Houston was part of a book tour for her latest book, What I Wish for You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life.

She greets everyone like an old friend, and so obviously is enjoying her life now, it’s hard not to wish for exactly the same thing. Except that nobody’s life is exactly like anybody else’s. None of us have exactly the same dreams or the same experiences in life that may have led us to live apart from those dreams. Let me tell you, not-quite achieving a dream is a hell of a place to be. Suppressing dreams to the point of losing all track of them is like some kind of psychic amputation, complete with phantom limb pain.

I’m struggling to reclaim my dreams, beginning with sorting through the dim storage areas in my mind to find which ones were the most precious and can still make me happy, and how I can rebuild the support structures to hold them up while I learn just how much I’m still capable of doing. For instance, the dream I shoved farthest back in the attic is a horse. I never got over my teenage crush on horses. I discovered that I’m not a natural-born rider, but I never got to spend enough time on horse-back to get good at it. On the other hand, I did get pretty good at falling off. The current condition of my back and various joints makes horse-back riding look like a bad idea.

And I’ve fallen in love with mules. They appeal to the basenji-lover in me. Mules are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for (as are basenjis), disinclined to follow orders that don’t make sense to them (ditto for basenjis), disinclined to let every little thing send them into a panic (as some horses are prone to do), and every bit as attractive. I could devote a whole blog to photos of mules and stories about them – if only I could get to the mules. When I went to the Texas Shootout last May, I felt like I’d found a little corner of heaven, but this year the event has been canceled due to the bad economy and high gas prices. I was planning to spend more than just the final day at the event, force myself to talk to more people, and hopefully get invited to a nearby farm to visit and take more pictures. Not going to happen.

I can’t travel far, especially in the warmer months, because of my menopausal car. It’s not as major a hardship for me as it could be for some people, because I’m quite happy to stay home and keep the Puppy company… and read. If I could make a living reading, that would be another dream come true. It might not be possible to get wealthy from it, but I’m working on learning to write great book reviews so that at least I may be able to get all my books free (and pre-publication) at some future date. I’ve already had several published at Story Circle Book Reviews. I don’t get paid, but I’ve already gotten a couple of free books.

For my third dream (and if I was talking to a magic genie, this would be my third wish), I would love to have a great big rose garden in my back yard. I have ideal conditions – a bald prairie where the roses could all get tons of direct sunlight and great air circulation. I would only grow roses that had won awards for fragrance, like Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Mister Lincoln, and that I could get enough blooms from to take some to sell at the weekly farmers market in Bryan. I would make little cards to go with the bouquets with the name and history of the rose, because I think that’s the best way to enjoy roses – knowing their personal histories.

So there it is. My recipe for a happy life. It may yet come about. I feel I may be moving from not-quite to almost.

In which I interview a newly published science writer

 

Book cover art

A good book on paleontology

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs at Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at Dinosaur Tracking Blog. Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits
and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

Thank you, Brian, and all the best success with your continuing writing career.

I’ll be posting my review of the book here in a few days.

 

 

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Centra
l Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie al
l those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

in; } –>

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and
fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavossier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official ph
oto credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

Too much thinking, not enough writing

Every year about this time, someone or other that I know on or off line brings up National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo,” or just “NaNo.” Sounds a lot like “Yada-yada-yada,” if you don’t already know what those people are talking about. I started writing a novel a few years ago — in August — so I couldn’t join in the NaNo madness. And I’m still “working” on it, so I won’t be doing NaNo again this year. My friend, Tresha, who belongs to a writer’s group, is going to write something every day in November to show solidarity with the members of her group who are doing NaNo. Maybe I can do that, too. (Says Crazybasenji, without my permission). If I do, some of it will show up here, but since I’m trying to both start and finish my novel, a lot of what I’ll write won’t (show up here).

Funny thing about starting in the middle of a story and working outward. It’s almost as hard to figure out where and how to start as how to finish. I’ve actually written several endings already, all variations on a theme of sorts. But how to begin kept eluding me, until yesterday when a light finally came on. I haven’t mastered the practice of sitting down and writing anything anyway until the answer presents itself, although I’m sure I need to work on that. But sometimes just throwing a bunch of ideas into the stew-pot of my head and then letting them simmer and blend a while works just as well. Although in the meantime, I could/should be writing blog posts that I have plenty of ideas for and just can’t seem to hold still long enough to get on the page. ARRRRGGGHH!

So, yeah, I wrote the middle of my novel first. But at least there is a middle. Of a novel. By me. I think that’s kind of cool.

Of chocolate, ScienceBlogs, and Pepsi

I recently came to the sad conclusion that I must give up eating chocolate. In all its forms. Entirely. That’s a whole food group kicked out of my diet. Because I tended to overindulge, and it started making me sick. I won’t go into detail. Let me just say that the consequences of eating chocolate became increasingly unpleasant over the past several months, to the point of some acute pain. Poor, pitiful me.

It is often the case with addictive behavior, that what you crave will kick your butt sooner or later. It’s why there are twelve step programs for so many things that so many of us do in non-addictive ways. I mean, we all eat (stop and you die, in fact), but food addictions are not healthy, hence, Over-eaters Anonymous. Then there are the alcohol addicts, drug addicts, sex addicts, solar eclipse addicts (I don’t think the last group has a 12-step program yet, though). People recognize and get help for their addictions or they don’t get help and they get in trouble with the law, or with health issues, or in car versus tree arguments, or they develop some kind of physiological symptoms of substance rejection like mine. My stomach started saying “no more chocolate, or I will make you pay, and pay, and pay!

For a while after I discovered Science Blogs, a site maintained by Seed Magazine that hosted a lot of great blogs about all kinds of science written by scientists, I was an addict. I could burn up an entire day reading the different blogs, the comments — and some of the comments were like blog entries themselves. And then I’d kick myself for not spending that time doing something worthwhile in the world.

I tried subscribing to the combined RSS feed for ScienceBlogs so that I’d get a chance to read samples from all of them. I was overwhelmed. I skimmed some, skipped a lot. Then I learned how to “mark all as read” so when I found 400 articles waiting for me (which would sometimes happen if I didn’t check in for a few days), I could just deal with them with a mouse click instead of the endless scrolling and scanning. I felt bad about not actually consuming more of the content, but there was just too much.

As with chocolate, I finally had to just stop cold. I started following a couple of my favorites on Twitter and Facebook, so that I could follow links they posted to articles that looked interesting. Because at the time I was trying to figure out how to make blogging profitable for ME, at least a little; I was trying to find a “day job” so I could keep it while I learned how to make a living doing something I love, because “they” always say, “keep your day job” when someone expresses an interest in trying to make a living in a way other than the accepted norm. It always helps if you actually have a day job that you can keep. Duh.

What I eventually found was in fact an evening job — or at least a late afternoon job — and is only part time, but could actually work out better in the long run because it leaves me with enough energy to work on my other projects. But I digress.

Last week, I read a tweet by Laelaps, one of the Sblings I follow, to the effect that “David Dobbs is leaving SB, and I’m thinking I will, too.” What? So I went to David Dobbs’ Twitter page and read a few tweets, and then I followed a link to a Science Blogs article about how there was going to be a new nutrition blog on SB, authored by employees of Pepsico. And many bloggers were up in arms over it. They questioned the logic of their blog administrators in allowing what they called “advertorial content” on the site, which would lower the credibility of all the other writers. I followed the arguments back and forth for days. It didn’t take long, after ten or more writers left as a direct result of the decision, for the SB overlords to cancel the Pepsico blog (or Pepsico pulled out to avoid more negative press).

I spent more time on the SB site in three days than I had for the past year. I was on a binge. Sad thing is that the surge in readership for the site as a result of the controversy still brought in a lot more readers. And some people will say there’s no such thing as bad advertising when the results are more sales — or more interest. It certainly worked with me. Now I have to be smart and start doing my own work again, hoping I can make something that will matter not just to me, but will affect others the way chocolate and Science Blogs have affected me. LOL

On finishing things

 

My first quilt -- called Gabbro

 

I got the idea for this quilt months and months ago. I had all these smallish pieces of fabric, because I have a friend who likes to hang out in fabric stores. Being one of those people who is attracted to bright or shiny things, I invariably ended up buying a handful of “fat quarters” or other pieces less than a yard. They were always in some random kind of pattern or batik that suggested water, or clouds, or sedimentary rocks, or some other bizarre thing. But I didn’t know what I would ever do with them.

Until I saw this picture when I Googled “gabbro” to find out what kind of rock it is. 

Microscope slice of gabbro

I found the picture on a site with other pictures of “Rocks under the microscope.” Gabbro is an igneous rock made up of chunks of different minerals — not always the same ones. It’s a hodge-podge. I like hodge-podges. I like the opportunity to use the word hodge-podge in a sentence, or three.

I thought “Ah ha!” That would make a cool quilt. (Now let me issue a disclaimer, here: I am not a quilter — have never read a book, even though I own one, or taken a class in how to make a quilt. I know how to use a sewing machine. That’s it.) With my typical “Damn the procedure and full steam ahead” mindset, I found a piece of fabric that I could use as the ground matrix — that’s the darker gray stuff — and started planning out how I would assemble the jigsaw puzzle of all the various fabric “minerals.” What held me up for all those months was how was I going to patch together a bunch of odd-shaped pieces and keep them from unraveling around the edges, and then attach them to the back?

Then I discovered a lovely product that you can iron onto a piece of fabric, turn it over and remove the paper backing, and iron the first piece to another. Oh, happy day. I was on my way. Everything else was all done off the cuff, on the fly, by feel, or by guesswork. In other words — standard operating procedure for me — I made it all up. The real miracle is that it all actually worked. Sometimes I amaze even myself! (All right. Maybe I amaze only myself, but as long as someone is amazed, I have accomplished something.)

Something else I recently finished, although I had begun to doubt I ever would, was a correspondence writing course. And this is old school correspondence, using paper and envelopes and going to the post office to have the thing weighed and paying postage. Yeah. And I started back in…well, maybe I don’t want to think about how long it took me. The point is, I sent in my last assignment yesterday, and I did learn a lot from taking the course. Not just about writing. I learned about my own thought processes, and to what lengths I would go to avoid interviewing another human being face-to-face. Gah. Need to get over that. Need to chant my mantra “People don’t bite. People don’t bite…” etc.

So, now that those things are no longer sitting on the back burner simmering down to unrecognizable sludge, I can work on some of the newer things that have spent less time on the back burner. Time to get out the paints.

Lost treasure, hard times, and small miracles

In the face of all the rotten things that are going on in the world right now — the earthquake in Haiti, the drunken staggering economy, the fact that I can’t find a job and have no money and may have no water or electricity, or a home, next month — I came across something the other day while my brother and I were cleaning out an old storage unit that the owners plan to demolish to make way for “mini-warehouses.” It was a poem I wrote a geologic age ago, printed on a yellowing page with a dot-matrix printer (yeah, that old). I had forgotten I wrote it. Normally I don’t do poetry — writing or reading. Maybe after you read it you’ll see why. But I kind of like it. Here it is.

Fantasy Lost

In the faraway land of Mallenorn
Where enchanted creatures go,
There dwelt a lovely unicorn —
The last of her kind, you know.

Her mane was white as the driven snow.
Her eyes were darkest brown.
Her horn did shine with a golden glow,
and her tail was like silvery down.

On the other side of that isle of green
there lived a dragon bold.
And in the forest called Genzereen,
flew a griffon, all yellow and gold.

The phoenix lived on the highest peak,
and soared every day through the sky.
With fiery wings and a gilded beak,
he sailed to the clouds on high.

But none of the creatures could leave that place
to travel the paths of old.
For changing times, and the human race
had cast them out in the cold.

So they found a forgotten, enchanted land
to live in forevermore,
Except for when chance, and a poet’s hand,
can bring them to life once more.

 

At this point in the game, I sure wish I could join them. I’ve spent a lot of my life living inside my own head, where all the wild creatures are gentle and a bit sleepy, people are never mean or petty, and no one expects me to be something I’m not. But at this moment in history, I can’t escape the harsh reality of the present situation. Teetering on the brink of possibly losing everything I own and hold dear — like a heated building to live in and food to eat — is scaring the stuffing out of me. But it might not happen. My fortunes could change overnight. Somehow I always keep thinking they will.

In the meantime, comparing what I have at the moment to what the people in Haiti have, I’m aware of how immensely better off I am. As long as I can keep scraping together enough money to pay something on the electric bill and the water bill and buy another bag of dog food for the Puppy, some bread and peanut butter for me, I’ll get through.

And I have to say how glad I am that I’m not married anymore. I can only imagine how much stress it would add if I was still married to either of my former spouses, both of whom thought that their money was theirs to spend, and my money was also theirs to spend. It was always left up to me to figure out how to pay for groceries and utilities with what was left after they finished playing.

What has been remarkable in all this is how well my brother and I have been getting along. I guess the “blood thicker than water” proverb has some teeth to it. I’m very sensitive to negative energy, to use a New Age term, and if he was hating on me for not being able to find a job, I would know it. But he’s not, and that actually surprised me. When we were growing up he seemed to be hating on me over every little thing, like my very existence. Being older and wiser definitely has its perks.

The Perfect Tree

Low maintenance Christmas tree

Low maintenance Christmas tree

I actually wrote this story three years ago, and sent it out to some friends and family members in a holiday e-mail. I thought I would publish it again here, because now I have the tree painting to go with it. I had planned to send out a few hand painted cards this year, but got sidetracked by the crazy planet-building frenzy, so this is my attempt to compensate. Enjoy. And have a lovely Christmas day.

Almost as soon as I started taking watercolor lessons, burning with the desire to paint Grand Canyons and beaches and sunsets, it was time to paint Christmas cards. Christmas cards? I think the last time I sent out Christmas cards was over twenty years ago. I was still a student, trying to write a little personal message in each card to all my friends and family, and my in-laws, and trying to study for finals. No wonder I gave it up as a hopeless business.

But I decided to make the best of the painting lesson, anyway. Knowing how to paint a snow scene might come in handy some day, although Christmas in central Texas almost never involves snow. The next two lessons were “painting Christmas decorations,” and “painting poinsettias.” The Grinch in me came roaring to life and I skipped those two weeks. After all, I had paid for six lessons, and I could exercise a little discretion over which six lessons I chose to attend. At the “paint what you want” lesson I painted a beach scene and a desert scene while almost everyone else worked on their poinsettias from the week before. The next lesson would be “painting a snow scene.” Jeez, will this never end? Once again, I opted out, this time using my dad’s birthday as an excuse.

“I have to bake a cake that day,” I explained.

I used to enjoy the Christmas season. I was always eager to drag out the old decorations, dust them off, and set them out for another holiday season. So what happened? Maybe it’s because I live in the “House of Grinches.” Four years ago I left my job and life in Kentucky and came home to look after my aging father. My mother died in 1989, and since then, my dad and my divorced brother had been living under the same roof. Now I (also divorced) was going to move in with them. Oh, joy.

Neither of them has ever runneth over with holiday spirit. That was my mother’s department, and mine. Or it was thirty years ago, before I left home and tried to live with other people’s expectations. Come to think of it, I was married to a couple of Grinches.

So maybe I can paint a memory, I thought. Maybe I can paint a Christmas tree, and hang it on the wall where it won’t take up any room, and the dogs can’t knock it over, and I can paint all the old ornaments on it — the ones I remember from childhood. I can paint a perfect Christmas tree. And I remember one that came very close.

I think it was my last year in high school, and with one thing and another going on, no one had had time to go shopping for a tree until finally, my mother and I went out with only a few days left before Christmas. We were expecting to find a bargain. We also expected to find the trees no one else wanted — the ones with uneven branches that created flat sides and asymmetrical gaps. We needed a funny looking tree because some of those old ornaments I mentioned were eight-inch long daggers — glass and tin “icicles” — that needed space to swing.

The tree we came home with needed work.

“This is not going to fit on the coffee table,” Mother pointed out.

“So we’ll have to saw off a few inches. We can do that,” I assured her. The masculine family members were off hunting for the weekend, but I was confident that we didn’t need men for this job.

I found a saw and went to work. Mother held the tree while I removed several inches of the base of the trunk. Needles rained down. When I was finished, the tree wouldn’t fit in the tree stand; lower branches were in the way. Simple. They would have to go, too. I started sawing again. More needles fell.

“If we keep going like this, we’ll end up with a naked twig,” I muttered. Mother started giggling. The tree slipped. I dropped the saw. I started giggling. Pretty soon we were both laughing so hard we could barely stand up, much less cope with a balky Christmas tree. Finally, after much huffing and puffing, and pauses to get our giggling under control, we had the tree in the stand (with water, to save the few remaining needles), and the whole thing perched atop the coffee table in the living room, with a white sheet draped around the bottom to hide the stand and simulate a snowy landscape for our “Christmas village.”

We strung the lights, then hung the ornaments.

“Look at this,” Mother said, as she held up a huge blue globe. She added an extra hanger to the one already attached, and hooked it to a branch. She gave the ball a light push and grinned as it swung free.

“Now that’s how tree decorations are supposed to look,” she concluded.

After the ornaments we added the “icicles,” shiny strips of silver plastic, one strand at a time. Then I arranged the houses and residents of the village under the tree and turned on the lights. Mother turned off the room lights and we stood back to admire our work.

“Now blow,” Mother instructed, and we blew softly toward the tree, stirring the glittering icicles and swaying the ornaments. The tree sparkled. My eyes filled with tears. They still do, at the memory.

And that is the Christmas scene I want to paint. If I don’t get it right this year, I can keep trying next year and the year after; and every year, no matter how the painting looks, I’ll have that memory — that spirit — back again.


Writing about writing about writing…

Yeah. A lot has been written about writing. Whole books. Shelves of books in bookstores and libraries. How to write. When to write. Where to write. What to write. Who is writing. Writing is an art. It’s a science. It’s a hobby. It’s a living (breathing, teeth-gnashing monster). It’s a construction zone.

For all the writing that actually gets written by people, I’d bet that a whole lot more writing gets done in the heads of the writers. I write in my head all the time. Most of the stuff never gets out of my head and onto a page. A lot of it drifts away on the ether before I get around to picking up my writing tools. The thoughts get lost. I retrace my steps, look in corners. Nothing. Vanished.

That’s why all the books say a writer, or a would-be writer, needs to write every day. Like a concert pianist needs to practice musical scales as well as the new symphony she’s learning; an artist needs to pick up paint brushes and slap some pigment on a canvas. It has to become a habit — that getting-down-of-thoughts. Start a story or an essay even if you don’t know how you’re going to finish it. Work on developing more than one idea. They may be able to inform each other. And find a way to work that makes it feel like a reward.

I have a pen that I absolutely love. I have written more since I got this pen two years ago than I did in the previous ten years. And I have clipboards scattered around the house, each with a writing pad of nice, 20 pound bond paper. There’s better paper out there, but this is good enough for now, on my budget. Most of the writing pads are about half used up. I tear out the pages when I finish something, clip them to yet another clipboard, and type them into a text file on my computer. I save the handwritten pages in a file folder in case I need to refer back to the original. I usually change some things as I type. Typing the first draft is something I only do if I know I’m just writing something short for my blog, or yet another job application cover letter.

I have a program on my computer called Dark Room, that I downloaded from the Web. When I open it, it makes the entire screen the dark gray/green of a turned-off television. The text is light yellowish green. In short, it looks like computer screens used to look, not like the gadgety word processing programs that try to make you think you’re looking at a 8.5X11 inch piece of paper. Using Dark Room simplifies the process of composing at the computer. It’s just me and the keyboard and the words, glowing softly back at me from the dark background. A friend and fellow writer once told me that reading yellow text against a black screen causes less eye strain. Maybe he was right. It’s odd, though, that I find it so much more relaxing to use blue ink on white paper than any computer configuration. Maybe this is more about reducing whole-body strain. I tend to build up tension all over (and heat) when I sit in front of my computer for very long.

I guess, ideally, I would be happiest if I could scan my handwritten pages into a program that could convert them to computer documents. Or I could just paste the pages into my blog as JPEGS and let readers decrypt my handwriting to the best of their abilities. But whatever I end up doing with the finished product, the important thing is to WRITE THINGS DOWN before they can escape.