Dog Days of Podcasting: The Swimming Lesson

Dog Days of Podcasting

It’s almost midnight, and I had no plans for anything specific to post today, but then I wrote this right before friends came for dinner.

Here’s an excerpt of The Swimming Lesson:

“Don’t let go, Dad!” The boy shrieks as his father tugs him further away from the steps.

“I’ve got you,” the man assures. “Kick your feet. I promise I won’t let go.”

The boy kicks furiously, sending frothy water in every direction, while his father holds his hands, and walks backwards in circles, providing momentum and balance for his child.

You can hear me read it at SoundCloud, or play it via the applet below:

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Lazy Leo Gets Wake-Up Call

Leo I’m not a hard-core believer in horoscopes, because, just as with most forms of prophecy and divination, we use our imaginations to make the predictions self-fulfilling. Mostly, I read them for entertainment.

Once in a while, though, a horoscope will be more than just a neat read. It will be a nudge from the universe, an echo of the smaller, less insistent voice of my own sub-conscious mind.

Today’s LEO advice from one of my favorite syndicated astrologers, Rob Brezny, is one of those cosmic nudges. For the week beginning tomorrow, he writes:

Renowned 20th-century theologian Karl Barth worked on his book Church Dogmatics for 36 years. It was more than 9,000 pages long and contained over six million words. And yet it was incomplete. He had more to say, and wanted to keep going. What’s your biggest undone project, Leo? The coming months will be a good time to concentrate on bringing it to a climax. Ideally, you will do so with a flourish, embracing the challenge of creating an artful ending with the same liveliness you had at the beginning of the process. But even if you have to culminate your work in a plodding, prosaic way, do it! Your next big project will be revealed within weeks after you’ve tied up the last loose end.

I spent a lovely ten days in Mexico, and have been pretty much avoiding the computer since I came home. But my brain and Brezsny’s can’t BOTH be wrong.

In the words of my favorite fictional American president, Jed Bartlet, “Break’s over.”

Time to get to work.

Cruise Control

All this week, I’ve felt a bit like my life is on cruise control, except that while I’m going at a steady pace, there’s no one doing any navigation, so I’m just running in circles. padden-royal-mail-mediterranean It’s a frustrating feeling, because it’s this|close to stagnation without quite being so.

I did all my paid work this week in an unhurried fashion, and still finished it in time to get my invoice in yesterday. I’m where I need to be on some writing (paid and not) due tomorrow. I’ve worked out twice so far this week even though I had my period (I totally get a gold star for working through menstrual cramps, even if I have to give it to myself). I’ve edited a bunch of stuff for a good friend, and recommended her website to two other good friends.

I’ve taught the new foster dog (Zelda the boxer, who has been with us for nearly two weeks now) what her name is, and where her bed is. She’s taught me what her “I need to pee Right NOW” signal is. We’re working on commands like sit, stay, and come. She’s playing with my big, sweet pointer Maximus (aka Maximus the Monster Pup), now, and no longer getting all growly when one of the other dogs tries to take her abandoned bones.

But I haven’t been working on any of my own stuff. Not my creative non-fiction project. Not my novel. Not the super-skeret project I’m co-creating with a friend. Not the short story. Not even my fanfiction. I’m not blocked, exactly, just feeling really tired, and like I need to spend some more time reading before I do more writing.

I write every day for some reason or another, but I don’t always write what I want to write.

And I feel like I’m locked in cruise control mode, but not quite sure where I’m going.

Grid Lines and Aged Scotch

Hemingway drinking and writing

My friend Becca recently moved from a house where she’s lived for decades into a new place, and her writings about the move have me thinking about my own routines.

Next month will be our eighth year in this house. As I just commented on Becca’s blog, it’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life, and while I love my house, and really don’t want to go through the temporary hell that is moving, I’m also having periodic bouts of antsy-ness that are getting harder and harder to quell.

I wasn’t meant to live in suburbia, but I’m spoiled by the space we have, and the pool, and the fact that our neighborhood is generally pretty safe. I mean, I don’t hate it, and it certainly isn’t one of those raw, sterile subdivisions, but it’s a lot more white-bread than I really like, and I wish there was a cafe within easy walking distance.

There is nothing like being able to walk your dog to your favorite cafe, grab a latte, and sit outside with the pooch lying near your feet, both of you people- and dog-watching. When we lived in the condo in San Jose, that was part of my routine, as was bringing my dog to work, and grabbing the best ever chicken burritos from the tiny Mexican place on the corner when I didn’t want to have lunch with other people.

Here, my routine is centered on my house. I get into bad habits, like writing in bed all day, instead of going to the Word Lounge, all of 100 feet away. I like working up there, mostly, but I hate having to go all the way back downstairs when my water glass is empty. It’s not the walking up and down that bothers me, but the fact that doing so distracts me from whatever creative flow I’ve got going.

Then again, most days I have to finish all my work before I shower, or THAT will ruin my creative flow.

Routines can be helpful things, but I don’t like mine to be so rigid that I feel trapped. I prefer broad frameworks, not tiny grid squares (and, in fact, I take perverse delight in buying pads of graph paper, and writing bad poetry across the squares, paying no attention to the lines). I like guidelines. I hate rules.

More and more, I’m convinced that great authors – Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. – drank so much because the alcohol buzzed forced the lines to go down and the creative walls to tumble into dust.

I don’t drink that much, or terribly often, because I have little tolerance for alcohol, but there are days when I can completely see the appeal. Sometimes I find that funny.

But sometimes, it scares me.

365 Days (A Tale of Three Sermons)

I haven’t written here in days, mainly because I’ve either been too busy or too tired, or both. So, indulge me, if you will, in a Christmas wrap-up.

Christmas Eve found Fuzzy and me driving to church a lot. First, we went to our own UU church for a vesper service. We’re both in the choir, when time permits, and while our numbers were small that night, visiting friends helped improve our sound, and the evening was both cozy and contemplative. The minister at Oak Cliff UU often begins his welcome speeches with the acknowledgment that there is often fear and trepidation in visiting a new church, and especially in casting off the trappings of other religious styles in favor of a new one. Whether you’re coming from high church to a more congregational version, or going the other way, I think that’s equally valid.

We lingered for a while, eating far too much sugar, after the service was over, and then several of us began a trek across town – across two or three towns, really, to attend a carol service and midnight mass at one of the local Episcopal churches.

On the way, even though we were in different cars, several of us were listening to a Christmas eve service broadcast on the radio from some Presbyterian church. While I felt that that minister was in strong need of an editor, something that he said struck me and hasn’t left me since. He mentioned that there were 365 separate instances in the Bible of people being told “Don’t be afraid.” It’s not always phrased the same way, but the sentiment repeats, “once for each day of the year.”

Somehow that flowed into the homily at the Episcopal church. The rector there is a woman with a delicate voice that belies her strong convictions, and I thought it was interesting hearing the birth of Jesus story from a mother’s perspective. She reminded us that while the stories we hear are generally sanitized, childbirth is messy, especially if you’re doing it in a barn.

All three homilies we heard that night were vastly different, and yet, all had something more in common than the celebration of Christmas. All encouraged us to acknowledge fear, to work through it, to move forward, and to go out into the world with light and love.

As for me, when I hear or read the the words “Be not afraid,” or “fear not” I don’t take it as a literal warning to quell fear, but to accept that fear is a valid response as long as we don’t let it cripple us.

My friend Deb wrote about the way fear cripples her as a writer, at times, and I know it sometimes does the same to me, so on this night, I’m making a pact with myself, and with Deb, to write something for myself every day.

Even if it’s scary.

We Are NOT A-Mused.

My muse has gone missing. I can’t find the voice for anything I want to write. My novel won’t talk to me, my blog is taunting me rather than being an outlet, and in recent days I’ve taken to spending huge chunks of time doing anything but being near the computer.

Yesterday, for example, I:
– re-arranged the linen closet
– took care of all the garbage, which is usually Fuzzy’s job
– cleaned the kitchen, a lot
– cooked rice to mix with the leftover stir fry for lunch
– baked chicken and rice for dinner, after chopping lots of veggies to roast with the chicken

And today, I:
– woke up before seven, despite not going to bed until nearly two
– made a pot of coffee, and drank it all before noon (well, only three mugs full)
– baked banana bread
– cleaned my downstairs desk
– cleaned my upstairs desk
– filed a ton of old financial documents
– rearranged my file drawer

Do you see any writing in there? No, I don’t either.

I have been in a reading mood – in the last week or so I’ve read the first two Sookie Stackhouse novels, and the first one and a half coffee house mysteries taking place at the fictional Village Blend in New York.

And tonight? I’m watching some show on PBS called “THE MOON” that KERA’s website claims is from 2007, but no one seems to have any information about, and it’s driving me crazy because the narrator has a soft, gravelly, British voice I could listen to forever, and he sounds SO familiar, and I can’t figure out who it is.

When it’s over, I think I will go take a bath, and see if being immersed in lovely warm, sudsy water recalls my muse.

And if that doesn’t work? Well, there’s some lovely chilled chardonnay in the fridge.

Words as Weapons

Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.
— Ingrid Bengis

For almost two years now, I’ve been involved with an organization called Soldiers’ Angels, which is a non-partisan group that writes mail and sends packages to American soldiers serving “in harm’s way.” Joining was difficult for me, and I did it in part to honor the memory of my grandfather, who was career Army, but also to honor a net-friendship with a man I know through his writings at places like MySpace and OpenDiary. Every so often, he half-jokingly calls me his muse, but in this he was mine, though he probably isn’t aware of it. Or at least, he won’t be until he reads this. If he reads this.

I remember him posting something to the effect of people not actually being able to uphold the tenet, “Love the soldier, not the war,” without the soldier being criticized as well as the situation. I wanted to prove that I could put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. I’ve never believed we should be in Iraq, but I strongly believe that the men and women in our military deserve our respect and support.

I also remember a conversation I had with my grandfather, during Operation Desert Storm, which – wow- was almost twenty years ago, now. She was complaining about people demonstrating against the war, and he, after patiently explaining to her exactly where Kuwait and Iraq and Iran were, and what the point was, finally blew up at her for her whining. “God DAMN it, Esther,” he said, “What do you think we fight for?” He went on to explain that while he didn’t much like the demonstrators either, the fact that they COULD demonstrate was a crucial part of American culture and society.

So what does this have to do with words as weapons?

Think a moment. You’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. You come from a large high school in a major city. You join the military, partly because you know if you survive you’ll get an education, and partly because it’s an escape from the life you know – one with a place to sleep, regular meals, and friends to watch your back, and partly because you want to belong to something.

Maybe your parents just aren’t letter writers. Maybe they don’t want you to serve, for political reasons, or for personal ones. Maybe you don’t even talk to them. You come from a culture of instant communication, email, text, the constant ringing of cell phones…and you’re sent to a foreign country, where you may or may not have email access, but even if you do your time is limited, and phone time is rationed the way water is during a drought, and even if the conditions aren’t that bad for you, you see others coming and going from places where the risk is greater and the conditions considerably worse, and just when you feel most isolated, you get an envelope from a stranger, who says hello, I’m here, and I’m thinking about you, and you’re not alone.

That letter – words upon a page – is a weapon to fight loneliness, and to create a connection.

Saturday at Barnes and Nobel, I picked up the book Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Samet is a civilian English teacher who has been teaching at the United States Military Academy for nearly ten years, and the book is about the way the study of literature and poetry affects the cadets in her classes.

She mentions the fact that there are some who think teaching poetry to men and women destined to be military leaders is a waste, but that there are others who passionately believe that these men and women need such studies as much or more than the rest of us, because it gives them important insights, fosters creative ideas, teaches them to think, and feeds their souls.

She also mentioned a program begun in World War II, and back in vogue today, of issuing specially sized versions of popular and classic literature designed to fit in a cargo pocket, and distributed among our soldiers. She labels this chapter, “Books as Weapons,” and she’s right.

Words have power. Just as a speech can invigorate and encourage, a good story can spark a new perspective even as it entertains. It can offer escape, or it can be the catalyst to catharsis. A poem can trigger a love of words, or create a verbal picture. And each can offer a connection to the familiar, or to the possible, or both.

Words, and the books which hold them, are weapons against indoctrination, boredom, and stagnation. They curb lonleliness, incite laughter, warm hearts, and expand minds.

Write a letter. Read a book. Scribble a story. Compose a poem. Draft, craft, recite. CREATE.

You’ll be changed.
And you will also be the instrument of change.

Taking it Slow?

How about you? Do you find yourself moving too fast through life? What’s your favorite way to moodle and make the mornin’ last? How does slowing down affect your creativity?
Write on Wednesday

In all honesty, I’m not a fan of “slow,” and find that if I do anything at less than my natural fairly quick pace, at least where writing is concerned, I spend too much time editing or self-censoring, and not enough time actually writing.

On the other hand, I do believe that it’s important to take our special moments and use them to appreciate the finer things in life, so one thing I’m trying to do is write in longhand, even if it’s just once a week.

I’ve always been a pen snob, indeed, a pen whore, and right now my favorite pen is a pink acrylic fountain pen purchased from my twitter-buddy (and all around groovy guy) Richard. Writing with a fountain pen always takes longer than composing at the keyboard – the physics alone dictate this – and I find that the voice I write in when I set literal pen to actual paper is a slower, softer one, more fluid, like the very ink I’m writing with.

Other things I do? I’m a fan of morning coffee being a personal ritual. For me, this means I pour a cup and bring it outside to my patio, where, if it’s not hot, I watch the birds hopping from tree to tree, and enjoy the sparkle of the sun on the water in the pool. I pause to water my plants (Fuzzy killed my tomatoes, but the squash and herbs are faring well), to peer at the trees along the fence and try to spot shy argiopes, the only spiders I actively seek, and I watch my dogs basking in the sun.

As we ease into autumn, and no longer face brutal heat before ten in the morning, I tend to work for a couple of hours then take the dogs for a spin around the block. I like to see what the neighbors are doing with their flowers, and such, and we often sit in the park for a few minutes.

Soon enough, however, I’m back at the keyboard, spinning words so fast that if I stop to think, I’ll lose my rhythm.

This poem is made of win.

My friend Jeremy posted this in his LiveJournal earlier this evening. I loved the poem so much, I had to post it here in my own blog, as well:

Pronunciation Poem

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
on hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
to learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
that looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead — it’s said like bed not bead —
and for goodness’ sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt)

A moth is not the moth in mother,
nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
just look them up — and goose and choose,
and cork and work and card and ward,
and font and front and word and sword,
and do and go and thwart and cart —
come, come I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Man alive.
I’d mastered it when I was five.

— author unknown

First Full Day

So, today in class, MN gave us his pep/fear talk. “There are 50,0000 people writing novels every year. You don’t have to worry about 48,000 of them. You need to give up any ego you have, and do what it takes to be in the 2,000 who actually publish. And sometimes that means your breakout novel is NOT the book you really want to write. But it’s the one that can sell.”

– He had us read a 9-page synopsis and 1-page writing sample from a real author who was beyond help (author’s name withheld).
– He had us pretend to be editors at Knopf and pick it apart, giving it a yay-or-nay and telling why
– He had each of us give a practice pitch: Name, Title, Genre, Comps, Credentials (what you’ve published, or if you have experience that relates to the subject matter), Log Line (Short description). Pitch (Jacket Blurb Nutshell).

Then he picked it apart. Half of us were asked for new titles and more definition, almost all of us were told to define our genre better (many of these ppl walked in saying “I write literary fiction” and left with instructions to get comfortable with their stories really being mainstream, commercial, fantasy, women’s fic, etc.

He liked my concept, but agreed that I need plot help (well, I knew that).

He suggested strongly that I embrace the chick-lit aspects of my idea, and make it quirky, and not fight the funny.

And he asked for a longer title.

Attached is what I came up with after class, when Michelle and I went to the Round Table in the Marina, got Pizza and Beer, and went to work.

It uses most of the elements I wanted, though I think I’m going to have to toss the 70’s part, and set it all in the future, but keeps the elements I most loved.

And he said Universal Blend should be my book of short stories.

And I agree.

Leave me a comment with your email address if you want to see my pitch :) You must be able to read word doc or docx files.