Archive for » April, 2010 «

Apr
22

Nevada is 87 percent public lands. That means the federal government owns the deed on most of my state. And since they could, they leased big chunks of it to anyone who wanted to dig it up for about 140 bucks. They called these chunks mining claims, and they still go for less than an RV space. If you have a claim, you have to maintain it (dig holes in it) and follow some other rules. But what it boils down to is this: the government doesn’t appreciate sagebrush and dirt.

Nevada was granted statehood because the Union needed our silver and gold in the Civil War. Everyone wanted our silver and gold. Everyone wants our silver and gold. Some things don’t change. But not every hole dug turned up precious metals. That’s why folks had to buy a bunch of claims and get fancy equipment and professionals and maps and computers. Or just get a dousing wand like one of our state’s successful miners.

What happened to the holes that didn’t strike gold is this: they stayed holes. Until about a decade or two ago there was no requirement to fill in the holes you dug if you didn’t want to. No matter how big the holes were. So, go figure, my state is filled with holes. Technically, they are mine shafts and adits. Shafts go down, adits go in. The way the holes were kept open is by framing the dirt with timber. Just about every forest in the state was reduced to stubble to meet the requirements of hundreds of miles of underground mining. There is no old-growth forest in Nevada.

The timber used to frame the tunnels was treated with tar. Components of that tar are carcinogenic – they give you cancer. But only technically. Technically, so long as you don’t burn the timber and inhale the tar you won’t get cancer. Technically, so long as you don’t absorb that tar through your skin you won’t get cancer. It’s the same tar they used to treat railroad ties. It’s the same tar they still use on all those decorative railroad ties folks use for landscaping their suburban yards.

Problem was, the mines caught fire. All that tar-soaked timber went up like so many charcoal briquettes. But if you were a miner, fire wasn’t your only worry. You had to worry about being scalded by underground steam pockets, suffocating, poisoning by gas leaks, being crushed by collapsing tunnels or having your partner hammer a steel pike through your head because you were working in near-complete darkness in a space about as wide as a shower stall and half as tall. As many as one in five miners died within six months of joining the rush for gold. When you die before you’re old enough to have a midlife crisis, you don’t worry so much about cancer.

Once the mines were worked clean, once there was no more gold or silver or barite or copper or lead or zinc or manganese or tungsten or lithium or diatomite to make it cost-effective to keep digging holes, once that happened, the mine owners just closed up shop and moved on, taking the miners and the economy with them. What they left behind was crumbling mine shafts and adits, a couple of “caution” and “beware” signs, some barbed wire and a lot of dead and dying towns. The ones constructed of wood are called ghost towns, and tourists take pictures and accidentally burn them down with discarded cigarettes. The others are primarily made up of listing trailers with broken windows, and empty schools. They are called the rest of Nevada except Reno and Las Vegas. These are the parts of the state with legalized prostitution. Legalized prostitution, rattlesnakes and big gaping and crumbling holes in the ground. All in all, a great environment to be a kid (that is not sarcasm; it rocked to be a kid in rural Nevada – no pun intended).

Even in the sort of trailer-park suburb of Reno that was Sun Valley, even here there lurked abandoned shafts and adits. Every kid over the age of about six knew where to find them. We hiked on out to the best ones – the ones off Seventh Street — carrying our frayed ropes, temperamental flashlights and extra water.

The holes off Seventh were mostly shafts – they went down. Barbed wire drew us in, rebar stakes with bullet-riddled warning signs told us there was something good to be found. Dirt long grown to brush mounded around the edges like a scabbed but open wound. You didn’t want to stand too close to the edge for fear of the rocks and dirt and brush sliding toward center and taking you with them. Every family had gleeful gruesome warning tales of kids falling into abandoned mine shafts never to be heard from again. That’s why we brought rope. If you fell in, you could get pulled out. If the whole shebang collapsed, the search and rescue guys could follow the rope through the tons of rock to your dirt-covered body.

The best time to go shaft-spelunking was right around noon, when the heat made it feel so good to descend into the darkness and when the sunlight pierced as deeply as possible. Seventh Street was only about a five-minute bike ride from where my family lived and another ten took us along the old access road to the mines. Just beyond the mines were The Pits where people shot bottles and targets, watermelons and a whole lot of dirt. The bottles were always beer bottles. Bring your own.

On the other side of The Pits, stood the Castle. In my memory it is stone and iron with turrets and a widow’s walk. But I think I’m confusing it with Stokes Castle in Austin (Nevada. I didn’t know there was one in Texas until near-adulthood). The Castle in the Sun Valley (Nevada. Didn’t know about the one in Idaho either. My grasp of geography has always been sketchy) desert is actually two floors of corrugated tin and plywood. Graffiti, used condoms, dead wine bottles, a needle or two – layers of delinquency. When my brother- and sister-in-law bought a brand new track house about half a mile from there I went and checked.

The Pits are right off the main road now, a holding area of gravel and those big decorative boulders people use for landscaping. Tractors, backhoes and big yellow dump trucks park haphazardly. A huge U has been gouged from the side of the hill, obliterating all those spent shells and broken bottles. I like to imagine them mixed in with the gravel used as a poor excuse for xeriscaping in the public areas of that housing development.

Back then, it seemed all we had to do was walk out into the desert, and we’d flat-out stumble upon abandoned mines, rattlesnakes, blasting caps. Blasting caps were currency. Fireworks for the mining set. Most of us in the valley knew blasting caps by sight. Hardly any of us were from the valley. We’d all done our early years in other podunk, low-rent trailer towns, all knew about changing schools when the mines busted, knew about airplane glue and brush fires, knew about black eyes, knew AA was for pussies.

But when I went back, I couldn’t find the old adits. I’m sure they’re still there, but I’ve lost that kid radar for dangerous places.

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

Category: Stories  Tags: ,  3 Comments
Apr
17

My son, Joe, stopped talking at age 2. We have no idea why. Hell, we didn’t even realize there was something wrong with that until we were talking to a nutritionist about a completely unrelated issue. We got him into the county’s early intervention program when he turned 3 (a wonderful wonderful program). Under the care and expertise of Miss Julie Cury, Joe started talking again and caught up quickly – and with a vengeance.

Because we were waiting so eagerly for him to begin talking again, and because I have a weird obsession with chronicling my life, I started writing down the funny or cute or weird or just uniquely Joe things The Joe said. Now, of course, I just post them on Facebook.

Here are the first 9 entries in The book of Joe:

1. I was lying on the couch with Joe lying on my chest. I’m not busty to begin with and was wearing a sports bra and tank top. Joe said, “Mama, where’s your booboos?” (9-9-04)

2. I asked Joe what color my eyes were. He said purple. (9-9-04)

3. I asked Joe what color his eyes were. He said orange. (Now that we know he’s color blind, this makes a lot more sense!) (9-13-04)

4. Typical exchange with Joe:

Me: Look, Joe, a crocodile.

Joe: No, alligator.

Me: No, Joe, that’s a crocodile.

Joe: No, alligator.

Me: No, Joe, really; it’s a crocodile.

Joe: No, alligator.

Me: Fine, it’s an alligator.

Joe: No, crocodile.

(9-11-04, though it could’ve been this afternoon)

5. One of Joe’s favorite phrases: “Whizzyme!” (translation: “Listen to me!”) (9-15-04)

6. Dana (a grown-woman friend), Jason, and I were sitting around talking. Joe went to the middle of the room, put his hand down the front of his pants, turned to Dana, and said loudly, “Where’s my hand?!” (9-18-04)

7. I came out of the bathroom and Joe said, “Whatcha doing, Mommy?”

I said, “I just went potty.”

He clapped and yelled, “Yay, Mommy! Good boy!” (9-28-04)

8. Leaving the Pumpkin Patch near the end of a very busy weekend. Joe and I were talking in the car. I mentioned his friends Will and Noah. Joe said, “No Will and Noah. Sit on couch.” I guess he was all done. (10-10-04)

9. It was 5:30 pm. Joe goes to Jason and says, “Night night!’ because he wants to play in his room.

Jason says no and asks Joe if he can get him some popcorn (as a diversion).

When Joe gets it, he brings it to Jason and asks, “Night night?”

Jason says no.

Joe takes the popcorn away and eats it in front of Jason very slowly and deliberately. He even holds pieces out to Jason before eating them. That’ll learn Daddy. (10-17-04)

9-13-04

9-9-04

Category: 9, Parenting  Tags: ,  3 Comments
Apr
08

In the last few(ish) years, I’ve taken two very different writing workshops that absolutely changed how I saw my writing. Strangely enough, both were on the Oregon Coast. (Maybe great teachers are just drawn to that end of the country?) But on the surface, the two workshops shared little else in common.

  • One workshop was slanted toward literary writing, the other toward genre.
  • One was taught by writers with relatively few, though impressive, credentials, the other by writers with credits coming out the proverbial wazoo. And, yes, their credits are also impressive.
  • One was relaxed and encouraged free time and seeing the local sites, the other was high-stress and encouraged staying put and writing more than I ever thought I could.
  • One was filled with cheerleading and encouragement, the other was tough love with a fair dash of you-can-do-it thrown in.
  • One emphasized in-depth group-critique, the other … did not.
  • One was about writing as art, the other about writing as a career.

But they also shared some pretty important facets.

  • Both made me feel exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time.
  • Both made me question much of the advice I’d previously heard.
  • Both required me to trust myself.
  • Both reminded me that I need more confidence in my writing.
  • Both required new writing each day.
  • Both required reading of each other’s work.
  • Both discouraged (to the point of effectively forbidding) rewriting.

It’s that last point that often raises hackles when I talk about it.

And, to be honest, I got a little hackled at both workshops, even the second one, despite having already come to believe that rewriting was over-rated a few years earlier at the first one.

So, let me break down what I learned – twice.

1) It’s way too easy to polish the magic out of one’s prose, to make it sound just like everyone else’s. To kill off a unique voice before it even has time to sing.

2) It’s way too easy to spend years rewriting or worrying about rewriting (as I have) a book that may very well be quite good already. We, as writers, are terrible judges of our own work. Plus, that’s time that could’ve been spent writing something new.

3) The road to improvement (as in big, tectonic changes, the kinds that shake up our mental landscapes and leave them forever changed) lies in writing, not rewriting.

4) Thinking there is no option but rewriting can prevent us from just starting over and running at a story from a brand new angle and finding what works.

5) Rewriting too often just tries to force new stuff around old stuff and ends up creating a big ol’ Bride of Frankenstein whose head threatens to fall off just because of unhooked accessories.

6) The feeling of progress that comes with rewriting again and again can be misleading. The rewritten parts often feel like they are better just because they’re new.

Now, this doesn’t mean you just fill 300 pages of crap and stick it in the mail. Working on a piece as you go is not necessarily the same as rewriting. Some people put things in as they figure things out, some take them out. These folks can work forward, backward and sideways as they go. I can’t. (Yet.) I have to write the story before I even know what the hell happened, what the themes are, what the character motivations are, etc. So I need to rewrite. But not in the way I used to think of it.

I’ve learned (and will likely have to relearn) not to rewrite for polish. I don’t want to smooth off all the rough edges of a piece, robbing it of all those accidental facets that my subconscious puts in. Currently, I am having fun going in the other direction — I’m not a polisher of rough edges. I’m a carver of rough edges. But, still, I need to constantly remind myself not to change things just because they’re different (and therefore new and fresh and exciting), not beat my grammar and punctuation into such submission that I deny them their ability to add nuance, pacing and a sort of playing with the reader. I need to remember to only change those things I KNOW make the story better. Like when I had a character that was male the first half of the book and changed her to female the second half? Yeah, there’s some rewriting needed. But when I wrote myself into a corner and came up with a kickass way out that might not be exactly fitting to my genre? Leave it. When my character swears because it suits her and I start worrying about whether or not that will offend people? Leave it alone. When I want to change from first person to third because … and I realize I have no real reason other than it would be different and fun, leave it alone.

Now, if an editor tells me to make changes, I’m on it! But because I know I can’t generally judge my work (a point graphically proven in the second workshop) I’m better off trusting my gut and then waiting to see what an editor says rather than trying to read minds.

I’ve also learned the value of a trusted first reader. If my first reader (or second or third, depending on where I am in the process) points out problems (and I agree), I change them. But as I’m changing, I don’t go through and second guess everything else I wrote. (OK, I do, but I’m trying really hard not to.)

It’s not about rewriting or not rewriting, but rather about trusting ourselves as writers. Letting our subconsciouses do the heavy lifting they want to do. It’s about felicitous accidents and Freudian typos and misremembered clichés and sudden bursts of inspiration — all which come into question too often in the rewriting phase because that’s when we kick the creative side of the brain into timeout and let the critical part come in with the shrill voice of authority better left to mall cops and low-level bureaucrats.

Of course, knowing the basic rules of grammar and writing is paramount if one wants to break them. And all that cool stuff that happens with the subconscious happens because of a whole lot of knowledge that has become second nature. I think.

Now, my views do not necessarily represent the views of anyone else (on anything. Ever. Really.). In fact, this may not even be what any of the workshop leaders wanted me to get out of the workshops. It may not be what other attendees got out of it. It may all be the colorful meandering of my own imagination. I may not have been in Oregon at all – no, wait, I’m sure on that last bit. There was this ocean and sand and clouds …

Look, I'm turning my back on the ocean! I'm a wild woman.

Category: writing  Tags:  6 Comments
Cindie Geddes

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