Monthly Archives: May 2012

the short story is anything but dead

Many writers compelled to craft short fiction do so against the big question about whether the short story is dying.  As a writer and a reader, I don’t feel this is true at all.  But then, I’m a fan of the form, even on days when I want to light my work on fire.  Short stories are the perfect length for the hectic life.  They’re much easier to inhabit, to fully drop into and then emerge out of, than novels.  You can get the satisfaction of a full narrative arc in the time it takes to commute to work, cook something at the stove, or wait at a doctor’s office.  I’ve even read flash fiction while brushing my teeth (a few times I’ve stood at the sink with suds in my mouth, the toothbrush forgotten).

I’m not saying reading short fiction should only be shoe-horned between other activities; I’m only pointing out it can be done that way, very satisfyingly.  Also, I’m guessing the reading life looks like this for many of us — more catch-as-catch-can and less feet-up-on-the-couch than we’d like it to be.

I’d argue the short story isn’t as “pallid” or “ill from neglect” as Mary Gaitskill once suggested.  Nor are short stories just “written for editors and teachers rather than for readers,” as Stephen King once lamented was the by-product of a shrinking readership.   There are many fine journals out there doing the good, hard work of keeping the short form alive, and a heap of talented emerging writers showing up in those pages.  And there are readers.  Plenty of them, and not all of them writers.

Readers are smart, after all, and know when they’re in good hands.  This is one of the first tenets you learn in any writing program.

Speaking of being in good hands, each year the Chicago Tribune invites writers to submit short fiction for its Nelson Algren Award.  Named after the writer Nelson Algren, the contest is free.  You can submit two stories.  If you win, there’s a generous prize, your piece is published in the paper, and you get to be in the company of fellow Nelson Algren winners like Louise Erdrich, Julia Glass, Melissa Bank and E.J Levy, to name just a few.

Beginning in February of this year, the Tribune added a book geek’s membership society called Printers Row.   Taking a page out of One Story‘s mission to send singleton stories to subscribers every three weeks, Printers Row sends out a weekly short story.  It’s also free to submit work for this project, and you can track your submission on Submishmash.

Heather E. Goodman‘s kick-ass story His Dog won the 2008 Nelson Algren Award and is now out as a Printers Row piece.  Goodman’s characters are a hardscrabble lot, eking out a life on the land and with each other.  The story is tender, gritty, unrelenting and carries you toward an inevitability that is the perfect final act, though you don’t see it coming.  But don’t believe me.  Read it for yourself online or pony up for a Printers Row subscription.  You’ll get to hold this gem in your hands and be reminded each week that the short story is alive and well.

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Categories: fiction, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

Categories: community, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

the well of souls

A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard.  Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground.  Mornings are not my sharpest time.  It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.

Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem.  A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street.  The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years.  I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners.  Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.

My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before.  The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world.  Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house.  Someone was paying attention.  It was creepy.   Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground.  He gave up and planted something cheaper.  Azaleas, I think.

John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies.  He’s actually kind of a poet.  For pirates.

“What do we do?  Call the police?  Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”

“I guess,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.

“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”

“This is shitty,” he said.

It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police.  I probably couldn’t identify my plants.  I doubted they’d be able to.  It was the perfect crime, really.  I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition.  Our street was a goldmine.

Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up).  She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better.  Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly.  Also, I should know her name and what her rank is.  Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.

Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working.  She was from New Jersey.  “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone.  How much were they worth?”

John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass.  “Oh, Jesus.  Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.

“But those plants were already here,” I said.  “Also, you love the garden.  Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”

He shrugged.  “True.  I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”

Mountain Fire

As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks.  It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen.  Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy.  I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine.  Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like.  But still.

As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid.  Someone had been casing the neighborhood.  What else in my yard had the chance of being taken?  Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night?  The windows were open.  How could I not have heard someone digging outside?

I left that spot bare.  Afraid to plant the same thing.  Not sure what else to put there.  I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.

A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods.  There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy.  What if those people were a bunch of kids?  What if they lived off the grid?  What would that look like?  How would they decide what to steal?  Who would be in charge?  What else was at stake?

Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions.  It’s a mess.  It’s my first.  The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together.  It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything.  Some days it feels like giving birth.  Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.

Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves.  I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.

I eventually did plant something in the bare spot.  Grass.   That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.

Categories: gardening, girls, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

chicken in space

Before I began the glamorous work of becoming a writer, I was a high school teacher.  I worked in several high schools over the years, doing everything from teaching English to driving the van for science field trips, but my favorite job was my first (and longest) in Bishop, California.  One of many small towns flanking the high desert of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is on the highway between Los Angeles and Reno, and many view it as nothing more than a place to stop and get gas before they go skiing at Mammoth Mountain.

But I loved it there.  In fact, I never intended to leave.  Until I fell in love and then I did leave, but that’s another story.

Bishop Union High School is a small place filled with a band of passionate teachers, most of whom have chosen to work and live in the Owens Valley for a certain way of life.  Pretty much anything you want to do outdoors is at your feet there.  Bishop has Mule Days (a whole weekend devoted to celebrating the mule; it’s fantastic; you must put it on your bucket list), world-class fishing and rock climbing, hot springs, and a rich history of conservatives and liberals working to get along.  I could go on.  Someday I’ll move back.

My favorite tidbit about my old stomping grounds is this:  Recently, students at Bishop Union High School sent a rubber chicken named Camilla into space.

What’s more, their venture was (will continue to be) sponsored by NASA.  Camilla is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot who has upwards of 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  I’d like to say I still have my finger on the pulse at B.U.H.S., but I only know about the project because the students involved were interviewed on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me last weekend.  Instantly transported back to my time as a teacher there, I listened as Peter Sagal interviewed young scientists from Earth to Sky, a team of Bishop’s middle and high school  students who are working on various astrobiology projects.  Probably it was a coincidence, but  the kids Sagal interviewed were all girls. I almost cried at the great, good hope of a tribe of young girls choosing science ( at lunch; it’s not even a class!) instead of the raft of pursuits they no doubt feel culture expects of them.  But, I digress.  I’m sure there are plenty of boys in Earth to Sky, too.  They just weren’t interviewed.

I’m tempted to pack my bags right now and  join up with Earth and Sky.  Or just hang out with kids pumped about science.  Right now they’re waiting to see what Camilla’s “radiation badges,” sent away to a commercial lab for testing, will reveal.  My guess is Camilla’s relationship with Bishop’s kids isn’t over.  I bet they’re already planning what she’ll be armed with the next time she goes up.

A SHORT LIST OF DELICIOUS DETAILS ABOUT CAMILLA’S LAUNCH

  • The kids launched her into “near-space” during a solar radiation storm  in a helium balloon that went up to 124,00 feet

  • Her balloon popped, of course, and she floated back to earth by parachute

  • She was fully rigged with 2 GPS  units

  • She wore a knitted space suit made by a gal from Missouri

  • 7 insects and 24 sunflower seeds were along for the ride

  • None of the insects survived, but you can find them pinned to the “Foamboard of Death” as examples for all future adventuresome insects about what will happen if you try to go to the edge of space (maybe this explains Camilla’s look of horror…or maybe that’s joy?)

  • The 24 sunflower seeds have been planted by 5th graders to see if radiated seeds will produce flowers, too

Categories: chickens, girls | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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