Goat on the Road

goatI met a goat on the road today. He approached from the opposite direction, running at a steady but moderate pace—not a gallop but more of a trot. It seemed about the same speed as my car had reached, as fast as I felt like driving on a hot August morning when a faster speed would have generated billowing plumes of dust from the powder dry land. He ran in a straight line along the roadway, his intention of uninterrupted travel quite apparent in his demeanor. He needed to be somewhere.

He was a small goat, not exactly a Nubian or Toggenberg but of some mixed breed, with a confidence attesting that in spite of his lesser size, he was most assuredly full grown. His foot-long horns flared from the top of his head up past his ears and off to each side of his black-marked face. The only other markings on his white body were on his legs, black from the knee down. His body held the features of a potent male, well-muscled in the chest and shoulders, his sides curved in health.

As it happened, we took the wrong sides of the road as we approached each other. He seemed to favor the right side of the road and I did not find it necessary to confront him about it. No doubt he had skipped the part of driving lessons that taught the proper side of road, but then perhaps not, since he was a goat and goats have their own firm opinions about what they will and won’t do at any given moment in time, rules be damned

We considered each other with curiosity as we slowed in meeting, a greeting and courtesy that, on reflection, I concede should not be limited to human travelers. His gold-flecked eyes came directly to mine, the black pupil slits narrowed against the sun already brilliant in the hot sky. It was not a hostile exchange, since I was quite willing for him to go on about his urgent business that called to him from somewhere to the west. For myself, I was already late for business to the east.

His expression conveyed a world weary understanding that we all have places we must go, or return to, in the course of conducting our daily affairs. It was not immediately clear whether he was coming or going, but then neither was that really any of my concern. His gold-eyed appraisal was brief and to the point, whether I was someone he knew, whether I meant him any trouble, whether I had any rolled oats he might nibble before continuing on his way. In moments, he gained the answers to his queries and began to move on.

Likewise, my glance carried questions. Was he seeking assistance? Was there any trouble? Was there anything I should do? No, it was clear nothing was required of me. His flat black nose lifted slightly, a nod of acknowledgment which I returned before thinking that I was, in fact, conversing with a goat.

I eased my foot off the brake and the car rolled eastward, tires crunching on the hot gravel. He hurried on without a backward glance which I knew only because I gave a backward glance in my rearview mirror. I did not ponder whether a goat, like fabled dogs and a few cats, might travel to find a family that moved on without him, or whether, once moved to quarters not exactly to his likely, he might make his escape and return to his preferred location.

Those were questions not to be answered unless I followed him. If I followed, as if examining a quark, I would have altered our original trajectories.

~~~

I’m wondering if this is a common occurrence–have you ever met a goat on the road?

One of twenty delightful essays about life on an Ozark hilltop, with watercolor illustrations. I Met A Goat On The Road: and other stories of life on this hill is available as e-book or in paperback.

Indies and Reviews

Yosemite-Sam-warner-brothers-animation-30976315-800-766As an indie author, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with five-star ratings for books that suffer egregious errors in grammar, structure, and other basic elements of writing. I make no claim of perfection. Improvement is an ongoing process for any writer.

Back in the day, agents and publishers’ editors served as a crucial line of defense against not only incorrect spelling, but also horrific word choice, lousy sentence structure, and overall failures in form. But those defenses have been stripped away with self-publishing. In a perfect world, authors would be able to monitor their own works for possible shortcomings, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is a very difficult task.

The first thing that went out the window with the proliferation of unfiltered self-publishing was mainstream reviewers. And who wouldn’t run for the hills to escape this tidal wave of works containing every possible flaw? How could one ever know which book was worthy of price and time in a sea of astonishingly awful wordcraft?

Into this vacuum comes a growing thicket of independent bloggers and homespun reviewers. In most cases, the relative importance and authority of any given blogger/reviewer is judged solely by how many “likes” they have generated on their Facebook page. There is not, to my knowledge, any kind of accreditation. This is the Wild West of indie publishing and reviewing, and there’s no sheriff in town.

I confess I’ve also jumped on this boat out of the need to utilize whatever means are available to promote my works. I routinely “like” authors and books I’ve never read. I participate in contests that offer prizes in exchange for “likes.” This is so wrong! But to award more ethical “likes,” I’d spend all my time and money reading.

Before readers lose faith in self-published works, indie authors would be well served by any effort to upgrade not only the quality of writing, but also the integrity of reviews.

For example, here are a few common errors which should automatically disqualify a work from receiving a five-star rating:

  1. Point of view. Switching from one character to the next in hearing their thoughts or conversation is called “head jumping” and it’s highly unsettling and disruptive to the story. At the least, a character’s point of view should continue uninterrupted by another point of view until the end of a section designated by a mark of some kind.
  2. Modifiers should appear as close as possible to the word or phrase they are modifying. A common misuse of modifier placement is an opening phrase such as “As though rising from the sea, Margie saw Lance moving up from his bed…” Lance is the one rising from the sea. His name should immediately follow the phrase. A correct usage would be “As though rising from the sea, Lance’s form moved up from his bed…”
  3. Incorrect verb tense: “…she don’t want to date and don’t want to fall for no one else…” If a writer doesn’t have better command of language than this, they absolutely must not self-publish without spending money for a good editor.
  4. Incorrect punctuation. “It is” abbreviates to it’s. Designating an object possessed by “It” abbreviates to “Its.” But this is an anomaly within the use of an apostrophe, which is generally used to show possession. A dog belonging to Anne is Anne’s dog.

And I could go on. These mistakes and many more occur on page after page of self-published works. Yet these same works often sport five-star ratings because the blogger/reviewer became enamored of a character, or liked the suspense, or found the BDSM premise titillating. Unfortunately, many blogger/reviewers are not up to speed on the technical rules of language.

Correct language and story presentation is no secret. Countless webpages, books, and blogs recount the many ways a writer can go wrong. But learning is hard, especially for writers who blew though school without paying attention and doubly hard for those who grew up in households where improper language was the norm. Reading well-written prose is a good first step toward improvement.

Self-publishing holds such exciting promise—the author is finally able to present his/her creation directly to the reader without the “approval” of an agent or publisher. It’s thrilling to read stories from writers who never before might have been able to offer their ideas for public consumption. This new landscape nourishes literacy and intellectual questing, a much needed change in a culture too long slouching toward passive viewing.

Which makes it even more critical to do everything possible to ensure the success of self-publishing. Why not insist on the formation of an accrediting body which would establish fundamental guidelines for reviewers? A grading method could spell out specifics. No matter how great the story or charming the character, if there is rampant head-jumping and incessant incorrect grammar, the rating would be three stars at best.

Why not publicize accredited reviewers as the ones readers can trust for opinions about which books meet basic standards?

It’s time to hire a sheriff.

Waah!

ID-10090006I admit it. Displays of emotion bother me. I’m not talking about a quick hug or peck on the lips in greeting, or a quiet dab of handkerchief at the corner of the eye. And laughter of just about any level slips past my discomfort zone.

It’s the wailing and shrieking of grief that sets my teeth on edge, a face wadded up with tears streaming, shoulders hiccupping. Whoever is suffering to this extreme shouldn’t be watched. Grief on display is, to me, a bit of fakery, or at least exaggeration, an attempt to garner attention and sympathy.

Similarly, I don’t want to observe someone convulsing in pain. If it’s an emergency, I would be the first to summon medical care or do what I could to relieve the injury. But if there’s nothing to be done, if the person is recovering from surgery or an illness and the moans and groans tumble from his lips in a constant agony, unless it’s a loved one who can benefit from my bedside assurances, I don’t need to be there.

It’s not that I deny soul-stirring experiences. But to me, these moments of extremis should be kept private. This was how I was raised, likely a tradition hearkening back to my cultural origins in the British Isles where a stiff upper lip practically goes without saying. I suspect an evolved survival instinct at work here. Indisposed by injury or seized in grief, a person is unaware of a lurking threat who means to take advantage.

And it’s not that I myself don’t wail and sob in sorrow, or writhe with a crushing headache. But I do it alone, behind closed doors, where I’m assured that no one observes. Alone, I am safe to let down my defenses and lick my wounds in solitude.

I’m one of those people who don’t want a hospital stay to become the next big event. I’m very appreciative of new laws requiring the hospital to gain my explicit permission before allowing anyone to wander into my room. Once, years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed in considerable discomfort following surgery, I was set upon by do-gooders from my mother’s church who stood at the bedside and murmured various platitudes as if (a) I could actually comprehend what they were saying through the fog of pain meds, (b) their words somehow provided me important comfort, and (c) we could all pretend that their visit had little to do with anything but a kind of distorted voyeurism. I hardly knew them. I was outraged, but of course I couldn’t leap up and show them the door, which—I think—may have contributed to their pleasure in being there.

Like church do-gooders, many people evidently get off on watching other people expose themselves. This would explain the otherwise incomprehensible rise of various types of television shows where people intentionally throw their bodies through sadistic obstacle courses, or wade into a competition for a love partner, or allow cameras to track their every private moment. Who are these people? And I don’t mean just those crazy or desperate enough to submit to this kind of “challenge.” Who watches this stuff? Who wants to observe someone farting, or gasping for air, or sobbing in humiliation? Ye gods! Spare me.

Is it a good thing that people are recently more willing to exhibit their pathos for public consumption? Some argue ‘yes,’ that it is only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can breathe through the suffering and grow as a person. But please note—I’m not advocating for denial of feelings. I for one am confident I can acknowledge my feelings and ‘grow’ without subjecting those around me to the process. Please explain how exactly internal growth benefits from an audience? If anything, the audience factor dilutes the event’s vehemence and immediacy.

Is emotive denuding a new kind of drug? Are we reducing our most heart-felt moments to ridicule and (excuse me, it’s time for popcorn) commonality as another way to avoid really feeling what we’re feeling? Are we watching gladiators fight for their lives while laughing in the stands? At what point do we connect the dots between routine trivialization of sensibilities and killing without compunction?

But pardon me while I change hats. I am not only an extremely private person but also an author, striving to create stories that someone wants to read. And while I myself will not let my personal emotions slip past my mask, I have to keep in mind that my characters will gain no purchase among readers if they do not spill their guts all over the page. In order to breathe life into made-up people, I must make them laugh, cry, tremble in terror, and contort in agony. Whether the descriptions of these various feelings are torrid or restrained as befits the tone of the story, characters must reflect their intimate experience of love or battle in ways that reflect what the reader would expect of a real person. My bias against overt expressions of passion thus works against me in my writing.

Consolation in this conflict between what I do and what I write lies in the fact that my stories are a private experience between the reader and the page. Even more to the point, the way in which I develop and expose characters to events that wring their hearts and tear their flesh is in itself a private process contained within the scene and its circumstances. Beyond that point, if the day arrived that a story of mine appeared on television or the big screen where all those intense moments were exposed to the scrutiny of large audiences, I myself would not be able to watch.

Love

farm house door 0001Slowly and over years, he broke her down. Where there had been joy and affection and spontaneity, her emotions shrank until now she could not cry. Or sing.

His arms held her, his mouth took her, and with his body he brought her to the pinnacle of love. What she had never known, she knew with him. And she gave in return, every moment of their pleasure a stream of heart-joy flowing between them. There were flowers, jewels, children, brilliant afternoons bathed in sunlight.

But the mornings, only hours after being consumed in their most intimate moments, the mornings found him as another man. This man did not bring flowers or smile. He woke raging. No hugs, no warm exchange of touch or conversation. Any sound, any dish out of place, and his fury exploded in shouts, slams, curses.

The excuses she made for him could fill a book. It was a dry drunk, his need for alcohol stronger than his ability to live without it. Therapy added more excuses, that he’d repressed a traumatic childhood, that he had a blood sugar problem, that he couldn’t handle the vulnerability that came with strong emotion.

He never made excuses for himself. To him, every angry moment had legitimate reason. Any attempt to force realization or ownership produced more anger.

It took on its own cycle. The buildup with friendly conversation, daily routines, desire slowly building to consummation. The eruption—door ripped off hinges, dog kicked, screaming as veins protruded in his neck. The alienation–her withdrawal, sheltering in herself, with her children, with a routine that slowly became more of the norm that any courtship, than any love.

“One of these days,” she told him, “it will all be gone.”

And after twenty years of trying, believing, hoping, when it was all gone, she asked him to leave. And he left.

And when another twenty years had passed, she still loved him. Still didn’t understand the anger, still couldn’t sing.

Oh, Writing

Performing Arts 0063Wake up. Shower. Dress. Computer—Pandora on New Age Electronic, email two accounts. Facebook sometimes, if I’m not deep in a project.  All that angst and friendly chatter impacts the story, the dialogue, the next scene that has penetrated my dreams, followed me to the toilet at one a.m., hovered around me until this moment.

This moment, when I start to write… Wait, make a cup of tea, get a glass of water. Eat a pear to stave off serious hunger, to buy at least an hour before I have to deal with food. Get the document open, remind myself of where I quit the day before, edit, equivocate, pep talk about how I’ll get there, how it will work out, how to let go and let the words flow.

Finally, the hunger becomes overpowering. It’s 9:30 a.m. I’ve barely geared up into the mind-frame of the story, what century I’m in, what character is speaking through my voice. I tear myself away to the kitchen for a bowl of granola, not in itself a major task, but then I’m reminded that I meant to do dishes yesterday, and the goldfish is swirling frantically in the tank, signaling in big gorps that it’s past feeding time.

And then there’s the guilt that comes in looking at cat food bowls now empty, cat water below their preferred level of freshness, dog food bowls also down to a few crunchies, and laundry wrinkling in the dryer. I should tend all these things, check the folder of bills due, write some checks, go to town for groceries.

NO! Carry bowl of granola to desk, sloshing milk on the floor (clean it up later) and get back into the story. The person. The scene. Belly shuts up loaded with granola and milk. I have maybe three hours now before my body makes other demands. Well, yes, I need to pee.

The hunger starts around eleven, but I sip the cold remnants in my tea cup and try to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head. What will you have? Do you need to cook? What about grocery shopping? Finally angry with a hunger headache hovering in the top of my head, around 12:30 I peel myself away from the desk, the plot, the people, and try to find something to eat.

The kitchen is a wasteland. Oh, sometimes I’m very good and prepare a stew or chili or a pot of beans, anything that might work for several meals. I can eat stuff I’m tired of if I’m hungry enough. Open a can of blackeyed peas and have it with a bread and butter sandwich. Heat up the meager leftovers from last night’s supper, left in a thoughtful moment for this very purpose. I can no longer force myself to eat microwaved one-dollar frozen entrees, and peanut butter and honey on crackers is pretty much on its way out as well. Lunch, in other words, is hell.

But—I must eat, because I live inside a freaking biological entity that requires food. Once the belly is silenced, I’m back to the computer and this thing that drives me, this play of words, this world—multiple worlds—screaming for release from inside my head. More hours. My hips ache. My back aches. I want never to do anything but write, but the plants in my solar porch are shriveling. The floor begs for a broom. I have errands to run.

Cholesterol is gathering.

And phone calls, oh please God not the phone. Relatives, friends, whoever thinks it’s his or her duty to wish me a happy birthday, or Merry Christmas. Chat. Please take note. My happiest birthday truly would be a day left utterly and serenely alone, perhaps food served at my desk, the house cleaned while I don’t watch. Bills paid by magic, without me wrangling over every last dime, juggling which gets paid first, which waits until a bit more money finds its way into my accounts.

It would be dishonest of me not to say that I own two deeply mortgaged commercial rental properties, a total of sixteen units in one which are rehearsal studios for rock bands, and a total of ten units in the other which are low-cost entry level downtown business spots for fledgling entrepreneurs. These properties also have bills to pay and endless drama. Vacancies and eager new faces come and go. It’s a business. It’s how I pay my home mortgage, electric, and the numerous and sundry costs for existence in this world. Well, maybe not new clothes this year… I thank myself often for having the foresight oh so long ago to pursue these bits of real estate. Without it, I’d be working in some else’s employ into the dim days of my antiquity.

Never mind the dream that someday, with due diligence and supreme good fortune, this play with words might actually produce meaningful income. I can’t think about that. It’s too much to hope for, too out of the norm for all us who stumble along this writerly path.

So by four or perhaps five p.m. depending on the story, the people spilling onto the screen at the stroke of the keys, my creative juices finally dwindle to a drip and my writing day ends. In all, if I’m blessed with the least possible number of distractions, I’ve been able to write/plot/dream a total of eight hours. I collapse on the couch to watch mindless television, have a drink (or not) and deal with the last demon, that monolithic hurdle of What To Have For Dinner.

The body is relentless. As are the plants, cats, dog, goldfish gorping again at me from his tank, the dirt caked on my hapless Honda, the twigs and other debris littering my porch, the dust bunnies taunting me from the corners, the laundry still wrinkled in the dryer.The evening sinks into a war between my guilt for so many shortcomings and quickly jotted notes as one, perhaps another, plot point resolves itself in my subconscious.

The bed looks good, refuge, haven. But by the time I’ve wrestled my night’s sleep thru distant gangs of howling coyote, a relentless full moon, and the continuing bits of dialogue slipping in and out from wherever it lives, I’m ready to get up. It’s dawn. The story calls.