Don’t Embarrass the Dog

As I’ve mentioned (briefly) before, The Missus and I have a recent addition to our household population: a Yorkshire terrier named Sophie. That is not Sophie over at the right — it’s one “Lexi Ann,” from the site. But it’s a good place to start this post.

We got Sophie as a “rescue dog,” which is to say that she was extracted from a bad, potentially dangerous situation by our local Big Dog Rescue group. (Yes, big: ha ha.) Many of the dogs in such situations have been in them from the start; Sophie’s case was different, in that her original owners had loved the bejeezus out of her, had taken exceptional care of her. It was just that their situation was about to change, and change radically.

From the evidence provided by Sophie’s behavior, we’ve concluded that she was probably very much spoiled by her original owners. For instance, together with her favorite toys and beds and such, we also got an entire basket of doggie clothes — some at the extreme of the “bad to the bone” outfit in the picture. We have almost never put any of these clothes on her and she seems happy with their absence. (Apparently kinda like the way many humans feel when they first “go commando.”)

The other night, The Missus’s sister and brother-in-law were coming over. Laura had already met Sophie, but Gary hadn’t. In order to give him the full benefit of The Sophie Experience, The Missus decided that Sophie should be wearing something cute when she met him. So saying, shortly before L&G’s arrival, The Missus put the dog into something that resembled a pale-blue pullover sweater.

[Update 7:06pm EDT: The Missus informs me that per usual, I here demonstrate shaky memory of a lady’s wardrobe. Only vaguely, apparently, could Sophie’s outfit be described as a pullover sweater, nor was it pale blue. It was a purple T-shirt… perhaps with some pale-blue trim and/or rhinestones. Please make the necessary adjustments as you continue reading, with gratitude for The Missus’s zeal for accurate reportage. :)]

Here’s what happened:

First, when she saw The Missus get the basket of clothes, Sophie meekly sat at her feet, her shoulders hunched over. She knew what was coming, see? And with an air one could describe only as glum, she accepted the selected sweater.

Second: The Missus brought Sophie out of the bedroom into the hall. However, Sophie would not by herself come into the living room. She lay down right at the threshold. C’mon, Sophie, said The Missus, it’s all right. Come on into the living room.

Nothing doing.

So then The Missus picked her up and carried her. When she placed the dog on the living-room floor, Sophie immediately sank to her belly and slunk around to the back of a chair.

If The Missus hadn’t removed the sweater at that point, we’re convinced Sophie would still be there. Cowering, in the glare of public attention.

But — surprise! — this isn’t a post about Sophie, not really, nor about dog ownership in general. It’s a post about writing.

In her two most recent posts over at the writing on the water blog, Marta has asked two seemingly unrelated questions which, it happens, are actually two sides of the same coin.

In the first of these two posts, she asks a writer’s eternal question:

…how do you know when a story is done?

In the second, the question is thornier (because its answer depends on the answerer):

What do you do if your negative feelings about your work threaten to overwhelm you? What convinces you that a writing life is not so bad?

Now, in the first, she’s asking about a story; in the second, about writing — the process, the career, the life. Yet the questions both boil down to the same thing: How do you know when to stop?

Of the replies to those questions, I think I most liked Shelly Lowenkopf‘s; he was answering the first, but (again) it works for the second as well:

I know a story is done when the things I attempt to pile onto it will have none of my embellishments and keep falling off of their own accord.

That (for me) is exactly the point where I know I’ve gone too far. It’s the point where the Yorkie, having meekly accepted the human’s decision, nevertheless slinks away to a corner — where someone new to it will (if the Yorkier is lucky) not see it at all.

And like I said, if you think the preceding paragraph is talking about a dog, you’re not reading carefully enough.

Apropos of nothing, although I guess if pressed I could say I’m trying to balance doglove with catlove, here’s a poem which will mean a lot to feline enthusiasts — and to any human, really, willing to accept the notion that cats might have something to teach us. It’s from today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac.

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Paying Attention to Setting

Taino, Dominican Republic (photo by Dr. Lynne Guitar)

A few weeks ago, I read a blog entry somewhere about the claim (phrased variously) that the setting in a given work “becomes like [or even is] a character itself.” It drove the blogger crazy, because setting and character (in his/her opinion) have so little in common. Whatever my other reactions to the rant, it got me thinking about setting. About whether I’d ever really paid much attention (due or otherwise) to place in my fiction.

I didn’t think I’d ignored setting; in fact I’d mentioned in a comment somewhere else, shortly before, that I knew of a brief passage in Merry-Go-Round in which I’d described an old hotel in a way which — yes — almost made it seem, in retrospect, like a character. But I couldn’t think of any examples where I’d done much more than (say) list the geographical features of a town, the layout of a room.

Eventually I filed the question away, and forgot about it.

I’ve mentioned before, here on RAMH, that I’ve been spending several weeks going back to look at the book which (as the cliche goes) I think I may be meant to write. The working title, which I’m not completely satisfied with but use because I’ve got to refer to it somehow for chrissake, is Grail. (Don’t be misled by that title, though. This isn’t a medieval romance or historical novel. Events for the most part occur in the mid-1980s.)

I’ve taken it through 2½ drafts so far (the first in 1991). In this pass, I’m just recording in a word-processing document certain key events and character traits from the drafted version(s), so I can look at Grail‘s whole structure with fresh eyes, away from the words in which it’s cast. This is based at least in part on the theory that I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last 17 years (more or less), and therefore will probably want not just to edit a fresh draft of the book but honest-to-God rewrite the thing, from scratch.

So anyway, I’m going through the text earlier today, transcribing information, and I came to a chapter whose events are described in flashback.

It’s a memory of a character named Albert (Al) Castle who is — to the extent anyone is — the central figure in the book. The time is May, 1945. Corporal Castle, Seventh Army, USA, is in Germany. And he goes out for a walk– a walk that will change his life.

And that’s when I came across the specific passage to which I link below. I don’t make any claims to this as an example of setting-as-character; but I’ve gotta say, I was surprised by how much attention I’d paid to setting here.

(By the way, the photos on that page are just meant to be illustrative. They don’t depict exactly where this action takes place — in one case, not even roughly the same time.)

[Link to Grail: Excerpt]

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Learning to See

Continuing last Friday’s meditation on the topic of sight, and the things which we might see differently “if only”…

First, from whiskey river‘s commonplace book*:

Picasso is riding on a train and someone sits down next to him.

Recognizing who he is, the person asks, “Why don’t you paint people the way they really are?”

Picasso asks, “What do you mean by the way they really are?”

The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, “This is my wife.”

Picasso responds, “She looks rather small and flat, don’t you think?”

(by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei; story also recounted elsewhere)

Not from whiskey river:

Jack London, by Arnold Genthe (taken 1906-1916)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe: “You must have a wonderful camera… It must be the best camera in the world… You must show me your camera.”

Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London.

When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.”

(quoted at

From The Luminous Landscape:

…a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to take good photographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

And finally, a little music. I’m not going to provide a bunch of links to online information about Ry Cooder — there’s a ton of it out there. I will say that if you don’t know his work, at all, I think you’re in for a treat. The number which follows (not one of his hits, but a performance I’ve always been fond of) is a straight-up instrumental version — a re-visioning — of an Ike & Tina Turner number called “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine.” Here’s what Rolling Stone said of the number in its review of Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop:

Cooder’s instrumental version of “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” takes the sweet growl of the Ike and Tina Turner original and sets it against some easy, sexy self-assurance. Ike and Tina made this number into a toe-to-toe at midnight, but Cooder’s version is full of relaxed and low-slung afterglow.

“Relaxed and low-slung afterglow”: love that.

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* whiskey river’s “commonplace book” is what the site’s author calls its archives. Unlike most blog archives, though, whiskey river’s are not strictly speaking chronologically organized: “They are arranged here in random order, the way they were found.”

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Puzzlin’ Evidence… Done Hardened in Your Heart

Talking Heads was one of those bands which I probably never would have picked up on — not on my own, anyhow. Predictably, in retrospect, it took a nudge from my brother.

Or rather, a couple of different nudges. One of the later ones came in 1986, with the release of the musical film True Stories. Mike pointed me to a couple of reviews and then, somehow, he managed to corral a bunch of us to accompany him to Philadelphia to see it one night.

Nominally, it’s a Talking Heads film: the group released a not-quite-soundtrack album containing its versions of the songs. But in the film — written and directed by, and “starring,” the Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne — with few exceptions, the songs are performed by other people in the cast. For instance, a voodoo priest (played by gospel/R&B star Pops Staples) sings a song called “Papa Legba” to bring love and good fortune to Louis (The Dancing Bear) Fyne (played by John Goodman).

The general idea for the film came to him, Byrne has said, from tabloid stories — how they might represent people from a single town.

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A Bout of Gout

'The Gout,' by James Gillray

From Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, quoting Lady Mary Wortley, via Hugh Walpole:

People wish their enemies dead — but I do not; I say, give them gout, give them the stone.

From “When in Gout,” by Allison Williams, Time Out New York, April 16-22, 2008:

You would know if you had gout because it’s associated with the most excruciating pain this side of childbirth. “The classical gouty attack hits the base of the big toe, and it will wake the patient up,” says Dr. Stephen Honig of NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Just the weight of a sheet on the toe can be painful.” So if your bedmate wakes up screaming bloody murder, and their cries only escalate when you poke their big toe, don’t take it personally.


Back in the days when The Missus was buying and selling antiques, she came across a curious little piece of wooden furniture. About a foot long, upholstered, its surface on an incline, the upper end curled around itself, it resembled one of those old Victorian-era fainting couches.

“What is that?” was the obvious question.

“Oh,” came the non-obvious answer, “it’s a gout stool.”

That was some time before I had my first gout attack, and shortly The Missus managed to sell it anyway. So I never really got to appreciate the point of a gout stool until later.

The first time gout afflicted me it was in a big toe, which was red and swollen. Wearing sandals, I went to the doctor. He smiled when he saw the toe, touched it with a fingertip, and when I jumped six inches he smiled even more broadly and said, “I thought so!” Alas, he couldn’t really do anything for it except order up some prescription-strength version of an anti-inflammatory/painkiller. He said I might want to drink cranberry juice, too, and sort of half-frowned when I told him of my two- to three-cups-of-tea-a-day habit. “Tea? Hmm. You might want to rethink that…”

Later, more than once, I got it in one knee or the other.

I called my boss on one of those occasions, said I didn’t think I’d be able to come in to work because all I really wanted to do was stay immobile as long as possible — preferably with that leg elevated. She told me her deceased husband had had gout, and it would get so painful that he could go up and down the stairs only by sitting on them and pulling himself up or easing himself down, one at a time.

This time around, the demon has for two days had its teeth sunk into the right ankle.

Until experiencing it, I’d never appreciated how difficult it is to keep your ankle from bending. The optimal step, it seems, requires that you turn the foot to the outside — go splay-footed on that one side, à la Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. And you also learn how to negotiate a step: when going down, you keep the ankle straight and step down with that foot first (because the ankle with the trailing foot will always have to tilt to move your weight forward and down). Going up, of course, you again lead with the gouted foot. Although putting weight on it does cause a bit of a twinge, it’s nothing compared to the fiery clamp which seizes the ankle when it bends.

Meanwhile, my childhood friend Jim is up in New Jersey Philadelphia, recovering from Monday’s spinal-fusion surgery which will — we all hope — finally free him of the devil of pain which has plagued his back for many years.

Hang in there, Jim. (And you know, you might want to drink some cranberry juice.)

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Sarge curses at Beetle Bailey using odd typographical characters

I’ve always liked punctuation; some would say I like it a little too much. For my junior-college newspaper, I wrote an opinion column called something melodramatic and “clever” like “The Outspeaker.” […checking yearbook… yeah, that was it, all right] I was convinced that the only thing anyone would notice about the column was the eloquence and subtlety with which I wrote. So I was quite surprised and confused, then, when my journalism instructor and newspaper advisor presented me with a bogus certificate, awarding me a prize for “parentheses, colons, and dashes.”

As you may know, tomorrow, 2008-09-24 is National Punctuation Day in the US. It seemed a good day to trot out some typographical trivia.

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Review: Ursula Vernon’s Nurk

I’ve got a new review up at The Book Book.

Short version: Nurk is a children’s book (the publisher says age range 9-12). But it’s a children’s book in the same way that the Shrek movies are children’s movies. That is, parents who let their children keep this book to themselves are missing out on much subversive fun.

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Art, Meet Life. Life, This Is Art.

You may remember my 10(ish)-year-old story “The Bug,” which I posted here a few weeks ago. In it, the protagonist — home at work with a fever, some kind of bug anyhow — stumbles upon a very strange cable-TV channel. Its name is The Dead Channel; all its programming has to do, somehow, with death. While some of its schedule is devoted to features (talk shows, old movies like The Loved One, and so on), the bulk consists of what our hero thinks of as “deadcasts.”

You’ll be familiar with the format of a deadcast if you’ve ever seen the regular programming of The Weather Channel. A suited announcer, perhaps armed with a pointer, stands before an electronic wall-sized radar or satellite map of the US. The person waves his/her hands over the map, as the map itself is painted over with glowing-green, -yellow, and -red swatches of color representing storms and other conditions.

On The Dead Channel, the maps don’t show stationary fronts, temperature bands, and the like. They show, oh, well… Take the deadcaster named Jack Llongo, for example. He’s obviously new at his job, a little nervous, and keeps muffing his lines, ad-libbing inappropriately, and so on. At one point he’s got a map behind him labeled MORBIDITY INDEX:

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Getting It Out of My System (2)

(Part 1 of this N-part series was here.)

'Skydiving' by amab7 of (click for original)Let’s see, where were we… Oh. Right. I’d just posted excerpts from the Prologue to Crossed Wires, my 1992 mystery, and Chapter 1 from its never-published sequel, Trapdoor. And I said that the differences between those two excerpts sprang from “something” that happened in the roughly one year that elapsed between their two writings — something whose principal result was to relax me.

This isn’t the story of how I came to write Crossed Wires. (A lot of that crosses over into autobiography — not relevant right now.) No, it’s the story of what happened after I wrote it.

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Nouveau Retro: Big Daddy

Brief post today… Worked way later on writing-type stuff than I’d meant to. (So I guess that counts as an excuse, huh?) In any case, this one has decidedly nothing at all to do with writing.

Sometime back in 1991-92, I got a very curious gift from my brother. It was a cassette tape (I later upgraded to CD) of music by a group called “Big Daddy”; the title was Cutting Their Own Groove.

On the front, an antique-looking record player seemed to be playing, was it? yes! an old 45-rpm vinyl record. A rainbow of sparks was shooting from the needle at the end of the tone arm. I flipped the cassette over, curious to see what the playlist might be. As my brother knew, my preferred musical genre at the time was oldies, so maybe…

What was this?!? All the tracks were recent hits! Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” “Graceland,” by Paul Simon…

This was a stupid cover band! What was Mike thinking, sending me this crap?!?

Long story short: a cover band, all right. But a cover band with a difference. A difference which Mike knew would appeal to me.

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