Sunday, October 30, 2011

Field Report: Arizona

My apologies (or, perhaps, you’re welcome) for the long stretch between posts.  I have been slow roasting in the desert of Arizona for the past week and a half, and there have been internet access issues.  There was also a real fear that dripping perspiration would short out my keyboard.

My father lives in Arizona.  He likes it.  He isn’t the only one.  A number of my friends, all of whom have not lived here, wax poetic about moving to Arizona for the heat.  As a suitable alternative I would suggest the sun.  However, I have to admit that for baby boomers grappling with getting older, a trip to Arizona is just the ticket.

Want to feel young again?  Go to Arizona and visit a Walmart.  Barring the zit-faced associate in the electronics department trying to explain how an iPad operates, a boomer is the youngest person in the store.  In fact, the entire Walmart experience in Arizona (if “experience” can be used to describe a trip to Walmart) is unique.  With no need for a toy section, there’s an expanded selection of denture creams, fiber supplements and incontinence goods.  I’m not so sure, really, if incontinence is truly an issue for folks in these parts. It could simply be a matter of confusion on the source of all the perspiration puddling on the seats of their vehicles.

Speaking of vehicles, I’ve noticed something about the license plates in this state.  The license plates in most states display a symbol representative of that state.  For example, Wyoming has a cowboy.  Arizona is different, as it has two.  The first is a saguaro cactus in silhouette, but the far more common symbol is a stick person in a wheelchair.  And of course, immediately below the symbol is the state motto:  “Glad to wait for your estate.”

Looking back on the above, I see that it reads a bit snarky.  Please forgive me.  Heat makes me a little irritable.  For the first seven days I was here, the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees every day.  Things have “cooled off” for the past few days by nearly five degrees.  As one might guess, I’m having a little trouble dealing with the temperatures. The locals don’t help matters. Every time I whimper about suffering from heat stroke, or try to claw layers of heat rash inflamed skin from my body, or throw up from being over heated, the locals are quick to remind me, “But it’s a dry heat.”  Indeed.  Not unlike that found in a commercial pizza oven. 

You’ll have to excuse me now.  I’m going to Walmart to hang around the frozen food cases.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Two years ago I started a book based on an idea I’d been batting around for more than four years.  After five drafts, countless revisions, and a great deal of cutting it’s finished.

What’s more difficult than writing a novel of 104,000 words?  Writing a 250 word query letter to agents. 

The all-important query letter is supposed to entice the agent (or publisher) into asking for a portion of the book, or better yet, the entire manuscript.  With 250 words the essence of the book –  the tone, the story line, and the main character –  is supposed to be presented.  More than presented; the query is supposed to snatch the agent by their lapels, jerk them out of their seat, give them a quick bitch-slap and scream, “You gotta get this – NOW!”

The stupid query is proving harder to write than the book!  I finally wrote one, but I’m not sure it lives up to expectations.  It has garnered one rejection, so far.  I mentioned the rejection on Facebook, and kind friends gathered up their torches and pitchforks to rally against the evil agent.  I appreciate the support, but rejection is no biggie.

Rejection is part of the writer’s life.  It’s actually a good thing: no rejections equal not trying.  Consider the following:

Robert Persig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE received 121 rejections before becoming the biggest selling book of the 1970’s.

Alex Haley had more than 200 rejections before he wrote ROOTS.

Joseph Hellar’s classic CATCH-22 was originally titled CATCH-18.  Why the title change?  Another book titled MILA 18 was due to be released the same time as Hellar’s.  Why choose 22?  It was the 22nd time he had submitted the book to a publisher.

More recently, Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP had 26 rejections before it found a home.
It’s good to share something in common with great authors… besides the alphabet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ol' Sparky

I was looking out the window this evening, as the sun set and provided a brilliant orange glow to silhouette the predominantly bare limbs of the trees in the yard.  It’s October.  The time of year, way back when we heated our home with a wood stove, I was obsessed with collecting all the firewood I could manage to cut.  That, in turn reminded me of my first Alaskan chainsaw, Ol’ Sparky.  What follows is the story of Ol’ Sparky, a lesson in itself.

When the Realtor showed us what was to become our castle, the words "all electric" slid glibly from her lips.  Georgia caught it though, and voiced some concern.  (She had seen the episode of "Lifestyles of the Obscenely, Disgustingly, Filthy Rich" where the subject had actually used his electric heat one month.)  The Realtor was ready for the challenge by calmly explaining that there was a fireplace in the living room, and a wood stove in the rec-room downstairs.  That was all it took: free heat in the form of readily accessible wood.  We plunked down earnest money right there.

Here's a tip for house hunters: the price you offer for a home with wood heat will not insure the availability of any fuel for your fireplace and/or wood-burning stove.  The day we moved in, it was disappointing to discover that one small shred of water soaked birch bark was the sum total of our wood supply.  Our celebratory fire was limited to the kitchen matches on hand. 

In order to reap the benefits of all that free heat, I found it necessary to make a few initial investments: an axe, a wedge, a maul, and of course, a chainsaw. 

It would have been counterproductive to spend a great deal of money assembling the tools needed to collect all that free heat, so a "good deal" was made on a used chainsaw.  There are two things I now know beyond certainty that should never be purchased used: toothpicks and chainsaws.

A card hanging up at the post office put me in touch with the owner of a used Stihl chainsaw who was willing to part with it for the paltry sum of fifty dollars.  It wasn't merely old, it was a remnant of antiquity.  It had been made, I would guess, a couple of decades before whipsaws went out of fashion.  There were, as the seller proudly pointed out, "No cheap plastic parts on that baby!  It's ALL metal!  And none of those darn safety features to slow you down, neither.  'Course, I did put on a kickback bar to keep the missus happy."  He was referring to a piece of pipe that had been bent and attached to the handle by means of hose clamps and duct tape.  It appeared as though it was perfectly positioned to snap your arm in two just above the wrist in the event of a stout kick-back.  It was readily apparent that if I didn't jump at this opportunity immediately, someone from the Smithsonian was going to breeze in and snatch it out from under me.  After a quick demonstration, the deal was done.

"Kind of hate to see ol' Sparky go.  She's got a few little quirks, but that chainsaw's cut more trees than most folks ever see.  Tell you what, if you want it to start easy, keep her in the house.  She's kinda cold blooded."

The next morning, the first of ol' Sparky's quirks became known: she was apparently the first of the automatic chain oilers, and the feature was not at all dependent upon the chain moving.  With a quick clean up and an oil reservoir refill, it was time to make sawdust.

It was a crisp October morning, and the beads of sweat didn't appear until I had pulled on the starter rope for twenty minutes.   It was time to call the seller.

"Did ya do like I said, and keep her inside?"

I affirmed that Sparky had been most comfortable all night, dribbling oil on the rug by the back door.

"Ya didn't try an start her outside did ya?"

"Well... yes.  You mean it needs to be started inside?"

"Yep.  Betcha used full choke too.  Can't do that.  She don't want to get up an' go fast first thing in the morning.  Gotta start her slow.  Just a little quirk of hers.  Probably dribblin' gas out the exhaust.  You're lucky she didn't fire off; coulda blowed yourself up.  Bring her in to dry out and try it again in a few hours.  Bye."

A few hours later, ol' Sparky roared to life with enough force to cause our cat to ricochet out of the room, leaving great tufts of fur floating in the currents of her departure.  (We later had to relocate the litter box to the other side of the house, as the stress of returning to that room caused most of the remaining hair to also drop out.)

With Sparky snarling ominously, we made our way to a beetle killed spruce on the back side of the lot to begin the "Nikiski Chainsaw Massacre."  Great hordes of small woodland creatures fled in panic before us. 

Judging the direction of lean, I made the wedge cut, then turned Sparky over for the final cut.  Suddenly, the only sound was the ringing in my ears.  A quick jerk on the rope and ol’ Sparky was back in business, but only until I tipped her on her side again.  Time to call the seller.

"I'll bet she quit when you rolled her on her right side.  Can't do that."

"You mean she'll only cut on the left?"

"No, she cuts good up an' down too, but she won't run when you tip her to the right more'n about twenty degrees.  Just one of them quirks.  You'll get the hang of it.  Bye."

Back to the massacre, which developed into more of a woodland ballet as I danced around trying to keep ol' Sparky running. 

With three trees down, it was time to cut splitting lengths. Lining up for a straight cut, the bar started in and slowly cut an arc, rolling ol’ Sparky to the right.  Time to call the seller.

"Look down that bar.  See how it's sorta creased?  That happened when a big ol' birch sorta spun and pinched it.  I'd say ya oughta get a new bar, but they don't make ‘em  anymore.  I got the last one, that one, 'bout fifteen years ago."

"So how do I get more than halfway through a log!?"

"Well, ya cut in from the left and let 'er roll straight.  Your angle depends on how thick the log is.  Just one of them quirks.  You'll get the hang of it.  Bye."

It didn't take much more than the rest of the weekend to get the hang of it, but splitting lengths that rolled over on one end and leaned over on the other, was more than I could master.  Time to call the seller.

"Well, I don't really need two chainsaws, but I'll take her back and give you a cord of unsplit firewood.  You want to buy more than that too, it's seventy a cord."        

"Okay, you've got a deal, I'll take six cords.  What'll you do with ol' Sparky?"

"Oh, I s'pose I'll sell her to somebody with all electric heat next fall.  Just one of them quirks."

I finally got the hang of it.