Sunday, June 30, 2013

Good Fences Are Not Necessarily Good

Where we live fences are for keeping animals in, rather than people out. It’s a different way of thinking. Chain-link is definitely not a country style. Barbed wire is. But again, that is to keep animals in, not people out. Some animals do stay out, and that is good, but not the primary objective of sinking posts and running wire.

Of course, there are places where fences are for keeping people in, and where that is a social necessity, one can applaud the construction and maintenance of such barriers. Where that falls apart, in my mind, is trying to restrain people or animals that have not, in any way, done something for which restraint is obligatory or a social or economic necessity.

There is one other aspect to the fence idea. Fences only work where those seeking either entry or exit agree to abide by the rules. For a person or an animal determined to contravene a fence, there is no barrier strong enough, high enough or painful enough to stop them short of a bullet or its equivalent. They will find a way, usually illegal, to get around a fence. But that is true of any artificial barrier, isn’t it?

Where we live, we use a more economical and easier to maintain method: "Posted" signs. I dislike putting them up, but unless you want to host hunters you don’t know, or share your fields with unknown 4-wheeler drivers, you really have to do something to establish your rules of use and behavior. So we put up signs and mark posts and trees in lieu of fences. We still have trespassers, but at least they don’t cut or tear down fencing when they misuse our land.

Is there a solution other than fences or signs? I think there must be. The only one that comes to mind (that is legal) is to be vigilant, but willing to prosecute those who perform illegal acts, and those who encourage or condone such acts in others. It does nothing to solve the problem if you simply say, "Don’t do that again."

Aside from predatory animals (human and otherwise), little harm is done beyond interruption and annoyance when invisible fences are crossed. Sometimes, too, great good can come from those willing to take a chance and come onto property fenced or unfenced. I don’t hold much with people trying to sell me something (a product, a politician, a proselytizer), or animals looking for food (bears, raccoons, coyotes), but unless they are abusive they are no more than an interruption to my day. It is even possible that there is something to learn from a visit.

I might even take away an idea for an essay.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tools of the Trade

As far back as I can remember I have had three masters: tools, words, and knowledge. That is, I love to tinker with tools and machinery, I am compelled to learn words and to use them, and I seek out the why and how of the world. Perhaps I should simplify that line to read “words, why, and work.” It is the work part that is on my mind today.

When I use the term in this context, I mean tools and machines that do things, that we use to get jobs done or to amuse ourselves or to enrich our lives. In the years that I wrote films I was fortunate to find my place among those who make teaching and training films, informational and educational videos, and public relations publications. I have learned, from the people who do the work, how automobiles are made, how glass is created and shaped, how to bake loaves of bread by the dozen, and even what it takes to create and stage a ballet. In researching and writing about so many subjects, I’ve learned words, and how to use them, and tools to share that knowledge with wide audiences. And down at the core of all of these, whether about agriculture or art or history or politics, there have been tools; things that work.

Words, for me, are tools. I find fascination in learning new words and new meanings for old words, and using old and new words to tell my stories. So it is that I find myself rejecting patterns of speech that speak to me of lack of imagination, of lack of consideration for what is said, as well as how it is said. Every era, perhaps every generation, has a cliché-speak, so to speak, that identifies the speaker or writer with a time, if not  place. It seems to me that today we have far more, propagated no doubt by that swift courier of thought, the internet: phrases such as “Just saying,” and “Who’da thought?” and of course those well-worn verbal spaces, “like,” and “you know.” Actually, I usually don’t know, and often don’t like, but there seems little I can do about it beyond correcting the speaker. I would be annoyed by that from someone else, so I refrain from trying to change those habits in others. There have been times when I have actually taught the art of public speaking, and in those situations I have tried to correct my students, too often without long lasting success.

Words are not the only tools I enjoy using, however. I love “real” tools: hammers, saws, drills, wrenches and even more exotic examples. And I love the things that need tools to be able to do the jobs they supposed to do. Old tools, often made by hand rather than by a machine, always catch my eye in an antique store, or at a yard sale. I have a hand saw, for example, that belonged to my father. The wooden handle shows that a craftsman made it, decorated it with lines and curls let into the wood. I can’t use the saw because whoever made it was a person with smaller hands than mine, and I cannot securely grip the tool to make a cut. Still I keep it because it tells me of an earlier time, when the maker and (hopefully) the user found pleasure in work. I admire new tools, too: sleek, strong, fashioned to fit my hand, designed to make work easier or to extend my strength and reach. I have a tractor that dates from 1949. Not old, not new, but still strong and useful. I love to drive it and feel the connection to that simpler time. My neighbors have bigger, stronger, easier to use tractors, and they need them, but this one fits me fine. Keeping old tools in working condition and finding use for them, I find deeply satisfying.

For years my days have been divided into the three categories, beginning with words, followed by work and ending with why. That is, I write in the mornings, find things to do that require the use of tools in the afternoon, and indulge in learning (reading) in the evening. There are interstices that allow for time with family and friends, of course, but the three main categories define most of my days.

I hope you have enjoyed today’s work.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Telling Tales, Revealing Secrets

This business of telling secrets, of exposing what might best be left unsaid, isn’t new of course. Not just spying, but tale-telling, gossip, even "pillow talk" are old and sometimes dangerous. Of course, sometimes telling what you know is important, revealing something that impacts others’ lives. The problem is, often the teller doesn’t have any idea of the consequences that act will have. It is, I think, because something is missing, hasn’t been learned, or the teller is unable to comprehend the larger picture.

I’m thinking about these things because the writer within wants to explore what makes the spiller-of-secrets act. I could try to create a story based on known facts about the two most recent exposures, one by an army intelligence analyst and one by a person claiming to be a security contractor. There are enough facts already out there to write a credible story I think, but that isn’t what calls to me. There is something that is much bigger, more critical, than a current whistleblower’s news-making act. The kinds of things these people do, like the release of what are known as the Pentagon Papers, will always happen, and over a generation or two will prove to be either harmless or important or at least part of a larger story. No, that’s not what strikes me about the performance by these people.

Of course I am concerned that high school drop-outs can be part of the intelligence community, with access to information that may or may not be critical to our security, because I don’t believe you should encourage people to ferret out information without their first having developed a moral and ethical sense that extends beyond a personal point of view. Security and intelligence work is done for many reasons, but in a democracy it must be done for the greater good. The greater good means supporting and strengthening the values of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all.

I’m much more interested in what part of a person’s character or moral code is missing or skewed. Somewhere, somehow, an otherwise rational and normal person decides that he (or she) has seen a revealing light that exposes some evil, or some unexpected future, and that the exposure will be healthy and necessary. I believe that is where things go wrong.

You see, in my view of the world, nothing is simple or clear or without nuance. I believe most people do not think things through. They fail to see consequences, not just to themselves, but to even the most distant stranger. What I want to explore, as a writer, is what is missing, what might have happened in someone’s life that either failed to implant the ability to understand consequences, or to measure the effect of bad things happening for what one person might consider good reason. And I want to attempt to understand why other people listen to them.

Mapping the brain, exploring it genetically, reveals not just the part of that organ that plays the tune a person dances to, but how that song is heard by others. It now appears that altruism, for instance, has a location in the brain that makes humans give to others. Development (or lack of it) in that part of the brain may determine how much an individual is motivated to contribute to the welfare of others, as opposed to working only for oneself. I want to look at why we share, what we share, and how that sharing affects the larger world around us. It means developing a character from the bones out.

I haven’t been able to come up with a skeleton yet, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


We’ve let the fire go out for the last time, we hope. There will be no more need until the Fall (which around here can be anytime from mid-August to mid-October). The hay has been cut, dried, baled and taken to the barn. A second cutting, if there is one this year, won’t be until late August or even late September. Daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace and Morning Glories are lining the roadsides and trails. Just the other night the fireflies announced their presence, even though we can still expect overnight temperatures to drop into the 40s on occasion. A down-jacket-cold July 4th is always a possibility.

This is the time of year when we catch up, remove Winter’s traces, substitute weeding for wood cutting. Tadpoles in the ponds are already leaving the water, lizards and snakes are helping control insects and rodents. Birds and bees and toads and turtles are everywhere, and frogs let us know they are here, too. All create a symphony, an ode to the season that we hear most clearly at night.

In the garden the promise of fresh food is already above ground, along with blossoms and dark green leaves. It is a time to work slowly, feeling the sun on your back, but enjoying (at least this early in the summer) the warmth. In winter it is felt only when close to the fire or when the sun streams in through the south-facing windows. Now we again appreciate the deep overhang of the roof that keeps the sun out as it rises higher, and we adjust the blinds of the skylights to hold off the heat a bit.

Before summer really settles in we enjoy the breezy, warm days and cool nights. Too soon we will seek ways to avoid the heat, move out of the sun, put off chores until evening, but for now the introduction to summer is very welcome. There are jobs we do later because we know we will have longer days in the weeks ahead; days when time seems to move slowly because we do. And then it will be over. Another season behind us, we will pick up saws and axes, check out the log splitter, clean up the woodshed and prepare for the cold to come. Life is a series of cycles that take us from year to year. We like to say we have four seasons here: mud, snow, fly and dust, and that sometimes we have them all on the same day. The truth is, of course, that we have a full year of changes from winter to spring to summer to fall. If we have any real treasure here, is the natural cycle of change.

We could not live without it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The End - A Lesson In Writing

It’s a toss-up. Is it harder to write "The End" when you know you have finished a story, or is it the best part? I don’t know. Last week, after some aggressive re-writing, I typed those words at the end of a short story that had to meet a submission deadline. I had put those words at the end of the story before, when I first finished it, but that was some time ago. I tend to avoid finishing a story anyway, perhaps because I’m not ready to say goodbye to it, or to the lives I have created, or simply because I’m not always certain that the words I have used to tell the story I have invented are the perfect ones, the only ones that will do the job. Good writing, I believe, is like great music: the second note is the only one that could possibly follow the first, the third the only one to come after the second, and so on. Until the composer has found that note, or the writer that word, the work is unfinished, not ready to be shared.

Once the words are there, assembled in their proper order, the story told from beginning to end, the real work begins. I know from experience that (T)here is no story that cannot benefit from cutting, from slicing out words that don’t work as hard as they could, are not as strong as the line demands. If there is a part of writing I find difficult (and here I’m talking about the intellectual process of writing, not the actual mechanical part), it is reading a line or paragraph or chapter over and over until I have distilled it fully, taken out words that weaken what I have to say because they hobble the reader’s understanding or confuse or obscure what I really want to say.

There is another consideration, of course: does a cut disrupt the flow, the rhythm of the writing? Sometimes words that seem unnecessary are there as much to support the words that come before and after, as they are there to tell the story. I once worked for a producer who always asked, before reading a new script, "Does it sing?" If it didn’t, it wasn’t ready for him to read, and certainly not ready to go into production. Cutting, editing, becomes is an act of creation, not just reduction too.

The End