Reading Notes: Weedeater by Robert Gipe

Earlier this year, I posted some thoughts on Trampoline, the first in a related set of books by Robert Gipe. I recently finished the second book Weedeater, and I’d like to share a few thoughts again. This won’t be a review or plot summary, so if you want to know more about the book, check out the publisher’s site: https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Weedeater

Dawn, the narrator of the first novel, takes turn narrating this time with a new character nicknamed Weedeater. I was glad at first to pick up Dawn’s story again, but that started to be a reason for me to postpone finishing this book. Though Trampoline by no means paints an optimistic portrait of the hardships faced in this Kentucky community, there were at least some flickers of hope that Dawn would find a path forward. Those flickers were extinguished in this novel, some quickly, some slowly. There was still a thread of humor and an appreciative eye for the land and the people that makes these books well worth the time, but I had to let go of some of my unrealistic expectations in order to finish reading.

The character of Weedeater was a gift, though. I am not sure I know how to describe him well. He is in some ways pathetic, bearing lasting physical and emotional wounds, in some ways comical, at least due to some of the situations he lands himself in and the reactions he discloses to the reader. He’s also lovable and appealing, even if he could be seen as the type who blends into the shadows of everyday life. I especially like how honest he is in his assessment of others and himself. He seems to me both broken and wholly innocent.

By the end of this second book, I feel so protective of these people, ravaged by addictions to coal and OxyContin, and it occurs to me these industries are what fund Senators Paul and McConnell, two politicians who work so very hard to do nothing for the people they are supposed to represent.

There are many zigs and zags in this book, major and minor events that echo the lack of control over their lives many of the characters experience. The scene that stands out the most for me is when Weedeater spends a day working in the coal mine, and Gipe helps us peek at a past and present almost unimaginable, one almost unbearable to experience.

As I neared the end of the book, it occurred to me that many parts could just as easily work as a poem. That may give you the wrong impression. Some novels are full of heavy prose, and that’s not the way this feels. It has its pragmatic moments, and a gritty humor balanced with a relentless sense of loss. But it was moving to hear the poetry singing underneath the story.

Countdown to November

It’s that time of year again. No, not fall, though that is my favorite season. No, not Halloween, though that’s fun, too. Nope, I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month, nicknamed Nanowrimo because why not.

Just a quick definition for the uninitiated: Nanowrimo comes across as a contest, but everyone can win, and winning is defined as writing 50,000 words or more in one month. There are “prizes” to celebrate reaching the goal, such as a certificate you can print out, and free trials or discounts for writing-adjacent products. You can choose to pursue the old school goal, which is to write a novel from scratch (planning is allowed) or you can go rogue and use the month to revise or update or write short pieces everyday. Most importantly, you get to chart your progress on the website to watch as you get closer and closer to the goal of 50,000 words.

I sometimes choose to blog about my progress during November, and I like to see if any fellow bloggers are trying it, too. It’s just fun to cheer each other on. Last year, I wound up becoming shy about posting on my blog about Nanowrimo because it felt insensitive to talk about this endeavor when I knew many were struggling with pandemic-related challenges. I also am aware that some writers, and I usually assume they are better writers than I am, find Nanowrimo frustrating because it’s just fast drafting, an approach to composing that might not work for them, and frankly, doesn’t result in a high quality novel by December 1.

Recently, though, I was thinking about how over the years (and I’ve “won” Nanowrimo nine times), I often approach the month of November feeling a bit of burnout from work or whatever, yet I am always in the best mood during November. While I regret that for some writers Nanowrimo is a source of guilt or some feeling of inadequacy based on the (inaccurate!!!) idea that so-called real writers can write novels in a month (lol), I want to explain that participating in Nanowrimo simply makes me happy. It reduces rather than increases stress for me.

I think it might be helpful to explain why. Again, this is for me. This is not so much an attempt to convince everyone that they should try Nanowrimo—it’s not a good fit for everyone, and for some writers, it might be counterproductive and/or a complete waste of time. I mostly want to explain why this works for me and why it is not a waste of time for me. Nanowrimo has helped me get writing done, including fleshing out full novels, that had been rarer for me before my first Nanowrimo. But I also always must thoroughly revise everything I’ve written during Nanowrimo, so the main benefit is the idea that it can help to write every day, and you don’t have to set arbitrary word count goals to get that result and you don’t have to sign up for Nanowrimo in order to write daily, either.

So really, for me, what makes Nanowrimo such a morale booster is that unlike the rest of the year, I don’t have to wonder, “what should I work on now?” Or “What is my top priority?” There are many aspects of writing that require a lot of gritting of teeth, such as some types of revising or what feels like endless problem-solving to figure out what isn’t working in a scene, not to mention my least favorite, publication and marketing endeavors. In November, I already know the answer to the question of what should I do: Work on the novel! I need to generate an average of 1667 words per day so that I can be on track to reach 50,000 words total by November 30. The words should be fresh writing on a novel, but that doesn’t mean they have to be perfect or keepers, so I can be playful about my approach. I can work for an hour or so to get in my words all at once, or I can grab a few minutes here or there to write parts of it throughout the day.

It’s fun. It’s writing without self-flagellation. Just get it done. Be creative. Be playful.

During the month, the daily effort means the novel is my main focus, so it starts to percolate in my brain even when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I take showers or go for a walk. I’m more open to the possibilities for this one specific goal. The focus on just this one novel, rather than the Everything that I normally need to consider, lightens the load on me so much, and I get to feel productive and creative for the entire month. I must be productive and creative because the bar graph on the website says I am, right? Ha.

There are easy writing days and there are hard ones, yet the challenge is, for me, just enough that I can usually push through as long as nothing extremely stressful is going on in the rest of my life. (A certain amount of stress and distractions are always going to be there, but some Novembers are better than others.)

So anyway, this is my apology and explanation about why I love Nanowrimo so much, and why I might mention it now and then in blog posts ahead. Whether this is your writing goal or something different, write on, my friends.

This baffles me

This baffles me.

I know I’m stating the obvious, but it’s been an odd couple of years. More than a couple, to be honest.

I am trying to lean on empathy and compassion, always better choices than anger (and its central source: grief). So I am not going to blame anyone who has chosen to purchase the snake oil medicine (I reserve sharp condemnation for its salespeople).

But I have to give myself a moment to vent about what is so baffling.

If ten years ago, I told you that we would face a pandemic that would kill one in every 500 American and cause severe illness and in some cases long term disability in countless others, this is what you would say: Gosh, I hope they come up with a vaccine for it.

They did. They did come up with a vaccine. Multiple options, actually. It was a modern miracle how quickly they were able to do so while still taking care to go through all the testing procedures to reduce risk of harmful side effects.

Wow, you might say. That’s wonderful. I mean, of course, no vaccine is perfect, but it could stop the spread and prevent…

I’m going to stop you there. These vaccines were unusually effective. Not perfect, but effective, and the risk of the disease is far far far worse than any side effects of the vaccine. We also know that vaccine side effects are limited to the initial months after the vaccine is administered.

Oh, you say, that’s great. Of course, I understand that there might be a few people hesitant at first to try the vaccine. They might need to wait a few months to see how it goes. They might need to see what happens to people who get the vaccine.

Yes, that’s fair. Some people know they are unusually sensitive to drugs and just need to see what happens with widespread use. I mean, I went and got a vaccine the earliest I could because I did not like my odds with Covid19, but I guess I can understand wanting to wait a month or two as long as you go to great length to avoid contact with others until you get vaccinated.

And? How did it go with widespread use?

Really well, I say. Billions of people have safely been vaccinated. And it’s been more than 8 months since the first person received a vaccine.

Billions!! That must have been reassuring.

Well, a more infectious variant arose that does cause some of them to get a little sick. In statistically rare cases, worse.

Those are pretty impressive results in the face of a new variant. Did that cause people to question the vaccine?

Well… the trouble is, there are people now who simply won’t trust any vaccine. Not because of anything that’s actually happened but, well, I’m not sure I can explain why not.

That could be a problem. I mean, any vaccine? Weren’t vaccines what we would count on to solve this challenge? I mean, look at polio.

Yes, it is baffling.

Is it the cost?

Well, in the U.S., everyone can get a Covid19 vaccine for free, actually.

Wow!

But if you get sick of Covid19, that can bankrupt you if you don’t have the right insurance.

Yikes. That should make it easy for them…

I’m going to stop you there. No, instead anti-vaxxers are taking horse dewormer.

What? And ewww.

Yes, instead of a free vaccine with a success rate in the billions (which are numbers, to be honest, beyond what I can comprehend), they are taking something that makes them sick and has no credible evidence of helping with the disease. At most, there are people who say maybe it helped them.

Um, you say, I’m all for personal stories and the insights they provide to inspire more extensive research, but couldn’t I get better for lots of different reasons? I mean, I could decide that sitting in the sun is what healed me?

Yes, yes, you could.

That wouldn’t mean it’s true, even if you like me better than the people who are telling you about the vaccine.

Nope.

But… but… but…

I told you this baffles me.

Well, is there anything else they can do other than take the vaccine?

They can wear a mask.

Is it a heavy mask? Is it expensive? Is it harmful in any way?

Nope.

Just a mask? Like a surgical mask? Like the kind that has been around and been helpful for centuries? You don’t have to swallow anything? You don’t have to deal with any side effects, just wear an additional garment of clothing?

Yep.

Does it actually help?

Yep. (See below)

Do they do it? I bet they especially want their children to wear one. And to make sure everyone who comes near their children wears one.

Sigh….

What makes a task difficult?

Since I often spend time thinking and talking about time management, I’ve pondered what makes some tasks difficult. Maybe it’s me, but it helps to consider why a specific goal is difficult for me. That is, if I articulate/recognize what makes something hard to do or hard to start, I often make more progress than if I just plow ahead (or spin in perpetual procrastination).

Some tasks are difficult simply because they take a long time to complete. There are no shortcuts. You just have to put in hour after hour after hour. Once I know that, the obstacle can be overcome because I either realize a) I don’t have time to do this, so I change plans or b) I have to put in time each day until some distant moment arrives and I will be done. What is amazing is that I really have reached the end of fairly massive projects just through day-to-day effort, including some super short sessions on hectic days.

Sometimes a task is difficult because some necessary bit of information is not available to me. That is, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and the truth is that’s more often than I realize. Lol. And sigh. But if I can figure out what I don’t know, I can then assess if a) I can learn/gather that information, b) I can muddle forward and eventually improve, or c) this is a dead end and I should seek some other version of this goal that is achievable. Though this is not a romanticized you-can-do-anything-Cama! way of thinking, it works pretty well for me. It sometimes means I have to change my goals or change my approach or extend my personal deadlines. But that seems wiser than always being stuck in place, unable to move forward because I didn’t assess the situation further.

Another way I’ve found tasks difficult that is harder to address, and that’s when the task creates anxiety for me for some reason. Often, the above steps help me manage anxiety because I have thought through the situation, but not always. Some tasks carry risks of embarrassment and/or failure and/or something worse. A few strategies that sometimes (but not always) help are to stop to recognize how I feel and then try to make sense of why I feel that way. What am I afraid of? Do I have any control of the risks I am facing? Can I plan ahead of what to do if things go wrong? (I am a habitual planner—you may have noticed this already. But I assure you I plan time to be spontaneous once a week 😉 ). Other strategies that can help is to treat an anxiety-producing task as a game or creative outlet. I love to embrace a sense of play whenever possible. And of course, all the strategies that help me manage stress can help with this stress too (exercise, sleep, time with friends/family, laughter, volunteer work, art, dance, music, etcetera).

And in any of these cases, I always need to know at least a few answers, or answers-in-progress, to this question—why does this task matter to me?

Keep it short?

I recently skimmed through an old copy of Writer’s Market, where a section described blogging as best when the posts are short. It occurs to me that I don’t always approach my own blog posts that way, yet as a reader, I am rather grateful when one of my WordPress buddies posts something short because I rarely have a lot of time to read blog posts.

It feels like a good goal to explore what is possible with shorter posts, and I wonder if I would post more often if I didn’t conceive of the post as a form of essay.

How short is short, I wonder? Should I stop now? (Yes, you say. Nice try, I reply.)

I wanted to add this thought that came to me. Shorter posts make me think of what happens on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes called micro-blogs. Those spaces feel to me like highways, constantly in motion with the benefits of speed as well as the dangers. This WordPress blog feels more like a pasture. Quiet, almost peaceful. There is less to see unless I take time to notice what’s around me, to be open to what the day brings.

Alternative Facts About my W-I-P

Dear Publishing Professional:

This book about aliens wearing fuzzy orange hats compares well with your favorite book, which turns out to be Little Women, and I’m going to get back to you on exactly how this is the right fit.

My protagonist is indeed grappling with a life or death decision that will keep you up at night and cause you to wonder if anything is real anymore. You will need intense therapy after you read this book. No, no, I mean it, there is no way that this book is just an entertaining story with a few subtle and not-so-subtle themes. No one wants to read that any more, do they? They want to be scarred for life by the act of reading, or so your mswishlist led me to believe and I am here for it.

My novel is exactly 75,000 words long, the perfect length, I know, and that was made possible once I added the word “very” 10,000 times. I never realized how very helpful that word could be. Because I am a creative (which turns out to be a noun now, and I am fine with that), I also added the word “so” a few thousand times too.

I would tell you my favorite books except that talking about favorite books is a bit like telling someone my favorite music, and there is nothing that sparks disdain more than finding out someone likes the wrong kind of music. Let’s leave it at this—I love to read and write, and some of what I read are books.

This book will be so easy to sell because the truth is that I don’t even need any help selling it. I am just writing this query for the fun of it. No, wait, how about this—I am doing it to give back to the publishing community out of gratitude for the many books I have loved over the years, and now that I’ve written that sentence I admit there is some truth to that.

Of course, everything I’ve written so far is completely true or at least is similar to things that have sometimes been true.

With warm regards and possibly a plate of chocolate chip cookies,

Me

20 years later

20 years ago today I was having a wonderful morning. I was working in a new job that I loved. I think it must have been my second year there, and I was getting on a roll with writing in the morning before heading in for a late shift at work. The sky was a crisp deep blue, and it was a perfect fall day in the mountains. I was in a wonderful mood. I can’t remember everything from that day, but I remember that feeling so clearly because it was such a contrast to what came next.

I can’t fully remember how I heard the news. Something about a plane hitting a building. Maybe my husband told me? I got to work, and found people gathered in rooms that had access to cable news.

I remember my first impression was a small plane had accidentally hit a building.

The news grew worse as the day progressed.

I remember crying when I heard a report that taxi drivers were pulling the seats out of their cars to make room for bodies.

I kept picturing fire fighters climbing up the stairs of the building, not knowing that it was about to fall. Thinking this was something else, something manageable. Something they would survive.

I heard stories of people jumping off to escape the certain death of the building to reach the certain death of the ground. These are choices, moments, too painful to contemplate.

And I remember regretting, again, that the Supreme Court decided Bush would be president because I knew he would not respond appropriately. He would not engage in the international detective work and financial networking that could lead us to find and bring the perpetrators to justice. He would instead pound his chest and condemn countless lives to death to merely appear to take action (and not coincidentally, make a lot of money for military-affiliated businesses).

On the other hand, I was a bit grateful not to have to hear the faux outrage of the right wing if Gore was president, knowing their tendency to be supremely confident that there was a better way that only they knew. Little did I know all the horrors they would bring us by the year 2016, and that you can’t just wait for bad faith actors to settle down. They will grind our democracy to bits if we don’t push back.

And as I reflect on the sorrow and shock we felt at so much human loss and destruction (and that we now learn never ended), I am also aware that we lost 1,642 Americans yesterday (and 8,949 people worldwide), bringing the total to 658,865 in the US and 4,616,807 reported deaths worldwide, and that with Covid19 we also don’t know how many will experience lasting harm because of it.

In the weeks after 9/11, Americans wondered how they could help, and the only thing the petty leaders of the right wing could suggest was to go shopping.

In these pandemic years, we actually can help. We can get vaccinated. We can wear masks in crowded and indoor public places. We can do our part to reduce the pain and loss that keeps passing back and forth within our very mobile society.

And perhaps we can learn the lesson from the aftermath of 9/11 that small, steady, unglamorous steps are more helpful than bold performances of power. I can hope we might avoid the pain and loss that marked our time in Iraq and Afghanistan by seeking solutions that do not resemble video games or blockbuster action movies.

And if we are lucky, we may find a way to inoculate ourselves from the snake oil medicine salesmen and internet trolls who now control the Republican Party who could never conceive why anyone would enter a burning building to try to save another’s life.

To be good at something

Over the years, my children have at times sought to identify what they were “good at,” or some “special talent,” or perhaps complained that others seemed to be at ease with tasks that were for them more challenging.

Some of my children have shown interest in art and music, for example, and this has led some well-meaning relatives to ask if I thought my kids had talent in it.

I bristle at the question (but try to mind my manners). In some analytical, statistically-driven way, it is possibly true that there are qualities that we could call talent or that there are individuals born with an affinity or proclivity for certain tasks. Even in those situations, I sense a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma because individuals who are surrounded with the opportunity and encouragement to engage in a task have a good chance at improving at that task. If one has some kind of “natural tendency” to build on, so much the better, though at some point whatever was natural gets replaced by skills that are acquired through years of practice.

The point of my bristle is that I don’t think we are fated to be artists or writers or musicians or athletes or teachers or doctors or marketers or whatever. A natural affinity combined with opportunity to practice may increase the odds of one of these outcomes, sure. But too often people take the inverse to be true, concluding that they must not be “good at that,” and they will never get better at it because they did not have an immediately detectable affinity and/or plenty of opportunity. To be an artist, to be a writer, to be a musician, to be a (fill-in-the-blank) is reserved for those lucky other people, not them.

I disagree. I believe if you want to pursue any art or skill, if you work at it, you can get better. You should not close the door on something you might enjoy just because you aren’t yet “good at it.” It may take time. It may not turn out the way you imagine. But don’t give up without giving it a fair try (whatever “it” is—the arts, sports, academic subjects, specialized skills).

I should clarify that I am not giving career or financial advice here. Many wonderful artists, writers, musicians, athletes, etcetera make money in ways that have little to do with that pursued art/skill. So it may be that you will need a day job, as it is called. Or maybe not. You don’t know what the future holds. So don’t close doors on yourself just because something is hard at first.

I also don’t know that it is necessary to be the best at something to find the work rewarding or of benefit. If I am honest, I am weary of the clamor and pressure within the culture to be best, perhaps because I find that this sends the signal that if you can’t be best, don’t bother. As if only the best are the ones who matter.

I reject a scarcity mindset in determining who matters. Everyone does. Period.

Instead of the pursuit to be the best, I embrace the goal of getting better. Am I getting better at what is important to me? If so, good.

So perhaps don’t worry about finding what you are good at. Focus on finding what you want to get better at.

Hope helps.

I am saving time on Thursdays to work on blog posts, and I find myself sorting through topics both light and heavy. A lot is going on, and there never seems to be a right time to post anything, no matter what it is. Yet what I’ve landed on today is the concept of hope.

I’ve written before that I know people, am possibly married to one, who consider pessimism realistic and anything other than pessimism either misguided or literally detrimental.

I sometimes counter that in my experience, throughout history there have been reasons for joy and reasons for sorrow, though of course, sometimes more of one than the other. There are always reasons to look to the future with dread and optimism. I don’t think we can know what lies ahead, though of course we can worry about it. And we can certainly worry about what is happening in the present. There is a lot to worry about, frankly, and every time I scan newspaper headlines or the words of activists, there is definitely a sense that the dystopia is upon us.

I had the amazing luck to be raised by parents who taught me we have a responsibility to one another and our community, so I certainly don’t think we can ignore what is going wrong.

But I don’t know how to live up to my responsibilities without cultivating hope. What I hope for may not happen. Sometimes, when I think of things I hoped for in the past—or at least, when I dreamed of exciting adventures, I’m a bit relieved some of them never happened. What you hope for in your fifties is different, I guess, than what looks inviting to a young person. And let me add this— thank heavens for young people and their energy and willingness to reach for goals which would tire me out now.

I try to make sense of how other people think, and I know some people hate to hope for something and then be disappointed. So maybe that’s where we differ. Just the experience of hope is a positive in my life, even if some of my hopes don’t work out. Hope is like taking a deep breath before I start anything. When someone asks me for help, which happens in my line of work, there can sometimes be reasons to worry that I won’t be able to help. But a spark of hope, the thought of how wonderful if I could help even a little, gives me oxygen, and we muddle our way forward.

The news lately is a whirlwind of doom with the occasional flash of farce. I am worried. I know that hoping for a better future for our world—both the people and the natural environment we depend upon—is not especially logical.

But hope helps.

Start where you are

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that teens sure know how to complain. Or is that just mine? But one of the complaints that has struck me is this feeling that oh, if X or Y had happened, I’d be fine now, but because it didn’t, I’m not and how can I ever do (fill in the blank)? Such as, if I had gone to school in-person last year, I’d be fine this year in school, but I didn’t, so how can I possibly do well? Or if I had reviewed more for that standardized test that no one but admissions teams and college publicists care about, I wouldn’t be nervous about taking it next year? Or, if I had joined that sports team at age 4, I would be a professional now at age 16 (note: I am pretty sure I’ve read a study that says the opposite is true, but I try not to mention this because facts should not interfere with one’s need to complain). Some of these complaints include the subtext, or sometimes the direct statement, that if I the parent had forced my child to do something my child didn’t want to do (or, as in the case of in-person schooling before vaccines were available, something that seemed super risky for our family), my child would be on easy street right now. But that didn’t happen and, thus, there’s no hope. It will never happen, whatever “it” is.

To which I say, maybe so, but start where you are. No matter what you want to do, you can never control what happened before, whatever opportunities did or did not flow your way, whether you or your parents made wise choices or not, all of that is in the past, and none of it has to be an obstacle, or at least, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle if you choose not to treat it as such. Just start. So everyone around you seems to be perfect or already crossing the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Let them run their own races. You run yours. Start where you are. So you have no idea when you will get where you mean to go (wherever that is)? Okay, but you won’t get anywhere unless you start. Why do you have to know exactly where it is all going? Does anyone know, even the ones who act like they do? (Narrator whispers: No.) Just start. Nothing happens until you start. Nothing gets better until you start. You can’t even make choices — maybe there are some goals you don’t need to pursue, some actions that should not continue, but you can’t make any meaningful decision —until you start.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for goal-setting, for figuring out what you care about and why. But a lot of that doesn’t mean much if you never start. If I am going for a swim, I may have to decide where and how far to swim, but I won’t get anywhere until I jump in the water.

Start where you are. Build from there. Learn from the past, sure. Dream about the future. Make the best decisions you can based on what you know in the moment. But most of all, focus on the small steps that lie before you now. Take one step. Take another. You may be surprised by what comes next.