ems of a Solitary Mind

I don't profess to be a poet. I'm not even quite sure what delineates prose from hesitated speech, or poems from TV jingles, or who makes the final call when it comes to "accidental poetry," a bit of text that reads like a poem even though it wasn't written that way.

But I do know that there are certain words or phrases that flash into existence and stay, a permanent firework or frozen bolt of lightening. Caught on my tongue, I find myself rolling them over and over again like a mantra, examining them, dissecting them. They are bits of thought that don't say much, but somehow reach deep into some sensitive piece of the mind, a green sprout with deep roots, unfurling but one, tiny flower.

I don't know what to call these things. Poems? Hardly. Something much less, maybe only "ems." They are more accurately described as "sticky words," because once they lodge into place, I can't seem to forget them. Here is a long-lived one, as an example:

Benedict Pond on September 14th, 2005
So many people leaving
__________________so fast
It's getting dark . . . sort of.

I've been getting a lot of little ems lately. Here's another, while walking along the dike, watching the winter robins:

Robin on a wire
can make
the ugliest fence
a treat.

Every time I look up at the distant hills lately, I hear the phrase, "the Western hills and rivers..." and so I tried to make something more out of it.

The Western hills and rivers
are wild beyond reproach
But oceans turn to islands
where works of men encroach

The Western hills and rivers
are vast and green and grand
But islands turn to outlines
where loosed the works of man

The Western hills and rivers
are silver in the dawn
are golden in the evening
by nightfall, they are gone.

Some more expanded ems:

These winter days are too damn short.
____ I sleep before I wake.
The days flash, the sun has no shame
____ that the moon lingers past its time.

My dog smacks his lips like an old man
in his sleep.
And I, tireless, stroke him on the ear
and think of open times, running times,
Times of deer and pigeon
Boundless, winded, weaving trails
and scents brought on the wind.
I am having the dreams of my dog.

Do you realize
when you bend to pick the pebble,
that smooth pebble, all rubbed with age
and agate specks, and flashing flecks of silver
in the stones around it,
Quartz, gray dots of granite,
black from the ancient forge,

crumbling yellow sandstone
ground beneath your foot unseen

Round stones, sharp stones,
embedded in the soil,
tiled against each other,
layer on layer,
measuring days, remembering years
beyond the breadth of man.
Do you realize,
you fleeting moment,
you mortal ghost,
with young hand, fast heart,
distant eyes
so blind to the labors of the earth,
the indignities of being thrown against a lady’s window?

Yeah, I know, no Poet Laureate am I. It beats reading the back of a cereal box, anyhow.

The Author's Corniche - 4

Counting pages is a dangerous thing.

I learned this the hard way, when I was much younger and the idea of writing was still new. I had broken through the terrible 20 page barrier, and it suddenly occurred to me that I might actually be able to write a whole book. A whole book! I had always been an avid book lover. In elementary school, we used to get those order forms for newly released paperbacks, and each quarter I was allowed to pick a couple, mostly based on title, which is how I was introduced to such wonderful things as "How to Eat Fried Worms" and "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom" and many others which I don't remember. I gobbled them up.

But then I realized that I, a mere mortal, might actually be able to produce an entire book of my own, and suddenly the perilous doors of opportunity where thrown wide open! This was in high school, now, past Judy Blume and on to Victor Hugo and Ken Kesey, but as far as making words of my own, I was still but a youth. In my excitement, I spent less time doing the writing and more time checking to see how many pages I had, fiddling with the margins to match the size of a standard paperback and seeing how many pages that produced, calculating extra pages for chapter titles and indexes and the like. The page count was king. Many pages meant that I was a real writer.

Thankfully, that book attempt failed. Getting bogged down in the formatting should have been my first sign that I was not actually interested in the story I was telling, because if the author's attention wanders during the writing, where will the poor reader's attention end up? I suspect it is the folly of many beginning writers. I was young and easily distracted, and so I cast off my failed book with only a little disappointment. Thank goodness, for it was terrible. Even a thousand monkeys in a thousand years would not write such a mess. When I try to reread it nowadays, it is like bringing a smelly cow into the room. My comments go along the lines of, "Oh, well, that's not so bad," to, "Uh...hmm, yeah, that's pretty awful," to, "AAA! AAA! MAKE IT GO AWAY!!"

But older writers, people who are just seeing those open doors of opportunity, perhaps are tempted to press on despite all such warning signs - like counting pages before even the first draft is finished - and rush the final product off to the slush pile a publishing house, where its sole purpose is to torment the eyes of an underpaid intern. I see this quite a bit when I read comments from aspiring authors on writing sites, people who are searching for just the right font to write in. Warning signs!

I hope to say I know a little better now, and that if I am thinking of anything beyond the first draft, I'm into red flag territory. After watching the demise of one book, (a book for which I had already planned the cover design, ha-ha), I was so humbled that I immediately turned to the other extreme, writing with the mindset that nothing I wrote would ever be seen by anyone, ever, until long after my death, when it would be discovered in a dusty desk drawer ala Emily Dickinson, and then probably be returned to the drawer to complete its decomposition. I chose, as a font, the unassuming Arial, which has all the literary promise of a tax form, and refused to think of anything as formal as titles, plots, or - dare I say - endings.

My phobia of becoming a Johnny-Too-Quickly still lingers, but I've crept a bit out of my shell since those early days. Several years ago I switched to Times New Roman, which looks dangerously similar to "real book" type... (Yes, I realize I just mocked people who search for the right font. Go away.) And last year I broke another long-standing rule and began to read anecdotes from publishing houses, more for entertainment than research, because I still hold that the word "publishing" should not enter one's vocabulary until the last change is made on the very last draft. Gone, too, is the mentality that no one will ever read what I write, and this has brought both good and bad. Bad, in that I don't write quite as freely or honestly, and good, in that I make things tighter, disciplined with the constant looming question, "What will others think?" Yes, the critical invisible audience, forever a paranoid writer's companion!

But counting pages? No. I do not count pages. And I pay no attention to the fact that this is the hundredth post on Fifteen Feet. Nope. I hardly notice at all.

Story Time, Kids!

I wish I was clever enough to think this up as a joke, but sadly, it's a very real and very published book.

Rascal and the Dragon Droppings
Author: Paul Jennings
Rascal does a tiny poo. 'Weak,' say the kids.
The little dragon tries again. What will his next poo be like?

The caption says, "Bomber did high poos. 'Great,' said the kids."

That cat will give me nightmares, I'm sure of it...

Note to the Rest of the World: Please Retain Judgment Until November

While Iowa and New Hampshire jerk the rest of the nation around, leaving behind not front runners, but rather a slew of floundering candidates strewn about the political field like beached whales, the evening news comes on to cheerily inform us that Iran has decided to play cowboy and charge a bunch of US battleships for no particular reason. In my mind, I envision Current President with his finger hovering over the "Blow Middle East to Little Bits" button, and I'm compelled to say, "Noooo! Hold off, potential new wars, until we can get someone else into the White House! We're so close!"

The election year is gearing up, and change is in the air. It's apropos that primaries happen during bowl season and the NFL playoffs. I can spend several hours watching grown men pummel each other on the field, and then switch over to debates and spend several hours watching grown men (and woman) pummel each other with microphones. Reporters are so giddily eager to report that they cannot stand the long wait until November, and so the news networks have been broadcasting election results the moment they hear the first ballot drop.

Wolf Blitzer: "And with two percent of the vote in, it looks like Obama has the clear lead, with Clinton and Edwards battling for second. What an outcome! We'll have analysts on to talk about this following the commercial break. Remember, only two percent of the vote is in, so nothing I say for the next hour means anything at all!"

It's a bit like watching a football game where the ball is invisible, and you don't know the score until after the final whistle. But that's half the fun, watching the political analysts make complete jackasses out of themselves in an effort to fill four hours of coverage. (Which, yes, I end up watching.) The current trend in election coverage, beside the ridiculously early results, is AMAZING TECHNOLOGY!! CNN apparently had the most money to burn on pointless gadgets. It began before Iowa, when Blitzer and some other pundit demonstrated a touch screen where they could drag a button across the screen and deposit it on top of a candidate's face. This made no sense whatsoever, and seemed to serve no purpose other than to cover the candidates' faces with buttons. They never actually used it for the real caucus coverage, but simply showed it a few days before to say, "Hey look what we've got! And we'll use it, too, if we can think of a good reason!"

This wasn't the worst of it. At some point, the news people must have sat down and said, "We have to keep the graphics moving!" MSNBC solved the problem of horrible static graphics by pivoting their bar charts back and forth ever so slightly, just enough to induce a headache, which was not nearly as bad as CNN's decision to mount video screens on pendulums from the ceiling, making them rock back and forth like someone had accidentally hit them, so much so that the camera had to sway to follow them. Seasickness and politics, together at last! In the end, CNN won the prize for "Most Ridiculous Concept" with their Magic Pie Chart, and - I am not kidding, that's what they actually called it. The Magic Pie Chart, which popped up magically from a piece of cardboard held by Anderson Cooper and was as legible as newsprint on a squirrel.

(In this still picture you can actually read it, but imagine it jumping around all over the screen.)

But enough about coverage. Let's talk results!! After Obama handily won the Iowa caucuses, every other candidate, Republican and Democrat alike, tried to make the case that they were most Obama-like. They wanted to out-Obama Obama. His catch word had been "change," and suddenly "change" was the word of the day for all the candidates. Change, change, change... that's what the American people want! Mitt Romney babbled, "I brought change. In Massachusetts, I brought change. I have done it. I have changed things."

And Hillary, in my favorite quote yet, said, "I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change. I'm running on thirty-five years of change."

Yes, change hit the political lexicon like a sack of quarters, but Obama-rama was sweeping the nation, and who could stop him? On Tuesday, so many new voters lined up outside of polling places that New Hampshire was beginning to run out of ballots, breaking records for voter turnouts. Everyone said, that's it! Obama will run away with the nomination!

Alas, no. Clinton lives to fight another day. And why? According to the pundits, those of most infinite wisdom, is has something to do with the fact that she "cried" on Monday, and by "cried" they mean that her voice choked up for a moment after the exhaustion caused by something like 70 straight hours of campaigning. Voters apparently said, "Oh! Poor Hillary! She is so sad! Let us make her President - that will cheer her up!" When women see a woman cry, they want to vote for her. (Which is silly, because as every woman knows, you cry to make men do something, not other women! Maybe this works backwards in politics.)

Personally, I think it's all a load of nonsense, but then... I have had enough encounters to make me wonder how the average woman thinks. (Buying a car, for example, when I said, "I want safety!" and the dealer said, "But look at the pretty colors!" and I said, "Safety, I want safety and fuel efficiency, durnit!" and the dealer said, "Do you want a blue car?") Oh please, for the love of American politics, don't let Hillary have won the vote because she cried. As one reporter said, "How far can you run a campaign on sympathy?"

McCain, as everyone expected, trounced the rest of his party. Or as the New York Times said:

Clinton Is Victor, Defeating Obama;
McCain Also Wins

In the midst of all this, the news channels briefly mentioned that Wyoming had voted for Romney, whatever. (The "whatever" was theirs, not mine.) Wyoming moved their primary up ridiculously early to try to catch a bit of national attention. Are you serious, Wyoming? The only time the nation pays attention to you is when they're trying to get from Colorado to Montana. For their foolish impudence, the GOP slashed their number of convention delegates in half, and similarly punished the other states that tried to jostle earlier into the limelight, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida.

Oregon's primary, I should mention, is more or less symbolic. We don't vote until May. The state has taken a c'est la vie attitude, knowing that moving us up closer to Super Tuesday would do nothing at all, since at that point everyone is focusing on big bully states like California and New York. Help! We need primary election reform!

*Gasp!* Writing even a little about the process has drained the life force completely out of me. Must go energize with...something...comic books...perhaps chopping wood...

I swear, this is the longest freaking election ever.

Yet Another Political Blog

It'd be so easy right now to turn into a full-time political blog. What a great time it is for American politics! I love an election year.

Four years ago, I missed much of the primary broo-ha when I went to work on the Galapagos. Sometimes I heard a snippet or two on the shortwave radio, when I could pick up the BBC or the Royal Canadian Broadcasting Network, and then later in the fall, just when things were getting interesting, I went up to work in Alaska. This time I was even more cut off, since most of the local news had to do with the salmon run, but I did manage to catch one of the Kerry-Bush debates in the house of a bunch of Forest Service lackeys over in the big city of Ketchikan.

In both situations I was surrounded by coworkers less than impressed by the political process, with a why-should-I-care? mentality. But then, biologists tend to be a cynical lot all around, since our line of work often deals with documenting the destruction of our line of work. That cynicism often includes politics.

For me, this is all like a visit to the circus. If you haven't been paying attention to politics lately, you've been missing out. The debates last year were hilarious, with their hundreds of people crammed on one stage (or thereabouts), classy moments like Guiliani getting interrupted by an apparent attempt by God to smite him (and the other candidates taking cover), watching Gravel foam at the mouth, listening to Kuchinich talk about his UFO experience, and the entertaining inability of nearly everyone to answer a question with a "yes" or "no."

I've been watching tonight's New Hampshire debates, when the weather hasn't been blacking out the station, and here are some of my shallower thoughts:

Guiliani - Good gravy, he actually sounds somewhat likable and is making sense. Did I enter a parallel universe? I think he is playing casual until Rommey self-destructs.

Romney- Squirming under the pressure, fun to watch! Everyone but everyone on the stage is taking pot shots at him, since he is currently the most vulnerable and the least likable. I remember back in the early debates when the was the most composed, but now he's lost his cool.

Huckabee- Whoops, he's gotten completely overshadowed. I don't think anyone sees him as a real threat, so they're ignoring him unless he proves them otherwise. He's not coming across as a heavyweight here, but more as a farmer who wandered into a corporate business meeting by mistake.

McCain- Oh, he's good. Despite Romney's attacks, he maintains his cool and gives a solid message. He's not being swayed, which certainly makes him look like the most mature of the bunch. His campaign later reported that he was "the only adult in the room," and I'd tend to agree.

Thompson- If McCain is the adult, Thompson is the crotchety old grandpa who leans into the conversation and speaks his mind whenever he feels like it. "Crazy old grandpa!" the kids used to say! Nah, really, he's making a lot of good points, but I think he'd need a lot more caffeine to make it four years as President.

Ron Paul- (Not to be confused with "RuPaul.") Well, he says a lot of my own thoughts, asks a lot of challenging questions that I think the entire nation is asking, but it is so off of the mainstream Republican theme (and therefore "disloyal") that most of the rest of the candidates A)snicker at him, or B)quickly interrupt him. For example, he made the point that terrorists attack us not because we are wealthy and comfortable, but because we have a military presence in their countries, which I thought was excellent, but everyone else quickly told him what an simpleton he was. Again, he posed the question, "What if China came and did to the USA what we did to Iraq?" and again was quickly thrashed as being a loony. Which is a shame, because I think the GOP needs to come to terms with the Ron Paul viewpoint if they want to win in the general election.

Republicans in general- Yikes. Very heated, many cheap shots, covered much of the same ground as previous debates, but with a rearranged political field. Hooray! Isn't this fun?

After the Republicans had their say, the Democrats joined them briefly on stage and shook hands. It was a wonderful moment, first, to know that one of those people will be president, and second, to see genuine civility in some of the hugs and brief conversations between otherwise hated rivals. Yes, I do think some of it was genuine, and although their mikes were turned off, I had fun making up the dialogue:

Edwards to Huckabee: "Want advice on being a running mate?"

Ron Paul to Richardson: "Hey! Are you a nut with no chance of winning? Me too!!"

Hillary to McCain: "Since we see each other in Washington all the time, will you hug me? Everyone else up here is getting a hug..." (He did.)

Okay, now the entire time I've been writing, the Democrats have been debating, and their debate has been so quiet and civilized compared to the Republicans that I've been spacing out. I've picked up a few lines, but I feel like I've heard it all before. It's too bad Biden's not here to throw out a few of his humorous barbs. Alas, with what I have to work with:

Richardson- Yes, he still seems competent, but not presidential. His typical attitude has always been, "I can't believe everyone doesn't agree with everything I say!"

Obama- He is very on top of everything here. I'll be really surprised if he doesn't just plow through all of this to the presidency, just because he seems so unflappable. Actually, I don't know if that's really true; this is where paying attention right now would be a good thing.

Edwards- When he's not talking, he seems fidgety. When he is talking, he seems exhausted. Actually, all of these candidates look exhausted. I wonder if this is how the famous Howard Dean scream happened, breaking under sheer primary exhaustion?

Hillary- Oh Hillary. How much I want a woman president. I just don't want that woman president to be you.

Right. Now I'm going to go back to the project that I was supposed to be working on!

Reflections on the Year Gone By

(I really should have made this the first post of the New Year, but I got so excited about politics!)

How did I do with my blog in the past year? Here is my personal checklist:

I gave myself a place to decompress - Check. I managed not to clog up my team blogs with overflow thoughts that made people scroll down through the endless text saying, "Oh gosh, when is she going to shut up?!" So yes, check, a success.

I kept in touch with friends- Check. Blogging has been a great way to keep up-to-date, although it's easy to forget to read other blogs for a few weeks and then suddenly have to rush to catch up. Still, without this format, would I have known about MSL's library romances, or Alice's Barbie doll, or Snarke's air conditioner "Bert?" No, no I wouldn't. Yay for blogs.

I enlightened my readers to the joy and wonder that is me- Well... you can't make play-doh with nothing but salt, I always say... I didn't exactly give anyone a lot to work with. I, apparently, am not an "open person." Personally, I think I talk about myself and all my deep inner feelings far too much, but then I have people say that they don't know a thing about me, and I need to open up. Hmrph. It all comes from randomly selecting a pineapple for a "which fruit are you most like?" exercise in my childhood days...

I enlightened my readers to the meaning of human condition- Well... you can't make cement with nothing but water, I always say...

(No, I don't really know what that means either. But it looks meaningful, so there you have it.)

I wrote more- Yes! Check! Without Fifteen Feet, most of these rampantly random thoughts would never have made it to type. (A debatable plus, I'll grant.) Writing here might have distracted me from working on other projects, and it certainly cut back time I would have otherwise spent doing e-mails and other blogging, but mostly it has been an entirely unique outlet. This is a very good thing. I think I'm using a different part of my brain to write here. (It's true! I do use my brain when I write!) In addition, without the banter of back-and-forth blogging that I've gotten used to on my team blogs, I have been forced to write complete thoughts, something more akin to the essay form, which I haven't really done much since college.

I was discovered as an superb writer and offered prestige and money- Um... still waiting on this one. Someday, you see, someone will stumble onto this website and suddenly realize my brilliance as a writer, the sparkling words that trip off the end of the tongue, the fast patter of wit and fancy rolled into a marvelous literary rollercoaster which extols the glory of my technique, and on that day I will be called up and whisked off to some far off publishing house where men in black suits will stand around on floors of marble and raise a toast to my genius. This has yet to happen, but I'm patient.

So that's all. (See how masterfully I draw the post to a close?) No resolutions, only reflections. I'll do the resolution part sometime later, maybe July.


I'm sitting here staring slack-jawed at the television screen. I can't believe it. Is it actually possible that my two favorite candidates are winning the Iowa caucuses?

Yes, that's right. I am currently quite fond of Huckabee and Obama. But what were the chances they would both win their respective races?

What is this strange feeling I feel? Could it actually be... hope in American politics? Could it be possibly be that our system actually let the best people win? Wow! I didn't know it could work like that! I always thought that was just a line out of my old Social Studies text book.

I am giddy with the idea that my choice in the general election might actually be between Good and Better, rather than the traditional "lesser of two evils." Where I could vote and be happy, rather than saying "ick" while looking at the ballot.

Again.... wow!