Slowing Down My Pretty Horses

During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.

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All the Pretty Horses Homework

From my professor: For this response you need to read All the Pretty Horses and the chapter on language in How Fiction Works. Find one sentence you would classify as baroque (highly ornate and extravagant in style). In 300 or more words, consider what makes the sentence effective. Yes, I’m asking you to write 300 words about one sentence.

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives” (McCarthy 5).

After his grandfather’s funeral and before we even know our protagonist’s name, John Grady Cole reveals himself as a sentimental dreamer by riding on horseback out to the old Comanche road coming down out of Kiowa country. In this place, he hears the horses and the riders of the past. Narrated in the third-person, each “and” represents an echo of the rhythmic gallop of horses from a time when Indians roamed the land and fought to keep it. Nouns follow the repeated “and” provide more details of the place where Cole grew up, the land he is losing, like the Comanches and Kiowas did, and the unfairness of it all. We hear and see, the horses, their breath, their hooves shod in rawhide, rattling lances carried by the natives for hunting and protection and the drag of travois poles for restraining horses and dragging loads over the land. In this case McCarthy compares the sound of the drag and the image in the sand to “the passing of some enormous serpent.” In Native American cultures, the serpent is a fertility symbol, and others believe the serpent symbolizes the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. Even the word passing makes a hissing sound.

The young boys on wild horses are not much different than John Grady, “jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses.” We later see John Grady confidently break sixteen horses in the course of four days. An audience gathers, he performs, and they are mesmerized by the act. McCarthy likens “all remembrance” to a “grail” and in this case a search for a romanticized life. This highly ornate sentence concludes by setting up John Grady Cole’s secular, transitory, violent quest, leaving his dead grandfather’s land behind to be sold and passing from Texas across the Rio Grande in search of adventure as a cowboy in Mexico.

By the way, I watched the Matt Damon movie with Penelope Cruz before I submitted my assignment on Wednesday. Then I finished the book. What can I say? I was a little distracted last week. 

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren journeyed the six or so miles from her apartment to our house and brought over a box of six puzzles she picked up from Walgreens. We, too, slowed down. We started a 500-piece kite puzzle, revealing the bigger picture, piece by piece, and enjoyed our mother-daughter time—one conversation, one meal, one YouTube video at a time.

This past week reminded me to slow down. I paused long enough to consider puzzles and stories and relationships and priorities. We never know for sure what our weeks will hold, but for this one, I have high hopes as always.

Lifted Lines

Last Sunday I drove southwest on 59 from my home in southwest Houston into the suburbs, almost into the country. In Richmond, I exited the freeway and turned right, down a paved road, another right into a dirt parking lot. The gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I found a spot near a chicken coop. Through the poultry netting and in addition to chickens, I discovered peacocks. On the other side of the coop, sunlight shone down on baby goats with their mothers. Beyond all of that lies a beautiful lake with ducks on the water and then River Pointe Church.

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I always say, “You can choose HOPE, or not.” And churches and cathedrals, temples and holy places, farm animals and wide open spaces give me HOPE. I find God in these places—and myself, like the me I hope to be.

Life is heavy. I don’t believe any of us are exempt from challenges, but I do believe in the power of prayer. I keep a list of friends and family in my prayers for surgeries and illnesses, dependencies and dysfunctional relationships, the trials of life and inevitable death.

I believe in the power of believing, and I believe in the power of words. Sometimes the wrong words and the wrong beliefs become trapped inside our heads. That’s when I like to have an arsenal of the right words and the right beliefs. I lifted some lines from church last week—for my arsenal—because they lifted me:

  1. Nothing has been wasted, no failure or mistake.
    When I doubt it, remind me I’m wonderfully made.
  2. When the world starts to blur and your soul feels heavy,
    know that you’re loved.
  3. It’s gonna be alright.
    It’s gonna be okay.
  4. We often believe that admitting we’ve failed makes us less Christian.
    Confession makes us more Christian.
  5. “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16)

If the words above don’t lift you, go find words that do and places that do and people who do. You don’t have to believe everything you think, especially the bad stuff. And if you find yourself dwelling in the negative, find a new place to dwell.

Sidenote: A couple of weeks ago the pastor challenged us to read Samuel 1 and 2. These books contain the history of Israel leading into the story of David, as in the chosen-by-God David, who slayed the giant Goliath with his unwavering belief and a single stone. This same David later became king and committed adultery with Bathsheba who became pregnant. King David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the sin. The sequence of events displeased the Lord, but King David confessed, and the Lord forgave.

Now, I am no bible scholar, and I don’t understand all of the wartime killing and all of David’s wives and concubines in the context of the Ten Commandments. What truly displeased the Lord was that King David took something that didn’t belong to him amidst everything he already had. Based on this temptation, David is probably the most relatable character in the Bible. (Hello, my name is human.) If an adulterer and a murderer can be forgiven, well then, there’s hope for you and me.

Confession to God grants us forgiveness. Confession to one another makes us whole.

 

 

The Tale of the Unwanted Letter Jacket

Once upon a time (okay the ‘80s), in a land far away (actually Oklahoma, far at least from me, now, in Houston, Texas), there lived a high school cheerleader named Crystal. Her parents had both been cheerleaders. Her older sister had been a cheerleader. Her older brother would go on to Oklahoma State University and become the school mascot Pistol Pete, a cheerleader of sorts.

L-E-T-S-G-O.
Let’s go. Let’s go.

The thing is—Crystal was a quiet girl. She liked reading books. She liked boys too much. And although she liked dancing and gymnastics and performing, she didn’t like yelling, and she lacked an interest in contact sports. But there was a family tradition to uphold, and Crystal tended to be good at things she didn’t like, like math and cheerleading. Crystal also tended to be a people pleaser, and so she was a cheerleader.

L-E-T-S-G-O.

More than thirty years later, Crystal’s dad would be cleaning out his own house, the one where she grew up, and getting rid of things he didn’t need and things that didn’t belong to him. He gave Crystal her high school letter jacket, the one that identified her as the cheerleader she never cared to be. The vinyl sleeves had begun to sweat a waxy residue over the years of hanging in a dark closet. The jacket was a hot sticky mess, and besides where does a fifty-year-old woman wear the too-small letter jacket of a high-school girl? And why would anyone need an oozing, never-to-be-worn-again jacket to hang in a closet for thirty more years? The jacket was not worth saving, but it was worth a story. And so Crystal snapped a few photos and wrote one, and she lived happily ever after.

Going. Going. Gone.

 

Butterfly, Butterfly,

Butterfly, Butterfly,
Go home to my mother.
Please tell her
how much I love her!

Not too many years ago in an old shoebox of memorabilia, I found a Mother’s Day card I made for my mother. I’m betting I was in Mrs. Goff’s second grade class when I created a butterfly with tissue paper wings and glued it to the front cover of the folded construction paper. On the inside I scrawled a poem with a No. 2 pencil:

Butterfly, butterfly,
fly home to my mother.
Please tell her
how much I love her.

Although it’s entirely possible that I copied this poem for an elementary school assignment, I want to say that I wrote it myself. I’ve Googled the lines, and I’m not finding them on the World Wide Web.

In the spring of 2015 or 2016, I re-gifted the handmade card to my mother, and she was thrilled with what I had made as a child and saved as an adult. This was before the Alzheimer’s advanced.

Today as my mother turns 80, I’m thankful for the opportunity to spend her birthday with her. And when we can’t be together, I’ll forever send her butterflies with all my love.





Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Póg Mo Thóin

To the left of the Winmau dart board hung a stenciled wooden sign that read, “Póg mo thóin.”

“I wonder what that means,” I said with a tilt of my head and my hitch-hiking thumb pointing toward the sign.

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“Right?” Kody said as he aimed his dart. “It sounds nasty.”

We had dropped into a new Irish bar, new for us, where the green twinkle lights on the covered patio drew us in, green velvet bar stools invited us to sit, and a darling bartender with long red hair poured us drinks—a Wild Basin Black Raspberry seltzer in a chilled glass and a Jameson Caskmates IPA neat for me. To our delight, there were nice dart boards in a room on the other side of a partitioned half wall and darts with pointed tips. I emphasize nice and pointed because we have a tendency to play in a place with a terrible board and darts with blunt tips that don’t stick. Like the twinkle lights and green velvet, these were wonderful surprises.

I had been practicing my aim, and our game was tied. It was a matter of shooting two more bullseyes. I already had one, and so did Kody. With my eyes on the board, my ears  overheard a conversation between two guys at the bar, “What’s the longest road trip you’ve ever taken? I mean, not with your parents as a kid, but that you drove yourself.”

I couldn’t hear what the other guy said, but the bartender said, “Probably Austin. I never drive anywhere.” She seemed very young, but now that I’m fifty, so many people do.

I wanted to pipe into this conversation, but I was busy concentrating on my target. Ready. Aim. 5. Ready. Aim. 16. Ready. Aim. 2. Kody said, “I’m telling you, you’re on the spot.” My darts were close, but not close enough.

Kody couldn’t hit his either. His darts fell on the 9, the 14, and the 8. He breathed out with a huff.

“Thanks for giving me another chance,” I said with a smile. My wins against Kody are few and far between.

The first road trip that came to mind was the one I took with my friend Misti back in 2009. She had moved to Sitka, Alaska for a couple of years, and she was moving back to Texas and driving her car, the first stretch for her via ferry. And so I flew to Sacramento and met her to keep her company for the rest of the way home. We stayed in Sonoma Valley that first night, toured Napa, and dined at Bottega, Chef Michael Chiarello’s restaurant, where I had my favorite meal of the trip—Tortino Rustico Southern Italian ratatouille in a mascarpone pastry shell, fresh goats’ cheese, heirloom tomato sauce and arugula salad. I hate to be one of those people snapping photos in fancy restaurants, but I don’t regret keeping the memory.

My Bottega Dinner

I threw my darts again—6, triple 12, 10. By the way, if you don’t play darts, I hit the twelve on the small red strip on the inner circle, which means absolutely nothing. Triples on 15-20 is exactly what you want, but I had closed those numbers.

From wine country we spent a couple of days in San Francisco, drove down Lombard Street, toured in a double decker bus, walked on the Golden Gate Bridge, ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, caught a performance of Wicked, and ate pizza in a parlor alongside the famous San Francisco twins. From San Francisco, Misti and I traded off driving first down Pacific Coast Highway One and then east toward Las Vegas. And you know what they say about Vegas—what happens there, stays there.

Pacific Coast Highway One

Kody had another opportunity to beat me, and as he threw 20, 17, and 16, I heard the guy who proposed the road trip question mention his travels between Houston and Odessa. “It’s a good ten hour drive, but I just take my pee bottle.”

“Did he just say pee bottle?” I said to Kody in a voice quiet enough that no one else could hear. “Who needs a pee bottle? Just stop the damn car.”

Kody said, “I don’t need that much time. I’m already driving 110.” 

There was a note of truth behind his joke, and suddenly his driving seemed better than traveling with a bottle of pee. No offense if you happen to use a pee bottle, just not my style, and I laughed and shook my head.

From Vegas, Misti and I drove southeast a bit before hitting the Historic Route 66, stopping for restrooms and gas along the way, and after an overnight respite somewhere in Arizona, we sped on toward Santa Fe where we spent another night at a nice resort and celebrated with massages in teepees. Misti planned every last detail, and I’m the friend who says, “Okay!” I’m not sure who was Thelma and who was Louise. Brad Pitt may or may not have shown up along the way. But instead of running away and driving off a cliff, we drove right into Dallas back to our jobs and the reality of our lives. No one was hurt in the making of our escapade. Well, Misti might have been, but that’s her story to tell. Anyway, that is how you road trip with one of your besties.

I held the dart with three fingers, my index and my thumb with my middle finger to steady it. I stared straight in the center of the bull. I threw. I missed. I refocused. I threw my second dart. “Kody?” I said, pointing.

“Is that it?” he said, and he walked forward for a closer look at my dart in the red center of the board, worth a double bullseye.

“Didn’t you have an opportunity to take some points on me?” I said, rubbing it in just a little bit.

“You really gonna say that? I’ll be taking my points next time. Another game? I’m bringing the pain.” He was totally jesting.

“Well, game on.” I said with feigned bravado. “Game. On.”

“My Name Is Human” played in the background. This was Kody’s playlist. To think that jukeboxes can be controlled through the touch of a phone. Anyway, I had a friend tell me that he always liked my playlists. So Tim, this is for you—a random sampling of our Wednesday evening songs, old and new, from the jukebox to the car radio to videos on our TV in the living room.  And for those of you who don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day—try, “Póg mo thóin.”  St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner.