Did that tree make a sound?

Raise your hand if you believe a tree that falls in the forest makes noise even if no one hears it.

Now, raise your hand if you believe that writing a poem is worth the effort even if no one reads it.

Words from a work in progress

This is an excerpt from a work in progress that I read aloud to a group of local writers a few nights ago. I’m not sure what to make of their reactions. The story is about a couple who have three daughters and then adopt an orphaned nephew, about how he was orphaned, and about how the main characters adapt (or fail to adapt) to their new lives. The husband is telling the story. That’s about all the context I gave the group. You’ll be jumping in well after the story begins. What I usually most want to know is if you would keep on reading. Feel free to comment if you’re so inclined.

My mother always told me I was too broody for my own good. That was her term. I used to think she’d made it up until I looked it up in Merriam-Webster’s. She meant it in the non-chicken sense, I’m sure, although I suspect she first used it on the farm in her own youth to describe the hens that provided fresh, brown eggs for the family. With me, she meant it in the formal sense of being contemplative, with the emphasis on the second syllable, I suspect. Moody.

It was the same way I had come to think of Olivia in our short acquaintance. (I realize it’s a stretch to call it an acquaintance, but there you have it.) What else could an artist be but broody and soulful and deep, with passion lurking just below the calm, mirror-smooth surface? I had seen her smile only briefly when she plucked Billy from the restaurant. I wanted to see her do it again.

I slept until 9 a.m. and I knew it would be a good two hours later that morning before Margret and the kids would arrive. She would do her best to avoid the height of the morning rush hour traffic, so I had until at least 11 to indulge myself. Emilie had already taken up her spot by the pool.

This wasn’t the first time I’d let my fantasy life get the better of me, I have to confess. I don’t know if I really thought I could go through with it this time, or if I really thought I could do it without getting caught, or if I really even thought about it at all. I suspect I didn’t. One thing I have learned is that in fantasy there are no hurt feelings, no unwanted pregnancies, and no diseases. No recriminations, no ruined careers or lives, and very little remorse. It’s too bad fantasy sometimes become reality and it’s hard to know where the line is. I showered, put on some shorts, a T-shirt and my old huaraches, and took off in the Renegade.

Olivia’s was the last shop in a long section of them along the main drag. It was just before the commercial center of the village turned into residential and then, quickly, countryside. I stopped in Monroe’s Bookstore to look distractedly over the magazine rack before picking up a Trib. Next stop was across the street at The Mug on The Alley, where I ordered two regular Large Decafs to go. Right next door stood Portraits by O. I walked in with the Trib under my arm and the two coffees carefully balanced in one hand. A little bell rang as I closed the door, and immediately I heard the voice from the day before, calling down the stairs to my left. It was Billy.

“She’ll be right down,” I heard him say. Groggily? Maybe. It was hard to tell.

“No hurry,” I said back up the stairs. I looked around. Simply framed portraits covered most of two sides of the little room in the front of the shop, which was no more than ten feet by ten feet if you didn’t count the staircase. There were high school senior pretty girls and handsome young men, older couples in anniversary photos, children in all sorts of traditional poses, baseball teams, softball teams, soccer players. A doorway to the right led down a hallway, where I supposed the studio awaited. The back wall, behind a counter that held a small computer monitor and a clutter of papers, sported what I took to be the digital, manipulated interpretations of what O saw through her lens.

I heard footsteps on the stairs and slowly took my eyes from one of the more disturbing images. I turned to find Olivia watching me from the staircase. “Can I help you with something?” she asked.

“Oh, hi. You’re Billy’s wife, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Olivia.”

“Right,” I said. “We met yesterday at Carlito’s.”

“Oh, sure,” she said, taking the last two steps into the room. No smile. “You’re not really his old friend at all, are you?”

“No, I’m not. How could you tell?”

“I know all of Billy’s old friends. Both of them,” she said.

“Both of them?”

“Sando and Mikey. The other guys you were drinking with.”

So she had paid attention, at least a little bit. “Yeah, sort of. Say, I noticed your sign and just wanted to see what your shop was like. I’ve done a little graphics work myself. In advertising.”

She looked insulted. “I don’t do commercial work,” she said. “Mostly portraits. Some straight, some of them I digitize and do things with.”

I turned back to the digital wall and took another look.  I could see what she meant by “things.”

# # #

Winter solstice, a bonfire, Saint Brigit and the bar

Late one winter evening…

So the love of my life and I went to a winter solstice celebration at Saint Brigit’s, because of course WTF else does one do the longest dark night of the year?

And it was a beautiful thing, with the singin’ and the music and the dark and the light and the bonfire at the end and I imagined meeting Niall Noígíallach in a stone hovel in Donegal.

And feelin’ holier than we’ve felt in months, with a full moon lightin’ the way, we made our way to a local establishment and bellied up to the bar…

…and I asked the young man behind the bar what he had in the way of an Irish whiskey as I saw none on the shelves behind him…

…and he says to me, he says, “We don’t have Irish whiskey, but we have 47 craft beers and a list of other spirits that you don’t really want and what can I getcha ta eat?”

Now there was a time I’d have stood up and left, but we made the best of a bad situation and drank some bourbon with milk stout and bitters and orange peels and whatnot and had a nice solstice evening after all was said and done.

And what did you do on the last Friday evening before Christmas in 2018?

Lesson from dogpiling on PETA: Words do matter

Snarkmeisters and others have had a whale of a good time mocking PETA‘s latest effort to change public discourse and appetites, but the group reinforces an important concept here:

Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here’s how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations. pic.twitter.com/o67EbBA7H4— PETA: Bringing Home the Bagels Since 1980 (@peta) December 4, 2018

Words do matter. So does the evolution of language.

Words express what we think, or in some cases what we want people to think we think. As language evolves, it reflects changes in our culture, in technology, in how we think or don’t think about religion and justice and politics and pretty much everything else. Our use of language reveals what we think about other humans and about animals, as well. What we think about them and how we treat them are closely related.


Speaking like you always have is easy. So is mocking those who advocate for change that you don’t like or that you don’t think is necessary. So is dismissing certain words and phrases as “politically correct,” a stale, overused term that we all would be better off without. (Evolve, dammit!)

Surely PETA expects mockery and denigration. Just as certainly, they know how to use words to provoke discussion and to make people think. May we continue to evolve toward a civilized society once our present backslide is over. It will require some thinking and careful choosing of words, and maybe a little less barking past each other.


What to write next?

Deciding what to write or edit or otherwise work on next has been a simple matter throughout my day-job career. As a general assignment reporter for daily newspapers, of course, there were daily assignments and clear deadlines and, when I filled in on the police or courthouse beats, I had other stories to chase down and photos to shoot.

Pixabay image. Some may recognize this as a typewriter.
Pixabay image. Some may recognize this as a typewriter.

Deadlines these days are more flexible and often self-imposed if they exist at all, but the priorities are usually pretty obvious.

Writing on my own time is quite different. Deciding what to write next, what work of crime fiction or other story to tell over the next several weeks and months, has been a mystery lately. My first two crime novels were done in fits and starts and stops and restarts over a longer time than I care to admit. Since sending the second one out into the world not long ago, I’ve been lost, without creative purpose.

Now I know I have to start something new. Not writing is not an option. Many other writers will relate to that.

Some people have asked if there will be another book in the Detective Red Shaw series. I honestly don’t know. It won’t be what I write next, but in the past few days I did decide what the next thing will be.

I will let you know when it’s done.

Read on,


Learning Gutenberg over a beer

So this, apparently, is Gutenberg. It’s time to learn something new in WordPress world. I can’t say I’m excited, but at least it will keep me out of trouble for a little while. An ice-cold Dale’s Pale Ale will be my companion for now so don’t been surprised if my typing deteriorates as we go along.

hot air ballloon
Caption goes here, something about balloons.

Everything in this new Gutenberg editor is a block, or goes in a block. My first challenge is/was to insert an image aligned right, with text wrapped around it. As you can see, I managed to figure that out. It took a couple of tries, but now that I know how to do it I’m feeling pretty good about it. (Any reason we can’t celebrate even the smallest of achievements?)

My first mistake was inserting the image on the page before I did anything else – I guess I was just being contrary, because who would do that, right? – and then trying to drag the picture into place after I added some text. There may be a way to do that, but now I see that it’s simpler to create some text and then position my cursor at the beginning of a paragraph (or somewhere else in the text) and then find insert before or insert after on the More options menu that magically appears when I move my cursor. It’s the little box with a vertical row of three dots. I imagine there’s an actual term for that but don’t really care in this context of just typing stuff to fill up space.

Each paragraph is a block on its own, as I see now after paying attention to what happens when you hit the Enter key.

Nobody I know uses drop caps, but I can see how the ability to drop a cap now and then might be worthwhile. Getting it to stay dropped takes a little experimenting, or at least it did for me. Who would have guessed that you don’t really see the effect until you move along to the next paragraph/block?

Even headings are in their own blocks.

There’s a special block for inserting quoted material, too. Nifty.

Copyright 2018 B.J. Smith

The beer can is empty now so I’m going to wrap this up. Maybe another time I’ll tell you about how I learned to set lead type by hand and printed a small book of poetry. Or maybe not. I think of that whenever I see or hear Gutenberg’s name. Same thing happens whenever I’m in Guttenberg. even though it has an extra t.

Bonus beer fact

The best place in the world to drink Dale’s Pale Ale is the Tasty Weasel, which is just a short bicycle ride from where I’m sitting right now. It don’t git no fresher.



Fiction and the old neighborhood

No one has asked me yet, but I have the answer.

The question has to do with the title of my new Detective Red Shaw novel: North of Grand.

Why that? I’m glad you asked.

Much of Des Moines, Iowa, is north of Grand Avenue. It cuts through the city east to west – or west to east, depending on your point of view.

I was born there, grew up there, and lived there for a long time. I worked there. Mrs. Smith and I bought our first house there, a block north of I-235 in a neighborhood known as North of Grand. We lived there when our son was born.

South of Grand was another world. It’s where my mother took me and my five siblings on occasion to marvel and gawk at big, beautiful, expensive homes when we were kids. They were especially awe-inspiring when lit up for the holidays. She took us to a different neighborhood on the southeast side sometimes, too, to see how the truly poor people lived.

We were somewhere between rich and poor, a family of seven in a three-bedroom home on Merle Hay Road. (Why seven? One divorced woman plus six kids. She slept on the sofa.)

In high school I worked at a pharmacy just a block north of Grand Avenue, delivering prescription drugs to old folks, driving a car with a manual transmission that I learned to operate in a panic on my very first day on the job.

The same little store housed the best soda fountain around, with real ice cream made right in the store. I served malts and shakes and cherry cokes and lime phosphates and great sandwiches and other treats to pretty Catholic girls from the nearby high school, to the friendly florist from across the street, to other people that I don’t remember quite so well.

I was a drug-running soda jerk. Last time I checked, the soda fountain was still there.

The people and the crimes portrayed in North of Grand are purely imaginary. Really bad things do happen in Des Moines, of course, but none that I’ve witnessed.

A young guy did threaten to kill me and a friend when we were in high school, but we managed to talk him out of it. One night years later someone reached in our son’s bedroom window at our little house on Iola Avenue and took off with a diaper bag, but that’s the closest thing to crime that came our way.

All things considered, Des Moines is a pretty good place to live or to be from. We’ve been away for years now, but it never seems that long ago.

Why North of Grand? It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones.

Read on.