Monthly Archives: December 2011

Wrapping Up the Old Year

[Special holiday blog]

Helen, Georgia

Helen, Georgia

There is a wide railing around the huge deck outside the window where I’m sitting. Onto that railing my father pours sunflower seeds several times a day, to feed anything that can get there. Of course the birds come in, but at the moment I see eight squirrels contentedly having breakfast. Most people who keep bird feeders tell sagas of how they fight to keep the squirrels away from the bird seeds. My father doesn’t care and feeds them all. And if you are using your imagination just a bit, you are correctly picturing masses of sunflower seed shells littering the deck.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and today I will transition from this quiet bucolic scene in north Georgia to a party in the evening in Charlotte, North Carolina, with quantities of good food and a plentiful supply of drink. There will also be lots of people speaking Russian quickly in a noisy room, where I will sometimes understand what is being said to me and sometimes just nod and pretend that I did.

I have no profound thoughts to mark the end of the year, except “Glad that’s over, let’s do it again.” But I do have a few observations from the last couple of days.

1) Birds hold conventions. Two days ago I was standing on the deck where the squirrels now celebrate their discovery of The Place With Endless Food. The deck is rather high off the ground and surrounded by trees, and when I looked off into a brushy area below, I counted 15 male cardinals. During the winter, against a background of browns and grays, even one of those amazing red birds is a sight. To see fifteen of them gathered to conduct some bird business was astonishing.

2) I think the earth is round. When I come to Georgia from Pennsylvania, both summer and winter, I can always tell the difference in when it gets dark and light. I arrived at this cabin this morning just before 7:00 a.m., and it was still quite nightly outside. Back home it is already light at that time. I think the difference in when the light arrives has something to do with the curvature of the earth. That’s just my theory, you can take it or leave it.

3) You can create tourism out of thin air. The closest town to us here is called Helen. A hundred years ago it was a small mountain town of no particular interest, but with a sawmill, as people went about the business of stripping the hillsides of trees. Sometime around the 1960s, a local artist proposed that the town redecorate itself to look like a German alpine village, which they did, and the idea has grown and spread until such decoration is now required by code. Some of it is tacky and strange, some of it is interesting, and a little bit even has a faint “German” ambiance. The town is a big tourist attraction. Of course the beautiful setting of the mountains helps.

4) Even rednecks like tacos. Last night I went with my father and stepmother into Helen, to the alpine German Tex-Mex restaurant, operated, it appeared, by actual Mexicans. I ate more than one is supposed to eat (one of my goals at mealtime), and my father and I drank a pitcher of beer. When we left the restaurant, we passed a huge pick-up truck, the kind that is so large as to declare the anxious masculinity of the driver. This truck was also covered with bumper stickers, at least eight of them, saying things like “Redneck” and “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t wanna go” and with one bumper sticker saying some stupid shit about the Confederate flag. Clearly the macho man driving this truck was not someone you could have an intellectual conversation with, but he was inside having food that his Confederate grandpappy would not have approved of.

It is time for me to stop this useless nonsense and go on to something important, like taking a nap.

Have a happy new year.


Filed under Writing While Living

Contemplating a Fire

Minoan snake goddessIf you are looking at a fire, it occurred to me last night, you look busy. Maybe you are doing something. I was observing a fire at the time I had this epiphany, a blaze burning in the fireplace of a house where I had gone to a party. I had been talking to a friend who went outside for a moment, and after a minute or so of staring rather blankly at a post holding up the roof, and at the wine bottles and glasses beside it, I thought that I looked a little foolish sitting there, so I turned toward the fire. Ahh, so much better. Then I looked contemplative, a true philosopher finding hidden meaning and obscure connections in the minutia of life, rather than a dork at a party.

This is what dorks at parties think about when they have a free moment.

The party was a celebration of the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review, which comes out of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. Years ago, more than 100, when I worked at that college, back when the school still had a name that wasn’t stupid, I was a fiction reader for the magazine. It was the first time I had ever read the fiction submissions to a literary magazine, and what I recall most about the experience was not being struck by bad writing. I don’t recall the writing quality as obviously bad. Of course I was a freshman writing instructor at the time, so maybe my standards were low. What I remember about submissions to the magazine is that most of them seemed very dull to me.

Since then I have become a mere writer, submitting to magazines where other readers read my stories and think , “Ewwww!” Not long ago I had the hubris (which it has to be) to submit a humorous story to The New Yorker, knowing that I was more likely to be struck by the same asteroid that Elvis is on. They wrote back and said, “Sorry we can’t use this amusing story” and I wondered if I should feel slightly flattered—“The New Yorker rejected me but someone kind of liked it, sort of!” Or was that a standard reply? Did it really mean “Dear Dork, isn’t our slush pile high enough without your dull trash?”

Laying hubris and nonsense aside, but close by in case I need them, I was at the party because my friend is now the editor of the magazine, and I really wanted to see her. The party, as it turned out, was our best bet for running into one another while I was in the great metropolis of Georgia. It was lovely to see her, albeit briefly, and I wanted to hear more about the process of getting out the magazine. I believe an analogy to Hercules and that Barn of Endless Dung he cleaned out might be applicable.

There was also a surprise at the party, as I had the very fine fortune to see Lamar York, who started the magazine and was editor for many years at Dekalb College (when Georgia Perimeter College still had a real name). I always thought of Lamar as one of the most elegant men I knew, and he was certainly a cut above my own swinish sartorial style. Now I imitate Lamar in my pale Goodwill fashion. I also wish to add an important and pertinent fact about Lamar, that he gave me the small copy I own of the Minoan Snake Goddess. Maybe she’s not called Snake Goddess, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember since I used to teach this. She’s the one with bare boobs and holding snakes. Let’s assume you don’t know either, which means I’m right.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my mother’s house north of Atlanta, and she just asked me what killed the mother of a friend (years ago). I came so close to saying “Jesus” but I know my mother would not have appreciated that. And I know you’ll be proud of me to know that I resisted. So Jesus didn’t do it, but I think he was called in for questioning as a friendly witness.

And now I am out of Atlanta, on my way slowly back toward the north. It will take a while, and all the flowers that are blooming down here will recede into potential as I climb up the continent.

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Dixie Christmas With Snoopy

[Special Holiday blog]

Models of small houses

My sister-in-law Patty's village

On the radio at the moment they are playing a Christmas song I love, about Snoopy and the Red Baron. I think it’s a cool song with very catchy music and with lyrics that I like, but it’s also about Snoopy. I love Snoopy, and if you don’t, I’m taking down your stocking and eating the candy myself.

It is raining hard here in Walton County, Georgia, east of Atlanta. Since I’m sitting inside in my brother’s giant living room, looking out the wall ’o windows at a small lake mottled by the rain, I don’t care too much what the weather is. At least it ain’t snowing. We had home-made biscuits and spicy sausage gravy for breakfast, so everything is just like Santa intended. Or Jesus. I get confused. Which one is in charge? Aren’t they brothers?

Yesterday morning I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, and before I left to drive to Georgia, I went into the kitchen to find that my friend had put on Lynyrd Skynyrd rather loud, and she was dancing in the kitchen in preparation for making a chocolate pie. It seemed like a proper start to Christmas Eve.

I got lucky driving from Charlotte to Georgia, as it was beyootiful sunny weather, but today we’re having a wet Christmas, like the song says: “I’m dreaming of a gray Christmas…” This afternoon all of the immediate family who were able to come showed up, including my 78-year-old mother and her new husband as of two months ago, along with my father and stepmother, brothers, wives, and nieces. We had an Italian meal, as all good Scotch-Irish southerners would naturally do, then we exchanged gift bags, and there was much merriment, ho-ho guffawing, and careful examination of other people’s bags. Afterward I came upstairs to rest a few minutes, and as I lay on the bed, I was noting just how much laughter I heard down the stairs. We are, in all honesty, a very weird family, but a jolly one at Christmas.

Rosemary bush as a Christmas tree

Rosemary bush as a Christmas tree

—A bit later in the day—

I have yet to eat desert. My heart wants it, but my head so far has remained in charge after a solid savory lunch. I believe sugarbomb time lies ahead in the future. We are down to three of us in the house now, not counting the dog Max, who seems willing to lie stupefied in true canine fashion, or leap about barking until told four or five times to shut the hell up. He’s a flexible dog.

Now that I’ve finished writing this, the rain has died down. The colored scraps of paper are picked up. The leftover lasagne is in the refrigerator. And now there is news on the radio. It must be that Christmas is drifting into the evening before tomorrow.

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Christmas Poems

Christmas treeChristmas is in four days, and tomorrow morning I’m leaving Pennsylvania to drive south, stopping in Charlotte, North Carolina, then on to Georgia, in the Atlanta area. So I am on Christmas break, and until I come back in January, I will post occasionally, but every post will be off topic. For the holiday period, I will post on whatever drifts through my mind.

This post tonight is a series of short poems I wrote last year for Christmas. It is longer than I normally put on here, because there are, you know, 12 days of Christmas. It starts cheerful, but there is realism here as well.

First Day of Christmas

Two thousand years and ten
and Christmas Day is here again.
With colored paper
and lights
and bows,
and stories to tell.
We like the one about Frosty the Snowman
who everyone knows
would laugh and play
till he melted away.
The Frosty philosophy wouldn’t hurt us.
Laugh more,
play more,
do more with colored paper.
In the meantime,
Merry Christmas,
and let that new year
be a happy one
without too much effort.

Second Day of Christmas

Santa sees you—
you know that
even if you can’t find the camera.
The fat spy
sits up there at the North Pole
in his Fortress of Merriment,
down under all that ice.
Mighty nice.
Like Superman in solitude,
only jolly.
The elves run the world’s biggest computer,
keeping track.
Santa knows what you did.
He’s looked at your Facebook page.
So you can be naughty
or you can be nice,
but if you think you’re fooling Santa,
you better think twice.

Third Day of Christmas

Take hydrogen,
take oxygen,
and mix them in a bowl.
Soon you get water.
Try not to spill it.
Take the bowl outside and throw the water into the sky,
into a cold sky, that is.
What do you see?
As your water flies up in the air
it grows lighter and whiter.
And by midafternoon,
when you are back in the house
drinking hot chocolate,
playing Scrabble,
and watching Miracle on 34th Street for the forty-fifth time,
it will start snowing.
At first the fat flakes melt,
then they stick,
then they add up.
Tomorrow morning when the sun comes out,
it will be a glittering miracle,
on your street.

Fourth Day of Christmas

The little fir trees crowded around.
Grandfather Fir Tree shook his branches,
bent just a bit,
so that they could hear the bark crack.
“You kids don’t know this,” he said,
“but I was the White House Christmas tree back in 1959.”
They did know it.
He had told them every year
since they sprouted.
But they had learned to be patient
the way most trees are,
so they just said, “Ohhh.”
“Yep,” the old fir said,
“I had lights so bright people wore sunglasses.
And colored ornaments like you never saw before,
big glass balls,
blue, did I say blue already?”
And the little fir trees just said, “Ahhh!”
because it did sound wonderful.

Fifth Day of Christmas

It was hot with no breeze
and up under the trees
two men were eating their lunch.
They ate cheese with black bread
then the tallest man said,
“I liked the gold swirl on that bunch.”
Then he brushed off the crumbs
and pulled out two fat plums.
“Those ornaments easily pass.”
When lunchtime was done
they walked in the hot sun
to the factory where they blew glass.

Sixth Day of Christmas

For mice
Christmas is about food,
as they patiently await the arrival
of the Prince of Cheese.
For dogs
Christmas is primarily
about random barking,
about begging for snacks,
about getting petted as much as possible…
just another day for dogs, in other words.
For deer
Christmas is a day to go out at midnight,
in cold weather,
to a clearing, perhaps a meadow,
and look up at the stars.
For monarch butterflies
Christmas is a day with friends,
millions of friends,
gathered in their home in Mexico,
waving their wings,
fluttering the news,
that snow is falling up north,
where mice are waiting,
dogs are barking,
and deer are watching.

Seventh Day of Christmas

So it’s like
a couple of elves,
little dudes,
are sitting on high stools,
tiny feet dangling,
down at the Poles Apart Bar and Grill.
“Jack,” one of them says to the bartender,
“two more whiskies over here.”
Then he turns back to his buddy.
They sit quiet a minute,
the way elves will,
till he says, “Yeah,
we finished the dolls last week.
Not making as many as we used to.”
He takes a tiny drink.
“Kids want iPods these days.
Phones and stuff.
Little guys sit quiet for a bit.
Second elf brushes back his gray hair.
“I know,” he says.
“I don’t understand that computer stuff.”

Eighth Day of Christmas

“Manoa ahoana!” a woman shouts to a friend
as she collects vanilla beans in Madagascar.

“Good morning,” a farmer says, nodding
as the mailman passes his farm in Virginia.

“Buenos dias,” a shy girl says, waving
to sugar cane workers in the sun of Belize.

“How yall doin?” asks a farmer in Georgia
as his relatives arrive from Atlanta for Christmas.
His aunt and uncle and two cousins
go into the warm house,
exclaiming greetings,
looking at the tree,
and the aunt puts down a dish she brought.
Out of Madagascar came vanilla,
from Virginia came butter and eggs,
up from Belize came sugar and dark syrup,
to mix with pecans off that farm in Georgia.
Now standing on the counter
where the children keep walking by looking,
focusing their attention on that dark nutty circle,
is a pecan pie
that Aunt Peggy made back home in Atlanta.

Ninth Day of Christmas

i hope i get a beebee gun

i hope i get a French dictionary

i know i’m old enough now

because i really need one with more words

i promised Mom i won’t shoot songbirds

already i can read Le Petit Prince without help

just squirrels, that’s all i’ll shoot

what i want is to read Harry Potter in French

Mom says the squirrels take all the birdseed

i already read all of them in English

so i’d really be doing Mom a favor

but Harry Potter would be too hard without a better dictionary

Mom, can we open just one present?

Tenth Day of Christmas

Thanks for meeting me, Doc.
I know it’s short notice,
calling you up on Christmas Eve,
and I’ve got to work later myself,
pulling the sleigh and all.
It’s just that this day always depresses me,
so I could use somebody to talk to.
And it’s not like the other reindeer care.
Oh, look at Rudolph, he thinks he glows.
You should hear it.
Even when we were young,
they used to laugh,
call me names,
wouldn’t let me play games.
Now I hear people say the other reindeer admire me.
Seriously, Doc, who thinks that?
I got promoted over the other deer.
The worst is Blixen,
who thinks he’s God’s gift to quadrupeds.
Doc, I got promoted because I can see on foggy, foggy eves.
It was a practical matter.
And by the way, which reindeer won’t eat the dried carrots in the reindeer chow?
I’ll give you a hint—
they’re all behind me.
Well, alright, I guess I better go.
Thanks for listening, Doc.
I don’t want to be late.
Those toys don’t deliver themselves.

Eleventh Day of Christmas

Charlie Brown ♪ snowman cookies ♪ red ornaments ♪ cold day ♪ tree lights ♪ glass figurines ♪ holly-leaf cookies ♪ big package ♪ little package ♪ blue present ♪ gold present ♪ prickly holly ♪ chocolate cookies ♪ laughing mama ♪ night lights ♪ soft snow ♪ cold face ♪ frosty breath ♪ hot chocolate ♪ fuzzy cat ♪ colorful tree ♪ big hugs ♪ dark night ♪ holiday dreams ♪ morning light ♪ wide eyes ♪ sparkling tree ♪ hot chocolate ♪ present piles ♪ ripped paper ♪ scattered bows ♪ jumping cat ♪ smaller piles ♪ snowy yard ♪ ringing phone ♪ silver angel ♪ warm hugs

Twelfth Day of Christmas

Audrey was 12.
She loved her mom and dad,
but sometimes…
you know.
When she asked her dad what he wanted for Christmas,
he said, “I don’t need anything, Audrey.”
When she asked her mom,
she replied, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s really just enough to have you here, honey.”
Very helpful.
In both instances.
Not knowing what they really wanted
Audrey got her father a box of starlight
and her mother a bag of firefly flashes.
She wondered if it was enough,
but it was all she could afford.

On Christmas Day
Audrey was a little anxious
about whether her parents would like their gifts.
Her father opened his box
and a soft blue light flowed out around him.
Then her mother opened the bag
and the flashes floated all around her head, yellow and white.

Now Audrey’s father began to sing
and her mother joined in.
Audrey was surprised at what beautiful voices they had.
She had never heard them sing before.
As they sang, Audrey began to sing with them.
Later, they all agreed
that it was one of the nicest Christmas mornings they had ever known.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Good Times Are in the Past and the Future

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt

Cape Verde, with its Portugese name, is a small island country off the west coast of Africa. On Saturday I read that a singer from Cape Verde, named Cesaria Evora, had died. I was sad and struck to hear it, as I’ve loved her music for years. I have three or four CDs by Evora, and I had the good luck to see her in Philadelphia about ten years ago.

I also want to tell a story that I’ve told before, and there is no one here to stop me from telling this again. When I was touring Italy with students in 1997, I was walking down a street in Rome and on the other side of the street I saw a poster for an Evora concert. I got excited and ran over to get a closer look at the poster, to see when and where the concert was, as I was definitely going. On a closer view, I saw that she had performed a few days before, so I missed her until Philadelphia. Here’s a wonderful video of Evora. If you don’t yet know any African singers, she’s the one to start with.

I’ve also just finished reading a novel by a writer from a very different African country, Egypt. The novel is Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 (for a different book). The novel Miramar is set in Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, in the 1960s.

I’ve read several other novels by Mahfouz, which were all in what might be called a “realistic” style, a detailed narrative moving forward in time, focused mostly on telling the story, and only relating events that could conceivably happen, as if we were somehow standing there watching things take place. That style became very popular in the 19th century, in novel after novel, in quite a few countries, and it is probably still the basic fiction style, because it works very well to tell a story.

The novel Miramar was first published in 1967, and in this book, Mahfouz works in a variation to the “realistic” style. The novel partly tells the same story from the point of view of several characters. In order to do this, Mahfouz partially repeats the same period of time, showing how the different characters experience it. It’s an interesting technique, though the book is more complex than simply repeating an incident several times, through different eyes.

The overlap of incidents to some extent is incidental. What happens more importantly is to get a look at the lives of the different characters, all of them residents of a boarding house named Miramar. The book is written entirely in first person but with a shift to a new character for each section, so that the “I” keeps changing. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds, young and old, country peasant and city intellectual. There is also—an important point for Mahfouz—a mix of political views, and the novel makes frequent reference to the two revolutions Egypt had had before 2011.

Politics was important to Naguib Mahfouz, a more bold approach than it might seem to us, given the oppressive regimes he lived under. He also lived in a country where religious extremism was nurtured by the very political oppression that colors his books. In 1994 a group of these vile faithful attacked Mahfouz and stabbed him in the neck. Although his health was affected, he lived another twelve years.

In the west, it might be hard to see what is in his novels that could provoke such an attack (though let’s keep in mind that every country is polluted by religious fanatics, including, very visibly, America). Part of Mahfouz’s sin, perhaps, is that he wrote about real people as they were, with a willingness to describe their desires and sins, lust and greed, profaneness and lack of faith. We can see all of these things in the characters living in the Miramar boarding house.

Although we follow four characters here very closely, from inside their own heads, they are not especially sympathetic. The narrative of an old man frames the story of three young men, and while the old man seems more or less removed from life at the time of the narration, the younger men are intensely involved in life, sexually, politically, romantically, and ambitiously. Perhaps by showing all three of the younger men so flawed that it’s hard to like them, Mahfouz is saying that to be fully engaged with life forces us to make choices that compromise the soul.

I also found it interesting that in the book, all three of the older characters continually reminisce about how good the times used to be, and now those good times are gone. The four younger characters all are looking ahead to the future, to a time that they hope will be better. No one believes the present is good.

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What The Hell Does This Mean?

A confused woman readinBecause we pretty much live in a world of ubiquitous literacy, we live in a world of ubiquitous incompetent writing. Here is one example, taken from Form 9465, sent to me this week by the IRS, along with a letter telling me to send them more money. The form contains this sentence: “I authorize the U.S. Treasury and its designated Financial Agent to initiate a monthly ACH electronic funds withdrawal entry to the financial institution account indicated for payments of my federal taxes owed, and the financial institution to debit the entry to this account.”

It’s horribly written, just as we’d expect from any government agency. The sentence is bad for human beings in general, but when you also consider that this form may be sent to any person in the country, regardless of education level, the writing is almost immorally bad.

In addition to the unexplained abbreviation ACH, the sentence has unnecessary legalistic puff like “its designated Financial Agent” and the oxymoronic sounding “withdrawal entry”. The sentence is also simply too long, and it uses language like the Latinate “initiate” instead of the common (and more easily understood) “begin”.

If we were to rewrite this hideous bureaucratic bullshit so that normal people could read it, it might be along the lines of “I authorize the IRS to begin taking automatic deductions from my bank account to pay the taxes I owe, and I also authorize my bank to make the payments.”

The impulse for such writing horrors is, in part, bad training in writing, and that isn’t going to change between now and when the world ends, because people who run educational institutions don’t care (though God knows they’ll talk until you’re deaf about much how they care). Many writers are incapable—or worse, lazy and unwilling—to think about their readers, what the readers will know, what they will care about, what they need, and so on.

There is also a deeper psychological reason for bad writing, and this affects all of us. Supposedly, the purpose of writing is to communicate a message, but what we are trying to communicate is usually more complicated than we realize. Let’s say I’m writing to tell people the purpose of filling out a form. Though my presumed purpose is to convey information about the form, I’m probably not even aware that as I write, I’m also using the language to say things about myself. I want to sound knowledgeable. I want to sound like I’m good at my job. And while we’re at it, I want to sound smart and like I went to college.

So I’m not going to use something common like “begin” when I can say “initiate”. I sometimes found students openly resistant to the idea of using language that was as simple and clear as possible, as they felt it didn’t sound professional. Notice that their point was not about how well the writing communicated. In fact, the students were wrong. Murky language and professionalism are not the same thing. The issue here is actually self confidence. As I would sometimes say, are you bold enough to be clear, or do you need to show people how smart you are instead?

I have a second example of bad writing that is less easily noticed, but also concerns thinking about the needs of the readers. A few months ago I had some dealings with Verizon, a “communications” company, as they ironically like to call themselves, the same way North Korea has the word “Democratic” in their official name.

When I got a new phone, it came with a small booklet called Tips, Hints and Shortcuts. To my thinking, the name did not bode well, as I wanted a Basic Manual before I got around to tips, hints, or shortcuts, which all sound like additions to basic knowledge. The booklet does have some basic information, but the problem is that obvious things a reader would want to know are missing.

Not providing the right information is also writing at its worst, no matter how “clearly” it is worded. As I was preparing to write this blog, I decided to test what I’m saying and use a phone feature that I was sure must exist, to add a specific ringtone for a single caller. I went to the Contents page and found a section called Changing Ringtones. What that section told me was how to change the ring for the phone in general, for all calls. Only by playing with the phone for a while did I eventually figure out how to do what I wanted. Having looked at the entire manual, I know for certain that Tips, Hints and Shortcuts gives no hint about how to do what I did.

That total lack of information is actually typical for the booklet, which is a fairly stunning example of incapacity to provide the kind of information a reader might actually want. The same booklet has seven pages on the safety of radio emissions, but not a word on several obvious functions. Keep up the good work, Verizon.

The IRS and Verizon are certainly not alone. Incompetent, unclear writing is everywhere you look. It is as if literacy comes with a built-in, incurable disease.

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Write Like the Wind

Uncertain brideI’m sure I had something to say here, but until it comes to me, I’ll comment on the writing life. Now that I’ve escaped from academia (if you’re pushed off a cliff and live, it’s still a sort of escape), I’ve moved increasingly in the direction of a writing life. My current career plan…hmm, let’s make that “career plan” is looking for work in three different fields, none of them involving hammers or boots.

One field, which seems to have taller weeds at the moment than the others, is copy editing. This is a job in which you look at someone else’s text, already written, and you fix what’s wrong, hopefully just things like a little spelling, punctuation, and so on. I can understand if you think that sounds like a hair-raising horrible job, except I think I could be good at it, and even enjoy it.

It seems Penn State Press did not agree with me on the “being good at it” idea. I took a copywriting test, and while they said I had caught some errors they didn’t realize were there, including a sentence fragment, in the morass of markings that eventually covered the page, I also missed errors that they already knew about, so I failed. (When I used the phrase “morass of markings” just now, I was trying to make it sound like I had an excuse to miss things. Maybe I didn’t really have an excuse.)

I’ve had a little more luck with the second area I’m pursuing, creating websites. I mean it’s not actually much yet (notice the tremulous optimism of that little adverb “yet”), but I’m working now on the third site I’ve been asked to do for a local business. And in terms of financial advancement, my price shows a miraculous rate of growth, going from free to $500 to $800. I really find this kind of work fascinating. It might be done with someone else doing the writing, (more on that below) but I’m willing to do the writing as well, and I have.

Part of why I like designing and creating websites, or maybe entirely why I like it, is that it can combine tremendous creativity, which is appealing, with high-geek attention to mind-numbing details. I not only have a high tolerance for minutia and details, I like them. I used to sit and read Russian dictionaries for pleasure. I’m not making that up.

I don’t know where the website development will go. There are people out there who are way better than I will ever be, but then again, only a year ago I could not have imagined anyone actually paying me to do this, and frankly I’ve worked hard and learned a great deal. No one is lining up asking for sites, however.

The third area I’m pursuing is the one I’m pretending to do this blog entry on, writing. At the moment, I actually have temporary work as a writer, ironically creating the copy for websites being built by other people. I’ve been given a project by a company making websites for large hotels around the country. They tell me what they want written about, and I somehow figure out how to do it.

I do much research on the web, gathering all the information I need, because otherwise, what the hell do I know about Monkey Jungle (just outside Miami, open daily 9:30 to 5:00)? Now, thanks to the internet, I know to wear a hat if I go to Monkey Jungle and walk under the monkeys. So I write it up, in a clever and interesting way (I added that requirement), with text that is informative and tries to be persuasive (I believe that’s what my employer wants). The pay is OK, $45 an hour, except from lack of experience I estimated this job taking half as long as it takes, and I drastically undercharged. Alright, live and learn.

I do a lot of writing about hotels, why you should definitely stay there, and so on. After a while it’s a little boring, but I’m getting better at turning it out. So in a section, let’s say, that wants to persuade people to hold their wedding at the hotel, I might write something like this: “Your wedding should be a day for creating memories, and with the careful help of our trained wedding planners and catering staff, your only worry will be whether or not to actually marry that guy who seems a little bored when you talk to him.”

Something like that. Monkey Jungle is more fun. So far I have persuaded myself that I want to go to Muscatine, Iowa; Paramus, New Jersey; Homestead, Florida; Durham, North Carolina; Shreveport, Louisiana; and now Des Moines, Iowa. Who knew these places had so much cool stuff going on?

Here’s a point about the writing life. I get up early, get to work by 8:00, and travel all over the country all day long, sitting in restaurants, going down water slides, looking at old buildings, and rising up from the computer only long enough to have lunch or take breaks. It’s an odd life. So was teaching an odd life. I think all life is odd.

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Kate Swims in the Nude!

Weekly World News newspaperThere used to be a wonderful newpaper for sale in the supermarket checkout line, a paper called Weekly World News. I didn’t read it as often as I should have (I never actually read it), but now I miss it. The newspaper was famous for reporting on the activities of Bat Boy, a humanoid who was half bat, but the best story I was aware of concerned Russian scientists. According to the article, the Russian team drilled a hole so deep they drilled through the ceiling of Hell. Wait, it gets better. Then the scientists lowered a microphone on a very long cord down the hole and recorded the screams of the damned.

The glory days of journalism are over.

We still have supermarket magazines, however. When I’m trapped in the supermarket line, once a week at least, I observe my fellow inmates, I note what sorts of food items are assumed to be impulse items (mostly just candy, but occasionally something odd, like snacks made of dried vegetables). If I do look at a magazine, personally I prefer to read recipes or look at pictures of gardens, but of course I’ve seen the plethora of supermarket magazines that wallow, screaming happily, in the incredibly vacuous trivia of American culture.

And that’s cool, huh?

So as a public service, and as a former writing teacher, I’m offering some guidelines on how to write for supermarket magazines, in case you get lucky and get a job with one. You don’t have to thank me. It’s OK.

1) Rule number one should be a philosophical consideration that underlies all the other rules. Your basic approach should be to think about what people who are existentially bored by their own existence need to distract them from the tedium of being on the planet. Until you gain more experience, here’s a useful hint: approach your task with the attitude of excited 13-year-olds titillated by the discovery that people have SEX! If you can maintain a stunned tone of excitement about this commonality, you may have a career ahead of you. With practice, you can work up to headlines about the side effects of sex—“Nickie to Ryan: I’m Having This Baby!”

2) The headline just referenced illustrates rule number two. Always refer to everyone only by their first name. If you’re talking about someone so unfamous that even your readers realize how stupid the rule is, then you shouldn’t be writing about that person in the first place. Using only first names, in spite of obvious awkwardness, allows readers the illusion that they are intimately familiar with these people whose lives they’re attempting to experience vicariously.

3) This is a variation of rule #1. Stay focused on the private life of people who are famous, or who you are pretending are famous (see rule #2). Occasionally, when you feel a need to write about something other than sex, try to write about things that normal people would not talk about with strangers—drug addiction, difficulty in losing weight, plastic surgery, the screaming fight they had when drunk after leaving the restaurant and just before wrecking the limo.

4) This is only a punctuation rule, but it is very imporant. Use exclamation points! This cannot be stressed enough! Literally every headline needs an exclamation point. People who are inherently bored by being alive (i.e. your readers) need all the help they can get to pretend they are interested in what is in front of them. After all, Ashton and Demi Are Splitting!

Rules 1-4 apply to magazines like People. There is a second class of supermarket magazines, aimed at women as “serious readers”, such as Woman’s Day. The next two rules apply to this category.

5) Make sure you include 23 ways to use lemons when cleaning the house. Actually, the rule is just that you include numbers in your headlines. Use at least four numbers on every magazine cover, and since the numbers themselves don’t matter, mix them up. 109, 18, 7, 65. Use your imagination. 65 Quick Christmas Cookies.

6) For this same type of women’s magazine, every cover—pay attention here, every cover—must include a headline for two types of article. First, there must be an article about some method of losing weight, and secondly, there must be an article with a really yummy recipe (including a cover photo is even better). If you’re thinking “Wait a minute, isn’t that kind of schizophrenic, a yummy recipe plus an article on losing weight?”—welcome to America.

I wish you luck with this, and write if you find work.

Michelle Bachman and Batboy

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Middledecember Reading

George Eliot

George Eliot

Winter seems now to approach us as an honest season, arriving when expected, a little snow, not too much, a little cold, not too bad. There are people who pray for snow far more than I ever will, no doubt the owners of the ski slope about a mile farther along the ridge from where I live. During ski season the white swathes are clearly visible down the side of the mountain, and when I drive home from the grocery store, if I look hard enough, I can see tiny dark figures swooshing back and forth down the hill. But for me December is a time to be inside in a sweater, lost in good novels, books that both entertain and send sparks through the neural networks.

Here is a sentence from one of those sparkling novels: “Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life—the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it—can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.”

I feel a profound empathy with such a quote, and even more ennobling is the fact that it comes from Middlemarch, published in 1874 by George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans (though she later went by Marian Evans). There are many excited exclamations I could make about the book, but I’ll just take four points of admiration and expand on them.

(1) At the level of language a master is at work in this book. At times the style winds like a kudzu vine, a little thick for some modern readers, as we have grown accustomed to a far more stripped-down style. For readers willing to follow the curves, however, and peer beneath the leaves, there is a great potential pleasure, to experience the thoughtful ideas of an intelligent person in brilliant prose.

Here is one example, describing the feelings of Dorothea, contemplating the lack of connection to her from the emotionless monster she has mistakenly married: “That is a strong word [horrible], but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are for ever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge.”

(2) Middlemarch displays a sense of humor. In this regard, it is superior to books by Tolstoy, who, if had a sense of humor, kept it well hidden. Real life has humor, even when life is bad. At times Eliot is a little sarcastic, as any thoughtful person must be when pondering the nature of the world. Here she introduces a scientific fact she wishes to expostulate on: “An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact.”

(3) Probably the single most notable quality of the book is the richness and diversity of characters. That diversity may also be cause for one of the criticisms of the book, that it lacks a clear narrative focus. (That’s not my idea—I read such a criticism. Personally, I don’t care.) Depending on how you might perceive the criteria for major status, there could be as many as 10 major characters, with quite a few minor ones. I’m in awe and envy at Eliot’s ability to make such a range of characters real, with their thoughts, their speech, their actions, and I bow to a master who I know I cannot equal. Several things are interesting in Eliot’s portrayal of this village crowd. No one is flawless. Eliot gives faults to every character, and at times we want to criticize them all. Nevertheless, even with the most whiningly intolerable or morally repugnant characters, the author is remarkably generous. She gives each of them a sympathetic point of view while the book is focused on them, and we are given ways to connect with and momentarily understand even the repellent persons.

(4) The book is dense with the life of the times, and not just the immediate lives of the characters. Eliot writes with a shifting third-person point of view, at times holding the narrative very close to the characters, one after another. She then gives herself space by pulling back, to be able to make comments on society, art, philosophy, and so on. Both in the author’s commentary as well as in the plot there is a surprising amount of information on contemporary politics as well as on current developments in medicine.

There is also a strong depiction of life at that time regarding social class and relations between men and women. One of the more prominent characters is Dorothea, who is very young throughout the novel, from 19 until her early 20s. She is very intelligent, with a nature that is strongly empathetic and kind, and she wishes to use both her intelligence and desire to help people.

At times it was a frustration to me as a reader to see the stupid social restrictions on women, the usual waste of human talent, and I would guess that a brilliant woman like Mary Ann Evans must have experienced frustration as well. She did, after all, publish under a man’s name. I was glad to learn that later in Eliot’s life, she had a long and very happy relationship with a man who she regarded as her husband, even though he could not legally get divorced from his previous wife. So he and Mary Ann Evans simply lived together and ignored the social rules. I admire her still more for that.

Even without knowing any of George Eliot’s biography, it’s clear from reading Middlemarch that here was a writer who had truly experienced life and thought about it, to be able to write such a book.

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You Were in My Head?

Man in Scottish costumeGlamour has not always meant a red carpet running from long cars into the theater where Academy Awards are given out. At one time the word meant something closer to “magic”, which doesn’t entirely rule out walking down a red carpet, depending on who is doing the Stroll of Fame, and what that black dress with lilac feathers looks like.

Am I going to be able to turn that last paragraph into something related to writing? Script writers, maybe? Turn my novel into a movie?

Nope. I mean, yeah, turn my novel into a movie, but that’s not it. I’m going to use—if we could get a respectful hush in the building—etymology. The word “glamour” originated as a Scottish pronunciation of the word “grammar”. It’s the L/R thing, the way those sounds get mixed up, which we usually think of as a characteristic of a Japanese accent. I’m not sure why the Scots were mixing up those sounds (although they did invent whiskey).Bottle of Scottish whiskey

Now you’re scratching your head saying, “OK, naturally I see the connection between whiskey and Hollywood, but what do grammar and magic have to do with one another?” The etymology in question goes back several hundred years, when of course few people knew how to write, and the word grammar was a kind of short-hand term, perhaps in a slangy way, for literacy.

In other words, the ability to write was sometimes seen as having an almost magical power. Something you have no doubt frequently noticed while reading this blog. One can, however, easily lose sight of that majestic reality after reading a stack of freshman essays in a first-year writing class. Under those circumstances writing seems like a subtle tool of the Lord of Darkness.

So anyway, when a loud drunken Scot yelled out “Ye can nae tell me ye ken glamour, ye dumb bastard!” (“ken” meaning “to know”) he was asserting the illiteracy of the dumb bastard in question. Given the rarity of writing, an ability with literacy connoted power and magic of the MacBeth witches sort.

Does it make sense to you that writing can be seen as magic? It certainly does to me. If you can get all the writing teachers out of the room and consider the real purpose of writing, what is it? It is to move thoughts from one person’s mind into another person’s mind. Think about that. Stop reading for a few seconds and consider it. We can take thoughts from one person and put them into another person. In fact, we can take thoughts from someone, hold them until that person is dead, wait a thousand years, and then put those thoughts into another person’s mind.

By God, if that’s not magic, I’m waiting to hear what is.

Writing can be so revelatory of someone’s thoughts that at times, when slogging through freshman essays, I had uncomfortable moments, as though I had snuck into someone’s head without their entirely realizing it. In one way, a writer intends for us to read their thoughts (and for you grammar geeks, yes, I know that “writer” is singular and “their” is plural). The writer deliberately wants to say something, and hopes we will get it. In other ways, the writer almost always is saying something without realizing it, as some people would read my last sentence, telling them that for all my pretence to grammatical knowledge, I made a mistake in using the word “their”.

A writer might also unconsciously reveal an attitude toward women, or Mexicans, or Baptists, without intending to. Or the writer might show insecurity, fear, arrogance, and so on, without really setting out to do that either, and in some cases without ever realizing it. It can be a shock sometimes, and not always a pleasant shock, for someone to tell us how they perceive our writing. It can be very hard to take criticism of our writing, to learn the difference between what we intended and what someone thinks we said. Didn’t I show you a little bit of my heart? And then you stomped on it?

The letter “T” is basically two lines that intersect. Punctuation is pretty much little dots of various shapes. It’s just ink. It’s only paper. But when that ink swirls in the right directions, when your mind catches the mystery of the swirls, suddenly doors and windows open and an unknown breeze blows in. Then the smell of cinnamon and lamb comes through the open flap of a tent and you hear the bells clanking on the necks of the camels. Now you can step out to see the reddish-gold light as the sun goes down, to see veiled women carrying jugs of water down near the tall, curving palm trees, and you are in another world. A glamorous world.

Witches from MacBeth

Witches from MacBeth

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