Monthly Archives: May 2013

Us Lucky Bastards

Plants seen from a deck

The view from my deck

One evening this week I sat on the second-story deck where I live, drink in hand, looking out at the sunlight on the leaves. For the delights of nature, I don’t know what you could do to improve it, unless you wanted to top it off with a distant mountain view. So I sipped on my boilermaker, from an emerald green glass (because I’m classy, and that’s the kind of glass I would have) reading a short story by Oscar Wilde. In the story I was reading, I found this sentence: “Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion.” At least in my life that’s a perfect sentence. If the object of your passion has walked away from you, you might be glad for some oblivion.

As for Oscar Wilde, I wondered why such a good writer didn’t do more. Other than the novel Picture of Dorian Gray and the plays The Importance of Being Ernest and Salomé, isn’t Wilde mostly known just for being himself? Then I thought about the fact that he was hounded by the sort of unashamed homophobia that no one needed to hide in those days, that he was imprisoned, and that afterward he died in poverty at only 46.

We have a very popular myth here in America that if you have talent and work hard, the only question is which stars you want to put in your pocket on your way to success. In spite of the myth, talent and hard work do not exempt you from being human—much as you might wish they would. Wherever humans stand in anticipation, there is a basic truth of human life regarding success: being good is not good enough. You need to be lucky as well. Oscar Wilde’s luck ran out.

It would be some comfort at least if only people with talent who work hard become successful, but even that isn’t true. Dreadful mediocrity does not exclude you from anything: (music) Gene Simmons, (painting) Thomas Kinkade, (politics) Michelle Bachman, (writing) Danielle Steel. Nope, those sons-of-bitches all got lucky, and in the short term, luck counts for more than ability.

By contrast, consider the condition of people who we now think of as some of the most talented who ever lived:

  • Antonio Vivaldi, composer of The Four Seasons, almost magically great music—he died in poverty after having been famous throughout Europe.
  • Johannes Kepler, a brilliant astronomer who described laws of planetary motion—seven years of his life were made miserable and time was wasted by trying to keep his mother from being tortured to prove whether she was a witch, for fuck’s sake.
  • Antoine Lavoissier, called the “father of modern chemistry”, came up with many laws of chemistry—he was guillotined during the French Revolution, when he was 50 years old.
  • Edgar Allan Poe, even now, more than 150 years later, still one of the most original American writers—he died poor under mysterious conditions in Baltimore, at age 40.

Because artists lead more prominent lives than many people, we know more about them, but was Edgar Allan Poe more miserable than some poor bastard we never heard of who worked on the docks in Baltimore? Or a woman who died as a young prostitute the same year? People struggle. Life is harsh, and not everyone gets lucky. Most of them we never heard of, and never will. How many construction workers in Dubai earning $200 a month do you know? Or Honduran maids in Chicago working two jobs with no health insurance?

I have days when I think that my own life has been adamantly opposed to almost everything I want. And sometimes, yes, it definitely feels that way. But then I sit with a boilermaker on the most splendid back deck in the Washington metro area, unless there is one with a mountain view, and I relax and read and feel that whatever cares I might have, I’m not interested. For a while, I don’t care about my cares. Then I have some dinner, and some wine, and I sit on the couch and look at my plants (to be exact, a jade plant, a poinsettia, and some odd fern with a remarkable tolerance for abuse), and I write. I cannot deny this goodness, in spite of struggle.

Regarding the struggle, it looks like soon the speed of life’s tornado will pick up again. I can no longer afford to live in Washington, and unless I suddenly get a job—you know, get lucky—by the end of June I will move to Georgia where I can take refuge with my family. It’s better than living under a bridge, although I don’t want to denigrate living under bridges, as I haven’t done it. So if you’re a troll, don’t write me. I didn’t mean it.

Maybe I’ll still find a job in Washington. Maybe I’ll find a job in Georgia. Maybe I’ll go teach English in Japan or Korea. Maybe I’ll be appointed U.S. Ambassador to Wine-Producing Regions of the World. That last one doesn’t seem so likely, though. I’ve also just completed an application to the Peace Corps, which I’ve thought about doing since I was in high school, over 40 years ago. As a friend said when I told her this, “What’s your hurry?”

Well, I needed to think it through. I’m a cautious guy.

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Those Green and Golden Days

Bald Eagle Lake

Where I used to kayak in Pennsylvania

Earlier in the week, I pulled up photographs of Boalsburg, the village where I used to live in Pennsylvania. (If you google anything followed by the word “images”, in most cases you get a page with a couple of hundred pictures.) Boalsburg is so small that in half the pictures I knew where the photo was taken or what the event was. In a few cases I was even surprised to see that I knew the people in the picture.

Was this merely nostalgia wallowing on my part? Somewhat, yeah. I miss the village, in spite of how lonely I was there and the fact that I spent the last two years looking for work. You may have noticed that the human mind works in such a way that when remembering something which was both good and bad, the bad eventually disappears. Trips I’ve taken to Europe all shimmer in my memory with golden sunlight on a cathedral across the square where I sit drinking wine. It certainly wasn’t always like that. Like arriving after midnight in Russia with 20 students—who I was responsible for—and only two suitcases showed up. But I do remember so many good things.

By now I’m looking back at Pennsylvania from almost a year away, and with the passage of time and distance the hills grow greener, the arts festival more festive, the little towns more charming, the Amish more Amishy, the cafes more quaint. I miss it quite a lot, and an argument might be made that this is the reason why the next novel I’m beginning will mostly take place in Boalsburg and that area. There is something to that, except for the fact that the idea for the book began while I was still living there, and I was already making notes and thinking about it before I moved.

So it has really only occurred to me afterward, as I contemplate working on this book, that writing it might become a way to deal with some of my feelings about central Pennsylvania. This past week, after a year of preparation, or of not doing anything at all, I finally decided to flip the “on” switch and actually begin writing. I finished one chapter this week and I’m well into the second (they’re not very long, though).

For this blog entry I thought I’d include the current opening paragraph of the book. I know from writing novels that it could be wildly different by the end, a year or two from now, but this is where we are at the moment:

“It was a cold, sunny afternoon in November when Leola Summer Daye realized that she might as well be an orphan. It’s a basic truth of life that your parents should not leave you before you decide to leave them, but compassionate truths often dissipate like smoke before the brutal reality of living. Her mother had not entirely left, as she was only an hour away in Altoona, Pennsylvania. But on that late November day, walking out of the hospital where her mother had gone after a nervous breakdown, Leola felt certain her mother was not coming home. Heather Day was not simply taking time to feel better before returning to the village of Boalsburg, to which she she recently moved them. Leola watched a little girl crossing the parking lot, holding her mother’s hand, and felt a coldness more harsh than the wind on her face.”

That paragraph has undergone quite a bit of revision. Some of the things I dealt with: (1) Originally I used the phrase “November day” but because Leola’s last name is Daye, I didn’t like the repetition and used the word “afternoon” instead; (2) The second sentence started out as the opening of the paragraph, but the new first sentence referring to Leola begins with drama about the character herself, which I think is more likely to interest the reader; (3) The paragraph does not say that Leola’s father is actually dead, but to begin with it did. Then I figured that if I hold that information for a paragraph or two, perhaps there will be a slight suspense to find out whether he also simply went away, making Leola only feel like an orphan. (4) I added the final sentence, with the little girl, to imply a theme that will show up later in the book of children and how they are treated, and it also makes a nice contrast for how Leola is feeling.

A brief part of the book will also involve Washington, DC, as I am going to have Leola born here. She will make the opposite move of the one I made a year ago, and against her will she is going to move from Washington to Boalsburg. I’ve picked out the neighborhood where she grew up (if 16 years old counts as grown up), and tomorrow I’m going to take the train down into Washington to that neighborhood, to walk around, make notes, get a feel for it.

So tomorrow I’ll think about Leola. But tonight, now, I’m going to try to finish that second chapter, with Leola’s aunt Olivia. Olivia has her problems too, like dealing with Leola or being confined to a wheelchair. Life can be hard. Hopefully, literature can help make it more bearable.

[There are people who say you should never, ever start a sentence with the word “hopefully”. That last sentence is for them.]

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Malmoms and Their Gruesome Children

evil mask

Can I use your computer?

On the radio this evening, people were discussing a major bank theft done with fake ATM cards, drawing out money at what sounded like hundreds of ATMs around the world. The logistics sounded impossible, except for Superman (who I think would not need the money), yet they did it. What made this grand cyberheist possible to begin with was hacking into computers to steal codes. The person on the radio talking about this used the word “malware”, a word that set me to thinking about how fast our language is changing.

As a general thing, a language describes the world the speakers live in. In olden days presumably Eskimos had no word for “palm tree”, and you probably don’t use the word “heddle” unless you live in a world with a weaver. These are the easiest kinds of examples, nouns that represent physical objects. More subtle are abstract nouns (anoint), verbs (prostrate), or adjectives (gruesome).

Grammar can also reflect a view of reality, such as the fact that—if you can go with this—English once had not just singular and plural, but dual, words that always indicated two of something. If you had two, it mattered, so they had words for it.

In case you haven’t lived long enough to have noticed this, everything changes and everything goes away eventually. Damn it to hell, like it or not, that’s how it be. Since life changes, since society changes, the language has to go with it, or else we can’t very accurately describe being here.

Thus in our eternal battle against evil, begun by mythic figures thousands of years ago, we have now added the word “malware”. You can probably see that the word was rather cleverly created as a variation on “software”, to mean bad software. And look at “software” itself, an even more inventive variation to describe the invisible mysteries inside computers, which were themselves considered a kind of “hardware”. That word “software”, that was kind of inspired.

What I began thinking about while listening to the radio earlier is how fast the language changes are happening, because our society is changing as fast as a bullet moving through butter. Technology may be leading that rush. So we have iPods, and what the hell kind of word is that, and what is an iPod anyway, and why does it have a small “i” followed by an uppercase “P” and God almighty, I’m just gonna go have a drink.

But social changes are also smacking their way through our lives, and those changes also bring their linguistic load. The Oxford English Dictionary (so far the ultimate dictionary in English) recently decided to include “defriend” and “gang tattoo”.

A lot of people talk about “good English” and “bad English”. People who say this don’t usually realize it, but what they are saying is that a particular dialect of English, promoted in school, is good and anything else is bad. Or badder than bad. Evil. Evil English. “I’m not going to do anything” is good English. “I ain’t gonna do nothing” is evil.

Really, you can just get cranky and stupid about this stuff. Here are a couple of things I’m cranky and stupid about. I hate the word “mom” as a generic term for “mother”, as in the sentence “Some moms were talking about how their kids were doing at school”. No big deal, right? Of course not. But I hate it and won’t do it. I also hate the shift of the word “grow” to a new verb that now includes inanimate things, such as “We need to grow the economy”. Aaaahkh, I hate that! I know I’m just a crank, but I don’t care. Anybody who says that is evil. Actually, they usually are, since it’s mostly said by politicians.

Speaking of which, maybe we should call anyone who actually gets elected to Congress a “malocrat”. We could begin a campaign to promote this new word. Start a Facebook page. Tweet on Twitter. Make some T shirts. Or you do it. I ain’t gonna do nothing.

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Hiding From the Elephant

chimp with arm out

Talking like an engineer

Sometimes in a restaurant I watch people air talk, moving their hands as they speak. Perhaps I have an unconscious motive to decide whether or not I’m normal, as I was once accused of using my hands too much when I talk. (Or perhaps my lovely companion at the time did not move her hands enough.)

Monday in Atlanta I sat for a while in a student center at Georgia Tech, a school famous for engineering. I watched a woman making rather dynamic hand motions, including, as far as I could tell, an explosion. I hope she’s not going into aviation engineering. Probably because I was at Georgia Tech, I started remembering years ago when I taught with engineers, and I considered methods of communication they use.

At that time, in addition to hand gestures, I was paying particular attention to the types of drawings engineers use, and somewhere in between drawings and hand gestures were physical objects, from a pipe or block of wood up to a scale model. Gestures, objects, drawings, and of course for us language people: talking, and especially writing.

Especially writing. This week I have more time to think about the writing I’m doing, as I’m down south on a necessary family visit. While I’m here, I’m also trying as much as possible to escape from my real life, though it follows me around like an infuriated bull elephant. I suppose it will trample me eventually, but so far I keep managing to scramble up a tree.

In recent weeks, aside from the creative activity that I actually want to do, I’ve been giving more serious attention to the ugly, dark side of writing—getting people to read it. I’ve been sending stories out to magazines, mostly to those that allow online submission, because snailmail submission is A Huge Pain in the Ass. Nevertheless, I’ve also sent off a couple of stories by printing them out with a cover letter and taking the big envelope to the post office. Several times I’ve received the obligatory reply of No, but I think I still have 21 stories in submission.

I’ve also shifted strategy a bit, looking for new magazines that I don’t know at all. For too long I followed an obviously flawed methodology of sending only to places where I would really want to be published. Perhaps the reason those magazines are so good is that people like me cannot trick them into accepting stories.

Quite a few magazines now exist only online, and one thing I’ve noted about them is that many have word limits shorter than what some of the paper magazines allow. You might think it would be the other way around, since a traditional magazine has to pay for paper, printing, and shipping, while an online magazine can use a longer story for no additional cost. So why do online magazines have shorter word limits? Perhaps they think people don’t actually want to read very much on screen—even though that’s how they publish—and the rule is to keep it short.

Some magazines also encourage “flash fiction” which, as you might guess, flashes by. Short. Maybe new literary genres are being created for people who regard Twitter as communication. Maybe for the Twitter crowd a 500-word story would feel sort of like a novella. They might have to read it in stages. Stop and comment on each paragraph. “Like reading wr & pc #goesonforever”.

Some of what I have is too long, not flash fiction but more like a house burning down. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been revising stories that have been lying around for years, to have as many as possible that are suitable for submission. I had one story that was 25 pages and I cut it down to 12. I was careful to keep all the beautiful, sensitive, and intelligent stuff. Odd, though, that it had 13 pages with none of that.

During the time I’ve been here in Georgia I also heard from Cairn Press, the publisher where I sent the novel Benedict and Miramar. I had sent it on my birthday, which I took as a sign of good luck, but now that I think about it, my birthday has brought me nothing but aging. And great wisdom, of course, but I can’t use that. The publisher wished me good luck, shamrocks, all the whiskey the creative process might require, and nothing else. Another obligatory reply of No.Charlie Brown cartoon

So I’ll return to looking for a literary agent. Unless that bull elephant snaps the tree I’ve climbed. We’re kind of swaying back and forth when he whacks into it. I should have brought some peanuts.

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