Monthly Archives: June 2013

Real People

city by StavangerOff to the east of the pond I’m looking at, in the direction of the ocean, is the town of Athens, Georgia, about 45 minutes away. I’m going over there later today to an alternative art gallery. Athens is also the home of the University of Georgia (hence the name Athens, you know, ancient Greeks, you know, knowledge and stuff). The mascot for the school is a bulldog, and sometimes around here you’d think that was the only animal on earth. Athens has also been the site of some very innovative music, giving rise to the bands REM, Widespread Panic, and the B-52s.

Last night near here I went with my brother to an outdoor concert to hear another Athens band, not quite so innovative, but fun, a cover band who play only Beatles music. There was a crowd there, next to the courthouse in Lawrenceville (where Larry Flynt, of Hustler Magazine, was put on trial and where someone tried to assassinate him in 1978). Fake Bealtes, attempted killing—it’s an active spot.

When a lot of people are around, I like to observe them, partly to gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, and partly thinking about how I might use what I see in my writing. At times I also listen to conversations and even repeat them in my head, to get a stronger sense of how people speak, which I then use as I write.

One of the loveliest things I saw last night was a mother and daughter. The mother was possibly in her mid to late 40s, and the daughter was around 19 or 20. They were both a bit plump, as though they had stepped from a Peter Paul Rubens painting. At one point during the concert they stopped on the sidewalk and both began to sing along with the song and dance, even making hand gestures, such as touching the heart. It was remarkable to see this mother and daughter doing this, completely impromptu, and at this moment I feel sure I’ll use that scene in my writing later.

I wish I were doing more writing now than I am, and I wonder whether I might just be lazy, but I’m also going to work every day for my brother’s environmental assessment company, so it’s harder to find time to write. Still, I try to do a little every evening, and I push the new novel along. Currently I’m pondering some basic questions about the nature of the book. I’ve probably mentioned on here that I have three main characters (Leola, Carmen [formerly Olivia], and Jethro), and by now I’ve thought about them enough that they’ve become real to me, even though not much of the book is written.

But is there a problem with the number three? I mean everybody loves the three little pigs and the three bears in Goldilocks, but can a novel sustain three protagonists? Do I need to refocus? I would hate to completely lose a character, although I’ve done that with other books. I was thinking about a few novels and how many major protagonists they have: Anna Karenina (2) Ulysses (really 1, though with other characters), Don Quixote (1), Alice in Wonderland (1). But then there are books with no clear set of protagonists: Grapes of Wrath, Catch-22, Lord of the Rings, though each of those three books is more about an idea than specific characters.

Or why don’t I just be smart enough to write my own book? Good question. I’ll figure it out with time, at least well enough to finish the book so that literary agents can reject it. I believe the solution is going to wind up as keeping all three characters, but with a stronger focus on two of them. Leola, the lonely, angry 16-year-old, is a definite focus, and I have a strong story line for her. The question, I guess, is which of the two adults will get emphasized. Unless I do something else altogether.

I’m on the fifth chapter, which I’ll try to finish this weekend, except instead of sitting here this afternoon to write, like a proper diligent writer, I’m going down the road to the home of famous bands and imitators of famous bands, to look at an art gallery. No wonder I write slow. I might even stop and have a beer while I’m out. I’m a complete profligate.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Power With These Words

Angry bannerThis week I sat in a room in Atlanta, just off the Buford Highway, a road lined with Mexican restaurants, Chinese stores, Vietnamese malls. I was with a trainer and two other men, all of us learning about the business of how to safely remove asbestos, as I spent all week taking a class in this topic (and I now have a certificate that says I have taken an Asbestos Contractor/Supervisor Course, though my purpose was simply to have the certificate, which I will need in working with my brother). My real point in this blog entry is to note that the trainer spoke to me for a while in English, then talked quite a while with the other two men in Spanish.

My knowledge of Spanish is right weak, and while I tried to follow what was being said, I only caught a word here and there. Mostly for me, those words were just noises. I was thinking about this exchange in the context of an interview on NPR earlier in the week with the spoken word poet Sarah Kay, who referred to the power of language. Of course a lot of people have talked about this, but it was Sarah Kay who got me to thinking.

I agree with Sarah, and I was examining the idea of what makes language powerful. On the one hand, it’s a bit strange to think of language as powerful, since it’s only noise, literally. Listening to someone speak a foreign language, as I did during asbestos training, you get some sense of one reality of language, that we are just making noises with our mouth.

And yet…we all know that language is powerful. Every one of us has had multiple occasions of hearing those noises from the mouth and standing dumbstruck, of living our lives differently from that moment on.

I thought about what it is that makes language powerful, and while my cocky confidence does not go so far as to say I know, I’m willing to suggest theories, some of which must be wrong: (1) The power comes from the very sounds of the words, the noises themselves, like onomatopoeia. Boom! (or as Russians say of ocean waves, shoom) (2) The power of words comes from the meanings plus connotations of the words. (3) The power comes from the thoughts represented by the words, as those thoughts are expressed by language and transferred to other people. (4) The power of words is an indirect reflection of the real power of physical reality, which words merely represent.

To contemplate these theories, let’s take some examples from each one:

(1) [Sound] flux (currently beloved by the poet Sarah Kay), or words I like the sound of: postilion, jelly, dastardly. Your word goes here: _______.

(2) [Meaning/connotations] heinous (implies not just bad, but deliberately evil), hug (implies not only you, but puppies), Appalachian (implies moonshine and a trail), vixen (oh man, don’t get me started)

(3) [Thoughts] “I love you”, “Joe is going to fire you”, “There’s a spot on your lung”, “You make the best coconut cake I ever ate”

(4) [Physical reality] “CRISIS IS AT HAND” (newspaper headline about war with Spain, New York Journal, 1898); “I am not a crook.” (Richard Nixon, 1973); “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” (Albert Einstein)

What do you think? Does language have a power inherent in itself, or only because it represents things outside of itself, which themselves have power?

If we wanted to answer that question (or maybe we don’t want to), the answer would have to take into account what is language? I love you signThat goes back to the mouth noises, but those noises do mean something, and they not only reflect reality, but even help to create reality. If someone is a “traitor” or a “witch” or a “hero” we decide those things through language, and once we decide, it becomes reality, right?

I don’t have room here to consider that this idea of reality creation (in some ways) is true of everything. So that is a kind of power that language has. Words reflect reality, or create reality, and change the facts of the world.

Yet they are only mouth noises. Mmmmmm.

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Filed under Language

O, Thou Sweet Poison, Bring Me More Happinesh

Person walking in a very colorful forest

“Path” by Leonid Afremov

As a rule, you want to avoid poison, though it depends. There is a blood thinner called warfarin, often sold under the brand name Coumadin, that has kept many people alive. Before small doses of it were used to save lives, it was a rat poison (and still is).

With poisons it’s often a matter of degree, of how much you take. The Latin word for poison is “toxicum”, from which, of course, we get the word “toxic”. If someone tells me something is toxic, I’m going to wait for you to try it first. I’m cautious that way. But if instead of toxic it’s “intoxicating”, then I’ll have extra.

The realization that a poison can have benefits (other than killing people who irritate you) was realized long ago. According to my friend the Internet, “intoxicate” was first used to mean making someone drunk back in 1570. Alcohol is a poison, as most college students know from conducting experiments on the weekends. In modern English we still use that meaning of “intoxicate” for drunkenness, but we’ve also taken that first happy feeling when drinking and expanded by metaphor into any state of mental euphoria or exhilaration.

Such intoxicating usage occurs naturally in song lyrics: “Cause you, you make me feel like I’m intoxicated” (Intoxicated, contemporary pop song), “Thou fairest creature, you have enslaved me, I am intoxicated by Cupid’s clue” (Colleen Rue, old Irish song).

Below I’m posting a poem on these ideas. I wrote the poem a couple of years ago, but it still applies.

Why Aren’t We Born Intoxicated?

The body manufactures vitreous humor for the eye,
allowing us to watch the rain come down
on a Monday morning,
as we search for our hopelessly lost car keys,
already late for work.
It makes gastric acid
to swirl anxiously in the stomach
as we sit waiting in the doctor’s office,
when the doctor is taking longer than we expected.
And it produces the myelin sheath
so that our nerves can carry signals,
making possible the tense, jittery feeling
as we pick up the phone to call someone.

What the body doesn’t make is alcohol.
That comes in bottles.

You know that feeling
when you’ve first had a couple of drinks.
It’s not drunkenness you feel.
It’s as if you’ve simply realized
that actually things aren’t that bad.
Sure, there’s trouble in the world,
sure, you’ve got some of it,
but that shouldn’t stop you from feeling optimistic and cheerful.
At a moment like that,
when you feel that way,
if alcohol is the work of the Devil,
then he deserves a Christmas bonus.

But naturally there’s a catch,
and isn’t there always?
Somehow it’s just not possible to maintain that feeling that somehow we’ll find the money to buy new tires for the car, and maybe we’ll get that job we interviewed for, and that person who doesn’t love us, well, maybe they’ll change their mind.

No, instead we either wind up too drunk,
or just as bad,
too sober.

You say what you like,
but here’s what I say:
there’s a philosophical problem
with my DNA.
This is my final posting from Washington, located in the District of fair and lovely Columbia. Tomorrow morning I am off to Georgia, to live in the part of the country where people know to say “yall” when linguistic precision is needed. So yall come back next week, and I will try to add a dab of Dixie to my discourse. In the meantime, bottoms up.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry, Writing While Living

29 Silk Scarves

silk scarvesEarlier in the week I walked past a female deer, which stood about six feet from me, watching as I walked by, then it lowered its head and went back to eating. Even deer think I’m dull and safe.

Maybe I am, but on the inside I’m a dangerous writer. On the inside I’m like the dark poet Charles Bukowski, the live hard/die young Lord Byron, the knife-fighting Christopher Marlowe. Inside I make women think “hmm, if only…”, I walk away from stability for the sake of bold and careless freedom, and I insidiously make people wonder whether they’ve been wasting their life on normality.

On the outside, however, I don’t even scare deer.

As I was on that walk approaching the misinformed deer, I was dangerously thinking of how many times I’ve moved from one residence to another. Previously here on the Blog News Service I said that I’ve now lived in 14 states, and I’m probably not done, but I was really thinking, “How many times have I actually picked up every damn thing I owned and moved?” I probably lost count, but I came up with 28 times. I’m not counting several periods of weeks or months overseas, as that was always temporary, and I’m only counting since I got out of high school.

Assuming 28 is correct, I’m about to go for 29. This Washington enterprise is being forced to shut down. I came to Washington looking for work, but work? I’m a writer, I don’t work. Apparently. I believe there must be jobs in Washington, because people get on the interstate every morning and evening, jam it up, and they all have huge smiles on their faces as they drive by. That means they’re going to work, right?

Me, I’ve been living mostly on unemployment checks, and you good people paying taxes are finally putting your foot down on my useless sucking from the public teat. You bastards. I thought it was my place in life to be a dilettante parasite writer. I already I bought the outfit and everything. Now what do I do with all those silk scarves? I can’t wear that stuff in Georgia, where I’m moving to live with my brother for a while.

costume from Ballets Russes

Ballets Russes costume

On June 15, I’ll be out of here, and goodbye Washingtonia. Here are some cool things I’ve experienced: our back deck, Politics and Prose bookstore, crazy good art museums, crabcakes on Solomon’s Island down where the Patuxent River flows into the Chesapeake, the winery in St. Michael’s, looking at boats in Annapolis, drinking beer in an Irish pub in Annapolis, or a pretty fabulous exhibit today (June 7) on the Ballets Russes at the National Gallery of Art.

And of course the Chevy Chase writing group called Table in the Back, which I’ve been attending for almost a year. We now usually have around 15 people showing up, so that we break up into smaller impromptu groups (and I take credit for that idea.) There are some good writers in the group, and there are people who will be very good if they keep writing and learning the craft. I’ve enjoyed trying to encourage promising writers, I’ve enjoyed hearing the writing of people in the group, and I’ve benefited from the critiques I’ve gotten. I’ve also been fortunate to become friends with people from the group. No one seems especially dangerous, but I can be friends with safe people too, if I try.

Since I’m leaving this area, I’ve also had to hurry and make a research trip to the town of Cambridge, Maryland, over on the eastern shore across the Chesapeake. This will be background for the current novel (I’m currently working on the fourth chapter), as two of my characters—Carmen and Heather Fierro— are from there. So I drove over and made notes, and while I was there, talking to the hostess in the place where I had lunch, I learned that in Cambridge they have a muskrat skinning contest every year. Man, literary research just engulfs you in the grandeur of indigenous culture.

Apparently they also eat the muskrats, but I guess I’ll miss that, because I’ll be gone south.


Filed under Writing While Living

Well, Not a Party Exactly

Women picking tea

You can pick the tea, but just don’t come to America.

I know how much both of my readers like a little rhetorical discussion now and then, so let’s turn to politics. I’m looking for something that will be interesting, the way a house on fire is interesting, so let’s have a look at several tea party websites. There is no “official” tea party, but multiple groups, so I’ll look briefly at some of the rhetoric on four websites.

Tea Party Nation: Their name is an instructive place to start, with the addition of the word “nation”, which is clearly meant to say that this is a national movement. Which it certainly is. They want to emphasize that fact with the name, and maybe the importance of their own group as well. Perhaps they also wish to imply that it is even bigger than it is.

On the day I’m looking at the site, just under the title and navigation bar are what look like an advertisement, reading “This is Where They’ll Store Your Emails” with a warning that “NSA will store every one of your phone calls and emails…” With the headline of “They” and the subtext referring to “every one” of your communications, we see paranoia at its best. The government is coming to get you.

This belief is actually a common motif in American history. There were people back in the 60s and 70s, I had friends from that period, who exactly agreed with the idea that the government was out to get us and spy on us. I was told about one rumor that the government was going to build concentration camps in West Virginia. But in those days such a belief was leftist, and now it’s right wing.

Tea Party Patriots: Again notice the name with the use of “patriots”, as though that sets them apart from other groups. This site opens with an enormous banner in striking reddish orange colors, reading “Project Phoenix: It’s Time to Rise Again”. The phoenix is the mythological bird that rises from the ashes of its own self destructive immolation. The implication seems to be that our country has destroyed itself and needs to be resurrected.

This attitude, that the country has been destroyed, seems to miss the point that we are still the richest, most powerful country on the earth, without any question, and one of the most free. Nevertheless, there is a common line of thinking among tea party groups that “everything has gone to hell”.

Tea Party Express: The homepage on this site looks like it is meant to say “look how patriotic” (i.e. political) we are. It has the American flag, as well as flag colors, all over the page. Underneath the name of the page is the phrase “Restore Liberty, Honor the Constitution”. The slogan tells us that “liberty” is gone and needs to be restored (i.e. “everything has gone to hell”).

With the phrase “Honor the Constitution” another very common tea party motif is being invoked. The various tea party groups have taken up this motif through constant repetition, to claim that only truly pure patriots like themselves actually “honor” the Constitution, exactly the way you’re supposed to. That is to say, it’s not that there are disagreements over interpreting the Constitution. No. The tea party is right and their opponents are bastards who don’t respect the Constitution and the really obvious way you’re supposed to understand it.

Tea Party: This must have been the first group to register a website, so no additional noun was needed as part of their name. Just like the previous website, the visual imagery here is all flag. The slogan at the top reads “Our mission is to bring awareness to any issue which challenges the security, sovereignty or domestic tranquility of our beloved nation…The United States of America.” With the phrase “our beloved nation” the emotional appeal is heavy and obvious. I also notice the phrase “Our mission” and wonder whether all political parties have a “mission”. That word adds to the emotional appeal, and it also seems to imply a semi-religious attitude toward what they are doing. Also notice that they are watching out for any challenges to “sovereignty”. What exactly does that mean? UN black helicopters? A more subtle allusion to the paranoia that other sites talk about openly?

All of these websites display some paranoia, which is much of what makes them tea party websites in the first place. The fact is, however, that every government in the world, including ours, does need watching. The government does do things wrong—like the recent revelations that the IRS targeted tea party groups for extra scrutiny. Such targeting was a despicable abuse of government power. There was also listening in on the phone calls of AP reporters.

The tea party people are right that we need to be vigilant (which makes an interesting irony of the fact that they practically spit on themselves expressing their hatred of the media, which functions in part to keep an eye on the government). But on the tea party websites, it is also easy to find a tone of hysteria. Look at these headlines from some of the websites I’ve discussed:

Tea Party Nation
(Blog headline) Disturbing Pattern: Obama Puts Our Enemies Above Us

Tea Party Patriots
(News headline) President enables illegal immigrants but won’t meet with law enforcement

Tea Party
(News item headline) Obama half-brother uses IRS status to fund polygamy?
(Rotating images) Obama to Muslims: Tell Me What You Want

When you are so paranoid that you make up stupid shit about the president, or stupid shit about anything, when you cannot distinguish between reality and your own hysterical nonsense, then what the hell good are you at watching out for government that oversteps its limits?

We do need to keep an eye on our government, but people whose basic function is nonstop screaming are not very helpful.


Filed under Language