Monthly Archives: November 2013

Family Festivality

pink turkeyI was talking with Waldrudge, which you just know is not his real name, but who am I to disturb chickens before they hatch? The name I give whenever the police call is not my real name either. You know how it is.

So I was talking with Waldrudge, and he was telling me that his sister and her husband and three children were coming for Thanksgiving. I thought what a joyous gathering that must be, so many family members in one place, with the delights of holiday cooking and all those memories of days gone by to talk about. Kill a bird with two stones, you know.

Waldrudge didn’t look as enthused as I would have expected. “My family is pretty odd,” he said.

I just scratched my head in propensity. “But you’re odd,” I said. “Seems like a good fit to me. I figured you’d all be cooking together for Thanksgiving. You know the old saying, plenty of cooks spill the broth.”

“Nobody cooks but me,” he said. “Not even my wife. Everybody else consumes. My brother-and-law really just wants to watch football. He sits in front of the TV yelling ‘You useless bastards!’ But he only likes teams that have mammals for mascots.”

“Like dragons,” I said.

“No,” Waldrudge said, “I don’t believe those are mammals.”

“They have milk,” I told him.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Cow dragons,” I said.

“No.”

Two days after Thanksgiving I ran into Waldrudge. He looked relieved, if “relieved” is the right word. Sometimes “relieved” means “drunk” doesn’t it? That’s been my experience, although I don’t know how much it counts as experience when you don’t remember it.

“How was your time off?” I asked.

“I didn’t have time off,” he said. “I was with my family. I thought I told you that.”

“Lovely,” I said, wanting to seem capacious.

“Did I tell you my sister is a teacher?” he asked.

“Teach a man to fish and he’ll be gone on Sundays,” I said. “Does she teach fishing?”

“No, she doesn’t teach fishing. She teaches second grade. During Thanksgiving dinner she decided to share an assignment she gave her students. She had them write what they wished for, and she pulled out a stack of papers and started reading to us at the table. One kid wrote ‘I wish everyone had hair.’”

“Well, that would be a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” I said. “What about people who prefer to be bald?”

“Don’t ask me,” Waldrudge said frenetically. “I’m not in second grade. Speaking of kids, my three nephews suddenly decided they wanted to have a favorite color. The middle kid chose blue, but the oldest said he had picked blue the week before, and he told his brother he had to use another color. They argued for an hour about who got to use which color as his favorite, and in the end they made the youngest kid take pink, so he started crying.”

“It’s not a bad color on birds,” I said. “Although a bird of another color isn’t pink.”

Waldrudge added, “My sister was oblivious, sitting at the table talking to my wife about teaching second grade, and of course her husband was on the couch watching TV.”

“No surprise there,” I said. “You already hit that nail with your head. So he found a game he wanted to watch.”

“Yeah, the Georgia bulldogs were playing.”

“I prefer Georgia Tech, myself,” I said. “Does he like them”?

“No, no. Yellowjackets. Those are insects.”

“Oh well,” I said. “As the old saying goes, ignorance is blessed.”

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Steal This Word

hippie manWay back yonder in the 60s—you kids gather around and I’ll tell you…hey, hey, put that iPod down and listen to what I’m saying here. So back in the 1960s , when I was young and we had just invented both sex and love, fairly similar concepts at the time, as an afterthought we were going to cure the world of war. In order to do this we needed to grow our hair long and not brush it and wear really vivid clothing.

There is a long tradition in human history, ever since we learned to use language, of older people thinking that young people are a bunch of lazy disrespectful dumbshits and the world is going to hell. Socrates said that young people “have bad manners, contempt for authority”. Now that my generation has become the old people, I notice the tradition continues. Back in the 60s, to express their disgust, some of the older people called us “freaks”.

Of course the word “freak” was meant to be derogatory, but an interesting phenomenon occurred. Because words are basically noises, a word acquires both its meaning and power from social usage, and the negative meaning of a word can be attenuated, or removed entirely, if people use it differently. So young people began to refer to themselves proudly as freaks, as in the song “Almost Cut My Hair” by Crosby, Stills and Nash: “I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”

The practice of taking a word and deliberately changing its meaning can be found repeatedly, no doubt all around the world. A more recent example is a shift with the word “queer” to refer to a homosexual. When I was in high school, the word was practically spoken in dark whispers about an odd boy or two. Now the word has been aggressively claimed and proclaimed, as in the name of a gay rights organization, Queer Nation.

Shifting the meaning of a word can also go in other directions. In the last 20 years, the term “liberal” has diminished in the United States as a political description. The beliefs themselves haven’t dramatically changed, but the word has acquired a slightly (or more than slightly) derogatory connotation. Of course people who disagree with the political ideas of liberalism would always have thought of the word negatively, but starting maybe 20 years ago, even liberals themselves began slowly edging away from the word.

So now we see the word “progressive” everywhere, a word with quite a different meaning to my way of thinking. Why have liberals turned and run from the word “liberal”? I suggest that the word was stolen from them, but liberals had to participate in that change by passivity. They allowed people who disliked liberal ideas to turn “liberal” into a dirty word, and instead of standing up for their own label, even though liberals did not change their ideas, they slunk off and became “progessives”.

drawing of fistIn our current political climate, the word “conservative” is now being stolen as well. Once again the people who believe in those ideas are participating in the loss through passivity. Contrary to “liberal”, however, the word “conservative” is still very much in vogue, but the definition is shifting. The people who most loudly claim this word not only claim it, but angrily and aggressively demand adherence to their übercorrect way of thinking.

The fist-in-the-air rants of the Tea Party that they are the only conservatives gives them a very public voice, but having the loudest voice does not remotely make a person correct. In fact, extremism is not conservative, it is radical. The Tea Party’s Soviet-like insistence on purity of belief is a clear sign that there is nothing “conservative” about such people.

And yet, like the liberals before them, real conservatives are cringing and cowering—and it is damn well not pretty to watch. The difference in this case is that while liberals kept their beliefs and gave up the word, conservatives are retaining the word and altering their beliefs. Yes indeed, comrade, you are the most conservative.

stone carving with land of purity

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But I Don’t Know Nothing

baby with cowboy hat

OK, but don’t teach him how to write.

Maybe you’ve lived a good life, upright, moral, the very soul of ethical granite. I wouldn’t know about that stuff. I traded my option of going to Heaven a long time ago for a sixpack and some old Playboy magazines. Now the beer is drunk up and I lost the magazines, so I’m kind of thinking… but no, no, what’s done is done.

Since you’re a good person, you clearly have not lived your life as a writer. Thus you’ve avoided anxiously reading simplified, pretentious articles with advice on writing, signing up for creative writing courses out of the back of cheap magazines, and melancholy faraway gazing.

You’ve also missed joining writers critique groups. Within our furtive groupings, we give one another advice, and for those of you fortunate enough to have avoided literacy, I want to enrich your life with comments on three recommendations regarding writing. I mention the first while heaving a heavy sigh: “Write what you know”. Possibly this is good advice for a 13-year-old, who suddenly, at 10:00 at night, needs to have an essay for English class tomorrow morning. For adults, not quite as useful.

There is certainly some benefit to knowing what you’re writing about, but such advice is often reduced down to the stupid level (where many people keep their religion), so that in practice this advice becomes “whatever is in your head right now, that’s all you should write about”.

If you ever commit some heinous sin and end up as a writer, you may join a writing critique group, and if you wish to create the illusion of giving advice—while actually saying nothing—do this: look serious and say, “You should write what you know.” Do research? Learn new things? No thanks, I’m going to write what I know. I’m not gonna be like that stupid Shakespeare, who had to go read up on stuff.

If you still wish to extend your illusion of offering critique without actual thought, you can employ the second recommendation regarding writing: “Show, don’t tell”. Let your victim figure out what to make of such a vague generality. We might consider Charles Dickens opening a novel with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” No, no, no! That’s telling. Show someone having a bad time.

Because I’m such a positive person, as you’ve noticed, I don’t want to conclude this blog on a negative note. Therefore I’ll end with an example of good writing advice (i.e. mine), with a reference to a song made famous by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Paraphrasing this line, we can express the writing advice this way: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be moody teenage poets who write love poems so leprously bad you want to gouge your own eyes out and then go wandering off like Oedipus, looking for some tragedy to take your mind off what you just read.”

Setting that to music might take some effort. We could summarize it as “Don’t let young people write love poetry.” That includes descriptions of the blissful stupid stupefaction of falling in love as well as the wails of black despair after realizing that no one anywhere ever, ever, ever suffered so badly from being mistreated, and how could you act like that when I loved you sooooo much?

I offer this good advice based on a short period when I was advisor to a college literary magazine. Because I didn’t use proper personal protective gear, I was exposed to all of the poetry submissions. However, since you’ve lived a moral life yourself, you probably haven’t read poems like that. I envy you. Just thinking about it makes me wish I still had some of that sixpack.

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Being Here Is Not Enough

painting of fish on a lineYou know that part of the morning before you leave the house, when you’re standing more or less dressed, technically awake, hurrying through the last few tedious, pointless activities (brushing your hair, tying your shoes), before rushing out the door to work?

You’ve been there, right? So often it feels like every fucking day for the last thousand years? I was standing at the bathroom mirror this week, flossing my teeth because after decades of noble resistance, I finally accepted the utility of flossing. Speaking of which, and I am NOT making this up, I was driving this week when I looked in my rearview mirror and I swear I saw a man who appeared to have only two teeth, one on the far left, one on the far right, kind of like Dracula. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that’s a stereotype of people down south and here I am in Georgia and there’s a man with only two teeth? I wondered if it could be some kind of costume, but the goober in that pickup truck was not wearing a costume.

So floss your teeth unless you’re planning to move to Georgia. What I started to mention, however, before I took off like a puppy after that diversion, was what I was thinking about while standing at the mirror. As I was flossing and going through various semiconscious motions, my mind was in the world of the book I’m writing, thinking about Leola Summer Daye, one of my protagonists. I watched her going to the Food Bank to volunteer, saw the building and the people she was meeting. I was not standing in my chilly apartment, not in Atlanta, not even in my own body. Instead, I was in Leola’s world.

What I’m trying to illustrate is something I’ve alluded to before, the vast chasm between the life my body inhabits and the life my mind is trying to live. On some level, isn’t this true of most people? I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “I’d rather be fishing”, and while I’d much rather be drowned than go fishing, I understand the impulse.

Nevertheless, fishing—so I’m told—is for pleasure, and I’m not necessarily talking about pleasure. Instead I’m thinking of the dilemma for people who want to be engaged in a creative activity, but who can only grab at it in bits and pieces, when time and conditions allow. In my own case, I certainly don’t write for pleasure. I’m usually lonely when I write, at times I grow bored sitting at this damned desk, and writing is difficult. I’m truly working when I do it. And yet paradoxically, when I’m out doing other things, I think about being here and wish I were sitting writing.

I have two friends who are very serious painters, and I’ve heard each of them on multiple occasions complain, sometimes rather bitterly, about the necessity of going to work when they should be painting. How many actors are there who yearn toward Shakespeare or the Coen Brothers, but who are instead doing data entry for a law firm or restocking shelves at Home Depot? How often do they question the badly misconstrued universe?woman dreaming of fish

There are times when I’m sitting and reading that I’ll get a weird feeling I ought to be doing something else. It’s as if I feel I should be doing something useful or productive, but then I tell myself that reading a novel is my job. Writers have to read, in the same way that musicians have to practice music. I’m engaging with words, with expressions of ideas, with literary creations that are trying to touch truths that can’t ever be completely grasped.

As I go through a day I might think about Leola or other characters. Sometimes I’ll walk around in the story I’m trying to bring to life, and I’ll walk out to the edges of the story where it ends and everything turns white. Maybe once in a while I’ll be able to reach my hands out and push, so that colors appear and the story extends. In the evening perhaps I’ll have two or three hours when I can return briefly to my real life of words and ideas and making new things appear. It’s why I’m here.

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Filed under Writing While Living

I Brought You a Ticket

Time Transfixed by Rene MagritteI’ve ridden on trains in five countries, or six, depending on how you count. Maybe because of interesting train experiences—sneaking off from Moscow to Leningrad when I was a student in the Soviet Union, riding under the English Channel from London to Paris, going into New York for an afternoon to the opera, coming this close to missing a train to Kiev because of a little too much vodka—I love riding trains. The idea of being on a train always appeals to me, and perhaps my past has given me a romantic imagination when I think about one.

There was once a train that ran in a circle around Atlanta, though that train has now gone to railroad heaven, to clatter contentedly for eternity. In the place where the railroad used to be, the city has decided, in a remarkable and perhaps unexpected display of wisdom, to convert that giant circle into an enormous pedestrian path for walking, jogging, and biking, with connected parks, outdoor art, and restaurants.

The glory of the full circle is still in the future, but part of the path is finished. A week ago a friend offered to take me to the Beltline, as it’s called, and we walked along looking at the art and at young people shaking their fist at death in a skateboard park. Then we made our way back to a restaurant in a former warehouse, for wine and appetizers, including delicious fresh beets.

Later as I thought about this wonderful project the city is engaged in, I applied my train imagination and wrote a poem. Since I’m not a real poet, I make no claims, but I’m nevertheless willing to litter the internet with yet another damn poem.

Imagine I

Imagine I stand
on a weatherbeaten platform in 1920.
Porters in black caps wait nearby.
Downtown Atlanta is miles away.
Imagine I lean against a post
looking at my watch
as summer heat builds up.
Perhaps I remove my hat to wipe the sweat.
wondering why the train is late,
wishing you would arrive,
wanting you in my arms.

Imagine I walk
where once the railroad ran.
The rails have given way to a paved walk.
Atlanta towers against the azure evening sky.
Imagine I stop beside a historical marker
near the abandoned platform,
thinking of passengers long gone,
the chill of fall against my face.
Perhaps I think about you
walking that path with me,
wearing the scarf we bought in Dublin,
waiting to get home to warmth.

Imagine I sit
at a table on that platform in 20 years.
The sleek electric train slides by.
A waiter from the bistro takes our order.
Imagine I turn to you,
the scent of earth in the spring breeze.
It is not imagination to know
that I will smile slowly,
thinking that time does not exist
when I look at your eyes.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry