Monthly Archives: January 2016

Stars, Dragons, and Peaches

night sky with starsIn the sophisticated world where we writers dwell (because you know, writers don’t just live, we dwell), we spend all day thinking about art and language and who sells wine at the cheapest price. We also create special vocabulary for the sophisticated things we do, like publish books. One of those vocabulary items is “front matter” which consists of several pages located in the—wait for it—front of a book. That can be various things, but front matter will always include the title page and copyright page, and if you want to thank your mother for doing without food so you could buy paper to write, there’s the dedication page, and so on.

This week I wrote the front matter for the book of short stories I’m in the process of publishing. The book won’t be out for a couple of months, perhaps, but it’s moving along, and next week I’m going out to talk to a cover designer. The book is named for the first story and is thus called I’d Tear Down the Stars. Below I’m providing the opening few paragraphs of the first three stories in the book (title in bold), so you can see some of what you’ll be getting, when at last the sun beams down on the dawn of that glad day.

I’d Tear Down the Stars

The oldest memory she had was of people riding seahorses and eating almonds. It couldn’t be a real memory, of course, but when she went drifting down through recollections, of childhood back in North Dakota, of the blue swing set in her grandparents’ yard, of her father getting stung by a bumblebee, which she was told happened when she was two years old, the people on seahorses seemed to come before all of them. What this mysterious memory was she didn’t know, but she dreamed about it sometimes. She was dreaming now of the seahorse riders, moving through blue waves, as she slept on the bus crossing the Coahuila desert.

The bus hit a hole in the road, bounced, and shook her. As the dream faded away, recent memories swirled into its place: buying the last Beatles’ album, feeding a homeless dog, watching the war in Vietnam on TV. Liv came fully awake now and looked through the window at the darkness outside. Yes, she was in Mexico, her first time in another country. Off the roadway a white house stood, with a single light above the door casting a pool of light on the white wall of the house and on the reddish earth of the ground in front. A bicycle leaned up against the wall of the house. Otherwise, the night was moonless and dark, and the desert was mostly invisible. The sky was brilliant with stars, like powdered sugar blown ferociously onto dark cloth, leaving the sky with swirls and splotches where the stars were more dense. Liv had never seen such a thing, and it was almost frightening to imagine the enormity of it.

See the Jungle When It’s Wet with Rain

Sometimes a house on fire is the most beautiful thing you ever saw. I don’t mean it’s good for a house to be on fire, but bad things can be beautiful. I’m not a poetic guy, either, but maybe you could compare some fires to a dragon, like fire has different colors the way a dragon does, it keeps moving and changing, like I guess a dragon would, and sometimes you can get pretty close to it without really knowing it’s there, and then all of a sudden it’s huge in front of you and scares the shit out of you. It’s my job to kill that dragon. When it lands on a building, I walk in there with an axe and a hose, and we’re gonna stay there until one of us is a pile of black ashes. For ten years I’ve been a fireman in Cape May, New Jersey, right here where I was born and lived without a break. We’ve got a lot of old wooden houses here in Cape May, one of the things we’re famous for, all those Victorian bed-and-breakfast places, but man, those wooden houses can burn the hell up in no time.

As a fireman, you run into some unusual things. I’ve seen a man stand naked outside a burning building, holding a TV, not even notice he wasn’t wearing anything. I’ve watched people throw furniture out windows, I’ve seen fires that burned odd colors, like green, and I’ve run into buildings where bottles started to explode. I’ve had some weird experiences, just part of the job, but the weirdest thing I’ve run into in ten years was something I didn’t even notice at first.

Use My Blood

The man at the rest stop in Virginia offered us some peaches he had bought back in South Carolina. I took one for me and one for Meghann, and the man started telling me about the little town he’s from in Maryland, a fishing village. I thought about how nice that would be, to live in a village on the coast, eat fresh fish off the boat. I could probably learn to like fish if I lived like that.

When we went back to our own picnic table, Meghann said, “You liked him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, he seemed pretty nice,” I told her.

“You don’t know, Mom,” Meghann said. “A stranger at a rest stop could be a psychopath.”

Was my teenage daughter watching over my love life? “Well, we didn’t set a date,” I said. “He just gave us a couple of peaches.”

“Maybe they’re poisoned,” Meghann said.

“Maybe,” I replied, and bit into one of the most delicious peaches I thought I’d ever had. I sat there looking out at the pine trees and thinking back on the past week, on how unlikely it was that I was sitting there in Virginia with my daughter.


Stay tuned, blog dwellers.

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

Someday When I Rule You

quote from Emperor AugustusSo it’s presidential election year! I’m feeling a little schizophrenic, shifting back and forth between the gleeful pleasure of the wildass campaign, and the sick realization that someone is actually going to be elected.

Most of the rhetorical analysis I was reading at first was going to Donald Trump. Of course it took some doing to keep up with the deranged, offensive, ignorant things he said, but then that effort went from drinking from a fire hose to trying to swallow a tsunami as it roared in full of racist stupidity and imaginary “facts”. Basically, though, Donald Trump is simple. He’s pathologically insecure and he wants to be liked and told what a good boy he is. He’ll never get enough, but that’s what he wants.

A more subtle and incredibly dangerous character is Ted Cruz. Unlike Trump, Cruz doesn’t want attention, and he doesn’t care whether anyone likes him. He wants one thing—power—and he will say or do anything to get it. If Ted Cruz was absolutely convinced that he could be elected President by becoming a Democrat, he’d be the most liberal person out there tomorrow.

But for his current approach, let’s take a look at some of the rhetoric on his website. The home page opens with “Join the movement of Courageous Conservatives”, telling us that those other conservatives are not courageous. Given Cruz’s past, the word “courageous” must mean “rigid, inflexible, and intolerant”. Also notice that he’s not actually conservative. A real conservative would never dream of shutting down the government just to make a political point, but Cruz didn’t hesitate for one second when he tried. As I said above, however, he has no actual beliefs other than wanting power.

When you look at the home page of the website for Cruz, you also find a truly interesting bit of rhetoric, not immediately obvious. The top of the page has 8 links, including the mysterious “ES”. That link goes to a Spanish-language version of the page, something you might not know unless you speak Spanish, in which case you could make a guess that it stands for Español.

There is far more than enough room at the top of the page to fully spell out the word, instead of using a blatantly weird abbreviation. If they did, however, even the uneducated poor whites who plan to vote for Cruz might recognize “Español” as a Spanish word. Those angry poor whites (or in Cruz language, “voters”) are exactly the sort of people who damn well don’t want to see any Spanish on the website of their candidate. So with a strange little abbreviation, Cruz hopes to hide the Spanish part of his website, but when speaking to a Hispanic audience, he can say “And look, my website is even in Spanish.” Amigos.

Among the other links at the top of the home page is one called Issues, with a dropdown menu containing 9 further links, including “Restore the Constitution”. That phrase of course means that we’re currently not using the Constitution, although we are, but…anyway. Click on that link and the next page reads at the top “Defending the Constitution of the United States of America”. Adding the phrase “of America”, which we don’t usually say, makes it sound more grand, more serious, more Ted Cruz-y.

The page argues that Ted Cruz is a valiant defender of the Constitution, with statements such as “Unfortunately, recent administrations have defied the Constitution and the rule of law, and as a result we are less free.” So Cruz, who once worked at the Supreme Court, as the same webpage tells us, will never tolerate someone not following the law, particularly once the Supreme Court where he worked has ruled on the law.

Except… This is a good place to note that when Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, said she would not abide by the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and issue licenses—even though she could have avoided doing so by quitting her $80,000-a-year job, Ted Cruz rushed to stand with Kim Davis in front of television cameras, to support her defiance of “the rule of law” (to quote his webpage). Cruz thought supporting Kim Davis would be good for him politically, since the people he wants to appeal to are generally anti-gay marriage, and when it comes to hating gays, it’s Constitution? What Constitution? I mentioned that Ted Cruz has no actual beliefs, right?

For a person who took loans from Goldman Sachs to get into the Senate (a major part of Washington, if that point got missed), Cruz says a lot about how much he’s against Washington (and against Goldman Sachs). Then again, Washington is mostly against him, too, because practically every politician who knows Ted Cruz dislikes him, in many cases extremely. Even politicians no longer in power, like George W. Bush and Bob Dole, have gone out of their way to publicly say they don’t like Ted Cruz.

Also under the Issues link of Cruz’s home page, we can follow the secondary link “Rein in Washington” (the place he borrowed one million dollars to get elected to), to a page that reads at the top “Trusted Conservative Leadership”. This phrase raises some questions. We already know he’s not conservative, but to be a leader, don’t people have to follow you? And if none of your colleagues respect you, how are you a trusted leader? Or is the phrase Trusted Conservative Leadership just meaningless noise you make when you run for office? Maybe it doesn’t matter if they respect you, since you’ll take care of that little problem after you gain power.

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It Is All Us

two girls in a grassy fieldLast year (i.e., a couple of weeks ago), I was sitting with my daughter in an Indian restaurant, where, it now seems to me, we were in a contest over which of us was going to eat more of the bowl of hot chili sauce that had been brought to the table. While we were there, she also played me a short video on her phone of a man reciting a poem that she liked. I don’t remember what it was, or who he was, and maybe it was partly the way he recited it, but the poem caught my attention and made me want to write something under its influence.

What I ended up with is below. I’m sure I didn’t come near to imitating my model, but this was as close as I could get. Nevertheless, I’ve had some positive reactions to this poem, which emboldens me to put it here. And if it is not to your taste, well, God bless you for having taste in the first place.

We Can Do This

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can look at a world on fire around us
and see people walking in green spaces.
Instead of broken bricks and hearts,
we can see parks laid out in curving lines,
with benches for resting,
ponds for fish and birds,
and sloping hills for children to roll down.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can find those who are ill and pale
and lift them into the bold optimism of health.
We can watch sick children stand,
hands out for toys,
unsure of why they were lying down in the first place.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can calm harsh and broken breathing
until it flows like clouds across a quiet sky.
We can hear our own breath move in like peace,
and move out like the healing of spirits.
We can learn to breathe in ways
that show us what is hidden.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can hear music when children shout,
people say hello on the street,
store clerks greet customers,
friends talk at dinner,
wives and husbands whisper of things,
old people talk about that day long ago,
and we can hear music
when our own voices speak.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can see art when the wind blows,
turning tall grass into magic wands,
with a spell on the end of each.
We can feel art by touching a cold window,
recognizing the magic of two worlds,
one inside another.
We can taste art in cinnamon and lemon and pepper,
as every amazing flavor
creates a new reality.
We can smell art in sawdust
as it floats out in the sunlight,
while the polished wood is silent about its own mystery.

Take my hand
and we can do this.
We can understand
that the distant bird in the sky is us,
that the music coming from an open doorway is us,
that a tree on the other side of the world is us,
that the words of a poem are us.
It is all us.
Take my hand.

Matisse dancers

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

The Giant Has Not Yet Stood

Egyptian money“Your father—what’s his profession, Taha?”

Five years ago this month, protestors in Egypt took to the streets against the dictator Mubarak. As the largest Arabic country, with a population over 82,000,000, the potential of the country continues to be thwarted by vicious, incompetent governments, such as the current one. In literature, however, modern Egypt has produced writers who have achieved international recognition. Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Last fall, by serendipity at the Decatur Book Festival, I discovered another Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, and his novel The Yacoubian Building.

As I’ve learned after reading the book, this novel has been widely read throughout Egypt and other Arabic countries, as well as made into both a movie and a TV program in Egypt. During the Arab spring protests against Mubarak, some people even credited this book with helping to bring people out to protest.

So The Yacoubian Building has had a huge impact. What is it like as a book? The English language version (translated by Humphrey Davies, published by Harper Perennial) is a short book, just under 250 pages, but it feels a bit like a grand epic (OK, a compressed grand epic). This is clearly an ambitious book, such that the title, with its reference to a single building, is almost ironic. The novel is actually about Egypt.

The book takes place at the beginning of this century, much of the action occurring in the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo. The author, Al Aswany, working from this focus, has followed a remarkable diversity of characters, so that the end result is a condensed portrait of modern Egyptian life in the capital city.

The novel has been controversial in Egypt for several reasons. Perhaps most provocatively, it vividly portrays corruption by the highest leaders in the country (including one who is named only as the Big Man), as well as open vote rigging of a crooked election. A political fixer comments on what he does by saying, “People are naive when they get the idea that we fix elections. Nothing of the kind. It just comes down to the fact that we’ve studied the Egyptian people well. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority…”

Socially, the book also provoked people by the fact that one of the protagonists, Hatim, is gay, and his life, including his sexual life, is shown in some detail. He is described after spending time with his lover (an uneducated country man who also has a wife and child): “They’d finished the morning love session and Hatim got out of bed, naked, and took a dreamy, dancing step on the tips of his toes, his face full of contentment and animation…”

For an Egyptian reader, this may be a valuable book because it shows political corruption and challenges the rigid social boxes that people are expected to live in. For a foreign reader, however, those aspects of the book might be interesting, but what also recommends the novel is that it lets us feel we’ve had a serious look at the country, that we have some sense of the place.

Among the many lives that come through the narrative, we see Taha, a young man who has studied hard hoping to get into the police, in spite of social prejudice that stands in the way of someone from his social class. Over the course of the book, we see him come under the influence of extremely religious Islamists, who are so angry at what is happening in their country that they are willing to destroy the current status quo. After what we have read up to that point, it is easy to understand how they could feel that way.

The very best novels, whatever their locale or story, comment on humanity beyond the setting of the book. The Yacoubian Building reaches for this level of literature, showing human passion—ambition, lust, religion, revenge, anger, greed—while bringing the reader into the story in such a way that we can often feel what the characters feel. In this small epic, we watch a young woman tolerate the sexual advances of her boss, watch the police viciously torture prisoners, and watch a religious woman wish her husband the chance to become a martyr during a terrorist act.

In the book we can also see reflections of ourselves, vulnerable anxious human beings, such as the rich old man who has been robbed by a woman he brought home for sex, sitting “almost naked on the edge of the couch that shortly before had been a cradle of love. At that moment, in his underwear and with his frail body and empty, collapsed mouth (he had removed his false teeth so as to be able to kiss the Beloved), he looked very much like some wretched comic actor…”

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What About Whiskey Time?

colored cupcakesA woman walks into a cupcakery, thinking about the party she’s giving for her nine-year-old daughter, and looks at all the tiny cakes in the case. The chocolate ones look good, of course (you know…chocolate), but then she sees some in the shape of hearts, with red frosting and a fresh strawberry in the middle of each cupcake.

Did you stop for a second and pay attention to the new word in that paragraph? Or did you just assume that naturally there is such a thing as a “cupcakery”? Maybe you’ve heard the word before, but I don’t think I had before I did some research for this blog.

Since this is my Official New Year’s Blog Post, I decided to write about a few new words from the past year. I did this, naturally, in a strictly scientific way (randomly found some lists of new words on line and picked a few that I liked). Don’t tell me that’s not scientific. When you like things, you use your brain, which means neurons are firing, and neurons are sciency and stuff. I think that speaks for itself.

For people who pay close attention to language, new words must flow like water, appearing, disappearing, staying afloat for a while, forming their own streams, then drifting away. This is the case in English, at least, a language with a culture that has always freely adopted words from every language it comes in contact with. My guess is that such a culture creates more linguistic ferment for the creation of new words.

Then let’s consider “cupcakery”, a lovely word on several counts. First, the name implies a place full of cupcakes, which is a nice notion. In addition, the word rhymes with “bakery” (from which it was probably created) and it happens to be a type of bakery, so there’s a catchy echo of meaning. Whether the word sticks around for a hundred years or not, it’s a sweet word with swirls.

The most interesting word I found, and perhaps the most promising for long use, is spelled Mx, which doesn’t even look like a word. It has a capital M because it’s a title of address, like Mr. or Ms., and is intended to be a gender-neutral address, to be used with either men or women. Depending on where you live, you may never have heard of it (I had not), but it’s apparently already in use in quite a few places in Great Britain. As for pronunciation, I saw that it might be either “mix” or “mux”, but umm…mux? No, I don’t think so. You want that higher front vowel, which is more cheerful and inviting.

The word Mx has a possibility of becoming widespread if we change the way we interact socially, and we’ve been moving that way for at least a hundred years. Many words used to indicate whether they were male or female (such as author and authoress), but when we decided that we didn’t need to make the distinction by sex, the words changed. Because this word would be part of a social change in how the sexes are regarded, as well as a reflection of attitudes about gender, it naturally will meet resistance, because some people want everything to stay just the way it was when Fred Flintstone was a boy.

Another interesting word that I’ve been hearing for a while is “locovore”, created from the word “local” and the latter part of words like “carnivore” or “herbivore”, meaning to eat. So a locovore is someone who eats food grown locally. There are various reasons for eating local. You use far less fossil fuel obviously to eat something from a farm nearby than something brought in from the other side of the world. You also support local farmers, which is not a bad idea, and the food can taste better. And seriously, it’s just cool to buy cheese from somebody who made it right there. Of course the locovore idea raises the question of what is “local”. Is 50 miles away local? What about 100 miles? And what about coffee, because I don’t care if that has to come from Mars, I’m drinking it.

Let’s end on a wonderful bit of slang that probably won’t last long, but who knows which words will last long, honestly? And who cares? Anyway, if you’re waiting for the time to have a glass of wine, that might be referred to as “wine o’clock” (or “beer o’clock” depending on what you want, although I think “margarita no salt o’clock” doesn’t really work).

So here we go with 2016, and Happy New Year, yall! Keep them words acoming, both new and old. For now, this is Mx. David sitting in the cupcakery, waiting for wine o’clock to get here. I vote for daylight savings wine o’clock.

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