Monthly Archives: December 2017

I Am Resolved

new life old lifeSince the invention of speech, so long ago, human beings have been saying they would do something, but then never did. We have even formalized this into a ritual, as a new year begins, of pretending we will make changes in our life, with New Year’s Resolutions. I recently came across an old document with the resolutions of a number of famous people, and for public benefit, I offer them here.

Cleopatra

My brother has a pet hippopotamus, and he struts around acting like he’s some kind of god. No one in the world should have a brother as irritating as mine, but no one could, I’m sure. He always says we’re co-rulers, but he’s just a stupid child, and I’m older than him. I keep thinking about what I can do to show I’m superior to him, and I’ve thought of it. Next year, I resolve to get a pet snake. Even a hippopotamus is afraid of snakes. Let my brother shake his little fist and run to Rome, for all I care.

Beethoven

In the last six months I’ve written more than forty songs for the beerhall singers, and I only get enough pfennig to buy a loaf of bread. I’m bored to the point of wishing I was deaf with writing songs where all the lyrics are “Hooray for loose women” or “Let’s drink more beer”. Next year, I resolve to get back to work on a symphony. If I can write just one symphony before I die, that would be a great achievement, I think.

Leonardo da Vinci

How many boards and canvases have I covered with pictures of women? Smiling women, half smiling women, women with baby Jesus. Nobody is paying attention, not even the Medici, and they even like that stupid Michelangelo. Next year, I resolve to stop messing around with this painting nonsense and learn something useful, like cooking. A cook can make a good living, plus it’s your job to try the dishes, so you get to eat all that great food. Maybe I could even make a name for myself as a cook.

Marie Curie

I’ve had enough of bartending, where drunks dumber than my cat think because I serve drinks maybe I’ll serve a little something extra in the back room. Besides, bartending here is dangerous work. At least once a week some intoxicated trash wants to start a fight with the entire place. Then I have to get down behind the bar until the glass stops breaking and they stop pounding on each other. Next year, I resolve to go back to school and study for a profession with no danger, like science. Radioactivity would be a nice safe thing to study. You can’t even see it, as if nothing is there.

Wilbur Wright

My brother keeps talking about “We’re going to fly, we’re going to fly” and sometimes I think I hate to break it to you, buddy. Pick up every possible object you can see and toss it in the air. What happens? It falls to earth (unless you toss a bird). Why would anyone think a human being can fly? We’re not angels. There’s no such thing as magic. But so far I haven’t had the nerve to tell my brother I’m done with this ridiculous idea. Next year, I resolve to stop this flying foolishness and learn how to build boats. That would be a useful skill. You can actually go somewhere in a boat.

Emily Dickinson

I am 800 pages into my novel, and I still have so much more to write. My brother and sister tell me that the book will be too long for anyone to read it, but I have so much to say, and even this novel feels inadequate to me. Lately I’ve been wondering whether I might be able to say what I want in a shorter form, and I tried a few short stories, one about a woman who goes to Boston with her minister father, and she finds a vase from Japan. It didn’t really grab me. But I’m going to see what else I can do. Next year, I resolve to try a little poetry and see if I can make anything of that. I’m not sure how much meaning you can get into a small poem, but we’ll see.

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140 Characters Till Christmas

drunk Santa on floor

Where’s my cell phone?

Starting sometime in November, the bitter cracking cold of the North Pole reaches a point where it has gone as low as it will go, and in that frigid time, there are remarkable days when the wind disappears completely. Those are the days when the elves go outside and play volleyball to relax, divided into red and green teams.

During one such game, the head elf, Galston, who had been watching, came in to get warm. “Santa baby!” he said, “Where’s that special hot chocolate?” Galston gave a big wink to Santa.

“Get a cup off the counter,” Santa said, then poured from a thermos into the elf’s cup.

Galston took a drink, looked up at Santa, and said, “Somebody isn’t delivering gifts with the usual festive holiday spirit.”

Santa paused a moment, then said, “Oh, OK.” He reached into a cabinet, brought out a bottle of rum, and poured a shot into Galston’s cup.

“Now that’s Merry Christmas!” Galston said, and with some effort he climbed up onto a high stool, to sit at the counter opposite Santa Claus. He took another drink, and said, “With that game going on out there, the Easter Bunny put a hundred bucks on the red team.”

“He’s here?” Santa exclaimed. “I’m supposed to be told when special visitors come.”

“Naw, he’s not here. One of the tech elves has been tweeting every couple of minutes, so Easter Bun is following the game.”

Santa looked puzzled and said, “The elf is doing what?”

“Tweeting. You know, on Twitter.”

“What’s a twitter?” Santa asked. “Sounds like some kind of German candy.”

“Are you kidding?” said Galston. “You don’t know what Twitter is?”

Galston explained Twitter as best he could to Santa Claus, who seemed skeptical, until Galston pulled out his cell phone to illustrate. He showed Santa the Twitter home page and all the people and events that could be followed. Santa was amazed to see that from all over the world, everyone’s slightest thoughts, no matter how truly slight indeed, could be instantly shared with everyone on earth. Galston went on to show Santa how to sign up for an account, which he immediately did.

“Now you got it, Santa,” Galston said, taking a swig from his cup. “Anything you got to say, you can share it. I bet you could have a million followers in no time.”

Galston left and Santa thought But I already have millions of followers. Still, maybe it was different on Twitter. He wondered what his first chirp should be. Or no, Galston hadn’t called it a chirp. It was . . . some kind of bird noise. Oh, right, tweet. What should his first tweet be?

He typed: “Hey, I’m a bird, I’m tweeting!” He sent the tweet, laughing as he did it, shaking like a bowl full of jelly. He took another drink of special hot chocolate and thought he should do another. He started typing again: “Who wants to buy some raggedy ass reindeer who smell like wet dogs after they’ve been flying all night?”

“Ha ha ha!” Santa laughed. He poured more rum into his cup and began typing: “If not for me, what kind of Christmas would you have? Huh? What if I brought everybody a box of spiders?”

“Ha ha ha ha!” He poured more rum, then drank straight from the bottle. “You’ve all been BAD! Don’t even bother getting up Christmas morning, because I’m coming around to STEAL from you!”

Everything was hilarious now. Santa sat grinning, took another hit from the rum bottle, then typed: “I’ve seen your mamas at night, and let’s just say, reindeer butts ain’t the only thing that’s ugly!!!”

“And some of your daddies snore and fart so much at night I can’t even get the reindeer to land on the roof. Sad!!!!!”

“I’m the Christmas Daddy!!!! You’re all pathetic! No presents for not if me if. Cocoochyx” He slumped back in his chair, passed out.

The next morning when Santa woke up, his head was clanging like Christmas bells, and his wife was standing looking down at him frowning. “You happy?” she asked. “You get a Twitter account and all you can think to do with it is show your ass to the world? If you can crawl to the kitchen I’ll give you breakfast.”

Later that morning, Galston came by and said, “Maybe I should have explained something, but I thought it would be obvious. There’s three circumstances when you shouldn’t send out tweets. When you’re drunk, when you’re sleepy, and when you’re stupid.”

“Can you bring me some aspirin?” Santa said.

“Somebody needs to give up the tweeting,” Galston said.

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5…4…3…2…

Saturn paintingI was thinking about what it would be like if I became an astronaut. The problem—or the benefit—is that I would be a poetic writer astronaut, so when Mission Control said something like . . . I don’t know, “Push the red dial to wanky quad 4” or whatever they say, I’d be sitting there thinking, “Man, look how the sun is shining on the ocean out that little window.”

Other people on the ship would be doing experiments and sciency stuff, excitedly exclaiming things like, “The Drosophila flies are laying eggs!” and I’d be looking down at the earth saying, “Look at those colors” and wishing we had brought a CD of Yo Yo Ma.

Anyway, NASA won’t take me, not because I’m too old, or not in physical condition, or don’t have the slightest idea how to fly a spaceship or do anything an astronaut actually does. They won’t take me because I told them I don’t think their missions include enough wine. So instead I wrote a poem about being an astronaut, and if I run out of wine, I can walk into the kitchen.

Saturnalia

I made a ship of pale blue ice
and sailed beyond the moon,
with reckless friends, an old star map,
and bottles of rare red wine.
We aimed at silver Saturn
with its moons like tiny planets,
and singing songs from circus days,
we drank and sailed through darkness.
When we entered dreamspace, past the moon,
every monster we ever feared
was riding on a comet.
We watched them pass
with their gleaming eyes,
their ragged coats, and their sharpened knives,
but on we sailed through darkness.
The sun swam small behind us,
and space spread vast ahead.
That’s when we found what no one
back on Earth
had even guessed,
that space was full of sounds,
like wolves and wind and lonely babies crying.
Still on we sailed through howling, moaning darkness.
Our wine ran out
and empty bottles
floated all around us.
The songs that we’d been singing
now seemed childish, misconstrued,
so instead we started quoting starlight poems,
as stars were all we saw off in the darkness.
When we’d been frozen gone too long
at last we came to Saturn,
where we stood crying at the sight
of glittering rings.
We were hoping we could touch them,
maybe taste what they were made of,
but the gravity of that giant took our ship.
It swung us hard in a windless circle,
swooped us round and rushed us by,
with colored rings like frozen oceans down below.
So we sailed around the planet,
then it flung us back toward Earth,
and all that we brought home were wiser eyes.
These days we sit beside a lake,
talk about our space trip days,
and with bottle after bottle
drink to Saturn.

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Words That Wake and Walk Around

old train stationIt’s one thing to think about writing a book, picturing the characters vaguely in your head doing….something, and won’t it be great when they do? It’s another thing entirely to think seriously about the book, to take paper and make notes, to do research and make further notes, perhaps talk to people about what you’re working on.

But the actual thing itself, putting down a word and another and another until you are creating a place and time and people who were not there before, this process of writing is so different from thinking or planning or making notes. When writing, you not only use your tools (knowledge of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, etc.), but now there must be coherent sentences that make sense, and each sentence should reasonably follow the one before it in a way to tell things.

Even if you have the ability to make all this work mechanically, such ability does not necessarily make the writing interesting, or beautiful, or meaningful. And yet, at some point, if you really are going to write, you have to sit down and do it. At that moment, you realize how profoundly different writing is from planning to write. All along you may have said, “Oh, I want to begin with the old woman in her garden remembering previous years working there,” but what exactly is that first sentence supposed to do? Describe the woman? Describe the garden? The sky? Should she start in the house and then walk outside?

In the past week I began working on some sections of the next novel, sections that will be inserted into the book at various points. They are all flashbacks in time, so they aren’t directly in the flow of the main narrative, which made me think I could go ahead and write them separately. They concern a character named Wanda who will become a temporary cook for President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve made notes on Wanda, and I drove down to Roosevelt’s house in Warm Springs and made notes there, but how to actually write this? So far, here is the first sentence of the first section: “Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn.”

I decided to open the scene with Wanda traveling down to the town of Warm Springs, to show that she is not from there, and opening with a train also helps to create a feeling of a time when you could actually travel on a train in the United States. In that opening sentence, in addition, I tried to give some sense of the rural setting, which has a certain importance for the place, and I wanted to use a bit of evocative detail, so I mentioned the cotton and corn. And of course, the cotton goes along with a rural Georgia setting, particularly in 1937.

In the second sentence, I brought Wanda herself in, and I began doing the little things that you use to build a character, such as indicate her emotions, show a memory, give some of her background. By the end of the first paragraph, I brought her to the town of Warm Springs and implied further action with the man waiting. I might instead have spent longer on the train, given more description, used more of her memories, but this is what I’ve done.

I can’t say I won’t change things in revision, but for now I decided to go for a faster opening and jump into action more quickly, and thus I had the man waiting for her. Below I give the first paragraph and a few lines after that. I will also say that this process, the writing part of writing, as difficult as it is, is 10,000 times more fun for me that all the rest of it.

********************************

Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn. Wanda Reed watched the fields pass by, trying to draw calmness from them, to still her anxiety. Out the window she saw a man sitting in a wagon pulled by a horse down a dirt road. The sight reminded her of her own father, several hours earlier, who had taken her from their farm in Mule Camp Springs to the train station in Gainesville, riding in a similar wooden cart, though theirs had been pulled by a mule. When they had arrived at the station, a ticket had been arranged for her, to ride to Atlanta, change trains, and head further south. From stopping at so many stations, the trip had seemed slow to Wanda, but at last the train pulled into the small town of Warm Springs, where she got off. Standing on the platform nearby was a white man in a dark suit, who saw her and said,

“Miss Reed?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m Jack Brewer, of the Secret Service. I came down to the station to pick you up.”

She nodded, not sure what she should say to him. This kind of attention from anyone, much less from a white man, seemed strange to her.

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The Wrong World

painting of man writingI hear tell that there are people who go to work and love it. Their job is fascinating. Famous actors, maybe (I’m assuming). Some scientists, I guess, discovering cool things. Or accountants (a little sarcasm—although I had a student once who said “Accounting is is my blood” and I thought Whaaaa? Doesn’t “in my blood” refer to passion? And yet you said accounting, so I’m confused.)

For most of us, though, even if you’re so lucky that your job is OK, like me, my job is very much OK, it’s still a job. I mean, it’s a way to earn money. Maybe you work in a hair salon, or for an advertising agency. I help to edit a very good medical journal in rheumatology, and there are times—I’m not making this up—when our authors don’t seem all that different to me from the college freshmen who I used to teach. Sometimes I read something an author wrote and I think Where the fuck did you see this done on the planet earth that you think this is OK? For instance, someone will write “. . . patient-reported results(since 2006) . . .” with no space before the parenthesis. How can you be a literate adult and do that?

My job is tedious and kind of dull a lot of the time. I even wrote down an example a few days ago. I found the acronym NRS and I thought OK, what does that stand for? Numerical Rating Scale, so that has to be spelled out first, and should it be capitalized? And should there be brackets around the letters NRS, because blah blah blah . . . maybe I’ll shoot myself. No, it’s not as bad as shoot myself, it’s only as bad as get up and go to the breakroom for more coffee.

The high point of the day is often lunch, not so much because I’m not working, but because during lunch I read novels as well as work on writing poems. In other words, I’m briefly in another world, the world where I ought to be all the time, a world of creativity. I’ve always felt this way, that I live in the wrong world, the one where you have to earn a living, like a normal person. I’m not, however, a normal person. I’m a writer.

I don’t merely want to not work. Everyone wants to not work. But I have something to do, something I have to do. Since I have almost no time for what matters to me, I write as I can, when I can, which means that I write mostly in the evenings. Now that I live across the street from my job and can sleep later, I work until around 11:00 every evening. As I write this, it’s 10:24 in the evening. Are you sitting at your computer at 10:24 in the evening working? A normal person, at least a normal American, is watching TV.

What would it be like to write when you’re not tired? I hardly know. I’ve written multiple novels, but for every one of them, I wrote most of it when I was tired.

My fantasy of living only in a world of ideas and creativity extends to the chores and housework that lie there taunting me, nudging their bits of squalor and chaos further into the room the longer I ignore them. Sometimes I think Why are these socks that I washed on Sunday still lying here in a pile on Tuesday, not put away? And so on. You know how it is, perhaps. I get to wondering why I have to think about socks instead of what my literary characters are doing. Why do I have to wash dishes? Why doesn’t someone clean this bathtub, goddamnit? Just not me.

Occasionally I think about other writers, and what their lives were like. Leo Tolstoy, lucky bastard, was rich, nobility in fact, so he could spend his time any way he wanted. Most writers are not nobility (or even particularly noble). The other great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was not only poor but thrown into prison by his despicable government. Edgar Allen Poe was poor and basically died in a gutter.

So OK, I’m way better off than that. I have a nice apartment, I can go to movies or out to dinner sometimes, and in the evenings I can write freely, even if I’m tired. I should count my blessings, yeah? I do, I think. I am grateful. Nevertheless, I live in the wrong world. I want to spend my time creating worlds and people that didn’t exist until I used words to bring them into reality. And I don’t live there.

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