I See That Candy Hidden in Your Pocket

SupermanThursday morning I woke up lying on the floor, chocolate smeared across my face, with dozens of candy wrappers lying all around me. But hey, we’ve all been there. The day after Halloween, right?

This year for Halloween, even though spirits of the dead were walking the earth (granted, many of them less than four feet tall), I decided I would be brave and give out candy whenever they came to my door. So I bought several bags and poured them in a bowl, which I set by the door. I was ready to distribute sugar to the dead. Or to SpongeBob SquarePants. Or princesses.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman,” he said. “I promised Robin I’d get him some candy. He’s in the car.” I looked around Batman and there was the Batmobile sitting by the curb.

I said, “Uhhhh,” and Batman said, “Yeah, look, just put it in the bag here.” So I did.

The next knock on the door, I opened up and only one person was there, a grown woman in a skimpy red and blue outfit with stars and more sequins than I expected. I said, “Are you—”

“Wonder Woman,” she said. “And you know what, I’ll skip the candy. I mean, all that sugar is incredibly unhealthy, right? But it’s kind of cold out here, and this outfit…this is just stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m half naked.”

“Let me get you an old sweater,” I said, and I gave her that.

The next couple of knocks on the door were normal children, or tiny dead people, I’m not sure. Then I opened up and a grown man was there wearing a straw hat, dark blue overalls, heavy boots with mud on them, and a skin-tight gold shirt. “Who are you?” I said.

“Farmboy,” he said. “A superhero.”

I looked at him kind of suspicious. “I never heard of you.”

“I’m not as well known as the others, but I protect against insect pests, in addition to leaf blight, root rot, and powdery mildew. Trick or treat.” He held out a burlap bag.

What was I going to do? I didn’t want him to pull a trick and put powdery mildew on my azaleas, so I gave him candy.

No more superheroes seemed to be showing up after that, which was OK with me. Eventually I ran out of candy and I made some popcorn balls and started giving those out. Late in the evening, though, there was a real loud knock, and Superman was standing there.

He held out a bag and said, “Trick or treat, man,” which he kind of mumbled.

I gave him two popcorn balls, but he looked down in the bag and said, “What the hell?” I explained that I was out of candy, but he told me he hated popcorn and was going to give me a trick for not having candy. The trick was that he turned back time.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman.”

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

I want to thank everyone who reads this blog, those who have been reading from years ago as well as new readers who have recently subscribed. I truly appreciate that you give me some of your time to read it. I’ve been writing the blog now for around six years or more, posting once a week. As you can imagine, such an endeavor has been quite a lot of work, not to mention that I also have to work for a living (goddamnit), plus I write novels when I can. At the end of this year I am going to take a break, so these regular weekly posts will continue through November and December.

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Next Question?

Book of Latin words

I’m writing a press release

Not long ago I saw a quote from a politician, or maybe from one of their word puppets, saying they would “not comment on a hypothetical question”. What that phrase means—always, every time you hear it from now until the Apocalypse—is “If I say anything on that topic, everyone will recognize that what I said is stupid and offensive.”

Another way of saying the same thing is “Since I don’t want to be honest, I prefer to hide behind a big Latin word like hypothetical.”

In this case, the word is being used not in reference to the scientific method,* considering a hypothesis of what might be true and then testing to find out. In the diminished, cretinous political usage, hypothetical means “hasn’t happened yet”.

But of course politicians do “comment on hypothetical questions” all day long. When they run for office, if they aren’t busy telling us that their opponent wants to kill baby lambs, when they’re talking about what they’re going to do if they get elected, then they’re talking and talking and talking—let me catch my breath for a moment—and talking about what they will do in situations that haven’t happened yet.

And ha ha!, if you do elect them, then by God, they won’t answer your questions. They’ll call them hypothetical and pretend it’s just not worth their trouble to respond.

Refusing to answer questions is such a basic aspect of political speech that we not only expect it, we just shrug our shoulders. It’s what they do, hah? If you’ve ever listened to a politician being questioned by a journalist, then you’ve heard a person totally ignore the question and instead say whatever random shit they want. It is rare, if it even happens at all, for a journalist to stop cold and say, “Wait. You didn’t answer my question. It’s completely pointless to ask you anything else.”

And it is rare, if it even happens at all, for TV viewers or readers to stop cold and say, “Wait. This journalist didn’t do their job. They allowed the politician to sleaze by with a bunch of noise and never actually answer the question.”

The politician did, however, use a big Latin word. And that’s cool, yeah?

If we are getting trash and lies and deliberate refusal to communicate from our politicians, it is because we’re OK with that. Do you demand clarity and honesty from the politicians who you agree with, as well as from those bastards who you don’t like?

Here are some basic facts of human psychology: 1) We do not like to be embarrassed or punished. 2) Sometimes, nevertheless, we will do things or at least want to do things that will cause us to be embarrassed or punished. 3) If we are forced to talk honestly about these things, we will suffer for it. 4) If we can’t get out of talking, we try to hide or avoid the topic. Even a four-year-child knows to do this.

These basic facts will be the same even a thousand years from now. Politicians—strange as it is on occasion to think so—are human beings, and like other human beings, if they think they will suffer for telling the truth, they will try to hide or avoid the topic, if we let them.

The difference is, they want power over our lives. And if we give them power, then let them refuse to communicate honestly, we deserve it.

________________________________

* I certainly don’t mean to imply that these illiterate buffoons would actually know what the scientific method is. Or what “science” is. Or what a “school” is.

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The Books Speak

Mad HatterMaybe you’ve heard that here in the US of A we’re having an election eighteen days from now. Will this election bring us somewhat back into the light, or will we sink further into darkness? Probably some of both, just like always. In times of existential crisis, we often turn to literature for wisdom and comfort, so I decided to ask several literary characters for their opinions on the upcoming American election.

Odysseus (The Iliad)
There’s a good reason they always called me “the great teller of tales” and “man of twists and turns”. Only a fool tells the truth when a lie is useful, and I admire any politician who knows this. The more he lies, the more he is a hero. But why are you having an “election” at all? Life is for the rule of the strongest, to take what you want. There is no such thing as cruelty, only winners and losers.

Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)
You’re having an election? Elect me! I’ll give everyone a cookie and a cup of tea. And a mouse. I saw some clouds in the sky. They looked like me. Elect me! I heard angels singing. They were singing about me! I’ll give you a free cap. Don’t you want a cap? Do you want to sing about me?

Joker (Batman comics)
Here’s what most people don’t understand, because they aren’t as smart as me. Everyone is out to get you, so you should do anything you can to get them first. Trick people every chance you get. I should run for Senate, ha! ha! ha! I’d be so good at it! I’d support everything that’s good for me, but I would tell people I was doing things for them. Do what’s good for you, and let everybody else drop dead, ha! ha! ha!

Police Inspector Javert (Les Misérables)
If only I lived in your country instead of France, I would run for your Congress, as I am exactly the sort of person who belongs there. I have an absolute devotion to higher authorities, and I will do whatever I’m told, with no question of right or wrong. There is no such thing as morality, only law, which should be imposed with rigor, and no such stupid idea as “mercy”.

Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck comics)
Quack quack quack! Hah! I’m the richest person in the world, so I can’t even tell you how much money I have! I have a roomful of money where I go to lie in it sometimes, to think about how wonderful I am for being so rich! Nothing matters but money, and you should do anything—anything—that will get you more, no matter how much you already have! Quack!

Ghost of Christmas Future (A Christmas Carol)
[When I asked for comments from the Ghost of Christmas Future, I didn’t realize it does not speak. So it said nothing, but it led me into the future, to the funeral of a rich, bitter old man, who was loved by no one, and when he died, everyone celebrated.]

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How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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I Can’t Emphasize This Enough

whiskey bottle

What kind of boys were here?

I was walking one day in the park back behind me here, and I thought, “That’s a slow-ass couple walking in front of me.” Because I am not only crude but linguistically curious, I began to contemplate the construction I had just used, and it occurred to me that the word “ass” used in such a way functions as an emphatic particle.

An emphatic particle is a small word, really almost just a noise, that adds emphasis to another word. I learned about them while studying Russian. At some point when I was not screaming in anguish from how hard it was, I found the little word же, spelled in English as zhe. Here’s an awkward combination English/Russian sentence: he’s an idiot zhe, which means he’s really an idiot. (And it’s somebody you know.)

Meanwhile, back here in good old English, you don’t want some boring-ass discussion of Russian. I got to thinking about how exactly to use this emphatic particle “ass” in English. From my meticulous examination, it seems like the word only works with adjectives, and given the rude nature of the word, it’s found only in casual or slangy speech.

The types of adjectives you can apply it to also appear to generally be short and not very formal. So you could say “That is an ugly-ass baby you got there” but you would never say “That is an unappealing-ass baby you got there”. Though I can see—purely for poetic purposes—that you might try something more creative like “That is a loathsome-ass baby you got there”. Depending on the baby.

I was also wondering whether the adjective being used always needs to have some negative sense about it. For instance, “Tuesday was such a hot-ass day we had to drink twelve beers” places emphasis on the excess heat. Or if you say to someone “You sure got a big-ass house” do you mean that perhaps it’s a bit too big? As in “what do you pay in taxes on a place like this?” And how do you vacuum it?

Another emphatic particle in English, most common here in the south, is the word “old” but often pronounced without the final letter, like “ole”, or you’ll find it spelled to show the missing letter, as ol’. A common, preposterously clichéd, southern expression is “good ol’ boy” to refer to a grown man. Even though I’m from the south myself, I’d be hard pressed to define that expression. For me it has negative connotations of ignorance and possible bad behavior, but for the people who use the phrase, it’s positive, connoting down-to-earth and perhaps fun to share whiskey with.

Like the emphatic particle ass, ol’ is only used with adjectives. It can have a range of uses, as in “Damn, your mama’s a big ol’ girl, ain’t she?” Notice that both ass and ol’ have to be placed after the adjective that they modify. Similar to ass, the particle ol’ probably cannot be used with very long or formal adjectives. He’s a good ol’ boy, but probably not he’s a judicious ol’ boy.

But I’m not entirely sure. I’m still thinking about that, here in my dumb ol’ blog. Or should that be ill-advised ol’ blog?

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The Flow of Civilization

Champs-Elysées

Somewhere up there on the left

In the past week I’ve begun making plans to go to Mexico in November, and doing so brings to mind other trips I’ve made abroad. I’m thinking that one of the potential benefits to such travel is to expose us to other cultures, other ways of seeing the world, other ways of thinking.

Back in 1980 I made a trip with my brother to Paris, often seen as one of the cultural capitals of the world. I believe it was there that we both tried snails for the first time. We were in Paris, so we had to eat snails. And I know for certain that it was there in a Moroccan restaurant that we first tried couscous. For a long time we both had a feeling of couscous as something Parisian.

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem about that trip and about our cultural adventures. We went to Paris for two weeks and lived very cheaply. If I remember correctly, I found hotel rooms near the Panthéon—arranging it by mailing actual paper letters from West Virginia, as there was no internet then—that cost $13 a night, total, for four people. It was not fancy, but I was proud (and relieved) when we walked in with our suitcases and they said, “Ah, oui.” There it was, we had a reservation.

In the Elysian Fields

My brother and I were pleased with ourselves.
We sat drinking beer
in a small bar
on the Champs-Élysées,
in Paris,
France.
We probably talked of nothing much,
because that’s what we would talk about in those days.
Later, we walked along the boulevard,
realizing we had a sociobiological predicament.
There were nowhere convenient to release the beer back into the world.

Which of us was the first
to abandon any pretense of culture?
Which of us had even pretended in the first place?
Thus, on the Champs-Élysées,
in Paris,
France,
we found bushes to piss behind.
Much later in the evening,
African men were selling sausages
cooked on a small grill set up on the sidewalk.
We were hungry, we bought sausages.

What a splendid evening,
in the heart of the City of Light,
to piss in public and eat sidewalk sausages,
before we returned to the civilization
of our wives at the hotel.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Research in Rabbittown

Rabbittown statueThere’s a place just north of here, a hop, skip, and a jump, you might say, called Rabbittown. I don’t know the actual rabbit situation, but they have stuffed toy rabbits, and ceramic rabbits, and paintings of rabbits, and a huge statue of a rabbit. What would real rabbits think about Rabbittown?

On the one paw, a rabbit might say, “Man, we gotta go there. We’ll be like little fluffy kings!” Or a rabbit might say, “Let’s stay the hell away from that. We could end up on a styrofoam plate at the Rabbittown Cafe.” I ate lunch at the Rabbittown Cafe and saw no rabbit on the menu.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about. What I wanted to tell you is that last Saturday I went to the International Dragon Boat Races. Did you know Gainesville, Georgia, was hosting the International Dragon Boat Races? International, baby. Did you even know that dragon boats have an international racing event? Or that there’s such a thing as a dragon boat? The boats do, by the way, have an actual dragon head on the front.

Me neither, until I started reading the Gainesville paper a few months ago, as research for the current novel. Eventually I decided I wanted to put the dragon boat races in the book I’m writing, so I drove up there to see them. The races were at the same venue that was used back in 1996 for Olympic rowing events, when the Olympics were in Atlanta. The dragon races were much smaller than the Olympics, but teams came from around the world, like Switzerland and Hungary (you know, places you think about when you imagine a dragon boat).

I made a lot of notes while I was watching the boats zip across the water. Each boat had a drummer at the front, presumably to encourage the rowers. This trip was one of the more interesting ones I’ve made for research—and it included the Rabbittown Cafe for lunch, which I may also use in the book.

Everywhere I went Saturday, I was making notes, thinking about what I might want to use, which is not the same thing as going somewhere as a tourist. As a writer, for instance, I might know that one of my characters really likes trains or loves antiques, etc., so I’ll pay more attention to things like that. I also care about local details, so I always note interesting little bits, such as the women at the Rabbittown Cafe wearing purple T-shirts, or the fact that for the races the local brewer in Gainesville had made a special beer flavored with dragon fruit.

Over the years I’ve done vasty quantities of writing research. Some of it has involved reading, a beaucoup plethora of reading, or nowadays I spend a lot of time on the web (I mean, productively, not the usual way). Twenty years ago, when I started writing the book I’m currently trying to market, Birds Above the Cage, I made a research trip to a monastery and another to a strip club, where I had a chance to talk with an elderly monk and a young stripper. From each of them I learned things that I used in the book.

You can’t know where research will take you: strip club, monastery, Rabbittown Cafe, or even to watch dragon boats. For the current book, Moonapple Pie, I made a trip about a year ago to Warm Springs to see Franklin Roosevelt’s house. They had his car there, along with other things, but I didn’t see a single rabbit. I mean, not even one. What was up with that?

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