Archive for June, 2009

N gives in, starts writing a story about writers.  He figures, hey, why resist, all his characters talk that way already.  They say, “denouement.”   Say, “tellingly.”  “In the end…”   They scour experience for details that gesture toward meaning, spending most of their time alone, shuffling through the world or the worlds in their own minds.  They are all so self-aware that their interactions read like transcripts from group therapy sessions, every bit of dialogue confessional, reflective, narrative, wandering, wondering.  Their few actions are outbursts, often literally, always effectively, and more often than not these isolated incidents are fueled by liquor, loneliness, and a slow-burning sensation of powerless responsibility.  In the beginning, he stalls over a choice: first- or third-person?  A coin flip and the caffeine jitters decide: first.   Twenty minutes later he splits the difference: multiple first-people.  And if they all talk the same, fine.  That can just be part of the overall statement, or whatever: inside of ourselves, we all speak in the same cadence.  Sitting in breezy, leaf-strobed sunlight on his recently deceased mother’s favorite chair, the one where she would survey the birdfeeders while sipping morning tea and jotting in her journal, N bangs two full pages up onto his grimy laptop screen in under an hour.  When he finally looks up, the sky is making its move from orange to pink beyond the birds, the trees, and the houses across the street

Having avoided this kind of story, maybe this particular story for a long time, N is ambushed by how easy it is to write.  The paragraphs pile up and his hands are drawn to the keyboard, as if the clattering plastic keys are magnetic or life-sustaining, as if his fingers draw some mystical energy from the molded plastic squares, as if the wearing away of the letters on them somehow spells an incantation conjuring newly vivid awareness of his life unfolding in time and of the secret understanding hidden all the while in his own mind and its malleable memories.  The story heads off on its own, following a path he can only discern one sentence at a time, deep into the past, far off into the world, and probingly ever-closer to the molten core of human life.  The characters, given names and the merest description by N, step out of haze into clear light, doing what they will, writing their own dream-like tales, careening toward and away from each other, leaving glittering debris at the sites of their crashes, a luminous milky way of hopeful sadness laced into every moment, every line, every word of the story.  N wakes after only a few hours of sleep that night, the details of newly dreamed strands of the story fading with each step to his mother’s chair and his sleeping computer, entirely new ones flooding his mind even before the word processing program starts up and offers another blank page.  By dawn he has twenty pages, single-spaced, a cacophonous choir of the many voices inside him.  Some are those of people he had long forgotten knowing.   Many, to his surprise, and despite their unique timbers and lilts, are voices of his own, never spoken aloud, but for all of his life, he now realizes, murmuring in the dark recesses of his consciousness.  As the birds outside the window sing their blessings for another day born, he reads, for the first time, what he has written.  Tears welling in his eyes, he is paralyzed by his love for his own creation as his pages scroll up the screen, once, twice, three times before he is sure he is right, that he has something here, something pretty great.  Blinking quickly evaporating warmth onto his cheeks he sits back for a moment, sips from his mother’s favorite mug, and hollows himself out with the thought that she will never read these pages.

Two years later it is summer again, and N’s novel is shipped to bookstores with his mother’s full name and a descriptor, who showed me why to write and how to live, on the dedication page. He quits his job at the public transit advocacy nonprofit, gets his little cousin to watch his cat, sublets his apartment to a friend of a friend’s friend, and heads out on the road for his book tour.  Waiting nervously for the bookstore employee’s introduction to wind up at his first stop on the tour, he stares at the blown-up cover on an easel.  He frowns at the book’s title, With Hoops of Steel.  It was not his first choice, not his idea at all, but the publisher has, his agent told him, “put a pretty big push behind the hardback, PR-wise,” so N has given in, has let them decide how best to get his story in front of as many people as possible.  Besides, his agent had pointed out, the phrase is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, the play the characters almost put on at the end of the story.  N then pointed out that it is Polonius talking, that it is part of the “to thine own self be true” speech that lets you know Polonius is a fool.  His agent had stared at him for a long moment then said, “but that still works for this story, right?”  At the time, N had thought his agent was suggesting the title might be saying something about the tragic inability of people to truly hear each other’s distinct voices and their willingness to live out other people’s bad advice.  Those seemed like central themes.  Now, as the smattering of applause from the half dozen members of the audience ushers him to the podium, he thinks that his agent might not have meant that at all, might not have any idea what the story is really trying to say, and worse, that he might not be sure what the story is trying to say, or if any story should be trying to say anything.

The reading goes fine, and after signing several books, he accepts the offer of the young woman who ran the reading, and after a few drinks at downtown bar, he makes out with her in her car before heading up to his hotel room and its few dozen cable channels.  The rest of the tour goes similarly, the few people who show up seeming to enjoy the sample chapter and the way he reads it.  Reviews of the novel follow him across the country, some laudatory, some ho-hum, only one scathingly negative.  In a hot southern city on the last leg of the tour, N returns to the apartment of a friend who has let him stay the night and finds a message from his agent.  Bad news: the publisher isn’t happy with sales and is “pulling the second publicity push,” the radio talk show circuit and an upcoming convention for booksellers.  He can still do Atlanta and Miami if he wants, but his expense budget has been halved and they can only pay for a room in one of the cities.  N sets his phone on the coffee table and sits on his friend’s couch where he slept last night, sweating into the cushions, looking at the hardwood floor’s sun-shaped stains of sunlight streaming from the holes where’s where the cord goes through the mini-blinds.  The holes are lenses, someone once explained, bending the streaming photons into a picture of their origin.  He stands up, goes into the bathroom and takes a shower.  Toweled off and dressed, he calls his friend and says he’ll ride the streetcar downtown and meet him after work for drinks.  He’ll buy.  They bar hop, stuffing in burgers between cocktails and beer, and by midnight, they are both hammered.  N’s friend needs to get some sleep, he says, so they should head home.  In the bathroom, N holds himself up at the urinal with one hand as his swimming eyes bring the wall’s call and response graffiti into focus.  The words are a frightening revelation to him, the voices almost bare of character, just somehow surprisingly typical opinions and accusations jockeying with each other.  “Bush is the best,” they say.  And, “Nope, he’s a dick.”  “Thats what u suck tho.”  Who are the people in his own story, N wonders, what world did he think that they lived in?   He heads back into the smoky thunder of the bar, finds his friend, then a taxi, then the couch where his last hope for his novel’s success died that afternoon.  He falls asleep inwardly humming a wordless tune his mother sang to him when he was little.  He lies awake for hours thinking he couldn’t have done anything differently, that it doesn’t matter if he could, that he is here now, alone, that he’ll figure something else out, and he wracks his brain for what, possibilities only half-considered before he’s onto the next ones.  In the end, he gives up, letting himself falling to a swirling sleep, waking with all his dreams forgotten, his head aching and containing only one voice, his own, which asks over and over, what pushed me to this, the place that I have now come to rest?


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I often talk to my NYU students about the “I” they create in their essays. Your “writerly I,” I tell them, has to be your very best I. She‘s the one with the clean home, with fresh roses on the counter, with the husband who kisses her “right there” (and here she points to that pale tender spot behind the ear) every morning before he leaves for work. Your “writerly I,” I say, has to be infinitely more interesting than you could ever be. At the very basic level, she shouldn’t go to Weight Watchers, and if she does, she shouldn’t talk about “points” (12 in a King-Sized Snickers!!!).

There are other things she should also keep under wraps–say, letting a baby “cry” while she finishes a sentence; or her habit of sucking on bird feathers and long strands of hair when she was a child; or, uhm, her terrible, crazed love for “The Bachelorette” (Can you BELIEVE Jillian let Jake go?). But sometimes our I’s get the better of us, and we end up writing the whole sentence, or with a mouthful of feathers, or worse, watching the entire episode of “The Bachelorette,” even as the train comes to a halt and lets poor Robby-the-Bartender out in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.

But this isn’t about “The Bachelorette,” it’s about the news, and everywhere this week, there’s news. We’ve got Jon & Kate & their 8, and even though I have no idea who they are, I find myself clicking on the link when it says “Jon ‘hurt’ by Kate’s remarks about ‘activities.'” If that isn’t bad enough, there’s South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who told his staff he was “going to hike the Appalachian trail,” but ended up flying to Argentina to see his mistress. (Perhaps a good move for a “writerly I” but a very bad move for a married governor.)

Everywhere we look: train wrecks. And as badly as we might want to look away, we’re still staring. The week began with the commuter rail crash in Washington D.C., and then it kept crashing and crashing, and suddenly, not only were Jon & Kate calling it quits, but Ed McMahon was dead (and right after that horrible TV commercial about the gold!), and then Farrah–who, as a girl, I dreamed I may someday become–was dead too.

Now this: Michael Jackson, King of Pop, dead. Legend, train wreck, legendary train wreck. This is the man who turned his “I” into just about the freakiest (though oddly sweet) “I” the world has ever seen–he’s PYT; he’s DOA; he’s gone.

So…it’s one of those weeks when I’m not quite sure what to make of the world, not quite sure how to avert my eyes. Perhaps, my husband will come home–with fistfuls of roses–and kiss me, just there, where my rubberneck meets my ear. Until then, it’s all just Human Nature, and I‘m just a Tabloid Junkie.

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1.  We first noticed him in the park.  As S and I followed the dog into the clovery meadow between groping oaks, he was off to the right in the shade, bent 90 degrees at the waist, agitating his torso like a washing machine, outstretched fists churning a blurred menace in the 90-degree air.  Was this preparatory exercise for capoeira?  What else explained the juxtaposition of these movements with his odd get-up: forest green cargo pants, a black T-shirt and thick-soled boots?  His close cut hair, a uniform length all around his skull, made him look both militant and outside any organization.  The dog chased his tennis ball and did circles around us in the sun, finally flopping onto his side while still in motion so that he slid to a rest on his back, panting beside us.  When we looked up the man was gone.

A few days later we saw him in the park again.  While the dog yanked me toward some urgent odor, the man ran past us a few dozen yards away.  He was dressed in the same clothes as before.  All around us, joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and walkers wore activity-appropriate outfits, often clumped in chattering pairs or groups, smiling at each other and proud of their dedication to their own fitness.  Next to them, this man, all alone and stone-faced, overdressed in street clothes with skin-head overtones, seemed more than out of place. He looked dangerous, or at the very least crazy.  Over the next weeks we saw him a few more times, always identically dressed, always running or performing combative exercise with the air.  When we saw him together, S or I would point him out, careful not to look like we were looking.  “There’s your friend,” I would say.  “He’s your friend,” she would say.  “Go ask him where you can get some of those pants.”  Pulling up to the apartment building in the last light of another hot day we caught the finale of his routine.  He was galloping sideways down the sidewalk across the street like an overgrown child.  He stopped at the corner and calmly walked away from us down the block.  As if this all was all perfectly normal.  As if he had done what he had had to do, preparation for some great physical undertaking yet to come, and for now it was time to go back to the sorts of things the rest of us all did, blending in to bide time until that inevitable confrontation.

Yesterday evening, S and I brought the worn-out dog home from the park, and crossing to our block with the sun in our eyes, we saw the man walking toward us.  There he was, in his makeshift fatigues, enlarging himself in my vision with every steady step.   My muscles tensed and my mind raced.  Had he heard us snickering at him, noticing us gaping at him in the park?  I looked down at the dog as if he needed my surveillance.  Just as the man came past me, I looked up and met his eye.  I was shocked by what I saw before he shyly looked away: the sweet dark eyes of a tentatively curious young man, much younger than I had seen, much more gentle than I ever would have suspected.  “He’s foreign, right?” said S when we were safely down the block.  I agreed.  Something in that facial stucture suggested he was seeing the strange details of everything, everyone around him with a kind of reverence.  As if he saw the rest of us just as amusingly inexplicable as we saw him.  But more generously, with much more hope and kindness.

2. I got up yesterday and made my way out into cyberspace.  On a site probably best known for its porn clips and jokes in horrible taste (they also always have a few things that are pretty amazing that few others have publicized yet, and the porn is pretty easy to avoid, so, yeah, I’m a regular) I saw an image of two men crouching in the street beside someone who appeared to be bloody and struggling, with the caption, “Woman standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a Basij.”  At first I paused to marvel that the webmaster of this apolitical site thought the name of Iran’s now-not-so-secret police was well-known enough that his visitors would understand this description.  Then I began to study the image.  These people could be anyone.  Nothing in the image made it look like Tehran.  I considered the possibility that this was a joke/snuff clip, ridiculing the violence on the other side of the world while turning it into a Tom and Jerry-like spectacle.  The site had done this before.  I had accidentally watched motorcyclists crushed by tractor-trailers and other caught-on-video deaths, tricked by a caption or an image that didn’t give away the grisly scenes.   The possibility that this Basij video was a snuff clip from Tehran piqued my curiosity though.  A scene from that conflagration that would make it to this site was just too strange a cultural crossroads to refuse.  What scene from this struggle was so spectacular?

In the video, the woman is in the arms of a few shouting men as the person holding the camera shakily circles the scene.  Suddenly her eyes loll to the side and the shouting increases in rate and volume.  Something blossoms at her mouth, and then across the rest of her face like a dark ribbon.  Even though I knew what I was watching, it took me a moment that I was seeing blood seeping out of her mouth, nose and eyes.  That’s what I remember seeing.  I could only watch it once, and now recalling it in detail, I don’t want to see it again.   In the last few seconds of footage, the sound drops away and the mourning, frantic crowd scrambles silently around the body of this woman whose life has disappeared right before them and now us.

The video had been posted in the morning.  By midday the Times was reporting that a funeral for the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, had been broken up by the Basij, and that the video of her death had become a sensation over the weekend in Iran.  Now Iranian state television is saying that her death was staged.  The opposition describe her as a martyr.  She is beautiful in the photo that accompanies the article on the Times website.  “Is everyone in Iran really good looking?” S asked me last night as we watched a lame Daily Show report from Iran.  It’s hard, looking at the photographs from Tehran each day, not to suspect they all are.  I suspect part of the attraction is how full of life the faces of the protesters appear.  These people who flaunt death, who put their lives in the street to demand better ones, they look nothing like us but appear exactly as we hope we would in such circumstances.  No wonder the Republicans identify with their oppression.  No wonder they look beautiful to all of us.  In a connection world, everything is a mirror.  And maybe that’s why this footage is so moving: it doesn’t really allow identification.  In the video of Neda’s death – everyone just calls her Neda now – she is beautiful, and her expiration is not exactly ugly.  But watching that video one is overcome not so much with the tragedy of a life cut short in its prime, but by the terror of how much is unknown and undocumented by the amateur photographer.  Seeing those black ribbons suddenly appear on her face you are horrified by how little you understand what is going on.  How was she shot?   Where did the bullet enter her body?  What was this life that you have seen ended?  What would it have been?  Why are you the one watching it disappear instead of the one lying there in the street, unable to hear all those people silently wailing all around you?

3.  These days I avoid writing my novel by reading a draft of one my friend has finally finished writing and by doting on the small dog with whom I live.  It is surprisingly comforting to read page after page of this story, the making of which I have been witness to for six years, a story that is so much better put together than it was in pieces that reencountering each previously read scene is like being reunited with a presumed-dead loved one.  It is unfathomably gratifying to speak to a creature who hangs on every word I say, cocking his head for better comprehension, a look of such eager love on his face that I find myself speaking to him all day long.  Together, the dog, the pages and I, help each other believe we understand each other and ourselves.

Reading E’s book I begin to see again how I will be able to write my own.  I recall conversations we had in which he described wrestling with passages, and then I see them there on the page, mostly wrestled through.  I think of my own comments over the years about particular moments or habits of the structure, and then I see them accounted for or rightfully ignored.  He has created a whole thing, 550 pages of a story that needs reading.  The lively insights of his characters, the purity of their voices, the places where I see the mechanics of the plot reflect the tenderness of E’s own mind – all of these are not just impressive.  They are beacons of hope.  Sitting down to read these pages that few others have seen, and I believe many will love, I am buoyed by the people I see in the scenes and the person I can detect behind them.  My friend and his characters are better than I had previously suspected.

Walking the dog, I am aware of the eyes of others upon me.  A couple weeks ago, when my sister was visiting, she overheard a woman say, “Look at that man walking his Chihuahua.”   I’m not sure if I was more disconcerted at being perceived as the kind of man who walks a Chihuahua or as a man at all, since the feeling adulthood always seems to elude me.  Besides, he’s only half Chihuahua.  Half rat terrier.  S tells me that I have stolen his heart away from her, and for now perhaps that is true.  He sleeps by me, sits on my lap when he can and stares me in the eye when he wants to know what is happening next.   I am in love with this little dog, because he is smart and adorable and good natured and obedient, but also because he so clearly is a person underneath that little fur tuxedo, because you can see, as you can with a great character in a novel, the way his mind works, how he considers his position in a room, why his particular life happens to belong to him.  And every day I love him more because my heart breaks that he can’t tell any of it to me.

If I notice, I am always caught in the tidal awareness of what I do and do not know about others.  I concoct back stories and conduct possible conversations in my head.  I ache for details of the lives out of my grasp.  I revel in their unwillingness to be my own.

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I’ll never forget the first time I stayed up late enough to watch Johnny Carson. I must have been eight or so, and it must have been summer so I must have smelled like watermelon and bug spray and stuck-on chlorine. There in the TV-blue of the night, I watched as Johnny rolled out walls on wheels, and on the walls: giant ears; then more walls with noses, eyes, chins. My mom laughed, so I laughed too. The walls have ears, she said, and I laughed again. And noses, I said. But then she explained to me that it was a saying. Oh, I said, the walls have ears!!!

These days the walls don’t just have ears; they have lawyers too. An article in this week’s Time magazine devotes itself entirely to the sticky topic of Facebook and divorce. Apparently, lawyers around the country are monitoring various social networking sites and bringing the information they find to trial. These lawyers have a clear message: if you’re going to claim you’re “broke,” don’t post pictures of yourself on your new Harley, and if you’re leaving your man, try to refrain from telling the world that you’re “free at last (!!!) and gonna get every penny I can from that sorry son of a…” Well, you know what I mean.

And I completely see where they’re coming from. I’m often wowed by how much information people give on Facebook. Just last week, I met up with two friends for lunch, and one–before we even looked at the menu–said to the other, “Okay, spill it! I saw your Facebook status. What’s going on?” And things were going on, big things. And when I got home and pulled up her Profile page, it was there, clear as day, word for word.

But, at the same time, there’s this gulf–this ginormous gulf–between what’s really going on and what we’re writing on our walls. Right now, if I click on my Facebook tab (not that I’m looking at Facebook when I should be writing!), I find that one ‘friend’ is “meow, meow, meowing;” one is “chillin in chilly New Jersey;” one is “getting her drink on after the babies go to bed,” and I guess I’m left feeling the gulf even more; I’m left thinking that just because at any given moment I can find out what my ‘friends’ are “doing,” I still don’t know them any better than I did months ago, before I joined Facebook, before my summer nights were lit by the white of my computer screen.

I guess, though, there aren’t any answers. Unless, of course, we can make the wall have legs and those legs can walk on over here, and then, make it have hands, and in the hands, a good bottle of wine, and then slap a big, pretty mouth smack in the center of the wall, and after that, we can sit out back and talk all night long. Until then, I think I’ll turn off the computer and do whatever it is people do when they’re not sitting around trying to figure out the writing on the walls.

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Possible Titles For My Unfinished Novel

The Ages

The Endless Journey

Living A Lost Cause

The Book That Didn’t Save Him

A Labyrinth Of Wondering

Words In Hiding

Swallowing Darkness

How To Be (Bad At Being) Alone


Potential Titles For My New Novel

Blood Gun

The Spy Conspiracy

Unswerving Action: A Dirk Gambles Mystery

The Sexing Of Minerva

Desire’s Apex

The Notebook*

The Soul-Seller

Money To Burn: A Prescott B. Baines III Thriller


Increasingly Unlikely Titles For My Autobiography

Unbridled Bravery, Endless Lust

Milton Reborn

A Life At War With Caution

The Library Filler

His Always-Moving Pen: A Star Of The Page And The Stage Of Life

Son Of Greatness, Father Of Followers

Success Story: Thriving Against The Odds And Ends Of Literary Life

Who Needs Glory When You’ve Got the World In The Palm Of Your Hand?

Author Of The Ages


Titles Of Web Pages I’ll Visit In Lieu Of Writing Today









New Title For This Blog Post

Quitting Time


*Titles cannot be copyrighted

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There’s a poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon that runs through my mind on mornings like these. “I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been/ otherwise.” She goes on to write of flawless peach and birch wood, of laying down for a noontime nap with her love, of having dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks, and finally acknowledges how one day—in spite of her plans and the dreams she has in her bed in a room with paintings hanging on its walls—it “will be otherwise.”

I first read the poem in the late-90’s when I was a graduate student and teaching poetry at Goldwater Hospital. It was the first time I had been around so many people with physical disabilities, and the presence of all those disabilities unnerved me. My first months working there, I often found myself on subway platforms walking in tight circles and being fully aware of the strength of my legs, of the tightening and lengthening of my hamstrings and quadriceps, of the give of my calf and the arch of my foot. “Two strong legs,” I would mumble to myself, over and over, disappointed that for so many years I had taken those legs for granted.

It was around this same time that I traveled down to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and went for my first and only time to the Holocaust Museum. We had walked around the city for hours and hours, and we made it to the museum just before closing time, allowing ourselves not nearly enough time to take it all in, or maybe it was just enough time; maybe all the time in the world would not have been enough, would have been too much. The museum’s impact was heart-wrenching, so heart-wrenching, in fact, that I still find myself caught off-guard—my breath catching in my throat—when I think about it.

It is the shoes that have stayed with me, thousands of them, shoes from the Nazi’s victims—piles and piles, large and small, ornate and simple, men’s and women’s and children’s, leather, cloth, hardly worn, worn through the soles—and I remember standing in the empty place between the piles and thinking of all the feet that had been in those shoes; feet that had blistered, that had been rubbed by a lover; feet that had kicked balls and had turned back home; feet that had soaked in the tub and walked through strange streets and gotten damp from puddles; feet that had danced; feet that belonged to legs; feet that had bones with marrow, that had veins with blood pumped from a heart.

And that is where it always ends for me: the heart.

On Wednesday, Stephen Tyrone Jones, a security officer at the museum, went to hold the door open for an elderly man. The 88-year-old, James W. von Brunn, who as a self-proclaimed white supremacist had a history of anti-Semitic efforts, then opened fire on the museum, fatally wounding Jones. A photograph outside the museum depicts the inadequacy of mourning: a few lilies stuffed inside a water bottle, their petals already falling. I think of those who will walk by that water bottle today, think of the legs that will carry them, of the breakfasts they ate, of the rooms they sleep in.

My husband kissed me when he left for the office just a bit ago; my daughter is napping; my hands are lemon-y from the sponge I used to wipe the counter; and now, like Jane Kenyon, like Stephen Jones, I do the work I love. These days—especially with the death of a dear friend’s husband a couple of months ago—I am more aware than ever that it will some day be “otherwise,” but it makes my heart sick to think that sometimes that happens because of the sheer disregard for human life displayed by von Brunn and far too many before him.

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PLUS, another great poem by Painted Bride Quarterly contributor Arlene Ang:

What Happens to the Postwoman When She Stops Delivering the Mail


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