Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Warning: Cute Kid Post

Mia wanted to get a snack from the pantry. A box of raisins, maybe, or a granola bar.

"No more food," I said. "Dinner will be ready in twelve minutes." Hamburger Helper simmered in the big cooker thing. I don't know what the hell it's called. It cooks.

She threw her hands up over her head, flung her body back onto the couch, and said, in a weak and sorrowful voice, "Oooooooh, that's making my brain break!"

"It's making your brain break?"

"It's making my brain hatch like an egg!"

I couldn't keep the smile off my face, which did not endear me to my daughter just then. "What's coming out of it?" I asked.

Pitifully: "All my ideas."

Beautiful Prose

Almost as much as a good story, I love beautiful prose. An artfully crafted sentence can send a shiver of joy through me; it can induce feelings which I probably ought not to discuss in polite society.

But here, I reckon it's okay.

If you haven't read Annie Proulx, for God's sake, get started. Here are two samples from her stunning short story "The Mud Below," collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories:

"He knew he had little talent for friendship or affection, stood armored against love, though when it did come down on him later it came like an axe and he was slaughtered by it."


"Emanating from him was a kind of carved-wood quietude common to those who have been a long time without sex, out of the traffic of the world."

Maybe they don't do it for you, but those sentences strike me as finely cut diamonds. The strong imagery, the startling and yet completely appropriate juxtaposition of love and slaughter, of lovelessness and interior focus, and the crisp and elegant precision of each sentence are a marvel to me.

As an added bonus, the book has a lovely painting by William Matthew on the cover.

If you love good prose, you need to read this woman's work.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Tinker Toy Bomb

Mia, my five year old daughter, has developed a sudden and disturbing interest in bombs. Specifically, atomic bombs. She has announced her intent to build one. This arose from a session browsing her children's dictionary. We flipped through pages and discussed windmills, hydroelectrics, guinea pigs, and plumbing. She turned back a handful of pages and there it was: this beautiful, appalling flower in the middle of the page. A mushroom cloud.

"What's that, Daddy?"

She then proceeded to answer her own question. (Damn all those hours spent teaching her to read! Why didn't anyone stop me!?)

"Atomic . . . bomb. What's an atomic bomb, Daddy?"

Mia is extremely bright. I do not believe in telling her pretty lies; but then again I do not think it's right to dump too much reality on a child, either. What with the divorce, she's had quite her fill of reality, I think. So I gave her a quick answer and I tried to pass over the subject.

"Bombs are things people use in wars, to hurt people. Bombs are bad."

"Why are they bad?"

"Well, because they hurt people. Mostly innocent people."

I consider it a mercy that she did not ask me to define innocence (she must have been off her game that night; usually she's quite adept at zeroing in on the most uncomfortable topics). Instead she seemed to accept my crude definition and allowed me to turn back a few more pages and discuss the flaws and virtues of apricots.

Later that night, though, some conflict arose when I tried to give her a little good advice (I can't remember now what it was; probably I told her not to eat the cat). She stormed off to her room, her little face crunched in rage, and screamed over her shoulder: "I'm going to go start a war!" I sat there quietly, disgesting this information and wondering how seriously I ought to take it (did I mention she's bright?). A few short minutes later, she emerged smiling from her room, holding aloft a weirdly menacing Tinker Toy contraption. It bristled with colorful spokes; it had spinning parts. "Look Daddy, I made a bomb! When this little piece falls off, people die!"

She then flung the thing through the air and the proper bit came off. So did much else. She flopped down onto the ground, peered down her shirt, and said, "I see the darkness on me."

I picked up a book today called Nuclear Terrorism, by Graham Allison. Allison is, as far as I can tell, a reputable man. According to his backcopy bio, he is the founding dean of Harvard's "modern" John F. Kennedy School of Government, and served as special advisor to the secretary of defense under Reagan and as assistant secretary of defense under Clinton. One of the primary contentions put forth in the book is that a nuclear attack in this country is all but a certainty.

It's been my pet fear for years. I tend not to talk about it with my friends because I'm afraid they'll think I'm turning into some survivalist nut who wants to build a bunker. But the thing is, part of me does want to build a bunker. A bunker with walls nine feet thick, a hundred feet under the surface of the earth. Part of me wants to get out the map and pick a location as far away from significant metropolitan centers as I can and move there with my daughter. And then build a bunker. Of course, these options are unavailable to me. I rent, so I can't start digging large holes in the backyard (assuming I had the money, which, you know, hah!) Mia's world has already been turned upside down and shaken vigorously when her mother and I separated and initiated divorce proceedings. Even though such a move would satisfy the pessimist in me, who counts on the worst possible outcome, I know that it would be cruel to my daughter. What she needs now, more than anything else, is stability. She needs her father not to succumb to his fears, irrational or otherwise.

So I stay put. And I worry. And I know I'm doing the right thing as far as her psychological wellbeing is concerned. The part of me which grew up during the last twenty years of the Cold War -- the one that heard about nuclear bombs all his life and saw it amount to nothing -- dismisses these fears as hysterical, or at least exaggerated.

But the quiet part of me, the stare-at-the-fucking-ceiling-all-night part of me, sees that hideous flower blooming in D.C., or Atlanta, and considers the radioactive fallout whipped into town by the weather. That part of me imagines tumors popping up like mushrooms in a rainstorm: in me, in my little girl.

Normally I try to keep the father and and doomsayer separate. But then Mia finds a picture in her dictionary and makes a little bomb from rainbow-colored sticks. Her little face is flushed with excitement and pride. And those two sides of me, the warring senses of responsibility, meet, and stare each other down.

And so I help Mia pick up the pieces of her toy, and I wonder: What the fuck am I supposed to do?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

And Let Us Give Thanks For, Um . . .

Okay, so much for not being political. This comes from Stephen Legget, via And We Shall March, the blog of my friend Pam Noles. Permission has been given to disseminate. According to Pam, Mr. Legget has said, "I would like for it to spread like a virus." Well, here you go.

"Lord, on this day consecrated for the purpose of heightening our awareness and gratitude for the blessings in our lives, we thank you, first, for giving the indigenous inhabitants of this continent so little resistance to the pathogens carried by our forefathers when they arrived here, full of hope, from their European homelands, thus making it easy for the natives to share their lands with our people.

Lord, we thank you, also, for sending us in these troubled times a president with the vision and courage to lead us into war, whatever the cost to the common people, in defense of important economic interests of our country.

We thank you for sending us leaders able and willing to make the hard choices these troubled times present, and sacrifice our civil liberties in exchange for the appearance of increased security for our children.

And we thank you for bringing us into this era of new hope, in which, for the first time in nearly a century, we can look forward to the possibility of raising children free of the burden and stigma of a scientific education. Lord, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for these and all our blessings, and we pray that you send us the strength and the wisdom to be worthy of them.
Stephen Legget"

Personally, I'd change the word "present" in paragraph three to "demand," but I didn't write it.

Go and do likewise, gents. Go and do likewise.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans

I recently received a call from Neal, who was one of my best friends in New Orleans. He relocated to southern California after Katrina hit, and only got back to New Orleans last week to retrieve his salvageable possessions. He told me that the city was starting to look like its old self again, at least in the lower Garden District, which is where we used to live. He said in some areas it appeared as though nothing had ever happened.

It was good news, of course, and it triggered a powerful new rush of nostalgia in me.

I moved out of New Orleans with my daughter one month before Katrina hit. My wife and I were in the middle of divorce proceedings, and once it was decided that our daughter would live with me, I decided to move us to Asheville where I had family I could rely on to help, when things got tough. I had spent the previous thirteen years in New Orleans, and -- in every real sense -- that city became my true home. There is no other place in this country where I feel as immediate a sense of belonging. Like Neil Young said, "all my changes were there." (I think he was talking about Toronto, but never mind.)

When the storm hit, and the extent of the damage became clear, I felt an overwhelming urge to be there. If my daughter hadn't been with me, and I wasn't aware of that far larger responsibility, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been down there at once. I know that probably sounds ludicrous, considering the great suffering going on there, but New Orleans had come to mean so much to me that I felt I should be present for what was arguably its darkest hour. I felt I should help it, in whatever way was possible, to recover. I admit I also felt the writer's compulsion to witness: I knew I was missing a singular opportunity to gather incredible material. But I don't want to reduce the feeling I had to a purely mercenary impulse. I loved New Orleans, and I felt as though I had betrayed the city, somehow, by dodging this particular bullet.

And of course I still love New Orleans. Which is why, when Neal called me a couple of days ago, it was a relief to hear that it was actually healing; but it was also heartbreaking, in a way. I can only liken it to being in love with someone who, while you are gone, is beset by some awful circumstance; something happens which pares away the peripheral layers of being and what is left, what you find upon your return, is a leaner, tougher, sadder version of the person you left behind. You still love this person, and it is possible that you are yet loved in return; but you missed something crucial, something defining. And, in a fundamental sense, you are strangers to each other from that moment on.

So the work of rebuilding goes on. My friend Andy Fox is there, and his aggressive good will and civic activism are exactly what the city needs if it is to assume a character that can somehow overcome this miserable moment in its history. And I look forward to the day -- soon, I hope -- that I get a chance to revisit the place, to stop by the Avenue Pub, where I worked for eight years, and have a beer with whatever old friends remain.

But I know it will be bittersweet. I still love New Orleans, but I don't think I know her anymore.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Ellen Datlow/SciFiction Project

Anyone who has travelled to this godforsaken little cranny of the cyber-abyss is probably already familiar with the impending demise of SciFiction, where Ellen Datlow -- easily one of the best editors the genre has ever had -- has published hundreds of wonderful stories by newer writers (that's right, Spanky, I allude to myself, but also to people like Glen Hirshberg, Kelly Link, M. Rickert, and Dale Bailey) as well as established authors (Lucius Shepard, James P. Blaylock, Rick Bowes, and Michael Bishop). She has also kept the younger generation of fans current by reprinting classic stories by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Alfred Bester, Manly Wade Wellman, and others. In short, SciFiction was arguably the premier showcase of the best short fiction the genre has to offer.To eulogize its passing and to recognize the value of its contributions, a website called The Ellen Datlow/SciFiction Project been created. Each story in the archives has been linked, and will be accompanied with an appreciation of that story written by a fan and/or another writer. It's a classy send-off a for a top-notch venue.

I've signed on to write an appreciation of Glen Hirshberg's story "Struwwelpeter." My own story is getting some attention from Lucius Shepard, which to me is like Ted Williams telling me I've got a nice swing.

Go to the site and check it out. And visit SciFiction before it's too late.

Friday, November 18, 2005

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

It seems appropriate to start a blog about writing (by an all-but-unknown writer, no less) with a confession: I hate writing. I hate the process. I hate sitting down and trying to focus on the work at hand. I go to mighty lengths to distract myself from it; I am in fact much better at not writing than I am at writing, which is why at 34 I only have a small handful of stories in print, and run the very real risk of being one of those sad souls who could have made it, should have made it, but just didn't have the gumption to get the job done.

The bitch of it is there's nothing else I'd rather do. When I've finished a story, or even a paragraph I'm proud of, I literally feel like I've snorted a line of cocaine. My body is electrified, the endorphins are crackling, I punch strangers in the face because dammit, I can. Luckily I'm pretty good at it (writing, that is; not so much with the punching (at the end of this little post I'll list some of the places you can find my stories, so you can come to your own conclusions on whether or not I'm full of shit)). And I certainly don't want to end up on that scrap heap of might-have-beens. So -- for the first time in my life -- I'm making a commitment to writing every day. That's part of the reason that I started this blog; even if no one ever reads this thing (and, really, let's be frank: if you're here, who the fuck are you? What is the matter with you?), I'll feel as though there is a presence over my shoulder, which I should not disappoint.

In this blog I will likely write about my daughter, though I've not decided yet how much I should. I'll write about bartending in New Orleans, which I did for nearly ten years, and bartending in Asheville, which I've done for four months so far, and which is far less interesting. I'll try to avoid politics, though no promises there. Let's just say I'm on the left and leave it at that (for now). I'll write about writers I admire, and why I admire them. I'll probably write a little about horror fiction, and why I'm drawn to the genre despite being uncomfortable with its existence as a genre. God knows what else. I've never done this before.

Here's a list of my stories so far and where they might be found, starting with the most recent.

"S.S." The 3rd Alternative #41
"You Go Where It Takes You" SciFiction (reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Vol. 17)
"The Malady of Ghostly Cities" The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts
"The Casual Conversation of Angels" The Silver Web (#11) (apparently to be reprinted in their forthcoming Best Of anthology)
"She Found Heaven" The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, (reprinted at Fantastic Metropolis, and included in Breaking Windows: A Fantastic Metropolis Sampler)