Thursday, December 29, 2005

Merry Ex-Mas

So: I've been depressed. Or I guess I am depressed.

I feel very uncomfortable writing that; I feel like I'll be perceived as grasping for attention, or whining, or something equally churlish and contemptible. And I should point out that I've seen real depression -- the crushed spirit kind, the gun in the mouth kind -- and this is not of that variety. I've never experienced that myself, and I don't mean to trivialize it.

I'm not one of these people who gets down every Christmas, either. In fact I quite like Christmas: the lights, the smell of the tree, the cold weather, the anticipation. Hell, I even like a few Christmas carols. Ever since Mia was born, I get to experience all its joys vicariously, and in some ways that's even better. Making your own little kid giddy with delight is by far the best thing you'll ever experience. It lights you up. It makes you shine.

But this one was kind of a bummer. It's because of the divorce. It isn't final yet, but we've been separated since March, and it feels final enough. Erin came to visit again, so she wouldn't miss Mia opening her presents Christmas morning. We sat around the tree and watched Mia do her thing, and she seemed happy enough. But there was a mild -- tension isn't quite the right word -- flatness, maybe, to the proceedings. A weird sense of going through the motions, a lack of spontaneity. We were wearing our happy masks, though our eyes were filled with dead channel static. At the time, I chalked it up to the stress of Erin's visit, and of having to visit my mother with Erin in tow and somehow avoiding all the obvious discomforts that might entail. And those things certainly factored into the equation.

But I've had some time to think more about it the last few days. (Mia is in Alabama for the week, visiting Erin and her grandparents, leaving me free to commiserate with my own terrors and self-doubts.) And it's become clear to me that I really miss being married. I miss the comfort marriage brings, the certainty of having at least one person in your corner, of shared parental responsibilities. I miss another body in the bed. I miss someone waiting for me at home. I miss having someone else to be amazed by Mia with me.

And, while recognizing all of that, I also understand that this particular marriage cannot work. Its bedrock was starting to crack quite a while before I was ever aware of it. I won't go into the reasons for it here -- it would be self-serving, I think, and deeply unfair to Erin -- but I will say that divorce was not then what I wanted. A year ago today I still thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with her.

It is an awesome thing to realize how quickly, and how savagely, your entire life can change.

I guess I'm just lonely, and feeling sorry for myself. It doesn't help that I'm turning 35 on Saturday. Assuming I get my allotted 72 years, I'm almost exactly at the midpoint. And I feel like I've lost everything I had: my wife, my friends, my city. And I feel like it's unfair.

Believe me, though, I know how full of shit I am. I have Mia, for God's sake, and she brings me so much joy. She galvanizes me. I have an ability to write which I have neglected for so long, but which I find is miraculously still there, ready to be honed at last. And my friends are not really gone; they're just scattered, and they're suffering from displacement, too.

In the course of writing this I've managed to slap myself out of my self-pity. Sorry you had to read it, but really, what else is a blog but the blogger's long, loving, sentimental gaze into the mirror? Welcome to my narcissism. You really should have expetced this.

In an essay on style, Norman Mailer wrote, "The idea could even be advanced that style comes to young authors about the time they recognize that life is ... ready to injure them. Something out there is not necessarily fooling." I may not be young anymore, but I've just been knocked to the floor. There's blood in my mouth and in my nose, and I think that's my tooth over there by that guy's foot. Apparently life is not, after all, fucking around. I can feel sorry for myself or I can get up.

It's two o'clock in the morning. I want to go to bed, but I have work to do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

House Republicans Enact "Martial Law" to Force Budget Vote

When will enough be enough? How much abuse are we willing to take? The House Republicans enacted "martial law" over the weekend in order to get their bloodthirsty new budget passed; what this does is essentially circumvent requirements that a minimum of 24 hours pass between the introduction of a bill and the final vote on that bill, giving representatives time to actually read what they're voting on. The Republicans were thus able to force a vote on a budget hundreds of pages long without giving anyone (namely Democrats) time to read it. It's worth noting that the bill passed even though every single Democrat in the House voted against it.

I found this story over at TPMCafe, a site which is well worth your time.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Big Brother Bush

Here's an interesting post on the current question of whether or not Bush's authorization of the NSA to spy on American citizens without a warrant was, in fact, legal:

Unclaimed Territory - by Glenn Greenwald: Purposely misquoting FISA to defend the Bush Administration

Be sure to read the comments (ignoring, of course, the occassional hysterical partisan), which is where the real debate begins.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Lurching From My Sick Bed . . .

I've spent the last week crawling through my daily routines with dwindling strength, fading will. Mia brought home the flu virus from school (show-and-tell, Daddy! WHAMMO). We've been filling our little apartment with the cloistered funk of our illness. There are signs we're coming out of it, thankfully, one of which is that the thought of sitting down at the computer no longer induces hemmhoraging.

We managed to get up the Christmas tree today, finally, and I did some shopping for her: I got her some activity books and a CD-ROM which will help me introduce her to nouns and verbs, as well as fractions. She has recently expressed interest in chemistry and paleantology, so I got her a science experiment kit as well, which will let her perform some of the basic tricks.

(Understand, by the way, that when I say "expressed interest," I realize I'm talking about a five year old. I believe the conversation went something like this: "Daddy, what's science?" "Well, science is the study how things work: people, stars, the whole world." I then gave brief descriptions of astronomy, oceanography, and biology. "What about when you do this?" (makes pouring motions) "That's chemistry." "Well, when I grow up I want to do chemsitry!" Rather than laugh this off, I've decided to actively encourage this line of thought: we'll play with science kits, look at some basic science books, and with a little luck she'll see how cool it really is.)

And she's already writing books, the precocious little so-and-so. Beat me to the punch. She gets six or seven sheets of paper, folds them into roughly bookshape, and makes stories out of them: a title page complete with byline, followed by sentences and illustrations. The first one is called The Crayons and is, as you might imagine, about the high times and misadventures of crayon people. You should see the faces on these guys. Another is called Eeeek! (actually spelled "Ekkkk!"), which she assures me she will one day make into a movie; it's about a boy who convinces his mother that there's a monster in the house. When she finally starts to believe him, he reveals that in fact he was only pretending to be the monster all along, and laughs cruelly at her.

Before the flu punched me in the gut and squat-humped me, I'd been reading John Crowley's Little, Big. Since then, my attention span has been reduced to that of a right wing radio talk show host, so I've been reading Conan stories instead. And I'm not ashamed to tell you that I still think they are awesome. "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." Fucking right! (That's from "The Tower of the Elephant," by the way, and it occurs shortly before Conan splits the skull of some condescending nobleman.)

This down week has also made it more difficult to hold to my plan of finishing my short story, "North American Lake Monsters," before January. Since Mia will spend the week following Christmas visiting her mother in Alabama, it's still an attainable goal, but I'll have to not fuck around. A habit I'm still trying to break.

I realize there's very little of interest in this post; mostly it represents my effort at shaking off the lethargy and working again. IN order to leave you with something worthwhile, however, I'll leave you with a link to one of my favorite sites on the web: trust me, it's Damn Interesting.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lucius Shepard on "You Go Where It Takes You"

Well, Lucius Shepard wrote his piece on my story, "You Go Where It Takes You," for the Ellen Datlow/SciFiction Project.

It's really a very kind piece (better written than the story it describes, but then that's Lucius for you), and the fact that it's written by this writer, in particular, means more to me than I can tell you.

You can find it here.

Thanks, Lucius.

Now I have to live up to that somehow. . . .

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An Appreciation of Glen Hirshberg's "Struwwelpeter"

What follows is the appreciation of Hirshberg's story I wrote for The Ellen Datlow/SciFiction Project, which I first mentioned in my second post. If you haven't gone over there yet, do so; you're missing out.

Also, if you haven't already, pick a story which hasn't been claimed yet and volunteer to write an appreciation. There are many great stories remaining. (For example, someone has got to pick up Dale Bailey's "In Green's Dominion.")

Here's what I wrote:

The original "Struwwelpeter" is a poem by the nineteenth century German writer Heinrich Hoffmann. It is one of a series of cautionary verses meant to frighten children into proper behavior; other titles in the collection include "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches," in which a young girl plays with matches and is burned to death, and "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb," a particularly frightening poem about the "tall tailor" who comes to slice off the thumbs of little children who cannot keep them out of their mouths. "Struwwelpeter" is actually one of the mildest poems in the collection. It's about a boy with terrible hygiene: he refuses to wash his face or comb his hair, and his nails grow to grotesque lengths. He is an awful little boy, we are told, and everybody hates him. Little basis, it would seem, for a ghost story.

And so we come to Glen Hirshberg's "Struwwelpeter." It's about an awful boy, too, but it's easy to get distracted from that by the wonderful creepiness of the setting. There are many elements of the traditional ghost story to be found here: a windy Halloween night; a haunted house; a disagreeable old man who surrounds himself with strange symbols and objects, who speaks darkly of raising the dead. The story is laden with images all ghost story aficionados are familiar with: mysterious, half-glimpsed lights; a stray article of clothing lying, abandoned, in an empty room where a person ought to be; the doomful tolling of a bell. We become so caught up in the spooky trappings of the tale that we run the risk of forgetting the title, and the title's heritage. Hirshberg is intimately familiar with the tropes of the ghost story, and uses them here to brilliant effect. Like Shirley Jackson, he only drops suggestions, letting the reader's imagination do the heavy lifting. And while we are occupied with the immediate threat of the haunted house, the real story is uncoiling underneath, infinitely more dangerous.

Because this story, like all of Hirshberg's stories, is about human pain. How it manifests, and how it steers us.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew, and my mother says it's impossible to know a thing like that, anyway. She's wrong, though, and she doesn't need me to tell her she is, either, as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light."

It is a wonderfully complete paragraph. We are presented with a mystery, and the engine of the plot: this Peter, and the thing about him which everyone should have known, but didn't. To me, though, the strength of this paragraph -- and its principal beauty -- comes from that last image: "as she sits there clutching her knees and crying in the television light." It's one of the most powerful, most economically precise depictions of loneliness and despair that I've read in a long time. It just about breaks your heart. And it sets the mood for this story perfectly.

This is a story about isolation, alienation, the hope of fathers and the trust between friends. Like Hoffmann's "Struwwelpeter," it is a story of the despised boy. The supernatural trappings are window dressing for the real horror at its heart. Horror writers should read it, along with other stories by Hirshberg (particularly "The Two Sams"), and learn from him. This is the scary stuff.

I can't end this, though, without calling further attention to the language. There's so much joy to be found on the sentence level alone. Take, for example:

"We wandered toward the locks, into the park. The avenue between the pine trees was empty except for a scatter of solitary bums on benches, wrapping themselves in shredded jackets and newspapers as the night nailed itself down and the dark billowed around us in the gusts of wind like the sides of a tent. In the roiling trees, black birds perched on the branches, silent as gargoyles."

If that doesn't do it for you, I just don't know what you're doing here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Al Jazeera Would Like Not to Be Bombed, Please

The Mirror's recent story about Bush's desire to bomb the Qatar offices of the Arabian news agency Al Jazeera has provoked remarkably little attention in the American press. Besides being an astonishing act of aggression against a country which has allied itself with the United States in its Middle Eastern gambit, it stands as just one more example of the Bush Administration's well-documented hostility to the idea of a free press. (In case you've forgotten, refresh yourself on the stories of the Office of Strategic Influence, Jeff Gannon, the purchasing of favorable coverage of education policies, and the current question about planted stories in Iraqi newspapers.)

There is, of course, some question over whether or not this was a serious suggestion. But the hardline response from the British government raises some doubts regarding an unnamed official's contention that Bush was just making a "joke": David Keogh, a civil servant in the Cabinet Office, and Leo O'Connor, a former employee of Labour MP Tony Clarke, stand accused of dispensing top secret information under the Official Secrets Act. It is worth noting that under this act, journalists who further disseminate illegally obtained information are subject to prosecution as well. If it was just a poor attempt at humor, why not allow The Mirror, or any other British newspaper that gets a hold of it, to publish it?

A few alarmed staffers of Al Jazeera have made their own blog in response to this, called Don't Bomb Us. Whatever your feelings about the war in Iraq, it's worth a visit. In the United States, the press has been undermined and manipulated to such an extent that a skeptical approach is the only rational one available to us. In Great Britain, the government can prosecute journalists for telling the truth, even if it's in the public interest. Responsible people have an obligation to look beyond the official sources of information -- to look, in fact, in the very places we're told not to look.

Check out the blog, and while you're at it check out Al Jazeera's official site. I'm not saying you'll find the unvarnished truth there, or that those sites are any more reliable than our own. I just don't know. What I do know is that their perspective is different -- although not as different as you might think -- and that you might be surprised by what you find. Come to your own conclusions, of course.

Come to your own informed conclusions.