Carnival Fiction

I’ve got some new short fiction over at Revolution John, a sample from my latest project: church shorts. Who doesn’t love the annual church bazaar?

Whack-a-Mole

Slide1

Full story 600 words.

Time to Write

Blog entries about writing I enjoy most treat the craft as work. Those I enjoy least lament a thing called writer’s block. For all those writers who suffer some form of blockage, I submit this photo from 2007.

IMG_7873

This neurotic-looking ledger of hours and minutes was my go-to mechanism for avoiding “the block.” I used it to ensure a workmanlike integrity when it came to putting in the hours. I didn’t wait for Inspiration to drive the process. I was beholden to Time.

First thing I did upon sitting at my desk was flip open the back of the journal and jot the hour and minute. When I finished, I wrote again the hour and minute. Some days I was lucky enough to do this only once for a long period. On Thursday of week XXXIV, for example, I wrote from 1:35 a.m. until 3:13. An hour 38 in one sitting!

Other days I wasn’t so lucky. The week before, it took me three tries to reach 1:32. Mondays…

As the years passed (2007 was far from the first year I used this technique; 2008 was the last) I added up the weekly totals and calculated the averages in five-week blocks. Some periods I averaged 10:41 for each of the five weeks; others only 5 hours a week. In a box somewhere is the original ledger bearing witness to my annual averages–3+ hours a week in 2001 and ever better from there. My goal at first was 7 hours a week; towards the end, 11. I wanted an hour a day for weekdays and 3 a day for the weekend. I never attained it over the course of a year, but there are five-week segments with 14-hour averages.

One noteworthy point on all this neurotic calculating: I didn’t cheat. If I started at 10:12, I wrote 10:12. An hour 38 minutes didn’t get rounded up to 1:40. Maybe, in a rush, I would note that I’d written for only 12 minutes without having put the start and stop time into black and white. Maybe those days I knew I just didn’t have the time.

Another point: I abandoned the technique years ago. A decade later, writing had become my native state. The turning wheels upstairs were configuring perceptions as if on the page. I had gone from “aspiring writer” to Writer. I had made myself a writer.

When I’m mid-stream on a novel, daily perceptions matter less. I’m focused on plot, which every day demands new material. If I’m not focused on plot I’m editing. Daily perceptions have little bearing on the process. When, as now, I’m between novels, the turning wheels matter more. Am I jotting some new short fiction? Am I reviewing a book? Am I posting my views on the latest freedom of speech rally, irksome advertisement, or miserable hip-hop artist?

I’ve discovered my life is more orderly but more stressful when I’m mid-novel: stress over the passing of time as the story remains within. When I’m off the beat, I feel footloose but scattered. Either way, writing is central. I’m always writing. There’s no taking note of the hours and minutes.

Boiled down, all a writer really needs is a workspace, a writing instrument, and time. The first two are easy. This post offers a remedy for finding more of the third.

IMG_7769

25 filled Moleskine Cahier ledgers from 2007-present, and the warm invitation of a fresh one!

The Sandlot

The first agent to show any interest in my writing offered to meet and discuss my manuscript after months of back and forth. During our conversation he shared an anecdote centered on the time his Little League team played at Shea Stadium. ‘How exciting!’ he and his teammates thought. ‘A Big League field in a Big League park!’

He turned out for the game in high spirits, proudly carrying his bat and glove, eager to ascend to the game’s elite venue. But when the ceremonies were over—lineup announced on the PA, National Anthem sung, warmup pitches thrown—the first batter came up, the first ball was hit… and the first error was made. The game underway, the agent’s boyhood self realized, ‘We’re still just Little Leaguers and this is still just Little League.’

IMG_7904 (1)

Never mind what the anecdote may have suggested about the merits of my first manuscript. I’d like to focus on what the anecdote suggests about Little League baseball. I’d like to focus on why, seven years later, that anecdote seems so off-base.

I just finished my first season managing a Little League team of my own. I’m proud of each and every one of my players. I’m proud of the boy who caught the first fly of the season and the boy who fielded the first grounder and threw a runner out. I’m proud of the boy who stayed on the field after getting whacked by a ball and I’m proud of the boys who struck out 3 times in a game but kept coming up for more. I’m proud of the kids who knocked the cover off the ball not because they were great hitters but because, when they reached the dugout, they turned around to cheer their teammates on.

I’m grateful for the parents who brought the boys to practice every week and helped on the field, and I’m grateful for all those who took on the numerous coaching duties from tossing balls at players to managing first base to organizing a dugout full of seven year olds and a field full of wandering minds with live-action balls threatening concussion. I’m grateful to the league who organizes so much of this and to our sponsors who help mitigate the costs.

But most of all, I’m gratified by the way we ended our season.

It wasn’t the excellent hitting today and it wasn’t the plays we made. It was the spontaneous eruption of baseball that followed our post-game pizza party. Something about baseball made the boys leave cookies and chips and juice on the picnic tables to seek their thrills on the empty field before us. They wanted to pitch and hit and field. They wanted to swing the bat one more time again.

Baseball. Something in their conviction to play on tells me there’s more to Little League baseball than aspiration for the Majors. That isn’t why they do it and that isn’t why we coach. We do these things because the sandlot beckons.

As for the shabby experience by that early agent when his Little League team played at Shea: did I mention I managed the McLean Little League Mets?

Why Iggy Why?

The cancellation of your Great Escape world tour has me beside myself with grief. Probably, this is because nobody else feels any real sorrow about the cancellation. In fact, it seems the whole world has turned against you. Even the formerly sensible Washington Post has lowered its standards to run gossipy trash about your demise.

Azalea… has been criticized for misappropriating hip-hop culture and not understanding or really respecting it. At its core, rejection of Azalea wasn’t just about the fact that she was a white Australian woman who rapped like a black girl from Atlanta — it was that, to many, it was obvious that she’d jumped to the head of the line because of it.

images

Iggy, you’re still so fancy in my book! And all the more remarkable because you sound so… so… so UN-fancy. Your sound is tough. Your sound is gritty. Your sound is authentic, streetwise, callous beyond your years.

I was so looking forward to your tour! I felt the same anticipation about seeing you that my sons feel about seeing all the rare beasts that roll into town for the circus. I wanted to see your live act with my own eyes because I know that what they say about you is untrue: that you’re inauthentic. That you can’t freestyle. That you don’t write your own lyrics. I knew you’d prove the haters wrong with your real, true, genuine authenticity.

I refuse to believe that you belong in the long line of sham artists who bamboozled me with sizzle and left me hungry for bacon.

What is next for you? Will you still be fancy after you marry Nick Young? Or will you trade in your glamorous ways to move into a pair of mom jeans and a house in the ‘burbs?

I believe the right future for you will be to host a cooking program on Australian Public Broadcast, release a fine new fragrance, or create a line of bracelets to help decorate other fancy people. If you’d like help with this project, my sons have completed their apprenticeship in beading and are free for the summer. Maybe you can come on over and do your Great Escape world tour right at our kitchen table. There I can fill you in on my favorite parenting advice:

  • If you can get them to work, breast milk has benefits for baby that can’t be found in formula.
  • Poo stains come out of cloth diapers if you lay them in the sun when they’re wet.
  • At a certain point, your kids will replace their love for you with unfathomable admiration for pop stars, but eventually they’ll find their way back home.

Don’t worry. Even momses can be fancy. Your new jeans may not be the kind of urban-chic we expect of a ghetto flower changeling like you, but they will have room enough for cellphones, packets of Goldfish, and wipes. You’ll be soooooo fancy.

Putting It Back In

If I could put the ketchup back in, I wouldn’t do it. If I could refrain from bringing my young foot down on that packet of Heinz ketchup, I wouldn’t.

heinze

It lay there on the clean Disney World asphalt, providential and beckoning. I was a boy—5? 7?—and it was in my nature to stomp it heedless of where the red stuff would land. The red stuff landed right on your new white vacation sneakers. Oh, boy did you yell at me for that!

Still, Aunt Barbara, if I could put the ketchup back in, I wouldn’t.

If I did put the ketchup back in, I wouldn’t have this memory of you, a memory to file away with all the rest: family at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, graduations, religious celebrations. Cousins, cousins, cousins! Why do I remember the cast party after Oliver Twist at St. Thomas Aquinas? “Please, may I have some more…?” I don’t think, now that I am thinking about it, that if I could put the puke back in, the puke I left all over the foot of your driveway on Fairlawn Avenue after Brendan’s wedding, I don’t think I’d put that back in, either.

I think dad cleaned that up. Thank you, dad.

If I could put anything back in, I would put back in the years we were all so much younger and went camping and endured the singing of campfire songs about dirty black socks while the crickets and summer insects chirped in the dark forest around us. I would put back in our younger days and all our hopeful future-looking eyes. I would put all that back in so we could do it one more time again, at least.

But since I cannot put any of it back in, the ketchup, the puke, the future-looking eyes, I’ll put in one last note of love and gratitude for a big family, well raised, with tons of grandkids, to surround you in your final days.

Be at peace, and know that you are loved.

Review–Pathologies

If laughter is good medicine, William Walsh presents sick remedy in Pathologies.

His short collection of diseased proceedings is more than the sum of its madness. Walsh is a gifted writer, by turns astounding with sharp phrases and surprising with brief, unpredictable arcs. One way to treat this is by engaging the peculiar brilliance of individual stories; another, by revealing the choicest lines:

Emily Dickinson loved the smell of mothballs but she had trouble holding their wings.

Margaret Atwood had been arrested before. But he had never
been arrested by a police officer named Margaret Atwood.

I grow a mustache, and it looks like I left my zipper open.

“Footboy” opens the collection showing us just how ordinary the extraordinary can be, with a protagonist who chooses to do everything by foot instead of by hand. Peel an orange? Check. Tie shoes? Check. Open a milk carton? You’ll have to read and see for yourself.

walsh-pathologies

Check the brothers Barthelme in “The Wrong Barthelme”. These boys give us more of what can be strange in the ordinary. They play with electric trains in their basement until their squabbling attracts the attention of mom, who brings down three typewriters and a ream of paper. In orderly fashion each receives a typewriter, gives their mother a peck on the cheek, and takes a seat at “their stations” in the row of leather swivel chairs at the ping-pong table. Still, someone’s got to pay for the chucking and damaging of trains: “Frederick must sit on his hands in front of his paper-loaded typewriter while Don B. and the other one tap away”. Unusual punishment, the more absurd for occurring in the midst of such order.

Walsh turns from boyhood delight to banana republic in “You Can Live on Lemons”, a witty entertainer playing for the tourist set—small club, late night singer/joke-maker backed by a twelve-piece band, thin-skinned generalissimo with deep acne scars—plies soft barbs against the leadership and bites lemons, reality’s bitter flag.

So much diversity to Walsh’s ink. And there’s more.

A twisted turn awaits in “Revision” after the narrator is pulled from the roiling waters at the nexus of two rivers. Dark chuckles as mom and sis add their views on rehabilitating a criminal in “The Terms of My Parole”. In “Untitled”, the protagonist’s erotic imprinting leaves Bert with a sad fetish and a hole in the bus to satisfy it. Walsh gives us a baby named Beef and a cape-wearing pacifist reborn to as a master marketer. “The Margaret Atwoods” is a brilliant little comedy about—not two but three men—named Margaret Atwood. “A Courtship Ballad” has a lot more going on underneath its sweater than a decent old-fashioned story ought to.

I could go on. These stories, each short and sweet (between 500 and 2,000 words) are a form of madness and mayhem, but above all they are fun, the natively bizarre moving to places ever more bizarre. Take “Diagnosis: Mustache”, in which an answering machine message remonstrates some lady hassling Dick Van Dyke over his late-career mustache. Later, we have a narrator in the form of a snowman on the moon.

“Switch”, my favorite, so much more than just the left thumb in one hole and the right in another. “Switch” has everything. So does this collection. Did I mention it will cost you nothing?

New Fiction @Revolution John

Thanks to Sam Slaughter for posting my latest fiction at Revolution John. Warm yourself up with this  excerpt, then head on over and read the whole thing, a romp through patriotism, office life, and federal worker morale in the face of congressional dysfunction.

In God We Trust (excerpt)

Towards the head of the table Howard Graves sat in the chair reserved for the person filling in for the person serving as Marci Apron’s deputy. In the other chair flanking Apron’s empty chair sat Ralph Dvorak, upright, smiling around the table between wet, slurping sips from his mug. He wore a bow tie and a bushy, rust-colored mustache. He looked alert, watchful, and prepared to take over at a moment’s notice.

Untitled

Graves, on the other hand, sat hunched and miserable. He kept his eyes on his Skilcraft steno book: “Proudly manufactured in the U.S.A. by Americans who are blind”. Along one side of the table was the print team, starting with the empty chair Graves would have sat in if he were still only acting senior print editor. Manny Teague came next, then Chloe Gilchrist, then an empty chair for one of the guys from Graphics. On the other side sat N.B. Harcourt, the contractor supervisor, Morton, and the other guy from Graphics. There were three empty chairs towards the foot of the table. One was for LaR__, who would arrive with Marci. Another was for the contract crew union rep, who wasn’t there because his position was under negotiation. Neither Miles nor Karen felt right about taking the remaining chairs at the table if there wasn’t room for us all, so they sat in the chairs along the wall with Justin and I.

Teague was filling the silence with a story about his sons when LaR__ stuck her head in and flagged Graves.

“There it is,” he said, lumbering to his feet. “You folks sit tight. I’ll be back momentarily with the latest.”

Silence returned. Teague seemed to have lost the thread of his story. Unable to tolerate the quiet, he started telling nobody in particular that William and Henry would have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance when Kindergarten opened in September.

Harcourt detected something he didn’t like in Teague’s tone. “What have you got against the Pledge of Allegiance?” he said.

“I don’t have anything against the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“Because it’s a very patriotic thing to say.”

Teague paused, cautious. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily patriotic.”

“How is it not patriotic? It’s the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Around the room eyes took refuge in the blank pages of Skilcraft stenos. Only Dvorak watched, monitoring the confrontation with great interest.

Teague conceded, “Yes. Ok. There’s an element of patriotism to the Pledge of Allegiance.”

This wasn’t enough for Harcourt. “I grew up saying it.”

Teague said nothing about whether or not he’d grown up saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Under the circumstances, the omission indicated he’d grown up not saying it. Worse, that he rejected the very idea of saying it.

“All my kids grew up saying it. Every day. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”

“Look, let’s just drop it.”

“I grew up saying it, and there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“You don’t have to misunderstand me. I probably wasn’t being very clear.”

“Are you saying there’s something wrong with me?”

“I really have nothing against the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“Is that right?”

“Really Harcourt. The Pledge is fine. It really is. I have nothing against the Pledge.”

Harcourt viewed Teague with suspicion but said nothing more. He glared across the table, face red, slick hair slightly disheveled. But still handsome, even with the deep scar running diagonally across his chin. He glanced at Chloe, who blushed, pulled her pink cardigan closed, and looked down at her steno. Harcourt turned his attention to Karen, who stiffened beside me and crossed her legs.

Dvorak, trying to appear helpful, instead stoked the tension. “I think what Teague was getting at is his objection to reciting the Pledge.” He spoke to Harcourt. Nobody looked at either of them. “Isn’t that right, Teague?”

“Why not just let it go?” Chloe said.

Dvorak pounced, glad to have another voice to keep up the conflict. “I’m just clarifying that Teague’s point had nothing to do with the Pledge itself.”

“Why doesn’t he want his children saying it?” Harcourt demanded. “Why? He says he has nothing against the Pledge, but in the same breath he says he doesn’t want his children saying it. So which is it, Teague? Which is it?”

“No, I… It’s the recitation, ok. The blind loyalty.”

“Loyalty? You’re against loyalty? Loyalty to the flag, and to the Republic for which it stands?”

“I should emphasize the blindness, not the loyalty. The repetition. Every day. And I’ve no doubt most of the children aren’t even aware of its meaning.”

“Are you playing games with comprehension over an act of loyalty? You’re either for the Republic, or you’re against it. Isn’t that what we learned on 9/11? Where were you on 9/11?”

“This has nothing to do with 9/11. I just mean that maybe, that at five and six years old, kids are too young for brainwashing.”

“Brainwashing? Brainwashing!” Harcourt boiled over. “Now the Pledge of Allegiance is brainwashing?!”

Teague remained calm. “You have to admit, it’s a little Orwellian.”

“Orwellian! Isn’t that a communist word?”

“In this day and age, knowing what we know about education, to have children repeating and repeating…”

“I don’t know about you, but here at BOGIE we should stand beside our desks every morning with our hands over our hearts and say the Pledge of Allegiance. We work for the federal government, for crying out loud.”

“But what purpose would that serve?”

“It would serve to prove that we’re better than those Jihadis over there, many of whom are reciting death pledges and blood oaths from the Koran at age five and six.”

“But… First of all, that’s inaccurate. Second, it just goes to prove my point.”

“Listen to me, Teague. You liberals may have-”

“Whoa, whoa,” Dvorak said, pleased at the conflict. “Let’s not make this about politics.”

“But it already is politics,” Harcourt said.

“I’m not talking about politics,” Teague said. “I’m talking about education.”

“So maybe you can tell us where you stand on including ‘under God’ in the Pledge.”

Teague looked away.

“I say it,” Harcourt said. “One nation, under God, indivisible. In God we trust. God bless America. I have no problem whatever using the name of God. God made America great. I’m proud to say that. And if we could just change that television in the no-water room to Fox for a minute, for just one minute get away from the world according to Wolf Blitzer and put on Fox, you’d see that God is under attack right now in America.”

Miles’ cough interrupted, a deep, indomitable cough that bent him over double. He sat up straight, pounded his chest and said, “I’m ok,” though nobody had asked.

“What about the moment of silence?” Dvorak said. “Where do you stand on the moment of silence?”

“I’m all for silence,” Miles said, leaning forward. “A little silence while we wait?”

Dvorak said, “You can sit in silence, Miles. I’m asking Teague for his views on a matter of relevance to this very office. Teague, what is it? How do you feel your children taking a moment of silence at school?”

Feebly, Teague said, “This is a federal facility.”

“What?!”

“I said, this is a federal facility. We aren’t allowed to talk about that in a federal facility.”

“Liberal commie sympathizer.”

Teague threw up his hands and looked around for help but nobody wanted to take on Harcourt. Harcourt, for his part, wasn’t done. He went back at Teague.

“So you don’t want your children to pledge their allegiance, but if I remember correctly from your endless chatter about your children you don’t mind them celebrating Pride Day at school.”

“It wasn’t Pride Day, Harcourt. PRIDE is an acronym for the school’s educational philosophy.”

“It’s a public school, is it not? What ‘educational philosophy’ should they have other than ‘One Nation, Under God, indivisible…? Anything else is just more of the liberal, subversive subliminal messaging. That’s what it is. Telling children that it’s ok to be gay.”

“But it is ok to be gay.”

“Not at that age, it’s not.”

“Harcourt, just think about what the slogan is and what it isn’t. What it is, is an attempt to inspire and instill confidence in our students. To put a stop to bullying. What it’s not, well, one thing it’s not is a reference to homosexuality.”

“There are plenty of other words that instill confidence. Why not “proudness”?”

“Proudness isn’t a word. It’s pride.”

“I don’t’ see why they can’t choose another word.”

“PRIDE is an acronym.”

“The school’s logo is already a rainbow. Now we have Rainbow Pride. Next thing you know there are going to be Rainbow Pride marches. It’s too much!”

There’s no telling how far the conversation might have gone had Graves not entered, stoop-shouldered and weary, his shirt half untucked, his yellowed collar not quite right. The summer humidity seemed to have followed him in.

Review–Old Sparky

My copy of Old Sparky—The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty arrived the day after a federal jury ended 14 hours of deliberation during which they concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserved death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.

This was no accident. I requested the copy as a means of examining my feelings about the sentence, and my views on capital punishment more generally. Wrong or right? If right, then how to proceed? Is there any way to ensure that intentionally bringing about the death of another human being—wrong or right; “deserved” or not—isn’t, at core, cruel and unusual?

Old Sparky

Anthony Galvin writes with dignified detachment. He brings his reader into the modern death chamber—many death chambers—and provides a visceral experience free of judgment for or against state-sanctioned death. He lets the sentence speak for itself: the aged oak throne; the metal helmet screwed snug against skull; the wet sponge against shaved scalp; the tightened leather strap thick about the neck; the hood; the final, darkened silence.

At the touch of a button the executioner, an “electrician”, sends 1,800 volts through the convict for 30 seconds, his body convulsing against restraint, smoke wafting from the top of his head. For a minute more 250 volts course through the body. Possibly—possibly—this stops the heart. So the cycle is repeated, perhaps as many as five times, before the curtain closes on observers come to witness the final breath.

Full Review

Hands Off My Free Speech (Round II)

A very important American institution has come under attack.

I’m not talking about those resonating pillars of freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the First and Second Amendments. I’m not talking about the Bill of Rights or the Constitution at all. This American institution is far more sacred than any of that. This American institution gave us Moons Over My Hammy and other desirable breakfast fare. This American institution is called:

Dennys_Logo_ColorAnd so I was greatly troubled and saddened to see that the parking lot of a Pheonix Denny’s was to be used for the shameful act of trampling once again our First Amendment right to free speech in the name of an entirely different freedom: the right to free hate speech.

Self-declared patriot Jon Ritzheimer hoped to defend this right by staging yet another silly (some would say vile) Draw Mohamed Cartoon contest in the parking lot of a Pheonix Denny’s before ridin’ on over to the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. There he and his followers plan on showing the world their ignorance in the “Freedom of Speech Rally Round II” by dressing in F**k Islam tee-shirts and declaring their hatred for a particular religion just as those who practice it show up for prayer.

And this All American Slam of an event gets even better. It doubles as a Second Amendment rally as well. From the atheist organizer’s own Facebook page:

This is in response to the recent attack in Texas where 2 armed terrorist, with ties to ISIS, attempted Jihad. Everyone is encouraged to bring American Flags and any message that you would like to send to the known acquaintances of the 2 gunmen. This Islamic Community Center is a known place that the 2 terrorist frequented. People are also encouraged to utilize there second amendment right at this event just incase our first amendment comes under the much anticipated attack.

This grammatically amusing page also notes, “There will be no after party!”

Certainly not! First of all Wild Bill’s (a presumptive biker road-house?) doesn’t want to have anything to do with all this hate speech. Good for Wild Bill. Second, Denny’s shuttered its doors in the face of this momentous occasion–no Lumberjack Slam or Bacon Slamburger for these clowns. And finally, it looks like those uncooperative Muslims over at the Center don’t plan to participate. In the words of the center’s president Usama Shami:

Everybody has a right to be a bigot. Everybody has a right to be a racist. Everybody has a right to be an idiot.  We’re going to tell our members what we’ve told them before: not to engage them. They’re not looking for an intellectual conversation. They’re looking to stir up controversy and we’re not going to be a part of it.

Oh yeah? Them’s fightin’ words.

Just as I did at the beginning of this month when Pam Geller staged her own so-called Free Speech cartoon drawing contest, I would ask Jon Ritzheimer and all bigoted, hateful, embarrassing Americans to stop trampling my right to free expression in the name of their ignorance and hatred. I guess I kind of expect it from the Second Amendment crowd over at Fox News. But it’s a sorry day for thoughtful expression when it gets mixed up in the juvenile (as it did in Paris) and the impotently angry, as it will later on today.

Fresh Air

Cab comes at five. Next post from Bolivia and the fresh Andean air. Judging by the clock on their legislative palace, I’ll be older when I get there and younger when I leave.

Juan Karita/AP

Juan Karita/AP