Matt Dean
About Me
In 2010, my first novel, The River in Winter, was a Lambda Literary Awards finalist in Gay Fiction. In November 2013, I finished my second novel, The Wide Night Sky. It started as a NaNo novel. One of my short stories, "The Chosen House," and a chapter from The Wide Night Sky have appeared in Jonathan.

I grew up in Ohio. I've also lived in Minnesota, Tennessee, California, and South Carolina. For the foreseeable future, my husband and I will be traveling the U.S. in a second-hand travel trailer and an old Suburban with hundreds of thousands of miles on it. Todd writes about our adventures on his blog.
 
I spend a lot of time on Tumblr, where I post writing quotes and pictures of the sky. Occasionally there is a puppy.

I love beards. I haven't been clean-shaven since the late nineties. My mother "made" me shave for a family vacation in Hawaii, so thanks to her, I can barely look at the photos from that trip. (Thanks, Mom!)

In real life, I write Perl code.

I like cake. A lot.

Books

Novels

  • The Wide Night Sky

    The Wide Night Sky

    Leland Littlefield thinks he has a happy family. But the cracks are beginning to show. His wife of twenty-three years, Anna Grace, is distant and drifting further away, his adult children are busy handling their own victories and disasters, and everyone is becoming increasingly alienated from one another.

    But Leland’s struggles run deeper than a troubled home life. When he spends a pleasant evening alone with his son’s quirky, bearded piano teacher Scott, he is forced to grapple with unexpected feelings. He has always considered himself bisexual, but he has never acted on his attraction to men—that is, until a spontaneous, awkward kiss with Scott brings to light many of Leland’s deepest fears and desires.

    All the while, Leland and his children remain in denial of Anna Grace’s alcohol abuse. Blackout drinking has become a habit for her as she struggles to cope with her less-than-satisfying family dynamics. One morning, during one of her many resolutions to sober up, she opens Leland’s laptop to search for AA meetings only to find that her husband has been viewing gay porn. Her hope of sobriety vanishes.

    Leland is torn: Should he be true to himself and pursue a relationship with Scott? Or, would coming out finally push Anna Grace over the edge? Would his kids, so wrapped up in their own romances, careers, and emotional issues, be willing to accept him? Will their family, meant to be a refuge from the world, fall apart?

  • The River in Winter

    The River in Winter

    Jonah Murray has known much happiness—a supportive mother, a decent job, and fulfilling hobbies. But after the end of his first great love affair, the rawness of his emotions leads him into a dangerous entanglement.

    Spike Peterson—heartbreakingly good-looking, imperturbably self-assured, relentlessly carnal—rekindles Jonah’s longing for companionship. But Spike isn’t the kind to offer companionship. Excitement, yes, but not companionship.

    Eliot Moon, a counselor who facilitates a support group for gay men, offers Jonah a more transcendent path to happiness. But Jonah soon discovers that to take Eliot’s way, he will have to make difficult sacrifices.

    Read or listen to an excerpt

    Buy on Amazon.com

    Buy from Barnes & Noble

    Buy from Better World Books

Short Stories

  • “The Boy Next Door”

    “The Boy Next Door”

    Leland Littlefield is a happily married man. But the cracks are beginning to show. When he attempts to surprise his wife with an impromptu trip to the beach, and her reaction is rather chilly, he finds himself unusually susceptible to temptation.

    “The Boy Next Door,” an excerpt from The Wide Night Sky, appeared in Jonathan Issue 05.

  • “The Chosen House”

    “The Chosen House”

    Martin Maddock begins finding anonymous confessions tucked into his front door—and then things get weird.

    This story appeared in Jonathan Issue 03.

Blog

Famous Quotes

Recently I was poking around on Pinterest and was reminded of that famous Shakespeare quote:

When I saw you I fell in love, and you smiled because you knew.

And I decided I should start collecting some other lovely quotes that have touched me in some way. Here goes:

Expectation is the root of all heartache.
Geoffrey Chaucer

I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong.
Henry Rollins

Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.
Paul the Apostle

Only the dead have seen the end of war.
Justin Bieber

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.
Lisa Vanderpump

Fuck bitches, get money.
Helen Steiner Rice

Unlikely Objects My Dog Has Eaten

79304eb686c7fe98ef802073bf1ff5d5This is Gracie Mae. We adopted her about nine months ago from a local shelter. She’s a little over a year old. She’s sweet and cuddly and one of my top-ten favorite mammals. But. Boy howdy, she has a penchant for eating the inedible. Here are some non-food items Gracie has ingested or attempted to ingest:

1 balloon, yellow, deflated
1 lens cloth, maroon, microfiber
1 remote control, silver, Apple TV
1 remote control, beige, DirecTV
1 printer power supply, black, HP PhotoSmart
1 devil, red, plush
1 wall-to-wall carpet, teal blue, nylon
2 area rugs, patterned, wool
2 sandals, black
2 trail shoes, gray, Merrell
3 throw pillows, maroon, decorative
3 drawer pulls, wooden
3 dog beds, padded
4 power supplies, white, MacBook
5 kitchen towels, terry
6 chair legs, wooden
9 socks, white, cotton
10 fingers, human
13 pizza boxes, brown, corrugated cardboard
47 leaves, water oak, fallen
twigs, various species

 

By contrast, here are some items Gracie will not eat under any circumstances:

shrimp
chicken
steak

This. Very Much This.

I ran across a post on Tumblr and followed a link, and long story short, I ended up finding an article on The Wire that sums up beautifully why I recently deactivated my Facebook account and less recently left Twitter. Here it is:

[R]ather than stopping to consider or looking at shades of grey and digging into intent-versus-appearance, often we simply put our energies into getting very, very angry, very, very quickly, laying blame and demanding apologies, which are given, and then slowly but surely returning to where we were, albeit with another layer of hate and mistrust on everything—and also with heightened expectations for more of the same. In some ways, we’re just gearing up to do it again, to call out sexism where we see it, to extract an apology, to make someone pay. There’s a weird kind of pleasure to this, I think we should admit, and part of that has to do with the fact of how things play on the Internet: Black and white are usually more successful than grey. We want to feel things, and it’s far easier to feel when we’re given an outright, definitive opinion than it is when we’re asked to delve into spongey questions of maybe-right and possibly-wrong.

In this case it’s sexism, but choose any -ism or -phobia you like. When I was spending a lot of time on Facebook (and before that, on Twitter), somebody was always pissed about something, and more often than not, I was the somebody in question. The world is full of valid causes for outrage. The causes are innumerable. The outrage does nothing to eliminate them, but I suspect we let ourselves get good and steamed because it’s better than feeling utterly powerless.

Based on the available evidence, I cannot determine whether Andrew Goldman is a misogynist or merely a gossipy interviewer. I can’t cure Ted Nugent of racism. I can’t make Newt Gingrich be as smart as he thinks he is. Thanks to the backfire effect, it’s often impossible to convince anyone of anything. If you’ve ever gotten into an online discussion about guns, you know what I mean. I can’t stop school shootings or fiscal austerity or climate change denial or Stand Your Ground or any of the other stuff that pisses me off whenever I think too much about it. So far, I don’t have a better solution than “stop thinking about it so much.”

Here’s the question, then: How do you keep your eyes open and look at the world, crowded as it is with outrageous behavior and horrifying disaster, and keep from going either crazy or numb? I have no answers.

Lessons Learned while Sprucing Up

I started this blog in 2009, kept it up for a couple of years, let it slide, moved it to Tumblr, moved it back here, and let it slide again. Ugh. That’s a lot of sliding.

The end result of the round-trip import/export was that things had gotten kind of messy. The Tumblr stuff resulted in 5,500+ tiny little untitled posts—pictures of galaxies, writing quotes, “asks,” and so on. Those are all gone now, leaving only my mostly original content, and I swear I’m going to try not to let it slide yet again.

While I was going through all my old posts, making sure that there aren’t any broken image links, etc., I discovered some things about my former self:

  • I used to have much stronger feelings about book covers than I do now. Maybe the process of designing my own cover made me super picky back then. Maybe switching to ebooks has made me less picky nowadays. Hard to say.
  • I used to post passionately about politics and religion, while often claiming that I hated doing it. This must be the blogging equivalent of “with all due respect” or “bless your heart.”
  • I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook, taking quizzes and playing FarmVille and whatnot. Since then, I quit the games, deleted all my  apps to keep a tighter handle on my privacy settings, and more recently, deactivated my account altogether. (I still have my author page.) The deactivation came at the tail end of an overall decluttering/downsizing project.
  • I used to post a lot of recipes and pictures of food—even though, as I wrote recently, I’ve never pictured myself being the kind of a guy who posts recipes and pictures of food.
  • I used to make a list of books to read each year and then fail to read them all. And of course, I used to buy, browse, and lust after physical books. I guess I still do, sometimes, but in order to keep my earthly possessions at a minimum, I’m sticking with ebooks and audiobooks unless I’m desperate to read something that’s unavailable in those formats.
  • Once upon a time, when I was younger and less jaded, my poor taste in television pained me. Cf. the new, fallen me, who recently bought not one but three seasons of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on iTunes. Non, je ne regrette rien.

Fortunately, some things have not changed:

  • I still wish I were an avid reader of nonfiction, but alas.
  • I still spend too much time on the Internet.
  • I still geek out over typography and design.
  • I still eat too much junk food.
  • I still ♥ NY.
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Compare and Contrast

A Simple Desultory Philippic, 1965

A Simple Desultory Philippic, 1966

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Mexican, Woh-oh-oh, Casserole

I’ve never pictured myself being the kind of a guy who posts recipes and pictures of food, and yet here I am.

I made this semi-homemade thing last night and it turned out great. You could call it Mexican casserole or Mexican lasagna, but in the latter case, the name doesn’t make you think of this.
1003919_1396746360576835_548686570_n

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can pink beans
  • 1 can fire-roasted tomatoes (diced, and I used Harris Teeter salsa flavor)
  • 1 bag frozen veggies (I used a stir-fry mix of peppers and onions)
  • 1 packet taco seasoning (I used McCormick’s)
  • flour tortillas
  • taco sauce (I used Ortega brand)
  • shredded cheese (I used Harris Teeter’s four-cheese mix)

Method:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°.
  2. In a big skillet, sauté the veggies to thaw/warm them.
  3. Add the cans of beans with some but not all of their liquid.
  4. Stir in the taco seasoning.
  5. Let it all bubble and simmer until the liquid is reduced/thickened.
  6. Grease a casserole dish (I used a splash of olive oil).
  7. Splash a little bit of taco sauce into the bottom of the dish and spread it around.
  8. Lay in a tortilla.
  9. Cover with splash of taco sauce and a big spoonful of diced tomatoes; spread to cover the tortilla.
  10. Scoop in a heaping helping of the seasoned veggies and beans.
  11. Cover with shredded cheese.
  12. Add another tortilla; repeat the layers until the casserole dish is filled.
  13. Cover the last tortilla with taco sauce, diced tomatoes, and cheese.
  14. Bake till it’s bubbly and golden, probably about 30 minutes, but your mileage may vary.

Let that bad boy sit for a while to settle down and gel. It still might be a little soupy when you break into it, but it’s still delicious. On the second day, the leftovers were properly set, more like a, woh-oh-oh, casserole than a stew.

Serve with sour cream, salsa, and avocado.

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30 Things Every Writer Should Know

irisblasi:

- Choose battles wisely.
- Choose agents even more wisely.
- Literary fiction is a genre that pretends it is not a genre.
- Editors are essential.
- If an editor is talking about culling their list in the first meeting, this is a bad sign.
- You have to be good. And keep getting better. For every writer taken on, another is dropped. A paradox: you have to rise to stay level.
- There are two types of friends. Actual friends, and the other kind.
- When I was little I didn’t believe anyone really said “hurrah” but there are plenty of people who do.
- Ninety per cent of people in the publishing industry are twenty-six years old.
- If you sell the film rights to your book it doesn’t mean there will be a film. I have sold the rights to five books, and had zero films made. Take the money and be thankful.
- Having my name on a book never makes me more confident.
- Most things that go on with a writer’s career the writer doesn’t know about.
- Foreign rights = free money.
- There is no modernist stream-of-consciousness novel harder to get through than a ‘Publisher-Author Agreement’.
- People like your book more if other people like it.
- Authors shouldn’t go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando’s.
- Being published doesn’t make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones. (I should have gone to Oxbridge! Why wasn’t I invited to Hay? Am I not Granta enough? I wish I was Jonathan Franzen!)
- It is easy to be consumed by “if onlys”. If only I wore glasses/flannel blazers/ran my own literary salon/lived in Paris/had died in 1922/had written a book about jazz/had finished my Boer War novel/was called Tobias then I’d be taken more seriously!
- You’d be more likely to work out your sales by staring at tea leaves than an Amazon ranking.
- It is not about the advance. My debut got £5000 and sold a respectable 60,000 copies in the UK. My third got an advance ten times that and had zero promotion. It struggled to shift 2,000 copies. Sometimes, for longevity, it is better to sneak in under the radar and prove your worth.
- Humans get excited about new things. With a debut, you are the new thing. With every other book you write the new thing must come from elsewhere.
- Success depends on great words, and passionate people. The words are up to you. The people you have to pray for, and stand by them once you find them.
- Beauty breeds beauty, truth triggers truth. The cure for writer’s block is therefore to read.
- The writer is now as much a commodity as a book.
- The gatekeepers still have the power, but there are a lot more gates than there used to be.
- There are as many versions of a book as there are readers.
- People always want the book you have just written. But if you give it to them you will lose their respect. (People are weird.)
- Everyone is worried about the future of the book. But that is because people hate uncertainty. On the other hand, if you hate uncertainty you shouldn’t be a writer in the first place.
- The joy of writing never changes, however many books you have published. It is not always a joy. It is only a joy for a fraction of the time, but it is worth it, just for that fraction. And much of that joy comes from being that misfit kid grown up, leading readers and yourself to the wildest parts of your imagination.
- None of the associated pain can ever outweigh that sweet unbeatable pleasure of being read.

[by Matt Haig, via Telegraph Books]

Gotcha Covered, Part Fifteen: Books-I-Just-Had-Lying-Around Edition

If you’ve been hanging around for a little while, you know how I usually prepare for these posts: I bum around at the B&N, snap pictures of book covers I love or hate, and pour some snark on them. This time, I thought it might be cool to use books I already have on hand. Recently, I reorganized my bookshelves* and put all my books in one place. I have a lot of books, but not nearly as many as I’d thought. Plenty for “Gotcha Covered” though. In fact, I’ll probably stretch this out into a couple of posts. First, some Lammy-nominated poetry.

Back in 2010, I participated in a Lammy finalists’ reading in San Francisco. Randall Mann read a couple of poems from his brilliant, brilliant collection, Breakfast with Thom Gunn. But first he said a few words about the painting on the cover, “Boy Party” by Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins); Mann had always wanted to use it for the cover of a book, and his dream had come true.

The painting is awesome—at first glance, playful and innocent, but upon closer inspection, thoroughly naughty. It matches Mann’s poetry. The black-and-white simplicity of the typography is a perfect complement to the colorful and hectic artwork. If I were inclined to quibble,** I’d say that I’m not terribly keen on pairing a rounded variant of a typeface with one that’s squared-off—but I can live with it.

Michael Klein’s collection, then, we were still living,was a finalist at this year’s Lammys. I don’t always know how to write about poetry, so instead I’ll borrow a few lines from the editorial reviews listed on Amazon:

…roughly whispered poems… …Its language is so close to the bone… …terrifying and beautiful and necessary… …moves on with precision and concision from one glory to the next…

But yeah, the cover. I keep staring at the photo, trying to parse it and give it context. Who are these people? Where are they going? Where have they come from? Why is everyone in black, except for the little girl? That fellow in the hat, off in the distance—is he threatening or irrelevant? In other words, the photo is like a poem—a moment suspended in time, the meaning of which we are invited to contemplate. Everything else—the colors, the typography, the composition—seems to flow perfectly from the photo. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Pleasure, by Brian Teare, won this year’s Lammy for gay poetry. The book is a collection of elegies for Teare’s lover, who died of AIDS. Once you know that, it all makes sense: the old photo, drenched in red; one man tending another, whose face has been scratched away and who reaches out blindly; the scrawled word, “overcome”; the unassuming typography of the title and the author’s name. The foliage along the spine refers to the poet’s extended metaphor of his lover’s body as a lost Eden. It could hardly be more perfect… Until you look at the back:

I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Why is the bar code cut in half? Why is there so much space on the lefthand side even as the text bleeds off the edge on the righthand side? Where did the yellow of the critics’ names come from? Is everything crooked, or is that just my imagination? How can I remind myself not to look at the back of this book?   Next up, some books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been reading them while researching my latest writing project.

* I arranged the books by color. I dunno, it must be a trend or something, ‘cause I’ve seen a bunch of posts on Tumblr showing books arranged this way. See here, here, here, here, here, and here.
** And when am I ever not inclined to quibble?

Robots Need Love Too

Dan ManganI have a huge beardy crush on Dan Mangan. Can you blame me? Just look at him, for cryin’ out loud. He’s utterly adorable. While I was poking around on The Sound and the Furry, I found the following mini-documentary produced by the CBC. Between live performances, Mangan talks a bit about his 2009 tour and some of the interviews he did to promote it. Even his Canadian accent is adorable.

But lest you think I’m shallow,* I’m in love with his music, too. My top three favorites, in no particular order, are:

“Robots”

There’s so much campy goodness to love here, but I was particularly tickled that the gang colors happened to be my high school colors. If only we’d had wind-up robot wars in high school, I might have enjoyed it more.

But oh yeah, the song. It all works for me: the melody, the lyrics, the arrangement. I love the refrain at the end—”Robots need love too. They want to be loved by you.”

“Road Regrets”

The video won an award, and deservedly so. The animation’s great, and you end up wanting to drive that little car, but most importantly, it matches the song perfectly.

And what a song. It opens Nice, Nice, Very Nice, which I’ve been listening to as I drive around town. Every time I return to the car after an errand, I find myself scrolling to the beginning of the album—to “Road Regrets”—rather than picking up where I left off.

I love that Mangan isn’t afraid to bring a song to a stop, to linger on a long note or pause for a breath. In “Road Regrets,” the drums enter just before the first big caesura, then everything goes quiet. It’s a magical moment.

“Sold”

It all started here. I first heard and saw Mangan in this video. Such a great song, and in the video Mangan looks like a friendly, funny dude. Plus, also, utterly adorable. I rarely make it all the way to the end of this song without skipping back to hear it again.

While I’m at it, here’s a two-part promo for Nice, Nice, Very Nice, that includes live performances and some conversation about the songs and what they mean and how they came to be: Part 1: Part 2: And one last thing. Mangan’s new album drops in September. You know you want it. And if you go to his website, you can download the title track for free. You’re welcome.

* Disclaimer: I’m totally shallow.

Gotcha Covered, Part Fourteen: Snarky One-Liner Edition

I haven’t done this in a long while. In our last episode we saw a laughable book by the orange one, observed a minimalist mini-trend, and found a book that will cut a bitch. This time I thought I’d pay homage to my Tumblr addiction by picking up the pace—a single line of snark for each book cover. On with the show.

The placement of “a novel” is always problematic; inserting it into the title is no solution. The Year We Left a Novel Home? Really?

The Swinger. I get it. Haha, a pun.

The last 15 minutes before a designer’s deadline.

At the end of the world there is a lot of screen-printed muslin. No, seriously, what is this?

Shouldn’t the photo be upside down, or maybe a negative image?

Remember Ben Clayton, forget Ben Clayton’s boring book cover.

Tears inside of hearts, I know. But I keep seeing them as little sperm bombs.

Isn’t that Ina Garten’s backyard?

I could not, however, love your Italian restaurant tablecloth book cover.

I wish we could flashback to a good Dan Simmons book cover.

Photoshop and layers.

I can’t look at this without thinking of Lady Gaga. I probably shouldn’t say that. She might take to wearing it on her head.

Wouldn’t It Be Funny If…?

About 70 million years ago, when I was a teenager, I was reading some magazine or other and there was an article about some movie or other,* and it began with the following postulate: American humor begins with observation, whereas British humor begins with conjecture. In other words, the American humorist asks “Isn’t it funny that…?” whereas the British humorist asks “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?” If that is true,** Wend Elsen has written a veddy, veddy British play. Anna, Emma, Edna, Etcetera, a comedy† in three acts, begins with this question: “Wouldn’t it be funny if the greatest heroines of 19th-century literature were suddenly transported to our time?” On page one, the dramatis personae makes it clear enough that our playwright has given the comedy tree a hardy shake, Brit-style, and has knocked free a bunch of plump and juicy fruits:‡

Anna [Karenina], Russian Beauty
Emma [Bovary], French Cutie
Hester [Prynne], Sexy Puritan

But all wordplay aside, the real comedy stems from the careful attention Elsen has given to each character and to each character’s response to her new surroundings. Anna becomes a jet-setting socialite. Emma joins a dating site called “Doctors without Lovers.” Hester parlays an appearance on Project Runway into a successful line of maternity wear. And that’s just some of the stuff that’s going on in the foreground. I’ve dabbled with playwriting and screenwriting in the past. It’s true what they say, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Without the inflection and timing of the human voice, witty repartee sometimes loses its wit. Without the physicality of the human body, slapstick can lose its slap.¶ But Elsen has the gift. I giggled, chortled, and laughed my way through her script.

Let me share a couple of representative samples. Early in Act One, Carl, Jungian support group leader, has urged our three suicidal women (Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Edna Pontellier) to confess the manner of their “Big Death.”¶¶

ANNA: It was a train!
EMMA: Arsenic!
EDNA: The Gulf of Mexico!
CARL: Now let’s center in the anahata, the heart chakra. How are we feeling?
ANNA (Holds her head in her hands): Like a wreck! (She begins to sob, and does so off and on for the duration of Act One.)
EMMA: Sick to my stomach. (Reaches for tissues as she vomits.)
EDNA: Bloated.

And here’s Cady, strong-willed womynist and safehouse housemother, conducting domestic violence training with our three stalking victims (Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer, and the unnamed narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”,now called Charlotte):

CADY: Oh, for heaven’s sake! Adultery’s not even against the law any more. Unless you’re in Afghanistan.
HESTER: But I committed a sin!
CADY: Sin is so passe! It’s an outdated construct.
HESTER: But I sinned in the eyes of God!
CADY: Huh! Like God can talk! Don’t get me started on God! God was the biggest bully of ‘em all! Just think of what He did to Lot’s wife when He lost His temper. The controlling bastard! Telling her where to look, where not to look!
CHARLOTTE: Lot’s wife: did she have a name?
CADY: Well, she’s unnamed in Genesis, but according to Wikipedia, her name was Edith, like Archie Bunker’s wife, who, by the way, was the victim of verbal abuse. I don’t find that show funny.§

And here’s my favorite bit of the whole play. The women have modernized. Emma is poking around on the Internets.

EMMA: It’s an exclusive online dating site called Doctors without Lovers. I’m down to three candidates. The next stage is dinner. Bachelor #1 is Acton; he’s a cardiologist in Boston, divorced, Type A, driven, loves golf and sunsets. So he’s balding a bit; he has a great portfolio. Bachelor #2 is Ellis, a neurologist in San Francisco. Loves sunset horseback rides on the beach and the sound of the fog horn from his Russian Hill pied-a-terre. He’s a “Metrosexual” — it’s the new thing, like a hybrid — no child support, no STDs! Bachelor #3 is Currer, a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles; ambitious; drives a Maserati, loves moonlit walks on the beach. He’s only 5’ 10”, but zero complaints lodged against his malpractice insurance policy! He’s promised me a boob job.
CADY (Wandering over, munching on a carrot): Are you sure you’re focusing on the right things?
EMMA: Absolument! I have so learned my lesson. Charles was a dullard, his blood was thick, he wasn’t ambitious, he wasn’t even competent. Il est pauvre type!
ISABEL: What does your profile say?
EMMA: Well, did. I of course took it offline. “Your very own Martha Stewart in a pretty French bow. I love cooking gourmet meals, lighting candles, and spicing up your sheets. I also love sunset walks on the beach. I’ll give you the space you crave to pursue your ambitions.” (Stops reading.)
ISABEL: Lemme see your picture. (Everyone leans in for a look.)
CADY: Are you wearing anything? Carl! (Carl wanders over. Cady glares at him.) Carl, she’s — she’s —
CARL (Drops his prayer bowl): Beautiful!
CADY: Naked!

Wouldn’t it be funny if Cady Stanton ran a domestic violence shelter in San Francisco? Wouldn’t it be funny if Madame Bovary joined Match.com? Wouldn’t it be funny if Isabel Archer got all up in your Eat, Pray, Love?Yes. And wouldn’t it be funny if someone brought this play to the stage? Daryl Roth, are you listening?

* Exact references are for sissies.

** And who knows if it is? A quick Google search uncovers several hypotheses, ranging from “the British have bad teeth” to “Americans are shit.”

† “A Deep Comedy,” says the title page, and it ain’t just whistlin’ “Dixie.”

‡ I think I meant to say the “fruits” are “laughs,” but I’m frankly a little lost in the thicket of my own metaphor. (See what I did there? “Comedy tree”? “Thicket”? Laugh, dammit!

¶ Or maybe it loses its stick? No, that doesn’t sound right. Never mind.

¶¶ I tweaked the format a bit.

§ I don’t either! Could this mean I’m a strong-willed womanyst?  

Well, That Didn’t Last Long, Did It?

The golden moment has passed. I submit into evidence the following exhibits.

Also, in the past day or so I kinda-sorta watched an outrage outbreak on Twitter—the third or fourth since I’ve been back. In this case, Karen Zacharias, a guest columnist on CNN’s website argued that Go the Fuck to Sleep isn’t funny because child abuse exists.

I didn’t agree with Zacharias (and considering that according to her website she’s “on a life-long quest in search of God’s poetry and presence,” there might be very little that we do agree on). I think the logic is flawed, akin to arguing that the Three Stooges aren’t funny because people hit each other in real life. But whatever. It hardly seems worth the effort to complain, and indeed, after a flood of complaints, Zacharias found them notable mainly for their defensiveness. I’d say it’s a perfect example of the backfire effect, which works like this:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.

The controversy over Go the Fuck to Sleep has so far proven to be infinitesimal compared to the still-ongoing conversation concerning young adult fiction. But that, too, beautifully illustrates the backfire effect.

It leaves me wondering how we can ever talk to each other, when:

[t]he backfire effect is constantly shaping your beliefs and memory, keeping you consistently leaning one way or the other through a process psychologists call biased assimilation. Decades of research into a variety of cognitive biases shows you tend to see the world through thick, horn-rimmed glasses forged of belief and smudged with attitudes and ideologies.

If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them. I just can’t guarantee they’ll change my mind.

 

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A New York State of Mind

Last November, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote part of a dystopian novel. Although I exceeded the minimum word count for NaNo, I didn’t actually finish the novel. I traveled for work and spent almost the entire trip sick in my hotel room with the flu. After a few non-writing days page fright took over, as it always does. Sometimes I think, Hey, that wasn’t half bad, and the writing went pretty smoothly. Maybe I should pick it up again. But then I’ll think … well, I’ll let this person from Twitter say it for me:

I know, right?

Social Security used to be the “third rail of American politics,” but no longer; now, apparently, tax increases are the third rail. Touch it and you die.

Reproductive rights are dying a death of a thousand cuts.

After proudly acting to send dark-skinned people back where they came from, at least one state is suffering an entirely predictable labor crisis. That can’t be good, considering that climate change is already threatening our global food supply.

Oh, but wait. People are now less likely than they were five years ago to accept that climate change is even happening. And only 40% of us believe in evolution.

It is, in short, incredibly easy to believe that we’re simply doomed. We’re going to numb ourselves with television and dumb ourselves down until it’s too late, and then even if we wake up, it will … you know … be too late.

But then something like this happens. Sometimes, against all odds and in the face of thoroughgoing ugliness, love wins out and it’s a time for celebration.

The timing couldn’t have been better. It’s Pride Month. The Empire State Building was already scheduled to be lit up in rainbow colors, but when the lights came on, it was magical. The 42nd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is only a few days away. Last night, as the vote happened and the good news went out, people crowded the street outside the Stonewall Inn and sang with joy. How I wish we could have been there.

I don’t know where we’re headed as a nation. On any given day it feels like we’re falling all over ourselves trying to fail harder. In one house of Congress, at least, I’m pretty sure the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.

But right now, for this one beautiful moment, as the Daily Beast put it:

This is a time for celebration and appreciation. The system worked. There was debate, persuasion and decision. And in the process, we have reaffirmed some core American values—a commitment to expanding individual freedom, a recognition that separate is not equal and the determination to work together to form a more perfect union.

 

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Is a Puzzlement

Dale Peck has some scathing stuff to say about publishing. I was right with him up till the end.

Literature isn’t a 6-year-old dyslexic girl who has to be drilled on the difference between b’s and d’s and p’s and q’s. Literature isn’t weak. It’s strong. It isn’t given. It takes. It isn’t protected. It protects.

Right, right.

New York publishers make Detroit automakers look like geniuses. They give away the bulk of their money—of our money—to a series of increasingly irrelevant, monopolistic, intermediaries, and, on top of that, allow retailers to return merchandise they can’t sell—at the publisher’s expense—for a full refund. They spend virtually nothing on promotion, relying instead on a fast-disappearing review culture, and, most damningly, they not only refuse to change the way they do business, but expect writers to bear the brunt of the disaster in the form of decreased advances, sales, and opportunities to publish work that doesn’t fit into an increasingly homogenized marketplace.

Amen, brother! Sing it!

It is now possible for every writer to sell books directly to readers. Not just the Stephen Kings and John Grishams but every person who ever gets it together to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Forizzle!

I’m not talking about Amazon’s print-on-demand and e-book “services.” Amazon is not your friend. Amazon is a thief that takes your money in return for insinuating itself between you and your readers…. From where I stand, I can see a world not so far into the future in which books are sold only by authors or small collectives through one or two or three online portals that charge a nominal fee for their service rather than gobbling up the lion’s share of revenue.

Cue the sound of a needle scratching across vinyl.

Suddenly, I’m completely lost. Without Amazon’s “services,” what would I do, exactly? Buy a printing press and learn to bind books?

I’m talking about a host of services and portals, some well-established, some fledgling, and some being invented even as we speak.

Oh. Okay. Gotcha. No, actually. I have no idea what you’re talking about, unless maybe you mean sites like Smashwords. Last week, one of my Facebook friends linked to profile of Smashwords founder Mark Coker:

Coker, a former Silicon Valley publicist, started Smashwords in 2008 with the lofty goal of using technology to democratize publishing – allowing writers to appeal directly to readers without having to deal with gatekeepers such as agents and editors. In keeping with this mission, Smashwords applies no editorial screening. The only e-books Coker refuses to distribute are ones that contain plagiarism, illegal content or incitement to racism, homophobia or violence. As a result, many Smashwords e-books are riddled with grammatical errors, typos and writing that would make a sixth-grade English teacher cringe.

Based on the comment thread that followed, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got a long way to go before self-published writers earn the same kind of respect that traditionally published writers do.*

Here’s where I think Peck really goes awry, though, still picturing a brave new world:

…in which, hell, Amazon is forced from the book business, Barnes and Noble doesn’t even exist, and the only bricks-and-mortar bookstores are small shops run by individual curators catering to local communities whose trust and taste they serve.

To be fair, there’s other stuff mixed in there that I agree with: books can and should be printed in many formats at once, to serve the needs and preferences of all readers; books can and should be printed on demand, not printed in big runs and pulped if they don’t sell; writers must think “of themselves as an army rather than a city under siege” and demand fair compensation for their work. But wishing for Amazon and B&N to disappear, and to be replaced with shops so small that they can be run by individuals? Dude, that’s not the future, that’s the past. What if my local “curator”** doesn’t have the book I want? I totter up to the cashier’s desk and (after shaking my fist and complaining that my trust and taste are not being catered to) I ask the individualwho runs the place to order the book, and then I make a second trip into the store to pick it up? (Of course, I will have to plan carefully; a single-person shop obviously can’t keep the same business hours that a big-box store can.) Somehow, by magic, this will be better. Except that, if it were better, wouldn’t it be the way it still worked? Peck’s future world is, by the way:

A world in which the so-called online “marketplaces” set aside a portion of the proceeds from used-book resales in a royalty fund for writers whose backlists have been destroyed by Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

Aaaaand this might be a clue. Maybe Peck hates Amazon so hard because he doesn’t earn royalties from the sales of used books. In all the history of used books, no one’s ever earned a dime in royalties from the sale of a used book, but never mind. When you search Amazon for Dale Peck in books, you get a lengthy list of everything he’s published, going back to Martin and John, a novel I read when it came out in 1993 and which has recently been reprinted. Granted, some readers might buy a used copy of the early-90s edition, and Peck will earn bupkis for that, but I’d guess that most people would be more inclined to buy the reprint. And I suspect that very few of Peck’s individually curated small shops would carry anything but his latest novel. An individually curated small shop in Orangeburg, South Carolina, or Lexington, Ohio, would likely not even carry that. With or without an “individual curator,” I suspect most stores are going to carry everything ever written by Stephen King and John Grisham, and midlist and backlist authors will be lucky to find themselves on the shelves at all. Peck says that the world he imagines is “being built right now.” Yes, it’s easier and easier for writers to self-publish. Yes, Borders slouches ever nearer to death. But if B&N ceases to exist, that’s only going to make Amazon more powerful, isn’t it? And why should we simply wish away two of the simplest and most effective ways of connecting readers with writers? Is a puzzlement.

* And heaven knows, that’s little enough respect as it is.

** I think the word “curator” is getting a bit too much use these days in general. But for the love of all that’s holy, the books in a bookshop are not precious artifacts to be preserved for posterity, they’re objects for sale. A person who runs a bookshop is a bookseller, not a curator.

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Matt Dean Hates Neil Gaiman

In 2008, Minnesotans passed a constitutional amendment—the Legacy amendment, I believe it’s called—to earmark state sales tax money for “outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and arts and cultural heritage projects.” The money has been used for lots and lots of things, I’m sure; in one case, it was used to hire Neil Gaiman to speak at a public library in Stillwater. According to a member of the audience, Gaiman “stayed far longer than planned and spoke privately with a large number of people.” Afterward, he donated the proceeds to charity.

To some unfortunate souls, the money earmarked for arts and culture would be better spent on sports venues* and whatnot. Blogs, newspapers, and at least one librarian questioned the hefty fee that Gaiman received, and he felt compelled to blog about it.

Now, a year later, a fellow named Matt Dean has brought it all back up again, and in the process has resorted to a bit of playground name-calling:

Dean said that Gaiman, “who I hate,” was a “pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota.”

Obviously, I am not the Matt Dean in question. For a start, I would use the correct pronoun—”whom I hate,” not “who I hate”—but more importantly, I love Neil Gaiman.**

A friend asked me how anyone could hate Neil Gaiman. I think Neil himself† has it right when he says:

I think it’s what you call someone when you’re worried that using a long word like “intellectual” may have too many syllables. It’s not something that people who have serious, important things to say call other people.

If it weren’t already obvious that Matt Dean isn’t an in-tel-lec-tu-al heavyweight with serious, important things to say, his sort-of-apology makes it abundantly clear:

“My mom is staying with us right now,” Dean told MPR.

“My wife’s out of town, and she was very angry this morning and always taught me to not be a name caller. And I shouldn’t have done it, and I apologize.”

Translation: “I’m so, so sorry people noticed that I said those things, which are all absolutely true, as far as I’m concerned.”

This sounds somewhat familiar. I’m sure I’ve heard this kind of apology before.

* Hey, fair enough. We all have our priorities. Personally, I’d rather spend money on roads and feeding the hungry than on bombs, but that’s why I’m not a bigwig in GOP circles.

** Granted, my admiration for Gaiman as a writer is based on a partial reading of American Gods, but then there’s this:

I’m not a particularly political animal — if there was a party whose main platform was being nice to people, freedom of speech and supporting libraries I’d sign up for it…

What’s not to love?

† See what I did there?

 

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Gotcha Covered, Unlucky Thirteen

All right, look, it’s the unnaturally orange, Bumpits-wearing, highly intoxicated elephant in the room, so let’s just get to it, shall we?

Studies show that facial symmetry is “an important indicator of freedom from disease, and worthiness for mating.” I don’t know why I was just reminded of that. Anyway. Moving on.

When I was at the B&N recently,* I couldn’t help noticing a kind of mini-trend:

 

Gah, really? How long could these have taken to design? Forty-five seconds? Actually, that’s the hell of it—they probably took months and went through dozens of careful revisions. Placing those light-yellow circles on the cover of the Roth book probably took hours—a pixel up, a pixel down, just so. It makes me wonder: how do you know when you’re done with something like this? Do you, like, show it to passing strangers and mark with a stopwatch how long it takes for their eyes to glaze over? Do you get a bonus if one of them actually falls asleep?

I’ve been hearing awesome buzz about this novel, so much so that when I saw this, it almost hurt my feelings. So. Freaking. Blah. And just to show that I’m never satisfied, here’s the other end of the spectrum:

I’ve not read Carlos Fuentes, and though I’ve not heard a lot about him, I was under the impression that he was one of the greats. Indeed, in the Booklist review of this novel, he is referred to as “the great Fuentes.” He’s won the Cervantes Prize; one must assume that he’s an author worthy of respect. But for all that, when I first saw this cover, I thought less of destiny and desire than of, say, derangement and deformity, and I wondered if I needed to find a tab of acid before cracking this puppy open. Mind you, I’m not opposed to derangement in general.

 

These are pretty awesome, even though one looks as if it someone gave Edvard Munch a potato and an X-ACTO knife, and the other one looks as if someone gave a crow a pot of ink and a commission for a self-portrait. It doesn’t matter—there’s plenty of white space, so my eyes aren’t spinning around in their sockets, and although I can generally figure out what I’m supposed to be looking at, the images are mysterious enough to make me want to find out more. Speaking of white space…

 

The “cut” is so well done that you almost have to pick up the book. Is it an effect, or did some hapless bookstore employee cut the cover by accident when opening the latest shipment? It’s a little gimmicky, sure, but it works like a charm—the book ended up in my hand, rather than remaining on the shelf. (On the other hand, that drop of blood is completely unnecessary. It doesn’t even make sense. The book is bleeding? What?)

 

Two more books that are getting great buzz. I have to say, I’m not loving the Caribou Island cover. The picture’s pretty good, I guess, but maybe a little on the nose for a book about a marriage that’s on the rocks, even though the husband and wife want very much to weather the storm. (Just in case we didn’t get it, the photo has been distressed a little.) I do like the typeface. I’m pretty sure Annabel wouldn’t work if the title were Jim or Oscar. But no: it works. It’s haunting. It could be a skosh lesshaunting, actually so that a potential reader didn’t have to check the jacket copy to make sure there were no vampires. But that’s just a quibble. I bought this book, and I feel like it watches me from across the room. I call that a successful cover.

* After I saw the Snooki book and ran to the men’s room to wash my eyes out with scalding-hot water.

The State of the Disunion

American public discourse, January 2009 to January 2011:

Right: The government wants to enslave you! Democrats are evil! Lock and load! Get armed and dangerous! Hitler! Stalin! Hitler! Communism! Hitler! Lock and load!

Left: Something bad is sure to come of this overheated rhetoric.

Right: Don’t retreat! Reload! Get on target! Second Amendment remedies! Hitler!

[An act of violence occurs against government property or a government official.]

Left: Obviously, we were correct when we said the overheated rhetoric was getting out of hand.

Right: It’s absolutely disgusting, the way the Left is politicizing tragedy for political gain! Disgusting!

This has been a strange day. I spent the better part of it putting up flyers for an upcoming event while trying to follow the events in Arizona. My thoughts are with Representative Giffords and the other victims of the senseless, needless shooting in Tucson, including Judge John Roll, who lost his life. I hope this will serve as a wake-up call.

What? No?

All righty then.

Resolved

Let’s review, shall we? Last year, I said I was gonna:

  • spend less time on Twitter,
  • stop drinking Diet Coke,
  • stop buying books,
  • be more methodical about marketing The River in Winter,
  • finish my second novel,
  • refrain from talking about politics with anyone to whom I am related by blood,
  • fail to understand anything ever said or done by Jim DeMint,
  • use my evenings more productively, by reading more and diddling around less on my iPhone,
  • manage my Netflix queue better,
  • reveal my secret plan to capture Bin Laden,
  • get my ample behind back into the gym, and
  • quit smoking.

Well, haha, I quit smoking in 2008, so good on me! I got one of a dozen!

No, no, just kidding. It’s not nearly that bad. I also quit using Twitter, and I still can’t understand anything Jim DeMint does or says. This year I’m planning to keep it simple. I’m going to try to keep up with my reading list, I’m going to try to eat less, and I’m going to try to write more. So far, it’s January 7th, and I haven’t quite gotten up a head of steam on any one of these efforts. But I have plans:

Write more: Some of my local writing buddies and I are doing a mini-NaNo in February. I participated in NaNo this past November, and I wrote a little more than the required 50,000 words. In February, I think I’m going to set a more modest goal—a reasonable daily word count, say—and keep going with it after the end of the month. All through November I wrote 1,700 to 2,000 words each day, staying more or less right on target with the suggested daily word count, but it kicked my butt. Even though I felt proud and capable at the end of the month, I also felt exhausted. I know Stephen King probably writes 7,000,000 words a day, but I have a jobby-job. After the day is done, I can’t stay up all night trying to hit a prescribed word count—not for much longer than a month, anyway. I have to set a reasonable goal and keep with it every day, not just for 30 grueling “days and nights of literary abandon.”

Eat less: I like to eat junk. I like certain vegetables—oddly enough the weird ones that most other people don’t like—but I have abandoned all hope of eating like a bunny or an inhabitant of Beverly Hills. And yet I know I need to lose some weight. I’m going to try to think before I eat and reduce my portions from the start. When there’s food at hand, I want to finish it. I want the whole bag of chips, the entire block of cheese, and yes, yes, yes indeed, the complete rasher of bacon. Since this is, in fact, my nasty habit, I can exercise a little control by reducing the portion size before I begin to eat. I can order a cheeseburger instead of a double cheeseburger. I can cut a smaller piece of lasagna. And so on. I’ve started doing this … sometimes. I need to be more mindful and more vigilant.

Reading list: I’m rarin’ to go. But first: I have to read this for the next meeting of the SHL book group. Yes, it’s nonfiction. You try to get rationalists and skeptics to read fiction sometime. After that, I’m thinking I’ll dive into Bleak House, or possibly The Grapes of Wrath. Now. About capturing Bin Laden…

Reading List 2011

Last year I made a reading list. I got over halfway through—nine out of fifteen—and then things got a little scattershot. I’m going to keep a few books from last year, but I’m dumping the ones I started and didn’t finish*; chances are I won’t pick them up again.

Here’s the new list:

A couple of big books, a couple that will be challenging, and a few fun reads I can use to reward myself. This list has got it all!

Before I can start, I have to finish The Year of the Flood. And in order to finish, I’d best resolve not to start writing a book set in the past or otherwise requiring a lot of ambitious research.

* I’m dropping The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass (in a new translation by Breon Mitchell), and Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnošt Lustig. At some point I’m going to give up on translations. I always seem to find them tough going.

I’m also cutting The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, but for a different reason: I seem to have given away or otherwise misplaced my copy of the book.

** I read The Grapes of Wrath when I was in high school. I rarely reread books—so many books, so little time—but I think I can make an exception in this case.

† I tried to read this during the great brouhaha, but I didn’t make it through. I’m ready to try again.

‡ A local author!

Jagged Little Pill

Today, at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in a lay-led service celebrating the six affirmations of humanism, as set forth in the Human Manifesto III. I talked briefly about the idea that “[e]thical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”

Tyler Clementi knew how to juggle. He could ride a unicycle. His friends say he was “bright, but self-effacing … low-key, but cheerful.”[1] They say he got genuine pleasure from helping others. Tyler ClementiHe was an accomplished violinist. One of his high school classmates says that “the way he played was not just technically stellar, he played with his soul. He added something to it from himself … He made it real art.”[1] At 18, Tyler had already learned to play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. When he started college at Rutgers, he became the first freshman to make it into the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra as a non-music major. By any measure, he had the brightest of futures ahead of him. But last month, on September 22nd, Tyler made the hour-long drive from New Brunswick to the George Washington Bridge. He walked halfway across, and “with the roar of traffic behind him and the taste of diesel fumes mingled with the” smell of the “brackish river, he climbed over a 4-foot-high iron fence and stepped off into the night, plummeting 20 stories into the cold gray waters of the Hudson.”[1]

Of course, we’ll never know the whole story. We’ll never truly understand what drove Tyler to the middle of the bridge that night. But it’s clear that it had much to do with the fact that he’d been abruptly outed by his roommate—that literally overnight his love life had become the talk of the Rutgers campus. In the wake of Tyler Clementi’s suicide—and the suicides of too, too many other teenagers—there’s been an outpouring of support and love from LGBTs and their allies, a reaching-out to any other young people who may be living in isolation and shame. Unfortunately, we’ve also read and heard that depression and suicide are natural outcomes of resisting god’s plan, which calls for exactly two complementary genders and exactly one healthy expression of sexuality. Earlier this week, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council wrote in the Washington Post:

Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal…. This—and not society’s disapproval—may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.[2]

Such is the power of a few verses from an ancient book. Such is the power of the word “abomination”—that it can dress intolerance in the clothing of moral authority and even turn the heart against itself.

For me, this is not terra incognita. When I was Tyler’s age, I was deeply involved in Campus Crusade for Christ—and deeply ashamed of being gay. cancer sticksI spent too many late nights walking the campus, chain-smoking, wishing I could end my life rather than spend another day fighting against feelings and thoughts that—I was sure—were the blackest kinds of sins. At the time, dying seemed preferable to living on and on in the torment of my damaged sexuality. Unlike Tyler, though, I waited out the dark nights. I asked for help. With the lovingkindness and advice of a radical nun—and my advice is that you should never underestimate the power of a radical nun—I took the first important steps on my journey from religion to spirituality to humanism. I parted from my Christian beliefs in stages, each stage representing the loss of a particular fear—the fear of my friends’ disapproval, the fear of society’s disapproval, the fear of angering a vengeful god, the fear of death, the fear of hell, the fear of wandering into a moral wasteland where nothing is wrong and everything is permitted. Although I am now in no sense a theist, this process of separating from fear still continues. When I lose the fear of my mother’s disapproval, for example, I’ll let you know. A couple of Sundays ago we heard about Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King and the notion that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Among the fundamentalist-leaning Christians of my childhood and adolescence, there isn’t so much an arc as a flat line—a straight and narrow line, one might say. The whole ethical system can fit onto a bumper sticker: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Or, more succinctly, “Boycott Hell—Repent.” But as humanist and UU Steven D. Schafersmanhas pointed out:

The UU motto is “Deed, not Creed…” UU congregations have members with a diversity of theologies and philosophies, including theism, deism, pantheism, paganism, atheism, and humanism. All are engaged in a common search for meaning and values without the requirement to believe or accept any specific doctrine or creed. One small difference between Humanists and UUs in their shared moral inquiry [is that] Humanists would not be so ready to search for values and ethical insights within the writings of Judaism and Christianity as would UUs.[3]

Many—not all—of my humanist friends grew up in conservative churches, as I did, or had some kind of dalliance with Judeo-Christian beliefs. All of us have found those ideas wanting. Some may assume that we’ve abandoned our belief in god because we want fewer moral strictures. But I think the opposite is usually true—we’ve discovered that the Old Testament condones or prescribes some heinous brutality, and we’ve found ourselves in the middle of an uncomfortable tug-of-war, in which what we’re told we must do or should do doesn’t seem as if it could possibly be the rightthing to do. We might say that humanism means doing what’s right, no matter what we’re told, whereas dogma means doing what we’re told, no matter what’s right. Dogma tells us we’re broken—unfixable, in fact. We can never hope to decide for ourselves what’s right or good. Humanism, on the other hand, assures us that—in spite of all our flaws, in spite of the fact that we’re capable of cruelty and ugliness—we are capable of being reasonable and good. We can decide for ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong, and we can learn by observing the results of our conduct whether our decisions are correct. When our actions result in harm or fear, we do what is wrong. When we act to increase happiness and decrease suffering, we do what is right. When we act out of hatred or anger or ignorance, we are most likely doing what is wrong. When we act with compassion, we do what is right. None of this will be a great revelation to any of my UU friends. Clearly there are many Humanistic elements in UUism—or, actually, many UU elements in Humanism. And that’s why today I’m both a UU and a humanist.

Billion-Dollar HouseBy the way, when I talk about increasing happiness, I don’t mean mere pleasure or material comforts. Just the other day, I read that Mukesh Ambani, the fifth-richest man in the world, has completed work on a new home—the world’s first billion-dollar house.[4] No doubt this house is abundant in all sorts of pleasures and material comforts, but given that it’s located in Mumbai, and almost half of the children in India suffer from malnutrition,[5] I would not say that spending a billion dollars on a single-family dwelling is an act that increases happiness or decreases suffering in the world at large. In his new book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris bases his entire discussion on the idea that what is “good” is that which supports “well-being,” although the very concept of “well-being” eludes precise definition. The precise meaning of physical health has changed and will continue to change and varies according to many factors. Well-being is similarly moveable. Just as our actions can improve or degrade our physical health, they can also contribute to or detract from well-being. Just as we can join a gym, give up the daily trip to Krispy Kreme, quit smoking—work to improve our health, in other words—so, too, can we work to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We can work to improve well-being. Underlying all of this, there is an important assumption, that our well-being here and now, in this world, is within our control, or even worthy of our attention. We probably shouldn’t take this assumption for granted. In the Abrahamic religions, at least, this life is just a prelude to eternity, and our task on earth is just to earn our way into heaven. The fact of death is a jagged little pill—no doubt about it. It’s not hard to understand the desire to wriggle free of that particular trap—but I believe that the afterlife is one of the most pernicious ideas humankind has ever come up with. There are many reasons why I take this view, but I’ll mention just one. If our hour of strutting and fretting on the earthly stage is just a kind of audition for the really big heavenly show to come, suffering in this world becomes altogether too tolerable. Poverty, hunger, torment—in the end, it will all be repaid with infinite peace and happiness, at least for the pious. I think this is all backward, if not a little deranged. I’d like to turn Pascal’s Wager on its head. If a person, against all facts, follows a dogmatic religion and ends up wrong, then how many opportunities for true compassion and empathy did he lose? How many experiences did she deny herself just because she was afraid of something for which we have absolutely no evidence? How much guilt or shame did he carry because he was told to? And finally, how much grief and pain did she cause by applying her unyielding dogmas on those around her?[6] Here and now—in this life, because there probably isn’t another one after this—we have to love each other and help each other. We have to work together to make our world—thisworld—a better place. If I’m wrong, and god exists, it’s difficult to imagine a deity who is truly loving and truly just, but who would object to making the world a better place. Isn’t it?

The BeardSometimes I think I was born too late. I probably should have been a flower child. That explains the beard, anyway. But even if it makes me a dirty hippie, I want people to feel safe and loved and comfortable in their own skins. If I could go back [redacted] years and visit my younger, campus-wandering self, I would say, “Put out that cigarette, you goof. You smell like an ashtray!” But then I’d say, “You’re not broken. You’re not irretrievably damaged.” I’d say, “Just wait. You’re going to have a good life.” And if I could go back a few weeks and talk to Tyler Clementi, I would say this: “In spite of anything you might have heard to the contrary, you are beautiful through and through—just as you are. You are kind and generous. You make the world better by being in it. And that is all that anyone can ask of you.”

Friends remember Tyler Clementi as brilliant musician, bright student Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality The History & Philosophy of Humanism & Its Role in Unitarian Universalism Inside The World’s First Billion-Dollar Home Indian children suffer more malnutrition than in Ethiopia 6 I’m paraphrasing part of this

Gotcha Covered, Part Twelve

No B- and C-list celebs’ novels this time, though the publishing world seems to virtually awash in them these days. Lisa Rinna?Hilary Duff?Snooki? But never mind. I said there’d be none of that. I used to be a huge fan of John Le Carré. Smiley’s People,Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,The Little Drummer Girl—how I loved them all. For whatever reason, starting with The Russia House, I’ve been unable to sustain an interest in any of his novels for more than a chapter or two. And now it’s come to this—I can barely sustain an interest in this book jacket:

Our Kind of Traitor

Was this perhaps designed in 20 minutes, using Microsoft Word? Until I saw this cover, I was absolutely certain that the new Gap logo would be the most lackluster piece of design I’d see this week. Leave it to WordArt to give my week an extra thrill. About a year and a half ago, I read The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. I hated it. Herr Schlink is back again:

The Weekend The Weekend

I can just about guarantee that I’ll never read this book. But the cover design is quite good. I like the way the title is hidden in the bottom of the bag, and the way the bag is “on top” of the author’s name. And the author’s name is in a decent typeface, printed in a shimmery metallic ink. The bomb on the back is a nice surprise for anyone who picks up the book and turns it over. It was enough to get me to pick it up and read the description, and since one of the character’s was once a player in the RAF (Baader-Meinhof Gang), I’m almost tempted to give the book a try. But I can just about guarantee that I won’t. Ditto for the following:

The Instructions The Instructions The Instructions

McSweeney’s, obviously. Generally speaking, one can spot a McSweeney’s book from across the store. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this cover. I do sort of like the retro quality of it. When I was a kid, I owned books that looked like this. On the other hand, the palette is so limited and the artwork is so rudimentary that I wasn’t even sure at first what I was looking at. Bear in mind, please, that I love big, ambitious books. If this had a jacket with some decent artwork, like any other book, I’d probably be drooling all over it. As it is, not so much. And see, look:

Travels in Siberia Travels in Siberia

A much more successful design that uses essentially the same materials as The Instructions: two colors, simple lines, a block of text on the back. I’m pretty sure it’s the white background that makes the difference, or maybe it’s just that it’s possible to render more detail with ink on paper rather than on buckram. In any case, I came very close to buying Travels in Siberia tonight, and I only put it down again when I remembered that non-fiction usually shortens my attention span.

The Gardens of Kyoto The Gardens of Kyoto

Hm. Well. Almost the same shade of red as The Instructions. A couple of lines, a quiet and muted image placed really well, simple typography. The paper of the jacket feels really nice to the touch, too. The imprint is Signet Classics, and this book has the look and feel of a classic. And now for something completely different:

Daddy's Daddy's

This is different in just about every conceivable way from the books I usually look at. It’s paperback, for a start, and it’s apparently a collection of short stories. It’s designed to look like a tackle box, and in person it really does look like you might be able to lift it by its handle. But the strangest thing about this book is that it’s printed sideways:

Daddy's

Odd. Very odd. It seems like it might be awkward to read a book printed this way, but even so, I like it!

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council. The name of that organization may be as much as 33-1/3% accurate. It may be a council, depending on which definition of “council” one chooses. The word “Family,” in this context, has that strange Orwellian connotation that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up: our families, not yours. And “Research”? Hardly. On Monday—National Coming Out Day, natch—the Washington Post invited Perkins to weigh in on the recent suicides of gay teens. Can you think of a betterway to welcome all those who chose to come out that day? Perkins wrote, in part:

There is an abundance of evidence that homosexuals experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, including depression. However, there is no empirical evidence to link this with society’s general disapproval of homosexual conduct.

Funny thing, though, if you follow the link, you get a clearer picture. Just a few lines below the information Perkins cherry-picked to make his point, there is this:

For one thing, [Susan Cochran, PhD, author or co-author of the studies in question] says, “these are certainly not levels of morbidity consistent with models that say homosexuality is inherently pathological.”

And a little further down:

In a study that examines possible root causes of mental disorders in LGB people, Cochran and psychologist Vickie M. Mays, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, explored whether ongoing discrimination fuels anxiety, depression and other stress-related mental health problems among LGB people. The authors found strong evidence of a relationship between the two…. LGB respondents reported higher rates of perceived discrimination than heterosexuals in every category related to discrimination, the team found. While the findings do not prove that discrimination causes mental health problems, they take a step toward demonstrating that the social stigma felt by LGB people has important mental health consequences. That again points to the need for tailored mental health treatment, in particular therapy that includes ongoing discussion of how discriminatory experiences may affect stress levels, they note.

Perkins also wrote:

In fact, evidence from the Netherlands would seem to suggest the opposite, because even in that most “gay-friendly” country on earth, research has shown homosexuals to have much higher mental health problems.

But if you click on thatlink, you find that:

The fact that homosexual men showed higher prevalence rates of disorders that are characteristic for women in general, whereas homosexual women showed higher prevalence rates of disorders that are characteristic for men in general, is in line with the theory that sex-atypical levels of prenatal androgens play a major role in the causes and development of homosexuality. In conclusion, this study offers evidence that homosexuality is associated with a higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders. The outcomes are in line with findings from earlier studies in which less rigorous designs have been employed. The processes underlying the established differences need further study. Research into these processes should be able to disentangle the potential interplay of various factors—social, attitudinal, behavioral, and biological—instead of testing one specific factor.

For a start, though Perkins uses this study to back up his claim that gays and lesbians are simply, inherently “broken,” the study itself doesn’t address causes. Unlike Perkins, the authors of the study (actual researchers, not fake researchers) surmise that there might be an “interplay of various factors”; they certainlydon’t suggest that gays and lesbians suffer more from mental illness because they are gay and lesbian. But more importantly, the study hints at biological factors in the development of homosexuality. It’s not just that gays and lesbians are more prone to certain disorders—that’s not the whole story. Gay men are more prone to “disorders that are characteristic for women in general,” and lesbians are more prone to “disorders that are characteristic for men in general.” (Furthermore, there is a theory to explain why this might be.) So. In his cherry-picking and selective-quoting zeal, Perkins has managed to point us to a study that argues pretty directly against his main point, which is that homosexuality is a bad choice that has among its consequences a lot of mental and emotional difficulties. If it weren’t so profoundly, infuriatingly dishonest, it would be kind of funny.

Incidentally, the Netherlands is no longer as “gay-friendly” as it once was, because a “million Moroccans and Turks have immigrated to the Netherlands, and sharia law rules the streets”—because, in other words, of homophobia based in religion. Frightening stuff:

According to an “offender study” by the University of Amsterdam, there were 201 reports of anti-gay violence in that city in 2007 — and researchers believe for every reported case there are as many as 25 unreported ones. Two thirds of the predators are Muslim youths. The violence couldn’t be more brazen. It’s not in the back alleys in the dark, it’s in the heart of the city, often in broad daylight. It’s a direct dare to the Dutch government to show who rules the streets. In 2008, 10 Muslim youths broke into a fashion show, dragged gay model Michael du Pree off the stage and beat him bloody. Last month, several lesbians were hit by beer bottles thrown at their heads as they marched in a parade of thousands to protest violence against gays. There’s a gay community centre in Amsterdam — you’d think that would be safe. Wrong. It’s a target, with home-invasion style beatings. No one is immune. Last year Hugo Braakhuis, the founder of Amdsterdam’s gay pride parade, was attacked.

I suspect if that sort of thing were going on all around me in my supposedly “gay-friendly” home country, I’d be very depressed indeed.

But back to Perkins, and back to the first study, where there is a lengthy discussion of teen suicide, ignored by Perkins, which reads in part:

The findings suggest that gay youth are vulnerable to the media’s and researchers’ well-meaning but negative depictions of gay youth as highly troubled people heading on a collision course with life, [Cornell University’s Ritch C. Savin-Williams, PhD] maintains. “There’s a script we have in our culture—a ‘suffering suicidal’ script—that these kids have picked up on,” he says. A better approach for researchers, teachers and other youth workers, he believes, is to treat all young LGBT people as ordinary kids with great potential, unless they show research-based or visible indicators of suicide risk.

In other words, even the caring, accepting adults who want to help LGBT youth are affected by the culture of bigotry and hate. Gay kids are treated differently even by their allies, because, hey, it’s a tough world out there. Recent events aren’t exactly changing anyone’s mind about that, and I think—especially at this moment in our culture—we definitely need to treat all LGBT kids with great care. But above all I think we need to be standing up to the Tony Perkinses and Tom Prichards of the world. In asking Perkins to weigh in on this issue on National Coming Out Day, I think the Post acted out of complete inattention and perhaps bad taste. But it’s pretty clear that Perkins’s guest appearance in the “On Faith” has opened up an excellent opportunity to expose him for the liar he is. When challenged by GLAAD, the Post claimed to be “working to cover both sides.” And in response to that Jason Linkinswrote:

See, the Post is just diligently exploring both sides of the issue! You did know that there are two completely rational sides to the debate over teens committing suicide because of homophobic bullying, didn’t you? On the one hand, Dan Savage wants such teenagers to know that “it gets better.” But on the other hand, should it get better? Maybe it should get worse! Maybe more teenagers should kill themselves! The Washington Post hopes to figure this out, someday.

Funny, but maybe a trifle unfair. I think the two sides are not “teenagers shouldn’t kill themselves” versus “should too!” but rather “the religious right’s homophobic rhetoric is partly to blame for all these suicides” versus “is not!” Seen in that light, Perkins only managed to reel out enough rope to shoot himself in the foot. Jarrett Barrios writes:

In his piece this week (mere paragraphs after he claimed that he believes no person should be subjected to verbal harassment) Perkins called gay children “abnormal” and “self-destructive.” According to the Post, there’s nothing wrong with that sort of name-calling. It’s just one side of the debate. And technically the Post is correct when it says it is covering “both sides” of the scourge of anti-gay bullying. But one of those sides belongs to the bully himself.

And there’s more where that came from. Sirdeaner Walker, a GLSENboard member, writes:

[A]ddressing anti-gay bullying is not a controversial issue. If you move through the smoke screen organizations like Family Research Council try to create, you realize addressing anti-gay bullying is simply the right thing to do if we care about all of our young people.

And here, for the last word, is Joe Solmonese of the HRC:

Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council is telling lies that are life threatening. We must stop listening.

Where Logic Goes to Die

A few days ago, I wrote about four teenagers who committed suicide after being bullied—taunted, teased, tormented, tortured—for being gay, or for being perceived as gay. One of those boys, Justin Aaberg, was a student at Anoka High School in Minnesota. The Anoka-Hennepin School District, in which there were five suicides last year—has a policy which requires teachers to “remain neutral” on the subject of sexual orientation. There appears to be some confusion concerning how, if at all, that policy applies to the anti-bullying policy. Enter Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, who just wants to clear everything up. It’s fineif kids are bullied for being gay, you see, because sexual orientation is “an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle” (which young people “embrace”), and to argue otherwise is to “deny the reality that we are created male and female.” And furthermore:

Notwithstanding gay activist assertions to the contrary, people aren’t gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. by God’s design or nature. We are male and female with sexual expression designed for a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Denying or fighting against this reality is the reason alternative forms of sexual expression, whether homosexual or heterosexual, will put people at greater risk.

Oh, and also, Justin Aaberg obviouslydidn’t kill himself because of anti-gay bullying, but rather because he was gay in the first place:

Whatever the exact reason for Justin’s suicide it’s an enormous tragedy that shouldn’t be manipulated for ideological purposes which is what’s being done now.

In fact, the bullying probably never even happened:

The manipulation of this tragedy is reminiscent of the Matthew Shepard tragedy. Shepard a homosexual was brutally murdered by two men who robbed him. It was asserted that Shepard was murdered, because he was homosexual. It turns out that wasn’t the case. No matter. Shepard’s tragic death served an important ideological purpose for homosexual activists.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight (as it were): We are all born male and female, biologically programmed for monogamy. For no apparent reason and without any memory of having done it, some of us choose to become gay—or rather embrace being gay. This is so disgusting and horrifying, even to those of us who’ve chosen it, that even as the other kids are totally not bullying us, we become psychologically damaged, and some of us hang ourselves from trees. Then (and this is the really heinous part) those of us who don’t get around to killing ourselves cruelly and viciously exploit the tragedy for our own purposes, which are as black-hearted as they are nefarious. By rewriting the history of all these hate crimes and suicides, we recruit the next generation of youth into the homosexual lifestyle. Have I got that right?

All right, look, fundamentalists believe that the earth was created after the domestication of dogs; that night and day existed before the sun; either that Noah’s ark held millions of animals or that hundreds or thousands of animals floated on logs from continent to continent during the flood; and that a deity impregnated a virgin with himself. It is unwise to expect a great deal of logical consistency. But the line of thinking described above is just absurd. Absurd, contemptuous, unfair. It lacks compassion. Justin Aaberg was someone’s son. He was the child of parents who are grieving. It is simply beyond the pale to yammer on about how sick and immoral their son was, particularly while other families are also grieving from fresher losses. Furthermore, it seems just a mite hypocritical to write that Justin’s death is “an enormous tragedy that shouldn’t be manipulated for ideological purposes,” and then use it to oppose policy changes that might prevent further tragedies—to manipulate it, in other words, for ideological fucking purposes. Tom Prichard, if you set out to torture logic to death, to violate the principles of Christian love you say you honor, to insult the memories of the dead, and to injure their grieving families … well, then, bully for you.

Latter Days

Ladies and gentlemen, behold a man with breathtakingly bad timing and a spectacularly faulty moral compass. At the end of a month marked by nine teenage suicides, Boyd K. Packer, an LDS apostle—president, in fact, of the church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which sounds suitably solemn, if not a little pompus—gave a fiery sermon in which he announced that:

Same-sex attraction can be overcome and any type of union other than marriage between a man and a woman is morally wrong, an LDS apostle told millions of Mormons on Sunday.

Also, just for fun, he explained that it’s pure piffle to suggest that sexuality might be innate or inborn:

“Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father.”

In other words, if you’re gay—and heaven forbid you should be in love with someone of the same sex and want to spend your life with that person—you’re just mired in your own iniquity. Obviously, a loving god would never make anything so heinous and disgusting as a ho-mo-sex-u-al.

“We cannot change; we will not change,” the senior apostle declared. “We quickly lose our way when we disobey the laws of God. If we do not protect and foster the family, civilization and our liberties must needs perish.”

A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that the 86-year-old bigot church official is the father of 10 children, the grandfather of 50. No one can say he hasn’t done his part to foster the family. But never mind. I could point out the several absurdities in the aged homophobe’s apostle’s reasoning—the fact that lots and lots of things are both immoral in the eyes of the LDS church and yet completely legal, for example, or the fact that religion is a choice and yet has the full protection of the law—but I won’t bother. What I will do, however, is point out that this kind of rhetoric bears all four of the markers of bullying, as described by Barbara Coloroso in The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander.

  • Imbalance of power. It’s a talking point on the homophobic right that the forces of gaydom are fearsome strong and powerful, that the elites are in thrall to the radical homosexual agenda, and that entities like the LDS church and NOM are beleaguered and persecuted for their beliefs. This is, of course, completely the reverse of reality. Bear in mind, please, that this one sermon was broadcast to millions of Mormons all over the world. I don’t think even Lady Gaga enjoys such a bully pulpit. If the power weren’t on the side of the churches, if the religious right didn’t hold such sway, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act would be unfortunate historical footnotes by now.
  • Intent to harm. Coloroso writes, “The bully means to inflict emotional and/or physical pain, expects the action to hurt, and takes pleasure in witnessing the hurt. This is no accident or mistake, no slip of the tongue….” This topic was the whole subject of Packer’s sermon, so it’s obvious that he intended to say what he said, and said what he intended to say. Did he intend to inflict pain? Of course: it is impossible to use words like “impure” and “unnatural” and “immoral” without intending to hurt.
  • Threat of further aggression. Coloroso: “Both the bully and the bullied know that … [t]his is not meant to be a onetime event.” Packer: “We cannot change; we will not change.” ‘Nuff said.
  • Terror. Kindly name something more terrifying than an eternity of unimaginable torment in the fires of hell.

As the number of suicides has risen, many of us have been looking for answers, for people and groups and societal trends that we can blame. I’m not trying to do that here. I’m merely suggesting that this sort of sermon constitutes a kind of societal or cultural bullying. Barbara Coloroso explains that bullying is about contempt. Contempt, in turn, equips its bearers with:

  • A sense of entitlement—the privilege and right to control, dominate, subjugate, and otherwise abuse another human being.
  • An intolerance toward differences—different equals inferior and thus not worthy of respect.
  • A liberty to exclude—to bar, isolate, and segregate a person deemed not worthy of respect or care.

And these, in turn, allow a bully to inflict harm “without feeling empathy, compassion, or shame.” It’s no good to engage with bullies, useless to bargain. It’s just as futile to rage or weep. What we must do, instead, is stand up for ourselves and protect each other. That’s why efforts like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project are so important, and why I’m glad that the Trevor Project is there to help kids who hear and take to heart too many messages like today’s sermon, and why I’m happy that GLSEN fights the ridiculous prejudice of Focus on the Family and works toward establishing safe schools for all students. It’s going to get better.

Protect and Defend

Justin Aaberg played the cello and composed songs. He was sweet-tempered and sympathetic, a good listener. He was 15 years old, a student at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota. He was gay, and he’d come out at the age of 13. His mother, Tammy, loved him very much, and was proud and pleased to provide what she thought was a perfect life for her son. At school, Justin’s life was notperfect. Like many of his gay friends, he was harassed and didn’t feel safe in an environment where teachers are prohibited from addressing specifically anti-gay bullying. Like innumerable gay kids before him, he turned the hatred inward. On July 9th, Justin hanged himself.

Billy Lucas lived in Greensburg, Indiana. Like Justin, he was 15 years old. He loved horses and lambs, and he’d won ribbons for showing his animals. He told friends and school officials that he was happy at school, settling into the routine of his freshman year. His principal remembers him as “an outgoing young man.” But he was harassed every day, threatened with violence, taunted for being gay, though no one appears to know if he wasgay. Billy’s friend James has reported that Billy “had a chair pulled out from underneath him and told to go hang himself.” September 9th must have been a very bad day. After all the jeers, threats, and curses he’d already endured, when some of his classmates harassed him, he replied with a string of profanities. For that, he was suspended. After about 8 p.m., after he’d taken care of his beloved horses, Billy literally called for help: he dialed 911 and “told the dispatcher he was causing problems for his mom and people should come.” But Billy’s mom had no idea why he’d called, had no idea there was a problem; she told the police not to come. An hour later she found him in the barn, where he’d hanged himself using one of his horses’ leads.

Asher Brown was 13 years old. He was in the eighth grade at Hamilton Middle School. He was a straight-A student, a sweet kid. He lived with his mother and stepfather in the Cypress-Fairbanks area, outside Houston, Texas. The family had moved to Cy-Fair because Asher had been teased at his previous school—teased for being the wrong size, wearing the wrong clothes, following the wrong religion, having the wrong sexuality. He was gay—he’d come out to his family, and they’d accepted him. The kids at school—whether they knew he was gay or not—were neither accepting nor kind. Some of them pantomimed gay sex acts in P.E. class. On September 22nd, according to the Houston Chronicle:

His most recent humiliation occurred … when another student tripped Brown as he walked down a flight of stairs at the school, his parents said. When Brown hit the stairway landing and went to retrieve his book bag, the other student kicked his books everywhere and kicked Brown down the remaining flight of stairs….

The next day, Asher came home from school, took his stepfather’s 9 mm Beretta from the closet, and shot himself in the head.

Seth Walsh was also 13 years old. He lived with his parents in in Tehachapi, California. He was a good kid—loving, kind, artistic, into fashion. And he was a good student. His teachers liked him. Seth’s mother, Judy, has said, “He was different. He knew he was different.” And the fact of being different, as is so often the case, made him the target of teasing. He’d once attended Jacobsen Middle School, but he’d transferred into an independent study program. The idea was to escape his tormentors, but he was still taunted relentlessly outside of school. On September 19th, Seth attempted to hang himself from a tree in his backyard. On September 28th, after ten days on life support, Seth died in the hospital.

Today, September 30th, Focus on the Family posted an article (under the byline of our friend Candi Cushman, who else?) quibbling with GLSEN’s School Climate Report. What’s the major malfunction? GLSEN’s report was compiled by GLSEN? A survey of LGBT youth didn’t include enough straight kids? FotF is full of bigots? Incidentally, Ms. Cushman is also the talking head on FotF’s True Tolerancewebsite, where the tastelessness and Orwellian logic spin immediately out of control. I can’t stand to hear much of it; I’ll transcribe just one sentence of her happy-talk:

Our heart-cry here at Focus on the Family has always been to protect and defend the most vulnerable members of our society, and that’s our children.

And then I will leave you with just a few syllables more: Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh.

Gotcha Covered, Part Eleven

You might be surprised what a Google image search for “dare to discipline” uncovers. (Or you might not.) What I can’t seem to find, is the cover that I’ve always thought James Dobson’s ancient spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child book had back in the day. It seems that this is the original cover. Presumably I conflated that book with the book of baby names I used for naming characters when I was a teenager. In any case, I’m thinking about this in the first place because at the B&N tonight I ran across this:

Spanking is fun! Spank your kids today!

Just seeing the title was enough to induce a brief episode of PTSD. When I was growing up, my parents’ Sunday school class studied that book. My parents greeted the book as a much-needed antidote to the overindulgent ideas of Dr. Spock, and support for their own authoritarian ideas. Dare to Discipline. Ugh. The very name makes me feel a little ill. Oh, but the cover. Snoresville. At least it’s better than the original, with its shouty all-caps slab-seriffed multiply hyphenated subtitle. Some new releases might be more interesting.

I Curse the River of Time

Great photo, for a start. The handling of “a novel” is always tricky, but here it’s pretty good. I like the arrangement of the title, too; it subtly mimics the curvature of a broad river, even as it echos the strong horizontal line of the railing. Matching the red of the lifesaver with the red of the title is quite nifty as well. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the typeface, but it’s not particularly interesting, either.
A Dog's Purpose

Oh, look at the sweet baby! But also, let’s not forget to look at the odd font choices and inept spacing. I’ve had dogs for many years; I doubt very much that they think in unicase Bodoni.* But if they did, I would hope that their thoughts would have more consistent leading.** And the clumsy placement of “A Novel for Humans” is a prime example of the trickiness I was referring to earlier. Love the dog, though.

Layover in Dubai

I sense a theme: great images, lackluster text. Here, the typeface is okay, but I think I’ve seen more elaborate layouts done with typewriters. That photo, though: ravishing.

Vestments

Ah. A reversal of the pattern: decent text, lackluster image. The vertical stripes of color are supposed to be drapes or banners, I guess. It makes sense, I see what the designer was going for, but it just looks like a printing error. And the underlying photo isn’t exactly priceless to begin with. I do like the typeface, though, and the arrangement of the text is just about perfect. On a side note, this book is surprisingly weighty in the hand. It’s only about 300 pages and the paper doesn’t feel that heavy as you turn the pages, but when held in the hand the book feels much, much thicker than it is.

Freedom

Much has been written about Franzen and this latest book of his. We’ve talked about it at length in my writing critique group, and we’ve traded emails about it. I gather than Jonathan Franzen is once again going to save American fiction, single-handedly and without a working Internet connection. I gather that, like The Corrections before it, this book will simultaneously actualize and redefine our very notion of what a novel should be. Whatevs. All I know is that the cover of this book is perfectly deranged. I don’t understand any part of it, and it’s not even very well done. I mean, look:

Knockout

The edges of all the trees are like that—messy where the original sky was knocked out of the image. And check out the reflection of the sky in the water. It doesn’t match. Some people should be kept away from Photoshop, that’s all there is to it.

Priceless

I have nothing to say about this, really. It’s a perfectly standard cover for exactly the kind of book I never bother to look at. However, I will say that at first I thought the title was Graceless. Here’s the opening of chapter three:

It was incredibly loud and hot in the club. The pulsing bass lines could be physically felt in every pair of panties in the place, which might explain the glassy expressions and elevated heart rates. Drugs, of course, may have had something to do with it. Not that there were drugs there. That would be illegal.

Yes. Truth in advertising dictates that the title of this book be changed from Priceless to Graceless.

* I conceded that it’s silly to suggest dogs think in language at all. In The Passionate, Accurate StoryCarol Bly tells the tale of a little tussle with editors:

“The puppies did not know what The Great Emptiness was but it sounded execrable.” Just as I thought they might, the editors suggested that “execrable” was too fancy a word: a dog would never use it. (I love the idea of which English a dog would stick at.) The suggested alternative was “real bad.”

** The height of the gap between “A” and “Dog’s” is greater than the height of the gap between “Dog’s” and “Purpose.” It’s weirdly obvious, and would have been soooo easy to fix.

Things Have Changed

You may have noticed (if there’s still actually a “you” here at all) that I posted nothing here between 21 May and 23 September. I suspect that in the life of every blogger there comes a time when real life intrudes on the far more important business of blogging, and after a pause there comes the inevitable “gosh, I’ve really been neglecting this blog” post. In any case, I’ve found one of those posts on almost every blog I’ve ever run across.

I’m determined to skip the “gosh, I’ve really been neglecting this blog” post, at least insofar as this post is not that post, if you see what I mean. In lieu of that, some highlights of the interval between 21 May and 23 September:

  • I didn’t win the Lammy. Lake Overturn won. It wasn’t my favorite among my fellow finalists, I confess, but it’s good. You should read it.
  • I learned (and had to relearn yet again, just moments ago) why a writer should not read his reviews, lest he be driven to insanity or trembling, wordless rage.
  • I went back to the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference, where Sigrid Nunez’s workshop provided a much-needed jolt to my writing. On the other hand, given my unfortunate tendency to take criticism too much to heart (see above), it’s still rather difficult for me to establish and sustain a daily habit of writing.
  • I was on the radio! (Yes, it’s internet radio, but still.)
  • I became president of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. I’ve been on the board since 2009, and the mantle of responsibility* passed to me in May. So far it’s been great fun. I’ve booked speakers for the fall and spring, and our first meeting of the fall was huge, and I’m looking forward to a great year.
  • I totally quit Twitter. I can even say why. I didn’t touch it for months. Time passed. After a while the very thought of it made me feel slightly ill. Eventually I deleted my account. It’s gone, along with all my priceless wit, but I’m not sad.**
  • I don’t even know where I am any more with my reading list.† I think I’ve read eight of the original fifteen. A couple of chapters into On Beauty I decided to replace it with The Surrendered, which I finished. So: nine out of fifteen, and three months left in the year. I rock.
  • Last but certainly not least, the country of my birth is slowly going insane.

* This is overstating the grandeur just a skosh.

** I’m still on Facebook. Obviously.

† I decided to set a novel in the mid-1980s, so I set aside all the fiction in order to research the period. Bah. I hate non-fiction.

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It Gets Better

I was never bullied for being gay—for other reasons, yes, but not for being gay. Back then (middle Paleogene Period), it was, or at least seemed, entirely unsafe even to seem gay.* Nowadays, I’m pleased to see that kids feel safe coming out earlier, but then again, nine out of ten of them are bullied because of it. The details of my childhood difficulties are a story for another place and time, if not a therapist’s couch. Except for a couple of incidents in college,** the name-calling and harassment were all but finished by my junior year in high school, but I’ve lived my whole adult life with the aftereffects. Oh, I don’t want to sound like an episode of Donahue, and I did say I’d leave the details for another time … Suffice it to say that even now, on the far side of 40, I’m still easily intimidated by 15-year-olds. In any case, given my own history, it is with unalloyed disgust that I read items like this, in which we learn that Focus On The [White Heteronormative Evangelical Christian] Family thinks “Safe Schools” means “Hidden Gay Agenda.”

Check it out:

“Listing certain categories creates a system ripe for reverse discrimination, sending the message that certain characteristics are more worthy of protection than others,” [Candi Cushman, FOTWHECF education analyst] said. “In many cases, these politicized bullying policies are being used as tools to undermine parental rights,” she said, “and censor or marginalize students and parents with differing viewpoints.”

Look. Lady. It’s simple. I’ll use simple words: You. Are. Wrong. Any kid can become the target of bullying. The reasons are many: the wrong backpack, too much weight around the middle, bad acne, greasy hair, limp wrists. It doesn’t matter why the bully picks the bullied. What does matter is that the bullied kid feels safe getting help. If I were a gay kid, and I were getting beaten up, or even taunted, I’d sooner lock myself in my own locker than approach someone like Candi Cushman.† But wait. It gets better. Thisis from just last week:

“The 15-year-old never told anyone he was gay but students at Greensburg High School thought he was and so they picked on him. ‘People would call him ‘fag’ and stuff like that, just make fun of him because he’s different basically,’ said student Dillen Swango. Students told Fox59 News it was common knowledge that children bullied Billy and from what they said, it was getting worse. Last Thursday, Billy’s mother found him dead inside their barn. He had hung himself. Students said on that same day, some students told Billy to kill himself. ‘They said stuff like ‘you’re like a piece of crap’ and ‘you don’t deserve to live.’ Different things like that. Talked about how he was gay or whatever,’ said Swango.”‡

If we don’t do enough to protect gay kids from bullying, it’s potentially a matter of life and death. But organizations like FOTWHECF don’t care about that. I’m convinced that they simply don’t care about dead gay kids. Strip away fancy job titles like “education analyst,” drop the Latinate language, and what you’re left with is “God hates fags.”§ So it’s a very good thing indeed that Dan Savage has started the It Gets Better Project. Here’s the last part of Dan’s introduction to the project:

Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them. The video my husband and I made is up now—all by itself. I’d like to add submissions from other gay and lesbian adults—singles and couples, with kids or without, established in careers or just starting out, urban and rural, of all races and religious backgrounds. (Go to www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject to find instructions for submitting your video.) If you’re gay or lesbian or bi or trans and you’ve ever read about a kid like Billy Lucas and thought, “Fuck, I wish I could’ve told him that it gets better,” this is your chance. We can’t help Billy, but there are lots of other Billys out there—other despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future—and we can help them. They need to know that it gets better. Submit a video. Give them hope.

Dan and Terry’s video is no longer all by itself. There are already dozens of videos, thousands of subscribers, hundreds of thousands of channel views. Interesting, isn’t it, that Focus on the [White Heteronormative Evangelical Christian] Family spends its time crafting carefully worded apologetics for bullying, while we damned-to-hell queers are reaching out to show our love and support to kids who might need it. While Focus on the [White Heteronormative Evangelical Christian] Family wants us to think it’s perfectly all right for parents to pass their bigotry along to their kids, and certain bullied kids don’t deserve protection from it, we’re just trying to say that if you’re the victim of bullying, hold on, hold on, hold on, ‘cause it’s bound to get better.

* A college classmate recently told me that she’d never had a clue I was gay. That’s sad in a way, but on the other hand, I probably would have exploded into a ball of panic if anyone had discovered my “dark secret.”

** My tormentors in those cases where extremely immature stoners who behaved like six-foot-tall ten-year-olds.

† I know nothing about Candi Cushman other than the facts related above, so I don’t necessarily mean to be unfair when I say that I can picture her bringing the bully and the target together so that they can both hear a lengthy lecture about Leviticus 18:22 and the fate of Sodom. Afterward, the bully would follow the gay kid outside and punch the shit out of him.

‡ It’s heartening to see the outpouring of sympathy, love, and support on the Facebook memorial page. But then on the other hand, a few trolls are going out of their way to prove that some bullies never grow up, and that there’s no bigotry quite as heartless as the kind of bigotry that’s rooted in religion.

§ Someday soon, when it’s not quite so late at night, I’ll dig up a reference to a study of second-order punishing that Dan Dennett mentioned in his 2007 AAI speech. Society enforces taboos by punishing those who break them, and also by punishing those who refuse to do the punishing. The latter is called second-order punishing. Our society as a whole is more and more accepting of homosexuality. But FOTWHECF and the American [White Heteronormative Evangelical Christian] Family Association and organizations of their ilk are bound and determined that they will always and forever serve as our second-order punishers.

Spill It

I have nothing of any great import to add to this heart-wrenching post by Mark Doty, except to point you to this exceedingly depressing satellite photo.

A short while ago, CNN played video of oil spilling out of a hole in the floor of the ocean. The newscaster rambled on about something or other—how the video would continue to be shown, etc., etc., continue to watch for updates on this continuing disaster, etc., etc.—but, really, he seemed to have nothing to say. What is there to say, after all? “This sucks”?

Gotcha Covered, Part Ten: First Anniversary Edition

So, hey, I’ve been doing this writey bloggy thing for over a year now. Woot! I wrote my first-ever post (cleverly entitled “First!”) on March 26, 2009. In that post I wrote mainly about Carol Bly and the book of essays, Letters from the Countryfrom which I took the name of this blog. This jumps out at me:

Many of Carol’s schemes for improvement seem rather hopeless and naive. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that the whole culture could be reformed just by having Enemy Evenings everywhere every month? Nice to think of, except that I’ve been to an Enemy Evening or two (called by a different name, of course), and I’m pretty sure no one convinced anyone of anything. In fact, in my experience, the various sides bring their peeps, and the audience breaks up into “us” vs. “them” camps, reinforcing the kind of thinking that Carol intended the Enemy Evenings to cure. Of course, maybe the point is that these things need to happen more often.

After the town halls, the protests, the invective, the violent rhetoric, and the open-carry demonstrations of the last 12 tumultuous months, I’m thoroughly convinced that one of Carol’s Enemy Evenings would end in fisticuffs or gunfire—or possibly tarring and feathering. I’m officially pulling the plug on the whole Enemy Evening idea.

My first “Gotcha Covered” post was much, much earlier than I’d suspected. I thought I’d commenced the book snark over the summer, but in truth, I started on April 10, only a couple of weeks after I started blogging. That first edition of “Gotcha Covered” included this, which still makes me super-happy:

Secrets to Happiness

In honor of the just-past anniversary of “Letters from the Country,” and the soon-to-come anniversary of “Gotcha Covered,” here are some new books I spotted yesterday.

Safe from the Neighbors

Okay, I don’t love the text. The author’s name and the title are okay. I’m a sucker for all-lower-case titles. The typeface is supremely ordinary, which is, I think, what this book needs. But “a novel”? Seriously, what is that? A slab-serif? Say what? But you know … never mind. All is forgiven. I love the photo, and I love that it’s sideways, and I am filled with envy. I wish I’d thought of it. Now if I ever turn a photo sideways on a book cover, I’ll feel guilty.

The California Roll

As I said, I’m a sucker for all-lower-case titles. On the flip side, I’m not crazy about all caps. I always think, “Okay, Mr. Designer Person, I get it, it’s the title, no need to shout.” But in this case, it works. The transparency effects wouldn’t look nearly so good in mixed case. And I do love the kind of lens-blur thing they’ve done here with all of the text.* On the other hand, I find I can’t look at this cover for too long. The longer I look, the more I think I should probably be seeing the inside of the hat and the back of the shirt collar … shouldn’t I? If I can see the trees off in the distance, then the invisible man is, well, invisible. He shouldn’t be hiding the back of his own shirt … should he? See, I can’t think about it for too long. It ruins it.

Dear Strangers

Unfortunately, it appears that this great cover may have been wasted on a book characterized (according to Publishers Weekly) by a “thematically heavy but emotionally vacant web of connections” by a writer who “is more focused on driving home her ideas than developing her characters, who come across as thematic functionaries.” Sigh. I saw this cover and thought immediately of Blue Velvet, in a good way. I imagined an exploration of the ennui and repression of suburban life, perhaps with grisly mayhem. It’s not as if that hasn’t been done before, but I think it would be more interesting than, well, this.

Good to a Fault

Frankly, I have nothing to say about this. I think it’s just perfect. The scribbly quality of the markings on the wall suggests that this may be a model or a dollhouse, and if so, squeeee! Bookcovergeekgasm!

Solar

I love Ian McEwan. I worship the ground he walks on. I think he’s among the finest literary voices of our time. Unless I’m mistaken, I’ve read all of his novels, and I’m absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt going to read this book, too. But why? Why, why, why? I ask you: why have they given McEwan’s latest book the kind of cover one would ordinarily see on a Michael Crichton novel? For the love of all that’s holy, why?

* Mind you, the best-ever example of this, in my humble opinion, is Chip Kidd’s cover for After Dark.

Gotcha Covered, Part Nine

Another installment of my sporadic series of rants and raves on book design. These’ll be relatively short.

Next

These people look as if they’re at an air show. Todd has dragged me to any number of air shows. I do not like air shows. You stand outside in the heat with the sun pounding down on you and sweat dripping down your face, and your neck gets stiff from looking up at tiny specks of glitter flippety-flopping across the sky. Ugh. The book cover’s quite good, though.

Model Home

A similar design: photograph, people facing away from the camera, lots of sky, simple type treatment. I like it a lot. The typefaces are quite handsome.

Lost

Survivors of Snowmageddon will probably not like this as much as I do. My only quibble is that the designer seems to have hedged a bet: I wouldn’t mind if the title were a little more lost among the branches of the tree. The image itself draws the eye; if the title took another second to find, well, that means a potential reader is staring at the book for another second, at least. That can scarcely be a bad thing.

Unforgivable

Orange is my favorite color, so it may be that the color story grabbed my attention. The hyphenation is a nifty trick; it allows for larger lettering, yes, but more importantly, it craftily emphasizes both the “forgivable” and the “un-.” The whole topic of forgiveness immediately flashes to life. What kinds of actions are forgivable? What kinds of actions are unforgivable? I think the hyphen does that; I don’t think it would happen if the title were unhyphenated. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of slab serifs. Notwithstanding the great swoopy tail of that one R, this type treatment is mostly blah.

The Unnamed

I dig it.

The Infinities

Picture it: Friday, 4:59 pm, a graphic design studio: “Egad! That Banville cover is due!”

The Road

Three Roads diverged in a Barnes & Noble… I know that movie tie-in covers are an ugly fact of life, but why did there need to be two different movie tie-in covers for this book? The cover in the middle was the first tie-in version. The second is brighter in tone, I see. Was the first design deemed somehow too dark for a novel about the end of the world in which the ragged remnants of an almost extinct humanity are starving to death in the brutal cold? If so … well … the second version is even colder, yes?

The Memory Keeper's Daughter and Prayers for Sale

Hm, where have I seen this design before? Oh, right there!

The Best of Friends

Obviously, Martha Stewart had nothing whatsoever to do with the design of this book cover. Perhaps the same designer who started the Banville design at 4:59 on Friday finished in time to get a jump on Monday’s work and still make the 5:04 subway train. But never mind the design. I would sooner stab myself in the kidney with a knitting needle than read this book.

Patriots

For once, I’m speechless.

I Has a Happy

Today, I feel like this:

images

 

 

 

 

 

 

For you see, this morning’s email brought me some very good news: The River In Winter is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Fiction category.

I’ve already bought tickets for the awards ceremony and the benefit that follows. It’s improbable that mere words can express how excited I am to attend.

Happy!

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And Now for Something Completely Different

That cover design I posted a couple of weeks ago just never seemed quite right. I did a little more looking around and found some photos of an old globe.

I think I may have had a globe much like it when I was a kid. My parents gave me a Replogle globe for Christmas one year. That name always seemed so strange to me: Replogle. Almost, but not nearly, a rhyme with “global.” I remember that it came with a little booklet describing experiments one could perform with a globe. With a flashlight and a rubber ball, for example, a proud globe owner could simulate a solar eclipse.

But I digress.

Here’s my design-of-the-moment for The New World and the Old:

The New World and the Old

Don’t fall too much in love with it; by this time next week, I’m sure I’ll hate it.

Where the Lemonade Springs and the Bluebird Sings

I finished The Big Rock Candy Mountain last night. Here’s my Goodreads review:

I hope it’s not sacrilege to say this, but I found Stegner’s writing style a bit uneven. At times he strikes an elevated, epic tone. At other times he slips into a more casual, second-person narration. Now and again a sentence or line of dialogue is a cringeworthy clinker. The first chapter is the most polished and best written, but also (for me) the slowest and hardest to get through. If the entire book had matched its tone, I’d have respected the novel more, but I’d have liked it less. Stegner’s at his best when he’s not too polished, not trying to hard, when he lets himself slip into second person, when his sentences are long but uncomplicated:

The farm was that feeling, too, the sense of straddling two nations, so that even though you were American, living in Canada, you lost nothing by it, but really gained, because the Fourth of July was celebrated in Canada and Canadian holidays like Victoria Day and the King’s birthday were celebrated in Montana, and you got in on both. And you lived in Saskatchewan, in one nation, but got your mail in Montana, in another.

Quibbles about prose style notwithstanding, I did actually like this novel quite a bit. After the first chapter, I was fully engrossed in the story, and I strongly identified with the characters. As the child of a man who always sought the Big Rock Candy Mountain (where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings), I felt by the end that Bo Mason was my father. The relationships among the characters, the actions they take, the lifelong consequences of those actions—all of this, Stegner gets exactly right. Some of his sentences may strike a false note, as I’ve mentioned, but his characterization and plotting never do. He may have been writing the story of his own life, but he did so with immense frankness and sensitivity. It’s a mark of a great writer than in describing the specific history of one family, Stegner is able to touch upon the history of every family.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that my dad died last fall, and that his death brought up a surfeit of memories and emotional snags. (Heads up. Spoilers a-comin’.) Bo Mason, the flawed patriarch of the family in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, meets his end in quite a different way—not at all in the way that my dad died—but even so, I felt that Stegner gave me a glimpse into my father’s final days. It’s almost certainly not true that my dad ended his life angry, bitter, depressed, desperately lonely—but over the course of the novel I’d come to conflate Bo and my dad that I cast the latter quite easily in the role of the former. As the action of the last chapters played out in my mind’s eye, I saw my dad poring over his accounts, counting up every last dime, buying a suit he couldn’t afford, failing to come to grips with the collapse of the last can’t-miss deal. Easy as it was to dovetail my reality with Stegner’s fictional world, in the end, I’m grateful that Bo Mason and Jerry Dean were only similar, and not the same. And although it knocked me for a loop to learn that my dad had been happy at the end of his life, I’m now glad that that was the case. Maybe, finally, after decades of searching, he realized that there’s no Big Rock Candy Mountain, and that wherever you are, if you listen hard enough, you can hear the bluebird sing.

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The Living (or Are They the Dead)?

Some progress on my 2010 reading list: I finished The Living.

I wrote a review over on Goodreads:

This book is beautifully written. The prose is as fine and as lovely as anything I’ve ever read. The book is majestic and magisterial, as formidable as the densely forested lands that the characters strive to master and tame.

And yet, well, put it this way: one character is said to have written a three-hundred page epic poem in which men battle polar bears and pack ice; although the poet is a rank amateur, I wish I could have read his no-doubt-inept poem rather than this finely wrought novel.

I was profoundly unmoved. I barely cared whether the characters lived or died. I had a glimmer of interest in a sort of antisocial, woodsy Nietzschean named Beal Obenchain, but for him as well as for the rest, I felt very little emotion.

(more…)

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Shameless Self-Promotion

A while back, I posted something about The River In Winter on a message board entitled “Shameless Self-Promotion.” I’d have to say I wasn’t so very shameless; I posted a link to the book’s Amazon page and a couple of links to my site.

Since then, I’ve been getting emails from other writers who’re shamelessly self-promoting their projects. Others are shamelessly shameless. Phrases such as “non-stop thrills” are employed. Iron-clad promises that readers will become “addicted.” Words are described as “jumping off the page.”

Actually, I envy some of these people their willingness to brag. When I was a kid, we used to say “when god was handing out brains, you thought he said trains and told him you’d catch the next one.” One might say that when god was handing out brag, I thought he said slag and told him that didn’t sound very nice.

In any case, I’m thinking I should probably try to get better at this. Here’s my first attempt:

The River in Winter is a book for the ages. With each syllable of each word of each sentence of each paragraph of each chapter, you will fall more deeply in love with its characters, until you find yourself wanting to move with them to California’s redwood forests to create a free-love hippie commune, where Spike will no doubt secure the medical marijuana license.

Huh? Huh? Whattaya think? Love, redwoods, pot. A little something for everyone, yes?

Gotcha Covered, Part Eight

Wow. It’s been almost six months since I did one of these. The long hiatus may have something to do with the fact that during the fall my coffee consumption dropped dramatically. I stopped punctuating all of my errands with stops at either Starbucks or the B&N. Or maybe I’m just a slacker.

In any case, without further ado…

Let me begin with a favorite author, Anne Tyler. Although I don’t really remember how I “discovered” Ian McEwan or Jane Smiley or Barbara Kingsolver or many of the authors I love the bestest, I remember very clearly running across a copy of Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in a Kmart. I bought it because the title and cover art intrigued me.

Sad, then, that in recent years her book covers have come to look like this:

Noah's Compass

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Ssshhh! Don’t Tell!

Just today, I kid you not, I realized the purpose of the duct tape in all those NOH8 Campaign photos. It should be intuitively obvious, I suppose: we can be full members of society if we keep our mouths shut and pretend we’re something we’re not. But for some reason—perhaps it’s because straight people pose for those ads, too—I never made the connection till today.

(Sssshhh! Don’t tell anyone, but apparently I’m a little slow on the uptake.)

Earlier this week, I was chatting with some people, and the topic of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell came up. I’ve been fortunate to find a great group of progressive-minded people here in this corner of the Bible Belt, so it was no surprise that the tone of the conversation was one of humor and bemusement. Now that even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said that DADT is just plain wrong, it’s fairly safe to treat the topic as a big, puzzling joke.

But then someone new joined us. With a troubled expression, he explained that he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. If a gay person wants to serve in the military, this fellow said, that’s fine, right? As long as he keeps his mouth shut?

A bunch of us tried to explain how that’s right but also so very wrong. But I don’t think we really succeeded: his final pronouncement on the matter was that he didn’t know if repealing DADT was such a good idea.

(Sssshhhh! Don’t tell, but I was really pissed.)

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Progress Report

At the beginning of the year, I posted my New Years resolutions. Now that almost a month has passed, I thought it might be fun to see how many I’ve abandoned already.

  • I will spend less time on Twitter: Hahaha, yeah, right.
  • I will stop drinking Diet Coke: On the contrary, the slippery slope is gettin’ ever slipperier. I’m buying six-packs by the six-pack. I’m guzzling the stuff like it’s going out of style. It’s only a matter of time before I’m toothless.
  • I will stop buying books: As a matter of fact, I’ve only bought one book this year, and I read it right away. I bought it for a book group, and I was leading the discussion. So, all things considered, I’m doing shockingly well with this resolution that I had no intention of keeping. Huh. Whodathunkit.
  • I will be more methodical about marketing The River in Winter: Not so bad. I did this and this, after all.
  • I will finish my second novel: A little over 30,000 words so far.
  • I will refrain from talking about politics with anyone to whom I am related by blood: Golden! But on the other hand, I haven’t actually had the opportunity to break this particular resolution.
  • I will never understand anything that Jim DeMint says or does: See also: Andre Bauer, Pat Robertson, and Rush Limbaugh.
  • I will use my evenings more productively, by reading more and diddling around less on my iPhone: Technically: success! I’ve barely been looking at my iPhone in the evening. And I have read one of the books from my reading list. But on the other hand, I’ve probably been working Netflix’s “watch instantly” feature a little too hard, which brings me to…
  • I will manage my Netflix queue better: Well. I guess one might say, given the previous item, I am at least getting my money’s worth. But Starting Over has been sitting on top of the DVD player for a while now.
  • I will reveal my secret plan to capture Bin Laden: Changed my mind. Ain’t tellin’.
  • I will get my ample behind back into the gym: I’m tired! Don’t wanna!
  • I will quit smoking: Huzzah!

Not gonna get into hair-splitting resolution math here or anything, but it looks like I’m, rather surprisingly, mostly on track with about half of these. Granted, I have to count the nonsensical items in order to get there—but as I said, I’m not splitting hairs.

I Don’t Write Poetry

Strange thing: it doesn’t bother me a bit to write song lyrics, but the second the word “poetry” enters my mind, I seize up like a rusty hinge.

Nevertheless, I live in hope. Some years back, at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, I enrolled in a weekend poetry workshop with Stan Sanvel Rubin. I’d hoped it might help me oil that frozen hinge, but it was very nearly a complete disaster. All through the first day I lived in an agony of frustration. During the in-class exercises, I wrote short rants and tiny narratives, indistinguishable from prose—except that I threw in some line breaks here and there. Each time I finished reading one of these “poems” to my classmates, I wanted to huddle under my chair or—better yet—crawl under the wall-to-wall carpeting.

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Cutting Room Floor, Part Two

In the final version of The River In Winter, in chapter 13, Jonah travels to San Francisco to visit his mother, Barbara.

In an earlier draft, the San Francisco trip extended into a second chapter, but after a few pages I discovered that I’d fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. I’d introduced a subplot that could easily have consumed 50 or 100 pages. I had no idea where it was going—or, for that matter, where it had come from or why I needed it. I had to cut it.

One of the many principles I learned from Carol Bly is a certain economy with characters. Of course, there are always bit players, walk-ons, spear carriers, but I try to keep their numbers small. In general, I like to feel that every character has some clear purpose.

And that’s why, as much as I enjoyed writing Bryce, I had to let him go.

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Book Trailer

I gave myself a crash course in iMovie and put together a book trailer. I think it’s pretty nifty, but feedback is most welcome.

The River in Winter from Matt Dean on Vimeo.

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Work in Process

I know it’s way, way too early for this, but I’ve already started playing around with cover designs for my novel-in-progress. Here’s what I’ve got so far (click for a high-res PDF):

It’s a study in white space, this cover. The great expanses of emptiness signify the loneliness, the futility, of daily existence. The key—islanded as it is within those ample tracts of nothingness—symbolizes our conviction that we know what we think we know, that we are what we think, that the unknowable is, in fact, knowable. The title and the author’s name are motion-blurred—smudged a smidgen—betokening the unfathomable speed of life’s passing. Years melt away into the void, faster than we care to admit, and all along the way we convince ourselves that we hold the key to understanding.

Actually, that’s all pretty much BS. I just pushed some pixels around until I found something I liked.

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One Dollar Per Year Per Person

Our planet is home to six billion people. Of that number, almost one billion people—one in eight of us—don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water.

Here in the US, we take water entirely for granted. You turn a knob, you bump a lever with your wrist, the water comes, hot or cold, clean and clear. We use about 150 gallons of water every day. In a developing country, a person may struggle to find five gallons of water. The time spent collecting water is time that could naturally be spent in school or earning a living. Lacking a source of clean water, a community faces the risk of life-threatening water-borne illnesses. Forty-five hundred children die every day from water-related diseases.

charity:water aims to bring clean, safe water to developing nations. They use 100% of the money they raise to provide water to communities in need. They work in 16 countries on three continents—Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Honduras, Haiti, Cote D’Ivoire, and many more. They do much with little; $20 can provide a person in Africa with clean, safe water for 20 years. One dollar per year per person.

This is, to put it mildly, a Very Good Cause. I’m adding a banner at the bottom of this page. Click on it, won’t you, to learn more about charity:water. (The blog is especially nifty.) It would be absolutely brilliant if a billion more people gained the luxury of taking water for granted.

Cutting Room Floor

As I’m working through a draft, I often write a scene that’s too tangential or that veers off in the wrong direction entirely. But I try not to delete anything outright; instead when I make cuts I move the text to a separate file, in case I’m able to use them after all. I thought it might be fun to sift through the material I cut from The River in Winter and see if there’s anything worth sharing.

Among other things, I found this flashback scene, describing how Jonah met his partner, Tom:

I’d first seen Tom in the crowded gymnasium, at a freshman orientation event, a kind of expo where the school’s sports teams and clubs tried to lure first-years with brochures, posters, and instant rapport. I’d volunteered for an early shift at the rowing club’s table. My first glimpse of Tom had been from behind. Long black hair halfway down his back. A black tank top and skimpy blue running shorts showing off bronzed legs and arms.

He’d stopped at the table across the aisle from ours, had chatted for some minutes with a perky member of the French Club. Beneath the table her feet were demurely crossed in penny loafers and short white socks. She smoothed the folds of her plaid skirt over her knees. As she spoke, she looked up at Tom, her head tilted to one side. She twirled a hank of hair around her fingers.

As he turned away, he glanced in my direction. His eyes met mine, then slid immediately away. He stood for a moment, reading the poster behind me?-“Partridge Lake Rowing Club” was all it said. And then he shook his head, tucked his hair behind his ear, and walked away. Well, of course. He wasn’t built like a rower. A runner, perhaps. Tall, lean, wiry.

Outside, after my shift, I saw him standing with a couple of seniors from the Native American Student Union. As I passed, I felt him watching me, but when I turned back, he and the seniors were walking three abreast toward the Campus Center.

Weeks later, some friends from the rowing club dragged me to the homecoming dance. One of the coxswains, Carl, lent me a shirt and a pair of shoes; I didn’t own anything with buttons, in the former case, or without reflective stripes, in the latter.

The Great Hall glittered with pink and gold light. Streamers waved against the old rippled glass of the tall windows. The disc jockey seemed to favor the thrashing guitar-driven music I hated. I stood near the door, craving Rodgers and Hammerstein, or at least the Thompson Twins.

Tom sidled through the crowd, a beer in each hand. How, as a freshman, with an enormous Magic Marker “X” on the back of each hand, had he managed to get not one, but two, beers? Resourceful, this one.

He wore a slouchy black T shirt and acid-washed jeans. A big square hole in the denim revealed his bony left knee. The tongues of his black high-top sneakers flapped against his shins. He walked with a stiff-legged, wide-stepping gait. Maybe it was the looseness of his shoes. Maybe he was already drunk.

“What’s up?” he said. He offered me one of the beers.

I shrugged. “Not much.”

He looked at me. He stared for so long that I thought I might have said something unwittingly cruel, or something surpassingly insightful. He grinned and raised his glass, as if in a toast. I raised mine.

We stood side by side, watching the pastel lights play across the slow-moving bodies of the dancers. He leaned against me, shoulder to shoulder. The insufferable rock music seemed to vanish, and it was as if I could hear only my own slow pulse. It was as if our breathing and our heartbeats had fallen into the same rhythm, as if our bodies, though barely touching, had become intertwined, interdependent.

More to come.

Reading List

One of my friends, a talented writer and avid reader, has started a meme on Facebook: we’re selecting books to read in 2010, with an emphasis on titles we’ve been putting off for a while. Given that my house is full of books I’ve bought for one reason or another, and haven’t yet gotten around to reading, it was a trivial matter to make a list. Here it is, in no particular order:

Should be a good year!

Maybe next year I’ll take on Proust.

Starting up a Brand New Day

I don’t usually make New Years resolutions, and for good reason—I never keep them for more than a week or so. But this year I thought, eh, what the hell?

Ergo, to wit, henceforth and forthwith, here are my resolutions for (some small portion of) 2010:

  • I will spend less time on Twitter. (Already it’s not looking good. I just paused in the middle of typing the previous sentence in order to check my timeline.)
  • I will stop drinking Diet Coke. Again. (I was off the stuff for two or three years. Somehow it crept back in. They put heroin in it, you know, to make it addictive.)
  • I will stop buying books until I read the ones I already—. Hahahaha. Nooooo, hahahaha. I can’t even finish typing that one.
  • I will be more methodical about marketing The River in Winter. (So far? Enthusiastic, but a little scattershot.)
  • I will finish my second novel, in hopes of getting it to press in fewer than 12 years.
  • I will refrain from talking about politics with anyone to whom I am related by blood. (Should any such personage ask me about politics, I shall say “Mmmmph, mm-mm-mmph” around my fist, which I will have by then stuffed into my mouth.)
  • I will never understand anything that Jim DeMint says or does. (Actually, that’s not so much a resolution. More a sad prediction.)
  • I will use my evenings more productively, by reading more and diddling around less on my iPhone.
  • I will manage my Netflix queue better, so that I don’t have a pair of unwatched DVDs lying around the house for months at a time. (Somewhere around here I have Serpico and In the Year of the Pig. I don’t remember why I picked them, and I don’t remember where I put them. Oy vey iz mir.)
  • I will reveal my secret plan to capture Bin Laden.
  • I will get my ample behind back into the gym and resume indoor cycling classes. (This one can wait a couple of weeks. Let everyone else make and break the same resolution first.)
  • I will quit smoking. (I know I already did that, almost two years ago. But I thought it’d be good to have a safe bet on the list.)

There you have it. My ambitious program of self-improvement for 2010. Or, at any rate, for the first two weeks of 2010. After that, all bets are off.

Oh, look! Forty new tweets on my timeline!

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Because…

Because there are not nearly enough young-adult novels about vampires, let’s have some more:

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The Road

Today, at long last, I got to see The Road, the recently released film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s great novel of the same name. I’ve waited for weeks for this film. Just when I despaired of it ever coming to Charleston, here it is! Woot!

The plot of the book and movie are simple enough to describe in a “high concept” way—a father and son travel through a blighted, post-apocalyptic landscape—but neither the book nor the movie is a cheap trinket of popular entertainment.

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Um … Say What Now?

Just read this, in which DeMint is quoted as saying this, regarding same-sex marriage:

I think we need to make a constitutional case of it. The federal government and our courts have no business redefining marriage and even at the state level, the courts have no business telling us what marriage means. So we need to fight this, because this is not about equal rights. This is about the government legitimizing and promoting behavior that culturally we have always considered wrong.

A constitutional case in what sense, if the courts have no business deciding? Wha—? How’s that? Say again?

I keep thinking Jim DeMint might be the worst, most insufferable person on earth—and then I remember Joe Lieberman.

Last night I ran across this piece. The gist is that Lieberman is really not all that smart. A lot of people are spending a lot of time trying to figure out why he says what he says and does what he does…

But there’s little evidence that he’s a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform. At one point during the 2000 recount, the Gore campaign explained to Lieberman why lowering standards for military ballots would be totally unfair and illegal, and Lieberman proceeded to go on television and subvert the campaign’s position. Gore loyalists interpreted this as a sellout, but perhaps the more plausible explanation was that Lieberman — who, after all, badly wanted to be vice-President — just didn’t understand the details of the Gore position well enough to defend it. The guy was taken apart by Dick Cheney in the 2000 veep debate.

Finally! An explanation that makes sense!

I think the same can be said of DeMint. His motives are by no means inscrutable—he wants power within the GOP. Be that as it may, he’s a reciter of talking points, and he’s probably believes what he’s saying, as weird and as inconsistent with reality as it is. He’s just not “a sharp or clear thinker.”

The other day, I told Todd he should run against DeMint. There’s no way Todd would win, but the debates would be a lot of fun.

Another Message to Jim DeMint

I read this today, and then I used DeMint’s online contact form to send this:

I gather that you’re currently in the process of trying to become king of the Tea Partiers, and as such you’ve said some things recently that are calculated to attract the attention of fringe right-wing zealots. The senate has gone too far to the left. We should privatize social security. A gay president would be some kind of immoral blight on the nation.

In addition, I’ve seen some items in your Twitter feed that are not only inflammatory but plainly false.

As an aspiring “kingmaker” who spends the greater part of his time jetsetting “across the country recruiting new republicans,” you may not have noticed that things in South Carolina are pretty bad right now. As your constituent, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop stirring the pot and focus on real-world solutions for real-world people.

Of course, even as I write this, I’m only too aware that I’m wasting my time. Your idea of a “real-world solution” is giving Social Security away to Wall Street. In your world, the ideological principle of “a free market” is always and entirely more important than the health and safety of actual human beings.

And as I think we’ve learned over the course of the past year, members of your party care as little for helping people as they do for the truth—i.e., not at all.

(I love how y’all go on and on about liberty and freedom all the time, but then you openly and outspokenly yearn to enact your own narrow view of morality into law. Sometimes I think that the Republican definition of freedom begins and ends with the right to own firearms. But I digress.)

I have a suspicion that if you ever started reading this at all, you won’t have gotten this far. But in any case, I’ll finish by saying that I would really, really like it if I could see your name in the news just once without cringing because you’ve said something ignorant or hateful. You’re an embarrassment to your office and to the state of South Carolina.

Although Lindsey Graham occasionally replies to my messages, I’ve never had any kind of acknowledgment from Senator DeMint on anything I’ve ever sent him. I’m sure he’s far too busy trying to amp up his rightist cred to have any truck with the lefty likes of me.

UPDATE:

DeMint said that the Senate Republicans have moved to the left; I wrote that he said they’ve moved to the right.

His assessment is so backassward that I cannot seem to type it. Even in the sentence directly above, I almost typed “moved to the right…moved to the right.” No doubt my confusion stems from the fact that the Republicans in the Senate keep moving to the freakin’ right.

But never mind. I fixed my mistake in this post.

Rick Warren and Uganda

Rick Warren has at last spoken out against Uganda’s proposed anti-gay law.

He had to, you see, in order to “correct lies, errors and false reports when others associate my name with a law that I had nothing to do with, completely oppose and vigorously condemn.”

Question. Why would anyone who “completely opposes and vigorously condemns” refuse to say so for so very long? If, when first asked, he had said he “completely opposes and vigorously condemns” the bill, that would have been the end of it.

I noticed a few days ago that Warren tweeted this:

DJoe,I feel no need to tell reporters &bloggers what I’ve done behind the scenes on this.They never admit their misreporting anyway.Pr.15:12

Since he didn’t use the standard Twitter @-mention mechanism, and the only “DJoe” on Twitter has tweeted only once (on August 25, 2008), I have no way of knowing that this refers to. I suspect it has to do with this Uganda thing. Pure speculation.

Just for funsies, I looked up Proverbs 15:12:

A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise.

Shame on us ill-tempered correction-resenting mockers. When will we leave the poor wise Rev. Warren in peace?

Side note: Warren’s next tweet after the one quoted above? Pascal’s Wager:

If you guess life ends at death, please consider that Eternity would be a long time to be wrong. I wouldn’t gamble.

Trouble is …

Well, there are a lot of problems with Pascal’s wager, as detailed here. Suffice it to say, once you’ve chosen one belief system over all the others, you’ve placed a bet.

UPDATE:

Again, from Warren’s Twitter timeline:

DThanks Bob! It seem our quiet effort helped kill part of the Uganda b so it was worth being misjudged, but our job isnt done yet.

Makes me think my suspicions about the earlier tweet are correct.

I wonder if it would cynical or unkind to point out that Warren’s attempt to take credit for the softening the bill (without seeming to take credit) is further testament to the strength of his connection with the Ugandan haters.

Well, I don’t really care. Consider it pointed out.

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An Open Letter to Senator Jim DeMint

Dear Senator DeMint:

Congrats! You’re the quote of the day on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire:

The problem in the Republican Party is that the leadership has gone to the left.

This is not just any garden-variety quote. This could be the money shot for a teabagger porn flick.

As a proud member of the reality-based community, however, I must ask you the following two-part question. What are you smoking, and where can I get some?

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SO Proud

Oh, Senator Graham, you’ve done it again! You’ve made me so proud to be a citizen of South Carolina.

I’ve just been reading your comments on the “black jail” at Bagram:

When our colleagues go over to visit, I would just make a recommendation to committee members if you get a chance go over to the Bagram confinement facility, General McChrystal, y’all have done a great job, that is a, I wish we had jails like that in South Carolina, I mean it really is a very impressive facility, and I want to commend you and your staff and the embassy working together to come up with a new detainee policy I think will help the war effort.

I can see your point, really. Reading this, it just sounds like this is simply the most humane and effective detention facility on earth.

The site, known to detainees as the black jail, consists of individual windowless concrete cells, each illuminated by a single light bulb glowing 24 hours a day. In interviews, former detainees said that their only human contact was at twice-daily interrogation sessions.

“The black jail was the most dangerous and fearful place,” said Hamidullah, a spare-parts dealer in Kandahar who said he was detained there in June. “They don’t let the I.C.R.C. officials or any other civilians see or communicate with the people they keep there. Because I did not know what time it was, I did not know when to pray.”

Sure, sure, some detainees were allegedly abused while being detained in conditions unfit for any facility run by the ASPCA, and in fact would have preferred death:

“That was the hardest time I have ever had in my life,” Rashid said of his interrogation. “It was better to just kill me. But they would not kill me.”

But ohmigod, it’s not like detainees are people or anything, amiright?

You just keep fightin’ the good fight, Senator!

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Why Uganda Be So Hateful?

Although good things seem to be happening in New Jersey, and in fact overall things “appear to be v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y getting better” for same-sex marriage.

But in Uganda… Oh, dear, in Uganda, there is a very clear indication that in the broadest possible context, we have a long, long way to go.

In short, the Ugandan parliament is considering an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” If enacted, the country’s laws concerning homosexuality will become repressive and draconian unto the point of absurdity. A single act of gay sex carries a penalty of life imprisonment. Testing positive for HIV or engaging in a second act of gay sex is punishable by death—as is gay sex with a minor. If you are aware that such acts have occurred, and do not report them, you may face up to three years in prison. The bill prohibits the “promotion of homosexuality” in such a way that all HIV and AIDS prevention activities will cease. Homosexual Ugandans who engage in gay sex abroad “are supposed to be brought back to Uganda and convicted.”

The bill is expected to pass.

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My Fact-Finding Mission

As planned, I went to my dad’s funeral this weekend. Some things I learned:

  • I would not have recognized my dad if I’d run into him on the street in recent years.Dad at 70

    Of course, I’d often wondered what he looked like. Years ago someone told my mom he had a lot of white hair and a white beard, but I never could incorporate that into my mental image. Maybe because of the big Santa-Claus mustache and beard, maybe because his hair is no longer black, maybe because his hairline had receded so much, I have trouble even recognizing the facial features that are so familiar from old pictures.

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Scattered Pictures

This morning, I dug through some photo boxes hoping to find the four-generation photo I mentioned earlier. No such luck. I did find a couple of nifty old snaps that may explain why my dad had to fight off lung cancer last year:

Goin' out on the town! Swank!Snazzy red couch

I’m pretty sure these were taken before I was born—perhaps before my parents even married. In any case, this is not how I remember my dad. Before he left us, he occasionally smoked a pipe, but I never saw him smoke a cigarette. That’s one small difference. Another is that in these photos he’s somehow without beer; maybe there’s a can of Bud just out of shot somewhere.

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It Could Always Be Worse

My dad may not have been a stand-up guy, but there’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse. Case in point.

The Uncertainty Principle

Grief is never easy, but it’s usually uncomplicated. I suffered long and hard over my grandmother’s death, but I never once wondered what to feel about it. Because my grandfather and I had had a touchier relationship, grieving him was significantly more complicated. I’d already struggled for years to keep my feelings for him separate from my feelings about his political convictions (Rush Limbaugh was favorite of his).

And now there’s this: My dad died last week. It seems that a heart attack felled him suddenly, summarily, as a lightning strike might fell a tree. He was 71 years old.

If I thought that grieving my grandfather was difficult, then I had no idea what lay in store for me in the present circumstances. I haven’t seen my dad in decades. In 30 years or more we’ve traded a handful of greeting cards. Actually, less than a handful: I can count the number on one hand, with fingers left over.

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Under the Weather

Except for the progressive lessening of tensions in the Great Flash Debate and the coolest Amazon widget ever that I posted yesterday, things have been pretty quiet around here lately.

It’s not ‘cause I don’t love y’all, ‘cause you know I do. But I’ve been sick.

Here is the pattern of the last three days of my life: sleep, eat a little something, drink hot liquids while watching TV and checking Twitter feed, repeat.

Todd assures me that if this is, as we suspect, the garden-variety—that is to say, the non-piggy version—of the flu, then it will take about a week to run its course. The 900-ton weight of ickiness hit me last Saturday. It’s now Wednesday, and I feel a little less awful than I did at this hour last night. So I might just pull through.

It Figures

I routinely read blogs about religion and politics which attract hateful comments and even, occasionally, death threats. The intertubes are chock full of nuts. Some bloggers actually regard the first crazy-person post as a badge of honor. It figures, though, that this post—which I dashed off four months ago on a day when FarmVille was acting strangely and I had nothing better to write about anyway—would be the first to attract an extended series of ranting comments.

It only makes sense, I suppose. That post is, for whatever reason, the single most viewed item on the site. Every time I look at my traffic report, I’m all, “Wow, that’s like a totally popular post, whafuck—? Oh, yeah, the Flash thing.”*

Either a lot of people hate Flash, or a secret cabal of Flash developers is plotting to take over the world, one restaurant menu at a time, and I’m on their hit list.

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The Senses

The theme of the writing retreat last weekend was “the senses.” We did all sorts of related exercises—limiting ourselves to one sense at a time, examining a failure of the senses, juxtaposing sensory experiences that repel with those that attract, and so on.

Though I’m probably going to use almost all of the writing that I did over the weekend for my next project, I’m almost entirely certain that I won’t use the one in which we described an emotion solely in terms of the senses. As such, I’ll share:

Oliver’s blood surged in his ears, as noisy as surf. His breath rattled in his lungs. In the blackness of the cabinet, he could not tell for sure whether his eyes were open or shut; in any case, his vision was clotted with orange and green spots and billowing violet swirls. The skin at his temples was hot and tight, his scalp itchy and crawling with waves of heat. Touching his forehead with the tips of his fingers, he kneaded the damp skin there, willing it to slacken. He counted out a cadence for each breath. He mouthed the numbers silently. A count of five to exhale, pausing for another count of five, a count of ten to inhale. He begged his constricted throat to loosen; his breathing made such a racket, the soughing of an old boiler, the clatter of branches and leaves in a hard wind.

Five, five, ten. Five, five, ten. Five, five—What was that? Right outside, on the other side of the cabinet door, a floorboard creaked.

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Pressing On

I’ve just added an online press kit with info and blurbs about the book, and a longish bio of me, and so on and so forth. This sort of thing needs to happen, because just today I approved the final print proof. The book will be available for sale within a couple of weeks. Woot!

Meanwhile, I’m all stoked after a weekend writing retreat, at which I met a very engaging young man named Oliver. I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time with Oliver in the near future.

No, Todd doesn’t need to be worried. Oliver is a fictional character, not an actual person. He appeared to me in a writing exercise and basically took over all the weekend’s writing activities. Good thing, too. NaNoWriMo is coming up.

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This Really Sticks in My Craw

It must really, really suck to be the President of the United States of America.* Consider: After spending the whole summer being compared to Hitler for trying to insure the uninsured, you win the Nobel Peace Prize and the next thing you know, everyone’s racing to the nearest microphone or computer keyboard to talk or write about how little you deserve it, and how winning the Nobel freakin’ Peace Prize is ZOMG!!1!1! the worst thing ever.

Even Michael Moore hastily weighed in—though he later repented in leisure.

And all of that sticks in my craw, but what reeeeaaaaally sticks in my craw is this sentence in Moore’s repent-in-leisure post:

Two months of the War in Iraq would pay for all the wells that need to be dug in the Third World for drinking water!

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Definitely, Maybe

I’ve been writing about politics a lot lately—even though (as I keep claiming) I don’t actually like politics, and even though I keep promising myself I’m going to try to stay away from writing about it. So this is positively … probably … possibly … my last post about politics … maybe.

I guess it all depends on whether something else gets me worked up in the near future. For the moment, I’m very cross with both of my senators. They were in the minority of male senators who voted against this perfectly sensible amendment offered by Al Franken.

The short version is this. A woman who was working for Halliburton/KBR in Iraq was gang-raped by her coworkers. She was held prisoner in a shipping container and threatened with dismissal if she sought medical treatment for her injuries. The fine print of her employment contract prohibited her from bringing criminal charges against KBR. Yes, that’s right, someone at corporate actually had the forethought to include specific contract provisions concerning sexual assault allegations.

Franken’s amendment would defund any defense contractor who similarly blocks its employees from seeking due process for sexual assault or battery that occurs in the workplace. This is perfectly sensible. No one who suffers rape or abuse should be denied the right to legal recourse. Any defense contractor who would lose its funding according to this provision has only to modify its employment contract to allow its employees the rights we all should have—the right to workplace safety and, failing that, the right to seek appropriate legal remedies.

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Proof

Our UPS driver is perfectly friendly and all, but I’m hardly ever as glad to see her as I was today.

And that’s ‘cause…

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Further Thoughts on The Conservative Bible Project

According to Poe’s Law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

I doubt that The Conservative Bible Project and Conservapædia are parodies, but I am certain that they prove Poe’s Law.

Consider. If a person were to set out with the express intention of underlining in a humorous way that:

  1. the bible has been tweaked and prodded by human hands for centuries, such that
  2. its supposed inerrancy is far from trustworthy, and furthermore that
  3. by taking, twisting, and selectively quoting bits and pieces of it, one can easily use it to bolster any argument and fortify any worldview, and finally that
  4. it can ideally be used to form the opinions of, and maintain control over, a willing and credulous flock,

then that person could hardly go wrong with something like The Conservative Bible Project.

On the one hand, I really would love to believe that no one is capable of commencing a project this bizarrely wrong-headed without a shred of irony. On the other hand, that would mean that all of Conservapædia is a colossal joke at the expense of conservatives and liberals, which would make it an endeavor of such unmitigated sociopathy—to say nothing of fuckwaddery—that … no, no, it’s got to be for real.

On the other, other hand, what are we to make of an entry on dinosaurs which includes an artist’s rendering of Jesus riding one of the prehistoric beasts?

And Verily I Say Unto Thee, Git ‘R Done

Back in June, I complained that I didn’t really understand the whole point of Twitter. After that, I discovered that some of my friends were on there, and we started following each other. And then, by who knows what confluence of hash tags and at-signed retweets, I began to accumulated followers, and to follow them some of their followers, and now I sort of get it. Every time I check my timeline—three or four times a day—there are 100 to 200 new tweets to look at, and always something funny or interesting. I’m following a whole lot of lefties, so I get many, many pithy statements in favor of health care reform. Thanks to Twitter, I’m actually feeling rather well-informed these days. Sometimes I know things before Todd does, and that’s never happened before.

I know what you’re thinking: Twitter isn’t journalism. But no, no, don’t worry … What I’m saying is that the people I follow tweet links to various news items and blogs, and I read a lot of those. I’d never have the patience and attention span to sit and read all the breaking stories on the New York Times’ website, as Todd does—but I can take in a surprising amount of data while standing in line at Starbucks waiting for a pair of teenagers to decide whether they want mocha chip frappuccinos with half-whip or two-thirds-caf blended lite caramel tuxedo smoothies.

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How I Spent My Weekend

I spent my weekend messing around with sound equipment and reading the first chapter of my book in the general direction of a computer. The result is a sample chapter, which I’ve posted on the main site to serve—I hope—as an enticement to potential readers.

Do take a listen, won’t you?

Or perhaps you’d rather download the MP3 and put it on your Zune.

(Bear in mind, there’s a bit of salty language. Please use headphones if you’re at work or there are kids around.)

It’s trickier than you might think, this audiobook narration business. Jonah, the novel’s narrator, has a bit of social anxiety, and his thoughts race ahead of him so that he stammers and talks nonsense when he’s nervous. We have that in common, Jonah and I, and I found his dialogue easy enough to do. But then there’s this other character, Spike.

His voice, low in pitch, contained a promise of thunder.

Riiiight.

Clearly I wasn’t thinking of having to act out that character’s dialogue when I wrote that line. I’ve tried to master the “low in pitch” part of it, at least, but for some reason it’s ridiculously easy to throw in a southern accent, or get all smarmy and lounge-lizard with it. “Low in pitch”: yes. “Promise of thunder”: sure, if I can. Barry White crooning “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby”: no freaking way.

You may also catch a couple of spots where I almost stumbled, but not badly enough to make me stop and rerecord. I really should go back and fix a couple of things—and I very well may do that. For now, I’m most happy to have finished this project this weekend.

P.S. The intro/outro music is a song from the book. I posted the lyrics here and a recording of the complete song here.

Fall Has Fallen

Suddenly, it’s autumn.

Tom Robbins called autumn the “springtime of death,” which I’ve always found to be a little curmudgeonly, to be honest. Au contraire, mon frère, autumn rocks!

(Well, usually it rocks. But more on that later.)

Up north, spring is the most wonderful time of the year.* After the bleak midwinter, after bundling up in 16 layers and two pairs of socks and Thinsulate-lined waterproof boots just to check the freaking mail, after wondering on a daily basis if that biting gray drizzle of February and March is ever going to end, the first truly warm day of spring is something miraculous. Even if “warm” is only 40 or 45 degrees, you throw off your jacket and your stocking cap, and you seriously consider skipping barefoot across the muddy, barely thawed lawn.

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Huzzah!

At long last, I sent the book off yesterday.

If you’ve been following my progress on here, you know that I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of weeks going over the thing with a fine-toothed comb—or at any rate, a toothed comb—looking for typographic infelicities. I was careful not to get too bogged down in any serious rewriting. Fortunately, I only found a couple of sentences that needed tweaking. For the most part, I was looking for backward curly quotes, overset text,* widows and orphans, awkward hyphenation, and so on.

Yesterday I resolved to upload the final files, even if I had to bend space-time to make it happen. You may have noticed that space-time has not been disrupted, and yet I managed to upload, even though I first had to look over every page yet one more time for widows and orphans and awkward hyphenation and so on.

So, anyway, that’s done. Huzzah!

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The Dog Shouter

Still working my way through the final proofreading pass through the book. I’m going backward so that I don’t get bogged down or distracted, and I’m marking up a PDF so that I’m not tempted to tweak and twiddle. I’ve been knocking out about 100 pages a night, with 100 pages to go.

To unwind, I’ve been poking around on the internets. Oh, the crazy things you find.

Via PZ, via GOOD, via This Is Why You’re Fat, I’ve just tonight learned about the turbaconucken (a turducken wrapped in bacon, because everything’s better wrapped in bacon) and the Fool’s Gold Stack (pancakes layered with bacon and peanut butter). I think I’m gaining weight just looking at the pictures of these things.

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It’s Not Me, It’s You: An Open Letter to Senator Lindsey Graham

Senator Graham, I’m afraid we need to have a little talk. I’m sad to say, I think it’s time we part ways. It’s been fun, but I really don’t think this relationship is working out for either of us.

Look. Let’s make a deal, shall we? I’ll stop clicking on online petitions, and you stop sending me form letters.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your attempt at constituent relations. I mean, you do give good boilerplate. And at least your letter didn’t mention “tyranny,” or—gasp!—”socialism.”

But really, I just don’t see the point in going on with this charade. If we’re honest with ourselves and each other—and let’s do be honest, shall we?—we have to admit that you’re never going to get my vote at the ballot box, and I’m never going to get your vote on the Senate floor. So let’s just call it quits.

Ah, but before we do, I would like to point out a couple of things.

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Missed Connections

This morning I went to another writers’ workshop at CCPL, again led by Jonathan Sanchez. We again worked on “naming names,” with filling our writing with “ordinary and unforgettable” detail.

Jonathan gave a great example of the mnemonic power of specificity. If I say, “I have a pet and I love him a lot,” within five minutes you’ll have forgotten I ever said it. If I say, “I have this terrific bald chihuahua with three legs, and I love him so much that I feed him raw liver after tearing it into bite-sized pieces with my bare hands,” you’re likely to think I’m out of my mind, yes, but you’re unlikely to forget what I said.

Even though my (fictional) three-legged chihuahua is unusual, and my (alleged) habit of feeding him raw liver is downright nasty, my bond with him is ordinary. Any animal lover can understand it, and the vividness and specificity of detail emphasize the commonness of the emotion that underlies it.

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Good News and Bad

Good news: I had an eye exam today, and all the important bits—retina, macula, intraocular pressure—look spiffy.

Bad news: Progressive lenses.

Good news: I found handsome new frames that I’ll be thrilled to wear.

Bad news: I won’t get them for at least a week because—see above—progressive lenses.

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Head Down, Nose to the Grindstone, Shoulder to the Wheel

I’m trying very hard to pay a lot of attention to the final niggling details of book design. In particular, though I’ve spent many more hundreds of hours than I can even begin to count proofreading and editing The River in Winter, I’ve now got to go through it one more time and look for typographical infelicities—acronyms that should be in small caps, wonky nested quotes,* widows and orphans, and the dreaded rivers.

As a result, I’ve been spending my evenings with InDesign rather than WordPress.

But, hey, I don’t want to disappoint my readers (all three of you). In lieu of a proper post, here are some selections from my recent browser history.

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Rally for Recovery

I’ve never done this sort of thing as a—what shall we call it?—exhibitor? I’ve attended home shows and technology expos and whatnot, but always as a collector of information, not as a disseminator of it.

A member of our local LifeRing meeting got us a table at today’s Rally for Recovery, sponsored by Faces and Voices of Recovery. The event took over Wragg Square in downtown Charleston, just a stone’s throw from the big park at Marion Square.

Turns out there’s no real trick to being on the exhibitor side of things: sit at a table greeting passersby and handing out fliers.

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Come on in and Cover Me*

I think I’m kind of getting close to the vicinity of the neighborhood of having a paperback cover design that I can live with. The time is growing very, very near when I will actually send the thing in. After that it will be awkward to make changes. I very much want to avoid having a cover that makes me cringe every time I look at it—especially if it’s some tiny detail that I overlooked that induces the cringing.

Shorter version of the above: I’m being obsessive.

The front cover is the same as it’s always been. Here’s what I’ve got at the moment for the back cover:

Paperback - Back Cover

As before, click to get the full-res PDF.

I’ve spent so much time tweaking those three images—and, for that matter, choosing new images for one reason or another—that I can’t even see them any more. I suppose—once again—I’ll have to set this aside for a day or two and come back to it.

* Yes, it’s from a Bruce Springsteen song. Yes, I hate Springsteen with a passion. I couldn’t think of anything better, which is only fitting, since the same thing could be said of every lyric “The Boss” ever wrote. [rimshot]

Schadenfreude

I suppose this guy thought he was being some kind of hero, instead of a garden-variety asshat. Oh, and I’m sure he’ll now become a darling of the right wing.

So I probably shouldn’t be quite so tickled that I got this error message this morning when trying to access Wilson’s contact page:

Too much traffic

It may only mean that all the asshats of the world are lining up to crown him their asshat king. But even so, it does tickle me, because I’m guessing he’s getting pwnd as we speak.

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Buddha Jumping on a Trampoline

Last night, I attended the first session of a fiction workshop at the Charleston County Public Library. It was a big, diverse group. Our guide is Jonathan Sanchez, a local author and bookstore owner.

I’ll be honest: I went in with serious misgivings and rampant skepticism. I was more or less certain that for one reason or another I wasn’t going to fit in with the assembled writers and aspiring writers. My low expectations had less to do with the people around me than with my own pretty-much-constant sense that I don’t fit in with the group. But never mind. I had a great time.

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Electoral College

Saturday, I took pictures of myself. Sunday, I took pictures of myself. Only two sessions of picture-taking, and it’s enough already. It’s not entirely accurate to say I like any of them, but there are a few that don’t make me cringe.

From these I will—with your help, kind reader—choose at least one to put on the cover of the book. I’ll probably use a sepia-toned photo on the paperback’s cover and a color photo on the hardcover’s dust jacket. They don’t have to be the same picture.

There are five to choose from.

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I Want One!

Await Your Reply has a book trailer.

Beautifully done. Intense. Disturbing. Curiosity baiting.

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Don’t Look Now

Once upon a time, I lamented the troublesomeness that is A Photo Shoot: one must haul around lights and tripods and makeup kits. I wrote:

This explains why that semi-goofy photo on my home page is the one I use everywhere, for all my profile pictures: It’s pretty much the only decent one I’ve got. Last night, when I was designing the paperback cover for my book, I used that same photo, though I know I’m going to have to go through all of that rigamarole with the lights and the costume changes … and … if there’s makeup, I’m not going to say a word about it to anyone.

That was in April—yes, April. In all that time, I’ve continued to use that same semi-goofy photo for just about everything, including my cover designs. I’m getting ready to move forward, finally, with publication, so I need to replace “semi-goofy” with “decent and somewhat professional-looking.”

I’ve been gearing up all week—reading articles about author photos, looking at other writers’ photos, and brushing up my Photoshop. Today, while Todd took his parents to a movie, I conducted a private, mostly rigamarole-free photo shoot. I set up the tripod and put batteries in the camera and snapped some photos: sitting, standing, leaning, crouching—and pretty much universally scowling.

I took about 30 pictures, of which precisely 1 (one) is acceptable.

Sigh.

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No Country for Little Children on the Road

I’m a little sleepy today. I stayed up late to finish Little Children. I didn’t even know it was going to happen, but as I was reading along I discovered that I was only 50 pages from the end, and who would stop at that point?

Although I liked the book, it didn’t make me love the cover any more than I did the other day. Not to be too literal-minded or anything, but there’s nothing in the book about goldfish, unless you count Goldfish Crackers. Yes, I have a personal childhood story about goldfish in a bag, which means that the image makes sense to me as a symbol of childhood anxiety—but does it function that way for everyone?

But never mind. On to the book itself.

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Writing and Risk

This morning, I received another one of those Glimmer Train email bulletin things. There’s a quick interview Charles Baxter.

I keep bumping into Baxter, figuratively speaking. I first became aware of him when I was looking around for MFA programs, and learned that he teaches at my first-choice school. I read Saul and Patsy and at least part of Burning Down the House. My attempt to purchase the audiobook of The Feast of Love was unfortunately abortive; I bought it used, and when it came, the first CD wasn’t actually the first CD of The Feast of Love, but rather some sort of bizarre self-help guru speaking to a live audience.

In any case, Charles Baxter is a writer who knows his stuff.* He’s giving good advice here about yearning and risk. Characters have to want something. The stakes have to be high.

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Gotcha Covered, Part Seven

That B&N gift card I got for my birthday is almost spent. I got a little impulsive last night and bought five—count ‘em, five!—books, four of which were in hardcover. I love books in hardcover, and it’s a rare treat to be able to buy a pile of them all at once without a shred of guilt.

Two of the newest five are debut novels by authors I’ve never heard of. Their book jackets did a bang-up job at being book jackets; that is to say, at attracting my attention and getting the book into my hand. I thought I might take a look at the various covers, then, in this special Birthday Edition of Gotcha Covered.

I’ll start with a cover that I’ve already written about: the cover of Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Brooklyn.

Brooklyn

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A Good Egg

Apparel,toys,television networks, classic animated entertainment, and—what else?—eggs.

Disney eggsDisney eggs

A shiny nickel to anyone who can propose a plausible line of thinking that led to this. I’m trying to imagine the meeting that included a discussion of this product: a long marble-topped table, businesswomen and -men in skirts and suits, pitchers of water and carafes of coffee on silver trays, PowerPoint presentations, and agenda topped by the word “eggs.” No matter how I play it out in my mind, the skirt- and suit-clad participants of this meeting end up doubled over in laughter, tears rolling down their cheeks.

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If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake

Well, actually, I did bake a cake. A red velvet cake, as promised.

I used the Sara Moulton recipe, but if you’ve read any of my cooking posts, you will be entirely unsurprised to learn that I made one small adjustment. Instead of buttermilk, I used sour cream.

From now on, unless it makes no sense at all, I think I’m going to make that substitution. We always have sour cream in the fridge, but I never buy buttermilk unless a recipe requires it. And then, of course, because there’s apparently no such thing as a half-pint container of buttermilk, I have to buy at least twice as much as I need, and whatever’s left over sits in the fridge, flourishing with alien life until finally I throw it away.

But I digress.

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Birthday Treats

For some years now, I’ve thought that I should just skip the whole birthday thing. It stops being fun when you’re about 10, except that on your 21st birthday you get to drink too much—legally!—and make an ass of yourself.* After that, it’s just a cruel reminder that you’re getting older and not necessarily wiser, that you’ll likely never have abs like this guy, and that there’s more hair on your earlobes than on the top of your head.**

Whenever I mention my birthday-skipping scheme, however, Todd reminds me that it would preclude the possibility of gifts, and I invariably withdraw the suggestion. And with good reason, ‘cause I usually get some kick-ass stuff.

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The War on Terriers

This, my friends, is why you must never turn your back on a Jack Russell terrier:

iPhone holsteriPhone holster

I left the room the other day, for maybe 15 minutes, and when I returned, that’s what had become of the holster for my iPhone. I can’t find a picture showing what it looked like originally, but it wasn’t entirely unlike this. Charlotte’s, erm, modifications didn’t improve its utility, let’s put it that way.

I suppose she was irritated because we’d left her at home alone—well, with only other dogs—for too long. But that doesn’t explain why she felt the need to eat my cell phone holster. She really is a terribly annoying brat sometimes.

Later, I popped out again to run to the grocery store, and she climbed up on the window sill to look after me…

Daddy, where you goin'?

… and the little shit is so adorable, I just had to forgive her.

This is, of course, why she’s a terribly annoying brat sometimes.

Snickserduddles, Ur Doin It Right

As I mentioned ever so briefly last night, I made another batch of snickerdoodles. This time, I made a full recipe, so I didn’t have to add, subtract, or divide fractions.

… Not that fractions were really the problem, after all. I think when I made the first batch, I put in a half-cup of flour thinking I was putting in a full cup. It was, in other words, an issue of cup size.

In any case, this time I went totally by the book.

Well, almost. We were totally out of the regular DiabetiSweet, so I used the brown. I was a little hesitant to roll the cookies in it before baking them, but the cinnamon crust on the outside really is an important element of the snickerdoodle experience, so I gave it a go. It worked really well.

But see for yourself:

SnickerdoodlesSnickerdoodles

They pretty much look like snickerdoodles this time, yes? No light shining through these, no siree.

Todd says he prefers these to the first batch. Personally, I’m on the fence. Maybe I’ll split future batches in two, with enough flour in one half and the other half all chewy and buttery and paper-thin in the middle.

A Crowd of SOBs

Pat Conroy has a new book out. Don’t ask me how I know. It’s just an uncanny feeling that I have. It came over me as I walked into the B&N.

South of Broad

I didn’t get a close-up of the cover. It hardly seemed worth it. As you can see here, it looks an awful lot like this sort of thing, or this.

I read some reviews of the new Conroy novel and a description of one of the Benton Frank novels. If you covered the author names and titles, you’d probably think they were two books by the same author. Oh, and Return to Sullivans Island is listed on South of Broad’s page under “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” So, yeah, I’d have to say they’re pretty solidly in the same genre—whatever that is. Weepfest? Is that a genre?

May I Be Frank?

If I were a different kind of person, I’d be Barney Frank. Watch as he brings the awesome. (Just be careful where you put your mouse. If you roll over some of the ads, some giant Flash monstrosities pop up.)

As Senator Frank points out, it’s hardly worth engaging some people in conversation, much less debate, but I just want to point out that if you’re going to use a Reductio ad Hilterum argument, there has to be some basis for it. What’s being discussed here is a program that will provide every citizen of this country access to quality health care. What Nazi policy does this resemble, exactly? Totalitarianism? Aggressive war? Genocide? Suppression of dissent? Suspension of civil rights?

People. People. Before you start painting Hitler mustaches on all your photographs of President Obama, please understand that intimidation is a Nazi tactic; universal health care is—I assure you—not.

Iz in Ur Kithcen Bakkin U Snickserduddles!!1!11!

Do you remember snickerdoodles? They were briefly all the rage when I was in middle school or junior high. The recipe was passed around among the ladies at our church like hot gossip. I remember love-love-loving them the first time I tasted them, and then not so much every other time anyone made them.*

Todd doesn’t remember hearing of or eating snickerdoodles, and I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that the name isn’t one you’d easily forget. Maybe he was sequestered at Navy boot camp during the cookie recipe’s brief spasm of popularity.

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Let the Great World Spin

I finished Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin the other day, and what a great read!

When I reviewed the cover, I wrote that Philippe Petit’s “1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center provides the novel’s inciting incident.” That’s sort of true. The book opens with a description of the walk—or precisely, of the New Yorkers who watched the walk. But it’s not as if the plot proceeds from there. It’s really more of a pivot point or hub around which the book … well … spins.

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Up and Down

Picking up where I left off last night… After we left Central Park, we took a train up to Inwood to see the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art and architecture. Until moments ago, when I read this, I thought that it used to be a working monastery or convent, later converted to a museum, but actually it’s assembled from pieces of monasteries and/or convents brought over from France. Oh, those crazy robber barons! In any case, I wasn’t so interested in the Cloisters as such. My main goal was to see the top of the island. Before this trip, I’d never been above about 72nd Street. We were staying on 104th Street—halfway to 207th—so I thought it might be cool to see what’s at the end of Manhattan. Even though I knew it made no sense whatsoever, I almost expected some sort of wilderness or unspoiled frontier. Either that, or a soul-crushing, dystopian wasteland of industrial sprawl. Guess which it is. Ha, no, I kid. Actually, Inwood reminded me a lot of the parts of Brooklyn that I’ve seen—utilitarian above all. It was a lovely warm day and people were out. There were some grotty-looking shops that no doubt are locked down hard at night, but there were also some blocks of apartment buildings that looked pretty homey. By the time we got all the way up there, we were starving, so we stopped in at a little pizzeria and ate some pizza and stromboli.

Pizza and stromboli

(Sorry for the smear. Greasy fingers.) By the time we finished eating, I’d checked the map on my phone and realized that I’d planned inadequately and that I’d apparently picked the wrong subway stop. When I called up walking directions it said it would take us 37 minutes to get to the Cloisters. But we could see Inwood Hill Park from the street corner, so we set off in that direction. We passed through a really cool playground—the Emerson Playground, I think—with a spray shower in the middle of it. Kids were cooling off in the water.

Playground

Playground

(As we left the playground, I noticed a sign forbidding us to be there unaccompanied by children. I hope the authorities don’t read this and show up at our door.) We started up the hill, and I discovered that we hadn’t gone so far astray after all; there was a back way into the Cloisters.

A rocky, hilly path

Further up the path, there was a clearing in the trees that afforded a decent view of the Hudson and New Jersey beyond.

The Hudson

The Hudson

The Hudson

Unfortunately, after all the walking, and so much of it uphill, Todd was sidelined by an old ankle injury. I went on ahead to see how far away the Cloisters were. A bit too far, straight up a steep hill, for Todd to make it. I climbed up just to take some pictures of the buildings. I didn’t get to tour the museum, but really, by that hour of the day, in the heat, I wasn’t precisely in the mood for quiet contemplation of tapestries anyway. (I was tempted to buy a postcard of the tapestry—the famous one that everyone recognizes and that is splashed all over the museum’s website—but I’ve found that postcards tend to collect dust on my desk until I inevitably spill coffee on them and have to throw them away.)

First glimpse

Stone bridge

Stone wall

Through the trees

The Cloisters

The path is only narrowish and not so straight

Medieval

Gothic

Security system, old school

Self-explanatory

A courtyard near the entrance

From the courtyard

Looking in at a arcade along the courtyard

Wooden door

The arcade along the courtyard

The arcade along the courtyard

I did go inside, only to swing through the gift shop and sneak out the back.

Stone steps

An old window

Vault

The other side

A view of Inwood

The bus

Rotten vandals

Probably where they kept the monks with impure thoughts

We visited a couple of other museums, too—the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the City of New York. We didn’t spend a lot of time at either place, enough to get the flavor. At the Museum of Natural History, we bought a ticket for Journey to the Stars, currently playing in the Hayden Planetarium. It’s movie about stars, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, a former movie star.* Since we had a little time to kill before the start of the movie, we wandered through … some exhibit. It might be the temporary exhibit on climate change, or something more permanent; I’ve looked at the floor plan, and I can’t figure out where we were. In any case, there were a whole lot of rocks.

Kings Canyon Fold

Kings Canyon Fold

Iron ore ... or ... something

Garnet

Petrified wood

Obsidian

And there was a nifty convex video screen on the ceiling that played a looping animation of … something. I couldn’t figure out if it was intended to convey the future of global warming, or if the oceans were being drained of water merely to show what’s underneath them. Kind of cool, though.

Global warming?

Global warming?

Global warming?

But the Museum of Natural History attracted me mainly for its of geeky space stuff.

Scale of planets

Geeky solar system stuff

Ironically, we spent much more time at the Museum of the City of New York, but I took way fewer pictures. I got a shot of Alexander Hamilton, who stands guard outside, and I snapped the façade from a few different angles …
 
Alexander Hamilton

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York

… But inside I only took two pictures, of the entrance to the “Dutch Seen” exhibit.

Dutch Seen

Dutch Seen

It’s an exhibit of photographs of New York, taken by Dutch photographers. The exhibit’s signature photo—which you can just barely see through the orange scrim in that second picture—features a woman with a napkin on her head. The title is—what else?—Napkin.

* Did someone get told? Oh, snap!

Some Snaps

One reason that it took me a couple of weeks to start posting about our trip to New York is that I had dozens of photos to resize and sort out and—in some cases—identify. It seemed like an onerous job, and partway through I was growing very weary of it, until I realized that it’s actually quite easy to create a Photoshop action. Once I got into a rhythm, I found myself wishing there were more photos in need of resizing. Or maybe I was just trying to delay the truly onerous task of trying to figure out how to present them all. Hm. Maybe just in some kind of rational order, but without much comment? Yeah, I can live with that. First, some pics from our walk across the south end of Central Park. We entered the park through the southeast corner, where there’s a gilt statue of an angel leading or guarding some guy on a horse.* And then there is some wackadoo thing entitled The Ego and the Id.**

Some guy on a horse

The Ego and the Id

I don’t know about your ego and id, but I don’t think I’d want random people sitting on mine. About halfway across the park, we bought some bottled water and sat down on a big rock to rest.

Between you and me and the lamppost

Sunday in the park with Todd

For some reason, I always think of Manhattan as a flat and even an artificial place. Todd’s brother is an engineer who lives and works in the city, and when he occasionally mentions “topsoil” or “bedrock,” I’m a little taken aback. It’s as if I’m suddenly reminded that humans didn’t, in fact, pile up a bunch of concrete and tar to raise the island out of the water.† A few days later, when we crossed the park at the north end, it became especially obvious that Manhattan is neither flat nor artificial.

Rock outcropping

The rolling hills of New York

Rocks and hills

There’s even a lake, and given its old Dutch name—Harlem Meer—I’m guessing it wasn’t put there at some point in the late ’60s.

Harlem Meer

Harlem Meer

Harlem Meer

Harlem Meer

Harlem Meer

It’s hardly a wilderness in the upper reaches of the park, though. The six acres of the Conservatory Garden constitute the park’s only formal garden.

Gate

Fountain

Hedges

Path

Benches

Fountain

Formal garden

Très beau, n’est-ce pas? Or maybe, in keeping with the original Dutch: Is zeer mooi, niet het? In that last photo, there’s a sliver of a really cool building over on 5th, which—as it turns out—is Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center. Here’s a better shot of it:

Some cool old building

Way the hell up on the north end of the park, along 110th Street, we saw a happy little playground:

Playground

And then further along right at the park’s northwest corner, this billy goats gruff bridge, seen first through some trees.

Bridge

And then, around the corner, from a better, closer angle.

Bridge

If I’d had more time, I would have bounded down these steps to look around some more…

Steps

…But we were on our way up to Inwood and the Cloisters. Soon, I’ll post the photos from that leg of our journey.

* I am stunned to discover that a Google search for “some guy on a horse southeast corner of central park” didn’t readily reveal the identity of the statue’s subject. Or the identity of the angel or the horse, for that matter.

** I wasn’t curious enough about the angel and the guy on the horse to check out the inscription, but The Ego and the Id was so strange that I had to look around for the placard bearing the title.

† I’m pretty sure that’s where Disney World came from, though.

A Poem on the Underground Wall

Whenever I ride the subway in New York, I’m always charmed and amazed by the gorgeous tile mosaics in the various stations, like this one at 96th Street:

96th Street Station

I have no idea when these things were actually put in place—the late 19th century? early 20th?*—but to my eye they’re quaintly Victorian-looking and Arts-and-Craftsy/Beaux-Artsy, falling somewhere between William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright. These flowers are a prime example of the Arts and Crafts mojo:

Flowers

I can’t remember where I saw this piece. Maybe at Astor Place:

Astor Place

(By some completely random and accidental convergence of low light and low-quality photography, my picture reveals that a portal to another dimension has opened in the wall above the tile.) Astor Place. The very name, for whatever reason, holds a romantic allure. It’s the same with Bleecker Street (there is, after all, a song about it). Also at Bleecker Street, in addition to the usual mosaics (first picture), there are oval plaques (second picture):

Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street

(That’s the back of Todd’s head in the first picture. It was kind of tricky to get a shot of the tile while simultaneously trying to stay out of everyone else’s way and keep track of Todd so that we didn’t get separated.) I saw this oblong plaque at Union Square:

Union Square

Love that shade of green, and I swear I’ve used that kind of border in a web design somewhere. This mosaic at Grand Central is looking a little peaked, but that might be the fault of my iPhone camera.

Grand Central Station

I mainly snapped the pic because it’s Grand Central freaking Station. When I was a kid, my mom referred to any congested or highly trafficked area as “Grand Central Station.” To be in Grand Central Station is—in my mind—to be in a place of fable and myth. It would be like finding the boondocks or going to Timbuktu or meeting a little old lady from Pasadena. After we’d been traipsing in and out of subway stations for a couple of days, I started to pay attention to the little mosaics on the other side of the tracks.

Lex

From the platform these look pretty tiny. I suppose they’re there so that from inside the train you can see where you are. But still—all that effort to make a thing beautiful even when it wasn’t strictly necessary… Imagining all of the minute detail work that goes into these mosaics, I can’t help but think that if the subway were started over from scratch today, the signage would be nothing so lovely. We’d see something much like BART signage, I think. But the great tile work has already been there for a century, and modern additions and upgrades are true to the spirit of the older stuff. For example, there are extensive and gorgeous murals at the 81st Street Station, where the Museum of Natural History is located. I tried to get pictures, but again, I had to dodge tourists and keep up with Todd, so the ducks are a little blurry.

The Museum of Natural History

Ducks at the Museum of Natural History

There are more and better photos at nycsubway.org. Of course, some of the modern murals are … very … modern:

Some weird mural

Some weird mural

Some weird mural

What the—? A little poking around reveals that the mural—among others in the Christopher Street/Sheridan Square station—depicts the history of Greenwich Village. This is the “Rebels” panel. There’s a plaque that explains who everyone is. The guy with the flag jacket is Thomas Paine. I would never have guessed that Thomas Paine and Kid Rock had something in common.

* Wikipedia knows everything. The original artists, Heins and LaFarge, worked on the subway tiles from 1901 to 1907. Squire Vickers took up where they left off and worked in the same Beaux-Arts style until 1942.

After Some Delay…

… finally, at long last, I’m going to write about New York, starting with some random observations:

  • Some Starbucks in Manhattan are equipped with two restrooms, but one of them is always inexplicably out of order. The out-of-order restroom invariably bears a friendly photocopied sign promising that “we’re working on it.” The promise would be more convincing if empty milk crates were not invariably piled up in front of the door.
  • There are a lot of gay people in the Village. They all seemingly hang out on Christopher Street. That’s the way i’ve always heard it should be.
  • Speaking of the Village, and of gay people, the Stonewall Inn still exists and still operates as a bar. I walked right by it, and probably should have taken a picture, but it was getting on toward dusk, and the iPhone isn’t so hot in low light. Given all the history of the place, I might have been tempted to go in and look around, but these days—for obvious reasons—I try not to hang around in bars. (more…)

It Will Come As No Surprise…

… that Ina Garten knows how to put together a cookie recipe.

Ultimate ginger cookies

I tried the ultimate ginger cookie recipe tonight.

One word: yum!

Todd claims they’re so gingery that they make his tongue numb. I was all “pshaw” and “they did not” … but actually, they kind of do. Ginger on!

I used an ice cream scoop to portion out the cookies. Apparently our ice cream scoop is larger than Ina’s, because I got 12 cookies instead of 16. After “exactly 13 minutes,”* they were a little gummy in the middle, so I let the second tray of cookies bake for 15 minutes.

* That’s so Ina: “bake for exactly 13 minutes.”

Extreme Delectability

I totally love ginger!

Ginger Grant

No, not that Ginger…

(more…)

Hardcover

After my special Gay Fiction Edition of Gotcha Covered, I got inspired to redesign The River in Winter’s hardcover book jacket. Behold!

Hardcover book jacket, beefcake edition

(more…)

Fountain City

If you haven’t read Wonder Boys, well, then, you totally should—or if you’re in a big hurry, watch the movie, which is my all-time favorite. Grady Tripp, protagonist of both book and film, is a writer who has labored for years on his second novel. With literally thousands of pages stacked up in boxes and drawers, he writes and writes and writes with no end in sight.

Wonder Boys was Michael Chabon’s second novel, after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or rather, it was his second published novel. Like Grady Tripp, Chabon wrote thousands of pages of a novel called Fountain City. Unlike Grady Tripp, Chabon realized somewhere along the way that his book had run off the rails and abandoned it.

(more…)

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Gotcha Covered, Part Six

There will be much to come on the subject of ♥ing NY, and in particular its many gorgeous eating establishments, but first! a special Gay Fiction Edition of Gotcha Covered.

I should note, however, that there is a New York connection here. While Todd was browsing in his happy place, I walked down the street and browsed in mine.

Actually, Borders is more like my mildly diverted place. I never feel quite at home there. This time I got the fisheye from the cafe baristas when I offered to reuse my cup for a second iced coffee. So, yeah. Borders is not my happy place, Barnes & Noble is. Strand, as it turns out, is my ecstatic place.

But I digress.

(more…)

Why I Hate Flash

I hate Flash because it sucks.

Oh, I know you’re out there, you apologists who say, “Flash doesn’t suck, people do.” I say, what’s the difference?

So far, I’ve run across one proposed use for Flash that makes me say, “hey! cool!” The rest of the time, when I see that “loading, please wait” thing at the front of every Flash movie ever created, I’m all eye-rolling and forehead-slapping and “not another one.” I’ve been doing this a lot lately while visiting restaurant sites, because—as we all know—one cannot have a restaurant site without the whole thing being built in Flash. As we all know, HTML is wholly unsuited for presenting anything as complex as a menu; this would explain why, when a browser that doesn’t support Flash attempts to load a Flash-based restaurant site, the site cannot possibly redirect to anything other than a missing plugin icon.

(Elettaria is the exception that proves the rule. I almost want to go there when we’re in New York, just to give them props for having an alternative, non-Flash, site that works on the iPhone. But Akhtar Nawab lost on Iron Chef America, so I couldn’t possibly.*)

(more…)

No Looking Back

Some more tweaks on the book cover. The back only this time, since the front hasn’t changed:

(Click for PDF.)

Last night I really liked the way the photos faded to black underneath the text. But in print the effect resulted in a weird band of magenta where the photo met the background. I like this better, especially with the new picture in the middle.

So, yeah, it’s getting really close, I think.

I ♥ NY

I have that song playing in my head—you know the one, from the old TV ads. IIIIIIII love New Yooooorrrrk…

It’s not entirely random; this weekend, we are going to the Big Potato. A kind and generous New Yorker (Todd’s brother) has offered us the use of his apartment while he’s out of town.

We’ll be staying farther uptown than I’ve actually ever been, which is kind of cool. Once, I had the crazy notion to try to walk from the south end of Central Park to the north end. I barely made it to the lower 70’s. On a map it looks like it’d be totally easy to walk up through the park in a somewhat straight line, but when you’re actually on the ground the paths keep dumping you out onto 5th Avenue.

But I digress.

(more…)

Picky, Picky

Still working on that paperback cover.

(You know the drill: click the image for the PDF.)

Different photos on the back. And after printing I decided the type was still too big. Oh, and I rearranged the whole author bio thing.

Am I done, finally? No telling … After all, tomorrow’s another day.

Lingering Unpleasantness

I picked up a mild case of food poisoning over the weekend. I’ve had a severe case of food poisoning before, so I’m altogether glad for the mildness of this one. Even so, it’s … unpleasant.

Be not afraid; I’ll spare you the truly gory details. I’ve been spared a lot of really icky GI stuff anyway. The worst and most lingering symptoms have been aches and pains—headaches, sore muscles, joint pain. I’m reminded of that line from “Jack and the Beanstalk”: Be he ‘live or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread. Right now, my knees and ankles are throbbing as if someone’s been grinding on them. My hamstrings feel like they’ve been stretched tight.

(more…)

Toads and Frogs

As I reported last night, it rained like a mofo. I saw on my Facebook news feed (so you know it must be true), that some kind of record was set. Based only on the water level in the wetlands, it probably is true:

the wetlandsthe wetlands

(more…)

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A Raisin [Cookie] in the Rain

A couple of days ago, I posted a raisin cookie recipe. I’ve been eager to make another batch, but the Publix ran out of DiabetiSweet. I searched other local stores, to no avail, and actually ended up ordering several boxes online. I ordered some of the brown sugar version, too.

(more…)

Gotcha Covered, Part Five

Continuing the theme of last night’s post—cover designs that wrap around to the back…

Here’s another book I’ve been seeing on the shelves for a while:

The Selected Works of T.S. SpivetThe Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

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Gotcha Covered, Part Four

Pickings have been slim at the B&N lately. They’ve been doing some rearranging in the store—to what end, I won’t presume to say. The new releases section has gotten smaller, or at least more boring, what with rows and rows of stuff like this all lined up neatly on the shelves:

Hell's Aquarium

Hell’s Aquarium? What the—?

(more…)

Cookie Monster

The other day, out of nowhere, I got a craving for raisin cookies. Not oatmeal raisin cookies—something more like the cakey parts of the Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pies.

Hey, I said it came out of nowhere.

It took me a little time to find what I was looking for, but I finally came across this.

I only had a half-cup of DiabetiSweet left, and no lemon juice, and I didn’t feel like waiting around for butter to soften, so I cut the recipe by roughly two-thirds and made some other adjustments.

(more…)

If I Were a Different Kind of Person…

I ♥ PZ Myers. (No, not like that.)

After my banana post, a friend tipped me off to PZ’s blog, and I spent just about every moment of my spare time today perusing it.

Even though I have a snarky streak about seven miles wide, I really don’t like conflict. No, that’s not entirely true. I don’t like conflict at close range. I’m strangely attracted to other people’s public arguments or road-rage incidents somewhere up ahead on the highway. But I definitely don’t want to participate in it. Peeking into the “kooks” category of PZ’s site provided a hefty fix. It’s all I can do not to abandon this post and resume my perusal.

(more…)

Bananas

Until today, I had no idea that bananas proved the existence of god.

Apparently this has been around a while—literally for years—but I saw it just today. I can’t help wondering what these folks think the walnut proves, what with its outer husk that stains the fingers and the tough shell that has to be cracked and the tender nutmeats that have to be picked out. And yo, I know people who get a burning sensation on the tongue when they eat walnuts, so what does that prove?

(more…)

Experiment

Apropos of last night’s post

Charlotte Regina Doyle seems determined to wakey-wakey at the new, earlier hour. The sun may be up, but the television dial is almost entirely dark.

When I’m watching TV, I usually use the guide to choose a program. Most of the time, no matter what I pick, I seem to pop in on a commercial. Today I tried an experiment. I just stepped through all the channels one by one without referencing the guide. I wanted to see how many of the channels were showing commercials at the same time. The result: almost all of them. PBS never has commercials, of course. CNN and Headline News were yammering on about either the weather or Mark Sanford. On every other channel: either an infomercial or a commercial break.

Oy.

Pull the Plug

On weekdays, I set an alarm to wake me, but I never really need it. I have the Jack Russell Alarm (patent pending).

Even though Charlotte Regina Doyle hardly ever sleeps as long as I’d like to sleep, she’s awfully cute in the morning. I usually wake up when she hops down from the bed and her toenails start tap-tap-tapping on the wooden floor as she paces back and forth between the bedroom door and the bed. When I finally manage to roll over and open my eyes, she usually comes and stands next to the bed and looks at me expectantly. Sometimes, if I ignore her, she’ll hop back into bed and curl up against me, usually mostly on top of my shoulder or arm. I have to wonder if she’s trying to keep extra-close tabs on my whereabouts, just in case I might slip past her and forget to take her outside.

After all of that, the morning routine is more or less invariable. We go outside. While Candice Olson wanders off to make her rounds, Charlotte and Tallulah Bankhead come back inside with me. Tallulah waits patiently by the bedroom door until I open it for her; she goes back to bed and snuggles next to Todd until he’s ready to get up. I make coffee and give Charlotte her breakfast. She either chases a ball or goes to sleep on the couch. I drink coffee and watch television.

(more…)

Summertime, and the Living Is Easy

Almost two months ago, I boasted about spending a day getting all manly with rakes and shovels and even a saw. At the time of that writing, I felt “almost godlike.”

Yeah. Things have changed.

A godlike arm

I’m sure you’re half-hypnotized by the raw, sinewy power of my hirsute forearm, and you’re probably thinking, “why, yes, that is rather godlike, at that.” But what I’m trying to show here is the white strappy thing. It’s a tennis elbow brace. I have tennis elbow. From gardening.

(more…)

An Embarrassment of Riches

This morning we picked up CSA box 2 of 2. I was prepared for another squash bonanza (and the subsequent zucchini bread bonanza), and perhaps a plethora of cucumbers (and the ensuing plethora of bread and butter pickles). I wasn’t expecting this:

lots of tomatoes

(more…)

A Nice Round Number

I was just looking at my site traffic, and what do you know? I’ve reached 100 visitors.

100

I know, I know, this is a pittance compared to some of my favorite blogs—Petite Anglaise, for example, or Comics Curmudgeon. Each Comics Curmudgeon post gathers well over 100 comments, never mind the countless waves of constant visitors.

But even so. It’s a nice round number, 100, and seeing it made me feel all warm and snuggly inside.

(more…)

The Bounty of the Land

Earlier this spring, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle inspired me to seek out a CSA in our area. My first choice was Rita’s Roots, but alas, I hit upon the idea pretty late in the season, and the CSA was already filled up for the year.

As luck would have it, some friends of ours are members of the Rita’s Roots CSA. They’re out of town for a couple of weeks, and they’re letting us “borrow” their subscription. We picked up the first of two boxes on Saturday. It was packed with delicious stuff—heirloom tomatoes, spring onions, baby bok choy, and—of course, at this time of year—more cucumbers and squash than anyone knows what to do with.

(more…)

Gotcha Covered, Part Four

It’s been over a month since I did one of my book cover posts. I’ve been in the B&N many, many times in the last month, of course, but nothing’s really been catching my eye. Even tonight, I wasn’t exactly falling in love left and right.

Here’s the nearest of the near misses:

April & Oliver

(more…)

Last Night’s Text Messages Are Tomorrow’s Drunkalogues

Since I wrote this, I guess Facebook’s stranglehold on our lives has loosened. Now it’s Twitter that’s taking over our lives. The king of time wasting is dead, long live the king!

Earlier tonight, I stopped in at the B&N for a coffee. The cover of Time magazine caught my eye. The article begins admirably, with the exact question that pops into my head whenever I hear about Twitter or, more rarely, have some passing business with it: “Why does the world need this, exactly?”

(more…)

Kill Your Television

My television viewing habits are far from high-class. (I think a handful of examples will prove my point. I have been known to watch this, this, and—yes, sad to say—this.)

But every now and then on Discovery or Science there’ll be a strange hybrid of fact and fantasy like this show, all about an enormous geodesic dome that will likely not be built over Houston. Sitting in front of cartoon dome-building dirigibles and make-believe hurricanes, sciency-looking people described structures that won’t ever be built in our lifetimes—as if construction’s set to begin in three weeks. A fake meteorologist standing in front of a fake radar map of a fake hurricane urged everyone to stay inside the dome—“It’s still nice and comfortable in the dome,” he said, “so don’t leave the dome.”

(more…)

Singing to the Choir

For the first couple of years that we lived here, I complained petulantly about the dearth of local culture. Before we even moved, I checked out the CSO’s website, and at the time it was pretty sketchy; either they’ve been on the brink of financial disaster for years on end and they weren’t sure even then that there was going to be a season, or their web master had taken a powder. The Terrace was the only art-house theater, and damn, when those people get hold of a hit, they do not let it go. Having been used to San Francisco, where the Best of Broadway really is the best of Broadway, I found it rather disappointing that in this neck of the woods, the Best of Broadway is really the Cash Cows of Broadway.

(more…)

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Sweet Dreams Are [Not So Much] Made of This

Since that strange long-hair dream last week, I’ve had others.

Last night, I dreamed that Will Ferrell and I were skulking around some spooky old house, trying not to run afoul of Frankenstein’s monster.

I feel I should pause for a minute and let that sink in.

Will Ferrell. Frankenstein’s monster. That’s right. That’s how I roll—or, at any rate, that’s how some weird part of my unconscious rolls. This kind of thing totally shores up Carol Bly’s assertion that the unconscious is “as much soup as animal.”

(more…)

Great Expectations

Last week, I posted a rather effusive piece about the lovely and talented Tierney Sutton, urging Chucktown locals to go see her. Given that the show at the Cistern was rained out, and we ended up decamping to Gaillard for a late and slightly abbreviated show, I suppose I owe a small apology to anyone who read that post and took my advice.

On the other hand, what fun it was to see the show come together at the new venue, what with stage hands scurrying about and the piano being carried across the stage by a dozen men and a sound technician chanting “one, two, one, two” over and over. During the sound check the band did a couple of bonus numbers, including a performance of “What’ll I Do?” that surpassed even Bea Arthur’s.

And that was just the sound check.

(more…)

Tattoo Me

For a while I’ve been saying my second and most recent tattoo would probably be my last. It’s big and bold, red and prominent. People notice it—a lot. It’s on my forearm, and it looks like this:

One day at a time

I designed it myself. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process. I bought a book about typographic tattoos. I looked at a lot of fonts. After considering literally hundreds of them, I tested about a dozen. Eventually I combined three variations of a calligraphic font—the a’s and t’s from one, the big round O from the second, and everything else from the third. (After all this time, I can’t remember if the date came from yet a fourth variation, or from one of the three.) I nudged characters up and down and sideways. I fiddled with kerning and tracking. By the time the needle first touched my arm, I knew I’d done all I possibly could to create a design I’d be happy with—and yet I still wondered if I was doing the right thing.

(more…)

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Dashing off a midday quickie because I just remembered an odd dream I had last night, and I don’t want to forget it again…

In my dream, I had shoulder-length hair, and I was struggling to part it in the center of my head, rather than on the side. My hair was rather darker and wavier than it is—er, was—in real life, and I spent a great deal of time agonizing over its refusal to do what I wanted. Whenever I passed a mirror, I paused and readjusted, trying to get the part straighter and more centered, and trying to flatten down a little pouf that had formed around the original side part. I remember planning to wash it and style it while wet, in hopes of getting it to behave.

This is all very strange, and a little sad. I haven’t had enough hair to form a part in about ten years. If only I could have shoulder-length hair—without, you know, looking like this. Even when I had hair, it was fine in texture, and when I tried to grow it long, the result was deeply shameful.

Catching up on Correspondence

Dear GEICO,

I know you’re all about saving money and stuff, but really, you should probably spring for an actual advertising agency. I’m assuming you’re currently using eight creepy guys working in cubicles in the basement. Or maybe they are chimps.

Once upon a time, your ads were actually kind of clever. At any rate, I remember thinking so. I can’t say exactly when they jumped the shark, but after years of annoying and brain-dead commercials, I have completely forgotten even the barest gist of the ads that I once thought were funny.

(more…)

Weak As Water

Did I say—or imply—that I wasn’t going to milk my cold for all it was worth? Why, yes. Yes, I did.

Even so, I buckled and took a sick day on Tuesday. I was back at work yesterday and today, but I felt decidedly washed out and sleepy. When I’m ill, I’m a giant crybaby. I throw a big old pity party on my own behalf. (Earlier today, as I was talking to a friend on the phone and saying all this, Todd was rolling his eyes and nodding cartoonishly, as if I were greatly understating the case.)

I sniffle and sigh a lot. I become a slugabed. I get cranky.

And I eat.

(more…)

Sicko

N.B.: This post has nothing to do with Michael Moore.

I have a cold. A plain old garden-variety common cold. I think I’ve been fighting it for days—on and off there have been inklings of a sore throat, which is almost always the first sign—and it finally kicked in yesterday. I think the thing is actually at its peak, and it’s a lot milder than it might have been.

I say this reluctantly, because I generally prefer to milk an illness for all it’s worth. Picture my wasted and disheveled figure swaddled in blankets and surrounded by boxes of tissue, half-empty bottles of Chloraseptic, and a scum of Alka Seltzer Plus dust. Envision my blank staring eyes fixed upon the flickering television screen as Taylor spills the beans to Ridge about his marriage to Brooke. Imagine my parched throat croaking out a hushed and heartrending request for orange juice.

(more…)

Behold the Eminence

I’ve become an “eminent farmer” on Farm Town. No doubt this has no particular meaning to anyone, except perhaps as an indication that I spend way too much time on Farm Town.

Before I left for California, I’d spent several days working my farm hard—plowing the whole thing in plots as close together as I could get them and planting them all in four-hour or one-day crops to pump up the experience points. That was getting a little boring, and I’m sure it wasn’t beneficial for the old carpal tunnel, so I decided to make some changes. I added fences and hedges, and I build a funky figure-eight path, and I planted things in smaller patches. Here’s the result:

My Farm, After Renovation

My Farm, After Renovation

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Tea on Revolutionary Road with the Reader in the Snow

One of my favorite writers is someone you’ve probably never heard of.

(That rather wild statement is based wholly on faulty anecdotal evidence. I’ve recently learned that she is, or was, a popular contributor to the Village Voice, but I’ve recommended her to dozens of people who’ve never heard of her.)

I discovered Stacey D’Erasmo a couple of years ago, during a weekend workshop at the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. We read an excerpt from A Seahorse Year. I picked it up later, and it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Here’s a snippet of the passage we read in the workshop, describing an evening gown on display in an exclusive San Francisco boutique:

If a dress can be said to be self-possessed, this dress is the most self-possessed on earth, and—Marina slides out the little ivory-colored price tag—it costs the earth as well, which seems just.

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Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Almost all of my travel worries came to nothing.

My skin care stuff, it turns out, comes in a 60-gram tube, and that’s only a little over two ounces. I was able to bring it, along with all the other stuff I needed, in a regulation one-quart bag. The TSA agent at the security checkpoint at CHS actually thanked me for preparing my toiletries correctly. I’ve never had that happen before.

(more…)

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Tomorrow, for the first time in about a year, I’ll be traveling by air.

I remember so clearly my first flight—what exhilaration! what fun! I drank ginger ale for the first time and fell deeply in love with honey-roasted peanuts. I saved my barf bag as a souvenir. I felt so worldly and accomplished.

Yeah. Those days are long over.

Since it’s been a long while since I flew, and there’s been a slight change in personnel over at the White House, I thought maybe that annoying business with the liquids and gels has changed. Not so much. Apparently my skin care regimen is still a threat to the commonweal.

(more…)

Canine Triptych

As I child, I barely tolerated my mother’s poodles. The first of them, Pepe, hated me, and would only come near me when I had food. Pepe’s successor, Pedro, liked me a little better, but he was definitely my mother’s dog, not mine.

When I met Todd, he had two black Labs, called Pete and Zoe. After a brief period of adjustment—during which Pete felt it necessary to mark a bit of indoor territory, just so I’d know who was boss—a great love affair began and progressed from those specific dogs to the canine world at large.

In other words, I love dogs with a goofy, irrational passion.

The current three dogs I’m loving most are named Tallulah Bankhead, Candice Olson, and Charlotte Regina Doyle. Yes, we have given them all full names, all different from ours and each other, because … well … why not?

Tallulah was a pound puppy. By sheer luck, we first saw her on the day she and her littermates were dropped off at the Santa Cruz SPCA, and we made a point of being there the next day when the place opened, so we’d have our pick of the litter. They were all completely, heartbreakingly adorable, bouncing around in the kennel. We quickly narrowed our choice to one of the females and one of the males, based solely on the fact that each had a bewitching raccoon ring around one eye. In the end we chose Tallulah because she sat calmly in the middle of her tumbling, yapping siblings, and we thought she might turn out to be rather genteel and easy to get along with.

She has turned out that way, but we had to go through a whole lot of crazy to get there. She’s Australian cattle dog mixed with (we think) German shepherd. These are not necessarily sedate breeds in general, and I’ve surmised that Tallulah in particular spent the first few weeks of her life in a rather feral state. Early in life she was very high-energy and occasionally deranged. No other dog has ever proven so difficult to house train. We’d wander around in the yard for thirty minutes as she looked at me as if she had no earthly idea why we could possibly want to spend so much time outdoors—and then we’d go in and she’d projectile-pee all over the carpet. We bought her a crate for training, along with a big thick cushion for the bottom of it. She wouldn’t stay in the crate without yowling incessantly, and she chewed the cushion to pieces after soaking it in piss. Once, when Todd’s parents and aunt came to visit, they were all sitting on the couch in the living room, and Tallulah went racing across them, banking off their chests.

It’s almost miraculous that she’s become the best imaginable dog. She looks at you with this eerie kind of intelligence. You get the feeling that she understands everything you say.

Tallulah

It could be that she’s the canine embodiment of that old aphorism, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” And of course, like any parent, I tend to overestimate the accomplishments and aptitudes of my furry children.

Certainly, our eldest has her quirks. She’s terrified of thunder and invariably hides under Todd’s desk when she hears it. She’s fiercely territorial; she’s made a run at a neighbor and an exterminator, thankfully resulting in no injuries or law suits. She loves to play fetch, but rarely brings the ball more than halfway back. If we don’t watch her, it will take her about ten seconds to find something stinky and roll around in it. But even so, after all that trouble with house training and general wildness, she is, after all, genteel and easy to get along with.

Candice Olson, not so much. She almost never looks like this:

Candice

No, she’s infinitely more likely to be tearing off at top speed, seemingly at random and for with no good purpose in mind. She was a rescue dog. Acquaintances of ours—friends of friends—had no idea what they were getting into when they brought home a Lab puppy. They’re full of energy and they’ll chew the deck off your house if you’re not careful. They dig and run and bark incessantly. They didn’t quite know what to do with Candice, and we think they may have kept her crated a lot of the time. She can’t stand to be hemmed in or held down or leashed. Taking her to the vet is an experience perfectly suited to the seventh circle of hell.

But she’s awfully sweet. She has the loveliest brown eyes, and she looks at me with such naked devotion that I can’t help but love the big crazy girl. Todd’s mother took to calling her Beauty for a while, and it’s a name that fits.

And she’s been pretty good with the puppy:

Charlotte and Candice

By contrast, Tallulah is a bit less tolerant of the puppy.

Tallulah and Charlotte

Speaking of the puppy, here’s a picture I took after we got her home:

Charlotte Regina Doyle

She was all calm and endearing like that for the first 24 hours or so. After that, all hell broke loose. I should have known what we were in for on the second day, when I took this picture with my phone:

Charlotte Smiles

If that’s not the face of a mischief-maker, such a thing does not exist.

Like any terrier, Charlotte is fervently independent. On occasion she deigns to lavish a little affection on us, but more typically she prefers not to be petted or touched. Lately she’s developed a game—amusing only to her, I assure you—which begins like fetch, but ends with the ball being almost but not quite placed in my hand, then jerked away. She has a habit of barking at anything she doesn’t understand—the neighbor’s horses, trash cans, trees rustling in the wind, and—just yesterday, in fact—thunder.

But all of that is sort of cute. It’s not so cute that she bites. If we put our hands anywhere near her mouth, she’ll try to bite our fingers. It’s a lot better than it used to be. When she had needle-sharp puppy teeth, the biting was particularly heinous. We’re constantly chiding her not to bite, of course, but she doesn’t seem to be getting the message.

When she gets tired, though, it’s all different. She likes to sleep right up against us, pack style. She used to sleep curled around the top of my head like a Jack Russell hat. When she was a little smaller, she could pull off stuff like this:

Charlotte and Todd

In those moments, she’s so sweet and cuddly that, somehow, against all reason, it makes up even for the biting.

O Pioneers!

Last week, our mail carrier brought us many packets of seeds and, under separate cover, a pile of little wooden dowels inoculated with mushroom spores.

Cultivating mushrooms is a heck of a lot more complicated than I expected. I’d sort of imagined trotting around the property with a power drill, making holes in this stump over here and that heap of windfall over there, and plugging in the inoculated dowels. I’m glad I read the instructions, because that’s a recipe for either failure or food poisoning. It’s better to cut wood specifically for the purpose. Older wood doesn’t provide enough food for the mushrooms, and might already be infested with some other, less ideal fungus. On the other hand, the wood can’t be inoculated too soon after cutting, because trees produce anti-fungal compounds that take time to degrade.

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Gotcha Covered, Part Three

Yesterday morning, I stopped at the B&N for a coffee. I was in no hurry, so I lollygagged in the new releases. It’s just a little thing I do.

I’ve had my eye on this book for a couple of weeks:

Columbine

(Ignore, if you can, the ugly 20% off sticker.)

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Lessons Learned while Avoiding Leslie

Lately I’ve been busy with a work project (which I’ve code-named “Leslie” out of pure silliness), and as a result, I’ve had to make some minor adjustments to my time-wasting schedule. I haven’t been taking quite so many Facebook quizzes lately, compared with a couple of weeks ago. But I have managed to squeeze in a few. All work and no play, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

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Any Minute Now I’m Expecting All Hell to Break Loose

I hate politics, I really do. So much political discourse seems to engage some universal impulse toward millennarianism. Whoever might be in charge at any given moment, the other side busily cries out in alarm. The sky is falling, the end is near, doom is upon us.

Several years ago I frittered away numberless hours blogging about politics and participating in message boards where I joined my peeping and cheeping with that of other Henny Pennys. Somewhere along the way, I burned out my capacity for foreboding. I just can’t bring myself to expect the end of the world as we know it.

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An Open Letter

To instructors of indoor cycling classes everywhere:

You’re not new at this, but some of your students are. In any given class, there’s likely at least one person who’s done fewer than three of these workouts. I thought it might be helpful to get a fresh perspective from someone whose quads are not yet like steel.

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I Hate Classical Music

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this essay by Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise. (If I wait till my usual evening “blog time,” I’ll forget again.)

Ross points out that “[w]hen people hear ‘classical,’ they think ‘dead.’” It goes to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about in connection with the CSO: How do we convince people to sit in auditorium for a couple of hours, listening to “dead” music?

(No one at CSO is going to ask me what I think, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it.)

On This Day

On this day in 1124, David I became the king of Scotland. On this day in 1667, John Milton, blind and destitute, sold the copyright of Paradise Lost for ten pounds. On this day in 1810, Beethoven composed “Für Elise.” On this day in 1865, the steamboat SS Sultana sank in the Mississippi River.

And on this day in 1923, my grandmother was born. She would have been 86 years old today. As I wrote here, I’m not entirely sure how long it’s been since Grandma died, but I think we’re coming up on four years.

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In Memoriam, Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak Hollingsworth

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (and on a side note, isn’t it kind of remarkable that I’ve already been doing this for a couple of weeks?), a Facebook quiz revealed that, of the four Golden Girls, I am Dorothy. So it is with deep sadness that I report that Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak Hollingsworth has gone on permanent hiatus. There will be no further reunion specials—she will live on only in reruns. Beatrice Arthur, erstwhile queen of stage and sitcom, died yesterday.

Bea is the second of the Golden Girls to check out of the Golden Palace. Estelle Getty, who played Dorothy’s mother, died last summer. Betty White and Rue McClanahan are thankfully still with us.

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Down on the Farm [Town]

Farm Town makes me happy.

For those of you who are not down with the social networking, Farm Town is a game on Facebook, and it’s a little addictive. This screen shot will illustrate what the game looks like, though not why I love it so:

My farm

My Farm

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A Virtuous Cycle

A little over a week ago, I complained bitterly about a brutal “indoor cycling” class and the preternaturally healthy woman who taught it. I ended with a promise/prediction that I’d go back. Tonight, I did.

What a difference a week makes.

I had to have a light touch with the resistance, and for the last few iterations of a “jumping” routine I had to stay in the saddle a bit more than everyone else, but otherwise I kept up and felt energized rather than tormented. In short order my shirt was soaked through. At times I was sweating so hard I thought my glasses were going to fall off my face—and I did have trouble holding onto the handlebars till we took a break between songs and I could wipe them down. No matter. I was up, I was on, I was almost-but-not-quite beginning to understand how something like this could be within the realm of possibility (if not within the realm of sanity).

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A Shocking Confession

When I chose music as my college major, my highest ambition was to become a songwriter—ideally a singer-songwriter, my generation’s piano man. My familiarity with classical music didn’t extend much beyond The Four Seasons, whatever happened to show up in Amadeus, and—only because my high school chorus had performed it— A Ceremony of Carols.

Recitals and concerts of all sorts are obligatory for music majors. Early on, I found them nearly insufferable. Old stuff—Mozart, Haydn, Schubert—was yawningly dull. New stuff was laughably incomprehensible. There appeared to be a vogue for piano pieces in which the pianist was required to plunk his or her forearm onto the lower half of the keyboard. I remember one performer wore a look of aesthetic rapture during this procedure, as if the thunder of 30 white and black keys being struck all at once could be made into some sort of poetic and expressive gesture.

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… And Thought of Him I Love

When I got to my desk this morning, my calendar popped up a handy reminder that my grandmother’s birthday is a week away. Time has gotten away from me, so I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think this May marks the fourth anniversary of her death. My grandfather’s birthday was in March, and the Good Friday just past marked the tenth anniversary of his passing.

My grandparents were like a backup set of parents for me. Their house was my second home. I spent large portions of every summer with them. The long days were ample and aimless. I rode my bike in the driveway, sat on the swing in the yard, read Agatha Christie novels, watched TV, ate popsicles with Grandma. The dining room was my first writing workshop—I spent countless hours banging away on an old portable typewriter set up on the lace-covered table. (It was, obviously, an independent study kind of situation.)

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It Begins

I went to the Charleston Farmers’ Market this morning. (Apparently the apostrophe is omitted from the official name, but I can’t quite bring myself to do that.) I was significantly stoked about this trip. Call it the Kingsolver Effect.

I’d emailed Rita of Rita’s Roots to see if there were slots available in this year’s CSA. There aren’t, unfortunately, but in her reply, Rita said she’d be at the farmers’ market. I like the idea of meeting and knowing the person who grows your food is undeniably comforting.

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Pepper Spray

For the past couple of days, I’ve been listening to a marvelous audiobook, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. (It’s currently the audiobook of the week on iTunes, though I don’t know for how much longer.)

For a year, Kingsolver and her family ate fresh and local. What they couldn’t grow themselves, they purchased from local farmers. (Grains and olive oil weren’t available locally, but they bought them from known sources and in the least processed form possible, so that the farmer’s share of the price was as high as possible.) Their motives were both large (reducing their environmental impact, supporting sustainable agriculture) and small (better-tasting food).

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The Next 60 Seconds Could Be Like an Eternity

I have discovered a way to slow time: take an “indoor cycling” class taught by someone half your age.

For those not familiar with “indoor cycling,” one rides a specially designed stationary bike, using varying levels of resistance to simulate a strenuous ride. There are “hills,” sprints on “flat road,” and so on. The instructor calls out routines. Techno music plays. Sweat drips. Knees grow weak. If all goes well, the end result should be a great cardio workout, plus a good bit of strength training—at least in the lower half of the body.

They say it’s possible to burn 400 to 600 calories in 40 minutes. As I wrote earlier, I’ve been riding my bike a lot lately anyway, and I thought hitting a couple of these classes every week would be a great way to pack a good workout into a short time. (more…)

I’m Thinking of a Number between You’ve-Got-to-Be-Kidding and Oh-No-You-Di’n’t

I haven’t stepped onto the bathroom scale in a while. For months, it’s been sitting in its appointed place, gathering dust and whispering dares at me as I’ve passed by. Meanwhile, my jeans have gotten a bit tighter. Yesterday they felt a bit like a pair of sausage casings on my legs, and the biggest shirt I own bulged out a little bit when I sat down. So, finally, reluctantly, I stepped on the scale.

The number was, shall we say, a little too high. Not as high as I’d feared, but certainly not as low as I’d hoped. In the past year, I’ve somehow managed to gain about [expletive deleted] pounds.

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Myths and Legends

I’ve been reading The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross. So far, it’s shaping up to be a most excellent book (and since I’ve been writing about book covers and book design lately, this would be a good moment to mention that it’s a well-designed book, in addition to being well-written).

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of The Rite of Spring’s premiere. Shocked and dismayed by the work’s dissonance, the audience rioted. They didn’t just complain, they rioted. The police had to be called.

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Gotcha Covered, Part Two

More about book covers, picking up where I left off last night. The more I look at this…

Secrets to Happiness

…the happier it makes me.

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Gotcha Covered, Part One

If you read last night’s post, you no doubt already know that according to my personal philosophy, one can never spend too much time looking at books, thinking about books, fondling books, and generally loving the hell out of books. Sipping a little coffee, wandering the aisles of a clean well-lighted bookstore, I’m a happy man.

New releases are among my favorites. All the handsome hardcovers, hot (or at least warm) off the presses, proudly facing front. Since I decided to design my own book cover, I’ve spent a fair amount of time—even more than usual—looking at books and reading about design and trying to figure out what makes a cover good or bad. Tonight, pottering among the new releases, I snapped a few pictures of covers that moved me one way or the other.

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Biblioholism

Last night, when I was providing a sampling of my foibles and faults for your entertainment, I totally forgot about my rampant active addiction. I am speaking, of course, of biblioholism. I don’t read all that quickly, but that doesn’t stop me from acquiring books by the armful.

Hello, my name is Matt, and I’m addicted to books.

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When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple

No, I’m not stating my intention to weasel my way into the Red Hat Society. But as I’ve aged, I’ve begun to notice that certain of my eccentricities are becoming more ingrained and more, well, eccentric. Here, then, are a few of my favorites, including dire predictions of the dementia-enhanced variations to come.

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“Warm” on a Cold Night

A little tired tonight—not quite up to a full-on post. Just to keep my hand in, I thought I’d dust off this old thing:

It’s Always Warm Where You Are

The sun came out but gave no heat.
You huddled on the windy beach
While I built a fire of old madrone.
I fed it kindling by the yard.
We watched it as it smoked and charred.
But if that wood had been drier, how would I have known…

That it’s always warm where you are.
It’s always warm where you are.
The mercury may drop a few degrees.
My heart will never feel the deepest freeze.
It’s always warmest where you are.

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Order and Chaos

I’m afraid last night’s post kind of stopped rather than ending. When I finished it, in the wee small hours, I felt there was something more I wanted to say, but by then I’d sort of lost the plot.

This morning at church, Rev. Peter’s homily was all about viewing the traditional story of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem—as a metaphor for “entering in,” for passing from the familiar to the unfamiliar. (more…)

The Lake Effect

wetlands

We’ve had a lot of rain in the past week. Records were broken, and not just by a little bit. According to the Post and Courier, Thursday’s rainfall set a new record—almost triple the previous record for downtown Charleston.

Closer to home, the ponds are high. The little patch of wetland in our front yard is as full as I ever remember seeing it. As it filled up on Wednesday and Thursday, it was frogs gone wild—the chirping and cheeping and chattering was so loud that I had to close my office window to take a conference call.

the big puddle

In our front yard, there’s a low spot that in almost any rainstorm turns into a tiny lake, deep enough for the puppy to wade in chest-deep. This time it was much larger than usual.

Everywhere, in fact, ditches and gullies and even lawns are filled with water. As we were driving around today, and later biking on the West Ashley Greenway with the brimming marshes on either side, the sheer unusualness of it made me really happy.

When I was a kid, an enormous storm dumped a lot of rain on my hometown. The swollen creeks ran swift and dark. A low-lying road near our house was completely impassable. My mother and I rode around in the car, taking all this in, clucking solemnly at how impressively strange and catastrophic it all seemed. Until today, I hadn’t thought about all of this in a very long time, but the memory of the overflowing creeks and the flooded roads stuck with me for years and showed up now and again in some of my early fiction.

I barely remember the blizzards of the ’70s, but in a box around here somewhere there’s a snapshot of ten-year-old me standing next to a snowbank twice my height. At other times, ice storms knocked out the power, and we huddled in piles of blankets and read or talked about stuff.

Years later, when I was home from college one summer, a flood—a real one this time, not just some swollen creeks—filled the basement of our house. I remember checking the level of the water as it climbed the cellar stairs and feeling great relief when it stopped just below the last step.

Just a couple of years ago, some friends and I were stranded in downtown Charleston when a hurricane passed up the coast. Our hotel looked out on Church Street, which for several hours resembled a river rather than a street.

There’s something undeniably thrilling about such minor disasters.

wetlands

There’s the forcible suspension of the usual routine, sure. As Carol Bly points out in one of the essays in Letters from the Country, a good snowstorm—one heavy enough to keep you home—gives an excuse to do nothing. You wait it out, you read, you talk, you fetch wood in for the fire, you watch the fields fill with drifts and so on. We don’t get many snowstorms here, of course, and no rainstorm short of a hurricane likely to keep us home. When the power goes out, I usually pack up my laptop and set out in search of WiFi. On Thursday, when all that rain was filling up the swamp, even as I sat working at my desk, I took the same pleasure in the storm that I used to take in all those snow-day storms.

Maybe I’m like a caveman, huddled over my newly invented fire, gazing out at the inexplicable fury of forces I can’t control. Maybe I’m a like kid hoping against hope for a snow day. Or maybe my life is so boring that a big storm is all it takes to make me happy.

Has It Really Come to This?

I used to think that the quantity of watchable television programming was inversely proportional to the number of available channels. Turns out I was wrong; the quantity of watchable television programming hovers near zero, irrespective of the number of channels.

Exhibit A: Earlier tonight, I actually watched The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest.

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All the Many Matts

Not long ago, Todd and I packed up our digital camera and lighting equipment—and, believe me, Todd has managed to acquire quite a lot of lighting equipment—and drove over the bridge to Mt. Pleasant, to a friend’s office. Our objective: to get at least one good photo to use on her website.

It sounds rather simple. Lights on. Camera on. Say “cheese.” Click.

But is anything ever really simple? No, I didn’t think so.

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Paperback Writer

UPDATE: A few little touch-ups after printing and folding the design into a book shape.

I had a little trouble coming up with a topic for today’s post (oops, it’s after midnight—make that yesterday’s post), so I decided to knock an item off my to-do list and design the paperback cover for The River in Winter. Check it out, y’all.

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Lessons Learned while Wasting Time

Facebook is taking over our lives, have you heard? A case could be made that if I’m on there, it must have jumped the shark already. On the other hand, the population of Facebook is approaching the population of Brazil.  Facebookers spend three hours a month on the site, which hugely exceeds the amount of time people spend, say, reading news online.

If three hours a month is typical, then in this one small area of life, at least, I’m an overachiever. The day I signed up, I set up my browser to load Facebook on startup. FB is the primary—and in some cases, only—way that I keep in contact with friends old and new. I hardly ever transition from one task to another without at least a glance at my news feed.

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I Hear(t) a Symphony

Last night I went with some friends to hear the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. We don’t have season tickets, but our friends subscribe to the Masterworks Series, and we’ve gotten into the habit of tagging along. This time, as before, when I logged into Ticketmaster a few days before the concert, I worried that there wouldn’t be seats available, except perhaps for a nosebleed seat high in the balcony, with leg room comparable to the backseat of my first car. But apparently I needn’t ever worry. Last night the orchestra section was far from full. It was raining, with some pretty fierce storms blowing through and a tornado watch in effect.

But of course, the turnout wasn’t low because of the weather—not really. The economic downturn last year hit the orchestra hard, as it did many other arts organizations. As of last November single-ticket sales were down 32 percent. Subscriptions have been down as well. Last night, Ted Legasey, president of the symphony’s board of directors, announced that there will be a season next year (yay!), but it comes at a high price: pay cuts for staff and unpaid leave for the musicians (boo!).

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Pro and Con

Stuff I like about living in the boonies:

  • There’s room for the dogs to roam.
  • Our house can’t be seen from the road.
  • We have lots of peace and quiet (mostly); even when there’s a racket, it’s usually something kind of cool like the distant rumble of a tractor or the beat of horses’ hooves or the cheeping of frogs.
  • There are ponds and wetlands all around us. The pond on one side reminds me of one of Monet’s Giverny paintings: water lilies and foliage dripping down over the water and even an arched bridge at the far end. The other pond is a magnet for waterfowl, including Canadian geese that lead their little flocks of fuzzy gosling around. I can see the wetlands from my office window. It’s filled with gnarled old water oaks that in summer fill my window with an almost electric green. (more…)

First!

I’m calling this “Letters from the Country” in honor of Carol Bly, one of my favorite writers and a cherished mentor.

Back in the ’70s, Carol wrote a series of essays for Minnesota Monthly, and these were later collected in book form. I first read Letters from the Country in the early ’90s, and it seemed awfully dated and generally outside my worldview. All that stuff about Nixon and the Mrs. Jaycees. Sheesh.

Carol died in December of 2007. As a way of honoring her and commemorating the role she played in shaping my own writing, I decided to read all of her writing. Since I intended to reread Letters anyway, I suggested it for a book group that I participate in, and I volunteered to lead the discussion. This time around, I found it to be considerably more topical. And ja, for sure, you betcha, it contains much of the great wit and moral fierceness that is characteristic of all of Carol Bly’s writing.

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