Sunday, January 31, 2010

call me old-fashioned

I hope this isn't the start of an obsession, but it could be. I mean, if you have a perfectly nice pony, why cover her with cotton balls and pretend she's a sheep? Or a dragon you are setting out to slay?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think horses are fine the way they are, and don't really need much decoration.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

a sight for sore eyes, part two

I've spent my entire life around horses and have never once entered, or understood, the costume class. It's a bit like a cake wreck sung in a different key, in that it seems to evoke hopefulness and wrongheadedness in about equal proportions. And a fashion sense that's just a tad creepy--this picture actually scares me.

ask again later

Jen Yates, the author of the blog Cake Wrecks, made the metaphorical milk come out my nose this morning with her depictions of what happens when baking and professional sports collide. "Is this a football?" she wonders aloud below the picture to the right. "Ask again later."

Yates has written a book by the same name, and I'm going to buy it--this is one of those topic areas that shows zero promise until someone with the right weaponry aims and fires; life may not be hugely better but it's definitely stranger after you've spent some time looking at the foot-shaped cakes she found, one fully equipped with greenish toenail fungus. Yes, it's gross, but it's also a compelling demonstration of how much thought and attention can be expended on a bad idea. Icing becomes transcendent; or, as one of her followers comments, "Why, why, why do wreckerators do such horrible things with chocolate frosting? I used to like it. Now I just think of poo."

What pleases me most about this particular mess of a cake is the packaging--it's clearly going retail, complete with a price tag. Somebody, somewhere, thinks this is alluring and yes, even purchasable.

Friday, January 29, 2010

death's little brother

I was trying to read my way through the Atlantic last night--this is one of my substitutes for sleep--and because the Atlantic is often dull I began to think instead about all the stories where sleep is the trigger for transformation. Often not a very nice transformation, but what do we expect? Sleep itself is problematic--it isn't the opposite of wakefulness so much as a dress rehearsal for death.

I have a neurological disorder that is often misunderstood as a sleep disorder, and misunderstood further because it has a stupid name: restless leg syndrome. People who haven't experienced it tend to think it's trivial, but it's not; it's torture. Even with all sorts of nauseating medications, originally developed for people with Parkinson's, I average two to five hours of sleep a night. I once had a sleep study done and the poor sleep-lab tech wore himself to a frazzle re-gluing wires and coping with a squirming, kicking, bumptious subject who produced, according to the report, a whopping 67 minutes of non-REM sleep. Never got to REM because I hardly ever do--apparently I'm not much of a dreamer.

I don't bring this up to snivel, but to notice that in stories sleep tends to be linked with danger--it's when you let your guard down that the slasher intrudes or the spell activates or the golden key gets stolen. These kinds of stories are truthful, and their truthfulness is most apparent at 4:15 a.m.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

waiting for the asteroid

A near-Earth object hurtled past us on Wednesday, with 80,000 miles to spare—this is only about a third of the way between us and the moon. The news reports about this were uniformly reassuring, in that we were told that if it had hit us it wouldn’t have done a huge amount of damage, but I admit I’m just a hair jittery about it—the object was discovered only two days before it came a little too close for comfort.

Space in general gives me the heebie-jeebies—it's big and it does things with physics that I don't understand. I still remember how, in 1994, all sort of things started crashing into Jupiter. Back then, many of us watched this spectacle on the evening news—the comet in question, Shoemaker-Levy 9, disassembled itself into 21 fragments before plummeting into the substantial flank of our largest neighbor, and the explosions spread across the planet like a ghastly string of pearls. The largest piece sent up a plume of crud 1500 miles high and left behind a dark discoloration, a planetary bruise that the newscasters assured us was larger than the Earth. The pummeling went on for six days and became a kind of astronomical TV miniseries—it was hard to tell whether the spectacle was amusing or horrible, but we all wanted to see how it was going to end.

But apparently it hasn’t ended, and won't, and among our many other worries we should probably include a fresh worry about whether something is going to crash into us. If it can happen on Jupiter it can certainly happen here, and the only real question is whether worrying about it will change anything. Probably not: After learning about Wednesday’s near miss, I had a curious impulse to start baking pies, which is lame, but it’s what I’m going to do--if I’m going to get vaporized, I apparently want to do it with flour dribbled down my front.

Friday, January 22, 2010

English as a second language

This sign raises more questions than it answers. Among others, who the humph is Vicky?

you figure it out

Here's another sign from Ireland. At first glance it looks like "trick-or-treaters crossing," but what's with the briefcase, the red stripes, and the too-big heads?

You figure it out.

an Irish preoccupation

We spotted this sign in Ireland and decided it told us a little more about the national driving habits than we needed to know.

avoid at all costs

Another warning that seems unfair. Is the message "don't mistake the door handle for a wheel"?

unfair warning

There are plenty of entertaining road signs drifting around in cyberspace, many of them confusing or just stupid, but this one is actually different--it warns of of something that might happen, but no amount of driver diligence can prevent it. If the airplane is going to ricochet off the roof of your car, then that's what the airplane is going to do, and proceeding with caution is not going to change that.

This clearly falls into the category of unfair warning.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the silent record, or things January is good for

January, according to Chase's Calendar, is Innovative Thinking Month, National Hot Tea Month, and Oatmeal Month, and frankly I'm not seeing much in the way of observance out there. Who among us has stirred the bowl, poured the oolong, and come up with a really cool idea? Of course it's also National Careers in Cosmetology Month, so maybe we've been busy with eyebrows and hair weaves; it's just not possible to do everything at once.

But January is also home to Silent Record Week, which commemorates "the (50th) anniversary of the invention of the silent record, which was played on Detroit jukeboxes." A problematic statement from several angles--if it was silent, then how do we know? Chase goes on to explain, without actually explaining, that in 1931 a "Silent Record Concert and Recording Session featured emcee Henry Morgan, Soupy Sales, and the 120-piece Hush Symphonic Band."

Puzzled, I Googled "silent record" to get details, and learned that a band called the Fiery Furnaces recently announced that they are planning to release a silent album as a response to increased file sharing and downloading, and that the record will come with "musical instruction and sheet music so fans can perform and record their own versions of the songs." Which is innovative, in a millennium-slacker way, and will no doubt inspire the publication of a new wordless book that comes with a plot storyboard and a ball-point pen.

It's a conceptual art thing, and if you don't understand it then just remember--this is not about you.

Leafing ahead to January 17, we see we're not done yet. Today is the anniversary of the 1992 freak gas explosion that rocked a six-block area of Chicago's River West neighborhood and killed four people, and also the date of the 1966 Palomares hydrogen bomb accident over a village in Spain. Kaboom on both counts--so much for the Hush Symphonic Band and all those jukeboxes in Detroit.

And tomorrow, just in case anybody is wondering, is "Rid the World of Fad Diets and Gimmicks Day." I will never again say that January is a month good for nothing but waiting for February to arrive.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

my wife lies weeping in the next room

The past eight mornings there has been a single, often slightly ominous sentence dangling in my forebrain upon waking. This morning's entry was, "My wife lies weeping in the next room and there is nothing I can do."

These are first sentences to a new story, and when they appear I can see the playing cards pop up, all in a row, depicting all the kinds of stories a sentence like this might generate. There's the obvious--the battered woman, the woman in a cage, the woman who has lost a child, the woman poised for flight from comfort and good circumstance. Yesterday's morning entry was, "No one could remember the last time someone came out of the Harrison house, so there was a lot of local excitement because someone was going in." The popped cards on this one all have an odor of decay--we all know, without being told, that disturbing the innards of the Harrison house will be a terrible mistake.

It's amazing how the human instinct for how stories are structured can take a fragment of prose and map out, almost instantly, the narrative consequences--we take this for granted when in fact it's a minor miracle. I think it was A.S. Byatt who once pointed out (in a story, of course), that all stories have already been told and it's a matter of retelling them--although now that I've said that I'm not entirely sure it's true. Her character was at an academic conference about stories, and the topic was Patient Griselda (see upper left), and I think that was something that was said--the point of Griselda is that she outlasts all, that she is immovable in her willingness to wait. The only thing that can defeat her is the story itself, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This is the consequence of abandoning a story of my own--one I was caught up in but couldn't control. It's as if my own instinct for story, now left with nothing to do, still spins relentlessly while my back is turned. This is another minor miracle, that the human brain can generate madly without any prompting. But I bring this up because today, for the first time, I had a flash thought about my abandoned manuscript, A Calendar of Saints. Could it be that I understand every sentence I write as the first one, and this is why writing fiction is a hopeless task? That I can't manage middles and ends because I only understand the grammar of beginnings? It's seeing the cards pop that brings me the most satisfaction, and maybe this explains the creepy, careening, shapeless narratives that seem to be the only kind I can write. I don't want to retell, as Byatt describes. I'm lazy. I want to offer a book of first sentences and have the reader do that work for me.

And in the meantime, someone's wife lies weeping in the next room.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

the defenestration project

I've always liked the word "defenestration"--it's so Latinate and dignified, but it points to throwing something annoying out a window. It was coined in 1419, when seven town officials (selectmen to you and me) got tossed out a window in Prague (see engraving, left). This triggered the Hussite War, which had something to do with church reform and Bohemia and a bad-tempered Holy Roman Emperor. I don't understand the whole back story and don't want to.

To substitute for this amazing lack of curiosity, I just now made a short list of items that could and should go out the window and into the Vermont snow. At the top is a certain printer in my employ that does pretty much everything except print things; instead, it sends me little error messages about its various digestive issues. After replacing a few parts and cartridges, I've resigned myself to letting it sit and blink (Alarm! Alarm!) and occasionally letting it deliver up a handful of smeary pages folded like a badly-made accordion.

Next out the window is a certain co-worker, who ought to land with a very satisfying thump. Without going into a lot of unprofessional detail, I can say that as I get older my tolerance for poor work performance has worn thin. It's even thinner when a poor performance in one office means a lot more labor in another, and it becomes the blade of a small, sharp knife when I see a poor performer claiming credit, directly or indirectly, for work done quietly and competently by someone else. Out you go.

The last item for today's defenestration is a manuscript, running about 22,000 words, that is without question the worst thing I've ever written. And more's the pity--after four months of messing with it, all I've accomplished is to use up four months I could have spent braiding a rug or polishing the silver. It appears I'm not capable of writing fiction--not because I love writing the truth, but because I'm a really horrible storyteller. I get distracted; I go off on weird tangents; I let my characters do things without authorial permission. The household fantasy that I will write a potboiler murder mystery suspense horror action romance novel that will sell a lot of copies (none my nonfiction books have made much dough) is today officially toast. No satisfying thump with this one; instead, the pages should flutter upward, spiral through the winter air, and scatter artistically. All I want at this point is for the pages to be picked up, one piece at a time, by the mystified citizens of Montpelier.

Rest in peace, but rest on the sidewalk, O Calendar of Saints.

Monday, January 11, 2010

are police logs literature?

Every Thursday the local daily publishes the police report for Montpelier, and I'm getting in the habit of keeping them around as a sort of accidental local poetry. I can't figure out whether the log reflects the mind of a small-city beat cop or whether it reflects the broader psyche of the whole city (which is not really a city, with only 8,000 people). Either way, the reports are well worth the time it takes to read them.

Suspicious activity: Caller received an automated phone call about his credit card.

Car hit a deer on Sherwood Drive; deer still alive.

Someone was choking on Barre Street, but recovered.

Caller heard someone walking up the back stairs on River Street.

Horses in the roadway on Main Street.

Man possibly pounding windows on State Street.

Found: red-colored miniature Pinscher on River Street.

Water running from light fixtures on Cityside Drive.

Woman concerned about a child in front of City Hall.

Dog on Loomis Street barking off and on for about three hours.

Candle burning in an apartment on Cummings Street.

Horses in the roadway on State Street. Same horses.

Female sitting on a curb on State Street rocking back and forth.

Neighbor on Jay street calling someone names; an ongoing problem.

I read these and wonder what kind of literature they are. Maybe literature of a very low order, but so what? I confess that I'm worried about the deer and amused about the horses--these were the draft horses used to pull the Christmas wagon we all got to ride around town in during December. They were definitely in the roadway, but they were supposed to be there. Who called this in? The barking dog is deeply familiar to me, since it was barking barking barking next door, but I never once thought it was something I should refer to the police. Who did?

Animal incidents aside, there really is something rhetorically interesting about someone "possibly" pounding on storefront windows downtown, and something downright creepy about water pouring from streetlights on Cityside Drive. I want to know who got choked on Barre Street and is now feeling better, and I'd also like to know who, exactly, is in front of City Hall--woman or child? Is this deliberate ambiguity? I'm a little worried about that woman sitting on the curb.

I sometimes think a decent novel could be constructed entirely out of police reports--it might be a little spare and sketchy, but it would have a kind of puzzling charm.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

the Loomis Street Irregulars

For the first time since Thanksgiving the Irregulars are coming to play, and I'm worried that I will play dismally. I tuned the dulcimer (sixty-four strings, again) and tested my memory with Coleman's March into Callum's Road. What a mess.

It seems I've lost my speed and my ability to cross the bridges without losing my place, and even Swinging on a Gate, which I should be able to bang out in a coma, sounded choppy and off tempo. This is lack of practice, but it's also the end result of the past couple of months of being trapped in a body brace.

For a lot of reasons I do not want playing with my friends to turn into a chore, or to be one more thing I need to worry about. Music is meant to be shared and joyful, and right now there's all this stuff about adequacy is getting in the way. (I keep telling myself that it's only seven weeks post surgery, and that I'm expecting too much, but I don't believe that.)

This picture reminds me that there was once a time when I played very nicely indeed, and I'm going to post it and enjoy it and try try try not to worry.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stephen Huneck--a very sad goodbye

I found out this morning that Stephen Huneck, the remarkable Vermont artist, killed himself while sitting in his car outside his psychiatrist's office. Stephen was best know for his wood sculpture, often misidentified as folk art, and for his books like "Sally Goes to the Beach."

I went to high school with Stephen and we shared a suite of art rooms at school for many years. For two years we shared a studio class with Bud Madru, that unforgettable and not always entirely predictable teacher. I wrote at some length about Stephen in my second book, A View from Vermont, a story adapted from a review and interview I originally wrote for Burlington's arts and comment weekly, Seven Days.

I won't pretend I know him well, but I loved and bought his courageous and curiously schmaltzy work--I have one of his angels over the fireplace in the living room, and I was hoping to one day afford a life-sized Labrador. His work was driven by a deep trust in the human-animal bond, which is an important thing to make art about--I wrote a whole book about it, in Conversations with a Prince. Stephen mattered.

When he was young, he was studiously silent--he seemed partially frozen but his work was always fresh and good. I once bought one of his water colors because it seemed happy, and happiness was something he had only in short supply. I don't know what when on at his house, but it wasn't good.

Later, when I interviewed him and we reconnected a little, I was amazed to find him incredibly talkative--"In 1965 Huneck was inward and impenetrably silent; now his heart is often on his sleeve and he won't shut up," I said in 2005. And now Stephen is gone, and I feel a light has drained away. He took the great risk of learning to love, and now we can no longer love him back.

Friday, January 8, 2010

going forward

I go to meetings where the tag line "going forward" erupts spontaneously whenever the speaker is signaling that the utterance is serious and ignored at the listener's peril. In the span of a few days I heard about how urgent it was, going forward, that we understand our mission, and that decisions made here should be recorded going forward. At one point I was even told, going forward, that it was time to break for lunch. The usage is everywhere, like an outbreak of the measles.

What does it actually mean? As an intensifier it doesn't have the slacker charm of "totally," or the gum-snapping resonance of "y'know," but there must be something about "going forward" that satisfies, maybe because it seems to sprinkle the speaker with the holy water of the future, a thing which the speaker understands and the listener does not. Is it a sly insult? Or just a jumped-up, self-important reload of "you betcha?" At the most recent gathering that was going forwarded to smithereens, I notied that the people who use and love this expression tended to work inside the Washington beltway.

why sixty-four strings?

When I got my first instrument, a 12/11 Dusty Strings, I tried to tune it by ear using a piano and, later on, an electric keyboard. This was the wrong moment to learn that my ear is just a tad sharp, and when I tried to play with other people they made faces like they smelled something bad.

Thus chastised, I bought a real tuner with the little dial and the light and the clamp that goes on the tuning peg, and didn't need that sharp ear any more, and in a few years I moved up to a bigger James Jones. Which, I have to add, cost serious money on a writer's pay, but it made a swell racket and turned out to be exactly right for jigs, reels, and (my favorite) schmaltzy waltzes. My Jones has 64 strings, all of them with an opinion, not all those opinions the same.

If you're not familiar with the species, a hammer dulcimer looks like a piano that was parked overnight in a bad neighborhood. It sounds like a cross between a roomful of banjos and a classical harp--sweet, complicated, percussive, happy, and a little jazzy.