Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Novel ideas

For me, my muse has lately been coming not from a clinking glass but from solitude and dreams.

The fact of the matter is I've become something of a hermit since New Year's, only opening the door to let the dogs out or to stick out my arm to grab the mail. And it's because of this isolation, I think, that my (always lucid) dreaming has evolved into entire mental manuscripts of fiction. Each night my bedtime comes later and later, mostly now around four to five in the morning. Then, depending on how interesting the story is getting, I get up around noon.

The oddest part of this is not that it often takes me days to fully realize the dream didn't actually happen but that, when I finally had to emerge from this strangely productive hibernation in order to meet with my accountant over my income taxes, what followed has me having a difficult time believing wasn't a dream.

After leaving the accountant, I decided the outside world wasn't such a bad place after all so I stopped to get a newspaper and a booth at the local cafe. It was Monday so, with most stores closed in this tourist town, it was empty enough inside that I could listen to the conversations at the counter.

There's a sense of calm that comes from a place of rattling plates in the busboy's tray, the "What can I get you?" and the rhythmic stirring of coffee cups. It's even better in winter with snowflakes littering the sidewalk outside the fogged up windows and woolen hats and scarfs hanging on the coat racks.

Before I'd finished my first cup of coffee, a man with wild brown hair came in, shut the door behind him and headed for a small table by the opposite wall. He sat down, opened a satchel and took out a sheet of white paper as waitresses walked by with steaming pots of coffee and calls of, "Hi Tom," one adding, "Be with you in a minute."

I watched as he sat, head bent over so far that his nose was inches off the piece of paper flat on the table before him. Every few minutes he'd pick it up and squint at it and I could see that it was blank except for a few small squarish chunks of lines that came down from the upper left corner.

I'd seen the guy before, walking down the hill to town, smoking cigarettes and holding that satchel in his arms, one of the group-home-guys as they came to be known. But now he was "Tom" - and maybe even a poet. I had to know.

When I finished my coffee and went over to pay the bill, I stopped by his table, "Excuse me," I asked, "is that a poem?"

"Yes, yes it is."

Tom offered to let me read it and apologized for how small the font was.

"Why don't you make it bigger?"

"I like it that way," he said.

I learned that Tom grew up a town away from mine and went on to study philosophy at Williams College, then Rutgers for the graduate program in English. He lasted a week, then the paranoia set in.

So here I'd had the pleasure of meeting one of the group-home-guys who happens to write incredibly brilliant poetry in a font size so small it is barely perceptible.

And it's still hard for me not to believe that this was the dream - and the actual real dream I had this morning wasn't. In it I went to a real estate open house at the home where a schoolmate of mine and her little boy were stabbed to death by her husband. (The stabbings were horribly real. It was the open house that was the dream.) From room to room I recalled the newspaper account.

"The police discovered the five-year-old's body in the kitchen covered in blood." I stood in the kitchen looking down at the floor.

"His little brother, barely alive, was found under the coffee table in the living room." No coffee table now. Just a spotless beige carpet.

"The woman was dead in the basement." My mind drew a yellow chalk outline.

"Out back, he jumped out of the bushes wielding a knife and was shot to death by Patrolman Peterson." I didn't make it to the backyard.

I told the realtor she'd never sell it. The only thing left was to reduce it to rubble and make it disappear.

I wish Tom could find it in himself to write bigger.

20 or so beloved books of poetry

Been exchanging my list with other people's. Join in if you'd like.

Most influential early on:
Sylvia Plath - Ariel
Lawrence Ferlinghetti – A Coney Island of the Mind
Anne Sexton – Live or Die
Allen Ginsberg - Howl
Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

Most influential later:
Linda MaCarristan – Eva-Mary
Audre Lorde – Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Judy Grahn – Another Mother Tongue
Marilyn Hacker – Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons
Mary Oliver – Dream Work
Marie Howe – What the Living Do
Marie Howe – The Good Thief
Lucille Clifton – The Book of Light
Alicia Ostriker – The Crack in Everything

Most influential latest:
Edward Hirsch – Lay Back the Darkness
Catherine Barnett – Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced
D. Nurkse – Leaving Xaia
Joan Larkin - My Body
Donald Hall - Without
Mark Doty – School of the Arts
Brian Turner – Here, Bullet

Under the Literary Influence

I can't remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a piece. In one of today's NY Times blogs:

Under the Literary Influence
By Brian McDonald

Standing behind a bar for much of my early adulthood, I wasn’t a big reader. My literary inclinations were limited to the New York Post’s sports section and the Daily Racing Form when a friend handed me a Raymond Chandler novel. “Go ahead,” he said. “It won’t kill you.” I read just the one, put it down, and really didn’t give it much thought.

But this is how addictions begin, subtly and then suddenly. Soon I found myself devouring every hard-boiled word of Chandler’s. And then I read them again. I started talking in similes and metaphors. One day I told a dear friend that he had a face like a collapsed lung. I couldn’t help myself. A progression took hold. Chandler led me to Hammett and from Hammett I staggered to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald led me to Hemingway.

Sure, what drew me to these writers were their words: some terse and declarative, others colorful and descriptive. But the attraction also held something far more sinister: the subtle sound of ice clinking in a glass, the muted laughter of an inside joke told a few tables away, the seductive swirl of cigarette smoke climbing to the barroom ceiling. I couldn’t get enough.

Throughout my early 30s, my reading addiction began to conspire against me. I found myself working behind the bar at Elaine’s and there I came face-to-face with my demon.
For almost 50 years Elaine Kaufman has attracted writers to her restaurant as though she were giving away royalty checks. And though not all of them turned me on, there were a few who, when they walked through the door, had me jonesing like a street junkie. Late one night Hunter S. Thompson sat by himself at a back table lighting shots of Bacardi 151 rum with his Zippo and firing them down the hatch. I don’t remember how many flaming shots he drank — but I do remember the last one. Something had gone horribly wrong with his technique. When I looked back at him he was on fire. Only the quick thinking of Carlo the waiter, who snatched a nearby tablecloth and used it to smother the blue flames, saved Dr. Thompson from escalating into a three-alarm blaze.

If you were there that night at Elaine’s, no doubt you would have seen a drunk, crazy man who had set his own hands on fire. But what I saw was a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and a pint of raw ether.

The day after the Thompson immolation, I read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in my studio apartment, the door locked, the phone turned off, the shades drawn. I found myself wandering the streets for more. Thompson led me to Jack Kerouac and Kerouac to Charles Bukowski. Eventually it was the plays of Eugene O’Neill. My bookshelf began to sag under the weight of drunken writers.

I knew things were bad when I started buying the biographies of the writers I craved: Truman Capote, Fitzgerald and Chandler. From these texts, I learned that Chandler would sober up when he wrote. He would retreat to his cabin in the California hills and white-knuckle his words onto the page, every one of them bringing him closer to his next drink. I knew that Capote often drank martinis while writing “In Cold Blood.” I read Scott Fitzgerald’s letters from France begging his editor, Maxwell Perkins, for money to pay bar tabs and buy cigarettes.

It was all so intoxicating. Capote once said that he drank because “it’s the only time I can stand it.” His reasoning probably sounded convoluted to most, but seemed perfectly logical to me. When your addiction begins to swallow you the only way to endure the pain is to swallow back. I got to the point where I read my favorite writers because I couldn’t stand it.

The reality of my favorite writers’ lives, at least the ends of their lives, wasn’t romantic at all. Hemingway and, later, Hunter chose the coward’s way out; Chandler tried his hardest to join them. He went into the shower one day with a loaded pistol and pulled the trigger twice. Only by the grace of God — and the fact that he was schnockered to the eyeballs — did he miss both times. Most of the rest of my bookshelf had drunk themselves into early dirt naps.

All seemed hopeless. That night I lay on my couch clutching an old, stained copy of “The Long Goodbye” to my breast and cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, I awoke, emotionally weakened and physically drained, and made my way to a nearby Barnes & Noble. There a salesperson named Daniel gently led me to the memoir section. At first I recoiled. No, I cried, anything but this! I needed a whiskey-soaked fiction bad. But Daniel handed me Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life.” I read it slowly, doubting every page. But then something miraculous happened before I was halfway through: I liked it. I liked it a lot.

This new reading life wasn’t easy. The urge to slip back to my old ways was strong. I took it one book at a time. Hamill led the way to Mary Karr’s “Cherry,” then “Home Before Dark,” Susan Cheever’s memoir of life with her father, John Cheever. Soon I had a whole new bookshelf given over to writers who wrote just like my beloved boozers but did so in the past tense.

I haven’t felt the need to pick up a Chandler or Hammett for five years now, and my reading horizons have opened considerably. I still enjoy a good boozy memoir every now and then — J.R. Moehringer’s “The Tender Bar” is one that comes to mind — but I’ve discovered that there are libraries filled with writers who never needed liquor as a muse.

Still, it’s not like Hammett, Chandler and the rest don’t call to me. They do. They exist deep in my soul, having their bourbons and hammering away at their typewriters. I keep them safely down there by helping others addicted to drunken writers. They’re easy to spot. They gather in front of the Strand scouring the $1 racks, they have rings around their eyes from all night reading sessions, they talk in similes. The other day one of them told me I had a head like a bucket of mud.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Shhhh - Don't look now but....

I'm being a Congressman...not even from my state...who is the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

To be a little more specific, I'm being followed on Twitter. The guy is following my "tweets" - as if they're mind-freaking fascinating. Which they're not. My current tweet: "Skye wants to run away but doesn't feel like going outside"

It all started when I was watching Rachel Maddow and she happened to mention Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-MI and how he had been using Twitter on his Blackberry throughout his visit to Iraq happily announcing...

Well, here's the email I sent out after googling him and signing up to follow his Twitter (along with 3,987 other people):

Subject: Congressman Tweets His Way (and location) Through War Zone

Hey kids, want some excitement? Follow Hoekstra's Twitter and see if his entourage is attacked!!

1. 10:52 AM Feb 11th from TwitterBerry

2. Check my web site for response to twitterversy! 3:33 PM Feb 10th from TwitterBerry

3. Just arrived back at Andrews. Press had access to CODEL thru photo op in mtgs with Iraqi President and a gov in Afghanistan. 5:01 PM Feb 9th from TwitterBerry

4. Headed home!Situation in Iraq improves significantly.Afghanistan poses challenges!Lots of stuff to talk about when I get home Monday late pm 6:38 PM Feb 8th from TwitterBerry

5. Love twitter critics.Spelling mistakes. Sorry but riding in poor light, bouncing around,speed not accuracy. Lighten up. Its called twitter 10:30 PM Feb 7th from TwitterBerry

6. More travel today!lots of interesting and new information Every trip is so unique. Progress/setbacks evolving strategies. 10:29 PM Feb 7th from TwitterBerry

7. Iraq! Issues! lLong term impact on containing Iran.. Need a coherent detainee strategy. Amb Crocker leaving after very successful tenure. 5:32 PM Feb 6th from TwitterBerry

8. Moved into green zone by helicopter Iraqi flag now over palace.Headed to new US embassy Appears calmer less chaotic than previous here. 2:56 AM Feb 6th from TwitterBerry

9. Just landed in Baghdad. I believe it may be first time I've had bb service in Iraq. 11 th trip here. 12:41 AM Feb 6th from TwitterBerry

10. Thinking best approach on stimulus is to start over and do it bipartisan. Purely partisan in House now melting down in Senate Get it right. 1:37 PM Feb 5th from TwitterBerry

11. On the way to Andrews Air Force base.12 hour flight to mid east Be back on Mon instead of tues. Votes mon. I'll keep you posted. 6:28 PM Feb 4th from TwitterBerry

12. Doing twitter for Christian Broadcast Network. Just fid interview for then on Bowers shootdown and future of CIA. 12:21 PM Feb 4th from TwitterBerry

13. Heading to Iraq and Afghanistan weds night.I'll update on twitter and web pg as links are available.I'll ne back in touch mid next week. 7:33 PM Feb 3rd from TwitterBerry

Then the other day I got this email:

Pete Hoekstra (petehoekstra) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Check out Pete Hoekstra's profile here:


So, tag, I'm it (along with 3,659 other people).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dirty Hippie!!

My results from taking the "How Liberal Are You, You Dirty Hippie?" on facebook:

You're so left-wing that you cause car accidents due to the fact that you refuse to make right turns. Your list of achievements include being able to sing Kumbaya out of key in 7 different languages, knowing how to score hallucinogens in any part of the country on a modest budget, and being able to draw a perfect circle in case you need to draw a peace sign or a symbolic vagina. You are valiant in your endless fight against the Man, whom you have identified as mixture of George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, and that guy from Perfect Strangers (no real reason, he just pissed you off). Some people may not understand you, and others may call you weird, but you don't care what others think. Peace, love, and happiness!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Let your fingers do the walking

Amazon is an amazing site, forget books, they sell food and gadgets and now this wondrously creative toy that is bound to offer hours and hours of fun for the kiddies.

Hell, the reviews alone are worth the $62:

Playmobil Security Check Point
$62.00 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping.
In Stock.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3,361 of 3,416 people found the following review helpful:
3.0 out of 5 stars
Great lesson for the kids!
By loosenut Seattle WA

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said "that's the worst security ever!". But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.
The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I've heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I'll get him the Playmobil Abu-Gharib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush.)

936 of 973 people found the following review helpful:

Serious Security Breach
By W.C. Isbell "roxybeast" - Oklahoma City, OK

My family was planning a vacation to Europe, so I purchased this item to teach my twins about what to expect at the airport and hopefully, alleviate some of their anxiety. We also downloaded the actual TSA security checklist from the American Airlines website and then proceeded with our demonstration. Well, first we had to round up a Barbie and a few Bratz dolls to play the other family members, so that cost us a few extra bucks at the Dollar General and it is aggravating that the manufacturer did not make this product "family-friendly." Of course, since the playmobil Dad could not remove his shoes or other clothing items, unlike the Barbie, the playmobil security agent became suspicious and after waving her wand wildy a few dozen times, called her supervisor to wisk the Dad into a special body-cavity search room, (which incidentally led to quite an embarasing and interesting discussion with my twin daughters about personal hygiene and a slight adjustment to the rules we had them memorize about touching by strangers). But worst of all, since the suitcase did not actually open, the baggage inspector made a call to the FBI and ATF bomb squads which then segregated the family's suitcase (which btw was the only suitcase they provided for our educational family experience) and according to the advanced TSA regulations, had to blow it up, (since they could not otherwise mutilate the luggage, break off the locks and put one of those nice little advisory stickers on it), which we had to simulate out in the backyard with a few M-80s and other fireworks. The girls started crying. They became so hysterical by the whole experience that we could not even get them in the car when the time came to actually take our trip, and so we had to cancel the whole thing at the last minute, losing over $7,000 in airfare and hotel charges that we could not recoup do to the last minute cancellations. We've now spent an additional $3,000 to pay for the girls therapy and medication over the past year since this incident occurred, and the psychologists have told us that this will affect them for life, so much for their college fund and our retirement. Then, to top it all off, when we tried to use to playmobil phone to call the company to ask for reimbursement, as you might expect, of course the damn thing didn't even work; neither did our efforts to e-mail them using the computer screen on the baggage checkpoint; and our real-life efforts to contact them to obtain re-imbursement have also likewise been ignored. Worse yet, we had the product tested and found out that it was positive for both lead paint and toxic chemicals, having been manufactured in China by workers holding formerly American jobs, so now we all have cancer and have been given only another year or so to live. My advice - educating your kids about airport security with this toy may actually be more harmful to them than just packing them in the damn luggage with some bottled water & hoping they survive. :)

1,451 of 1,523 people found the following review helpful:
Educational and Fun!
By Zampano - New York City
Thank you Playmobil for allowing me to teach my 5-year old the importance of recognizing what a failing bureaucracy in a ever growing fascist state looks like. Sometimes it's a hard lesson for kids to learn because not all pigs carry billy clubs and wear body armor. I applaud the people who created this toy for finally being hip to our changing times. Little children need to be aware that not all smiling faces and uniforms are friendly. I noticed that my child is now more interested in current events. Just the other day he asked me why we had to forfeit so much of our liberties and personal freedoms and I had to answer "well, it's because the terrorists have already won". Yes, they have won.

I also highly recommend the Playmobil "farm fencing" so you can take your escorted airline passenger away and fence him behind bars as if he were in Guantanamo Bay.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

I could be a poet

If you've never heard of Taylor Mali, you're missing something wonderful. He's a spoken word poet and teacher and has a bunch of You Tube pieces where he performs on stages like Def Poetry Jam and others much more formal where you can see the likes of former US poet laureate Billy Collins setting up for his turn at the mic (fascinating to watch Collins' facial expressions while Taylor does his thing).

One of my favorites, though they're all great, is the poem titled "I Could Be a Poet". Where was Mali when I needed him, when I thought all poetry had to be read out loud in that lilting and incredibly snobbish and stilted way as if to put a steel door up where only a chosen few were allowed to enter? I love that he's come along to stand poetry on its conventional and parched ear.

Let 'er rip, Taylor:

What teachers make

When I was in grad school, I spent a semester teaching a poetry workshop at Valhalla Prison to female inmates. It was one of the most gratifying things I've ever done.

Without question, every single one of my students was a teacher to me. Despite their situation - the inability to simply breathe fresh air (even the exercise yard was indoors), constant lights and alarms in the night, the "Ninja Turtles" assault troops ready to tear apart cells, strangers doing cavity checks, other humiliations - they taught me courage, optimism, the richness of a good laugh, the utter surprise to hear that I thought about them when I'd gone back out through the gates, past the razor wire, down the interstate to home. It seemed like the only thing they took for granted was their invisibility.

I like to think they don't feel invisible anymore because a bunch of us got together and they discovered they have a way with words. They have a voice.

And I discovered I have a way with teaching. I'm looking all over for a teaching job these days but, even with the MFA, I'm not certified and the private schools and colleges are full up, it seems, the colleges in particular looking for fresh young blood with books and a name. I can't do much about the years but I'm working on the rest thanks to the Dodge Foundation and some wonderful friends. And some of that optimism I take from my former students that there's always a chance to turn things around no matter how many years have gone by.

What could be a better calling?

For anyone who questions this most noble (and humbling) of professions, here's another great Taylor Mali poem:

The impotence of proofreading

I'll leave this up to Taylor Mali to offer this warning (and dig the expressions on former poet laureate Billy Collins' face)


Has this ever happened to you?
You work very very horde on a paper for English clash
And still get a very glow raid on it like a D or even a D=
and all because you are the word¹s liverwurst spoiler.
Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.

Now this is a problem that affects manly, manly students all over the world.
I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term
that my English torturer in my sophomoric year,
Mrs. Myth, said I would never get into a good colleague.
And that¹s all I wanted, just to get into a good colleague.

Not just anal community colleague,
because I wouldn¹t be happy at anal community colleague.
I needed a place that would challenge me, challenge me menstrually,
I needed a place that would offer me intellectual simulation,
I know this makes me sound like a stereo,

but I really wanted to go to an ivory legal collegue.
So I needed to improvement or gone would be my dream
of going to Harvard, Jail, or Prison
(in Prison, New Jersey).
So I got myself a spell checker

and figured I was on Sleazy Street.
But there are several missed aches
that a spell chucker can¹t can¹t catch catch.
For instant, if you accidentally leave out word
your spell exchequer won¹t put it in you.

And God for billing purposes only
you should have serial problems with Tori Spelling
your spell Chekhov might use a word
that you had absolutely no detention of using.
Because what do you want it to douche?

It only does what you tell it to douche.
You¹re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit.
It just goes to show you how embargo
one careless clit of the mouth can be.
Which reminds me of this one time during my Junior Mint.

The teacher took the paper I had written on A Sale of Two Titties
I¹m not joking, I¹m totally cereal.
And read it out loud to all of my assmates.
It was the most humidifying experience of my life,
being laughed at pubically.

So do yourself a flavor and follow these two Pisces of advice:
One: There is no prostitute for careful editing of your own work,
no prostitute whatsoever.
And three: When it comes to proofreading,
the red penis your friend.

Spank you.