Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Edwidge Danticat

On torture.

ERASURE by Percival Everett

I'll be writing a few reviews over the next week, to share thoughts about and excerpts from some of the great books I've been reading recently.

I confess that I'm new to Percival Everett's work. Some of my good friends are great fans of his, and he was at Bread Loaf this year and gave a great reading, and well, I just decided it was about time I read something of his. Since I write a lot about race issues myself, I decided on ERASURE which on its front cover (paperback version) has the following quote from the New York Times Book Review:

"With equal measures of sympathy and satire, Erasure craftily addresses the highly charged issue of being 'black enough' in America."

"Craftily" is a good word to use because Everett gives us a book within a book to illustrate his (and his character's) point. The protagonist, a novelist, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, is having trouble getting his most recent work published when he comes across the work of an "authentic" black novelist whose book "We's Lives in Da Ghetto" is a runaway bestseller. Horrified by the stereotypes and the dialect in it, he sets out (angrily) to write a book just as horrible and titles it "My Pafology" (later changing the name to something that the publisher suggests he spells 'Phuck' so as not to alienate more sensitive readers--he refuses). Of course, he submits it to his agent and the book gets attention, raves and an obscenely large advance.

The problem is, Monk didn't submit it as himself. He submitted it under the pen name of Stagg R. Leigh, and endowed his doppelganger with a rap sheet and prison time in his past. Of course, everyone wants to meet the infamous Stagg, further complicating Monk's plan and forcing him into an even greater charade. Ever more humorous complications arise and the book is finally nominated for a prestigious award for which Monk is made a member of the jury. To recuse, or not to recuse??

That delightful romp aside, the book is also about relationships and love and filial duty...and about the damage a father inflicts when he dubs one child "the golden child" and emotionally excludes the others. (Damage, by the way, that is done not only to the siblings, but also to the golden child.)

Outside of his publishing woes, Monk loses a sister who is a successful OBGyn for underpriveleged women (at the hands of a radical right-to-lifer who guns her down), a brother who has come out of the closet and can't reconcile his relationship with Monk, and a half-white, racist half-sister he didn't even know he had until he found an old stack of his father's letters.

Monk is also slowly losing his mother to Altzheimer's disease, played out in tragic / comic scenes that were utterly devastating to read. Here's an excerpt from a scene on the day he decides to finally put her in a home:

I watched as she poured the water into the pot and dropped in the ball that I had already filled with tea. She put the cups and saucers on the table and set the pot between us.

"Isn't this nice?" she said.

"Yes, Mother."

"My favorite time is always waiting for the tea to steep." She looked past me to the screened porch. "Where is Lorraine?"

"Lorraine was married last night."

"Oh, yes." She seemed to catch herself. Then she appeared very sad.

"Will you miss her?" I asked.

She looked at me as if she'd missed the question.

"You were just thinking about Lorraine, weren't you?" I asked.

"Of course. I hope she will be very happy." Mother poured the tea.

"I'd like you to pack a bag this morning," I said.

"Why?" She held the cup in her hands, warming them.

"I have to take you someplace. It's kind of a hospital."

"I feel fine."

"I know, Mother. But I want to make sure. I want to be certain that you're all right."

"I'm perfectly fine."

"Your father can give me a pill or something." She sipped her tea, then stared at it.

"Father's dead, Mother."

"Yes, I know. There was a cardinal outside my window this morning. A female. She was very beautiful. The female cardinal's color is so sweetly understated."

"I agree."

Mother looked at my eyes. "I must have spilled something in bed last night."

"I'll take care of it."

"Shall I pack a small bag?"

I nodded. "A small bag will be fine."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Striving

"The best advice I ever got was from an elephant trainer in the jungle outside Bangalore. I was doing a hike through the jungle as a tourist. I saw these large elephants tethered to a small stake. I asked him, 'How can you keep such a large elephant tied to such a small stake?' He said, 'When the elephants are small, they try to pull out the stake, and they fail. When they grow large, they never try to pull out the stake again.' That parable reminds me that we have to go for what we think we're fully capable of, not limit ourselves by what we've been in the past."

--Paul Vivek, "The Best Advice I Ever Got," Fortune, March 21, 2005, p. 100.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Short Story Collection

I am so excited. I finally--FINALLY--feel like I've gotten my short story collection assembled and completed into a cohesive manuscript. I've written one last story to anchor the collection (six before it, six after), taken out ones that I was sort of including and looking the other way over, and I really feel good about it now. I am so excited. I'll be printing out and sending off this week. Yay!

Then it's off to work on the non-fiction book I am co-authoring. I've gotten some great edits back from the agent who is representing that (in a one-book deal) and I can't wait to start hammering those out. I've had a few days to think through the changes she suggested, and once I sit down I think they'll go quickly.

Just so I don't sound too Pollyanna-ish, my writing rarely goes this smoothly. I intend to make the most of it, though, and wring every bit of productivity out of this writing high that I can. I'm aware that the lows eventually make an appearance, but for now I'm focusing on how good this feels.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Boycott a stamp??

Why do this? Why? Why? Why?

Okay, sorry. A little background: I received an email today telling me that if I am a patriotic American, I will boycott the 2006 USPS Eid stamp that will be coming out in early October. It celebrates two of the holiest days of the Islamic calendar and a message of celebration (roughly translated as "May your religious holiday be blessed") is printed on the stamp in Arabic. It's a beautiful stamp. (Plus, the same design was originally released in 2001--it's been around a while.)

But the email I got was so hate filled, so ugly and narrow-minded...

I have to say, I don't find this stamp threatening at all. It's just a stamp, people. It doesn't hurt my own personal religious beliefs to allow someone of a different faith a postage stamp that celebrates what they believe. My faith is strong enough to survive a postage stamp. We need to be careful where we put our energies. There is enough hate in the world already. As Christians what we need to worry about is practicing love and compassion.

All of the Muslims I know are peace loving, intelligent, moderate, contributing citizens of America. They abhor what the radical fundamentalists have done to attack America just as much as the rest of us do. Some of them lost loved ones in the attacks, too (and no, they weren't hijackers--they were innocent victims).

Think about it: the fanatics who attacked America also damaged the image of moderate Muslims. To them, the fanatics are like our very own American-made ones: Jim Jones who orchestrated a massive group suicide in Guyana, or David Koresh and his bizarre Branch Davidians in Waco, or the Fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy (illegally) and marry their daughters at age 12 to 50 year-old "prophets." All of these radical sects profess(ed) to believe in the Christian God.

My point is that every religion has its extremists, but they do not define the majority (they are just the loudest, most attention-getting ones). We need to be careful how we lump people together because of how we perceive their religion based on a few vocal / violent extremists. I would never want someone to compare me to David Koresh because I, too, believe in Christ.

Please, let's remember what it really means to be compassionate; and focus our energies on making the world less hate-filled...not more.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yellow jackets from hell

Yup, they're still here. Will they never die? Admittedly, they aren't as bad as they were. The ones that get in now are confused, twitchy, and not long for this world. But they still have enough oomph to make it to my bathroom, where they crawl around on the rug, or the covered toilet seat. Brrr. That's the scariest place they've been.

Pierce Tattoo did say to call him back if they were still coming in after a week, and it's been two, but I have a confession to make: I am more afraid of chemicals than of yellow jackets. Yup, just fifteen minutes south of Love Canal and I have a HUGE fear of man-made chemicals: insecticides, herbicides, defoliants...I'd rather swim with sharks. At least I can see the sharks coming. At least I can fight back against the shark, punch him in the eye, growl in my snorkel (that scares them away every time--add that tidbit to your "if I'm ever attacked by a shark" mental file). But chemicals? They are silent, deadly, insidious, and I hate them with the most irrational of fears. They poison the air we breathe, the soil in which we grow our food, the water supply on which we all depend. Did you know that delousing shampoo is one of the worst water polluters of all? One tiny bottle of it can utterly contaminate something like 20,000 gallons of water? (Okay, I'm not giving reliable facts now, just promoting my fear. I'll try to get actual stats and get back to you.)

ANYway, as bugs go, the yellow jackets squash with a really satisfying little "pop" under the shoe. They aren't messy, squishy diers at all. And I tell myself that my karma won't be damaged because they were dying anyway, and I'm just putting them out of their misery. But my dear husband is so frustrated he's ready to pull down the wall and see just what lies behind it.

Not me, though. No way, Jose.

Too many chemicals have been sprayed back there.

Monday, September 11, 2006


ITME's fall students are just starting their 12 week semester program and the first update can be read here. We have a great group and are anticipating a great semester!

Nearly good

I'm struggling with a novel that is nearly good. I have recently come to understand that it needs another draft, after I had told myself I was done. I can't get to it yet because I'm finishing my short story collection, which is almost, almost there. And the writing I'm doing for the last story is thrilling me, so that's good. But there's that novel hanging out there...I'll get to it, I'll get to it.

Here's a quote from Doris Lessing that I share for anyone who is having the same struggle:

"All writers...go through the stage when what we write is nearly good: the writing lacks some kind of inward clinching, the current has not run clear. We go on writing, reading, throwing away not-quite-good enough words, then one day something has happened, a process has been completed, a step forward has been taken...The process of writing and rewriting, and of reading the best, has at last succeeded. Professional writers all know this period of apprenticeship. Amateur writers cling to their early uneven drafts and won't let them go."

I will not cling...I will not cling...I will not cling...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dolphin intelligence

There has been a great debate raging in the community of dolphin researchers and animal ethicists about the intelligence of dolphins. Most of us have long believed that dolphins are intelligent, but a recent researcher is positing that they are not as intelligent as we have given them credit for. Personally, I think he's a quack--just so you know where I stand--and offer this link to another researcher's article as evidence.

Mark Doty's lecture

Hey, I found my notes! And it only took two weeks.

Anyway, Mark Doty's lecture was titled "Whitman in Tears" and was born of an essay he wrote for Virginia Quarterly Review on the anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass.

The first thing Doty discussed was the poetic tone in of Leaves of Grass. It was very much a voice of confidence and intimacy (an "I know you" voice) and it was a revolutionary way of speaking to readers. Who dares to speak in this way? was the reaction of many.

The first publication of Leaves of Grass was a volume that Whitman self-published (at age 36, although photos of him at that time show him looking quite grizzled). He didn't even put his name on it. When Mark said this, the audience laughed, as if it was a show of Whitman's ego. But I understood it as a lack of ego--like potters who choose not to sign the bottoms of their pots. Lots of famous Japanese potters did this and it was to show that they were part of the culture...that they were one with the world of art and the act of creation. It's actually a very complex concept to try to describe, but it was clear to me along the lines of "I, as creator, am nothing. I am merely the conduit for this greater force: creativity." And I understand this feeling all too well. it's like that third essence of writing that I mentioned before, the "Where the hell did that come from?" part.

Anyway, Whitman is the father of the wholly American vernacular and used words like "luckier" "stuck up" and "foo-foo" in his poems--unheard of before him. He wanted to speak like an everyman and wished for the widest possible scope of public intimacy. "You" is his most used word. Doty said Whitman communicates with his readers "lip-to-ear."

Also important to understanding Whitman, is to examine the culture of the times in which he lived. The 1850's was a really pivotal time in America. There was a whole industry of healing just coming into being: the TB sanitoriums in upstate NY that represented the healing powers of nature; the "science" of phrenology, wherein the bumps on your head could tell a phrenologist what ails you, and even change as you heal; the rise of the cereal empires of Post and Kellogg, who also opened their own vast health-spas that regulated all aspects of diet and exercise as a way to cleanse and cure the body of its many afflictions.

It was also the beginning of the self-actualization movement and Whitman represented the belief in a "Cosmic Consciousness" a term that psychologists use to explain the fusion between the self and the universe. What today we might call "being one with the world." I believe many artists understand this feeling...this being plugged in to something greater...it is a very human craving, being transported, being connected with something so vast that we cannot comprehend it...also the appeal of religion...which similarly experienced a surge of popularity in late 1800's.

Doty spoke about Whitman's wracking self-doubts, despite his poetic voice that demanded, lip-to-ear, that we listen. Doty asked us an important question: what constitutes a useful amount of self-doubt? Too much self-doubt paralyzes us. Too little makes work that is agrandizing. The doubter, he said, is in search of what remedy for uncertainty can be found on earth. (Think about it for a minute. It's lovely.)

And he used the following passage from Whitman's "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" to illustrate Whitman's sense of being one with nature/the universe, to illustrate his creative self-doubt, and to show us a breathtaking point-of-view shift that occurs at the end of the poem when the voice of the poet is at once both the dead creatures at the edge of the sea and the other self--witness to the dead bodies, so that he is both diembodied, but also within his body, the eye in two positions at once: the eye that watches the eye.


As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life

As I ebb'd with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.

Fascinated, my eyes reverting from the south, dropt, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide,
Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok there and then as I thought the old thought of the likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk'd with that electric self seeking types.

(Skipping a stanza, here comes the writerly shame...)

But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.

I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

(Skipping to the POV shift...my apologies, Walt.)

Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endless cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feat as I touch you or gather from you.

I mean tenderly by you and all,
I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.

Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoy'd hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a tiny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifting at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets,
We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out before you,
You up there walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It's officially over...

...Summer, that is. Sigh.

My kiddos just left for school. My eldest is a Junior in high school, my middle is starting her first day of high school today, and my youngest, no longer a baby, is in fifth grade, top of the heap in elementary school. And to make things worse (better??) he is on Safety Patrol this year and so he isn't riding the bus. Which sounds like a good thing if you know what buses are like, but the thing is, we always had great mom/son time while he waited for the bus. We would shoot hoops, or in winter play a sort of soccer-hockey with chunks of ice from the roof, we'd talk about life, read books together, pet the cats who waited for the bus with us. Damn, I am so going to miss that time. So I told him this morning, "I'll walk to school with you," thinking we could still share a little morning time.

He said, "Mom, do you mind if I ride my bike? I get there faster..." and I could tell he was really worried about hurting my feelings. Then he said, "You can walk with me some other day..." and I'm not sure which was more heartbreaking--the fact that he wanted to go on his own, or the fact that he was so worried about hurting my feelings when doing his own thing.

I assured him it was fine, that it was his first day and he needed to do it however he wanted to so that he could feel comfortable. But I'm sad inside. Proud of him for being independent and strong and asking for what he wants, but sad that he's growing up.

Parenthood. It sure is a mixed bag, isn't it? And the crazy thing is, if we do it well, we work ourselves right out of a job.

When you have that newborn little baby you aren't thinking about the planned obsolescence waiting for you at the end of it. But I suppose it's all about seasons. I truly don't want to be a mother of small children all my life. I have things I want to do, things I want to accomplish.

...But grandmother! Now there's a job I could really sink my teeth into. :)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Waiting for my copy

I got an email saying it had shipped...maybe it will come today. I'm waiting for Jim Tomlinson's Things Kept, Things Left Behind, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Here is an excerpt from his "Backstory" essay, which can be read here.

"There is a saying in playwriting that the scene is never about what the scene is about. So it is in Things Kept, Things Left Behind. The stories, ultimately, are about things not written, at least not overtly. The unuttered core of these stories, the invisible center around which they twine, is the conflict inherent in human connectedness, all the passions and incredible difficulties tangled there."

Can't wait!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Ex-terminator

So, we called around, holiday weekend and all. Orkin wanted $269, starting price. Another place wanted $150. Finally we found a local place that would do it for between $95 and $140. And they would come right away. Hallelujah.

By 3:15 the cats were getting hungry and giving me disgusted looks at the closed door that separated them from their food, so I snuck in for the food bag--their regular bowl was aswarm with yellow jackets--and gave them a small bowl of food on this side of the buzzing door with the sign that read "Do NOT open!" lest anyone forget what lay--flew--on the other side. Both my cats were born on the same day as I was, and they have many of my stubborn Taurus tendencies; had they been able to work the knob, I have no doubt they would have been in there attempting to eat around the bugs.

The exterminator arrived around 3:30. He was a young guy, very polite, and covered with tattoos and piercings. There was a large celtic cross on his left forearm, a ring of flames blazing from his right wrist up to his elbow, and several more that I could see disappearing under his sleeve or peeking out from his neckline. He had a short buzzed haircut and at least three silver hoops in one earlobe (I forgot to look at the other). Suffice it to say, the man obviously has a fondness for things piercing his skin, so it seemed perfectly natural that he would be here to rid me of a hive of stinging creatures.

He was fearless. He sprayed in the laundry room (after I removed the clean stuff, shaking off the yellow jackets first) and then shut the door, phase one complete.

Phase two involved spraying the nest from outside, squatting low (hoping, no doubt, to be less noticeable), swatting them away from his head, spraying again, studying, spraying, studying, spraying. The whole thing looked very Zen from inside my closed second-story window. Then he applied a powder, statically charged, that would cling to the opening and to the yellow jackets. He said, "They groom themselves like cats, so they will ingest the powder when they try to clean it off." Who knew? Yellow jackets are like cats. Huh.

I still don't like them.

But the exterminator? Him, I like. My new favorite person. Thank you, Mr. Pierce Tattoo. You have saved us from the yellow jacket hordes. And in my case, from myself.

Later that evening, I vacuumed up 487 yellow jacket carcasses, some still twitching ominously. What? Of course I counted, are you kidding?

And I went to a party later that night and discovered that infestation stories are like pregnancy stories: everybody's got one. I heard about the man whose living room wall began to buzz and then finally to drip honey, about the family whose living room ceiling fell in on them, overburdened by a huge nest of wasps...it actually made my story seem sort of lame. But at least I had the physical evidence to top them--I had my swollen wrist, my war wound. And I had the numbers. 487. Read 'em and weep, baby. Read 'em and weep.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The nest

I arrived home to a yellow jacket infestation. I've heard about the giant nests appearing this year, to the bafflement of entomologists, but never thought I'd be this close to one.

At first, they were just appearing in our basement laundry room--occasional, groggy fellows that we sucked up with the vacuum or dropped in the toilet with a tissue. We wondered how they were getting in, but didn't stress over it too much.

Then one day, Len turned on the light in the basement only to have ten or so swarm the light (they are attracted to light--natural or artificial). Bravely, he turned on the vacuum and sucked them up mid-flight. It became a game, of sorts, and I quickly learned to do the same. With the sleight-of-hand required, and the threat of mortal injury, it was almost like a video game. Three more days elapsed.

Then, yesterday, I was trimming the front shrubs (manually, in a Mary-Scissors-Hands fashion since our electric trimmer recently bit the dust), getting closer and closer to the end of the bushes, back aching from the strain of using dull clippers, when I was distracted from my work by a small swarm of flying creatures. I had found the yellow jackets' entrance to our house. Three holes in the molding between the first and second floors of my split-level home were their entry-exitway, and it was Grand Central Yellow Jacket Station, I must say. Busy, busy fellows, they were. In and out three and four at a time. Fortunately, they were merely menacing me with fly-bys, and not yet attacking. (I have since learned that when one yellow jacket stings you, it emits a pheromone that sends any nearby nest-mates into a similar stinging frenzy and they will attack anything that moves, favoring the head and face. And unlike bees, who can only sting once because they have a barbed stinger that stays in you, yellow jackets have a straight stinger and can happily sting again and again and again.)

Needless to say, I stopped trimming. Well, for a few minutes, anyway. I am a single-minded perfectionist who really likes to finish what I start, so I edged back in and got those few annoying stray tendrils that make a bush look like it has a bad haircut. The yellow jackets buzzed me, but didn't strike. What's the old saying? The Lord looks after idiots and small children? Fortunately I fall into the former category and so you will not be reading about me in the listing of next year's Darwin Awards.

I called Len, told him about finding the opening and we agreed to buy some hornet and wasp killer and hit them at sunset when the most yellow jackets would have returned to the hive and also quieted down. At about 9:30, we did. The hole was small, though, and it was difficult to get the insecticide inside. Plus there were numerous holes. But we did our best and went to sleep hopeful.

This morning, there were at least 150 angry flying sting-meisters in my laundry room, which is also where the cats eat and use the litter box. Sorry kitties. We shut the door and checked the outside openings. Yup, they were still flying in and out. All we had succeeded in doing was a) angering them and b) confusing them so that even more of them came inside instead of outside.

I think my middle name should have been Pandora. Mary Pandora Akers. I can't let potentially dangerous situations lie. And I always think I can handle whatever comes up. So, after three or four times of peering through a crack in the basement door and seeing that the numbers had risen to two or three hundred, I decided to go in and suck them up.

I know, I know. I'm the stupid girlfriend in horror movies who slowly descends the basement steps with all the illuminating power of a CANDLE after finding her boyfriend's head in the toilet.

But I did at least cover my head with the hood of my hoodie, pull down my sleeves, and turn off the light so that the angriest yellow jackets went to the window. Then I entered quietly...

I turned on the vacuum and used the long hose to suck up the logy ones on the floor. So far so good. Emboldened by my success, I went after the ones attached to the light fixture. I would estimate that I managed to suck up about 75 or so before that one fellow that I missed. He got brushed off the light by the suction hose and dropped, falling onto my wrist, where my watch stopped him. He then proceded to do what yellow jackets do best. And then I did what humans do best: I screamed, flicked him off, turned off the vacuum, and fled the room before his pheromones could alert the remaining 250 hive-mates.

So now, as I type, I have a swollen, stinging wrist and a heightened sense of my own fallibility.

But in my defense, if I'd just had on gloves, I'd still be okay and the yellow jackets would be in the vacuum cleaner bag...where they belong.

I wonder if I have a pair of gloves from last winter's stash lying around...