Beyond The Pale

I’m Back.

I took a break from blogging.

I should have done what everyone else does when they take a break rather than just lose interest and stop updating, and left some kind of away message as my last post, but I didn’t know that I was going to take a break. It just happened.

My last post, a deliberately stupid poem written as a response to a conversation that I was having with my close friend Jonathan Griffin via Facebook, was posted on 19 September 2010, as I was preparing to go on a major mission. That mission started on the 28th of September, and in the afternoon of the 29th, two of my friends, Cal Harrison and Mark Forrester, were killed in combat.

That mission lasted for another 10 days, and when I finally got back to the firebase, I never thought about writing another blog for the rest of the deployment. It wasn’t deliberate; as I said, it just happened.

But I’m back, and I’m gathering new material, so those of you who used to read this blog when it was active, keep your eyes peeled, I’m gonna be coming at you with some lyrical tricks I’ve been saving up for the prosal apocalypse. Keep your heads down and your lexicons limber. There’s going to be a hellfire of words up in this bitch.

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March 28, 2011 Posted by | NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Rant, Writing | | 2 Comments

Terrible Comfortable Silence (for Jonathan)

Terrible Comfortable Silence

A beautiful conceit
But that’s just telling, isn’t it?

What do you think your

(absent, imagined, clockwork god)

reader is going to get from that?

We sit on the balcony

slipping from Guinness

to Blue Ribbon as our taste for, well

taste, fades to the taste for, well,

pretension.

Is this painting working for you?

If you have lived a paucity of human

experience, it might! Show, don’t tell.

Maybe we shouldn’t show either.

Then we can be blind as well as deaf.

Let the rules go.

Is wayside still a word?

When was its last use?

How about the gutter? I’m sure that one

still has collateral (can we agree on this symbol?)

The old style gutter, you know the type,

where rain might collect in the spring, but

shit gets dumped morning and night.

Put your rules there.

And climbing back out

—phew, your shoes stink!—

you’ll have to pinch your nose to taste

a depth of human connectedness that

really does happen.

To say you’ll never really know or be known

is to take comfort, to own

self imposed

isolation in a lie.

Your argumental proof

(Rant at me now!)

these labels (we’re back on the beer,

but if that offends,

pretend we’re talking about billboards)

have reified us these

experiences made for projection.

I don’t think I’ve seen this poem,

those two lines offer lax control of language

in the service of beauty

(which is really a greater

control, one based on

love rather than law,

isn’t it?)

We (who?) prefer linguistic legalism

gilding tombs full of

bones (of course!), the ghosts of experience—

where the garden of life lived used be.

Or is it cliché to borrow Christian imagery

in this post-Christian now?

His conflation of physical contact with

emotional intimacy digs down to the

very core of this brief, intolerably long

human experience, and it’s vibrantly ghastly too!

(that’s three impossibilities we’ve lived now)

I caught that.

Did you?

When the are no absolutes,

the guides become rules become sacrosanct.

Let’s try another image.

Maybe we shouldn’t have cut that anchor loose.

September 19, 2010 Posted by | Poems | 3 Comments

Stephen King’s “Under the Dome”

Stephen King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a hefty work of something over 1000 pages. I’m not sure of the exact number because my reading of the novel was via audiobook, purchased from Audible.com. This is my second reading of the novel, both readings accomplished on different Afghanistan rotations, primarily on trips to the gym and on guard shift. In audiobook format, the novel, read by Raul Lesparga, runs upward of 40 hours.
On a crisp October morning, the small town of Harper’s Mill, Maine, is suddenly blocked off from the rest of the country (and world) when an energy field dome of unknown origin slams down in the sock shape that exactly matches the town’s boundaries. What follows is a Lord of the Flies esque cautionary tale about the abuse of power that takes place when government officials, unchecked by law or the populace, use the machinery of government for their own ends. As Big Jim Renee and his cronies take the town ever more strongly under their corrupt control, a small contingent of independents try to find a cause for, and a way out from under, the dome. Excess leads to excess, and things go quickly from bad to apocalyptic in a well paced and seemingly inevitable chain of events that fascinates the reader, leaving him feeling like the spectator of a car crash, horrified, but both unable and unwilling to look away.
The novel is typical King fare, though on the better end of his spectrum on novels with The Stand and Hearts in Atlantis, far from the shabby end of town where Carrie and many of King’s monster stories like to shake down the unwary for pocket change (unless you are foolish enough to buy them new, then it’s dollars). The plot opens like a flower, with no surprises per se, only inevitability, and a few of King’s much loved (19) and worn out (animals overly integral to the plot) tropes will be readily recognizable to readers familiar to his work. If you aren’t a King reader, however, don’t let this hold you back. This is a great novel, and those tropes are only dropped like bread crumbs along the trail. Not knowing them won’t take anything away from the book. It will only enrich the next of his books that you pick up.
What made me read this novel for a second time (besides not having easy access to new audiobooks), and what I find most interesting and frightening in it, is how much the events in the mill after the closing of the dome remind me of what I see happening today, not in some fictional city, but in my own, all to real country. Perhaps I’m paranoid. Perhaps my current situation as self-appointed (volunteer) indentured servant to mad old Sam cause me to have a more negative view than I should, but I don’t think so. I think that Under the Dome scared me as much as it does because it reminds me that our government is wide open to all kinds of abuses of power. Those in power, both currently and in the previous administration, might imagine that they have our best interest at hear, Big Jim definitely does, but the price they demand in exchange for what they offer is the liberty that lies at the heart of what it really means to be American. As Under the Dome tries to show us if we are looking, this price is simply too high to pay.

September 19, 2010 Posted by | Literature | Leave a comment

My Journal, Volume 2

I just finished writing the second volume of my journals since I started consistently keeping them in December of 2007. Until that point, I had kept a list of the books I read by year. But I’ve been trying for years to remove myself from the normal Julian calendar, and some of the ways that I’ve done that are to work out on 4 or 6 rather than 7 day cycles, and to count years based on deployments or school years, depending on what I’m doing in my life at the time. Another way is to list books based on journal volumes. Here are the books that I read in the last 14 and ½ months:

• Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen – 8 June 2009
• When you are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris – 13 June 2009
• Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austen and Seth Graham Smith – 20 June 2009
• Replay – Ken Grimwood – 21 June 2009
• Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands – Michael Chabon – 21 June 2009
• On Bullshit – Harry G. Frankfurt – 27 June 2009
• I Robot – Issac Asimov – 30 June 2009
• Judas Unchained – Richard K. Hamilton – 6 July 2009
• I Know This Much is True – Wally Lamb – 8 July 2009
• Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall – 23 July 2009
• Art & Physics – Leonard Shlain – 23 July 2009
• Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson – 6 August 2009
• The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – 12 August 2009
• The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order – Samuel P. Huntington – 25 August 2009
• The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand – 28 August 2009
• The Jungle – Upton Sinclair – 30 August 2009
• That’s Not in My American History Book – 5 September 2009
• The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger – Stephen King – 12 September 2009
• Doubt: A History – Jennifer Michael Hecht – 13 September 2009
• The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Khun – 21 September 2009
• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon – 28 September 2009
• The Confusion – Neal Stephenson – 28 September 2009
• Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro – 2 October 2009
• Beowulf – 8 October 2009
• Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong – James W. Loen – 10 October 2009
• Blindspot – Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore – 11 October 2009
• Hyperion – Dan Simmons – 24 October 2009
• The System of the World – Neal Stephenson – 13 November 2009
• The Dreaming Void – Peter F. Hamilton – 13 November 2009
• She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb – 16 November 2009
• Ringworld – Larry Niven – 22 November 2009
• The Dark Tower Book II: The Drawing of the Three – Stephen King – 3 December 2009
• Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein – 7 December 2009
• Imagine Your Life Without Fear – Max Lucado – 7 December 2009
• Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke – 17 December 2009
• Gorgias – Plato – 21 December 2009
• Anathem – Neal Stephenson 2009
• Celebration of Discipline – Richard K. Foster – 12 January 2010
• The Temporal Void – Peter F. Hamilton – 12 January 2010
• The Prefect – Alastair Reynolds – 22 January 2010
• Under the Dome – Stephen King – 26 January 2010
• Evil and the Justice of God – N. T. Wright – 27 January 2010
• Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten Minute Argument between Two Great Philosophers – David Edmonds and Jonh Eidenow – 28 January 2010
• The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kid – 1 February 2010
• Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card – 28 February 2010
• Look at this F*cking Hipster – Joe Mande – 1 April 2010
• Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke – 17 April 2010
• Galileo’s Dream – Kim Stanley Robinson – 12 April 2010
• On the Old Testament – Mark Driscoll – 22 April 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye – Robert Kirkman –23 April 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 2: Miles Behind Us – Robert Kirkman – 24 April 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars – Robert Kirkman – 24 April 2010
• Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson – 24 April 2010
• Creative Journal Writing: The Art and Heart of Reflection – Stephanie Dowrich – 25 April 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 4: The Heart’s Desire – Robert Kirkman – 29 April 2010
• The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman – 29 April 2010
• The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands – Stephen King – 30 April 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 5: The Best Defense – Robert Kirkman – 1 May 2010
• The Sandman: The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman – 2 May 2010
• The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks – Max Brooks – 3 May 2010
• The Sandman: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman – 3 May 2010
• Easy Spanish Reader – William T. Tardy – 4 May 2010
• Calculating God – Robert J Sawyer – 8 May 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life – Robert Kirkman – 8 May
• The Sandman: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman – 9 May 2010
• Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction – Kristen Iversen – 9 May 2010
• Black Hole – Charles Burns – 9 May 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 7: The Calm Before – Robert Kirkman – 15 May 2010
• The Sandman: A Game of You – Neil Gaiman – 16 May 2010
• Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born – Peter David Et. Al. – 16 May 2010
• The Resistant Writer: Rhetoric as Immunity, 1850 to the Present – Charles Paine – 17 May 2010
• The Walking Dead Volume 8: Made to Suffer – Robert Kirkman – 24 May 2010
• The Sandman: Fables and Reflections – Neil Gaiman – – 25 May 2010
• The Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart – 26 May 2010
• Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson – 27 May 2010
• The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass – Stephen King – 10 June 2010
• The Sandman: Brief Lives – Neil Gaiman – 16 June 2010
• The Passage – Justin Cronin – 10 July 2010
• The Dark Tower V: The Wolves of the Calla – Stephen King – 14 July 2010
• Dead Until Dark – Charliane Harris – 15 July 2010
• The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susanna – Stephen King – 20 July 2010
• Firestarter – Stephen King – 24 July 2010
• Gorgias – Plato – 29 July 2010
• The Fall of Hyperion – Dan Simmons – 30 July 2010
• Endymion – Dan Simmons – 5 August 2010
• The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower – Stephen King – 9 August 2010
• Phaedrus – Plato – 11 August 2010
• The Rise of Endymion – Dan Simmons – 15 August 2010
• Sophie’s World – Jostien Gaarder – 18 August 2010
• Rhetoric – Aristotle – 20 August 2010
• A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway – 25 August 2010
• Count Zero – William Gibson – 1 September 2010
• Rhetorica Ad Herennium – Anonymous – 3 September 2010

September 14, 2010 Posted by | Literature, Reading Lists | 3 Comments

On Filtering

I haven’t posted on here in quite some time, not because I’ve not wanted to, but because I’ve not been able to access the site due to the stringent rules set up by the Army’s deployed Websense server. Those of you who keep up with me on Facebook might have noticed more than a little ire regarding this issue in some of my posts.

And now I can post.

I just wanted to make a couple of comments about liberty and why there is some possibility that maybe some of the madness going on in our country will eventually have a positive effect. If websense had been run by some kind of rational human being, and it had not filtered out almost every web site on the internet, I would have been content to work under its restrictions. I would have obeyed the rules. However, the system’s overzealous nature has worked against it. Where it could have only blocked those sites that are most problematic to the austere bandwidth issues that we have out here, aka, Youtube and other streaming sites, and left access to such low bandwidth sites as Io9 and WordPress, it blocked everything that I wanted access to. I could have put up with no access to Youtube, as the restriction makes sense. But because the restrictions were over the top, ridiculous, I went out and found a way to get around them. And now, not only can I post to my WordPress account, but I can also go to Youtube. Thus, the overzealous nature of the system administrators works directly against their goals.

Maybe our increasingly meddlesome government should consider this trait of human nature as it progresses with it’s plans. The Tea party movement, of which I’m NOT a part, isn’t necessarily the result of some cranks getting a hold of the American imagination. It’s the natural bucking against what many Americans see as a progressively dangerous government. Perhaps they should try taking a looser grip on the reigns.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | Army, Censorship | 2 Comments

On Home, Rant

Several days ago, on my first journal entry since I got back to Fayetteville from after my trip to Columbus to see my family, I was writing from my apartment, and I didn’t know what to put as my location of writing (while I was in Ohio, I switched from noting the city to noting the actual location. E. G., “Dublin” became “Dublin Starbucks,” etc.), so I noted my location as “Home.” “Home,” in this case is 1137 Capehabor Ct. in Fayetteville North Carolina, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened. This was certainly the first time that I had described Fayetteville as home. I thought that I wouldn’t think of this place as being home until Andrea moved out here later in the year, but there it bled into the page of my journal, the one place that I never lie. And in retrospect, none of the other places that I used to call home seem to be willing now to keep the title.

The house that I grew up in belongs to my brother, and he has made changes that make it almost unrecognizable, but were this not true, it would still not be home because the place ceased to be my home many years before my parents sold it, so home isn’t where I grew up. My parents’ house, even though Andrea lives there now, is home only in the sense that my loved ones live there, and while the cliché that “home is where the heart is” may be true in a sense, for me at least, whenever I’m there, I’m always visiting, and you don’t visit home. You visit everywhere else. My house in Springfield, even though I still own the building, emphasizing the “my” in the “my home” equation, has degraded into nothing more than a source of slight income and a whole lot of headache for me. So home becomes a third floor apartment in an out of the way part of Fayetteville. I don’t know how this happened, but other than two missing elements, Eris and Andrea, it is home.

Which sets me to thinking: last spring when I was traveling with my dad from California to North Carolina, we detoured by Springfield to pick up some things that I had left there when I joined the Army. I stopped in at my house to talk to the tenant, Christian, and was surprised  that it was a completely different place from where I had made my home when I was a Springfieldian. Of course, I expected the furniture and decorations to be different, and I expected the temperature to be slightly different because of our tastes, but overall, I thought it would be the same place. It wasn’t. The very texture of the air, and the way that the light filled the rooms was somehow altered, and while the infrastructure was apparently the same, it was like someone had transplanted my skeleton into someone else’s body.

Dwelling on this further, I realize (Afghanistan wreaked havoc on this computer. I had to slap the “r” key three times before it finally registered for that last “realize”) that there is an atmosphere to places I live that chases me. I’m sure that it changes subtly from place to place because of the lighting or the quality of the building, but the way I know when I’m “home” comes from some king of sensation of “homeness” an amalgamation of various associations and stimulus responses that cascade one upon the other to finally crest into the sensation that I’ve made it “home.” This sensation is almost impossible to consciously notice, but it’s even less possible to ignore. I can only assume that this is true of other people as well. Thus, even though 927 W. Lombard is my house, the reason it felt so strange to enter that night was that subconsciously I expected either the emptiness of a former residence that has been cleared out, or some kind of residual “my home” ness. Instead, I wondered into someone else’s home. It was disorienting.

We carry our homes around with us just like snails, or maybe hermit crabs, who can leave their shells for a while—and even trade them in for new ones.

This train of thought brings all kinds of questions to mind. For instance, what is the definable element that creates that tipping point where home happens? How does a new object integrate into the home? When I look at my new couch and dining set, I don’t think, “hmmmm, what’s that strange table doing in my home?” On the contrary, I see a part of my home, something organic. Likewise, when I go to my storage unit, where sits an old, busted couch that used to be a part of my home (and before that, someone else’s), I don’t see an amputated part of my home waiting to be sown back on (by the way, it’s kinda fun to flip this around as well. Are my fingernails me? Will they be next week when I’ve cut them away? What about that food on the table? Is it me? Will it be when I eat it? If so, what if I get sick later? I that vomit in the toilet me?). The quality of “homeness” has been drained out of it like water from a sponge on the back of the sink.

Let us take this a step further. When I was in San Angelo, Texas, for half a year effectively home-less, everything I owned was in a storage unit in Monterey, California. When I was fighting in Afghanistan, it was all in a storage unit in Fayetteville, North Carolina. At neither place did I ever throw open the doors of the unit, take a deep breath, and sigh “It’s so good to be home.” All the objects that would normally comprise my home had devolved into just stuff, things. This is true to the extent that when I moved into this apartment, I was able, for the first time in years, to convince myself to throw away some books. Where before they had been part of the fabric of my home, their time in storage had temporarily stripped that from them, and I was able to prune my collection a bit (not enough).

So for me, home isn’t my house, and it isn’t the objects inside of it. Neither, contrary to all Hallmark might want me to believe, is it the residence of loved ones—that’s home in a sense, but not in this sense of “my cave,” the place where I feel safe and comfortable. If it were, I would feel a homeness in Ohio that I simply don’t feel.

All this rambling leads me to the conclusion, as I hinted before, that there is a meta process by which I impart homeness upon a house or apartment (or cardboard box), which makes it through some kind of Alchemy from a place full of stuff into the unified essence of home, from which individual objects can be removed, and to which they can be added without altering that essence. One could argue, I guess, that this is really just an issue of how much time gets spent there, the comfort of familiarity, but I don’t buy it. I think that homeness is something we bestow upon a place, and I think that essence is imparted through the incantation. We speak place and stuff into home when we truly name it as such. We say, not with our mouths, but with our sub-conscious “home” and with our incantation we change the nature of a small portion of the universe. Perspective changes, things blur (like curds forming a block of cheese) in a cognitive web of associative memory, and home happens.

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Journal Style Entries, Rant | 3 Comments

Literature, Subjective Criticism, Ender’s Game

I’m back.

I first read Orson Scott Card’s classic Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game sometime around 1998. Rob Dickerson, my then youth pastor was talking about the Science Fiction novels that had influenced him the most when he was my age, and the ones that he remembered with the most fondness where Ender’s Game and Frank Herbert’s Dune, both of which I read and loved. I found Ender’s Game to be important enough that between 1998 and 2002 I read it at least five times, and during my times of teenage and early twenties angst, I would tell Andrea that if my parents ever really wanted to understand who I was, they would have to first read and then understand Ender’s Game, and The Matrix. Looking back, I’m convinced that while this cultural consumption as comprehension of personality motif was immature, it did point to something powerful about the book.

So I came back to Ender’s Game a dozen years after my first reading with fond memories, but I also came back with lowered expectations. My taste in prose has moved from a pizza and milk shake type arrangement to something a little more substantial. I want my veggies, I want my filet and snails, but I also don’t want to lose my roots. I don’t want to forget what made me love reading in the first place. Here’s what I found: I found that I don’t think Ender’s Game is the best book ever written anymore, but it isn’t the junk food that I expected either. Card sprinkled some powdered vitamins on that pizza. Ender’s Game is all about isolation and love and fear and community. It’s about the way we hurt that which we don’t understand. Xenophobia is a common theme in Science Fiction stories with Aliens, but the truth it depicts is homophobia, philophobia, filiphobia, fear of those who are ever present with us but not of us, the other that we hear talked about so much in most of the chic humanities disciplines for students who never want a real job is the Alien of Card’s Enderverse, it is our parents, our spouses, our friends and enemies.

For anyone who hasn’t read this story, Ender is born into a world that has already been attacked twice by a race of insectiod aliens and is preparing for a third invasion. It has been almost seventy years since the second invasion, and a third invasion is imminent, but in the first two invasions, humans barely won, and the powers that be aren’t sure that they can win a third time, so they scan the planet for precocious youngsters to be trained in null-g battle and fleet command tactics, and the best of the best are sent to an orbital battle school where they study military history and everything else they might need to be the minds behind earth’s space fleet, but what they live for while they are there is the battle room, the game of the school. Ender is the most brilliant of the brilliant, and with the third invasion coming ever closer, it quickly becomes apparent that he is humanity’s greatest hope for survival.

As I said before, I’ve read this book several times over the last dozen years, and while the story itself has lost much of its original appeal (I have some issues with a lot of the science in the book, which I suppose means that my taste is running away from the soft Science Fiction of Card and others of his ilk and drifting more toward the hard Sci-Fi that used to bother me so much when I was a kid), the emotional resonance of what happens to Ender as he simultaneously grows powerful enough to destroy and love his enemy rings completely true to me.

Every time I read the last chapter of the book, I experience what I’ve discovered is my version of crying (it involves a sudden onset of a frontal lobe headache coupled with intense sinus pressure and various facial spasms and tics—quite uncomfortable really. I’d much rather be a person who cried for real.) because I know this pain, not the pain of having killed, but the pain of needing to understand and be understood, the pain of seeming isolation that seems, at times, to be inevitable in human interaction. “If only we could have talked to you,” Card has the Hive Queen say through Ender (How’s that for some metareferential narrative mucking about?), “but since it could not be, we ask only this: that you remember us, not as enemies, but as tragic sisters, changed into a foul shape by Fate or God or Evolution. If we had kissed, it would have been the miracle to make us human in each other’s eyes. Instead we killed each other. But still we welcome you now as guest-friends. Come into our home, daughters of Earth.”

I was talking to an old friend the other day, trying to explain the way that me worldview has evolved in the last several years, and I realized that probably the greatest change has been the way that I view this alienation. For a long time, I thought that the line from Rules of Attraction, “you will never know me. No one ever really knows anyone” was a universal truth, that we really never do know anyone. And the great pain of life is the fact that we are wired to need to be understood and to understand, that we need someone who can speak for us, but there is no one who can really hear our voice. The change of these last few years is that I have come to realized that whether we can or can’t ever really know and be known, the purpose of life is to pursue such an intimacy: with spouses, with parents, with close friends, with children, with God.

The great tragedy of the so called post modern condition is the alienation we experience when we buy into its precepts, of alienation and solitude, so when my face went all twitchy last night as I finished reading Ender’s Game yet again, I felt a thrill to realize that it was twitching for different reasons than it ever had before, not because I believe that we are inextricably separated from each other, but because I’ve come to understand how important real community is—and to mourn for those who don’t know it exists.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | Literature, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Terp Tales, Carjacked

This isn’t really going to be much of a post compared to the length of what I usually write, but I can’t pass up on this one. Actually, if I’d thought of it sooner, I might have a whole other series of blog entries called “Terp Tales.” Maybe next rotation.

Anyway, I was standing on the top of a mountain talking to a terp today, and since he is an American citizen, I asked him where he lived when he was in the states and how long he’d been there. He said he’d lived there for 17 years, and that he lived in Oakland. This naturally led to conversations about when Andrea and I were living in California and the trail run that I ran in the Oakland area. From there, we went to jobs, specifically what we’d done before we decided to go work for the United States Government. He said that he sold electronics, which tells me that he was probably a dealer in stolen goods, but I could be wrong. He said that he also drove a Limousine on the side while he was getting his electronics company up and running.

“One time,” he said, “I had a guy get into my limo and put a gun to my head. He said ‘get out of the car, and leave your keys and wallet.” I have NO idea why you would want to steal a limo. Talk about standing out in the crowd.

The terp continued. He said, “It’s not big enough.”

“What’s not big enough?” the carjacker asked.

“Your gun. You can’t carjack people with a gun this small. Here, would you like to use mine?” The terp asked and pulled out his .44.

Apparently, the carjacker was either working with a replica Snatch style, or he didn’t realize that having the drop on someone is more important than what caliber weapon you used because he just yelled “He has a real gun!,” jumped out of the car, and ran away.

Terps are full of these stories, most of which probably aren’t true, but maybe next time around, I’ll collect them and pass them around to those of you who bump into this site.

January 10, 2010 Posted by | Army, Terp Tales, Travel | 3 Comments

Introduction to my Longer Work

As in most of my fiction writing, this piece is not safe for the NWAG/RLC crowd, so if you intend to get offended, don’t read it. Also, for those of you who have been following my blog for a while, this is a revision, significantly changed, of a story that I posted several months ago. Where before, it was just a story, it’s now an introduction to my longer work, so it might be worth reading, or if you don’t want to read something that you’ve seen most of before, you might want to skip it altogether.

I told James last night. I told him that my story had to be told, and he said that if mine was to be told, then so was his, but that I had to write it. I guess I owe him that.

I met James Whitney sometime in the winter that I was working on finishing up my MFA in Writing at Huntington University. Fearing that I didn’t have what it take to survive as a fiction writer, I had split my coursework between Technical/Professional Writing and Creative Writing, but when it came time to decide on a thesis or degree papers, I found that the Powers That Be (or Were, I guess) in the Huntington Humanities department wouldn’t issue me both degrees unless I had written my final projects in both fields.

In a single track degree, the decision is usually between a thesis of, say, 60 pages or two shorter degree papers that together might add up to anywhere between 60 and 80 pages. However, because of the overlap in my coursework, I was presented with the option of writing a thesis for each track, or only three degree papers, one from each of my fields of study and a third one from whichever of the two fields that I chose. I decided to go with what seemed like the easier of the two options and write degree papers.

The first two papers came easily enough. I did a study on how technical writers working in the field of robotics learn to modulate their voice and level of technicality to create end user manuals that are both user friendly enough to allow an operator to trouble shoot lower level problems and detailed enough to assist a trained technician both higher level diagnostics and repairs. It’s a fine line, and I felt that to really make my point, it would be good to bring a practical example into the arena, so for my second paper I wrote an example of what the finished product of such an exercise might look like using a piece of equipment that was being produced at the hot-tub company where my uncle worked. It wasn’t as technical as robotics, but the principles were essentially the same.

Not only was the committee for the Technical/Professional Writing program very happy with my work, but I was able to sell the second paper to the hot tub company for enough that with careful budgeting and the stipend from my teaching assistantship at Huntington, I could afford to take my last semester off from my job at Border’s and focus strictly on writing my creative degree paper.

It turned out to be really good that I was able to take that semester off from work because that third paper turned out to be really difficult for me. I had a hard time coming up with a topic to write about. This is a typical problem, but usually if I chose a bad theme, I could just muddle through and no one would know the difference. After all, an A paper on a crappy topic is still an A paper. This paper was a bit longer, and it wasn’t just going to be read by one professor, but by several. Also, depending on what I decided to do with my life, if I ever decided, it might be the project that a prospective employer read when deciding to hire me or not.

Over Christmas, I got it into my head that I would write a story about a soldier during the Persian Gulf War who dies in an accident, only to wake up several days later to find that he has been turned into a vampire.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how I failed to see that this project was doomed from the beginning. The Vampire genre was fairly well worn out at the time, and though recent innovations have since breathed new life into it, I was neither creative nor brave enough to write something truly worth reading in the tired old framework of the undead yearning for his mortal love. What’s more, I knew nothing about war and even less about the Middle East. When I met with my advisor at the beginning of the semester to plan out how we were going to go about making the paper happen, I immediately found out that I had a third or fourth, depending on how you count, mark against me from the outset. I was dismayed to find that—though she never said it in so many words—she absolutely hated almost all fantasy and horror themes, and she found the words vampire and literature to be repulsive to each other to the point where only the name Bram Stoker could neutralize them into the same sentence, and that was an unfortunate accident in the history of literature. Actually, now that I think about it, she didn’t really even like fiction at all, so why I had chosen to work with her is a mystery, one that won’t get answered in this book

My first meeting with my advisor should have clued me in that I needed a new concept to write about, but I can be fairly thick headed when I want to be and even more stubborn, so I doggedly plugged away on my laptop at Barnes and Noble, where I had taken up a sort of quasi residence since I quit working at Borders, that is, until events forced a change in my habits.

How I met James Whitney: the first week of February, my 1987 Dodge Duster, which had been showing signs of intestinal distress for some time, shuddered its last shudder or as a friend put it “farted out its last burrito,” leaving me with the option of going back to work and using my saved-up money on a new clunker or using mass transit to get to and from class every day.

I had signed up for six independent study hours to work on my degree paper that semester, and those could be done at home, but I was also teaching a section of Comp 101 and an introductory Technical Writing course. I knew that if I went back to work, all of my free time would be spent grading papers, and I wouldn’t get the degree paper finished in time to graduate in the spring as I had planned. For some reason, graduating on time was really important to me. I chose the subway. I’d been spending about the same amount on gas that I would on a sub pass, so I was good there, but the subway went nowhere near Barnes and Noble or Borders.

I would have to find a new place to write.

Now, the logical place to write seemed to be my apartment. After all, I didn’t have a roommate to bother me, and I owned a coffee maker, which was the only resource at Barnes and Nobles that I regularly made use of, but for some reason I just couldn’t make it happen. A week of evenings spent at home trying to write accomplished nothing but a burgeoning realization that I had chosen a terrible project to write about. Oh, and I also got caught up on numerous episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The X-files that I had missed when I was off doing other things—like writing and teaching.

I found The Book & The Bean by accident. It happened like this: I was on my way to the library to do some research about whether or not Kuwait, Iraq, or any other Middle Eastern country had an indigenous vampire myth, and at the same time I was thinking about whether or not I really wanted to even bother finishing this stupid project. I felt fairly certain that if I just gave up, seeing as I had already written two degree papers for the Technical/Professional Writing program, that I would probably still receive that degree, and I could just write the Creative portion off my studies off as personal enrichment cum time wasted cum lessons learned when I turned left where I should have turned right, and by the time I got back in touch with what my body was doing, I was standing in front of a window display for The Vampire Book: the Encyclopedia of the Undead, by J. Gordon Melton, so I walked into the store.

That day I walked out of The Book & The Bean with The Vampire Book under my arm and something called a “Hangover” in my belly. Years later, I would find that Starbucks serves a similar drink called a “Blackeye,” consisting of two shots of espresso dumped into a cup of coffee, and coffee shops on the Army base offer something called the MOAC (Mother of All Coffees) with twice as much coffee and 4 shots of espresso, but I swear that the Hangover was even stronger than either of those, like maybe they left the coffee burning in the pot for a couple of days before adding the espresso, which had been made with paint thinner instead of water. I was hooked.

Before long, I was visiting The Book & The Bean as religiously as I had previously visited Barnes and Noble, and it was only a matter of time before I became acquainted and then friends with its owner, James Whitney. James had been a teacher at Huntington before some unspecified political troubles had forced him to step down. I got the impression that he didn’t like talking about it, so after I ascertained that the trouble hadn’t been related to buggering graduate students, I never pressed the issue. Besides, after I got to know him, it was hard to imagine James as having a job, or for that matter a home anywhere besides in his store. I’m pretty sure that if he was from the deep south, he would be one of those people who called his house or apartment “my stay.”

When we met, James was smack in the middle of what I would call “late middle age.” He was of average height and build, and he had a slight middle-aged pooch, though there was still evidence that he was probably an athletic man when he was younger. He had gray hair that was thinning on the top and a matching gray beard. It wasn’t until much later, as I was describing him in my journal for an exercise he had recommended that I remarked on the color of his eyes, but I noticed almost immediately that there was something paradoxical about the way that the laugh lines around his eyes seemed designed to obscure a certain sadness to his glance. He smiled freely, and his laugh could often be heard bouncing off of the brick walls of the bookstore and running up and down between the shelves, but when his face was at rest, when he was reading or thinking private thoughts or writing in his journal, the sadness in his eyes would sometimes sneak down to pull at the corners of his mouth, even as his hand would sneak up to twist at a stray bit of beard.

James was uncommonly fond of hats, and he kept a coat tree by the door year round for hanging his hats on. He didn’t keep his hats at home. He kept them at work with some spare fleece hats at home for unexpected cold snaps. That way, if he felt like a fedora in the morning, but in the evening, he wanted to go with a golf hat, he didn’t have to go home for the switch. Most days he would wear the beat up old fedora which was clearly his favorite, though the coat tree always had at least a bowler, flat cap, and gatsby hanging in reserve. The strangest hat by far that I ever saw him wearing was not long after we met. It was February, and we were in the middle of the worst cold snap of the year. James had left an assistant running the store while he went for lunch, and I arrived while he was out. When he came in, he was walking with what appeared to be a collapsible ski pole and wearing a Peruvian Chullo, looking much more suited to head down to Vale for a weekend of skiing or snowboarding than for the half-block walk that he had taken from the pizza parlor where he had passed the last three quarters of an hour.

One Thursday morning the week after I found The Book & The Bean, I was sitting at the corner table by the window, where I was becoming a fixture, when James brought over the drink that I had ordered a few minutes previously at the counter. I only taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so I planned on spending most of the day working on my story before a meeting with my advisor that evening. I had even set aside 25 bucks to spend on Coffee and a soup at lunch by way of paying rent on my table, so I was a little disturbed when James sat the coffee on the table and then pulled up a chair and sat down across from me. I needed to get this written.

“Judging by the amount of writing you do,” he began, “and your complete lack of reference materials, I assume that you are either writing a piece of fiction or something along the lines of a memoir. Am I right?” Just like that. This was before we became friends, before he started giving me writing exercises to teach me everything I’d missed in my studies. At this point in our relationship, he was the dude that made my coffee, and I was the dude who took up one of his tables for a good four or five hours, three or four times a week, but I never bought the bottomless cup, and I always paid my rent on the table. Also, I tried to buy a book or so a week rather than ordering from Amazon, just to stay in his good graces. In other words, he had no reason to talk to me.

I told him that I was working on my capstone project for a MFA in Creative Writing at Huntington College, and I explained about how the Technical/Professional Writing portion of my degree was done. I also told him that I was nervous because my advisor hated my creative project. When I started to tell him that I also doubted the validity of the project, he cut me off.

“Don’t tell me that.” He said. “The last thing a person needs to hear about a work he hasn’t read is the writer’s opinion about it.”

Not knowing what to say, I didn’t say anything.

“Let me read it.”

“I just told you. It’s not done.”

“Let me read what you have.”

“Now?”

“Sure. Why not?”

I thought about this for a moment and couldn’t come up with any answer besides, “because it’s garbage and I don’t want anyone to read it ever,” which I didn’t say, so I said nothing and sipped at my hangover. It tasted like battery acid mixed with motor oil. Strong medicine.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he said “Let me tell you something. Besides my affinity for hats, I’m espoused [he really said espoused] of one great eccentricity and one great conceit. My great eccentricity is that any time the University sells an old Thesis or Dissertation, I buy it, no matter what it is about, no matter if it is good or bad, and I have a deal with one of the binders in town, the one that does most of the binding for Huntington’s students that he will run me off a copy of all the dissertations and theses that he binds.”

“Is that even legal?”

“No, of course it’s not legal. Shush and let me talk. I have a whole room of these, and I read them all. Maybe I’ll show it to you sometime. It’s probably the biggest private collection of blue-bound labor in existence. The great conceit of my life, well, that’s my journal. No, there’s nothing conceited about keeping a journal. The conceit is that I write it under the assumption that someone will one day read it, that it will be used by historians or scholars to get some things unmuddled. I have a clearer view of what’s going on here than almost anyone. Not only do I assume they will read it, I assume they will want to read it because I know what quality writing looks like, and I know there is value in my observations. You get what I’m saying?”

I didn’t get what he was saying at all, and it would be years before I’d think to ask myself what he meant by “what’s going on here,” but by that point I’d have a pretty clear idea myself. The watery expression on my face, caused by pain from the drink, not confusion, seemed to assure him that he’d been wrong, and I didn’t get it at all, so he continued:

“What I’m getting at is that I read a lot of stuff written for the same audience as you are writing for, and I know good writing when I see it. You know what my most discerning customers do when they come in here? They don’t browse the bookstore; they chat with me for a while and then ask for a recommendation. If the customer has really let me get to know them, then I can usually give them something that they will enjoy. I can help you if you let me read what you’ve got. I can push you in the right direction.”

Still, I hesitated.

“Oh good grief, your next cup of that tar you drink is on the house if you let me read your story.”

So I found myself spending the next hour staring at a display full of National Book Award winners, and I eventually shuffled back over to the table with a copy of Cold Mountain, which would make me wonder why I had ever thought of becoming a writer. I sat and pretended to read the first chapter while he finished up. He was not a fast reader.

He finally finished and looked up from my laptop. “Well?” I asked.

“You have talent.” This was not a comment about what he had just read.

“But?”

He eyed me for a second, probably deciding how much truth I could take.

“But this is garbage.”

I probably should have been offended or annoyed or something. Instead, I burst out laughing, shooting “tar” out of my nose, which hurt a lot and gave me a nose bleed later that night. At least, I assume that’s where the nosebleed came from. He waited with a crucified expression on his face while I guffawed, then laughed, then giggled, all the while trying to wipe down my computer and telling him that I’d known that the story was garbage for quite some time, and he had just wasted his free coffee if that was all he was going to say about it.

That was all he was going to say about it though, but it wasn’t all he was going to say about my writing.

We talked for hours, about writing, about what makes for good writing and what makes for garbage, about my childhood, and his life.

“See this?” He said, pointing at a passage that read: “Those who know me best know that I have lived for years under a pressing darkness, a darkness that often threatens to overwhelm me. There was a time when it had overrun my defenses, when I had no will to resist, when I believed that all the good of my life had already been experienced, and there was no life left to me, only existence. It is only through the grace of God that the darkness receded from me and gave me will to continue on. But I feel it’s presence constantly. It is like something just beyond consciousness, that phrase on the tip of the tongue, that little bit of knowledge that slips away when you point your mind at it. I feel it in the silence when I’m alone, when I’m tired. Freud called it the Todestrieb, the drive of all mortals toward death. Some might call it Thanatos, each person’s personal grim reaper, forever walking beside him, holding his hand, ready to one day step out of the shadows and lead him away. For me, it is the personalitization of a dark blackness, a dark blackness that I summoned unconsciously on the night that I died.”

“If you write like that, people will read it, but that’s not how you’ve been writing this God awful story. This is a slip up. I bet you were drunk or high when you wrote it. You let your defenses down and your real voice came down.”

Then and he told me about where that sadness that I saw in his expression came from. We talked about teaching, about The City, about the bookstore. And somehow, even though we never really got around to it in our conversation, I arrived at my advisor’s office the following evening with an idea for a completely different project, one grown from my own experience, from what the world looked like to me.

My advisor was a short, hefty woman who loved anything having to do with what she called “new media,” a title just about as accurate by that point as “new criticism” is in ways of reading literature. She was an associate professor, almost ready to receive her tenure, and I’m sure that she was more than ready for it because she had enough books stuffed into her ten by ten office to fill the much larger one that would come along with her tenure the following year. Her door was opened a little to allow for airflow, but I knocked anyway.

“Come in,” she said.

I pushed the door opened and climbed over the pile of books beside her desk to sit at the chair that she kept in the office for meetings with students. She asked me to wait a second while she finished grading the paper she was working on—she always graded digitally even though studies had shown that students got more out of the handwritten notes on a paper copy of an assignment than they did from the sidebar comments that she would add into their documents before emailing them back to the students—and because I didn’t want to be nosy, especially since her office space left me sitting with my knees about eighteen inches from the back of her desk, I turned to look at the books on her bookshelf, mostly titles I recognized, either from having read them or from having heard her sing their praises, and I was just about to pick up her copy of A History of Repression: Feminism and a New Rhetoric to thumb through when she finished the paper she was working on and turned to face me. I didn’t know exactly how to tell her what I was thinking, especially since I figured it was bound to cause a ruckus, especially since our meeting was supposed to be the night before, but I’d stood her up because James and I stayed at his store talking for so long. I just came right out and said it.

“I want to nerf the Vampire story.”

She couldn’t hide the look of relief on her face, but she went through the motions of saying what she was supposed to say in this situation.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” she began. “You’ve already finished a draft, and now we are to the cleaning up part, just getting it ready to turn in to the committee.”

“I know,” I said, “but you and I also know that it’s mostly garbage. The committee will pass it, but I want to write something worth reading, not just something to get my degree. And I know what you’re going to say next, that there isn’t time for me to start over and still graduate this spring. I’m willing to wait, to use the rest of the semester to write something new, and to take my degree in the fall.

“I don’t want to write about some soldier turned vampire, two things that I don’t really know much about besides what I’ve read of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer. I want to write something real.”

So I did. I wrote something real, and in the end, I wasn’t able to receive my degree in the spring. Instead I submitted my completed project in the summer. It was a series of ten vignettes loosely based on a boy that I had known growing up and the strange adventures that he always seemed to be having. I’d always been fascinated by the things that kid got away with, and the trouble that he always seemed to be getting me into. That project looks very immature from the perspective of a dozen or so years, but it’s writing that I’ve never been ashamed of either.

When I went to the committee, with my completed work, they wanted to know about it, where it had come from, and where I wanted to go. So I told them the truth, that I wanted to write and teach, that I wanted to stay in the city or leave, whichever it took to bring me back to Huntington as a real professor instead of a teaching assistant, and I also told them why I was a semester late turning it in. I told them that I’d been trying to be something I’m not, and that I still had copies of my original project if they wanted to see the difference.

But they’d already seen the previous work because my advisor had shown it to them, and told them of my development, so not only did they award my degree, but they offered me a contract to teach for a year helping undergraduates find their voice the same way that I’d found mine.

At the end of that year, I was offered a job teaching as a permanent adjunct, but I didn’t want it anymore. By that time, there was a person that I wanted more than any job or status, and the hundreds of hours that I spent in James’ bookstore writing weren’t just hours in which I learned not how to write, but what to write about. They were also hours when I learned what to want and how to go about getting it.

It’s a simple trick really: too bad saying that to people and teaching them how it’s done aren’t the same thing.

Whenever I meet with James to discuss something one of us has written, or a book that we like, and we end up in his smoking room, the one filled with hundreds of blue-bound volumes, I’m not ashamed to know that mine is there among the masses, for in its creation I learned a bit of how to respect both myself as an intelligent writer and my audience as intelligent readers.

As for the book that you’re about to read, you can call it what you want, an adventure, a picaresque, a romance, Spec Fic, horror, thriller, I don’t care. I hope you find it to be all of these and more, but what I’ll tell you is this, there’s a lot more to life outside of this city, there’s a lot more to want, a lot more to be done, and since I can’t seem to find a way to teach it, I’m just going to go ahead and show you. Follow me, and we’ll go places we didn’t even know were there. This place is much weirder than you think.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, From Wyandotte, Graduate School, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Writing | 2 Comments

Partial 2009 Reading List

I normally post a list of books that I read during the year, and the dates that I read them, but I keep that list in the back of my journal, and I only have one volume of my journal out here in this barren wasteland that I call beautiful, so instead of a list of books for the year, I’m posting a list of books since I started working on the current volume of my journal:

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austin – 8 June 2009
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris – 13 June
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austin and Seth Grahame Smith – 20 June
  • Replay – Ken Grimwood – 21 June
  • Reading and Writing along the Borderlands – Michael Chabon – 23 June
  • On Bullshit – Harry G. Frankfurt – 27 June
  • I Robot – Isaac Asimov – 30 June
  • Judas Unchained – Richard K. Hamilton – 6 July
  • I Know This Much is True – Wally Lamb – 8 July
  • Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall 23 July
  • Art & Physics – Leonard Shlain – 26 July
  • Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson – 6 August
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – 12 August – Michael Chabon
  • The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order – Samuel P. Huntington – 25 August
  • The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand – 28 August
  • The Jungle – Upton Sinclair – 30 August
  • That’s Not in My American History Book – Thomas Ayres – 5 September
  • The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger – Steven King – 12 September
  • Doubt: A History – Jennifer Michael Hecht – 13 September
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Khun – 21 September
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon – 28 September
  • The Confusion – Neal Stephenson – 28 September
  • Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro – 2 October
  • Beowulf – 8 October
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong – James W. Loen – 10 October
  • Blindspot – Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore – 11 October
  • Hyperion – Dan Simmons – 24 October
  • The System of the World – Neal Stephenson – 13 November
  • The Dreaming Void – Peter F. Hamilton – 13 November
  • She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb – 16 November
  • Ringworld – Larry Niven – 22 November
  • The Dark Tower Book II: The Drawing of the Three – 3 December
  • Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein – 7 December
  • Imagine Your Life Without Fear – Max Lucado – 7 December
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke – 17 December
  • Gorgias – Plato 21 December
  • Anathem – Neal Stephenson 31 December 2009

I probably don’t need to say that some of these are great books and others not so great. There are even a few that I’d list as downright horrible. However, rather than clutter up this post by discussing one or two books, I’m going to leave this list as exactly what it is—a list. Maybe over the next couple of days I’ll find some time to say a word or two about some of the books on the list.

January 1, 2010 Posted by | Reading Lists | Leave a comment