I climb from my cocoon, soon to face reality. Having been nestled in my narrow upper-level seat, hunched inside my winter scarf which has prematurely become essential, sipping homebrewed coffee, reading the rollicking and effortless prose of Dave Eggers and being somehow grateful for the sinus congestion which dulls my senses to a pleasant stasis. But the train arrives at its destination far too soon, and I step into the chill, shuffling slowly with the crowd, trying to grasp a last sip of coffee while not drinking too deeply and ingesting the gritty grounds, and I realize that my congested head and the lack of sleep I've fought for the past few nights will sap my energy for the coming day.
Walking down the plaza, I also realize how much my field of vision has narrowed. I make this same two-block walk every morning, and I likely won't see the outside world again until it's time to get back on the train and go home. Lunchtime strolls have become rare, and mid-afternoon coffee-and-writing sessions even more so. I have the outside world amply reported to me at my desk, during my lengthy Internet sessions, but direct contact is becoming increasingly infrequent. Just something that I need to fight through periodically.
"Discord", "Mahalia" and NaNoWriMo
My short story, "Discord", has been submitted to Glimmer Train. They won't be deciding yea or nay until January, so there's no sense in holding my breath and letting everything else slide. Until they make their decision, all I can say about the story is that it involves a musician (variously inspired by Joel R.L. Phelps, Jeff Buckley, Lou Barlow and the late Brad Nowell of the band Sublime) and a record company executive who lets his career aspirations compromise any sort of decent human behavior. I'm pretty pleased with it, and I hope they are as well.
Turning to new projects, I've started working on expanding this vignette into more of a story. I only have a vague idea where I'll be taking this one. But that's the fun thing about writing--just put pen to paper and see what happens. Hopefully the muses will be smiling upon me.
NaNoWriMo is coming up again in November, and I plan on resuming the novel I started there last year. The working title is "Eden," but only for conciseness; that concept is a bit hackneyed, and I plan to come up with something better. But it's presumptuous of me to agonize over a title at this point, given how many years of work are still in store should I ever happen to finish this epic. A title without a novel is of little use.
I just came across an interesting poem called "The Lesson" by Philip Levine, in this month's issue of The Atlantic. I don't really read much poetry, but I like this one quite a bit, especially the way it intermingles a foreboding industrial landscape with the human beings who have to live within it without being overwhelmed. And particularly poignant is the young boy's obvious longing for a father, or at the very least a mentor. Good stuff.
Late Night Drivers
Who are the people who drive through empty suburban streets at 3 A.M.? Headlights turn the corner beyond the backyard, and the vehicle behind the lights is formless in the pitch darkness, its driver invisible as it moves past. Did the driver linger too long inside a crowded but emotionally vacant bar, or over his post-drinking eggs and coffee nightcap at the local all-night cafe? Or is he a father, running out in the dead of night to the pharmacy for medication for his ill child? Or just an insomniac killing the hours until daylight?
The answer is mysterious, as ethereal as the darkened vehicle itself. The vehicle passes and disappears, the question forever unanswered.
Stern of visage, dark hair pulled back tightly and lips set grimly, she could easily pass for a beleaguered 19th Century Montana farm wife--despondent over a fifth consecutive harvest withering and blowing away in the relentless dry wind--were it not for her white Nikes, fashionable sweater and rollaway suitcase. She waits on the corner, perhaps forever, for the ride that may never arrive. She is by all measures outwardly modern, and yet the blackness of mind of the Montana homesteader is all too apparent.
Clearly, someone will be paying dearly for his late arrival.
The Old Canal
The water murmured, moving in an almost imperceptible flow. It trickled over the few rocks which sat in the canal bed, but otherwise seemed to stand still. Only a lack of algae and muck indicated that the water was anything other than stagnant.
During dry periods the old canal is of little use. The minimal amount of water coming down from the hills in feeder creeks would be better off staying in the hills, slaking the thirst of trees and woodland vegetation which ache for lack of rain. During heavy rains, of course, the canal does its best work, taking water away from the swollen creeks until its own banks threaten to burst, draining the excess away from the forests and sending it downstream to the Des Plaines River, from whence it continues onward to the Illinois, the Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
Sending Illinois woodland downpours into the municipal water supply of New Orleans has become the canal's sole remaining purpose. Its barges have been gone for a hundred years, having been rapidly eclipsed by the railroads fifty years before that, and it has been closed to pleasure craft since the Depression. Today it sits, barely noticed and completely unused, a drainage ditch glorified by its increasingly forgotten history. Many stretches have even been filled in for industrial sites, with this former artery of commerce now ignonimously being considered to be more useful as vacant land.
Times move on. The romance of the mule teams, the call of the tillerman, and the era's slow-paced serenity are now merely entries in a musty book of ancient history.
Domino Records, Short Story
At the risk of sounding diaryesque, I've really gotten hooked on song streams from Domino Records of the UK. I had vaguely been aware of them being Sebadoh's European label, but they also handle several other excellent artists, including the Silver Jews, Pavement, (Smog), and Quasi, and Domino's multimedia offerings are far superior to that of the U.S. labels. I've been listening to quite a bit of (Smog) lately. That Bill Callahan is quite an interesting character. I've also been quite enjoying the video for Sebadoh's "Skull", which I had never seen before, even though Bakesale came out way back in 1994.
In other news, my long-awaited short story, tentatively called "Discord", is in its final editing stage. And just in time, given that I'm facing a September 30 deadline at Glimmer Train for their upcoming "Short-Story Award for New Writers." If it fails to win, as I suspect, I'll just self-publish it online. Stay tuned.
Shuffling the Cards
I generally try to restrict my entries here to fiction, or at least keep a narrow focus. This is partly due to my less-than-comprehensive view of world issues, as well as the fact that writers like David Corn, Joel Bleifuss or Paul Krugman do the outrage thing so much better than I can. But an essay in yesterday's Chicago Tribune by M. Cherif Bassiouni ("Mistakes Have Been Made") compels me to comment. Note the following passage from the essay:
"Last, but not least, is the U.S. failure to bring the worst Baathist criminals to justice--one of the avowed U.S. purposes in going to war in Iraq. None of the Baath leaders held in U.S. custody, some for months, has been brought to trial, and there are no known plans to prosecute them before a legitimate international or national judicial body...In Baghdad, the word is that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized U.S. intelligence to make deals with the infamous deck of cards of most wanted criminals in exchange for information, particularly about the hitherto undiscovered weapons of mass destruction."
If true, this is absolutely astounding. First of all, whether or not WMDs existed or still exist is now a moot point, because the decimated Iraqi military no longer has the wherewithal to put WMDs to use. (And presumably, the U.S. is in control of Iraqi missile installations. However, I use "presumably" delicately, considering that the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was carried out with Iraqi military hardware, which we should have had under lock and key.) And I'd argue that WMDs have always been a moot point, given that Iraq's longest-range missiles could only carry 100 miles or so--limiting any potential destruction to only a short distance outside the country--as well as the fact that Saddam was already beginning to dismantle his long-range missiles when the White House made the rash decision to invade.
So now the imperious Donald Rumsfeld is willing to be lenient with Baathist war criminals in exchange for evidence which would support the Bush Administration's foremost, and most dubious, justification for the Iraq War in the first place--that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which he wouldn't hesitate to aim at the U.S., or deliver to terrorist groups to do the same.
It's almost as if Rumsfeld is shuffling a deck of cards, which variously read "War on Terrorism", "Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Removing Evil Saddam From Power," "Bringing Baathist War Criminals To Justice," and "Bringing Democracy To The Oppressed Iraqi People." The cards are dealt out one by one, and those which don't fit into the scheme of the game are discretely put back into the deck for possible future use.
The War on Terrorism card played well for a while, until it became clear that the U.S. invasion did more to foment terrorism within Iraq than anything bin Laden or Saddam ever did. The WMD card played dismally, so let's just put it back in the deck. The Baathist War Criminal card is out on the table, and even though we're reasonably assured of getting convictions, we'll turn the card in to put the WMD card back in play. And since the Democracy card isn't working at all, let's just mix in the new U.N. deck and see what happens then.
The cards are shifted around and around, with no coherent rationale, as the Bush Administration desperately grasps at coming up with just one valid argument for why we attacked Iraq.
George and Warren
Here are two headlines from today's news, which at first glance seem completely unrelated:
BUSH TO REQUEST $87 BILLION FOR IRAQ
WARREN ZEVON DIES
However, if you think about it a bit, the sub-headline for each could easily be:
Dad, Get Me Out Of This
"The coyotes are all right," Julio said wearily. "They're just capitalissimo. They'll treat you right if they know they can get a good price for you. But these bosses, hmmm..." He paused, staring off into the distance. "They just cut the corazon, the heart, out of you, comprende?"
His companion nodded his assent, gesturing for Julio to continue.
"The bosses know you need the work," Julio went on, "so they know you won't complain. And if you do, they'll get you sent back over the border. So you keep your mouth shut and do whatever they tell you. Maybe someday you'll pay off your debt, and be free."
He paused for a moment, in reflection. "Free," he said with a sigh. "El Norte. Land of the Free. Who ever thought there was esclavitud, um, slavery here in America."
The other man listened intently. An agent of an organization that was part labor union, part human rights group, he was slowly learning the magnitude of the problem which faced him. At first he had thought it was just another difficult labor confrontation. But now he began to see that it was so much more than that.
Brattle Book Shop
I'm easing back into reality after a lengthy driving vacation, sitting at home for the past two days of incessantly gentle rain. I used to welcome the rain as a respite from boredom, most notably when I lived on the second floor with no basement. But now rain makes me uneasy. I want to get just enough to keep the lawn from turning an unsightly brown, but not enough to overwhelm the sump pump and flood the lower level. Maybe this is what maturity is all about--acquiring a new batch of things to worry about.
The drive out east, to New York for a wedding and then on to Boston and back through the Berkshires to visit old friends, before returning home with only a surprisingly pleasant stopover in Erie, PA, was long but enjoyable. Last Wednesday (Shutesbury, MA to Erie) was endless--over six hundred miles of interstate highway leavened only by the rare sight of wild turkeys foraging in the shoulder, south of Buffalo. But the lengthy drive was the only negative. Julie and I scoured what seemed to be every single used book store (now sadly rare in Chicago) within walking distance of Boston Common, scoring most notably at Brattle Book Shop, with William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, a Jim Thompson collection, a rare old needlework guide and a book on Martin Luther that I'm sure my mom will appreciate (and if not, it was only three bucks). Brattle was quite unique--it had the only "book alley" I've ever experienced, with its most heavily-discounted titles shelved outdoors, next to the building. Julie was able to recognize that distinctive used-book smell from two doors away. Literary experiences like this are becoming increasingly rare in this age of megastores, and I was very glad to enjoy this opportunity.
If I lived in the Boston area, my bank account would be dramatically leaner and my house even more clogged with books. Plus, I would undoubtedly suffer the neck problems which used-book store patrons must surely develop from so many hours of reading titles off of book spines, with one's head permanently cocked to one side. But I would gladly welcome any such financial, logistical and physical maladies.