And awaaaay we go. National Novel Writing Month ("NaNoWriMo") is here again. This is an audacious literary project in which thousands of writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel (roughly 175 pages) during the month of November. The point isn't to write a perfect finished novel during that short span, which is probably impossible for anyone other than a boilerplating hack (or James Patterson and his cellar-bound writing slaves). The idea is to force would-be writers into writing as much as they can, every day. Rough grammar and dead-end plots are tolerated, even encouraged, to get writers off their duffs and into the habit of writing on a regular basis.
I had a great experience with my first NaNoWriMo last year, even though my novel stalled at only 14,000 words. My novel was (and is) a very basic story that I had been kicking around in my head for several years without ever getting around to starting. NaNoWriMo was a great kick-in-the-pants for me (a chronic procastinator, to put it kindly) to finally put the story into writing. I'm resuming the novel (working title of "Eden") this year. It's a pretty ambitious effort for a first novel, incorporating several big themes (19th Century pioneer life, canal-digging, the utopian movement and Irish ethnic identity) all at once. But if I'm going to fail, I'd rather fail spectacularly than churn out something that's not intrinsically rewarding.
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I strongly recommend reading John Darnielle's moving tribute to Elliott Smith. I didn't really know much about Smith other than the unanimous accolades that accumulated around him, having only heard "Rose Parade" on a 1997 CMJ disc. While I like that song very much (I've listened to it every day this week), my interest in singer-songwriters such as Darnielle (a/k/a the Mountain Goats) and Matt Ward developed only recently, long after my fervent record-buying days had passed. Thus, I never really caught on to him. His sudden death didn't hit me as hard as those of Mark Sandman, Joe Strummer or even Jeff Buckley, but it's just so tragic when an artist who has so much to say is no longer around to say it to us, is silenced and taken away from us far too soon. Smith obviously endured a lot of inner pain, which unfortunately is often the boon companion of great artists.
Days of Moderate Glory
1973; the tiny gym at my grade school is the biggest room in the whole world. I was still moderately well-behaved at the time, and the classroom hours passed uneventfully, with a low undercurrent of hyper tension pervading the effort of book-learning. Studies simply marked time until one was finally freed, springing from our desks to gym class or recess, a flurry of dodgeballs in the gym after the lunch tables had been folded away, and performing just adequately enough during annual evaluations to get another National Physical Fitness Award, which was notable for the signature of President Nixon. It was just a facsimilie, and he had yet to so precipitously fall from grace, but to a third-grader it was most impressive.
But gym class, for all its enjoyment, was the mandatory, official portion of our physical release. Nirvana was recess, thousands of games of kickball, its stars including long-limbed Steve and squat, flame-haired Josh. But most prominent was John Gappa, tall, blond and always a captain, who knew me via a friend of mine who lived in his neighborhood. John lived in the richest part of town, high on a hill in a house the size and shape of a Hudson River ferry boat with an Olympic-sized pool in the basement. The fact that the pool leaked down the hillside into my friend's yard made no matter to those of us who regarded the Gappas with quiet awe. By virtue of my tenuous connection to him, John always picked me for his team--even though I doubt if he consistently remembered my name; my face must have been just familiar enough--and though I kicked far at the bottom of the order, this daily honor validated the existence of a small, skinny eight-year-old.
Studs Terkel, from Talking to Myself
Nothing terrible happened to Hanson, other than a crying jag one Saturday afternoon. He had had a few. What was the trouble? I asked him.
"My father died."
There were soft, fumbled, solicitous murmurs and silence. My mother, passing by, reached in under the rolltop desk and withdrew a pint. She uncorked it, set it down by the Swede and patted his shoulder.
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Thirty years ago," he blubbered.
My mother, without missing a beat, corked the bottle and replaced it in the rolltop desk.
The homeless still live under the El tracks above Cermak Road, battling the bitter elements as they did in Algren's day, and Sandburg's before that. Their squalor, hopelessness, and defeat, and society's indifference, never seem to change. Today a lonely man struggles in sleep in his makeshift hovel atop a once-white couch now dingy with grime and soaked with rain, with the couch remarkably having a complementary loveseat of similarly deplorable condition. He essentially has a discarded family room all of his own, which would be abhorred by you and me but at least keeps him off of the cold, damp ground at night.
All that has seemingly changed since Algren is the distance between top and bottom, and the quality of what the top throws away.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq: "I don't believe we had an understanding of how bad this country's infrastructure really was. We expected when we came in that this country had a fairly reliable infrastructure across the board, electrical power, water sanitation. [But they were] all totally a wreck...Where are the spare parts? You don't have spare parts. All of the skill sets are gone. We don't have any of that technology left...You need engineers who can understand this and maximize the output. So these are things we really didn't expect when we created this challenge."
"Creating a challenge" is certainly an innovative misnomer for "invading a sovereign nation on false pretenses." Presumably the U.S. intelligence that said Iraq's infrastructure was in good shape came from the same dubious source that said Saddam had massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Ageal Al-Mudhfar, an Iraqi shopkeeper in Najaf, a stronghold of Shiite Muslims, who account for about 60 percent of the Iraqi population: "We should have leaders that we elected and not someone appointed by the Americans."
Paul Bremer, U.S. civilian administrator in charge of the coalition effort to rebuild Iraq:
"This is a country with very little experience in self-government. It was a dictatorship for 35 years...To be successful, political activity has to take place in a constitutional...framework before there can be elections. Premature elections have a high risk of not succeeding. [The United Nations wants to] put the cart before the horse [and] have elections followed by a constitution. We've simply said that's not acceptable. It won't work."
Thus the U.S. is pushing for a national constitution drafted by Washington-appointed (rather than Iraqi-elected) representatives, which would then be followed by national elections. The elected officials would then have to abide by a constitution dictated by U.S. interests, and that those officials and the Iraqi people had no voice in creating. Can you say "illegitimate", Mr. Bremer?
I slid onto the vinyl-covered stool, shoving two grimy quarters across the lineoleum counter, glancing only partially up at the waitress who stood on the other side. I didn't need to pay right away, but I wanted to show I was good for it.
"Coffee, black," I said in what I hoped to be a confident voice.
"Sure, can I get you anything else?" she replied, already filling a cup in front of me. "Doughnut, or something? On the house?"
She knew. I suppose it was obvious.
"No, thank you," I murmured, raising the steaming mug to my lips, already retreating into myself.
Factory (an ongoing serial)
And yet, and yet...a few signs of life. A factory building on South Rockwell, the oldest of the old, its ancient arched windows completely bricked up, thanks to technological advancements in industrial lighting. It might otherwise seem abandoned. But a side door stands propped open, and the overhead lights inside are already glaring vibrantly, before 8 A.M., the door appearing as a bold rectangle of light against the drizzly gloom outside. Through the doorway can be seen aluminum barrels, brand new but empty, their sides gleaming brilliantly in the harsh light, patiently awaiting their destined use.
Somebody must fill these barrels, use them for some unknown purpose, and draw a paycheck for doing so. A paycheck to be taken home to a young, scuffling family, putting sustenance on the table and a dry roof overhead, while they plot and strive to advance in this difficult world.
(See the entire installation here.)
Heavens on Earth
I just bought a used copy of Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880 by Mark Holloway. The novel which I started writing for NaNoWriMo last year, and plan to resume this year, involves a failed 19th century utopian settlement in the Des Plaines River valley of Illinois. I thought it would be wise to read up on the utopian movement rather than be presumptuous in assuming I already know enough on the subject. I find the utopian movement--so full of optimism, yet doomed to failure--to be fascinating, and I probably would have enjoyed this book even if I weren't using it as reference.
Tired eyes are one thing, but dulled eyes are something else entirely. Tired can be fixed; earlier to bed, more exercise, better diet, time away from routine responsibilities. But the dulled eyes I see are troubling. Face after face streams past, many completely blank, the eyes uncomfortably deadened. As if all enthusiasm, joy, energy has been drained away. As if their lives have become mechanical, obligatory, devoid of deeper meaning and offering no brighter dreams. Sad.
Another musician I'm championing lately is M. Ward (known to his family and friends as Matt Ward; not sure why the abbreviation exists). His stuff is fascinating; listening to the delicate songs "Bad Dreams," "So Much Water" and "Carolina" and hearing his cracked whisper of a voice, you'd swear he was an 80-year-old codger from the Appalachians, but he's actually a young guy (late 20s, I'd guess). His guitar work, especially the acoustic, is gorgeous, and his lyrics are spare but evocative ("I used to feel like California with baby’s eyes so blue; now I feel like Carolina, I split myself in two"). I've been thoroughly enjoying his second record, End of Amnesia, on Future Farmer Recordings, during the last several months. Definitely a keeper.
Authorized MP3s are available at Epitonic.com, from Howe Gelb's Ow Om label (scroll to the bottom; "Beautiful Car" is particularly lovely) and at his current label, Merge Records. And once you've had your fill of those, check out this live recording of a Netherlands club appearance from 2000 (click on the second photo on the left for a nice 20 minute clip; near the end is an invigorating cover of Yo La Tengo's "Saturday").
Thoroughly wonderful stuff.
Observant of all...heads nod, weary morning eyes crawling over newspapers...the man sits with head bowed, possibly in prayer but more likely dozing...trees and power lines glide silently past...the river flows languidly, slower than the pedestrians on their subconscious path...an old man coughs, and abruptly spits on the sidewalk, barely missing his own shoes...a mildly agitated man sits at a shoeshine stand, paying for the task he has neither the time nor inclination to do himself, at home...a well-fed businessman steps out of Ogilvie, looking like a Greek tycoon with his full moustache and flowing salt-and-pepper hair (though salt is gaining rapidly), and though he seems wealthy enough to go business-casual and be dropped off late, he's more than comfortable in his crisp gray suits and early mornings...a blue-shirted maintenance man stretches upward from a ladder, measuring an outlet for a new lighting fixture...a pair of pumps with slender heels that extend downward before tapering outward at the bottom...window-washing drops which fall gently, almost entirely unnoticed, to the sidewalk.
Observing all, yet observed by none. I watch from behind, a distance, the shadows, outside. Silently, drawing no attention. Precisely the way I prefer it to be.
He stepped down from the train, disoriented, and in his bleariness he turned the wrong way on the platform, walking away from the exit and toward the darkness of the tunnel. He was unfortunately riding on the last car, meaning there was no oncoming commuters to jolt him into awareness. While many saw his mistake, no one called after him. Those who saw him swallowed their warnings, stayed preoccupied with their trivial concerns, and left him to proceed on his errant way.
His feet propelled him forward, his mind a blank, until he reached the end of the platform and plummetted off its edge, falling five feet onto the concrete below. Only a chance observation by a moderately alert conductor spared him hours of abandoned agony, as the pain which coursed through his shattered leg shocked him into consciousness.
Although he had been riding this same train for the last twelve years, his fellow commuters failed to notice his absence during his one day in the hospital and two days spent convalescing at home. His return, however, was noticed, but not with warm words of greeting. Instead, they saw his limping form clunking through the car, his plaster-encased leg bump-bumping laboriously down the exit stairs, and they silently cursed how his slow pace so thoughtlessly inconvenienced them. Who was this guy, anyway?