Friday, May 30, 2008


Last year around this time we had a stressful time at work: late hours, overnight phone coverage, people working weekends, etc. A co-worker and friend was one of the hardest workers, despite the cancer that was quietly but surely killing him.

When he died this winter we all said the usual things that never seem sufficient. So young. Really puts things in perspective. Makes you think.

But the thing he gave me, and I never told him this, was my first real glimpse of how important balance is. Because he loved to work; somehow drew energy from it even as his body failed, and we knew that not being able to work was a cruel aspect of his illness.

Often we talk about tossing it all and sitting on a beach / in a forest / at the Grand Canyon / in Paris -- to get back in touch with what's "really" important. But I don't think that means throwing everything else away. It's a question of balance. Tom's last day at work was devastating for us because we knew how much it meant to him to come in to the office, and I don't know that he ever would have wanted to throw all that away completely.

So on the day he died I wrote "Balance" on my notecard easel. Thanks, Tom.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Next stop on the notecard easel tour: COMMIT.

[struck with situational and stress-induced dyslexia, I cannot remember if I need a second T in that.]

This means: dreaming is good, flexibility is good, but it's all crap unless you sit down and get to work at some point. This applies to any endeavor worth doing: writing, boatbuilding, marathon training, pumpkin carving, etc.

It'll involve hard work and self-doubt and despair (nearly as bad as self-doubt) and lots and lots of time. But there's a magic that happens when you commit, really throw yourself into a project and leave behind the distractions. Was it Nietsche who had something pithy to say about that? Maybe it was Thoreau. Well, same difference.

Jump in. Just do it. Commit.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Do you believe?

Today on the notecard easel: "Do you believe?"

Why write if I don't believe in the story, in the worth of the finished product? Why build a boat if I don't believe it'll float someday? I don't mean faith, though surely that's part of it. But belief in the goal, the destination, that is strong enough to withstand the days and months of unrewarded labor.

Because in the end, if we don't believe, why bother? If I don't believe, I'm just going through the motions for no reason.

Why would I do something I don't believe in? Okay, that's a straw man since I get paid a salary for doing something that largely doesn't care whether I believe in it or not. So I go in and do my hurky-jerky puppetlike performance so I can pay bills. Big deal.

But the rest of the time, my time, is for work that I believe in. And because I believe (on most days, at least), the reworking of sentences after I can no longer hear the rhythm, and replacing another split piece of wood (curse you, cheap yellow pine!) on the neverending Frame 7 of my boat, callouses on my fingers, coffee stains on my latest draft, another query letter slingshot into silence ... all of it is worth it.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Four themes

I've folded index card in half to make a sort of miniature easel to sit on my monitor stand at work. On each half (both sides) I've jotted down a brief phrase or single word to either reflect my mood or inspire me for work (rarely), boatbuilding (often), or writing (frequently). Then I rotate the card depending on which phrase seems most relevant.

Ever since Wednesday I've had the "Stability is a perception" label facing me. We've had some upheavals at work and it's comforting to remember that just because we get used to things, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are stable. Change happens.

Somewhere I read that it is simultaneously a wonderful expression of fortitude and a resigned message of helplessness that humans can get used to almost anything. If we're injured, for example, we favor the damaged ankle or wrist or knee until we don't even realize we're favoring it, until some other injury comes along.

Stability, health, steady job, weather, relationships, quality of coffee, price of gas, dislike of olives, peace in the Middle East, war in the Middle East: stability is a perception.

Not an illusion; not a lie; not a mistake. A perception.

Coming soon: the other three themes on my Card o' Wisdom! Be kind to your fingernails and do not nibble them to stumps while you wait.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Such a bright light!

Why is this creepy?

Frau Trude
, collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Once upon a time there was a small girl who was strong willed and forward, and whenever her parents said anything to her, she disobeyed them. How could anything go well with her?

One day she said to her parents: "I have heard so much about Frau Trude. Someday I want to go to her place. People say such amazing things are seen there, and such strange things happen there, that I have become very curious.

Her parents strictly forbade her, saying: "Frau Trude is a wicked woman who commits godless acts. If you go there, you will no longer be our child.

But the girl paid no attention to her parents and went to Frau Trude's place anyway.

When she arrived there, Frau Trude asked: "Why are you so pale?"

"Oh," she answered, trembling all over, "I saw something that frightened me."

"What did you see?"

"I saw a black man on your steps."

"That was a charcoal burner."

"Then I saw a green man."

"That was a huntsman."

"Then I saw a blood-red man."

"That was a butcher."

"Oh, Frau Trude, it frightened me when I looked through your window and could not see you, but instead saw the devil with a head of fire."

"Aha!" she said. "So you saw the witch properly outfitted. I have been waiting for you and wanting you for a long time. Light the way for me now!"

With that she turned to girl into a block of wood and threw it into the fire. When it was thoroughly aglow she sat down next to it, and warmed herself by it, saying: "It gives such a bright light!"

Friday, May 16, 2008

Heyyy spiderface

Which is "worse"? A person with the head of a spider? Or a spider with a tiny head of a person?

Having a full-sized spider head would certainly be alarming, but I think a spider with a tiny person-head would creep the crap out of me. Especially if it could talk in a creaky little spider-voice, thanks to its human mouth, but still said spidery things like "hungry waiting hungry waiting waiting so hungry hungry want fly fly fly want fly come closer, come closer, closer, closerclosercloser, pounce, squeeze and wrap and squeeze and wrap wrap wrap then bite juicy juicy juicy juicy..."

On the other hand, having a full-sized spider head would be handy at work, where you could sit with a wig on and your back to the door, and then when somebody came into your office to talk to you, you could slowly wheel around.

"Hey buddy, whassup? Good weekend? Catch some golf? Yeah, just thought I'd touch baseOH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU!?"

[switch to more somber, thinking tone]

Freud (among others) stipulated a theory he called "Das Unheimliche" -- the uncanny. Basic idea is that things which are wildly different -- spiders -- may not be that alarming. But when they look very nearly familiar except for one or two odd things, they become extremely alarming.

For example, scientists have to be careful not to make robots look too much like humans, otherwise there's a very visceral discomfort. Or imagine that you're hiding in the woods at night, and people come shambling toward you. It's too dark to see their faces, but as they approach you realize they're all much taller than they should be and oh help me they are not human.

I don't know about all that, but I know what scares me, and the things that are almost normal are the worst. I doubt sour milk would be so disgusting if we didn't drink so much real milk.

Wikipedia on the uncanny:

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Evil Walks

It is a shame that "evil" has become a word we use so casually that it can even itself be a punchline: Dr. Evil. And it's a shame that language -- these stale assemblages of shapes and ink and sounds -- cannot on its own portray the magnitude of human experience.

Nearly 500,000 men, women, and children were killed at the Belzec extermination camp in Poland between mid-March 1942 and the end of December that same year. Imagine that many bodies in one place.

When archaeologists studied the site in the late 1990s, they found the surface soil littered with charred wood and bone fragments. Exploratory drilling brought up putrid black water, hair, and grease. Most of the pits had a thick layer of black fat at the bottom.

This is the face of evil. It is not fiction.

Congo. Srebenica. Choeung Ek. Rwanda. Beslan. On and on and on.

Often our greatest outrage, if there is such a thing, occurs when the victims are children. They are not immune to the darkness of the world.

What is the responsibility of the writer for children? What is his morality, in bringing or not bringing this darkness into the story?

Many good children's books are successful, even moving, without this darkness. Protecting children from that does not mean that the only villains are cartoonish bad guys in black hats. There is a middle ground, after all, between traumatizing the reader and giving them a good story. Even a sublime one. And certainly if a book shows much darkness it ceases to be strictly a children's book and is instead marketed to adults. Think of The Book Thief. (Which, I'd argue, is nevertheless suitable for some children.)

My point is this. Is it cowardice to turn our backs on the darkness of our own world? Do we somehow become complicit by pretending it doesn't exist? Or should the responsibility of the writer not necessarily be to hold open the reader's eyes at the shock and terror of our world, but rather to transport them as, quite deliberately, an antidote to that world?

I ask not to incite argument, but because I genuinely do not know. Please comment.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wolf Spider

As if it weren't bad enough that there is a type of spider so large, hairy, fast, and ferocious that it's named after a wolf; as if it weren't bad enough that said spider runs down its prey; as if it weren't bad enough that enthusiasts (lunatics) find wolf spiders at night by shining a flashlight in the grass and watching for the shine of eyes ... we have one living on our porch.

This morning I darted out beneath it (it was squatting above the front door) and I turned for a last look. It had caught a tent caterpillar and was holding it in its fangs so the caterpillar dangled from its mouth. This was a caterpillar the size of my pinky finger.

Quick return to the house (side door) for a new pair of pants and a baseball bat, and I was good to go.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

First Look

Editing is fun ... but so is writing:

It started to snow, so Sam took the long way home from the cemetery. The air smelled of wet wool, and his fingertips were still cold from tracing the letters on the stone.

He curled his fingers into his palm and began to run, exploding a cloud of crows from a thin-branched tree.

When he arrived home, red-faced and heaving for breath, he stopped in the hallway to push off his wet shoes.

"Running again?" Dad said, but it wasn't a question.

Sam worked on his shoe.

"It won't bring her back."

Sam swallowed. "I know it won't. I know." He wiped his hands on his pants and brushed past Dad.