And One More Thing…


I’ve been complaining a lot about feeling creatively ‘wiped out’—that is, having no energy or ambition to make something. It felt like everything was going to the son, the wife, the house, the garden. I know: completely self-indulgent. It was a feeling, and feelings have a reality-distorting gravitational pull that can be difficult to escape, like a black hole’s.

And then the other day Danielle and I were having a recurring conversation that snapped me awake, so to speak. She wanted to know if I had a ‘roadmap’ (I think that’s the word she used) for how I was going to handle the application process for my MFA. I admitted I had none. I had set it aside as an impossibility. I had a whole list of excuses: Sean is too demanding. When on earth am I going to find time to go to class? to do the reading? to do the writing? The program at Old Dominion University (the only one in the area) is a three-year program. We’re only guaranteed to be here through 2012!

Danielle picked off my excuses one by one, pegged them for exactly what they were: stealth procrastination. Sean will be pre-school-age by next fall. I can make time to do the work. Babysitters. We can do a shore tour in Norfolk. All of my roadblocks had easy detours, if my eyes had just been open to them.

So I unshelved the Kaplan GRE study guides I bought six months ago when this conversation first came up, pulled up the ODU MFA website, and started organizing.CIMG0052

The whole thing is rather daunting, especially on mornings like this when I’m tired and Sean, like a predator who can smell fear, seems to sense it. But we need to do this. It cements my usefulness in the post-daddying future.

Lithium-Chapter 1

This is a draft of the first chapter of my novel Lithium which I am currently in the process of rewriting. This is part of my ongoing experiment with deadlines. You can read more of my fiction here.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do?”

“No. I don’t know.”

We were sitting on a blanket in the park listening to a free concert sponsored by a local alternative rock station. Mac and Wendy had gone on a beer run and Maggie had taken the opportunity to ask me the question that had been on her mind since Wednesday when the news of my mother’s death had arrived. It was now Friday evening and my father and I were booked on an early morning flight to Boston for the funeral the next day. That made it three days that I’d been avoiding this conversation, and now I saw Mac and Wendy coming with a pitcher and four plastic cups to save me from having it now.

I had been worried that my reaction to the news about Marianne was not severe enough. I had insisted on going back to work on Thursday. Mac and I had gone to the pub Thursday night. He had understood my unspoken desire to pretend nothing had happened, and we’d traded stories about work, talked about our respective girlfriend troubles. I’d kicked off work early to go to the concert, but other than that it was business as usual.

My mother and I had not been close. She and my father divorced when I was three, and he’d won sole custody when I was twelve after she’d left me alone in her Wilmington, Delaware, apartment for two days. She’d had a manic episode and disappeared for a week before they found her after a traffic stop in New Jersey. I was the one who called the police to report her missing. I didn’t see her for ten years after that. I thought for a long time she was punishing my father, refusing to come to Seattle to see me, but it could just as easily have been her disease that kept her away, the alternating mania and depression.

But I had a hard time understanding that. She was a prolific writer, a literary renaissance woman, publishing novels and short stories and essays and poetry. If she could do that, why couldn’t she swallow her pride and cross the Mississippi and the Rockies for a visit every year or two?

Marianne was never famous outside literary circles, never had an Oprah appearance, but she had one New York Times bestseller and had several stories anthologized in various fiction collections. She even wrote about me, once, in a personal essay in which she revealed, rather bluntly, that she hadn’t seen me, at the time, in over seven years. She didn’t justify it, didn’t blame anyone other than herself. It’s just the way it was, she wrote. This was in Harper’s. There was some minor outrage in the letters section.

I reminded myself of all of this to try to make myself feel better about not feeling worse, but it didn’t help.

Mac and Wendy sat down and passed cups around and poured beer for everyone, a summertime ale we looked forward to every spring. It was early this year, appearing at the end of April instead of May.

“If we drink this with enough gratitude and enthusiasm, I think we can ward off the rain,” Mac was saying. So far, we had been blessed with clear skies for the concert, but in the west, rain threatened. In Seattle, rain always threatened. We ignored it. Even if a shower started, we would stoically enjoy the concert, and the band, which was local, would stoically play on.

Continue reading “Lithium-Chapter 1”

The Zine

OK, so it’s a day late, but, to be fair, it was done last night. I just had to format it for the site. Hope you enjoy.

The Zine

Draft 4

April 30, 2009

Paul and Ben first met in Rebecca Thatcher’s fourth period English class at Thompson Middle. We think. That’s the consensus in the faculty lounge here at Davis High. James Denmorr (Chem) plays tennis with Richard Acres, who teaches science down at the junior high school and remembers both boys. It would have been the eighth grade, Acres said, when Paul’s family moved back into our district after his father moved his practice to the wealthier side of town.

The faculty lounge here could be a classroom if not for the furniture. A modular sofa compressed by the buttocks of scores of teachers since it was dumped here sometime in the 1970s sits beneath the shaded window, and a heavy round table is encircled by three mismatched plastic and steel chairs and one black leather desk chair that belongs to Dean Rasputin (not kidding), our school’s elder statesman. Dean teaches algebra and still makes his kids learn what he calls “mental math,” I guess so they’ll be able to split a restaurant check and compute tips. Dean can be found in that hideous chair every day at lunch eating his tuna salad sandwich and reading some obscure newsletter from one of the associations he’s a member of. Dean is exempt from lunch room duty, much to the rest of the staff’s irritation.

Also in the room, which our posse is happy to have to itself today for lunch because it’s a special day, is a low cabinet full of forgotten phone books and upon which sets our humble toaster oven and General Electric microwave, which is what Ginny Fletcher (Communications) is using to heat up her frozen box of Good Choice! Low Fat Pasta Primavera. There are so many bedraggled second-hand objects in this room that someone has superglued a NO DUMPING sign to the cinder block above the credenza. Ginny’s the hero of the day, having procured a copy of Paul and Ben’s monthly zine, ‘The Student Collective.’ She discovered it at IV, a coffee shop near the school, in its own little tray with a jar for “Donations to offset printing costs.” It was dumb luck that she found it.

‘Usually I stop at Caffeine, which is by my house, on my way in but there was construction so I had to take a detour and missed it. I thought for sure I’d run into a student’ – (something we universally hate) – ‘but instead I found this little beauty,’ she’d said, holding it over her head by its margins and doing a saucy little dance.

It is rare for us to get our hands on a copy since the kids aren’t allowed to distribute it on school grounds, it not being an administration-sanctioned publication. Ben and Paul had had a bit of a go-around with our principal, Dillon Feshler, about that. Rumor has it he threatened them with expulsion if they distributed it without proper vetting of their content. The pages regularly demonize Feshler. He appears as Mr. Flesheater and as the depersonified ‘Principle,’ against which the ‘Collective’ struggles. He’s their super villain. He’s been destroyed in literary effigy more than once. They don’t realize it, but short, pudgy, balding Flesheater has done them a favor: an illicit, underground zine is much, much cooler than anything ‘official’ could ever be. But it also makes it very hard for us teachers to get a look at the thing. Occasionally one might show up in a recycling bin, but mostly the kids are terribly secretive about it. It’s also possible that there just aren’t that many people reading it, but we teachers are fascinated and enthralled with every taste, and now we know where we can get a copy.

Dean is perhaps their biggest fan (he and Feshler are in an ongoing, many-fronted feud, about which more later), and he is in the other room where our mailboxes are and where the big Xerox is. After a few minutes of whooshing and thrumming and chunking, Dean comes out with a bunch of copies to hand out to those of us present: James, Ginny, and myself, Ken Arthur (English, if I haven’t mentioned it already). We are all a bit of a clique: Dean’s Chosen Few, if you will.

The cover page sometimes presents a badly photocopied photograph, but this month’s issue jumps right to the ‘Dispatch to the Collective,’ which usually would be on page 3, after the table of contents.

‘Greetings, dear Readers. We have quite a substantial announcement with which to greet you this issue: The Collective is moving to the Interwebs! Those of you who pay attention to such things know that print media is rapidly going the way of the Red-mustached Fruit-dove. This and future issues can be read by visiting the URL http://daviscollective.blogspot.com.

‘For those of you who have a fondness for the ease of reading that only the contrast of laser-printed text on high-quality paper stock can provide, we encourage you to employ the cut-and-paste feature of your high-powered computing devices, which are undoubtedly coupled to a very capable printer. Unlike the Recording Industry Association of America, we won’t be suing you for violating our copyright.

‘If you are interested in submitting content to The Collective you may do so through the new site.’

As we all sit in the lounge reading and snickering along with the writers, I look up from my place on the couch beneath the now open window, and I see mischief in Dean’s eyes.

Three or so weeks later, Dean comes into the lounge with his large laptop, scanning the room for unfriendlies. He sits at the table and waves me over to show me something. He is on the Student Collective website. The stark layout of black text on a light background unencumbered by graphics fits the overall conceit well, I think to myself. And then I begin to read the words on the screen. ‘The Flesheater haunts my dreams,’ opens the post entitled ‘A Troubled Reader’: ‘He is in my head, thinking for me.’ I skip down to where it becomes a screed against the No Child Left Behind Act. Dean had made a weak attempt to disguise it as the work of a student, though this is obviously something no student would ever write, at least no student of mine. ‘We are forbidden to learn what we want to learn. Those who teach us are handcuffed to a curriculum that serves only the lowest common denominator.’

Dean is looking for praise, but I hesitate to give it, suspecting that he’s delighting in the false anonymity of this platform, which allows him to publicly attack Mr. Feshler with supposed impunity. He has clearly chosen to ignore the facts of his well-known opposition to No Child Left Behind as well as his ongoing battle with Feshler over his extracurricular lesson plans.

His piece closes with the warning, ‘Remember, fellow readers, that the Flesheater only wants your flesh. He cares not a lick for your brains.’

A month later, another piece by a staff member appears, ‘We Are Hypocrites.’

‘Even as we preach to our students about the dangers of smoking, preaching which many of them ignore or even hear as an endorsement of tobacco’s virtues, some of our staff venture out each lunch period only to return to these halls reeking of the foul sot weed. Just last week, a group of students in the hallway near the South entrance, erupted in a chorus of coughing as a particular group of faculty members “ran the gauntlet,” so to speak.’

It goes on. I’m guessing it was written by Judy Valentine, who teaches US History and is probably the only person on staff who knows what sot weed is.

‘We should talk to Dean,’ Ginny says. She’s laying on the bed with her Macbook in our room at the bed and breakfast we go to in Westfield. ‘He’s going to get himself fired.’

‘He’s got tenure.’

‘Feshler will find a way.’

‘Maybe.’ I hand her a glass of this merlot we like, and she rolls over and sits up to take it while I read Dean’s latest dispatch. This one is about the cuts in funding for after-school programs. He specifically cites the math club, which he leads, and the explorers’ club, as though by including the second club in his rant he’ll appear more objective. He’s also taken to signing his annoying rants ‘The Mad Monk.’

‘He’s practically daring Feshler to stop him,’ I say.

‘There’s no direct proof he’s the author though, right?’ Ginny asks.

We take our glasses of wine and the bottle out to the warm patio where a row of Adirondack chairs looks down the hill over the trees to the lake where the sun is low and big.

On Monday there’s a memo in our faculty mailboxes and in our e-mail inboxes. The lounge at lunch is busy and buzzing with teachers talking and gossiping about what’s been happening with The Davis Collective. The memo, in short, exhorts all faculty and staff members to ‘avoid the temptation’ to publish items in The Collective. The Collective, it goes on to say, is a venue intended for students and is no place for administrative issues. ‘My door is always open to any faculty member who wishes to discuss Davis’s policies. And, may I remind you, that many of our policies are district-wide and are handed down directly from the office of the superintendent.’

After school I wait for Dean outside his room. ‘You better knock it off,’ I say.

‘Knock what off?’ he says with a shit-eating grin.

‘He’ll find a way to bust you.’

‘I’m retiring at the end of the year. There’s nothing he can do to me. I just believe these things need to be said. I’ve said them all to him personally he just won’t do anything about it.’

‘You’re retiring?’

‘I’m eligible and I’m tired. I’m tired of the Flesheater.’

‘What can he do’ Most of this crap comes from much higher up the proverbial hill.’

‘He’s supposed to be the one fighting for us down here, but he’s a spineless little prick. I just want everyone else to see the truth.’

As if Dillon Feshler’s true nature were somehow hidden from those of us less wise than Dean Rasputin. The Mad Monk finishes packing his papers into his overburdened leather bag and heads to the pub to grade homework assignments. It’s Monday so I get my gym bag from the car and head for the locker room.

The next morning everyone is all giggles. The ‘Mad Monk’ has posted Feshler’s memo to the site, along with a commentary. ‘The Flesheater’s hunger will never be satisfied. He won’t stop with our flesh, he’ll consume our rights to free expression. He’ll devour our very spirit.’

The hyperbole is too much. I avoid Dean for the rest of the day, eating lunch in my own room.

A week later a nasty little roman a’ clef appears on the site. It’s titled ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’ and is signed with the nom de guerre ‘Merlin.’ The reference shows some cleverness (Dean calls me ‘King Arthur’ when he’s in a jocular mood, and ‘Ginny’ is close enough to ‘Guinevere,’ I guess), but it’s ultimately pretty juvenile and inaccurate. Neither Ginny nor I are married, so the only rules broken by our relationship are those of common sense. The story itself is badly written and is about two young teachers at a high school engaging in a brazen affair. They get caught groping and lip-locked by a student; they join in coitus in the filing room during a pep rally; she fellates him in his car during lunch period. It’s a story written by someone who fantasizes about what a workplace affair would be like. What really damns us, though, are the comments that follow the story.

‘Busted!’

‘Daaaaaammmmmnnnnn!!!!!!!!!’

‘I’ve totally seen the way they look at each other. Shouldve known they were gettin they freak on!’

‘Saw them kiss in the parking lot once. Hah ha.’

‘They’re cool tho!’

‘Arthur and Fletcher! Arthur and Fletcher!’

‘Sittin’ in a tree, k.i.s.s.i.n.g.’

‘LOL!’

‘ROTFL!!!11!!1’

Etc.

Ginny and I read this only after a very awkward morning in front of our students. We are in Feshler’s office with dumbstruck expressions on our faces.

‘So look, I already knew about your relationship. People only think they can keep that kind of thing a secret,’ Feshler is saying. ‘As long as it was quiet, I didn’t have a problem with it. But this,’ he gestures to the computer screen, ‘is something else altogether. We’re going to have to put you on administrative leave until we get this sorted out. Your effectiveness in the classroom, obviously, is somewhat in question.’

Weeks go by. Ginny and I report every day to what the teachers call ‘the rubber room,’ which is actually just an office suite full of chairs. It’s where they send us while they try to figure out what to do with our various fucked up cases.

The Student Collective has been quiet. After our departure, Dean retired suddenly, before the end of the year. The final piece published on the site is a letter from the editors.

‘Greetings, dear Readers. Well, it’s been fun. We’ve had some laughs, but it’s time to go. Your illustrious editors are about to graduate with blood on their hands. The Mad Monk’s ravings were without price, but we feel we went too far in publishing the anonymously (cowardly?) submitted ‘Lancelot and Guinevere.’ In addition to being a crime against good taste, it led to the disappearance of two reasonably cool teachers. So with that, we sheath our pens, close our notebooks, and power down our portals to the Internets.’

These pens, these notebooks, these portals.

Ginny and I are still together. We are assigned to different parts of the rubber room, but we’ve moved in together, and drive in to ‘work’ together. Nobody here cares. Everybody here has their own miserable story.

Deadlines

Last month I decided to try an experiment to get myself writing fiction, again. It was two experiments, really, two hypotheses:

1. Since blogging seems to come easier than longer-form pieces for print, would it be easier to get through some of my writing barriers if I composed “in the cloud,” i.e. using Google Documents or some other cloud-based word processor?

2. Would self-imposed deadlines spur some creativity?

Deadlines work wonders for writers because we know someone is expecting a finished piece by a certain date and time. (Of course, a lot of writers blow through deadlines on a regular basis, not that I would ever do anything like that.)

So, with that in mind, I started a couple of stories using Google Docs, putting the date at the top and giving myself one month. The first idea I had went nowhere, but the second, which I started on March 22nd, stuck with me and developed.

Writing it in Google Docs didn’t help. I didn’t succeed in fooling myself that I was writing a blog post because I was giving myself a month. It wasn’t immediate enough. So I switched back to MS Word and tested a new hypothesis: writing in full screen mode (hiding the “ribbon” and the task bar and Twitter, et al.). That seemed to work better.

However, the deadline thing was only half-successful. I got some writing done, but it’s by no means finished. If you’re curious about what I did get done, and if you’d like to read it, click here: The Zine.

Now that I’ve “gone public” with the experiment, maybe the deadlines will work better. So here’s another one:

By April 30th, one week from today, I’ll have a finished version of “The Zine” published here on the site.

And a month after that, I’ll post something else.