Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Godless Ghost

We first saw Dad's ghost the night of his funeral. He wandered the parlor, complaining about coloration and the tone of the priest and Mom's neckline. Mom took it the hardest, which is understandable. We had a priest over the next morning to commit an exorcism, but it didn't take. We had him come for repeats the next two days before it became evident that wasn't working. Mom got some gypsies to hold a seance to no avail. We got a Methodist, and a Unitarian, and even a Rabbi who seemed to think his cigar would help. None of it helped. We had doctor of dark arts flown in from South America, and all we got out of the deal was Dad stamping his feet upstairs, saying he'd never seen the appeal in hardwood. Eventually we ran out of options and resigned to doing nothing about him. Two days later, he'd vanished. No stamping, no ranting. We couldn't figure out why doing nothing had done the trick, until Mom remembered: Dad'd been an atheist.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: On the Deathbed of Carl Rudolph

A man in a brown suit and burgundy tie appeared at the door. He held a tidy briefcase. Rudolph squinted at him from his tangle of plastic tubes and bed sheets.

Brown Suit asked, “Are you Carl Rudolph?”

“You’re late if you want to sue me.” He smiled crookedly. “I’m done with lawyers.”

“This isn’t litigation, Mr. Rudolph.” Brown Suit strode across the hospital room, retrieving a manila envelope from his briefcase. “I’m here on behalf of the estate of Neal Jennings. He left a proviso to deliver this letter on your... well.”

“Jennings did that? What did he want that he didn’t have thirty years ago?”

“I don’t know, sir. No one has read the contents. His will is quite specific.” Brown Suit handed over the envelope. It slid through Rudolph’s arthritic fingers and rested on his chest. He looked at it with half-lidded eyes.

“Did he specify you wear such hideous fashion?”

“In fact, he did.” Brown Suit snapped his briefcase closed. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Rudolph.”

He left Rudolph to watch the envelope rise and fall on his ribs, following his breathing. It was address-side up, made out to him in big, blocky letters.

“So I could read it if my eyes went, Jennings?”

He prodded the envelope. It was several pages thick inside. What on earth had Jennings written?

“The last word. You knew full well I couldn’t rebut you this way.”

What would that word be? More of Jennings’s theosophy? Pleading that it was actually God in the details and that holding hands would solve it all? Urging him to go dunk his head in an Indian river before he died? To donate to some charity that was probably corrupt?


Or they could be pages of remembrance. All the Trotskyist political arguments, and the absinthe that made them worthwhile. The continental train ride to a lecture they skipped out on halfway through. Walking into a London hotel room to ask if they could check out of this bore already, only to find Jennings checking into the maid who would become his second wife.

The women. Goodness, the women. Just thinking about all that collective suppleness stiffened parts of Rudolph that had been medicated numb for weeks.

He pressed the tip of his middle finger on the center of the envelope. It was damnably thick.

Would Jennings have sentimentalized so much about gilded times? What if he had confessions? The rotten investments he’d tried to hide. Rudolph had forgiven him decades ago, but how bitter would it taste to read Jennings apologizing for it now?

Or finally calling Rudolph for plagiarizing him in his second book. Jennings had never exposed him. Would he sue him from the grave and steal the inheritance of his grandchildren?

“They never visit anyway. Still…”

What else was there to reveal?

He squeezed his eyes shut.

“Goodness, I hope he doesn’t come out as gay. We were….”

An acrid pain between his ribs reminded him. Decades ago he could have worried about what was in envelopes, but not anymore. Be it a lawsuit, an answer or love letter, there wasn’t time.

His hands didn’t work like they used to. He peeled open the envelope’s seal with the first knuckles of his index fingers, then shook out the papers onto his chest.

There they were: five in all.

Rudolph lifted the first. He saw no words.

He held it closer to his face. No, nothing typed or in Jennings’s chicken scratches. It was blank.

He shuffled through the papers. Every one was blank, back and front. Had Jennings padded it to look ominous, then left no omens?

No. The last page wasn’t blank. There were two lines of text in the very middle. They read:

See you in a minute.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Five Questions About Writing

Some of the most encouraging mail I get is from readers and fellow writers asking about my process. If you’ve read the BM’s for long, you know I hang my writing process out there. I like to share my failures, successes and insights. If everyone was candid about their processes, the whole field would benefit. Recently an aspiring writer sent me five questions in researching artists for her own book. These are the answers I gave her. Please consider fielding these questions on your own blogs.

1. what inspired you to be a writer?
-I loved storytelling from my earliest years, so I was always open to it. The big shift came when I was bedridden with health problems at age 13. There were many long and excruciating nights when reading or listening to audiobooks literally gave me the will to live to morning. The desire to make it to the next page, and to find out what happened next, was vital. A sense of gratitude to the form definitely shaped my desire to become a writer.

2. what is love according to you?
-Love is a lasting condition in one person toward another person, creature or object, recognizable by frequent supportive concerns for their various well-beings, including but not limited to medical, financial, artistic and spiritual well-beings. These concerns can be positive, such as the joy that my sister just got a new job. These concerns must be strong enough to act upon; if you won't do things for others, then you don't love them. Love can be familial, romantic or friendly. Most of my passionate loves have not been erotic, but simply friendship.

3. what are your writings to you?
-They are my beloved creations, little different to me than the world would be to God. I must do right by them, be honest with them, let them play themselves out, and never interfere so much that their experience is compromised. While I write some veins of satire and social commentary, I never let such influences overtake the sanctity of the work itself.

4. how will you define yourself as an artist?
-Experientially. There is too much complexity and emergence in writing copious prose for me to prescribe a singular meaning to all my work, at least at this stage in my career. If there is a summary, it’s that I define myself as I ponder, compose and edit. The prescriptive definitions will always come in second, even when they’d be more convenient.

5. what do you think are the qualities in you which others do not have. and because of which you can write?
-There’s a temptation to say I’m crazy, or goofier than average, and so am more inclined to write jokes about Noah’s Ark and giant plants throwing rooms at people. But really? It’s a couple of decades of critical thinking about, and practice focusing on, how my prose works. Experience sets most forms of expertise apart from the hobbyists and layfolk; I think most people could become just as competent in their own ways if they wrote and read as much and with as much scrutiny. The love of language, of style and structure, and an appreciation for pleasing elements largely came through experience. Most of my other traits influence what and how I write more than that I can write at all. For instance, my neuromuscular syndrome saps my energy, puts me in constant pain, and has limited some of my social interactions, so I look at healthy people as pathetic or crazy. That’s spurred me to write, but is it why I write, or simply why I depict people certain ways? Perhaps my only other significant quality is that I know enough about the world as people see it, and enough about what’s occurred in fiction, to be able to freely express my thoughts in prose in ways that seem creative because I have a certain grip on those two things.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: What God Gave for Lent

“No, that’s not for Me,” said Our Lord. “That’s My son’s gig. I leave it unto him.”

“But why? Everyone else does it.”

“I gave up something for forty days once, but it went so poorly I had to promise not to do it again. No sense in tempting fate.”

“What did you give up?”

The whole of Heaven shook with His chuckle. “Dry land.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eight Reasons to Yell at the LA Times, OR, Appropriating Hitler

Yesterday the LA Times ran an editorial about Global Warming. I was fine with that. They'd like schools to teach facts about it correctly. I strongly support that. But a few paragraphs in, I just about lost my mind. I came across one of the worst examples of a bad writing habit, and for any younger writers out there, I want to point this out so you don't repeat it. I'm not singling out the LA Times or these particular authors, though my language may occasionally express how little civility I had left when they invited Hitler to the Global Warming debate.

That is a lie so big that, to quote from "Mein Kampf," 
it would be hard for most people to believe that anyone
"could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."
-LA Times Editorial, February 20th

1. In the above selection we see that the LA Times Editorial Page quoted Adolph Hitler to support their argument. This fact alone is issue #1. When the author got to, “to quote from Mein Kampf,” an editor should have hit them with a ream of printer paper and asked, “Why?” Why on God-damned earth would you feel compelled “to quote from Mein Kampf” in a Global Warming editorial?

2. In addendum to the pure absurdity of quoting Hitler in support of anything, it must be recognized that they were quoting him on a topic of debate that emerged decades after he died. They were not actually quoting his opinion on Global Warming denialism because, unless he was more successful in the occult than previously believed, he didn’t have one. So they were quoting one of history’s most monstrous leaders out of context.

3. What the Editorial Page mangled was Adolph Hitler’s notion of “The Big Lie.” The articles is actually hyperlinked to the Wikipedia entry for The Big Lie instead of Mein Kampf, despite putting the hyperlink exclusive on the title “Mein Kampf.” This caused a small capillary in my forehead to burst.

4. But beside hyperlinking liberally, there lies the issue of the mangling. “The Big Lie” was supposed to be a fabrication so bold nobody would doubt its veracity, because nobody would believe you’d stray that far from truth. This is a ridiculous stretch in application to Global Warming denialism. Not only do millions of my fellow liberals believe denialists are obviously errant from the truth, but none of the layfolk I’ve ever talked to believed such denial true simply because the claim is so bold it must be true. They believe arguments, propaganda, skewed or incorrect data, and conspiracy theories. If you ask, you’re much more likely to hear, “I just don’t see how people could do that. The planet’s so big.” So what the editorial page was really doing was misquoting Hitler to say, “They’re wrong and we don’t like them.”

5. It’s saddening that I got to #5 before touching the actual quote. Their line reads as an abysmal, “That is a lie so big that, to quote from "Mein Kampf," it would be hard for most people to believe that anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."” There is no reason that the content of “it would be hard for most people to believe that anyone” should not be contained in the original quote itself, except for shoddy re-contextualization. The result is not only using Hitler as a valid source for social criticism, but doing so in a way that makes it seem like you might be fudging the Furher on this one.

6. We’re deep into the list, but you really must understand that they were quoting Hitler for cred. Mein Kampf is an old famous book. By quoting it, you are saying, “I’ve read old famous things by old famous people, so I am smart.” I know this because I’ve read too many Freshman term papers that tried to do this, though first-year students usually don’t quote a genocidal asshole. If you lack quality of argument and resource, you at least quote Hamlet, The Constitution or The Bible – those old things that a lot of decent people like. Regardless, the needlessness of quoting a decades-old non-contextual source reeks of needy bragging.

7. Needy bragging about Hitler.

8. Of all the articles and books written in support of the theory of Global Warming, and of all the lectures and rants recorded about it, the LA Editorial Page opted for Hitler. Not a sociologist who's studied data on misconceptions and deceptions. Not a climatologist. Not an American politician. Not even a school teacher, about whom the editorial was supposed to be sniping.

I swear I’m normally a nice person, especially about writing snafus. All of the above could have been mistakes, or the product of thinking at 2:00 AM. I’ve certainly faltered like that in the past. But I beg you – journalists, bloggers, aspiring writers – don’t do this if you can possibly catch yourself. It may kill some mildly unhinged person like myself.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Boris Adapts to Drugs

Boris could adapt to anything his children could select. If they were nature, he was evolution. They whined on about his heart, and the circles under his eyes, and how much he scowled since Yulia passed on. Now his eldest daughter forced him to take sleeping drugs every eight o’clock at night, drugs that had not even existed when he first met her mother. At first, Boris thought he could out-will the drugs, but the dose was calculated for a heavier man, and every night for five nights he dropped like a stone into a bed meant for two. But Boris could adapt, especially so long as these children who were so interested in him only visited at meals. Beginning on the sixth day he stole half a fist of the sleeping drugs, hiding them in a hollowed part of The Cherry Orchard. At half an hour past lunch, he swallowed a dose, then went to his filing cabinet and emptied a random drawer onto the floor. He repeated the task for four afternoons before succeeding in re-filing the papers alphabetically – or that was, before succeeding at this, before passing out from the drug. On the fifth day, he emptied two drawers of the filing cabinet. In a matter of three weeks, Boris could work late into the night even after smiling and accepting the sleeping drug from his caring daughter. It was easier than arguing with her, and Yulia had hated argument.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Writing Prompt?

Compose a concise argument for why a traditional prenuptial agreement isn't invalidated by a man sleeping with my wife's two sisters. Preferably have your story in line with the New Hampshire state marital laws. Further, preferably include any reputable attorneys you know who operate in southern New Hampshire.
Counter est. March 2, 2008