September, 2005

Happiness is opening the box just delivered from Harney and Sons and inhaling. Oh, tea. Flavors enclosed : Lemon Herbal, Darjeeling, Irish Breakfast, Black Currant, and Hot Cinammon Spice. I am going to have a cup of Hot Cinnamon Spice right now. Thanks to Lanfaedhe who first recommended tea by Harney. It’s wonderful.

Some people, however, may not feel like a box full of tea is like stepping into heaven. Notably my daughter, who just wrinkled her nose and asked, “What’s that smell?” I told her it was my tea, and wasn’t it delicious. “Bleah. No. It smells like leaves,” she replied. “Well,” I explained,”tea is made out of leaves.” Her final assessment: “I don’t like leaves!”

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Welcome to my rant. If you haven’t been here before, this is where I vent, in an effort to diffuse my anger by using words instead of resorting to violence. Pointing out errors in my logic, or asking me to be reasonable, or suggesting I need to get over it is likely to occasion further rants, only directed at you. I have a hefty dose of Scotch-Irish in my ethnic makeup, and this causes me to be unreasoningly angry from time to time. Stand back from the spew.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store. While I was there I bought one hundred dollars worth of food. Among the things I bought were a bottle of Zatarain’s Shrimp and Crab Boil (which is only sold in tiny bottles here in St. Louis) and a package of frozen crawfish tails. Now I don’t know the different combinations of things I could make with those two ingredients, not to mention all the others that I had, but I imagine the odds are good that the overwhelming preoponderance of things I could concoct would be at least Southern, and likely originating in Louisiana. Now, granted, cooking recipes from the south does not make you a Southerner, but just to be on the safe side, considering there’s thousands of displaced persons living in your city, mightn’t you consider not saying idiotic and offensive things about Louisiana and New Orleans on the off chance that the person you’re selling things to is from there?

You might think so. But no, these folks felt perfectly free to engage in a long and involved conversation covering such diverse topics as how Mardi Gras is not inviting if you have to float down the city streets, how the city should be left to drown and they should drive a big cruise ship into the Mississippi instead, how there’s no point rebuilding New Orleans because “nature will eventually win that battle”, how stupid people are to live below sea level, and so forth ad nauseam, punctuating the pieces of their talk that they thought particularly clever with laughter.

Things I tactfully did not say to these ignorant, self-appointed experts doing menial labor :

  • I realize your jobs are boring and you are just clacking your jaws for the sake of hearing your heads rattle. However, I am from New Orleans and I would appreciate it if you kept your mouths shut for the remainder of my need to stand within earshot of your callous stupidity.
  • One of the country’s largest ports mean anything to you? Where exactly do you think your state’s goods are going when you ship them down the Mississippi?
  • You talk as if your city wasn’t perched overhanging the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, as if there were no levees here and no danger of flooding, as if within the last fifteen years there hadn’t been a flood so massive that Chesterfield Valley ended up under 10 feet of water. Oh, and let me see, were you people smart enough not to bother to rebuild there? NO! You weren’t, there’s scads of buildings less than fifteen years old shoulder to shoulder there!
  • New Madrid fault. I hear we’re standing on it. Your house built to withstand earthquakes?
  • You think that was only nature? You think the steady erosion of protective barrier reef islands had no effect on how strong the hurricane was when it made landfall? You think mankind forcing the Mississippi to stay its course for a hundred years had no effect? Ever hear of global warming, which may or may not have played its part and most certainly isn’t natural? You think there was nothing we could do to protect the city beforehand? All the experts recommendations about strengthening the levee and nurturing the outlying environment just so much balderdash, huh?
  • I’m so happy that a cashier and bag boy have figured out the solution to the problems of a million people. You are so bright! “Just don’t live there”, wow, I’m sure the president will be calling you shortly to ask your opinion on all sorts of critical world affairs! Palestinians living for decades in tent cities throughout Gaza? Just move! Unemployed? Go elsewhere! Living in famine stricken Darfur? Duh! Settle in a country where there’s food!

Small-minded jackasses.

What I did say, in the mildest tone possible: “The Dutch do alright. Their entire country is practically below sea level”. The cashier’s reply, “Yes, but well, they don’t have hurricanes, there, do they?” I refrained from pointing out that their system of pumps, sea walls and dikes would withstand hurricanes and more. I didn’t even point out how appalled they were when they discovered that a nation as rich as ours had no similar system in place. I am the model of restraint.

On the plus side, the seafood gumbo I made was deeeeeeelicious. Also on the plus side, I am lucky enough to have any number of grocery stores nearby to choose to shop from, and am not required to ever darken the doorway of that particular place again.

I leave you with the biting humor of get your war on‘s take on Katrina:


iTunes says I was listening to Armageddon Days (Are Here Again) from the album Mind Bomb by The The when I posted this. I have it rated 4 stars.

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24 Sep 2005, by


Rejection 2 arrived yesterday. Somehow I need to get more than one story circulating, so there’s still something out there when I get the smackdown. Was a very nice smackdown, by the way, at least as judged by fellow writers. I was told it was the next best thing to acceptance. Alas.

I did, however, turn the thing around and send it back out. Go, “Hindsight”, go! Find a home! Be free!

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22 Sep 2005, by


Now that his poll numbers are low and hurricane Rita might make landfall at his own home state, Bush and his lackeys are “in almost hourly contact” with state and local officials. This time around they have made sure to pre-position supplies and troops. I don’t suppose it would occur to the president to suggest that now is a good time for him, Condolezza Rice and Dick Cheney to go on vacation, thought he acted as though it was appropriate before, during, and up two days after Katrina. It’s not that I begrudge Texas an adequate response, but I’m bitter that Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could not get the same.

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I fiddled and fiddled with an entry about Katrina, but some of the momentum has left me, and stuff kept changing faster than I could edit it to respond. That in itself says something. Earlier in the catastrophe things went so slowly that I could gather my thoughts and post and know what I said would still stand for days. I may still finish it out and post it but I may not. We’ll see.

This is a writing post, so if you find that kind boring consider yourself warned. I finished the story I was thinking of as “Ancient Gardener” but is now called “How Does Your Garden Grow?”. It’s very (don’t say boring, don’t say boring — uhhhhhhhh) basic. Even so, it’s extremely satisfying to have finished it, because it’s the first thing I’ve completed in weeks and weeks. In fact, August was mostly a wash for writing. I managed to send off a revised opening for “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light” to VP but that was basically it. Most of those scenes were new, so it was writing work as much as it was revising work, but still, it wasn’t more than 8000 words or so.

Besides the satisfaction of completion with “How Does Your Garden Grow?”, I also feel like I can sell it. I don’t know why, exactly. It’s weird having those contradictory feelings: the feeling that it isn’t as good as much of the other stuff I have written mixed in with the certainty (completely unfounded, mind you) that I can sell this piece. It smells vaguely like literary fiction, although there’s definitely spec elements to it. It’s not magic realism, because the magic in it is weird and surprising to all involved. I’ve increasingly noticed, by the way, that people toss around the words “magic realism” without having any sort of idea what it means. A writer in my writer’s group claimed her story didn’t have to make sense because it was magic realism. I sputtered a bit in outrage, but I don’t think she noticed. I’ve also heard the term explained as “Latin American” which besides not being a particularly meaningful tag, probably discomfits Salman Rushdie a great deal, not to mention the neglect it gives to Gunter Grass.

I have to fix and revise “How Does Your Garden Grow” before anything else, but I’d like to be sending this around in a month or so. Before Halloween. “Hindsight” is back out searching for a home. It took me about a month to turn it around and send it out again. I need to be quicker than that.

I’m jumping ahead of myself a little, and trying to look back at the first year of writing already, even though I’m not to the end of it. I know I’ve not done as much nor as well as I wanted, and I’m a little concerned that when my self-imposed deadline is up, I won’t have gotten anywhere yet.

A writer friend and I had an interesting discussion last week, about the nature of the short story reader. She theorized that the average short story reader is not as intelligent as the average novel reader. I hadn’t ever considered the idea before, but it sounded a little off, if not outright backward, to me. Of course, neither one of us has any evidence to support either conclusion, but the interesting thing about our positions is that it reflects in the way we write. Her primary novel is convoluted, with twenty different plotlines and a cast of thousands that she manages adroitly. My current novel in progress is unidirectional, unlayered, with five major characters in a limited setting. On the other hand, I see short stories as an opportunity to play with form in a way that just isn’t possible or sustainable over a novel. I write most experimentally in short stories, figuring that a reader will tolerate much when it’s only three thousand words. Thus I feel free to write stuff in which not much happens, or in which there’s puzzles to be worked out, or in which there’s contraform ideas that play off against genre conventions. I enjoy using unreliable narrators, for example, or putting together a picture with fragmented bits of prose, like mosaic. I try things that are (to me) risky, like humor. Her short stories, however, are usually straightforward vignettes. Pieces that hang on a pivotal event and are played out in very closed circumstances. In essence, our somewhat opposed and unfounded preconceptions about the type of person who reads a format have guided the way we write in that format. Or perhaps, the way we write in a format has set our mind as to the reader we imagine for our words. Her short stories are generally better received than mine at our writer’s group, by the way, but of course, that’s not conclusive proof that her position is correct. After all, there’s lots of variables there, including that she may just be a better writer than I am overall.

A while back, Elizabeth Bear posted a really interesting treatise on talent in her journal. Some people say that writing requires talent, while others say it requires craft. Obviously those who believe the latter view writing ability as a form of democracy, achievable by anyone who works hard enough and long enough. Meanwhile, those in the former camp think that writing ability is, at the very bottom of the well, innate and that no amount of dressing up the words or repetition is going to get you there if you don’t have the gift. The Bear thinks it takes both. Good Las Vegas resident that she is, she compares writing to a deck of cards. “I suspect if one is going to make it as a writer,” she says,”one walks in with a free card. One thing you can do coming out of the gate. One aspect of the tremendous interwoven craft of writing that you’re naturally good at.” In that sense it’s all about talent. But after that, she explains, all the other cards you need to make your winning hand, you have to work for. This metaphor makes a lot of sense to me. Her freebie was characters, but she counted five other cards she had to master before she was published. She also counted things she was still working at. Of course this got me thinking about my own freebie (because obviously, I think I have some talent). At first I was unsure about what came first, because I’ve been writing for so long. I think the freebie I got was voice. The thing people tell me most often about my writing is that they were right there, inside the person’s head. People use the word “compelling” to describe things I write with a frequency that seems more than coincidental. They are pulled along by the tide of the character’s thoughts. I think doing voice requires a kind of emotional honesty that isn’t automatic for many people. It also requires a decent command of language, which I do have, but I think that followed the drive of voice, instead of preceding it. (Amusing anecdote, which illustrates my point : very very early in my writing career, either second or third grade maybe, I wrote a story in which a character, in dialog, used the word ain’t. I had recently read either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or both, and I was very interested in the different sorts of ways people spoke. My teacher corrected the dialog and counted off points. I tried to plead my case, that the error was intentional, that it was dialect, that it was in speech so that would be ok. I don’t today remember who the teacher was, but I still remember her unwillingness to allow me the liberty of misusing grammar and I well remember both how embarrassed I was that she actually thought I didn’t know ain’t was not correct when I wrote it and my outrage that she would not let me express the character’s voice accurately. After all, Mark Twain did it, so it must be allowed!). Voice is a hard one to get, especially if you didn’t get dialog with it, which I didn’t. Also, unless you develop a pretty good grip on language, you end up using the same voice over and over and then – as they say in comics – your gift becomes your curse. And lastly, voice, and the language it requires can be a really tough freebie, as a commenter to the post points out, because it “hides a multitude of sins”. In this way it can keep you from developing the other necessary writing skills to succeed. If the pull of the voice is inviting enough, if the language is atmospheric enough, then when you enter the house of my story I can keep the lights low and you might not notice the stairs don’t go anywhere and the toilet has sprouted in the dining room. As an outgrowth of voice I got character, because ultimately, knowing someone’s insides reveals their outsides, but this process was not as transparent as I make it sound here. It was hard work coming up with characters to have the voices and creating consistency between their thoughts and their actions. In fact, I went through a phase where I had a lot of crazy characters, because I couldn’t always match the voice to what was happening in reliable ways. I’ve got a description card, but it’s a low value card, serviceable, but not trumping any hand. Sorely lacking from my set of cards, and made worse by some interactive story writing I did throughout high school and college, are plot and structure. The writing friend I mentioned earlier will often tell people they “need more plot” in their stories, like this was something you could just run down to the grocery store and pick up. In exactly which aisle do I pick up a can of extra plot? Of course, for her it seems easy, she’s GOT the plot card. She can add or subtract plot at will. I don’t know if she came with that one naturally or if it’s something she’s worked for, but there’s no question she’s got it. Right now I kind of cheat at plot. I have characters and I put them in a situation and then I describe what they do as a result of the situation and pass that off as plot. The primary way in which that’s not a plot is that it’s static. It’s a problem, and then the resolution (or dissolution) of the problem, but it’s not actually stuff that happens that might be variable and then interrupted by other stuff that happens. In other words, I am not adept at short-circuiting character directions, or subverting the main action, or bisecting plots. I work in two dimensions still. But the beauty of seeing your shortcomings is that you can work at them. Maybe by this time next year I will have earned a plot card. Now that’s a nice thought.

iTunes says I was listening to Hollow from the album Vulnerable by Tricky when I posted this.

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This is completely trivial, but it’s setting my teeth on edge, and what is blog for if not for getting minor irritants off my chest? What I’m peeved about : the apparent inability of journalists trying so hard to be respectful and correctly pronounce Niger to figure out that Biloxi is pronounced by locals as Bih-lux-ee, not Bih-LOCK-see.

That is all. I feel much better now, thank you.

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7 Sep 2005, by

Ways to help.

There is much good news today. Children are going to school in new places, which are taking them in with open arms. Many companies are continuing to pay their employees : Harrah’s will pay (and cover healthcare) for 7500 workers from its three ravaged casinos for 90 days (I’ve never felt so good about the gambling industry in all my life), even McDonald’s is covering two weeks, and though Wal-Mart is only giving their employees three days pay which is shameful, any pay is better than no pay. Some people from the suburbs around New Orleans were allowed to take a look at their homes and try to salvage mementos a couple of days ago. The New Orleans airport, the last place that held sizable numbers of people in need of evacuation (mostly critically ill people) has been basically emptied. Search and rescue teams, both official and self-appointed, are still bringing people back. They’re doing house to house searches as well, and getting the grisly work of marking houses with corpses. The New Orleans zoo suffered the death of few animals (two river otters and some watefowl). They had an alligator wander off as well, but they think it’ll come back. The aquarium is another story, they’re stating the loss of at least one third of their fish, though it seems their magnificent structure on the riverwalk is architecturally sound. Tipitina’s (where I’ve seen countless shows) is in good shape, and Preservation Hall (where I went once, as a child) seems to be mostly unscathed as well. The French quarter seems to have weathered the storm and will still be there for tourists in times to come. Already natives are talking about preparing for Mardi Gras and JazzFest, showing their indomitable spirit and hardcore dedication to big parties. The Army Corps of Engineers (who to my mind, along with the Coast Guard and local policemen, firefighters and medical workers who didn’t desert their posts are the only people who reacted quickly and to noticeable good effect in this debacle) has completed the herculean task of levee repair and started pumping out the city. Only 5 of the 148 pumps around the city are currently working, but this is a beginning. [I apologize for the lack of links in the preceding paragraph. It’s somewhat sloppy of me, but this is all current news, readily available. Use on your own, for once. The rest of my post is time sensitive and I just haven’t got the time to be thorough right now.]

On a personal note, I’ve reconsidered setting out our spare room through Hurricane Housing, because it looks like we may be able to help house displaced persons through our church. I browsed my area code at Hurricane Housing and can see that people in St. Louis are extending open arms, which greatly pleases me. As a transplanted southerner, let me assure you that St. Louis is a great place to live! We’ve also applied to try and foster a displaced person’s pet, since most shelters don’t allow people to keep their pets with them. Can you imagine having survived, having come this far, having managed to get your pet out with you and then being told you have to give him up? Our check to my local chapter of the Red Cross went in the mail. They’re feeding 700,000 people a day right now, they need the money. We’ll also be donating through our church (which has so far raised 2,000 dollars in aid). If, for whatever reason, the Red Cross is not an agency you feel you can donate to, let me offer you the opportunity to donate to aid Katrina’s victims through UMCOR. If you mark your check for the proper advance number (for Katrina it’s Advance #982523 — mail your check to UMCOR PO Box 9068 New York, NY 10087-9068) it will be spent by UMCOR for victims of Katrina to the last cent, and for nothing else. Overhead for UMCOR is paid by the church, so literally EVERY dollar will be spent as aid. If you’re local and looking for opportunities to help, my church is making up health kits to send to hurricane victims. There’s an eighteen wheeler truck that will be leaving the state Friday, so these have to be made up today, or by tomorrow at 9 AM latest and dropped off to my church (I’ll gladly email directions or come get the kits from you). They also need diapers and blankets (new is best, but freshly laundered will do if they are in good shape). The distribution center is fortuitously very near New Orleans. Normally used for international aid relief, supplies at the distribution center have been depleted to help disaster stricken people on our own soil this time around.

Here’s what goes in the health kits:

  • one hand towel
  • one washcloth
  • one comb
  • one metal nail file or nail clipper
  • one bar of soap (bath size)
  • one toothbrush
  • one tube of toothpaste (4-7 ounces)
  • six band-aids

Seal all items up in a gallon plastic bag with a zipper closure.

Additionally, I am making up three boxes (one for a child Sophia’s size, one for someone my size, one for someone Kurt’s size) of clothing and toiletries for one of the 2,000 refugees who are arriving to the St. Louis area beginning yesterday.

If you’re a local and would like to do the same, here are the instructions on what to put in a box and where to send it, snagged (and tidied, slightly) from the email I received on the subject:

Here we go with “Adopt A Person!” If you would like to join us, would you kindly fill a box of clothes you think a person (your size) would need. They can be used, clean, and ready to wear. New stuff is good, and yet one idea is to generously share what we already have with others who have nothing. Shoes are important, socks, underwear, night-clothes, casuals and work clothes. Add other stuff to wear too that you’re thrilled to give another. Remember, they now have nothing, so we’re going to give them a good start at rebuilding. Fall and winter are coming.

If you’re willing, please put in a modest toiletry bag of new stuff too: toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, razor, hair brush, comb, deodorant., sanitary pads, lipstick, fun stuff you’d like to receive if everything you owned got washed away (by the horrors of Katrina). If you’re filling a box for a man, please fill it with guy stuff that they’d need (you know—golf balls, Rams outfits, etc. :-) Just kidding. Dark socks, underwear, belts, shave cream, slacks, khakis, jeans, shirts, p.j.’s, nice clothes to go to work in, casual, sweaters, jackets, etc., or anything you’re willing to equip the person with that you’re adopting. Put in after- shave, shave cream, soap, floss, tooth paste and brush, and razors and blades. Just imagine yourself being in this man’s (or woman or child’s) shoes, and pack from your heart. It will be a wonderful box!

You can adopt more than one person, of course. Just pack a separate box for each and label it accordingly (woman, girl, man, boy, baby, and size.

Since we want to touch the hearts of these individuals, as well as clothe them, we’d encourage you to put in your picture, your address, and a note letting them know they are not alone. A word of comfort and encouragement might be splendid! You may never hear back from them, or you may. If you’d rather remain anonymous, that’s fine too.

On the outside of the box, please mark if it’s for a WOMAN, size _____, a MAN, size____, or a GIRL, size ______, BOY, size_________. Babies too, and sizes. Please address your box: “My Adopted Person from the Gulf Hurricane” directly to The St. Patrick Center, 800 North Tucker, St. Louis, MO 63101.

Thanks for reading, and for considering helping out. If you do make up a box, let me just reiterate that these people will NOT be prepared for how cold it will be here in the next few weeks. I had the benefit of everything in my wardrobe and I was still struggling to dress appropriately and to keep warm last winter. I apologize if this post is a bit spammy. These are concrete ways that you can use your own two hands and stuff you probably already have in your house to help. It seems like a lot of people are looking for ways to help. I haven’t said the last thing I will say about Katrina, but I feel that my recriminations can wait a bit longer while we take the time to offer comfort and aid.

It’s not all good news, of course. Many people are separated from their families, and right now there seems to be no good, systematic way for parents and their offspring to find one another and be reunited. Putting people on buses and planes and not telling them where they’re going seems to be part of the problem here. The dangerous sludge that still covers large parts of New Orleans is likely going to make the people staying behind (an estimated 10,000 who weathered everything reasonably well and seem to think the worst is over) very, very sick. The gasoline and other chemicals floating in that fetid water is making tinderhouses out of many buildings, and fires are burning, with no water pressure to put them out. Firefighters are resorting to dumping water on fires from helicopters. No, all is not well, nor anything near it, but progress is discernible.

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I am waiting for the day in which things no longer continue to get worse, in which there is more good news out of Katrina devastated areas than bad news. Today was not it, but maybe – maybe tomorrow. We still don’t have death tolls (though as of yesterday they were saying around 20,000 missing. Some of those folks are bound to be found alive). I haven’t said the last thing I will say about Katrina and our government, but I haven’t the energy to go any further now, and I’m disconnecting for a bit and sparing you all.

Tomorrow Sophia goes back to school and I will go back to my work. I can’t remember the last time I had writing time. Tomorrow my yoga class starts back up again as well, and I’ve been needing that for the six weeks I haven’t had it, especially during the last one. An hour to just bend my body and empty my mind. Yes. That will be fine indeed.

In other news, Kurt and I finished watching the first season of Deadwood on DVD this week. It’s so cute that the only good guy is Canadian (well, the Austrian Jew is a pretty decent guy, too, but not in the heroic way the Canadian is). Man, that’s a good show. It’s clear that someone did a LOT of research on language; the dialog is amazing and leaves so much room for acting. I want to write dialog like that. Also, I never, never, never want to watch a TV show again except in collected season DVD format. I’ve converted several folks from my writer’s group to Firefly, only to realize that I’m going to be out of town when Serenity comes to theaters at the end of September. They’ll have to go without me. Three movies left to go to this year : Serenity, Mirrormask and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I’ve confirmed that Mirrormask IS in fact showing at our beloved Tivoli theater but it too is set to open the weekend before Viable Paradise, and I’ll be gone. I hope it shows long enough for me to get back and see it.

Oh, right, and I got my first rejection a couple of weeks ago. I was holding off on mentioning that until I had sent the story back out again, under some kind of barely formulated feeling that I would turn the thing right around and send it out again but I am slow in every way, including this one. The first rejection is over with, now I’ve just got to get all the others in my allotment before the first acceptance. Merrie says it’s all about persistence. Here’s to hoping she’s right.

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