Archive for December, 2008

Me Again, Dear Editor

December 27, 2008

Heh, heh — I don’t want to distract anyone from the previous post with my tomfoolery, so if you haven’t read “Thin Walls” yet, click up there on those blue words and read my Christmas recollections. But if you’ve been there and done that, here’s a silly little something that I found — quite literally — at the back of my closet. Today I was putting away my late autumn jacket, since its days of usefulness are gone for another year. (I’m now into my Totally Serious Winter Coat.) And at the back of my closet, behind the hanging shirts . . . no, there was no lamppost, no entrance to Narnia . . . but there was an old corkboard from my previous apartment. And still pinned to the corkboard was this sonnet that I wrote several years ago.

Now, who can tell me what sort of sonnet this is? Is it Petrarchan or Shakespearian? Is it Italian or English? Do they still teach such things in school? The first person to ring in with the right answer gets the privilege of making a request or suggestion for the next posting on this blog — which I may well use, if I in my megalomaniacal dictatorship of this blog see it fit to use. And maybe I’ll knight you.

Anyway, here it is, and it’s a tribute to all of us who collect rejection slips from editors:

“Me Again, Dear Editor”

My novel didn’t grab you by the throat,

Nor did my memoir meet your present needs;

You’ve sent back every story, and I quote:

My articles are “inept from the ledes.”

To place a piece with you seems quite a stunt.

My poetry’s not potent, and I swear

This endless fretting over what you want

Has got me pulling out my thinning hair.

But (lucky you!) my newest work’s complete!

My critics say it’s lacking in suspense,

And characters and story, yet replete

With details that appeal to every sense.

It doesn’t have a strong protagonist,

But find enclosed my latest grocery list.

 

Heh, heh, heh! Well, is this the Third Day of Christmas? May you enjoy talking to the three French hens your true love sent to you. Personally, I’m glad I got my electric carpet out of storage, vacuumed it, and spread it here under my desk. It’s warming my feet as I write these words. And now it’s back to my expansion of “The Star Shard” into a novel to be called The Star Shard. (Notice how I did that with the italics? That’s how to make a novel out of a short story. In case you ever need to know.)

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Thin Walls

December 23, 2008

“And by faith [Abel] still speaks, even though he is dead.” –Hebrews 11:4b

Listen a moment with me in the dark hours of this holy night, as the strange new star blazes in the sky. Give ear with me to the whispers of the past. The blessed dead are speaking again, at this time of the year when — as surely as at Midsummer — the walls between the worlds grow thin.

My father once compared the separation of life and death to a holiday family gathering in a house. People gravitate to different rooms. Often it’s the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room. The point is, inconsequential walls separate the family for a little while, but the gathering takes place throughout the house. Voices and laughter spill back and forth from room to room. Not everyone can see one another at every moment, but all are together in the house, and sooner or later, all will meet up again. So it is with our families: some members have gone on ahead, beyond the veil; some remain here for a while.

Another time, someone said to my parents, “You must miss Fred when he’s in Japan on the far side of the world.” My dad answered, touching his forehead and his heart: “He’s only as far away as the distance from here to here.” (I heard about it from that friend’s daughter later, because the answer impressed them both so much.)

Listen with me: my parents, dead now to this world of snow and cold, are speaking of Christmas.

Here’s a poem my mom wrote maybe 20 or 30 years ago:

As a child I thought of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

But now it’s changed, and now I’m grown,

And I think of God’s great gift, His son.

So now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

 As for Dad, I’m going to paraphrase / summarize him. From before he was married and I was born, Dad worked for the highway department, patrolling for dead animals, setting out flares and barricades for road construction, and plowing snow in the winter. He often spoke of one of his most memorable Christmases, which was one he spent alone.

In the afternoon of Christmas Eve that year (this was when he was still single), there came a fearsome blizzard which shut down pretty much everything. He was called out for emergency snow-plowing, so he couldn’t join in the family gathering at his mom’s place that evening. But as he went to work, he dropped off his apartment key with Grandma, so that she could swing by and pick up the presents he had for everyone. (I’m not sure why he didn’t drop off the presents themselves instead of the key. We can only assume there was some reason. . . .)

So he went out and battled snow all night. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, they finally got the roads cleared, and he was able to wend his way home, frozen to the core and exhausted. He had parked at his place before he realized Grandma still had his key. He didn’t want to disturb her at that hour of the morning, so he jimmied open a window, crawled in through it, and tumbled down inside in a tangle of curtains, furniture, and stuff from a shelf.

He got some hot coffee going, played some Christmas carols on his record player (so he said; I’m kind of skeptical about that point — he’s frozen, worn out, wanting to get to bed. . . . but it’s his story, and he says he listened to Christmas carols), and sank at last into his warm bed, feeling somehow that it was one of his best Christmas Eves, although he’d missed everything he normally did, the church service and the family gathering, the food and the presents. Instead, it had been a night of tedium, deep chill, raw winds, and lonely labor — and getting locked out of his own house. But, yes, I can understand why he felt good about that night.

I can very distinctly remember the wild joy of lying in my dark bedroom late on Christmas Eve as a child, the electric thrill running through me at the thought of the wrapped presents under the tree in the living room . . . at the thought of the immortal “jolly old elf” who would visit my house sometime before dawn, negotiating the pitch blackness, depositing wondrous things under the tree, into my hanging stocking — eating the cookies I’d left for him, drinking the milk, and writing me a thank-you note in his spiky, illegible hand. I remember that excitement — the fierce joy of all those toys and plastic models that would make my life so much better.

I remember how the joy gradually shifted to the warm lights of the church — two services on Christmas Eve, and singing with the choir and playing my trombone at both, with a long visit at Grandma’s house in between, since she lived just a few blocks from the church.

I remember how the happiness eventually started to come from counting blessings — from the time spent with family and friends, from the good health and peace and happy gatherings; from having good writing to do and the gifts to do it with. As we age, it starts to be about our interactions with others and the use of our gifts.

It’s another kind of trembling joy I feel now in this winter dark, as the dead whisper — the dead who are not dead, but feasting just on the other side of the wall — the heroes in Valhalla, drinking the milk of the einhejar. It’s the joy of having a calling: students to teach, stories to write, and the ability to do both. The experience, the ideas . . . the chance to be here and now. Friends — the best array of friends anyone could possibly have. A past that has shaped me. Good things to do, and the passionate desire to do them. Senses. The thankfulness of being alive and stable and where God has put me.

The key to it all is found here, on this holy night, in the event we celebrate — the coming of that Child in the manger. The peace and the joy come from the knowledge of Him. There is warmth and light at the end of the winter. The paths of the living and the dead do reconverge in a good, good place.

Here’s one more dead voice that still speaks loudly: the voice of the poet Thomas Hardy, in his poem “The Oxen”:

Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock,

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said, as we sat in a flock

By the fire in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek, mild creatures where

They knelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come, see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

–Thomas Hardy, “The Oxen” 

It’s a magical time, this night of thin walls, when we ask “Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?”

So let us give ear to the voices of the blessed dead, and the song of the angels. Let us use what we have, and strive to sound our own notes in the great Song, and make the world better if we can, and know that they are all waiting for us ahead, beside the fire, where the shadows and the tears are gone.

“Now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.”

“For unto you is born this day . . . a Savior.”

Finally, here’s an announcement. Our own tandemcat, a good friend of many years and frequent commenter on this blog, has started up his own. He’s off to a great start at:

mileposter.wordpress.com

I can vouch for his writing skill and his astute observations. You’re all invited to drop in there on your way home.

A blessed and merry Christmas to all!

Tanuki Encounter

December 17, 2008

So, did you hear the one about the scandal surrounding the zombie politician? –He was arrested for corruption. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk! (That’s an original joke, by the way. It occurred to me this past week. Yes, it was inspired by certain events in the news concerning certain non-zombie governors of certain states who were arrested for similar things.) This is the first joke I’ve come up with since my one about Medusa several years ago: What does Medusa do to her hair at night, to keep it looking nice? –She puts it in coilers.

Anyway — I’m almost sure I encountered a tanuki today. A tanuki is a Japanese animal similar to a raccoon, a badger, or an opossum. The dictionary says it’s a “raccoon dog,” but that doesn’t mean anything to you in the States, does it? I’m not talking about a “dog” of any kind. [Similarly, the dictionary says the Japanese food konnyaku is “devil’s tongue.” Oh, yeah — thanks for clearing that up, huh?]

Back to the tanuki. To see one is fairly rare; I assume they’re nocturnal, like most animals of that sort. I think I’ve glimpsed maybe one or two before in my 20 years here. What made today’s encounter so odd is that it occurred smack in the middle of the university campus.

Again, it’s not too far a stretch. Niigata University’s campus is more-or-less connected to the Matsubayashi, that intriguing, leagues-long strip of pine forest that leans away from the sea winds all along the coastline in this area. The Matsubayashi is undoubtedly home to lots of tanuki. And our campus is very woody. In warmer seasons, little lizards scramble out from under your feet if you take any shortcuts off the pathways (and sometimes even if you don’t) — and we have way more spiders than Mirkwood has, albeit smaller ones.

So, I came out of the humanities building in the very early twilight, and I was drawing near the library to pass it and the main quad, heading back to where my bicycle was parked. Today was a sunny, warm day for December. Just in front of the library’s main entrance, a paved area stretches away to the right, and a grassy yard extends to the left, in which some sapling trees stand. A student was about 20 feet in front of me, walking toward the library.

The main library entrance. The tanuki encounter happened just off to the left.

The main library entrance. The tanuki encounter happened just off to the left.

Just behind him, as if scrambling to get out of his way, a furry gray animal moved through a row of parked bicycles and into the grassy yard. There was still so much daylight, and I was so close to this thing, that I’m quite sure of what I saw. Granted, stray cats live on the campus, but this thing was too big, heavy, and roly-poly to be the typical underfed stray cat — plus, it had a distinct, longish snout — very un-catlike.

What led me to question my senses just a little, though, was how the creature seemed to vanish into thin air. No, I didn’t see it disappear. But I got right over to where it had been, which took me about five or seven seconds. I expected to have a much better look at it. But it just wasn’t to be found. There wasn’t any dense bush cover, and I didn’t see any holes in the ground it might have darted into. The library’s foundation was still some fifteen or twenty feet away — if it somehow got into a space under the building, it certainly moved quickly.

I loitered around there for another long moment, listening for any sounds of furtive movement, looking for holes or suspicious shapes — nothing.

Although the tanuki is a real animal, its folkloric presence is steeped in magic and the supernatural. So maybe this one did just vanish into the air on an early evening at the end of autumn.

Why do I tell this story on a blog about the writing life? Surely you know by now that I’m going to say we’re surrounded by enchantment. William Blake wrote, “. . . to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.”

If the numinous didn’t constantly encroach, where would we be? What would we write about?

In closing: to anyone who’s not playing the latest alphabet game, please see the previous posting on this blog! The more, the merrier — jump in!

Neo, Ness, and Places in the Reader’s Heart

December 13, 2008

By grace, this was an excellent writing day — 2,849 new words — good ones! Writing muscles do improve over time, with training and use. Back when I tried NaNoWriMo in 2005, it was all I could do to turn out 1,600 words, working hard at it all day.  Now a good writing day is 2,000 words, and a great writing day is 3,000.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Anyway, here’s a shameless product endorsement: I recently bought an AlphaSmart Neo. It’s a light-weight, durable little machine that runs on three AA batteries for many hundreds of hours. It has a full-sized keyboard and a screen on which up to six lines of text are visible. I

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

The entrance through which the bookkeeper arrives

bought this one new to replace an AlphaSmart Dana that I bought used, on its last legs, and still got a good year of use out of. The Dana finally gave up the ghost, which was actually for the best — it’s a more advanced model of the AlphaSmart which is built to do more things than I need done, and consequently consumes more battery life.

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

The balcony where Eliot Ness stands

But the Neo essentially eats power much as a pocket calculator does — and how often do you have to change your calculator battery? The Neo allows me to write in places away from my desk: outdoors (in warmer seasons), in transit situations (trains, planes, and airports), in coffee shops (I confess I haven’t tried that yet), and at other people’s houses. I don’t know about you, but I generally do my best work when I’m in a situation of controlled chaos — the hubbub of some public place, or at a kitchen table at non-meal times, with family life revolving in the background. I think it has to do with low pressure. When I’m not in my Sacred Writing Space, I’m not under pressure to create the most brilliant literature in human history. At a kitchen table, I can just tell a story, because tables aren’t for writing anyway, are they?

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

Where the bookkeeper is held hostage

At the end of the writing day, I connect the Neo to my computer with a USB cable and dump the day’s writing into a Word file. (There is also a wireless way to make the transfer, if you’re interested in that method.)

I love the fact that the Neo allows me to write anywhere I can write with a pencil and paper. And we’re talking inexpensive: including a $20 carrying case and shipping to Japan, my brand-new Neo came in at under $300. Product details can be found at www.alphasmart.com.

A Ness's-eye view

A Ness's-eye view

Changing the subject with a monkey wrench — grroooinnkk! — what you’re seeing here are some pictures taken at Union Station, Chicago, which I passed through last summer. Fans of   The Untouchables will recognize this as the location used in the famous “baby carriage scene,” in which Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his men intercept Al Capone’s bookkeeper on the station stairs as Capone’s men are attempting to whisk him out of town.

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

The setting at a distance, from the Great Hall

And grrroooiinnkk once more — it’s high time we played another alphabet game. Any takers? The theme this time is your favorite places in stories — places that you wanted to live in when you read about them or saw them on the big screen.

I’ll start us off again with A: Amity Island, the fictional setting of Jaws. Back in 1975-6, I dreamed of living in Amity, famed for its white sand beaches, and being haunted by a 20-foot great white shark. Fourth-graders don’t ask for much to make them truly happy.

Art and “The Star Shard”: Dialogue

December 4, 2008

Just a quick announcement for anyone interested: if you’d like to read some of Emily Fiegenschuh’s notes and stories about her methods, creative process, and particular joys & challenges in illustrating “The Star Shard,” there is what amounts to a sort of informal interview on Cricket‘s website. I asked Emily several questions, and she answered them in two replies at the end of her Q & A page. To get there, follow this procedure:

Go to www.cricketmagkids.com. Once there, click on “Cricket League.” At the bottom of that page, you can click on a link for “Authors’ and Artists’ Corner.” When you get there, click on “Emily Fiegenschuh” and scroll down through all the correspondence to the bottom, where in the last few letters, you can find my questions and her responses.

While you’re there, be sure not to miss the young readers’ fan art for “The Star Shard”! At the top of Emily’s page, you can click on an icon labeled “Send Us Your Artwork,” and then there’s a “Here” to click if you want to view what’s already been sent. As of this writing, there are six amazing pictures!