Sunday, February 24, 2008

Petrified of Chairs

I have a character named Buck in one of my stories who died in old age in his rocking chair while he sat out on the front porch of his rural Northern Appalachian mountain home. His children did not know quite what to do with him and they left him there on the porch through seasons. In time the body desiccated and dried out and the brother and sister determined in order to preserve the chair with Buck, as well as his memory for his grandchildren if any should ever come along, that they move him and the chair into the house. This was a delicate task and encumbered arguments between the siblings as to if they valued the chair or the deceased father more. Nevertheless, Buck and the rocking chair were in time sequestered near enough but not too near to the wood stove where the collection in time attracted dust and mismatched marbles in the eyes with one short stub of a #2 pencil wedged in the left nostril and spidery webs. With all neglect of housecleaning as occurred in that domicile eventually the corpse of Buck became inseparable from the chair.

Recently I have come across two likewise preservations of characters, one literary and one historical.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Polish poet, from A Russian Tale:

“In the end the tsar our little father died for good. The bells rang and rang, yet they did not bring his body out. Our tsar had grown into the throne. The legs of the throne had become all mixed up with the legs of the tsar. His arm and the armrest were one. It was impossible to tear him loose. And to bury the tsar along with the golden throne — what a shame.”

Translated by: Czeslaw Milosz


The second account is a story associated with Ann Lee, Mother of the Shakers.

It was 1780 in Massachusetts, USA at a town midway in the state called Harvard (not the University but a small town) where there had come up a Christian sect called Perfectionists that was led by a fellow by the name of Shadrack Ireland. He was something of a David Koresh, Waco, Texas kind of guy that his followers called 'The Man'.

We recall this history every time someone jives at us, “Hey, you the man!”

Anyways, when the Man got it into his head that a transformation in his mortality was eminent he informed his followers that he was not to be buried because he would rise again on the 9th day. He figured it sincere, and they believed, when he said, “I will be back.”

Then he died.

“They barred the Square House against outsiders, and watched the body, still seated in its chair, day and night. Unfortunately it was the height of summer, and after a few days it became necessary to carry the corpse down into the cellar, where in due course it was placed in a coffin and then, in Edgar Allan Poe fashion, bricked up. Several months later all hope of resurrection was abandoned.”

“Two of the Perfectionists, Abijah Worster and David Hoar, eventually broke through into Ireland's cellar tomb, and took his body out into nearby field, just southerly from the wash-house (the precise recording of the location suggests a lingering wish that some good might still come of the tragedy), They buried him in a cornfield, and then, still in the grip of the paranoia that had taken hold of the cult, replanted all the corn afterwards so that the where­abouts of the body could not be determined.”

From: Ann The Word, The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, The Woman Clothed with the Sun, by Richard Francis.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

An I for an Eye?

"Don't you think that modern authors are not willing to vanish--that they so desperately want to be part of the story. Yes? No? Maybe so?"

And my response:

There are different flavors of 'I'. The I that I like is the one wears a mask. That I that wrote that is no longer this I. What mask was that? This I reads that I and wonders who that I was. Though this I that pops up here so insistently likes to play with meta-bursts where the I mimics and pretends to evoke real time communication... as you read this I am writing this but no, actually, I am driving now in my truck to the fish market but you cannot see that because I left this message for you at the time it is marked and now it is not me here speaking my I to your I. The modernist technique of removal of the I from the narrative context of the text is as inauthentic as to push the author's I into your face... but my you is not you as your I is more you than it is me. Then there are those narrators who are simply liars like a trickster. I am not actually in my truck going to the fish market.

So the other day on the way to the fish market I could not remember Heidegger 's name and got it confused with Heisenberg... could remember there was an 'H' there somewhere.

But by the time we had completed the fish market run I remembered Heidegger and also vaguely remembered why I had got confused with Heisenberg.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the statement that locating a particle in a small region of space makes the momentum of the particle uncertain; and conversely, that measuring the momentum of a particle precisely makes the position uncertain.

If 'I' is a particle then obviously it is confused whenever examined, particularly when self-examined as to where.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is often associated with the term 'observer effect' that refers to changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed.

Then there was the entire question, "Why would anyone in their right mind worry about any of this on the way to and from the fish market?"

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Not Quite There

podcast, audio reading

You do not have to READ anything, you can listen. There are no swear words or obscene images used by me in this audio podcast.

Or if you are inclined you can read the words below and then download the podcast and listen --

Since Tuesday, September 13, 2005 my friend the novelist Paul A. Toth in Sanibel, Florida has been doing podcasts that feature readings, music and interviews of contemporary writers. I am very pleased to be featured on Saturday, February 9, 2008 as the guest author on Tothworld #122.

The piece that I am reading is a work-in-progress titled Not Quite There that centers on the main character of Stoney Quarry. The story is followed by a brief commentary.

Listening to the Podcast:

1. An I-Pod is not required. Any PC or Mac will do.

2. Go to:

3. On the main site, right-click the "Direct Download" link for the episode of your choice and save "file," "link" or "target" (label depends upon browser) to desktop.

4. Double-click the downloaded file. Listen using any media player.

5. I-Pod users should drag the file into their appropriate I-Tunes folder or subscribe via I-Tunes.

6. See the archive for older shows.

Toth's first novel, Fizz, and its successor, Fishnet, are available from retail outlets and major online bookstores. He has read in venues across the country. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories. Toth's story The Pop Lady Comes on Wednesdays received honorable mention in The Seventeenth Edition of the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, ed. by Ellen Datlow. He has guest edited for Opium Magazine and Word Riot, worked as a fiction editor for Small Spiral Notebook, and is now a fiction editor for storySouth. Toth is currently working on his fifth novel. His audio work, which often combines story and music, has been widely published, and he produces tracks for Mad Hatters' Review. Two short films, Fizz and Knotted, have been based on his work. The latter was a semi-finalist on and an IFilm Plus Selection.

I first came across Paul's acquaintance several years ago when he was guest editor of Opium Magazine, an online e-zine that intended to feature humorous literate work. I must have met that muster as Paul selected my piece Assam bin Dork to publish... the ezine has changed format and there is no online archive. Since that initial foray Paul and I have bounced around as minor co-conspirators behind the scenes at Gator Springs Gazette.

I had dropped out for at least 2 years from paying any attention to creative writing and online relationships with writers, my writerly friends or otherwise, in focus on 'the business at hand.' Recently I have got back into that swing of my life; we will see how long it will be sustained before business calls again. Paul caught me in this open space long enough to ask if I would contribute to his podcast series.

I dusted off my computer audio equipment and fussed with it and recorded a poem dated from 1976 that had been published as a letterpress broadside by a friend, now long lost touch of, in Chicago, Roby Liscomb of Fathom Press. I was not exactly very happy with that audio recording. I had to get a new sound card (I went for a cheap one at WalMart as the very expensive one I bought when I built my last box fried itself within the first week of service), and my 'good' mike needed a bit of tuning.

A brown-cloth work glove wrapped over and held in place with a rubber band helps immensely on the mike to reduce the irritation of loud S noises... worse now since the front tooth that I broke when I was 19 by hitting myself in the face with a mortar trowel finally decided by 50% of its area – a noticeable chip -- to defenestrate my mouth into the bathroom sink and too quickly went down the drain. I could have gone after it, but I hate plumbing work.

And then there was the need to update my audio editing software. In the mean time I was listening to previous Tothworld podcasts and it got stuck with me to revisit an on-again, off-again project, Not Quite There. Despite the risk that some friends might assume that it is autobiographical; I sat down and wrote more, re-wrote, and then recorded and edited an audio recording that caused me to re-write more. And here we have it. All those years of commuting and listening to Tibetan gong music may be paying off?

And, once the podcast was broadcast my son and I discussed the story and I am off rewriting it again. I intend to kill off the protagonist in the first few pages, let him starve to death, and see what that feels like.

If you do happen to listen to the podcast then first sit back and enjoy the music (not mine), it is kool, I think, and then if you survive to the end please send me a quick note to let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I was not raised to swear. Can't blame it on my mom. Actually rose in a fairly tight fundamental Methodist-Baptist religious environment. Though as a young adult and older adult my career has been close with the working construction trades and with them I learned to swear quite well... and I have no inhibition in doing so other than to be polite in public most of the time. I am sharply aware that what I would feel free to say at home or in the bathroom is something that I would not say in public. I am known as a polite person with quirks.

When the computer breaks I swear quite a bit and usually my wife comes along to ask me if I am ok or not. When I get to that point I am fighting the biorhythms of the physical world that cascade down into a seemingly endless rotation of dysfunction. I don’t particularly like it when my tools break and I let them know. I don’t see it as blasphemy as I’m not certain the connection of any particular suprarenal deity to our technological extensions. I usually see it as me against these damned toys.

In my environment of the vulgar working class I have often encountered quite foul talk that was either racially or sexually offensive and usually from folks who had no sense to think they were being offensive and when confronted would vociferously defend their right to free speech as if it equates with the right to bear arms... and in fact in most cases they were rather able to be creative in their use of words which for a word smith can be refreshing... but mainly what I found out was that the best way to shut these folks up was to take what they were saying and exaggerate it back at them 10 times over. From that they would think I was nuts, better than thinking other possible things (like wanting to beat the crap out of me for being a book reading sissy) and the next time they were inclined to sound off they would think to keep an eye on me and likely they would say less.

For example in reaction to the testosterone induced male penchant for talking about various oral sex practices I developed a story about my love to sneak into the Washington Zoo on Sunday nights to play with the hippos. A lot of detail about the scummy water and all of it delivered with a straight face. Rarely would I be asked to elaborate any more details when I finished with that riff.

I got onto this in part from one day on a rest break on a job site a few of us were joking about chickens and our colorful Sicilian friend went on quite seriously, and with absolutely no sense of self consciousness or embarrassment, telling us with great affection about his favorite chicken back home. She even had an affectionate name. He also had a way of driving that included hanging out the window and screaming at all the babes that we passed that he wanted to do it with them. His passionate chicken story though -- that shut us up.

And there was the mystery when I worked at the salt mine the day the otherwise inarticulate quiet guy whose job it was to load bags of salt onto the boxcars was arrested we were told for inappropriate intimacy with a local farmer’s cow. The farmer having made the complaint. It had never occurred to me up to then that such things happen and it seems to me in retrospect much less a sin to belch out a few offensive words here and there. What words does one use when one gets caught out in the night field doing that?

As to chickens I take note that the Ayatollah Khomeini put in writing strictures as to the edibility of chickens that one has had sex with. It seems you cannot eat the bird in your own house, neither in your next door neighbor’s house should they eat it, but it is ok for the house on the other side of your neighbor to do so. I suppose this is the Iranian equivalent of “No Chicken’s Behind Left.” So much for our modern global political climate. We should not be so much worried about what the Iranians are doing with nukes as with their chickens?

I also worked as a young adult for several years for a colorful stonemason, an avid white racist, who used some fairly original swear words and from that I got a desire not only to expand my foul vocabulary, but a lifelong ambition to improve upon it. When folks in my environment go for swearing... and the F word really does get kind of monotonous real fast (the image of eFing donuts is the one that always gets me laughing) I encourage them that I do not mind if they swear one bit as long as they make an effort to be creative and fresh about it.

I rarely use swear words in anger, though as I am in the construction business and in New York the old school of construction was to really tear into the other folks around, constant verbal whipping and as they say to tear everyone a new A-hole. I learned that art quite well and took to it with a hearty vengeance... enough to lose friends over it who did not understand the underlying violence and tension that drives one to build tall buildings. The gist of the practice is that when attacked, attack back harder and don’t hold tension, spread it around and make everyone be motivated out of a desire to get away from the BAD person as quickly as possible.

On the day that I quit smoking I threatened a hardware supplier’s life that I would come visit them with an axe and tear up their office, desk and furniture and whatever if they did not get the Effin hardware to the jobsite within the next week. He was an old man and I should not have done it, but I did. At that time and in that environment I was well rewarded for my efforts. It took me several years (like 20) to get over that and to get enough distance to understand it for the cultural environment that it is. [Watch out for the Effin upper West Side bred Irish in NY.]

I am reminded of a public television program about the building of a skyscraper in which the project manager tells one of the subcontractors that the subcontractor is his whore and will do what the effin project manager tells him to do. That abusive approach to the work environment in the construction industry is the tip of a very giant iceberg that looks very dark and brown underneath.

I was working on resetting the restored Carrara marble front of a fireplace at the oldest house in Hartford, Connecticut and as I fiddled with the pieces I was talking to them. I honestly do believe on a gut level that the stone hears what I am saying and that if I talk to them they will do what I want them to do. I was having a bit of a problem getting the very tight 1/16 to 1/8 inch tolerances on the joints that I wanted. The fireplace had been driven into by a young fellow who came to the T-intersection and jumped the curb and drove into the house shortly after it had undergone a full restoration. Hartford is the American capital of the insurance industry. The insurance companies paid for the first restoration campaign voluntarily, and they paid for the second involuntarily. To bad for them, they take it out of us all anyways which is a good reason to swear. The young fellow did not only not have a license he was not insured. Anyways, there I was telling the stone to EFFIN move over a bit would you sweet baby whatever when suddenly I realized that the pleasant female docent who was usually ensconced in another room was standing behind me. Oops. Nothing like getting into your work and blanking out the surrounding world.

Talking about young folks… I have a poem that uses the word shit in it – it is the only on-the-edge-word in the otherwise disgusting poem -- and a 16 year old poet has informed me that it is very difficult to say the word shit in a poem in public and that though he considers the poem an ok attempt that if I work at it a bit longer I might be able to get it shaped up into something worthy. His poems remind me of 18th century spinsters with the trots, but so be it. I suppose I could tell him if he works at it a bit he might be able to say shit in public without feeling any qualms about it.

For a few years I was working on a set of poems called The Crude Hymns of Neanthus. Neanthus is the dude stole Orpheus’ lyre and tried to play it but was so godawful bad at it that the dogs came and tore him to shreds. Too bad it is mythology and does not happen some days these days in reality which may say something to why poetry is not as socially relevant as it used to be... not quite as entertaining as a gasoline filled flaming tire around the neck while you run around in a football field to roars of applause at your demise. Yet, those poems are actually meant to be mildly unpleasant. Folks I find have trouble understanding this reversal and they tend to confuse the message with the personality of the speaker… as if I actually mean badly writ poetry unpleasant in contra pose to the stream of confessional poetry in our literature.

One of the more moderate of the collection:


Pouring out words,
barking spiders,
never thought to be safe,
forgetting to measure and weigh,
unguarded they clung
burrs, thistles, cacti spines
to the mitt of that bastard --
who backed off a safe distance,
porcupine breath that he is,
having less semen than his mother,
then suddenly struck a blow,
spit a fond kiss, out-of-sight,
from behind with a clump
of mud, stone, and swamp weed.


I have a situation currently where an architect on a project is in the habit of calling the ‘more sensitive’ parties to the project and using foul language to berate them into thinking that they are more stupid than him and should therefore obey his lesser stupidity. I seriously consider that he does not take to calling me as he may sense, and rightly so if it is the case, that he would get something much more difficult in biting words to deal with back at him. I am not adverse to sarcasm, something I was weaned on (best served cold and to the jugular), and cutting to the quick of the emotional bone. For me it is a joyous indulgence that can easily lead to an outright addiction. What do they say about the art of discourse? The strength of that technique of verbal abuse, though, is in that for all general appearance I am a person of more than usually good spoken vocabulary and modest of demeanor and word. A phone call would never be on the record, as it would if I wrote what I think, and it would be an odd situation for him to complain to anyone as to what I had said. I would counter this by being very friendly to him when next I see him in a meeting and ask him if he got his little problem worked out yet.

I once had a project where the owner hired the largest law firm they could get their hands on to write a custom construction contact that the large law firm passed down to the most junior idiot they had on staff. Now, in construction there is a long history of contracts and for the most part an AIA (American Institute of Architects) contract is more than sufficient, everyone knows what it means and the interpretations have been grilled over umpteen million times in the court of law. So the need for a ‘custom’ made construction contract is a bit daft, particularly if the lawyer drawing it up has no experience in either construction or in law.

Though I could very well have interfaced directly with this young whippersnapper I ended up paying our lawyer approximately $10,000 to be in the middle because quite frankly I was worried that I might actually come off and say what I thought and skunk the chance of our getting the project. I would tell my lawyer – an extremely competent and experienced specialist in construction contract law -- what I wanted in the contract, and they would do the polite talk with the younger compatriot in their profession (I like NLP). In the end we got a contract that was very much in our favor… we don’t do business out of charity. It was a large enough project, $600,000 range, to absorb the cost and I put legal fees into the cost so in the end the customer paid their lawyer, and my lawyer, both, for what could have been done just as well for $5.00. It was a cost they paid that kept me from swearing.

I have a business associate that I work with closely and every once in a while we start out our phone conversations by calling each other, shouting at each other, as vile a set of sexually and socially unpleasant epithets as we can muster... after a minute or so we end with, "Do you feel better now?"


Obviously we are laughing the entire time but I fear for those, in this day of the cell phone, who get to overhear our conversations. Not for this reason alone do I try not to use the cell phone on the train, in book stores or at libraries. This swearing at each other does take out a whole lot of tension from our working lives. We have this shared bonding experience of quality time. It gets us to the point of the business of the call a whole lot quicker than pleasantry over the weather. As my friend shows various symptoms of ADD (in him it is one of the qualities that I admire and aspire to emulate) it also helps to keep him and me on point.

Lastly, I have a short story about a pheasant hunt that I feel is one of the best that I have written that I suspect gets rejected over-and-over by ezine publishers because of the foul language the two brothers use against each other. It is this 'affectionate' vulgarity that is in essence the bond of tension between two brothers. It took me two years to write the story, and it is two years now that it keeps getting rejected. I have looked at it several times to try to figure out if the vulgarity can be removed and each time I come away stronger in the conclusion that the intimacy of the vulgarity -- it is actually how friends or brothers on a pheasant hunt do talk with each other -- that is inseparable from the heart of the story.

My desire to pheasant hunt, as well as the story, was inspired by Tolstoy. I am not a hunter by any means, but having read Tolstoy's Cossacks as a teenager I have always wanted to go on a pheasant hunt. As an adult, and through business I have done it several times. Eventually I got a nut in my head to write a story about it.

Out of curiosity I did write a story one time in which I substituted the word WAFFLE for every time the character would say F. It has an interesting appeal and always makes me feel hungry for breakfast.

Let it not be said that I do not think about what I say. Thinking never seems to have prevented me from saying anything that later I wish that I had not.