Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I Would Prefer Not To

Over the weekend, my husband had a summer cold and was in a comfort movie mood. We ended up watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and I ended up singing wahwahwah for the rest of the weekend. As you probably are, if you remember the score. I'd never seen the entire movie; bloody combat and grotesquerie are not my particular narrative preferences. I sat down to ask a question, stayed for a plot summary and then for the shocked fascination of Clint Eastwood being led through a desert (cringing in sympathy--my childhood could be organized in terms of sunburns and false tanning hopes).

The thing about coming to the movie now is that it refracts through all of the rest of the media I've consumed, a perspective I'd never have had at eight or whenever it was on the regular Saturday afternoon movie rotation. As a small example, I've been playing Elder Scrolls lately, a fantasy RPG that encourages resource allocation through looting. This is just a practical matter:  I have every gore slider in the game turned to "antiseptic" and I loot whatever glows, post-combat. So encountering a scene that demonstrates what that might actually look like (when The Ugly loots a CSA stagecoach full of bodies) both turned my stomach and made me think:  this is just a convention in the game with zero narrative weight. Vanquished enemies are your WalMart. 

Slowly, the grimness of the battle scenes in TGTB&TU, which were portrayed without any of the CGI hero light (or fake dimness), in gorgeous sunlight, in terrain that fought against the characters as impersonally as they fought amongst themselves, began to get to me. I started to think about the battle scenes that I've seen recently, in fantasy movies full of dimness and hero-light, and I suddenly understood the desire for a story like Game of Thrones. This movie, as dull as I found the pacing, refused (generally...everyone had great teeth, The Good had his cool gunslinger look back by the end of the movie) to give me polished, one-size-fits-Hollywood people in every scene.

Pain had weight and was never far off.

Because of this, perhaps, the movie felt...not necessarily real, but as if the characters and their actions were actually happening, affecting the story and me at the same time. I couldn't "escape" the gut-level impact of scenes under the rubric of 'entertainment.' Perhaps this is part of the reason there is an argument for why "unrealistic" fantasy is reductive and too conservative of the status quo. Maybe some of the stories that I like let me off the hook to easily, providing a weightless alternative space where actions aren't painful and therefore characters have an escape into perfection, immortality, a glimmering fay-reality.

Or maybe not. I don't want to see another example of the very real misogyny of our current political system and then pick up The Handmaid's Tale, for example, and tumble right into a pit. Stories don't have to do one thing, don't have to be one thing. I need to know just how much weight I can add before I am immobile and to understand that weightlessness is also a form of immobility.

This slow interrogation of what I see, what I read, and what I write has, so far, resulted in a creative inertia--I'm afraid to put something on the page, worried I haven't thought about each aspect of each word, character or scene enough, and that I am running right toward some kind of existential complicity with a genre of which I'm no longer completely sure. It has led to the exact immobility referenced in the title to this piece, one that I hope will eventually give way, either to silence or speech.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Creature Feature

Hold Your Breath

Breezes in the house carry the scent of candles of water into the stillness caged by the creaking of the papasan chair frame, you remain on a perch of blankets, listening. Frogs are singing in what remains of the afternoon's rain, still creeping through the grass in the backyard. Earlier, between a heartbeat and a power surge, the compressor failed. When the a/c stopped, the entire house quit breathing. If you close your eyes, you can feel the other houses, lights on and breathing to themselves, stretched along the block. You're afraid that if the a/c restarts, you will vanish, the house's fever dream.

You get up and open all the windows so the evening can reach in, can sigh across your elbows as you kneel in the kitchen, closer to the frogs. Everything is bright and drowned, the sun already dissolved. Water smells like grass smells like rain. It's a night you could cast off, catch up with the storms sweeping inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

The wind rises and you glance outside to see the tomato bed floating on a grassy puddle, pots with pumpkins and mouse melons lashed by their vines to the corners and tomato cages, wasps buzzing sleepily as everything rocks.

There's a lurch and you look up, over the edge of the fence. Just beyond the edge of the neighborhood, elephants wade in long grass and floodwaters. A trunk curls up and you hear the trumpet. There are no elephants in Texas. You clutch the doorframe as the breeze rushes over the fence, between the slats, sloshing through the kitchen.

Strength catches the house from its concrete pad, shears it and shapes it, like hands passing underneath. It was broken in the first surge, the power flooding the lines. You slip over, catch the window frame, sink to the floor. Another trumpet, like a siren, at the edge of the woods beyond the houses. You can hear a creek rising, but you can't name it.

The tomato bed bumps the house. You lean out the window, grab the edge of a pot, tangle vines around the window frame. A line of toads lean against the sides of the garden boat, among the mint and vines. One salutes you.

You gasp when the house slides down the yard, the shallow keel scraping the sidewalk. Now you can see the other houses, tight to the weather, lights gleaming. There's a soft bump, the edge of the house bouncing off the oak tree in the front, and then the house skims down the street, coasting on the breeze.

You know you're heading to the elephants.

The house settles into a channel that might have once been a drainage ditch. Dark water or thick breezes, the night holds and breathes for the house. You realize the frogs are still singing, a chanty about snakes in the drowned grass, from mouths just poking out from the edges of the plasterboard lining the back of the house. You hope it isn't that kind of flood. Where are you going?

None of the neighborhood lights reflect in the rush the house rides. Shadows and scents chill your wrists, splash against your elbows. Flickers appear, strings of lights that form tents--but only in the water.

The elephants in the moonlight are half wireframe, up to their shoulders in water and grass, moving slow in the weeds and winds. Beyond them, carnival lights drip upward in the clear cut area where the new houses will go.

The house slides past them. You hear a shout as the tall grass catches the house. "Tomatoes!" The toads are tossing tomatoes to a floating swirl of discards, lit by the old lights in the water. You lean against the wall of the house and take a deep breath, let the wind breathe for you, too.

Not Always the Heart

They’ve built out the seating area upstairs by the cooking school, concrete floor and tables like a promenade deck floating above the deli, above the wine racks, above shelves of staples, tea to pasta to crackers. It’s the kind of grocery that wants you to see each specialty space. And she’s early, so there’s an empty table in the middle. Away from the railing. She sits.

Rain, conversation below, rain. A grey light shifts in the upper row of practical windows piercing the upper edge of the wall. Rows of cables and industrial lights push light into the racks below. It takes heartbeats and shifting light and the feel of solidity vibrating against the soles of her feet before her breathing relaxes into the space and she realizes that there is no one else in the balcony.
And then one of those practical, square windows pops like a bubble and the vibration shivers from the sky into the pipes, along the railing and into this thin floor. Her palms hit the table and then she pushes the chair back, bends to run to the edge and then he’s standing there:  blank space, generic shadow, hollow mean of what a human form could be. No skin, no features, only shivering space and the suggestion of someone.

She lets it convince her.

“Thren.” The floor trembles, the railings hums. The voice, that name, echoes down her forearms. The figure’s hands lift, apologetic. “Sorry, it takes…space…takes waves…to get me. Let me...let me be still.”

And so she waits, hips leaning against the edge of the table, knees tight, skin colder than the air conditioning.
One of the pipes is loose and she realizes music is leaking from it, pop songs dripping and pooling on the concrete, staining the figure with sundogs that branch and flicker along its legs. “We have to play it." He steps sideways, away from the puddle of canned music. "You remember?…strings from the body. Music that comes from sunlight on a rock you’ve never seen in air you couldn’t breathe. It takes a body. You understand.”
But she doesn’t. Of course not. She knows only the words to the songs that are bleeding and fading on him, words leaving bruises. Melody simple as the décor. Still, she can feel it, in her stomach. The vibration that is both his form and the space through which he’s come. Maybe it's the thump of blood that makes her nod. Railing that reminds her of staves and bars.
The floor heaves and cracks and the lights jump. The rain and thunder sluice through the upper balcony. She screams, terror pulsing through her. Certainties break, concrete snaps—his name swells into Threnody—and he makes the fall, her fall, buckle, heave her upward. A single note high and strong enough to last as long as it needs to.
She falls into her chair, shaking and silent. Her stomach aches, vibrates. Music falls against her shoulders, rain from a foreign sky. Her gut plays the fall over and over. Somewhere else, a chord plays, strong and sad.

Friday, May 19, 2017

2.5, Suburban Standard

"This was the week we planned on..." A gauntlet to the chances and fates, no? This was not the week we anticipated having our compressor fail, nor was it the week we looked forward to camping in the kitchen and den, the two rooms that the portable a/c unit we'd purchased after the last a/c failure is able to keep cool.

Take a deep breath. Crappy, discursive sentences aside, it has been a week that reminded me of all the ways that houses are built to function singly--for one particular type of family (two adults, no more than four children), for one physicality (healthy), for continuous provision of electricity. Half of the house is already humid and silent, two days of disuse rendering it odd and unnecessary. The television has been mostly left silent and one of us has made a dent in his reading list. The other of us has spent several afternoons with the dogs in the backyard, watching the tomatoes and mouse melons change colors and following the spiders and crickets and whatever those nasty orange bugs are creep through the jungle that is the vegetable bed. The zombie pumpkins are billowing out of the sides of one bed. This morning, a female cardinal landed on the fence, watched us sitting on the hammock, and then dove into the garden for a snack run.

If I go into the back, intending to work on a project, I'm caught by the stuffiness and the smell of the house reminds me of relatives' houses on summer vacations. Those houses had thinner walls and I remember the curtains moving. You kept the windows open to let the air flow. You served hot coffee on summer afternoons and the adults sat in the kitchen, close to the coffee and the cool tile. If possible, you turned the kids outside.

I was a reader--it was hard to get me outside but it wasn't hard to install me in a quiet room with a book. For a little while. Eventually, the stillness would get to me and I would go outside just to move around and chase the breezes.

Some of that restlessness returns with the stuffiness. I want to open the windows, but I'm asked to shut doors and close curtains and to be careful if I want to go sit in the back of the house, where the coolness is not but the silence behind the fans is thick and damp and happier when undisturbed. The house wasn't built for this. It would prefer us to go outside.

Friday, May 12, 2017


It's been almost five months since I last posted and it seems right that this is the lead post away from that silence. There were several personal goals and deadlines that I'd set for myself during the beginning of the year:
  • Stop blaming the negative drag on my mood as remnants from the election
  • Finish a story I'd begun for my husband
  • Finish the poetry book I'd been inspired to start last year
    • Before the recent local author book festival
    • Before the beginning of May
    • Before the first half of the year was gone
    • Before this meeting and then that meeting
  • Outline the duology about suburban magic
  • Outline a vampire novel about a vampire who decides to give up the faith
  • Actually decorate for my husband's birthday
  • Finish the short stories that would serve as the introduction to the book of poetry
  • Finish just the one short story featuring a monkey
  • REALLY. Sit down and work on the monkey story.
  • There is a story. About a monkey who wrecks a woman's ability to enjoy stories once upon a time. FINISH IT.
  • Forget about the monkey story.
  • No, you're not going to work on that story.
  • Crap. Okay, one page hinting at the theme of the monkey story. In this tiny notebook. And then stop.
And then I picked up a book by an author whom I've met and looked at it. Looked at the back, where the blurbs sparkles like bubbles down to the edge of the dust jacket. Looked at the cover, looked at the table of contents, weighed the entire book in one hand, thumbed through the pages. Thought about all the work that had gone into that book. Asked myself whether goals deferred and goals unmet meant goals that I no longer believed in or cared about.

Seriously considered that what I really wanted to be and do was something else and that writing was always a second choice.

Once upon a time there was a monkey who could see that some things--stories, dreams--were alive in a way that animals are not. It wanted to know what they were made of. All it needed was a room and two little kids who would believe in the buttons and dials and Jacob's ladders of a lab long enough for the monkey to see through to the bones of the stories and a few tame stories.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


I am going to eat it. Everything sparkles around the edges of my vision and yet the golden bug floating just beyond Minerva’s shoulder gleams as if each scale on its wing is lit separately by a thousand suns. It looks delicious.
I hold still. There is eternity and there is this pose. Minerva has the profundity of a goddess, exact in herself, exact in her consideration of the point the artist has given her, beyond the butterfly, beyond this second, through the portrait itself. She has an icon’s immobility, holding a pose for the painter standing on a scaffold. The butterfly has come into the impossible second Minerva has derived for the painter, too deep or wide for Chronus and his stuttering insistence on wax rounds, ticks, atomic decay. Everything is chopped fine in his salad universe.
Minerva has promised this painter immortality for a painting and she has granted it—this second in which time does not move, although the painter breathes and mixes his paints and slides that brush across the canvas. And now a gilded butterfly has come into eternity, which she is welcome to spend in my belly.
Can I allow a butterfly to shine brighter than Minerva? Wisdom overshadowed by gold? I cannot.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not a Review of C.J. Cherryh's Angel With the Sword

I finally finished C. J. Cherryh's Angel With the Sword yesterday, barreling toward the end as various boats and bridges caught fire or were swamped beneath the prow of larger vessels. This is my first venture into the world of Merovingen and although it wasn't necessarily the right book at the right time for me, it did eventually pull me in and stay floating in my thoughts for several hours afterward. I wanted to know what happened next and I was curious enough about the world to go through the appendix material and various maps at the end. Altair Jones' constant consideration of her situation (which had led to a general recommendation to read the book at a writers' group) made her a character that you could still feel lurking, considering her next move, after the book was over. Although, truthfully, she wasn't much of a lurker in the book--that mental conversation doubled her character slightly, so she was both active and heroic and shadowy and reckless at the same time.

It also led to the question--what if I had discovered it at the right time? If I had read this around the time I read The Hobbit or The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper...if I had encountered Altair rather than Frodo. In the middle of making notes for a draft, the question of why fantasy and whither narrative strikes more forcefully than usual.

I think about coming to a book like Pilgrim's Progress and loving it for the cracked spine, the line drawings in the chapters, the feel of the dry pages against my skin, knowing I had to take care of the physical book itself as I read it. Later, coming to Tolkien's books and having to be judged old enough to read them with care. In my current household, the same consideration would go to my husband's comics, of which I am very careful without particularly loving. Care is its own kind of veneration, I suppose.

This leads to the question of what fantasy does, what kind of escape or care it provides to the vanished and the magical and the forgotten. Am I reaching backward toward something that feels lot, trying to gild something that was never worth it? Did I discover books in accord with a preservationist, nostalgic character or did I become so because these are the ideas that I encountered that swallowed all others?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Er...What is Crawling on My Ankle?

Good morning/afternoon/evening! I'm back at the picnic area, enjoying the cool breeze that comes with cloud cover and the will it/won't it grey of potential rain. Wind in the oaks sounds an awful lot like rain, actually. And things (such as leaves) will fall on you. Probably still safe for the devices, though, right?

Today there have been more,larger bugs at the table. At least one carpenter (?) looks like an ant but moves fast. And it's maybe half an inch long? So far, it's explored the water bottle, my keys, and, just now, my ankle. As it turns out, ankles carry significantly greater risk of minor crushing injuries...although in this case, more sweeping than crushing. It seemed fine. I'm sure it's fine.

I don't know why sitting out here makes me so solicitous of the insects. Perhaps a mild form of Writer's block? Probably the same reason I'm facing the parking lot, so I can see all the people who are jogging and feel completely sedentary trying to write around the ants and whatever that thing is that looks like a crawling chunk of concrete. And that jet engine masquerading as a bug.

In front of me is a circular concrete pad that used to have a small grill bolted to the center. Crawling concrete and former grill pads in the chape of tiny saucer-landing platforms should spark something...combined with the guy who is 'jogging' while catching up on his phone calls. Guess that's just modernity, though. Aliens who encounter too many blasé people? People who aren't really interested in first contact but in better phones and hey-what-kind-of-cool-tech do you have?

Maybe the aliens aren't interested in us, either.

I'm sure the bugs would prefer a clear table for hunting and whatnot, if not sloppy patrons with scavengable trash. All I have are pens and paper, which I'd prefer to not have chewed while I' Is there something on my ankle again?