Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Formal Feeling, or: Kicking the Jukebox at Heartbreak Hotel

I found my San Francisco again after I got off the 38 Geary bus to catch the 22 Fillmore, a few blocks from the first place I lived in the city. Looking up toward Pacific Heights for the 22 to see nothing on the way. So I started walking. My city came back to me in muscle memory as I strolled through the Fillmore, still a black neighborhood although much less of one than in my day. All part of the great plan to bleach American’s great cities of their flavor. But the Fillmore hung on, Yoshi’s there amidst the BID signs, and also a rib joint, guys hanging on the street, parked car thumping hip hop. Then up the hill, leaving the Fillmore behind, views into the city center, city hall, the opera, the library, no longer blocked by the Embarcadero overpass. My city came back: I’d walked San Francisco, tramped it, the hill opening the city from a thousand angles, never less than inspiring, I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I laid down those years. In drizzle I walked all the way down to the Mission, where I found myself in Muddy Waters, writing about old grief.

Almost twenty years ago I was pushing a shopping cart through the Safeway near my apartment in SF. I had just gotten my heart broken for the first time in my life (up to three now and counting…). And when I say ‘broken’ I mean I was broken: wheels coming off, systems failure, spewing oil, five minutes to autodestruct, the real Humpty-Dumpty all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men kind of shit. It was a Shuttle Challenger break up, trail of smoke, screams and pieces spread across half a continent.

And I didn’t acknowledge it at all; couldn’t admit my own raving misery. I hated her. She was a traitor. When she called, which was fairly often, I slammed down the phone (but oh how sad I was when the calls stopped coming). ‘No I’m fine,’ I told myself. ‘It’s all good. Screw that bitch.’ My house was going up in a three-alarm blaze and I kept making breakfast in the kitchen. The smoke? Just the toast getting crispy. But who were all those dudes in metal helmets carrying hoses?

As I pushed my shopping cart down the aisle in dull zombie rage, a song started playing on the PA. It was a song I knew, a radio hit from the 70s, 'She's Gone', the Hall & Oates version. I hadn’t liked the song when I was kid – I was making the turn to rock then and didn’t have much appreciation for well-crafted R&B. But the song had been on all the time, enough to infect my musical DNA, and as it hit the crescendo of:

She's gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I'd better learn how to face it
She's gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I'd pay the devil to replace her
She's gone, oh I, what went wrong…

I understood for the first time that she was gone. That she wasn’t coming back. That my beautiful California girl had bolted to LA to enjoy rich-kid life and try to launch an acting career and was already screwing the semi-successful musician she would marry and divorce. That I was left under the fluorescent lights, doing a weekly task that had been a lot of fun with her and was now a zombie plod. I hadn’t cried since before college but tears started running down my face, tears hastily wiped away, because how could I be crying in Safeway to a song I couldn’t stand, a song that wasn’t even cool?

[Part II of this post - the more 'theoretical' part, can be found at the Entasis Blog].

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Great Art Project

One of my fellow editors at Entasis is doing a fascinating art project in LA based on collaborations between poets and visual artists. Check it out.

Badlands (Call for Submissions)


“Makhóšiča”, (literally ‘bad land’) to the Lakota Sioux, “les mauvaises terres à traverser” (‘the bad lands to cross’) to the French trappers who came for Lakota furs. The Spanish called it tierra baldía (‘waste land’) and ‘cárcava’ (gullied). Wiki tells us that: ‘Badlands form in semi-arid or arid regions with infrequent but intense rain-showers, sparse vegetation, and soft sediments: a recipe for massive erosion.’ And, “…badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which impede travel and other uses.” Badlands can also be man made after mines play out and farms wash away. Nothing there for the practical to exploit but a place to stare into the sublime.

The English philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” But he also thought there was something pleasurable in the experience, like being held over a cliffside by your ankles. Shelly’s Mont Blanc perfectly captures this feeling of sublimity. I see the sublime in the Long Beach refineries tipped with fire, or in the wasteland around the UP railroad tracks in the City of Industry.

It isn’t just the outside world though, that can bring the sublime. For Burke, Milton’s Satan was a sublime figure. Springsteen (Bruce!) told us that to be real you had to confront the badlands but he wasn’t talking about a park in North Dakota. He meant ruined lives, those days, months, years when your soul looks like Bikini Atoll after the A-Bomb. I think the sublime is all over Cynthia Mitchell’s story from our first issue. It’s these different badlands that I hope we can reach in our next issue.
- RA

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Entasis Blog

Entasis Journal has a blog and my latest post takes on what goes into writing well. Of course knowing what makes good writing - or thinking that you know - is a lot different from doing it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Golden Eagles at Turtle Rock

I’ve been doing seven-mile runs about five days a week. I need the runs: not only do they keep me lean, they calm the devils and the devils have been pestering me. Most of the time I go up the hill at Turtle Rock. The final elevation gain is about five hundred feet and steep, enough to leave you gasping if you push. I usually do two loops on the hill then head back to the domain of traffic lights and SUVs.

One gift of Turtle Rock is the views – Orange County spread out from the Santa Ana Mountains to the blue decline of horizon, all the corporate towers curving roads and golden hills, Long Beach a distant urban mass. The other gift is a touch of wilderness, chaparral plants among the invasives, the shifting tones of gray and brown and dun. The roadrunners, doves, rabbits, phoebes, the rustling in thick brush. I’ve seen snakes and I’ve seen vultures. It’s only a touch, a taste of the wild. The houses lap against the hill, human stain, until the last two hundred feet.

The hill looms as you run up the winding roads, turn a corner and there it is. Yesterday as I came up to the last turn a large bird swooped into the canopy next to me and perched. A few seconds later, another bird lit on same branch, and the first bird hopped to the next tree with a squawk. I stopped to look at the bully. It was a raptor with the signature sharp curving beak. The bird was dark brown, with lighter brown feathers around the neck. Under its wings lay a checkerboard pattern of black and white feathers. These birds were large, maybe two-and-a-half feet long, with wings easily twice that or more. They were the first golden eagles I’d ever seen and I was close enough that I could see them breathing.

In the summer on a run I’d noticed a peregrine falcon perched on a power line. The falcon had arrested me in the same way, close to the life of large animal that wasn’t tame or in a cage, that had an aura of power.

The eagles hopped around in the branches and then swooped off. I saw them again as I crested Turtle Rock, fifty feet overhead, flying with steady powerful strokes. Chasing the eagles were eight or ten crows as frantic as clowns.

Entasis First Issue

Check out our new literary journal. Fantastic work.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Boxing Vs. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I've been doing a fair amount of Brazilian jiu-jitsu over the last eighteen months and I enjoy it. A lot. I like the fact that you can 'lose,' that is, get submitted, and start right over again. In boxing, losing generally involves a lot of pain. I also like the fact that BJJ doesn't give you brain damage.

What I like slightly less is the social atmosphere of BJJ. You always have to deal with other people. Classes are scheduled at regular times and even open mats call for a lot of social interaction. I don't like the structured times and places. In boxing you are alone much of the time, even in a crowded gym. Sparring is intimate but the gloves and headgear maintain a distance, not to mention the distrust and caution you need to show your sparring part.

I love people and hanging out but I've always needed to be alone a lot. Like the cafe, boxing allowed me to be alone around other people. Boxers almost always respect other boxers' privacy. If someone doesn't feel like talking, no one talks to him. You hit the bags alone. You jump rope alone. Roland Barthes called it a Jansenist sport. He was right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Harbor Freeway, Wedneday 10:15 P.M.

A sign flashes: Accident, Left Lane, Carson Street Exit
Traffic slows, shifting right.
A car speeds through the left lane, turning right just before the blinking arrow.
A flotilla of squad cars gleam along the guard rail.
At the center of the squad cars a bulge of motion and shapes:
a paramedic, a broken car, a glimpse of a plastic sheet
Outlining a human body.

[This was an experiment: I wanted to take myself out of my normal first-person narrative voice. Unfortunately the result was bad poetry].

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Entasis Literary Quarterly

I'm pretty excited to be working with some talented writers on a new literary journal. It's something I've never done before but maybe it's time to join the dark side and become an editor. The other editors are primarily poets so we're short fiction and non-fiction. Check out the website for submission information. We're also about to start running a blog for the magazine.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What My Father Thinks of Me

Every time I visit my parents, the first time my father sees me making coffee he says: 'You started drinking coffee again?'
I have never stopped drinking coffee.
Yesterday he asked me if I still took a four hour nap every night - from about eight to midnight, he said - and then wrote until morning. He said it like it was something I'd been doing for years. I had no idea what he was talking about.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How My Last Soccer Game this Spring Was Like the World Cup Final

We were in the playoffs matched against a much better team (we'll call them Spain) and spent most of the game boxed up in our end (like the Dutch). Spain couldn't finish though. They didn't have a really creative forward like Arjen Robben. I'd never seen Robben play before this cup. Holy Haysoos, he just blew by people and made the Spanish seem puny and slow.

I was playing sweeper, holding the back, shouting orders. In the middle of the second half, my team started to buckle from the constant pressure. And as with the Dutch, we lost following a ridiculous series of mistakes. First we gave up a corner kick when one of our players kicked the ball over the end line even though I was following him and shouting - 'Don't touch it! Don't touch it!' Later he told me he'd gotten drunk before the game. Then on the ensuing corner kick, one of our players tried to run the ball out of the box. The ball was in the air and he got under it - and brushed it with his arm. Even though there was nobody within five feet of him. The other team started calling for a PK and the ref gave it. The ref was blocked and it's possible that my friend only brushed the ball with his shoulder. Anyway, they scored on the PK and that was the end of us. In a game like soccer, where scoring happens so rarely, pressure almost takes the place of scoring. The more pressure, the more mistakes. You can feel the tide changing against you, and the desperation growing, and as you're only one of 11, it's hard to do anything about it. That is basically how the Spanish navigated their way through the Cup and a series of 1-0 games.

A side note: a snotty kid kept talking trash throughout the game. This was an intermural game but he kept running his mouth. I've been playing for a long time but never seen some behave that badly. I got so pissed that after the game I tried to get him to fight with me. He wouldn't stand up though, just kept looking at his feet. I guess I should be embarrassed about threatening a kid twenty years younger than me, but... Every time I go out to play a pick up game, I look for him and second chance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cobblers of the Apocalypse

I like my cobbler. He's a Korean-American guy who moved to the OC when he was 11, early enough so that his English is pure Socal. And he dresses exactly like Don Ho, in lurid Hawaiian shirts. His thick hair is swept back like Elvis and he's got great silver streaks in it.

The last time I was there he told me that when he came here, he was the only Korean kid in his high school. 'And there was one Chinese girl,' he said. Things sure have changed in the OC - probably two thirds of my students are first or second generation East Asians.

Then he started asking me if I thought the world was on the verge of a big change.

What kind of change? I said.

I don't know, he said. But don't you see the signs? I mean, all kinds of things are happening all over the place. War, destruction, market crashes, environmental problems. It's kind of like the end of the world.

I guess you're right, I said. Let's just hope it happens when we're dead and gone. [Apres moi, le deluge].

I realized then that I didn't know anything about my cobbler.

No, he said. I want to see it. I want things to change.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tom Paine Wouldn't Go to Their Tea Party


(Approach shamelessly heisted from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature).

Common Sense dares Americans to take the next step. In thought and action. It was written during a time of rebellion. Lexington. Concord. The military occupation of Boston. Colonists, not yet Americans, wonder what they should do. They resent the invasion. They resent the taxes and rough treatment by the British government that preceded it. Yet they don’t know what form their opposition should take. Even though they are Swedes, Irishmen, Germans, Dutch, Frenchman they feel a connection to Great Britain. It represents the world they or their parents or their grandparents left. They read its books and treasure its crafts. In the French-Indian War a decade earlier Britain was the older brother and her redcoats fought side by side with the colonists in their homespun. Yet Britain is now treating the colonies like a resource, something to be used, to be exploited. The redcoats now point their muskets at those they fought beside, brothers no more. The colonists cannot decide what to do though. Reconciliation? Capitulation? Or…something else?

Thomas Paine has no doubt as to what that something is. Paine is not the first person to see the possibilities of his New World, specifically the 13 colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. He is not the first person to imagine an independent country there. Nor is he the first person to wish for an end to the bewitchment and privileges of the old order with its kings and lords. What he is, is the first man to say that there is no other option, no other option for the brave. Thomas Paine didn’t invent the idea of a new America but he makes us feel it. What he does is tell his fellow Americans, all American for the first time, that the idea of America is no longer an abstraction but something that has to be realized. Immediately. That there will never be a better chance than the one before them.

Common Sense has an edge. Paine wants to sever ties, to chop through knots of temporization and doubt. The method of argument that Paine uses comes out of the skepticism of Voltaire and Montaigne. In his hands it is acid. It burns through the moldy notions of the divine inheritance of kings. It corrodes the supports that still connect the old and the new. Custom is his enemy as much as the British. Custom and the constriction of free thought (Paine talks a lot about commerce but his most important commerce is a commerce of the mind). Paine says: we are not like them, the citizens of Europe, not anymore; this place has changed us. They don’t understand us so how can they rule us? His weapon was made by the Enlightenment but it is not Enlightenment skepticism alone. Paine believes that men are born good. For Paine men have been deformed by custom, by habit, by the crowded nations of Europe and their ideas of heredity, by history. What he opposed were, in the words of his friend William Blake, ‘The mind forg’d manacles.’ There was a hell for Paine, but we had created it. America was the place where we could escape it. He doesn’t talk about America as country but as a continent. A continent big enough for difference.

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated

- The Crisis (1775)

Paine, the son of a corset-maker, can write. This is prose that draws on Shakespeare and the Bible, with a directness that comes with a new American vernacular. He is writing in a language that any person of soon to be countrymen could understand. Even people who weren’t literate – and many weren’t in 1776 – could appreciate Paine’s sweep and dramatic oppositions. Common Sense could be read to indentured servants in a storehouse. A man could stand up on a beer cask in a tavern and sway the hearts of rough workers. All the binaries are there in his ferocious attack: old/new, monarchy/republic, crowded/open, despair/hope. These are the terms that would come to define the promise of United States.

Common Sense is propaganda. High level propaganda but propaganda still. Paine doesn’t dwell on the issues that would threaten his new country: slavery, Indian wars, states rights, growth. He hints at them but it is his belief that the revolution, now, will give the only chance of overcoming them. It was left to others, writing for different audiences, to explore the threat of America to itself. Blake, like Paine working-class, the son of a stocking maker, confronts the horrors of slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion. St. Jean de Crevecoeur does the same in his ninth letter.

In later life, Paine referred to himself as ‘a missionary of world revolution.’ Forced out of America he returned to England, where he was hounded out of the country by government agents. In France, he became a deputy after the revolution, only to nearly lose his head in the Terror (the American Embassy did not try to save him: he wasn’t an American citizen!). Finally he was allowed to return to the new country he had helped to make. Like Blake, his brother in temperament and idealism, Paine died obscure and alone. That’s what happens to permanent revolutionaries, ones who are lucky enough to die in bed, anyway. Only six people followed his hearse, including two freedman and a Quaker. The cause for his ostracism lay for the most part is his deist beliefs. To Paine, God was a distant abstraction, at best (in this he was most unlike Blake, for whom God was a reality that burned in us all).

American exceptionalism has been debased many times in the last 220 years. After the Iraq War it’s hard not to see America as so many millions in the world see her: as an oppressor, a colonizer, a country that sees the world as something to be used. In 2010 it is difficult to understand just how astonishing the revolution was. Just how important the American contribution was to world history. Paine helps to see again the possibility in America. Common Sense, 235 years old, can still make America new. A country that still accepts immigrants by the millions. That offers, in its internal logic, if not in its reality, the possibility of justice.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Scene from My Second Novel

One of the only ones I can still read without getting depressed.

Isn’t this stuff great, D? Jimmy said.

He nodded. He couldn’t move his tongue. Or maybe he could but only thought he couldn’t. What if he tried to move it and it wouldn’t move? That would be even worse.

Do you want another hit?

He shook his head, no. He had never noticed how truly strange Jimmy’s face was, a face compressed and gone bulging out in a dozen directions. His mouth - filled with hundreds of tiny, sharp teeth. Alligator smile.

They were on break on their guard shifts at Columbia Presbyterian hospital. The hospital buildings dominated Washington Heights. He could see their flags from the window of his apartment – enormous American flags rippling in a stainless blue sky. The hospital ambulances kept him awake, at all hours racing Broadway in motorcade for the fallen. Through Interstellar, he had taken odd shifts at the hospital for years.

Jimmy rolled down his window and tapped his pipe on the window ledge. The pipe was painted flat black and carved into a death’s head. Jimmy loved the pipe; it was all Damien could do to keep him from showing to the nurses.

I was telling you about that scene from Evil Dead II, right, D? At the end it turns into this kind of…circus of horror. The main guy, he’s chopping up the dead with a chain saw that he attached to his arm where his hand got cut off. Remember, I was telling you how the hand got cut off? That he had to cut it off, cause the dead took it over and it kept trying to kill him? And it still kept trying to kill him, even cut off. Anyway, he uses this chain saw to cut up the evil dead that were actually his friends once and this…stuff, comes spraying out of them.

He looked at Jimmy’s eyes as he spoke, doll eyes, ebony and bright. James Reilly was a long-time Interplanetary guard and the reason the company couldn’t keep a regular on the shift. James was the borderline type you so often see in security work, famous for his acts of random violence and stupidity. He came from the old Irish neighborhood around Dyckman Street and had graduated from cruising the Heights blowing out windshields with a wrist-rocket to shooting rats and pigeons on slow guard shifts with an automatic. He was ordnance happy and took pleasure in discharging a shotgun into holes he dug in his backyard. James had flunked out of the police academy, been institutionalized twice and drank whiskey on the job from a silver flask. He rode the subway at night with a pistol in his jacket hoping someone would trouble him. Although he made Damien nervous, Jimmy liked working with him because he was Irish, as well as the only other white guard under fifty at Interstellar. And it was only a few blocks from his apartment.

So after he kills the evil dead demon/god (but he doesn’t really kill him) he gets thrown into another dimension which is like a King Arthur world but...

We have to get back, Jimmy, he managed, This has been a long break.

Actually, he had no idea how long the break had been. A different, much younger man had stepped into the car.

Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll loan you the movie though, D. I have it on tape.

He left the car on shaky legs.

I have Visine, D. You want some Visine?

Yeah, he croaked, I need it.

They split up at the door to the Emergency Room. Jimmy liked to work the ER for the horror and bonded with the cops circled around the disasters. That left Damien to make rounds and do the escort services for the pharmacy and subway. The arrangement suited him. He didn’t like the ER. Once he’d seen a paramedic lift the hand of a burn victim and have the skin peel away from the hand like a glove. The attendant doctor had convulsed with hysterical laughter while the paramedic fell to his knees and vomited beside the dying man.

At his guard post, a nurse stood leaning against his desk. She glared at his approach. He hoped that she was looking at someone behind him.

I’ve been waiting for you for over twenty minutes, she said. The criticism caught him like a club between the eyes. He resisted an impulse to crawl under his desk. Then one to grab her by the throat.

I was on break lady, he said, slavish and sullen.

Break? You guys don’t do anything. What’s the break for?

She was young and pretty, Spanish, with brown hair tinted gold and skin the color of creamed coffee. Her good looks made him hate her all the more.

Okay. Walk your own ass to the subway tonight.

Look, just forget it. I need to go to the pharmacy.


If one of the nurses wished to fill a scrip after the hospital pharmacy closed, she had to call for a guard. The logic of this regulation baffled him but he did not question his good fortune. She signed his log and he followed the nurse down the hall. With hate and lust he watched her hips wagging in white. He heard her rubber heels smack tile. She was small but her body stretched the fabric of her uniform. He had a sudden fantasy of pulling his gun on her in the pharmacy, of lifting her white skirt and raping her on the cold floor. He imagined that she would like it.

After he unlocked the pharmacy door, the nurse went into the shelves to fill her scrip. He went to shelves on the other side of the room to fill his order, quickly cramming his pockets with D’s and V’s (Demerols and Valiums), Percodins and Percosets. Downers mostly, downers scored him points with Clark, nothing better to cut the edge at four a.m. He knew right where to go, had mapped out the situation years before. As he worked, he was careful to keep aisles between him and the young night nurse.

Two hours later, the same nurse stood before him asking to be escorted to the subway. He pretended that he hadn’t been dozing. The confusion of his early high had become a drooling stupor.

Okay, let’s go, he said and lunged to his feet.

Look, she said, I’m sorry I snapped at you before. We’re understaffed and I’ve been on for twelve hours.

It’s okay, he said. Her voice had a street singsong that made him ready to forgive her anything.

They went through the main entrance into a humid night. The subway station stood only two blocks and one avenue away from the hospital but a nurse had been attacked on the way home the year before. He no longer thought of his neighborhood as dangerous but he’d never been a woman. At night, cars from the Jersey side clustered around the tenements near the George Washington Bridge in search of the forty-dollar grams of high quality cocaine. He saw the kids on mountain bikes with pagers and the burly enforcers outside the hot houses but it was only a fragment of the neighborhood and it didn’t touch him. For him, the Heights was at its summer best in the Dominican men sitting in chair circles that spilled from courtyards and the line of laughing teenagers on the park wall with forties in their fists.

A tough shift, hunh? He asked. He saw how tired she was, face taut beneath her fine young skin.

You don’t even know. I have exams coming up and I’m here four days a week. They cut one full-time nurse position so now the rest of us have to do even more.

They walked in the night and concrete. His eyes sandpapered dry. She barely came to his shoulder and he wanted to talk to her but his brain was clouded. He felt the electricity of her. He couldn't talk to her. He was wearing polyester and his pockets were stuffed with prescription drugs. There was nothing he could offer her. He was thirty years-old and what did he have? Nothing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Irvine Voodoo

Last night someone knocked on my door around 11 p.m. As I was idling around in my boxers, I didn't hurry to answer it. When I did, I saw a tiny neighbor of mine with her even tinier daughter, and a thick-bodied middle aged one. My neighbor started talking in her clear high voice. She doesn't have an accent but is obviously not a native speaker.

I know you have a cat, she said. We see her in your window. I was wondering if we could use your cat for something.

I stared at her, wondering what exactly she wanted to use my cat for. The middle-aged women nodded and smiled.

My daughter has this problem with her eye, my neighbor said. I looked at her gurgling daughter and saw a sty over her left eye. My neighbor kept talking.

My aunt is visiting us, she said. My aunt says that if we rub a cat over my daughter's eye, this thing will go away.

The aunt continued to nod happily.

I shrugged and went to get my cat, which I handed over to the aunt. She took Wheezy's tail and began to rub it over the child's eye while chanting rapidly in Spanish. When she finished chanting, she returned Wheezy.

My neighbor laughed.

I don't think it will hurt anything, she said. And who knows?

We said goodnight.