Monthly Archives: September 2012

Trash sonnet (shout out to Bud Glory)

A couple weeks ago someone left a Pyrex liter measuring cup outside the apartments across the street. I was tempted to take it to keep it from becoming trash. But, whoever forgot it might soon remember it, so I left it. Of course the next morning it was broken. Now the street has this instead. It’s slowly being pulverized into smaller and sharper bits, and has already spread back up the curb-cut onto the sidewalk my dogs and I cross to get to the dog park. Our own little Peter Greenaway film, with real injuries.
Last week on Doctor Who Amy and Rory were home between adventures, cleaning out the fridge. Amy smelled an old leftover, wrinkled her nose and tossed it. I think this act will become a dramatic shorthand for the 21st century, as cigarettes are for the 20th, six-shooters the 19th.
Shout out to prolific profane poet Bud Glory!
I’m appalled by how much garbage I make,
haunted by wrappers, boxes, plastic trays,
bags of vegetables (organically raised!),
yogurt cups, the styrofoam with my steak.
A coffee drink comes with a cup, straw and
lid — I buy three a week. Catalog stores
ship boxes, packing peanuts, more
clothes and computers. My old PCs stand
dusty in closets, now too slow even
for charity (which still accepts old clothes).
Soap pump-bottles, toothpaste tubes, all trash when
they are empty. Whatever I buy, I dispose
of some part. I know better but want trumps
reason. All my desires end in dumps.
It has unhinged me. It’s a craziness.
My shame at my trash won’t leave me alone.
If I throw away one can, I atone
later by recycling two more. A mess
of sports-drink bottles near the basketball
court, lonely beers forgotten on the curb:
uncapped mouths, pleading for rescue. I’m disturbed
and getting worse. Soon the children will all
point. “Neighborhood wacko. Picks up trash.” Not
enough, alas, to ever compensate
for what I’ve thrown out. It will never rot,
never disappear or evaporate,
my garbage. It just sits, useless, inert,
somewhere out of sight, buried in the dirt.

My Dad Mocks My Solar Panels

Last week my dad came over for dinner and afterwards I excitedly told him that the solar panels had started working. I was not quite prepared for his reaction. He mocked me. Words like crazy, stupid, ridiculous, and that old standby, oh, sure.
I’m still trying to figure out why. I suppose I could ask him but after the initial reaction I’m not so inclined.
It might simply have been my enthusiasm, an inviting target for any grumpy person. Like any boy I like my toys, but this one doesn’t depreciate by half when you drive it off the lot, nor does it get obsoleted in a year by a newer slimmer, faster model. This toy makes electricity from sunlight and it will do so for thirty years. If you have something more magical than that, take the time to phrase your wishes carefully before you rub it. (Not to mention it will even reduce my air-conditioning bill by its very presence — every photon of Washington summer sun that hits it, doesn’t heat the roof below.)
It might have been the cost. I bought a fifteen kilowatt system, a monster by home standards — even after the generous federal and state rebates, it’s a Jaguar. But it pays for itself in seven years. Solar panels are much cheaper than they were ten years ago (the real reason Solyndra went bust, should you ever be arguing the point — it’s hard to sell newfangled gear when China’s state-supported industries halve the cost of old-style gear), but even with the current generous government rebates they are not cheap.*
It might just have been the wine. After heart surgery he’s not the drinker he was.
Still — it wasn’t any gut level reaction against greenness and virtue (or if it was, it was left unspoken, and I sure didn’t make the mistake of adding that to my argument). My dad is neither early adopter nor luddite, and usually he can tell the difference between a boondoggle and an investment. So what gives? It’s not an idle question. If even ten percent of people feel like my father then that’s a whole lot of solar panels people in temperate areas won’t be using; that’s a whole lot of electricity people will be getting from fossil fuels.
And we both know, gentle reader, it’s more than ten percent.
I’m starting to wonder if it sounded too good to be true. If my dad reacted the way Jack’s mother did when he sold the cow for magic beans, if he flashed back to all those childhood hours I spent watching Star Trek and thought, “oh, no, not this again.” Computers were one thing — you could touch them, see them, you could print out what was on the screen. Phones, well, you can hear the other person. A solar panel is not directly measurable with five senses. It doesn’t roar or smoke or even vibrate. It doesn’t even move like a wind turbine. It just sits there.
But we need them. Every roof needs them. Power rains down on us minute by minute and for the first time in history we can use it directly, the way every blade of grass does. It’s time people start believing in magic. Wal-Mart does; why not you?
I wish we Americans believed in it to the point that we helped our fellow Americans make it ourselves instead of buying it from other countries, but I’ll take Chinese magic over American coal. Magic is less polluting.

*If you are considering solar panels, look into leasing, which for most people is the better deal. You get cheaper electricity; the leasing firm makes their money by selling the green-ness of your panels to utility companies as Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SRECs.

Jesus’s wife and the weirdness of patriarchy

So Jesus might have been married.
Whoop-de-do. Son of a God who never picked a female prophet; who never chose a female disciple; who didn’t seem to think it a big deal to have his feet anointed by a woman’s hair — would have made a difference if he were married?
Maybe it would have. Maybe it did. Jesus was already challenging local religious authority, and materialism too. Maybe he was an activist for gender equality; in a religious tradition where only two sacred texts were named after women (and shy retiring ones at that — assassin Judith only got brought in by early Christians), he wouldn’t have had to go very far to be one.
I am neither historian nor religious scholar, but the Abrahamic religious traditions are so monolithically patriarchal that it beggars belief, save as the result of millennia of censorship so active and complete it would even impress North Koreans. Apocryphal gospels — ones not included in the Bible — make Mary Magdalene much more of a player; there is even a Gospel of Mary. In the canonical Gospels, Mary Magdalene is less important than the love interest in most action movies — and even then, Pope Gregory still went out of his way to label her a whore, six centuries after the fact.
Either women are completely useless in the realm of the spiritual — and, really, how likely is that? —  or they were made so by leaders threatened by their power. I don’t mean their feminine wiles either — I mean the inherent differences between the genders in matters of thought and spirit, which have their roots in biology but have their expression in life. These differences are still going on — as I wrote this I listened to yet another discussion on the “gender gap” in the Obama-Romney election. I’m not saying one is more right; I’m just saying, we need both.
The deep-seated patriarchy in modern Western spirituality needs serious attention. Even in these days of growing political and economic parity, women are still being shut out of the guidance of our minds and souls, to great and I believe disastrous effect. At the very least it leads to skewed priorities, as we see from Catholic authorities more concerned that nuns advocate against contraception instead of for the needy. The 9/11 hijackers were rigorously kept in a male-centered world; Mohammed Atta didn’t even want women at his funeral.
Maybe this curious piece of papyrus might light the way to a discussion of just what the women were doing in Jesus’s day, and what they might do for us now. Something needs to.

Anonymous, but not ephemeral

I’m reading Parmy Olson’s book We Are Anonymous about the notorious yet not-well-understood online/hacker movement/lark. It’s a journalist’s book, clearly written in a rush, but fascinating. Also, to me, inspiring and heartwarming, which was probably not the author’s intent. When Olson describes the misfit kids falling out of the real world into the looking glass of 4chan, where the grossest of insult and the nastiest of porn coexist happily with the most destructive of code, I doubt she considered it might be someone’s happy trip down memory lane.

We had no Internet when I was fifteen, but we had a network — of rude t-shirts and engineer boots, of vinyl albums with crude black&white art, pricetags in British pounds, songs saying horrible wonderful things. Johnny Rotten’s snarling contempt, Jello Biafra’s amused disdain, Minor Threat’s guerrilla righteousness, The Feederz’ … just, the Feederz. Fuck were they nasty. I couldn’t even find Feederz recordings on The Pirate Bay, and that’s saying something. Feederz was /b/ before /b/ was /b/.

Épater les bourgeois, my cosmopolitan mother would sniff: shock the easily-shocked. (But even she loved London Calling.) It wasn’t just the rawness. You didn’t have to agree with the leftist politics of Crass and Rock Against Reagan, you could squirm (though you’d never admit it) at the layered brutality of “Holiday in Cambodia,” but it was grounded in the real world, for a change, even as it rejected conventional wisdom.

But yeah, it was the rawness too. You didn’t have to be anything but young and weird to enjoy escaping suburbia for all-ages shows in the city. I got mosh-pit bruises back when they called it “slamdancing.” I stage-dived at a Circle Jerks show and I didn’t even know what a circle-jerk was (and didn’t quite believe it when I learned). Though DC’s “straight edge” no-intoxicant ethos didn’t keep me away from drugs, harDCore kept me away from the Grateful Dead long enough for Jerry Garcia to die, and I am very grateful.

Of course we grew up, we mellowed out, we saw how big the world was and how tough it is to change it just by shouting. My youth is now a very worthy Kickstarter project. “Marriage is when we admit our parents were probably right,” Billy Bragg sang. Perhaps the same things will happen to the Anonymous. Perhaps repeated exposure will drain the pus from their aggression. For my parents, flaming skull tattoos were the fearful armor of bikers; my son had a Don Ed Hardy baby-onesie. Maybe my grandchild will look cute with a Guy Fawkes rattle and an apron that says “diaperfag.” It’s an old story.

But this time it might be different. Punks could at best inspire others to act, usually by making more culture, and mostly harmed themselves. They could work jobs too shitty to get credit-cards, but couldn’t close down credit card sites — and banks are a lot harder to mess with than utilities. The newspapers talk about the coming cyberwar with China, but no one’s suggesting what seems obvious to me — that some kids might engineer a home-brew Day The Earth Stood Still, where hospitals and homeless shelters have power but the rest of us don’t — or just shut down the water supply, for the lulz.

Anonymous is an outsider art with root access to the infrastructure of modern commerce. People involved in it and central to it are often marginal in real life — people under poverty, people in remote locations, people trying resolve identity issues, people who are just not right. The arts have always been a path for outsiders in; Gatsbys with gumption make their way from low circumstances to power and even philanthropy. But there was a structure and a system to accept these people, even if it didn’t welcome them.

Today’s elites no longer stand on stable ground, especially if they keep reusing the same passwords on all their logins (and they do). Thorstein Veblen predicted the engineers would eventually run things; I just don’t think he expected so many of them to be self-taught, capricious, and angry.

I hope to give my child a good solid life, a two-parent family, answer his needs and most of his wants, even the frivolous ones — in other words, give what I had. But I also hope to give an awareness that there is more, and that more will come: from people not so lucky, from places not in plain sight; things that just aren’t right until they are, things that won’t ever be right. The Rules of the Internet are brutal and strange and funny, and they may be the rules of our future. I need to help my kid keep that in mind. And so do you.
We need to watch out, in the best and the worst ways, for the people we don’t see, the people rewriting our world — Anonymously.

Shout out to The Coevas

The Coevas are a group of Italian writers and musicians — they call themselves a “band literature,” and that’s how they write, as a group under a single name — who spin crazed sexual dreamy prose like William Burroughs cutting up Jean Rhys channeling Orpheus.
I need to get more of my own novel excerpts up so they can see how much we have in common — except for prose itself since I write nothing like them — but, angry women, mythic creatures, desperation, and Italy: we’re like twins separated at birth. They even blog-rolled Szymborska’s “Woman’s Portrait,” a poem my mother loved so much she took it on herself to translate it for me before she died.
Also I shout because they are my best online marketing class — they were the first writers to find my site and follow it, and it looks like that’s how they’re getting their word out, talking to one kindred spirit at a time. For a long time the Internet was the information superhighway, with all of us locked in our own subcompacts trundling along listening to crappy DJs and bad commercials. Now it’s a train station cum block-party for us bloggers, and The Coevas pointed the way for me. Thanks!
Hi Coevas! Rock on.

Buying a Philip K Dick book (almost totally true)

Friday night after my son went to sleep, I walked up to Dupont Circle, to buy a Philip K Dick book as a birthday present for my friend V___. I gave her a copy of my novel too. It’s a rash and adolescent thing, to include one’s own writing along with Philip K Dick’s, but I did. Got punished in advance.
It was a warm summer night and I was dressed sloppily, shorts and mocs and a black T-shirt with a Triumph car logo over a Union Jack.
As I crossed P Street, a brown-haired white man blocked my path, clipboard in hand. This happens weekly. Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, US PIRG, Human Rights Campaign, all panhandling for virtue. But, I stopped.
“Excuse me,” the man asked, “but do you know where I can find an optometrist that is open twenty-four-seven?”
I looked him over. Isthmi of sweat on his black polo shirt. Gray jersey sweatpants in this heat. No non-profit badge. Crazy? Tourist?
“No,” I said. “We’re too liberal for a Wal-Mart around here. There’s an excellent hospital just a few blocks –”
“Yes, but I need an — I need, you know –”
“An eye doctor?”
“Yes!” he said, entirely too relieved that I understood him. Then the design on my T-shirt completely absorbed his attention. “Excuse me, but are you British?”
“No-oo. If you need a hospital, go down to 23nd Street and left five blocks –”
“But would they have any way of treating synethesia?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Drugs, maybe? I need to go –”
“Oh but thank you!” he said. “I really feel you helped me out. Is there some way I can recompense you? I don’t have –”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just pay it forward.”
“Oh! Well. You know, I wish I could but I don’t have a sixth sense or anything?”
Ha. The Sixth Sense and Pay It Forward both starred actor Haley Joel Osment. ‘Method in it’ maybe, but I take the baby monitor after ten PM, and no one wants to be some sweaty loon’s Polonius. I walked away.
He shouted after me. “Don’t you think there should be seven senses, at least? Like, one of humor?”
One day non-profits will attack street performers for pissing off the bleeding hearts with schtick. Andy Kaufman was lucky to go first.
The bookstore was big and bright. I had hoped to buy my friend V___ a copy of Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, about an alien con man using a virtual-reality hallucinogenic chewing gum to become a messianic cancer. (Read it before you buy your wife a genetic upgrade.) Alas the only version in stock was one of four novels, in a staid black shrinkwrapped hardbound Library of America edition.
Doubly problematic. As a gift, one novel is thoughtful, four is peremptory. As a giver — OK, bear with me. I collected Philip K Dick books in my high-school days, long before he became respectable. I searched out all his yellowed paperbacks in any used bookstore I could find across America and Europe, less to own the complete set than to read his every fevered word. I am very glad he is being preserved for everyone on acid-free paper now, but for me, a Philip K Dick book without a luridly-colored cover misses an essential part of the experience, like an espresso in a sippy cup.
Of the others, the best choices were VALIS and The Man in the High Castle. I read pages of each. Both are gnostic texts, separated by two decades, showing Dick’s progress from a writer obsessed with the hidden to an ecstatic to whom truth was revealed. In The Man in the High Castle the Axis won World War Two, but one writer uses the I Ching to discover his world is a false one. VALIS is a thinly-veiled fiction of the visions Dick endured in the 1970s, which (after diagnosing his son’s inguinal hernia, which doctors missed) revealed a veil of false time had been drawn over humankind since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 72 AD/CE, keeping us from the return of the Messiah.
I went with VALIS, mainly because it’s a more desperate novel, and also because it had a Roberto Bolaño blurb which would speak better to V___.
On my way out I saw the guy with the clipboard, heading to the children’s section, talking to a bookstore staffer. He spoke with a British accent now.
Some books just leak crazy, irrespective of space and time. An essential part of the experience. I walked home wishing what I’ve wished since childhood, that I could write half as well as Philip K Dick did without suffering quite so much. I worry that I can’t. I worry that I already have and missed it.

Dark Consciousness

I have decided to come clean. I am not an atheist.
People who note the Abrahamic and Gothic mythologies behind my first novel, might be a little surprised to hear I ever thought I was an atheist. Thing is, they’re my mythologies too. I’m as entitled to use them to tell my difficult tales as the wonky Athenians were when they took up PTSD through the lens of oracles and furies.
But I thought I was an atheist. I evolved (I mean, a priori). I’m embarrassed by human religions, all illogically animist, perniciously tribal and desperately placatory. The bit in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where the school choir sings “Oh Lord, please don’t burn us / Don’t grill or toast your flock”? Nutshell. I’ll give Christ points for trying but he got disillusioned hard — I suspect more by the carnival of Palm Sunday than the crucifixion that followed. Building your church on the guy who thrice denied you to the cops, and calling him your rock? That’s one bitter parable.
But I digress.
I just can’t in good conscience call myself an atheist anymore. It’s not even conscience. I recoil in my gut. It’s not merely how self-satisfied they are, from their eloquently brutal public advocates to the know-it-all kids in so many blog comments. It’s that they think they’re just as cosmically right as theists, and they’re not. There is more to heaven and earth, as Hamlet says. I know it in my bones, and to tell me I am wrong to trust this knowledge is as much a con as what the religious try to sell me.
I’ve been checking out agnosticism, which is slowly developing its muscles (and thanks to the wonderful Aldous, I’m open to any idea that comes from a Huxley). Again, the terms of debate all seem to rest on God’s presence or absence. Why must it be so reductive? Why begin with a God, a monolithic spiritual source — or its absence? Even matter changes rules from the very small to the very big, and “matter” itself seems to be a subset of things-that-are-not-energy. Such fecundity and contradiction in things we can see and touch, yet the immaterial is or isn’t in just one way?
I am declaring my own path, and maybe I’ll find fellow travelers. Here’s the map:
I know there is something beyond the physical. I don’t know if it moves mountains but I believe it moves crowds. I believe one day we will have words for it and a form of evidence-based science to explain it — at least as much as our little primate brains can hold. One day maybe our robots will intercede with it for us, as they do with planets now.
I suspect it is, or is found through, an emergent property of humanity or consciousness, just as consciousness is an emergent property of the systems that regulate the disparate organs of single living things. Or not, or also: maybe a kind of life encompasses our own, as we encompass E. coli; maybe it inspires us to write holy books and seek oracles so we treat each other nicely and don’t poison it.
And, sometimes, inevitably and probably usefully, it gets nasty and horrible in the worst ways, echoing and expanding the damage of our own puny venal selves. As all our burning hydrocarbons make tornadoes and hurricanes, as supernovas kill their own worlds and make new ones.
Something is there. What it is, I don’t know. I am OK with that; I even think it a strength. I can contemplate it without preconceptions. I can break bread with the religious, in its generous spirit, learning the peripheral truths of their myths, without being bound by miserly dogma — and without the burden of contempt.
Something is there. We have only known about dark matter for a couple of decades, and all we know for sure is that without it, the universe doesn’t hold together.
Call this, dark consciousness. I believe in it. I have faith.

Progress Report

I’m sorry to have gone dark the whole summer but I was busy. We’re building a house, my dad had heart surgery, we even had a vacation — but mostly, I’ve been working.
With the huge help of star editor Kathryn Johnson I finished the third draft of my novel, retitled it (another post to come on that alone), and got some marketing pitches ready for the amazing grueling AgentFest, a speed-date of three-minute pitches hosted by ThrillerFest in New York City.
ThrillerFest was somewhere between a game change and a Hail Mary for me. I wrote a literary fantasy about globalization, not the most natural fit for a thriller convention, but it worked.
As a science-fiction fan, I know and respect genre writing, for the devotion of its fans and for the energy of its writers. It makes for a powerful combination. Genre is the farm-team of literature, where what the literary-minded will read in a decade is going on right-right-now. See Cormac McCarthy for Westerns, Neil Gaiman for fantasy, William Gibson for increasingly less fictional fiction, just to name three. (We already live in Philip K Dick’s world, of course.)
I also engaged the publishing world on its own tough terms and not in some fantasy of gilt-edged pages and brandy. You get that later but only if you get yourself out now. Agents have narrow specializations but they are not capillaries; if they can work a paranormal thriller, they can sometimes work a meta-paranormal-thriller — if it’s worth the reading.
And, I learned my book was still too long. I had already trimmed a lot of fat and rearranging the chapters got rid of some scaffolding. But the writers who generously shared their time, both at and away from the lectern — big thanks especially to Steven James — made it clear that publishing can be as brutal about size, as modeling. There’s no one piece of writing in my novel I valued more than getting published.
For the last six weeks of summer I cut a minimum of thirty words a page. It added up to 19,000 words.
Sometimes it was easy, albeit humbling. A robot needs to know that opening the door requires turning the knob first, but a person doesn’t. The This of the That became the That’s This more than I care to admit. Sometimes there was just some fine metaphor that alas wouldn’t get a character to the next moment worth tweeting. Once in a lucky while, I found some bits that were still confused or plot-holed, and the work was no longer shaving but sculpting.
It’s done now, and another post will detail the surprising post-partum depression behind those three words. Of course it won’t be “done” til it’s on a shelf or an e-reader following a transfer of funds, but I’m now finally at the point where the only reason agents won’t like it is because they don’t think they can sell it.
For the next month I am finally making this blog into a thing of substance, and sending out a whole lot of queries. Wish me luck and come back tomorrow!