Jan 31, 2006

Writing folded fortunes

He read all the signs on the way home on the subway. Watching for 10-word sentences. He tried to clear his mind, he inhaled, and started to cycle through the catagories the way he had them listed in the word document at work: Love, Luck, Riches, Success, Power, Wisdom.

He tried to focus, then unfocus, then focus, the way you when you're too tired to see anymore, and he rubbed his eyes. They hadn't hired him because he was a poet. They hadn't hired him for insight, for having some knack for simple sentences or for knowing anything special about Love or Luck or any of those. He was, after all, an accountant. Before this he'd been shipping lumber from Oregon and Washington to China and before that he'd worked in a bank then he just got this job. At the fortune cookie factory.

He worked here for a year, and then for a second year and then in the third year he noticed all the fortunes. Focused on them, the little stips of paper with lotto numbers and fortunes, folded up inside the cookies. Even when people didn't eat the cookie, when they just cracked it open and left the shattered shell sitting next to the silverware and chop sticks, they read the fortune. People eating alone would read them, maybe smile, and maybe put them in their pockets. People eating in groups would read them aloud, compare them, and pass them around. They made four million fortune cookies a day and each cookie had a fortune folded inside. Sometime soon after he noticed this he read a subway sign that read Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources, and he smiled and thought it would make a good fortune.

That day he asked. No one had ever thought to ask before but he asked. First he found the president and then a manager and then the guy in shipping and recieving on the floor. Where do the fortune's come from? he said. Who writes them? The president said he didn't know but the manager might, and the manager said he didn't know but called over the guy from the back. The guy from the back was behind the boxes, when they called him, working through a shipment of dough and sugar. He had a pen tucked up in his NY ball cap and a box cutter between his lips. When he heard them he stood up, his head coming over the stack. He took the box cutter out of his lips and he said Same fortunes we've always used. Old Chinese sayings or something. Come in from the printer on Tuesdays.

That was 15 years back, when they gave him the job. They gave it to him because he asked about it. Not about the job but about the fortunes. As soon as he asked, too, everybody wondered. Later though, he would say they picked him because a fortune cookie fortune writer must have a simple mind. They knew, he would say, that I could only think one sentence at a time.

He did think in straightforward sentences, these days, but that came after he started writing fortunes. His thinking pattern seemed to slow, as he wrote, to narrow into single-phrased sentences. First he filled up one note book and then a second one and then in the middle of the third he started thinking that way, in insights and forsights and without ever thinking a paragraph or an extra clause. He wrote fortunes at night and between spread sheets and on the subway and at lunch and sometimes he'd walk around the floor between the rattle of the machines and the heat of the ovens. People tried to help him, at first, come up with submissions. But after a while they stopped or he asked them to stop and eventually people just forgot. When someone asked him what he did, too, he would say what he'd always said ever since he'd graduated, he'd say accountant. He didn't know why but there was something shy about it, like he was afraid the whole thing was a really silly affair. So he never said anything about it but it had changed the way he thought, the way he walked down the street, the way he always carried a notebook and was looking for a sentence to say something about Love, Luck, Riches, Success, Power, or Wisdom.

He began to wonder too if he'd find a single sentence, if that's what he was looking for really, in this secret obsession. Some sort of perfect sentence, a sentence that would stand out or sum up or capture fortune whole. In mid flight, like a bird grabbed out of the air.

That was 15 years. It was a little ecentricity and an obsession. For 15 years he filled notebook after notebook with fortune after fortune and then today it had stopped. It took him two subway stops to think of the phrase writers block and by then he was so tired he stopped. He put the notebook away. He took his glasses off. Folded them into his pocket and watched the graffiti on the walls without focusing, just seeing the colors.

On the way walking home he stopped at the Chinese resturant at the intersection and ordered just the won ton soup and he sat there watching people, waiting for them crack their cookies, waiting for that moment when they read it silently and then say hey look. He just sat there, sipping soup and sipping tea and watching to see people read their fortunes.

Jan 30, 2006

3 news stories I don't understand,
or, how we are all too cynical and yet, also somehow, all too naive

1. 3rd Wave Feminist Naomi Wolf "finds Jesus."
(Why is everyone so snide?)

2. James Frey's memoir is work of fiction.
(Is it only worth reading if it's true?)

3. Google is censoring China's searches.
(Is Tiananmen Square @ google.com, any less filtered and any less biased that Tiananmen Square @ google.cn? (Via Matthew Bartlett.))


"'Let the facts speak for themselves' is perhaps the arch statement of ideology - the point being, precisely, that facts never 'speak for themselves', but are always made to speak."
          - Slovoj Zizek
Nellie Y. McKay, who co-authored the first and definitive anthology of black American literature, who championed black women writers and who introduced America to the idea of African-American studies, died of cancer last Sunday.

May she rest in peace.

Jan 27, 2006

Colored memories

It was something my dad said, on the phone the other day. Something about churches and land fights and building fights. It reminded me of them even though I don't remember who they were, even though we must've only went there I think a few times, even though I can't remember.

The church was green. It probably wasn't. It was probably white or maybe possibly brown, with a steeple and steps up to the door in the austere style we call classic. Some Protestant church, bible church or community church or maybe a suburban pentacostal group, living in a building built by someone before them. It had a steeple and it was green and surrounded by a neighborhood of houses (all of them in my mind green) and engulfed in a neighborhood forest in the full-leafed summer.

I remember walking down a city block to a green church with the trees swallowing the street.

Churches, my mom would say, we've been around the block.

Jan 20, 2006

Space and words
Marking four years of blogging

There was, once, a blank white wall in Sweden. It was up next to some walk-through thoroughfare and open to the public and as they were walking by people stopped and wrote things. Sometimes they wrote slogans or sometimes sentiments or poems or insults or parables. Sometimes they signed their names or they made up names and always, everyday, people stopped to read and people stopped to write. There was no point to it, beyond that. Beyond space and words.

There was no point to it, but peopled started to carry pens and they started thinking of things to say and began walking out of their way to say it. It was an impulse. Even though they knew it was passing, that space, knew that later it'd all be washed white again and all of the words would be gone, they went. They weren't building a monument, an Alexandrian library. It was just words in public, thrown at a wall.

It was some sort of social experiment: give people space. Give anyone who wants to say something space to speak, say that speech is this free and let the only limits be that it's public, that what's written is written, and that eventually time will wipe it away. Give people space and what will they say? It's the sort of democratic experiment that always plays with swelling music in the movies and that, on a wall, is spewn out and scrawled out and is vulgar and mundane and stupid and angry and somehow sometimes brilliant. The whole uncontrollable span of it was amazing, the human mess of it, and the occasional line that reframed the world.

Four years after I began blogging, when I can't even remember what I was thinking four years back when I began, I think I now know what a blog is. A blog is nothing but a space. A blog isn't a thing, or about a thing, or a form or a genre. The only technical definition is writing put up backwards, with the last words on top and the first words at the bottom. The first blogs were logs of cyberspace, measurements of an encounter. And now it's thrown open to words thrown up. It's a stupid and brilliant mess. It's an uncontrolled experiment of space, a question we ask ourselves in the emptiness of the opening and answer with recipes and news, slogans and reports, insults and critiques, theories and theologies and stories. It's an impulse. It's an impulse that after four years has me everyday thinking about what to say and walking out of my way to find this wall. There isn't any point to it beyond the words and the blanks and the always recurring question, What'll we say in the space?

Jan 17, 2006

"I’ve been riding the tube alone. First day on the tube, riding from Marble Arch to Tottenham I started naming the people in my car. Not with names. Just with the thing I could actually know about each individual. Just to find the individuals in the mass. Man with I-pod. Man with newspaper from yesterday. Loud teenage boys. Child with blue eyes. Woman with grocery sack. Girl with red hair. Man with a red book. Indian woman with nosering. Man discussing stops and line changes with his pre-teen daughters—not from London. I’ve been playing this game for days now."
          - Valerie

Jan 15, 2006

In this manner, VI

GheuH: v., the Indo-European root word for God, meaning to call or invoke, or, in the noun form of gheu-to, the called or the invoked. Not a name or a title, really, but a description, such that prayers to gheu-to are reflexive, invocations of the invocated, calls upon the called.

I, II, III, IV, V.

Jan 11, 2006


St. James the Less, an Anglican-Catholic church, in North Philly

Jan 4, 2006

On pages
For Jeff, who became a Marine

When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books would be on the shelf, if she'd written them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who's finally found a book he once loved, once lost.

I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they'd sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 64. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left laying on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn't room for another full book and the last one I pried in trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner's cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.

The books you read, as a boy, they're about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you're a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for California oranges ripened on the tree, you read and you see things in books like you're the first one to see. You read and as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of mortality.

In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your mortality. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 48 books, last year. And 52, the year before.

If a year of my life means 50 books, then I'll read 500 by the time I'm 34. Two thousand when I'm 64. Two thousand titles I've yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.

Books I read in 2005
1 The Devil and Sonny Liston, by Nick Tosches
2 Long Day's Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neil
3 Violence and Difference, by Andrew McKenna
4 Conversations with Susan Sontag
5 Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk
6 The Dutchman and The Slave, by Leroi Jones
7 Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
8 Mothernight, by Kurt Vonnegut
9 God's Politics, by Jim Wallis
10 American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11 Standing by Words, by Wendell Berry
12 The Double Helix, by James Watson
13 On Photography, by Susan Sontag
14 Job, by Rene Girard
15 Violence and the Sacred, by Rene Girard
16 Underworld, by Don DeLilo
17 Angelhead, by Greg Bottoms
18 God among the Shakers, by Suzanne Skees
19 The Book of Daniel, by EL Doctorow
20 Girl meets God, by Lauren Winner
21 The Eclipse of God, by Martin Buber
22 The Magic Journey, by John Nichols
23 As I Lay Dieing, by William Faulkner
24 The Actual, by Saul Bellow
25 The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
26 Mr. Lincoln's Wars, by Adam Braver
27 Thinking through the Death of God, ed. by Lisa McCullough
28 Subculture, by Dick Hebdige
29 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
30 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein
31 Soul Made Flesh, by Carl Zimmer
32 Gas Station, by Joseph Torra
33 Freddy's Book, by John Gardner
34 Superminds, by Selmer Bringsjord & Michael Zenzen
35 City of God, by E.L. Doctorow
36 History of Philosophy vol. 1, by F. Copleston
37 Blondie 24, by David Fogel
38 The Creative Process, by Scott R. Turner
39 Searching for God Knows What, by Don Miller
40 Mao II, by Don DeLillo
41 History of Philosophy vol. 2, by F. Copleston
42 The Gang that Wouldn't Write Straigh, by Marc Weingarten
43 Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity, by Selmer Bringsjord & David Ferrucci
44 Under the Big Top, by Bruce Feiler
45 The Baptism and The Toilet, by LeRoi Jones
46 The Rediscovery of Mind, by John Searle
47 You Shall Know Our Velocity! By Dave Eggers
48 Riven Rock, by T.C. Boyle
Sweet talking the devil
Grad school applications

Applied to Emory University.
Applying to University of Memphis, DePaul University.
Might also apply to University of Oregon (Eugene).

Jan 2, 2006

At the count down

The camera panned over the Times Square crowd, over excited, jumping up and down all of them clambering for the dropping ball, all of them holding long and skinny red balloons like they were waiting for the clowns to come out and tie off a series of animals. It must be a really incredible view from there, the newscaster said, and the camera came in for a close-up of her face.

The three of us laughed at that, sitting on the couch in a bare beige room, the blue light lighting up the 12 green Heineken bottles laying on their sides on the carpet.

How come they all have balloons? I said.

The people cheered and kissed and waved and stuck out their tongues, mugging for the black eye of the camera moving down the barricade. The newscaster walked along backwards, facing the camera and the camera man, stretching out her microphone hand to the audience, the crowd. Do you have any New Year's Resolutions? she said. Six times she said it and the people answered - for posterity, for the nation and the fame, for the reality and live broadcast and the audience back home watching from their living rooms. They said TV things. Six times they answered that this next year they wanted, that what they really wanted was to be better people. Wanted to be better looking and better paid, to have better health and better love and better families.

Moving down the grinning crowd's line she said Do you have any New Year's Resolutions? and at the seventh question, without a cue, a man swept off his fuzzy crooked top hat and held it's fuzzy stripes over his heart, positioned to take an oath, and knelt down on one knee to the girl next to him and said will you marry me?

The camera blinked a green light live. The newscaster laughed and touched her hair. The girl looked at him, like maybe she didn't know who he was. Shaking her head a little, saying nothing. He raised his eyebrows, widening his eyes.

On live TV! said the guy next to me and I wondered what that meant. Was it worse to be rejected on TV, to be looked at like that, like to you're crazy and an embarrassment and should have seen the signals?

The lights were on, the circus was going in full happy-riot swing and everything moved except his face, frozen in pleading.

The newscaster made a desperate face and the station cut to a whites-wearing sailor happy in mid kiss. A giant Diet Coke bottle flashed 12 times on the reader board. That's sooo tacky, the girl said, at the end of the couch rolling a bottle back and forth with her shoe. I want my proposal to be... the girl said, but I didn't hear how except the word sunset, because the crowd was yelling now.

10!
9!

How come, you think, I said, they're all wearing those goofy hats?

Jan 1, 2006