Aug 31, 2009

The organist's applause

Her feet find all the pedals. She finds them, knows them, taps them and plays them, heel and toe and here and there, right, left and right, moving and taping without even looking as the organ exhales this sound she makes.

She plays. She sits at the organ in the loft where she has been sitting and playing for longer than she's ever done anything she had a choice about. She owns the organ, not the papers but the wood and the metal, the keys, stops and pedals. She is a mother, but before she was a mother she was an organist. She is a student, but she played the organ before school and will play it after too. She is a Lutheran, does yoga and likes yogurt with her cereal; she lives in the Weststadt, drives a Peugeot and owns a calico-colored cat, but she is, more than anything, an organist.

When she sits up there her feet dangle, like a child's from a tall chair, and she cannot see the church behind her, below her, except for in the mirror where she watches for the pastor's raised finger for a sign to start. She plays the intro, and the opening note for the chant for the psalm. She plays the hymns that everyone in the congregation knows, with her hands stretched wide over the keys and her eyes, always, on the notes she knows go dah, dah, DAH duh-dah. She plays what is written, except that she adds a little opening flourish she learned from an opera that no one here knows, and even though everyone is singing, for her the organ is like a secret. She alone faces this alter, knows the mystery of this instrument before the sound, and when the preacher looks up from the congregation to look at the pipes that look like a labyrinth, a manifestation of a hermeneutical maze, he finds she is already gazing there.

But then at the end, after the last song listed on the bulletin, she plays. She plays a solo. Something that she wrote, or maybe made up right there. It starts like a coyote chasing a roadrunner off of a cliff and then comes through, crashing through to the other side and there are bells there, a million bells where each is raising up and reaching out at an idea that is too perfect, too abstract and anyway slips away. And then it comes down low, like a heating-up bellow, like the sound of a whale swallowing water, falling like a somersault slowly through salt water, and also there are here people running, the sound of people running, faster and faster, running, more and more people, running, people running to see why and where all the people are going and then: the sun. A melody. A clarity. A shining simple song that seems like something everyone always knew. Like an echo of knowledge of contentment.

Her feet know these pedals. Her hands know the keys. They know the smooth places they have made smooth and the spaces in the song where she can pull out two stops and push in three. She turns the page. She stops. Her hands she folds in her lap. Her feet pull away from the pedals, and she crosses her ankles. The people, who know nothing of organs and the intricacies of Wagner and Bach, who know nothing of the three staves, polyphony, plein-jeu, or the sonic-foot, who know nothing of this instrument except, really, the phrase "pull out all the stops," they raise their hands as she puts hers in her lap and they clap. They applaud. She is the organist, the only one who prays this prayer, the only one who owns and understands these sounds, the only one who lives in this loft and plays in the dark church during mid-days. The people know nothing of this, but they applaud anyway, and she smiles, and is happy, and smiles like that applause means everything to her.
The view we don't view anymore

"I never much liked the book, and when I was done I was in a bad way. I wanted to burn the book. I'd wake up in the night and I'd hear Hemingway's voice -- I've never actually heard Hemingway's voice, but it was conspicuously his -- saying, 'This is the small agony. The great agony comes later.' I'd get up and sit on the edge of the bathtub, chain-smoking until three or four in the morning. I once swore to the dark powers outside the window that I would never, never again try to be better than Irving Wallace."

John Cheever, in the Paris Review.

Aug 28, 2009

Between the thing and the horror

Here's the thing: Robert remembered the act. And he remembered saying on the phone that he didn't mean to, didn't want to. But he couldn't connect them, connect those two events in his mind. There was this gap.

He thought about it a lot.

Sometimes, when the TV was on, he would be watching it and he wouldn't even know what he was watching. A guy would say, man, what you watching this for? and he wouldn't even know what it was they were saying he was watching. He would just be staring. Sometimes he'd listen to the air conditioner going shhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhh over all the talking of the inmates, bitches slouching around in jumpsuits and untied shoes, and shhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhhhhhh over the COs, the clenched-up Correctional Officers who were always talking into radios, and he would be thinking about it. That gap.

How long was it? A couple minutes or an hour? How was it he couldn't remember? How did he get out of the house and over six blocks in the dark to where he was when he called the police? He didn't know those streets. Why was there this gap there?

Robert could imagine what he'd done. What he must of done. He could reconstruct it in his mind. He must of gone out the front door. Maybe the back, but the front door would make more sense. He must of gone out, unlocking it from the inside and leaving it open and walking across the lawn. He didn't get in to his car, probably because he didn't get it dirty. And he must have walked the one way because it was away from the streetlight. He didn't want to be seen. The streetlight must of been on and he'd have walked the other way, so he walked that way, probably walking dazed, like he was shocked, and not really looking where he was going but just following the street. He went up to where there was a park, and then turned and went to where the big street was. That was the edge of the neighborhood. That was where he called. He remembered calling. The woman said what was the nature of his emergency and he had blood all down him. It was on his hands, too, and he remembered when he bit the nail on his one hand he could taste it, drying under the nail.

He wondered where he'd dropped the tire iron. Somewhere in there. In that gap. He knew he hadn't left in the house, so he most have carried it out in the yard. Maybe the police had it, but maybe they didn't. He'd have to ask the lawyer.

That gap was something to think about.

Aug 24, 2009

Norman's father's briefcase

Norman had a briefcase instead of a backpack. He was overweight, was the reason. An overweight college student wearing a backpack, with the way it pulled at your shoulders, pulling them back and making your shirt weird and your coat wrinkly, and the way it pushed out your stomach and opened those gaps between the already-gapping buttons, it was just too awful. It was gross. Disgusting. An overweight student with a backpack always looks like an obese boy, which is even worse than being an obese man, and he just couldn't stand it. So he had a briefcase.

It was his father's. Had his father's initials on the buttons.

In his mind he said "overweight," and that was the word he used, but underneath there was the other word which he didn't say in his mind but heard like an expulsion, a sound spat. Fat. He was fat, and that was why he had a briefcase and not a backpack.

He set it on a desk, on the side of the front of the class. He laid it down, flipped it over right-side-up, and clicked the clasps. His father had had the briefcase when he was a salesman, but that didn't work and Norman's father wasn't a salesman anymore and had whole stock of ties hidden in a drawer and the briefcase under his desk, stuffed with old checkbooks and notices from the IRS. Norman opened it now and had a book, the paper-bound anthology, and a yellow pad of paper, and there were four manilla folders each with the name and number of a class, and he had a set of pens, three of them, each one wood and metal.

Norman was also a Young Republican, and that was the other thing besides being fat that made him look like that. He was a Republican, he would say, because he believed in freedom and small government and that there were unintended consequences of trying to change things, but it was also something of a style, or it came out that way, and it made his already self-conscious self more conservative when he went and bought clothes. So there was the short-sleeve, button-up shirt, and khakis, never shorts and rarely jeans, and he wore loafers and a silver wrist watch and had a briefcase with his father's initials on the buttons. He would have worn a suit if he could have afforded it.

He got out the book, and put it down on the desk. He got out the pad and flipped it to the first clean page. He straightened it so the line was in line with the desk. He put a pen on the pad and closed the breifcase, snapping it shut and setting it on the floor, and then a girl asked him if he could please sign her drop card.

"What?" he said.

"I have to drop your class," she said. She held the card out to him, a green index card with the name of the class and a line that said "Sign." She looked at him, wondering if he was going to be hard about it and explaining that her schedule was packed and she was changing her major and adding some student work and would he sign so she could? and he looked at her, in her halter top and university sweat pants. He looked at the class. All of them were looking at him, sitting and slouching in the desks and wondering why he wouldn't just sign - was he going to be hard? - and Norman pushed up his glasses and felt like he was falling inside.

They think I'm a teacher, Norman thought. They were all looking at him and he was sweating. He touched his face and he was sweating and he tried to pluck his shirt away from his chest so it wouldn't look like he had breasts.
The edges we find: the edges we need

Aug 22, 2009


Writing for Gordon Lish
A Happy Marriage
Thomas Pynchon's paranoia
Cormac McCarthy's apocalypse
The artist squatters of Berlin
Storytelling as performance art
Post-Baidouians do "Speculative Realism"
The cultural import of ad art & copy
Anxiety of Mad Men, Woodstock and now
"meditation on the deceptive allure of surface ... deeper mysteries of identity"
The question of appropriating Zizek for Christian theo-political tasks
Investigating and reporting on the end of investigative reporting
Legal considerations of the Troy Davis death penalty case
Zizek's Job tests God, rather than God testing Job
Appreciating Woody Guthrie as an Oklahomian
The Constitution, Catholicism, and a possibly innocent man
Remembering a high school creative writing teacher
Street literature: broadsides of bloody murder
The practical consequences of gay marriage
Jeremy Hhuggins is terrified of classical music
The philosophical importance of the coming nothing
Conservative lawyer to defend gay marriage
Henry Fairlie and the value of opposition
Tarantion's pornographic revenge fantasy
Calculating good-to-bad Tarantino ratios
Child stars of slumdog millionaire
Rene Girard on War and Apocalypse
Zora Hurston's challenge to black people
Jails contradict the Foucauldian critique
The soundtrack of losing her religion
What's wrong with industrial gothic?
Travel guide to man-made disasters
Designing the cover of Lolita
Light and design and nature 1
Light and design and nature 2
5 reasons newspapers are failing
The boycott Israel question
Recounting Zizek v. Milbank
Reconsidering John Calvin
Republican rift in Texas
Re-burbia design winners
The actor's Quentin leap
An underwear challenge
Rahm Emanuel profile
Egger’s Max at Sea
Fairey interviews Banksy
Gordon Lish: I'm Wide
Science tattoos

Aug 21, 2009

A few years ago, after I returned home to Seattle from a trip to Los Angeles, I unpacked my bag and found a dead cockroach, shrouded by a dirty sock, in a corner. Shit, I thought. We’re being invaded. So I threw the clothes, books, shoes, and toiletries back into the suitcase, carried it out to the driveway, and dumped the contents onto the pavement, ready to stomp on any other cockroach stowaways. But there was only the one cockroach, dead and stiff. As he lay on the pavement, I leaned closer to him. His legs were curled under his body. His head was tilted at a sad angle. Sad? Yes, sad. For who is lonelier than the cockroach without his tribe?

-- Sherman Alexie, in War Dances

Aug 19, 2009

Mother and daugther

Aug 17, 2009

Fixing it

The top of the water was warm. On the surface, for five or six inches where the sun struck, the pond water was warm and clear and Josiah could see right through it. He could see little air bubbles, like little exhales rising up towards the sun, and he could see bits of waving weed and floating, watery fur. Deeper was darker. And green, greener. The water went cold where it was murky, and he gasped as he went down.

He shouldn't of had to do this. This wasn't his job, his problem, what he should of had to fix. But there had been a fight about responsibility and blame where the one adult accused the other and the other said it should of been fixed before it got to here where it was a problem and the first one said yah well you know so much how come she got pregnant? and so he had yelled at them that he'd fucking fix it.

He said that word and his mother gasped his name, Josiah. But they'd all been thinking it.

The pressure built in his head as he swam down. The water was all dark, and green and thick, and got thicker and then the color was deeper and the light was only a few faint slanting shafts and a shadow on the side of the seaweed that slowly waved. The bottom was muddy. The water was murky with mud and the bottom was muck. The pond bottom was covered in six or so inches of it, rotted silt and sucking mud that stuck to the bag he grabbed. He touched down and kicked off, taking the bag back up with him. It was limp now. And heavy. He went back up towards the sun, towards the green light that wavered in the water. He exhaled and the bubbles surrounded his face and filled with the light, inflating with it and rushing up to the air to explode and pop and escape into nothing.

He followed the bubbles up from the bottom and sucked in air when he came up out of the pond. His hair was wet in his face. He shook his head and wiped the pond water out of his eyes and came out, carrying the pillowcase bag. It was heavy now. The rock in the bottom and the bodies were still, soaked and still, stiff with their tiny lungs full of water. He dropped the bag. He didn't want to open it, but also he did. He felt somebody should. Somebody should look it in the face if it had to be done. And so he opened the bag and looked at the kittens that looked liked they were crying when they died. Their fur was matted and bunched up, wet, like laundry that hadn't been wrung. They were all very small. Their eyes and mouths were all open.

It's stupid, he thought. It's stupid that this has to be fixed. Then he went to get the shovel from the garage.
"And I was smelling the slain flowers, the delicate dead flowers and tears, and then I saw her face in the mirror."

-- William Faulkner, Sanctuary

Aug 14, 2009

wooden man with an umbrella

Second in a series of old men carved in pine. Dimensions roughly 2 x 4 x 13 inches. Carved completely by hand with a knife and gouge. See more here.

Queen of the birthers
The heart of the birthers
The history of short hand
Sherman Alexie's beautiful brain
Cell phones and the end of polling
Why do neocons love Jon Stewart?
A.O. Scott appreciates John Hughes
Raymond Carver's "workshop prose"
Shiite sermon of peace and damnation
The remains of a Native American city
The economics of anger on the radio
What is that thing which we call poetry?
John Caputo on being clear about faith
What does winning mean in Afghanistan?
Our first black president is a nazi? Really?
Car fins: the punctuation at the end of an era
Pynchon's work is just a vice of incoherence
Seattle library: civic architecture in an age of media
Poetry and the religious languages of sacrament and dialectic
Without presidential ambition, Cheney couldn't be held accountable
Geoffrey Bromiley, who translated major theologians into English, dies at 94. May he rest in peace.
Billy Lee Riley, roackabilly legend who recorded at Sun, dies at 76. May he rest in peace.
Mad Men, executive assistants, and feminism, then and now
The murders and mysteries of Charles Fredrick Rogers
The paranoid style: what conspiracy theories are about
Youth, rap, and the limits of free speech in America
How John Hughes turned me against Dave Eggers
The pull-in, push-out cinematography of Mad Men
REcultre and the idea of "post consumption"
Profile of Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin
Transformative architecture
Dick Cheney to kiss and tell
Rebranding famous brands
Manson family syllabus
James Agee on artists at war
Remembering Jack Wrangler
The real Ezekiel Emanuel
The litter that saves lives
Rehabilitating suburbia
Planet orbits in reverse
Militias resurge

Aug 12, 2009

On Tübingen silence

I didn't anticipate the silence. Tübingen is quiet, everything very still. The people are quiet. The place is quiet. Even the parties, quiet. There's a big, obese and shaggy man I always see at bus stops, who's always sweating and drinking vodka from little bottles about the size of his fingers, and he always sits there drinking in silence. On the bus, people don't talk. In the stores, there's often no music, in the houses, no air conditioning, and on the streets, even near the university where there are always mobs of students, things are hushed.

I feel like a deaf man here. In America, I had this sense that I could always hear everyone talking. People in the next room, people in the next house, the radio and the TV and the billboards and newspapers, court papers, college papers and e-mail spam, people preaching and thinking, composing opinion pieces and bad poetry and raps, rehearsing arguments and come backs that came too late, I heard all of these voices all the time. The noise was always mounting and mounting, until I was lost like a lone row boat in the vastness of it. For me, the world was only silent, only peaceful, when it rained and sometimes in the middle of the night when even those people who were awake were too tired to think and were silent in their own minds. But it's not like that here.

Germany is a quiet country. That's part of it. Tübingen, specifically, is a quiet town. But it's more than that, I think. I know the language only a little, and I can't hear it unless I concentrate, focus, focus and watch the way a German speaks, trying to hear and distinguish the guttural sounds and do the grammar in my head. It requires a focus like chess, like math without paper, and I often find that after a few minutes of doing all this to hear someone say "nice evening" or "would you like a receipt" it's too much, too hard. I stop concentrating and the world lapses into stillness again.

It's okay. It's not a bad thing. It can be quiet peaceful. The only problem is that sometimes I overhear English, exchange students talking or tourists looking for a castle, and it sounds like inanity shouted, aggressively stupid and offensive and blaringly banal and I want to shout shut up, shut up, shut up!

There was a man with a mustache on one bus, a while ago, talking about the truck he drives in Texas. His accent was broad and muddy and shallow, like a flooded farm, and he kept saying the truck he had is Texas had two tanks. The bus was crowded, hot, and silent except for the Texan talking about his truck and how it had two gas tanks. The German man he was talking to didn't understand and kept asking things like, "why not one big tank?" and, "is it hard to find fuel in Texas?" And the Texan kept talking through his mustache, talking obscenely loud and saying, no, "it's better, it's two tanks!"

I've never seen anyone quiet as alien as that Texan. He was out of place. Uncomfortable. Desperate. Out of place and off balance, he was talking and talking and trying to reorient himself, trying to reestablish his place, trying to seize on to something with his words. In Hunter S. Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels, he talks about how the sons of the Oakies and Arkies, these losers and outsiders, mechanics and minor criminals, used their gangs and their motorcycles to shift power, to tilt the balance of things their way. We all do this. Aliens, though, are always trying and failing. They're always trying to tilt the balance but only falling over, ending more alone, more alien, more ridiculous and isolated as they shout out about their truck's two tanks on an almost silent public transit system in Germany.

What's really disturbing about the Texan, though, this unnamed man who I hated for half a bus ride, is that he's no more alien than I am. He's no more obnoxious, desperate, panicked, insecure or insanely isolated than I am.

I'm guessing this doesn't make me special. I'm guessing that this doesn't make me different from the old man who lives above me, whose wife yells at him mercilessly while he never says anything, who rides off on his bike unsteadily and goes and gets drunk. I'm guessing this doesn't make me different from the crazy, long-haired poet who stands silently on street corners in the Aldstadt offering to recite a poem for eight euros, who stares off vacantly while no one asks for his poetry. I'm guessing I feel the same as the adjunct professors whose classes are canceled for lack of interest, as the students who are overtaken with a frenzy of trying to connect at the end of every semester, and as the woman at the bakery who is always angry at the Americans who mispronounce the names of the loaves of bread she makes. We are all of us desperate, desperate, desperate and lonely. We are all encased in space suits of silence, encased in insolation only occasionally relieved. This is the point of literature and love, music, religion and education -- that we might feel less alone, that we might feel there is a "we" even though life is this vast and empty, but even then the isolation is only alleviated for a moment, a moment like a millennium or an exhale, and then it contracts again, crushing our chests.

There is a complex of student housing, in Tübingen, up on a hill, called the W.H.O., where these skyrises cluster all anonymous and industrial. All the students don't live there, in the concrete shells that are stacked up 13, 15, 23 stories high, but the foreign students mostly do. Many of the families do too. In one building, at least, it's all families. Men from Korea and Pakistan, Iran and Turkey and Botswana are here to study at the university and their families, wives and children, live up there in that building. The children run and play, scream and do children things, but the women, the student's wives, seem to be in a shocked silence. Many of them live in this space of neither/nor, where they are neither traditional women nor modern ones, neither at home nor away from it, neither needed nor not needed, neither allowed to take control and learn German, nor allowed not to. I have seen them: silent women watching empty swings swaying; silent women watching children and making foods that smell of a home that is not here and not anymore more than a out-of-place memory; silent women who cannot speak the language of their neighbors; silent women who do not understand what their husbands are learning, what their children are learning, what anyone says; silent women watching TV and trying to learn grammar, silently growing sprouts in boxes on the stairs and hanging laundry in the windows and always, always seeming to be waiting for something like a brave boy waits for pain. I see them, in their silence, and I wonder if they anticipated this.
Prayers that hurt our teeth

Aug 10, 2009

We fought the snakes

We always heard stories about snakes on the land. We heard stories about good dogs-but dumb dogs-getting killed by snake heads left laying around, and about grown men making tourniquets they sterilized with piss. I never saw anyone bit, though. It never happened during the five years I was there. Now I wonder if it wasn’t the metaphor that motivated the war on snakes. Snakes were evil, and we were the righteous, fighting them with gardening tools. Satan was a snake and doubt was a snake and questions, a snake. The Devil’s deception was a snake with a waving tongue. So we were told to hunt them down. We were supposed to be the Last Days people of God and we were supposed to be making the new Eden out of the land by the river in Texas. We didn’t have any enemies, though, no enemies except questions and unseen spirits and people’s secret doubts about the inspiration of the prophets. So we fought what we could see; we fought the snakes.

Read the full story, The Snake Hunters, @ Killing the Buddha
"The bombs went off on street corners, in schools, outside movie theaters. Everywhere I saw the crushed faces of March 13. The shadow of a bird made me remember: I had run toward the palace with the others, all of us running. And then the p[igeons in the plaza suddenly rose as one, like a black veil lifting. And then the bullets, tearing into time, opening the day into another one, letting me see the other side of things. As a girl, ik had though only love could change us so completely."

-- Ana Menedez, Loving Che

Aug 5, 2009

The sediment of nations

Maybe it was because her father was a geologist studying the earth's peeling stratum of dirt and rock, or maybe because she moved in the middle of the school year when she was 10, and again when she was 14, and she missed something or misconnected something. Somehow geography and gravity became connected in her mind. In her mind she ordered the countries by their weights.

Germany was the heaviest, of course. It was heavy and graceless. It was a country of sausages and accordions, a country where they hung disco balls in every bar but couldn't and wouldn't dance. Australia was the lightest, a country without enough gravity to hold it down for even a proper talk, a country that couldn't be serious, even if it tried, and where everyone might decide at the same time to just not do the work they were supposed to do and instead all run away and take up hang-gliding and hot ballooning. The US and Canada, China, India and Iran were all light countries trying to be heavier, countries which would only ever be bloated up by that hunger, and France and Spain, England, Israel, South Africa and most of those kinds of countries were all weighed down but trying to be buoyed up, or at least appear lighter than they really were.

She didn't know where she got that idea. It just seemed that everyone had a weight with them, like something they carried in their eyes. It just seemed like they countries weren't really related by land mass and by ocean, but were more like rocks and dirt in a river, with each finding its own level, each eventually settling into a strata of the sediment.

So when he asked her would she go back to Korea, she said of course. She said it not because she loved it there, or even remembered it that well, but because it seemed natural. Like smoke rising or stones falling, to a state of rest. She said it not out of nationalism or a strong sense of identity, but because she thought she would, by the weight she bore inside her, just come rest in that country where she was born. "Of course?" he said, and she didn't know why he was so suddenly sad. "Yes," she said, confused or thinking he was, "I am Korean."
Tourists on a touristy bridge

Aug 3, 2009

Until then

Donnie cut through the hedgerow. He hiked up to the hedge and got down on his knees and crawled in. The branches ripped at his hair, his clothes, his guitar. In there, in the middle of the hedge, there seemed to be no air and he gasped and was blind. It was black and he couldn't see and the hollow inside smelled of dryness and withered Christmas. It sounded like shattering and snapping and scratching, and he felt fingernails on his eye lids and across his cheeks and clawing up his nose.

Then Donnie tumbled out the other side, and he breathed again and blew his nose and brushed his face, batting open his eyes. The sky was black and vast and empty, except for half a moon that looked it was being erased into the sky. He pulled his guitar through the hedge and into the graveyard, and he stood up and found his way in by counting stones.

He counted six flat stones, each of them marble bricks sunk into sod, and he turned right. He walked 'til he saw the old obelisque, the stone angel, and three rows of crooked stones and then the newer, straighter ones. He counted the stones, by the light he had, and went to the fourth one and sat down. He crossed his legs. Tuned the guitar. Leaned over and hummed the first two bars, three bars, closed his eyes and sang in a clear tone, Happy trails.

To you. Until we meet again. Happy trails to you. Keep smiling. Until then. Some trails are happy ones and others are blue, but it's the way you ride the trail that counts, so here's a happy one. To you.

He left his guitar pick in Roy Roger's grave, in the grass there on top. When his oldest daughter, 40 now, asked him what happened to his face, he laughed sheepishly. "Oh," he said, "it was nothing."