Saturday, May 14, 2005

Because I Still Get Angry

Via Tom Tomorrow:

A short but damning timeline, in press clippings and statements from the powers that be, of relations between the U.S. and the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan which is currently killing its own citizens. The callousness and short-sightedness of people in power never ceases to amaze me.

Speaking of which, here's the text of the Downing Street Memo which appears to confirm what, let's face it, we already knew; that the Bushies were determined to go into Iraq from the beginning and were prepared to manufacture evidence to justify it.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Where I Was

In response to Gwenda. Again. (Or maybe it’s in response to this from Christopher. No, I guess not.)

Halfway through my second semester of college I withdrew from my classes and moved home. I was nineteen, had no idea what I was doing in school, and was trying to recover from a disastrous crush on a girl in my dorm. Also, I didn't understand Pascal, which was the computer language my programming class was trying to teach me. (Our first big assignment was to write a program that would read a file of pin counts by frame and generate a bowling score. I can't score bowling in real life, so I don't know how I could have been expected to teach a computer to do it. Also, this was 1990, but even then I don't think anyone was using Pascal.) I thought that maybe I wanted to write, and I had begun a novel, but I was groping in the dark, with no direction, no idiom of my own, and really, no clue.

So I went home in shame. The only class I was going to miss was English 208, where in addition to Jay McInerny, Toni Morrison and F. Scott Fitzgerald we were reading Tomas Rivera, Moacyr Scliar, Jorge Amado and other writers I had never heard of in all those years of more or less indiscriminately reading genre fiction. I took all the books home, including those we hadn't read yet.

Charlie, the father of one of my high school friends, was a principal at a school for mentally and physically challenged kids. St. Paul had recently begun an experimental school, Saturn School of Technology (it still exists, but it became Saturn Riverfront Academy and now it's called Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School--yay for that remembrance, even if the thought of losing Wellstone still makes me want to put my fist through a wall). Saturn was sharing space with the school for challenged kids. Charlie offered me a job--two jobs, really. One, I would work as a bus aide for his school, riding to the school in the mornings with a bunch of kids in wheelchairs and then back in the afternoons with a different bunch of kids. In between I worked for Saturn School, handling attendance inquiries (i.e., calling parents to find out why their kids hadn't shown up at school; this was not always pleasant, particularly when kids were marked absent by mistake. More than once I had parents vowing to beat or kill the supposedly truant offspring whom they had dropped off in front of the school. The percentage of parents who went into panic mode was substantially lower), doing basic lackey duties for the teachers and secretaries, and monitoring the playground at lunch.

I had to take the city bus from my parent's house to downtown, transfer to another bus, then walk a few blocks to the hospice where the kids lived. There was a motorized ramp that lifted the chairs, then we steered them onto the back of the bus and strapped them in with these long seat-belt like contraptions. The kids--I call them kids, but some of them had to have been older than I was--were almost completely non-verbal; they might smile if you talked to them, but generally they just kind of stared into space. On the way home, I had a different bus driver and a different group of kids; younger ones who traveled in car seats but were equally non-verbal. These kids lived at home, and sometimes when we got to their houses no one came out to get them. One of the kids lived with a large family in public housing, and more often than not the entire family was sleeping when we arrived, at 1:30 in the afternoon. The bus driver would have to call the dispatcher, who would call the apartment, and we would wait five or ten minutes for someone to wake up and pick up the phone and come out to get the poor kid. I wish I could remember his name. He was a really sweet kid; he never made a sound, but whenever I carried him on or off the bus he would hug me like I was his best friend.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time on buses while I was doing that job, so I spent a lot of time reading. I read all of the books I had left for English 208, and one of them was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I knew nothing about the book and less than nothing about magical realism or El Boom or Colombian history. But (and I know I'm not the first person to say this about Master Gabriel, so forgive me if you've heard it all before) that book changed everything. I couldn't stop reading it. I read it at the bus stop, I read it on the bus, I read it walking to the next bus stop. I said good morning to the kids and strapped them in and sat down and read. I helped the kids off the bus and went and did the attendance calls and then, if there was nothing for me to do (and there often wasn't), I read in the office. (Bad form, I know, but I was nineteen and not exactly committed to my work.) I wasn't even there, at the school, or on the bus, or waiting for people to collect their kids. I was in Macondo, seeing ice for the first time, feeding poor Jose Arcadio while he sat tied to the tree, climbing onto the roof to watch Remedios the Beauty undress.

When I wasn't reading the book I was thinking about it, about how things like this happened, about how a person could have created a story that was about things that were simultaneously so real and so patently impossible. When I finished it, when the book had wrapped in on itself and swallowed its own (curly, pig-like) tail like the sleek mythic object it was and is, things had changed. I didn't think I wanted to be a writer anymore; I knew I did.

Every time I re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude (which is one of the few books I re-read these days, on account of the Books in the Basement), I get flashes of those days on the bus, those kids, and that feeling of having discovered a map to a place I wanted to be.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Books in the Basement

Gwenda asks "What kind of reader are you?" (Another probing question!) I am, I suppose, an anxious reader, which should surprise no one who knows me well. I read always aware that there are many more things to read, always weighing the quality of whatever I am reading against the millions of things I could be reading. I read with a gnawing awareness of the hundreds of unread books in storage in the basement of my apartment building, and the hundreds of other books which I do not own. Ironically, for someone who has chosen librarianship as his profession, I am very much a person who wants to own books. I particularly love finding out-of-print gems at used book stores and estate sales. Except for the genre magazines, I am not a person who tries very hard to keep up with contemporary fiction. I'm much more interested in reading works written before I was born, or even better, before my great-great-great-great-great grandparents were born. Not that age is a guarantee of quality, but for me there is more satisfaction in "discovering" for myself the genius of Cervantes or Ovid than in snapping up the new literary superstar-of-the-month. I am a reader who loves to learn about history, most especially history as revealed in the best biographies, where context is so much of character. I am a reader who loves story and technique equally, and is most pleased when they are harmoniously combined. I am picky, and sometimes I get frustrated and wonder if I will ever find another book that will blow my mind. I read a lot of books that fall just short of greatness, and they irritate me even when I enjoy them. But once in a while--two or three times a year, perhaps--I read something that helps me forget the books in the basement and restores my faith in this endless search. (Hm, maybe I'll make a list one of these days.) I usually read at least three things at once; a novel, a nonfiction book, and a short fiction collection or magazine. Except when researching, I will not waste my time with a book that I'm not interested in after 20 pages or so--with short stories, I sometimes give up after the first paragraph. I have to think of the books in the basement, after all.

Something to Declare

The newest issue of Say . . . will be available shortly--at the end of the month, according to my sources--and you should do yourself a favor and buy it. This issue asks the pressing question ". . . haven't you heard this one?" and contains my traffic poem "Jam," as well as ficciones, poesia y comicos by Hannah Wolf Bowen, Stephanie Burgis, E.L. Chen, Peg Duthie, Craig Laurance Gidney, Larry Hammer, Sandra McDonald, Catherine M. Morrison, Janni Lee Simner, Karen M. Roberts, and Sonja Taaffe. I cannot say whether any of these pieces contain the true answer to this haunting question, but they will lead to fruitful introspection. After reading each piece you will sit back and think to yourself, "Haven't I heard that one?" Perhaps you will then try to recall where and when you heard (or did not hear) that one in particular, and illumination will be cast upon that night in St. Cloud when that bottle of cheap vodka mysteriously disappeared, along with forty-four dollars in singles and a t-shirt bearing the image of Opus the Penguin. You will recall the disturbingly attractive yet androgynous stranger who balanced a candle on his or her head and recounted humorous anecdotes on a suburban street side while televisions cast their comforting blue glow through picture windows and a hairless pussycat shivered beneath a young Norway pine. How could I have forgotten, you will think to yourself, and you will smile, and thank Christopher Rowe, Gwenda Bond, and Alan Deniro for delivering this wondrous volume into your hands for the low, low, price of $5. If you wish, you may seek further enlightenment via a subscription to this inquisitive publication, and discover "What's the combination?" or even "Where are you from?" Answers await.