Archive for January, 2008

one for my VCFA peeps

Couldn’t get the image to upload, but you can check it out here:


While you’re there, make some of your own!

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I’m about to call it a night when I decide to check in on the various neglected blogs I’m no longer finding the time to read. I’m checking Children’s Illustration which has a link to a story that the Library of Congress is putting chunks of it’s photo archives on Flickr.

I am so there in as quick as it takes to click.

You see, in one of those two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood moments in high school I felt a very strong pull toward photojournalism but I felt my talents were in storytelling.  I didn’t feel my eye was strong enough to be a photographer but I was drawn to visual media and eventually decided to study film: visual storytelling.

I was never a big fan of “art” photography, I always felt that the photograph should capture a moment of time not the manipulation of the space before the lens. Yes, Ansel Adams created some some spectacular images but once you realize how much those images were manipulated in and outside of the darkroom you see just how sterile they are.  Compared with the raw, seedy grit of Weegee’s world, or the detached order of Max Yavno, the studio work of Richard Avedon or Annie Lebowitz feels empty.  To me.

Sorry for photogeeking.

But here I am looking at the LOC Flickr collection, the color photos of the 1930s and 40s in particular, and image after image I’m struck with how genuine they feel.  Not merely as documents of people and place but of a time when the scale of life felt human.  Two men wrestling with a blimp.  Comely carny burlesque girls backstage. A gingerbread Victorian house on a corner in Texas. An abandoned plantation house obscured by sunflowers.  Not all the shots are brilliant, but the overall effect they had on me was moving.  I’m certain the photographers had no idea they were doing anything more than capturing an image but somehow they all manage to reveal an honesty of spirit.

Ultimately, I don’t regret the decision to shy away from photojournalism because since my heady high school days much of photojournalism seems to have bent toward the artistic.  Digital photography and digital manipulation have given us some terrific images and advances in capturing the impossible but we have lost an emotional integrity in the process. And to be fair, we no longer live in those simpler times where photographers can catch the quiet wonder of private blimp launch or the community pride in the weeding of victory gardens.

Will anyone in the future look back on our digicap age and pine for its simplicity?

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tar pits

When I’m starting a new story I sort of have to sneak up on it. Even when I know exactly how it’s going to start I usually get quickly bogged down. I’m like an actor during rehearsal trying to remember his lines and hit his marks. I’m not comfortable, the process isn’t second nature to me, I’m thinking about things I shouldn’t be thinking about. And the voice in my head, the one that’s nagging me to get on with it, sounds an awful lot like Evil Genius in Time Bandits talking smack about the Supreme Being:

If I were creating the world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would’ve started with lasers, eight o’clock, day one.

More like 9:30 for me today and I didn’t get anywhere near butterflies and daffodils. More like slugs which my inner Evil is saying

Slugs! He created slugs! They can’t hear, they can’t speak, they can’t operate machinery.

Exactly. I want my characters to be operating the heavy machinery already. I want them to be hurling the plot forward with the gravitational pull of the sun, not lumbering beneath it like a clumsy sloth trying to extract itself from the tar pits.

First draft, first day, first pages. I have to trust they’ll get better. I have to trust I’ll find the voice and tone soon enough, and then when it’s over I can come back to the beginning like some e.e. cummings poem and make it flow more evenly.

Rough, rough, very rough.

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Ever wake suddenly from a nightmare and find yourself disoriented, like you don’t recognize the room you’re in, or the bed, or there’s something about the lighting that makes you feel like you’re supposed to be someplace?

Yeah, that happened this morning.  And in the haze of realizing where I was I remembered my nightmare was about how I was suppose to be at school, in class, but I couldn’t figure out where I had to be because everything was in anagram.

Freakin’ writer’s dream. Stupid hidden meanings.

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That’s the best way to explain where my head is at right now.  I left the rez with a raging burner under my ass but the heat has yet to get the brain boiling.

Were I a younger man I would fret.  I would worry and have ulcers and generally be thinking of myself as a failure.  I would look at my pending deadline (February 13th) and be in a shear blinding panic.  And I would find all sorts of ways to push all my work off until the threat of deadline forced me to cough up some lukewarm product and I’d be resigned to it.

The difference is that I’ve learned to let things happen in their own time.  I learned this from not having a car and having to rely on public transit.  In my impatient days I would make it to the bus stop and furiously check my watch every twenty seconds wondering when the bus would come.  Once on the bus I would continuously check my watch to see if I would make it to work on time.  As I got to my stop I would try to calculate how much time I had to get to work (or how late I would be) and try to mentally prepare myself for it.

Then something funny happened.  I realized that the bus would come when it came and looking at my watch only created anxiety.  And once on the bus I couldn’t control it’s speed or the traffic and so I found it pointless to worry.  I would get to work when I did and I was resigned to the fact that once I left the confines and comfort of my house I was no longer in control of the universe.  I never had any control over the universe in my house, but I had the illusion that with proper preparation I could manage to get myself where I needed to be with a modicum of punctuality and a minimum of stress. I was rarely late, and when I was I wasn’t stressed — hey, the universe was in command that day.

These things, time and space, they become the illusions we agree to in order to give our lives form and function.  I’m not trying to be deep, I’m merely explaining how I came to stop wearing a watch most of the time, how I learned to accept the flow of the universe, and why I’m not panicking right now.

Okay, maybe a little, secretly, but it’s against my better judgment.  I know that if I don’t freak out and let things come in their own time then they’ll come without the anxiety.  In the end the amount of time I expend might not be any different than if I panicked myself into last-minute work but without the stress I’m more likely to get closer to what I want.

Before I left the rez I gave myself until tomorrow, Monday, to allow myself a comfort zone for reentry. I was going to get things organized, plan things out, make schedules, and generally rest up so I could attack this new phase of work fresh and strong. Earlier today I was feeling like maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, especially once I started seeing my fellow newbies already posting comments on the message board about the books they’ve finished and the pages they started. I was falling into that dangerous trap of thinking I had already fallen behind and was a useless loser.

There was also a comment from one of the guys that said he was having problems writing for the 12 year old boy in his head because now he felt like his faculty advisor was in there and he had to write for him instead. I laughed, because I tried a couple pages of a short story last night and had the same problem; all my phrasing, all my cadences, were an attempt to capture the voice of my advisor’s work.  I didn’t know why it wasn’t working until that moment but from here it all is plainly clear.

So I was right to wait.  I still have the fire and the energy I felt when I left the rez but I’m slowly allowing that need to capture fireflies in a bottle be replaced with the magic of being able to appreciate the fireflies as they are, wild and free.  Uh, what I mean is, I ain’t trying to force it and my brain is starting to figure out what comes next.

Next is a day of organization, calendaring the semester work so I stay on track, plotting the middle grade novel so I know both character and story arcs.  I can feel my brain at a simmer right now, ready to make the jump to full boil.  Beginnings jockeying for place.  The stress level is down but the nerves are still a bit on edge.  That’s good, can’t be too cool or complacent.

And no, this isn’t an attempt to talk myself out of a corner.

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Said the Marshmallow Man of Luxor:
“Trick or Treat! Give me what I’ve come for!”
So we gave him a scorch,
With a creme brulee torch,
Then we dined on a forty pound s’more.

Recognizing that the limerick is oft considered juvenile form of poetry, more appealing to boys than girls, I have nonetheless come to embrace the format as a perfect platform for a collection of holiday-themed poems I am working on.

Here I have followed Edward Lear’s lead in starting with a ridiculous person from a particular place, followed by an outlandish statement, leading to a twisted resolution. There is nothing political intended or implied in the choice of place, only its ability to fit the patter and the rhyme. In this case I began with an idea of a giant marshmallow on Halloween being turned into a giant s’more. From there the rest of the limerick practically wrote itself.

While Lear often has a last line that’s a slightly, often judgmental, variant on the first line (That contemptible man from Luxor) I find that solution a bit of a cheat and go for the full punchline when attempting limericks.

Yes, I probably should get back to my school reading…

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Well, here we are, our residency evaluations handed in, our semester plans signed by our advisors and filed, the packages that greeted us when we arrived now on their way home ahead of us. We’ve pre-packed our bags and organized rides to the airport, the train station, and all points of the compass.

We attended the small graduation ceremony in the chapel and we, the first semesters, were given symbolic blank journals as tradition dictates to record out journey ahead. We took a silly group portrait afterward, two shots for every camera available. We attended the reception in the art gallery, eating guacamole and salsa clearly not made in the cafeteria. We ate from the largest cake ever seen, still partially frozen, the knife hacking away at chunks more than it cut. Champagne and apple juice flowed, conversations darted like slippery fish throughout the room, and almost as quickly as it began people began to drift away.

Farewells began as people leaving then or later in the evening returned to the dorm to pack their belongings, their cars, the memories. Pillow cases stuffed with linens piled up in the collection bins. Keys were dropped into their security box.

After ten days of being aware and connected to each other our focus shifts, we smile and make quick conversation in passing, but our concerns are on the mental checklist in our heads. Did I remember to pack this, do I know what time my flight leaves, am I forgetting something? Our community is pulling apart, we’re becoming the strangers we were only days ago.

Plans are made, hastily. Dinner downtown? Where? Are we meting in the front of the dorm? I hear the pizza there is bad. Did so-and-so already leave? Do you know what the others are doing? I can’t stay up late tonight, still need to pack, I can’t drink tonight.

At dinner the lulls in the conversation are filled with looks, exhausted looks, careful looks, an attempt to fix facial details and personal histories. July seems so far away. There’s so much work waiting for us, some of us staring down deadlines less than three weeks away. We double check each other’s plans, confirm each other’s advisors. We’re memorizing for a test we’re anticipating that will never really come, we’re thinking ahead to those days when we are on the bulletin board trying to link these invisible bonds we’re feeling.

We’re coming back, we know we’ll be back, it’s only temporary. Two years seems like the beginning of a marathon; at the end of two years, looking back, the marathon will have felt like a sprint. But we feel it now, this sense of already having lost something. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz we know when she says goodbye to her friends that she will always carry them with her in their hearts. It’s that weight of all these memories and people that makes our hearts heavy.

Heading back to our rooms we elect to say goodbye as a group, just in case we don’t see each other until July. We’re all still planning to head to the lounge and hang out until we can’t stand it anymore, then head back to our rooms again for a final night’s sleep on the not-our-beds.

Then morning, quick showers and quick breakfasts, moving with purpose to catch transportation connections as fixed as our lecture schedule was less than twenty-four hours earlier. In shared rides we’ll talk glib, make and remake promises to stay in touch, just like the ones we made at the end of high school. For now those promises are linked to our commitment to the program but in a few years it will need to come from within.

In assigned seats our focus will drift. Magazines, our first connection back to the outside world, will be unable to deliver on the promise of holding our attention. We’ll look out the car window, the plane window, the train window and think about each other. Are they thinking about me, we’ll wonder?

How silly, to be missing these people so soon, as if we had found soulmates who we didn’t know existed, who we didn’t realize we were looking for, who didn’t realize we had finally finished all the prerequisites for finally coming together.

Have we found our karass?

A group of people who, unbeknownst to them, are collectively doing God’s will in carrying out a specific, common, task. A karass is driven forward in time and space by tension within the karass.

Perhaps, perhaps…

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not really a prom
(adults don’t prom)

more a dance
like a school dance

with decorations and snacks
and a dark room for dancing

not that i danced
not much at least

only a few hours
only until i stopped thinking

about what i looked like

all jangly, uncoordinated
like i did when i was fourteen

when i would only dance
when no one was home

lost to the music
eyes closed

sweaty and reeking

then (and now) slipping
out the back with the boys

out to the parking lot
grown men

talking about women
still boys

still at the dance
still hoping for something more

than awkward glances
fractured conversations

masked smiles
hidden worlds


sweaty hair freezing
into jagged points

kicking at lumps of snow
trying to decide

whether to hotbox it
before returning to the dance

to the music
the abandon

the bar
steeling our courage

with renamed cosmos
(“the cliffhanger,

one sip
and you’re over the edge”)

to the edge of the cosmos
long ago

when we took our first steps
into the ballroom

dressed in rented tuxes
dancing to a cover band

realizing we can dance
and enjoy it

and not be afraid
and not care

when our friends laughed
because we knew

we’d finally stepped out
from our own shadows

and into the world

walking back to the dorm
i stopped to listen

as new snow fell
wayward midnight flakes

the pat-a-pat against my face
a tissue breeze for the trees

the promotional exercise
getting out of my own way

stepping out from my own shadow
a different sort of dance


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Did not sing.

I shouted out some key verses from the wings, but I log promised Suze that I wouldn’t sing for strangers if I haven’t sang for her.

So that’s that.

Because as much as I like to talk and write, I can’t bear the sound of my own singing voice. Besides, there wasn’t enough liquor in the entire town that could get me in front of people. So I didn’t drink at all.

I hope my fellow Freshmen peeps can find it in their hearts to forgive me.

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cafeteria style

There’s something odd about a bunch of mature college students hunkering down to their meals in a cafeteria.  It isn’t the food, though there are times when menu items take on the quality of the pale pink mystery meat and undercooked potatoes (always potatoes, every day, morning and night POTATOES!); And it isn’t the prescribed meal times and ate-night lock-down that prevents us from snacking on Lucky Charms or even getting hot water for tea.

But there are the long tables, and the anxiety with every meal of who are you gonna sit with, and why does every meal have to be a social occasion? Doesn’t it seem odd to have 30- and 40- and 50-something adults in a cafeteria, or is it natural because we all write for children?  By that logic, doctors and nurses ought to eat what they serve their patients, no?

I don’t do breakfast, or if I do not first thing after waking up, and preferably after a workout and a shower. Waking up to drag my carcass  into a shower and down to eat before 7:30 AM just doesn’t sit well with my artistic temperament.  Okay, so maybe it’s just my constitution and art has nothing to do with it.

It’s gotten easier, the sitting with strangers thing, though it’s still weird to be eating in front of strangers all the time.  It makes you miss the familiar faces of family across the table.  Or, if you’re alone, the newspaper and TV in front of you.  News?  What is this word news?  We have no idea what’s going on in the outside world.

The weirdest thing is that ours is a teaching kitchen, the entry level realm for the students at the New England Culinary Institute who are connected to the campus.  It appears that if they’re good they can move downtown to the bistro and the restaurant where real local citizen actually pay to eat their culinary delights.  There’s also a cafe featuring pastries from the students specializing as pastry chefs.  Apparently they also teach restaurant and hospitality management, though customer service seems to be a bit lagging at the cafe according to scouts in the field.

tonight they served us on paper plates and plastic knives.  Turns out the dishwasher (the machine, not the person) is on the blink and unless they can sanitize those dishes we use then they either have to use the disposable stuff or get shut down by the health department.  And earlier, when i was in the basement doing my laundry, I overheard a class of Future Chefs of New England getting a lecture on E. coli and food-borne bacteria, and I actually heard student give wrong answers about the safety and refrigeration of shellfish.  Nice.  Good thing I skipped lunch today: shrimp wanton soup.

But it’s college, it’s a dorm, and it’s dorm food — what are you going to do?

Next time, I come stocked.  Maybe I’ll even whip up something in my room.  I could probably convert one of these meals into something fantastic.

Oh, wait.  No I can’t. There’s only so much you can do with five varieties of potatoes.

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no spring chicken

That’s my grand and insightful conclusion after staying up late in the lounge with a bunch of my fellow campers until just after midnight.  Well, midnight was the goal but somehow we all kept at it until after 1 AM.  Okay, so i was closer to 2 AM.  And who could sleep?  Not me, not many of us.  I finally managed to drift off somewhere around 3 when I finally ran out of things to say on my evaluation sheets.

I am feeling it today.  Boy howdy. I ain’t no kid no more.

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