Archive for December, 2008


That’s the last word I’m going to write this year.

When I was younger, marveling at the hippies, there was a popular commercial on all the FM stations for a shampoo called Head.

Head shampoo is squeezy, so clean and easy the natural thing to do.  I know my hairs would rather have organic lather so I wash them off in Head shampoo!

Sold in head shops, a.k.a. stores that sold marijuana paraphernalia.  I’m pretty sure they even used the illustration from Job rolling papers for their logo until they probably got sued.

A few years earlier the Monkees, a.k.a. The Prefab Four, made a movie designed to totally put the final nail in their coffin as a bubblegum act.  With a screenplay written in part by Jack Nicholson, the movie Head was a psychedelic dadaist meditation on the disintegration of pop music.  It’s not for everyone, but I dig it.

Speaking of films, the word HEAD appears at the beginning of film reels (just before the “countdown” on what’s known as Academy leader) to let projectionists know which way to thread the film.  You would think this is obvious that the fist part unspooling from a reel of film is the head, but when it has been taken up on the other side of the projector gate (on a take-up reel, natch) what looks like a head is a tail and vice versa.  Consequently the end of a reel of film is also marked TAIL so that projectionists know which reels need to be rewound in their dark little worlds.

None of these are what I have in mind.  And to “have in mind” is to imply that there is something captured or trapped within my brain, that there is something I am pondering, thinking about, considering.  On this, the last day of 2008, what is foremost in my mind — when I’m not playing games with the family while the snow piles up outside, or making a tomatillo salsa for some tilapia, or dozing on the couch — is that I can’t figure out how to start this middle grade novel that has been dogging me since January.  From that moment in Vermont when I decided this was the story I wanted to pursue, through two advisors and countless beginnings, through exercise and revision, around essays and beneath the valley of contempt, this story has been rattling around inside my head.  Taunting me, hiding, yelling at me like some insolent child demanding attention and favor, this damn story just doesn’t seem to want to let go of the far corners of my gray matter.

In a few moments I need to get ready to trudge down the street to a party to celebrate the new year.  And among all the drinking and sugary treats and conversation, in the back of my mind will be the one thought I can’t shake, the one that defines the year 2008 in a sense, the one that causes me to write the last word I’ll write this year:

How do I get this damn middle grade novel out of my…


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Isn’t that such a lovely word — ugh.  It looks like the last part of a word lopped off, the guttural punctuation of a much longer thought reduced to its barest necessities.  Even when that final h would normally go silent or become transformed (as in either through or tough) it manages to catch itself back of the uvula and grunt forward with one final glottal chip of energy all its own.


Through and tough, that pretty much sums up this past week.  There were storms and diverted flights, drives through neighboring states and sleeps in guest beds, meals piled upon meals and smothered with desserts. How did it get to be that a season of holiday has become a pageant of obligation and the endurance of duty-bound visitation?

Having missed Festivus this year, and not really looking to rehash the unsavory elements of the past nine days or so I’l just say that I find myself facing down the end of one calendar and thoughts of a new month with an urgency.  There is a growing vigor to my thoughts of revision, seedlings of ideas breaking soil, and the promises and hope of new projects, new readings, new adventures.

If this past years was one of transition, this coming year is one of transformation. to be followed no doubt by a little hocus pocus.

Hocus pocus?

Hocus pocus pilatus pas as my Dutch cousins would say when conjuring a rabbit from a hat. From bits of the Latin Mass Hoc est enim corpus meum and Sub Pontio Pilato passus (This is my body and Suffered under Pontius Pilate respectively) — or Hocus Pocus for short, a parody suggesting the act of transubstantiation being performed by mortals on earth.

Which is all we can hope for as writers, to change the substance of our words and images into something else, something that births meaning and fellowship and joy in others. If this holiday season was, for me, lacking in this magic, well, so be it. I have words to breath and stories to spell and — hope! — share.

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From Rachel I discovered from Gwenda (and she got it from…) the idea of posting the first line of the first post for each month during this past year.  After pulling these lines I thought “perhaps there’s a found poem in all this.”  That’s what I get for thinking.

I’ve made only a few edits for clarity.  And line breaks, of course, where I felt they made the most sense.  Or made me happy.

a line a month a year

there are two types of writers, I’ve decided:
those who can make their own lives appear
as interesting and entertaining as their own writing
and those who can’t.

long ago I found an ad
in an old National Geographic
that gave me one of those unintended moments
of enlightenment.

my brain likes to worry things,
to mull,
to take it’s time sorting through
the vast card catalogs
to find just the right

last summer
I managed to keep up
but didn’t feel I had the stamina
to go year round.

old news for some, perhaps, but I
just crawled out from under my
and have some catching up
to do.

or is it
when a wire
has juice
running through it?

I have been sent on my way

well, the month began with
a holiday, a rush
to get the kids off for
the summer, my resi-
dency for school, and then
a relocation to
a (much) larger home just
a few blocks away from
the place we’d been sequest-
ered to for the last four years.

fall is the new year.

as written:
this cautionary food-obsessed
tale of boys with eating disorders …
undercuts its serious message
with forced  humor.

I was eighteen when I
was able to vote in my
first national election.

there’s some
paperwork to deal with,
and a bit of reading to do
before the next residency
in January,


Poetry Friday is at The Miss Rumphius Effect this week.

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Facebook is an interesting phenomenon.  People from the past suddenly materialize.  Names and faces you haven’t thought about in forever… requesting friendships and sending messages, with little notes, just like back in grade school. “Will you be my friend?  Check one:  Yes.  No.”

This week I learned that a good friend of mine from high school, Dave Ross, died from cancer of the esophagus.  Two years ago.  That’s the downside to the magic of all this social networking; your first college girlfriend who you haven’t heard from in nearly two decades tells you that the person who introduced you to each other gets to be the one to tell you the bad news.

Dave was a poster child for ADHD before any of us even knew such a thing existed.  He wasn’t put on medication, he wasn’t sequestered into “special needs” classrooms, he just bounded around the room and everyone learned to accommodate.

Dave was passionate about anything he approached.  When he caught the filmmaking bug in high school he had more zeal about it than me, the self-proclaimed filmmaker of our crowd, and he drove me to make some of my best work.  We’d eat fast food in his beat up Plymouth Duster past midnight listening to Midnight Tracks and talking about girls and philosophy and the philosophy of girls.

He was the ultimate sports fan, bringing hockey sticks to basketball games in order to intimidate referees (and everyone else for that matter), a tradition he carried with him into his college days at UC Berkeley where he was a known fixture in the stands.  He once brought a tape recorder to a high school game and  narrated the play-by-play for the entire game for his own amusement.  Afterward he interviewed fans leaving the gym with what became a hallmark question:

“In your opinion, was it Culver’s victory or Torrence’s defeat that lead to the final outcome of this game?”

It was also at one of these games that we noticed a great player on the opposing team who was making shot after shot during warm-ups but was not allowed off the bench.  Dave thought this was unfair.  He looked up the player’s number in the program — R. Yamashiro — and began chanting his name.  Pretty soon he had us all singing to the tune of On, Wisconsin!:

Yamashiro, Yamashiro
Only three feet tall!
Yamashiro, he’s our hero
He plays basketball!
Yamashiro, not a zero
What was that you say?
Yamashiro, Yamashiro
Hooray for Russel K!

We had no idea what his real name was, but from that moment on we kept rooting for Russel K. Yamashiro to be put into the game, so much so that we became a distraction to the other team and won the game.  At least that’s how we liked to remember it happening.

Dave and I also liked to play with slogans, poems, and quotes, adding and changing them as a challenge, a sort of call-and-response to see who could make the other laugh.  On one occasion Dave began with a few word of Robert Frost and I responded.  We had a good start with the first two stanzas and then stumbled.  Secretly I went back and finished the poem and submitted it to our school’s poetry journal as a joke under the name Robert Yamashiro Frost, where to my surprise it was selected and published.  I loved the look on Dave’s face, followed by the convulsive fit of laughter that was also Dave’s trademark, when he first saw it in print.  I finished it for Dave, partially wrote it with him, and can’t think of a better way to honor his memory two years after the fact.  I think he would have approved.

I make no apology for the juvenile nature of the humor, or the distasteful imagery.  We were teenage boys, this was who we were.

Killing Off My Horse on a Snowy Evening

I know these things, these things I know —
My house is in the village, though
You will not see me stopping here
To watch a dog make yellow snow.

The little horse must think it queer
To see Van Gogh cut off his ear
Beyond these woods, upon the lake
I throw my horse off of the pier

He gives his harness bells a shake
We bash his head in with a rake
The only other sound a-peep:
The drowning horse who’s still awake

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
Yet I still have my quota to keep
And horses to kill before I sleep
Horses to kill before I sleep.

There’s probably some more conventional poetry over at Author Amok, where the Poetry Friday round up is this week.

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(Doing a bit of housecleaning on the computer and stumbled onto this previously unposted bit.  I have no idea what set this off, though I do freely admit to being loopy at the end…)

There is no way on this great green planet of ours that I’m the first person to make the observation that a lot of the classic comic book heroes worked for or were somehow connected with newspapers.

Superman – Clark Kent, Lois Lane, jimmy Olsen, Perry White of the Daily Planet

Spiderman – Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson (and a staff of millions) of the Daily Bugle

Batman – Vicky Vale (among many) of the Gotham Gazette

Daredevil – Ben Urich, also of the Daily Bugle

Green Hornet – Brit Reid of the Daily Sentinel

Howard the Duck – Lester Verde/Dr. Bong of various tabloids

I’m sure there are more, those are just the ones I can remember.  I’ve come across Frank Miller referring to the reporter character in comics as an Everyman character, a stand-in for the rest of society, but I’m wondering if there isn’t something more in play.  Often there is a give-and-take between the journalists gathering information that the superheroes use, and sometimes the superheroes supply the news themselves.  The relationship is symbiotic, almost as if the newspapers were serving as publicity agents for the heroes, but even that’s not all.

Don’t these newspapers tend to operate under the same motto as Superman – to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way?  I’m wondering of it’s possible that the superhero is the visual manifestation of the “mild mannered” journalist, rooting out and exposing villains, serving for the good of the public.

I think that’s something I’d like to see, but it would be tricky to pull off: the superhero journalist comic book.  I’m not talking about the reporter as a cover, but as the reporter as hero.  I look around at what passes itself as news, what passes as “fair and balanced,” and think it would be nice if we could have some better comic book role models

Yeah, I’m a bit loopy right now.

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So I’m reading the PW Children’s Bookshelf and there’s Matthew Broaderick, still looking like Ferris Bueller, next to Kate DiCamillo in a publicity photo for the release of the movie The Tale of Despereaux.  I really have no desire to see the movie, and would have ignored the press release generally, were it not for the following words jumping out and slapping me in the face, demanding satisfaction.

…actor Matthew Broderick, who voiced the role of the titular mouse

Is this the only way to describe mice in children’s books?  Seriously, this phrase is so overused it practically ceases to have any meaning, it’s so lifeless even it’s bleached bones have turned to dust.  A quick Google search of the phrase shows that it has been used to describe the aforementioned Despereaux, Angelina Ballerina, Charlie’s friend Algernon, Cookie Mouse, the Tutter character from an episode of Bear in the Big Blue House, Stuart Little, Ricky Ricotta, and any number of other media featuring a mouse as a main character.

I get that the word titular indicates a reference to the title character, but I suspect it’s a phrase that sticks with people because it echos the phrase tit mouse (which is actually a bird), and that it’s entirely possible that people don’t know what the word means and think it’s a synonym for “cute and diminutive.”  It could also be one of those words that persists because of the puerile nature of those who first encounter it during puberty.  Consider a class of junior high school boys who, upon hearing the word and believing it has something to do with mammary glands, collect and propagate its misuse.  Dude, the latest issue of Maxim is totally titular!

Language.  Some words are like burrs in socks, designed to be carried by unwitting hosts to a new destination, inspiring the invention of Velcro.

But it’s done, it’s over, it’s beyond its expiration date. I officially declare the phrase “titular mouse” to be no longer of any value and that it shall be stricken from use for at least a decade.  You call yourself a writer, a journalist, a wordsmith?  Surely you can find another way to describe the title character of a book, especially if it is a mouse.

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Somewhere in my family tree, back about 17 generations or so, there’s Dutch blood.  I never really felt like anything more than an American mutt until my first trip to the Netherlands and then, wow, did it hit me.  It wasn’t necessarily that I looked like these people (though natives did keep stopping me for directions) but there was this vibe.  You know that vibe?  It’s that thing you feel when you walk into a strange, new location and the first word that comes to mind is home.  Not like the comfort of the home you grew up in but something deeper, something in the bones.  The DNA is singing to you.

In the Netherlands the holiday season is a bit different.  First, they don’t celebrate the arrival of some mythical elf flying around with magical deer but an actual person, a Saint named Nicholas. Over the years it’s been shortened a bit, ruined by language, and you get both St. Nick and Sinterklass.  He dresses like a bishop and rides a modern steam ship through the canals of Amsterdam.  The patron saint of children. I never really got into the Santa thing as a kid, but this Sinterklass I could get into.

I’m going to be partially biased about liking this tradition due to the fact that the Dutch equivalent of Christmas Eve is on my birthday, December 5th.  After decades of having a “lighter” birthday because it was so close to Christmas (or worse, the dreaded “we’ll make Christmas twice as big” when the birthday was skipped) I think I’d rather have my birthday on this Sinterklassavond.

Because for adults it is about poems as much as it is about gifts.

See, the usual stuff for kids is the gifts left behind by Sinterklass and his assistant, a strange blackface character named Swarte Piet (or Black Peter, I kid you not), but for the adults the gifts are elaborately wrapped and accompanied by a poem.  The tradition is that the poem is personally written – not some mass-created Hallmark moment – either about the recipient or about the gift itself.  I think it’s great tradition and something I have wanted to incorporate into my own life but somehow can never get it together.

All of this to say that I was curious to see what, exactly, these poems looked like.  What are these Sinterklaasgedichten that the Dutch write to one another?  It sort of boggles the mind to think there is a national celebration that includes people writing and sharing poems with one another.  What is wrong with America, why don’t we do things like this?  We have birthdays and Valentine’s Day and any number of other special occasions and not one of them includes a national tradition that incorporates poetry.

Curious, I stumbled upon a site on the web designed to help the poetry impaired with their Sinterklaasgedichten.  They had a number of ready-made poems based on gift items and on personalities, which in and of themselves were amusing.  A poem for aftershave, and another for socks, and one for “horse stuff.”  And on the personality side there was “for a waitress” and “for a lazy student” and “for a father with a mobile phone.”  Best part of all, thanks to the imperfection of various internet filters, are the English translations of some of these poems.  Such as…


Een nieuw jaar, een nieuw begin
Hoe vul jij dat straks in?
Is het hard werken tot je pensioen?
Of heb je ruimte om iets leuks te doen?
Een weekendje weg, een avondje uit.
Je maakt een afspraak, neemt een besluit.
Een cursus of een vergadering
je weet het bij benadering,
maar welke dag was ‘t ook weer?
Zet het in deze agenda neer
zodat je niets meer vergeet
en niet te laat komt op je date!

(A new year, a new beginning.
How do you fill it later?
Is it hard work until you retire?
Or do you have room for something fun to do?
A weekend getaway, a night out.
You make an appointment, take a decision.
A course or a meeting
you know the approximate
but what day was it again?
Put it down on this calendar
so you should not forget
and not too late for your date!)

You know what?  It’s not a great poem, and it’s not supposed to be.  It’s supposed to be honest, and heartfelt, and personal.  The Low Countries aren’t unnaturally populated by a race of poets, they’re populated with people who value the thought that a personal poem is an appropriate form of expression for a national holiday.

Poetry Friday is over at Wild Rose Reader this week.

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