Archive for October, 2011

Moving from temperate California to the East Coast seven years ago I knew I’d finally experience the joys of seasons changing but something I’d never imagined was the possibility or likelihood of snow on Halloween. It happened – just flurries, but still – the first October after we’d arrived and it’s threatening to snow again this weekend, though whether it’ll still be on the ground come Monday is another thing.

I was originally considering a meditation on the different Halloween “weather” I remembered growing up, with ash falling like snow from nearby Southern California brush fires, when my thoughts veered into a totally different memory ditch. The weekend before Halloween the elementary schools in my town each held some sort of carnival. There were games of chance and costume contests and parades and continuous cartoon screenings and carnival food and… well, it was exactly the sort of thing that would keep us distracted at school all week. And we loved it. Naturally, when talk of such things begins eventually some kid will talk about how early they’re going to come and line up so they’ll be the first one into the carnival. Then another kid ups the ante by saying he’ll come even earlier. But beware, there’s a kid not saying anything whose out-scheming all the others to be the first one in the carnival.

bake sale and contest
the half sheet ditto announced
decorated cakes and pies
with a halloween theme
receive early admission
and five free tickets
grand prize: fifty dollars
for the winning baked goods
in junior and adult categories

for the cost of a cake mix
and a couple of eggs
i would be the first one
in the carnival!

squirreled away in the kitchen
i found a pamphlet
with cake decorating ideas
that once came in a box
of dried, shredded coconut

a jack-o-lantern cake
two round cake pans
dyed orange frosting
dyed orange coconut
black icing features
licorice string veins
was what my mother suggested
it would get me in, but…

fifty bucks!
to win that i’d need to make
the abraham lincoln
vampire turtle cake!

three cupcakes for his feet and head
another upturned for his hat
tortoise shell cooked in a bowl
green and brown coconut
gum drops for eyes
chocolate icing hat
a touch of red for bloody
wint-o-green lifesaver fangs
at least that was the idea
cooking cakes inside of bowls
guarantees crispy burnt edges
and a raw gooey center
upturned cupcakes only look like hats
if they were over-filled
and dying coconut in secondary hues
is ill-advised unless
you don’t mind bright green turtles
with purple-brown skin

six kids entered the contest
four girls who baked pies
and two boys who baked cakes~
and this kid named emory
who lived down my street

the only son of vietnamese bakers
who were trained by french chefs
whose mother wouldn’t let him play
and forced him to bake and decorate
cakes on the weekends
who entered a three-tiered
haunted house cake
with chocolate necco wafer tiles
candy glass windows
crushed oreo graveyard
carved marshmallow headstones
rubber monster toys all around
and a licorice brick chimney
that bubbled baking powder smoke
with an eye dropper-full
of vinegar
who pretended all week long
not to be listening to us talk about
getting in to the carnival

as emory’s father and his uncle
carried in the cake
the adults buzzed with excitement
while us kids shrank
in embarrassment and despair
even the girls who had a chance
who eyed each other and smirked
at my lumpen coconut disaster
silently apologized with weak smiles
in the face of their own defeat

cruelest of all
before we could get our free tickets
or enter the carnival
we had to hang around
for the official judging
and because of all the time spent
oohing and ahhing over emory
we weren’t released
until nearly twenty minutes
after the carnival started

catching up with friends
i pretended i was somewhere else
wherever they hadn’t been
insisting they just missed me
but they knew

at the end of the day
my parents bought
the only cake
that didn’t sell
at the bake sale

abraham lincoln
coconut vampire turtle
didn’t taste too bad
once you cut away the burnt bits
and scraped off all that

Something I always wondered about Emory was whether or not he ever got to eat any of the cakes his parents forced him to decorate. The one time he ever talked about it he said he hated cake decorating but he was clearly good at it.

Random Noodling is hosting Poetry Friday this week, with some frost on the leaves in New Hampshire… no, wait, it’s Robert Frost on leaves. But the weather looks like it’s shaping up for both statements to be true this weekend. Anyway, to one and all, a happy haunting!

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Betsy Bird, children’s librarian extraordinaire, can always be counted on for new and interesting leads (and ledes) when it comes to what’s going on in kidlitland. Yesterday (though I’m just catching it now) she opened with the arrival of a new picture book manifesto organized by Mac Barnett and signed by a collection of contemporary picture book authors and illustrators. You may choose to click on the image to enbiggen, or view it directly at its own piece of real estate on the internet at http://www.thepicturebook.co/

On the one hand, it’s always interesting when a group of like-minded people get together and make such a public proclamation because within their statements we find much, much deeper issues. On the other hand (or the back hand if you will) sometimes when like-minded people get together they don’t have enough distance or perspective to see their world as an outsider does. This dichotomy, partially represented in this manifesto, raises some interesting points about the picture book as it exists today.

As the opening salvo, being tired of hearing that the picture book is dying, and at the same time tired of pretending it isn’t, the manifesto acknowledges its own pushmi-pullyu stance. The undersigned are willing to admit to a certain amount of laziness among their ranks provided other guilty parties accept their share of the blame. But who, exactly, are the other parties in this affair? Picture book authors, naturally, but I don’t think they are entirely at fault here. Though not named, a closer reading hints that editors, parents and book reviewers might need to step up and take some responsibility as well.

Here are some points in the proclamation that caught my eye.

We need a more robust criticism to keep us original.

As a reviewer of books for children and young adults the attitude that bothers me most is this notion that we shouldn’t be critical of these books, that we should be positive. Better, I’ve been told, to say nothing at all than to give a book a negative review. After all, not every book is for every reader, and simply because the book doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it wouldn’t find a warm, loving home elsewhere. But the point of a negative review, done correctly, both expresses the reviewer’s opinion and suggests key points that failed that particular reviewer. Just yesterday I wrote two negative reviews for the other blog (to appear in coming days), one a novel in verse that just didn’t hold my attention enough for me to want to finish, and a picture book that felt both derivative and brought up, for me, a little-discussed troubling subject about the point and purpose of zoos. I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of reviewing (though if someone else wanted to I’d be flattered) but if, as the picture book manifesto states, we want to see more original works from the authors of books for children we need to keep the criticism robust, and that means it can’t all be sunshine and rainbow-excreting unicorns.

What this point touches on also is something perhaps not widely understood outside of art schools and MFA programs, and that’s the rigor of peer criticism that challenges and pushes writer and artist alike into new territory. As a student no one likes hearing that their story sounds exactly like that already published (yet unknown to the budding writer) or that their photographic subject has already been done, and more effectively, by another before them. But without these the apprentice does not push further, and this becomes more important once they have moved into journeyman and mastery where their work becomes more solitary. If the voices of criticism soften with time then so does the artist, to the point of repetition and safety.

The tidy ending is often dishonest.

This is interesting because often the tidiest endings are simply happy ones. And honest endings can be difficult to come by without either heavy moralizing or a heavy hand at message. The tidy ending exists because the tidy ending is easy. So here we hear a song of the messy ending, the honest ending that forces parents and other adults into the difficult position of actually having to have an open and direct conversation with their young charges. True, the adults can choose to tidy up the endings themselves and gloss over the unpleasantries, but doing so is equally beneficial as it teaches children who they can trust and when. Somewhere along the way a child’s BS sensor becomes activated through external forces – a toy that doesn’t perform as advertised, an adult who wiggles out of a promise through a technicality of language – and when it happens with books (and the adults that choose, or read to, them) the damage is done. I’ve seen enough anecdotal parent-child behavior to know that the adult who prefers to present a tidy world to children is surprised later to find a child who dislikes reading because it isn’t honest… or a child who distrusts and holds no respect for adults who don’t trust or respect them enough to be honest.

We should know our history.

This is true of all things, and I can’t help but feel this is a sideways swipe at editors and publishers, but I can see how this applies to picture book illustrators in particular. It was true thirty years ago (really? thirty?) when I was in art school and I’ve seen evidence of it recently; many an illustration major enters school without the slightest conception of working on picture books, discovers this new avenue of post-graduate revenue, and produces a book or two as final portfolio without having really studied the field. In the same way that a lot of contemporary film directors seem to not have seen any movies older than decade back, many picture books appear to be variations on a theme written by tone-deaf composers. It takes more than a cute, cartoony, or retro style to make a good picture book, but sadly there are far too many stories that either fall flat or cover well-trod territory. This is where more robust criticism comes in, and perhaps the challenge from editors to push for a more honest ending.

Finally, in the section “We Condemn” is this nugget.

The amnesiacs who treasure unruly classics while praising the bland today.

Well, now, just exactly who and what are we talking about here? To be an amnesiac is to forget, perhaps through no fault of their own. Treasuring a classic I get, but what constitutes and “unruly” classic, especially when it comes to picture books? This would suggest long and wordy picture books – the dread “picture story book” which many claim do not exist – and a certain blind fealty to said classics. Okay, I guess I can put that picture together in my head. But to have these same amnesiacs praising bland books today, I’m not sure I see how the two are connected. Are they suggesting that those who treasure unruly classics are a likely and large enough constituency that they also uniformly praise bland contemporary titles? If anything this reads like an insider jab at particular and pointed professionals in the industry, whether they be above-reproach Caldecott skaters or entrenched editorial professionals, or perhaps a winking broadside aimed at the last of the old guard, the Barbars and Madelines and Ferdinands and the occasional old man with Caps for Sale. Without definitions I find this condemnation to be the weakest element of the manifesto.

All in all, I find this sort of self-examination refreshing. I don’t know that a group of middle grade or young adult authors could pull off the same feat – in fact I think it might be the sort of thing that would divide any movement into camps faster than zombies and unicorns, or yeti and bigfoot, or whatever the mode of the day may be. Perhaps what this proclamation truly needs is a name for its self-identified group, something that can be both a form of marketing and a way of monitoring those who follow these tenants. They want to be held accountable, then they should identify themselves accordingly so that we can hold their feet to the fire.

Otherwise its all just words words words. We need pictures to make this revolution stick! Show us what you got, you undersigned, you.

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What do the creative minds behind some of the largest internet and computing companies know that they rest of the world doesn’t? How about the fact that technology in the classroom might not be such a good thing?

In a story printed in the New York Times yesterday it appears that many employees from companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard prefer to send their kids to private schools – The Waldorf school to be exact – where technology is forbidden in the classroom and not recommended in the home. While schools across the country rush to get technology into the hands of kids, into the classrooms, where kids as young as ten years old are learning how to produce PowerPoint presentations, the children of creative minds behind the technology have become model citizens of a different kind of back-to-basics movement.

This not only makes perfect sense to me, it smacks of common sense.

What exactly do we want the focus of childhood education to be, the content or the method of delivery? Do we want slow, methodical thinking, or work that is produced quickly to standards that assume comprehension comes from uniform presentation?

When spelling errors are auto-corrected, and where homonyms go unchecked, how are young minds supposed to develop an understanding of language without the journey that is the dictionary? In ancient times when a spelling error in a draft of a report meant a trip to the dictionary, not only was the spelling of the word reinforced but so what it’s meaning and usage. Better still, in staring at an open book of words the destination toward one words often led to the discovery of new ones. It was just as easy to get lost exploring words as it is to become distracted by an incoming notice of a facebook status update; which of the two is more beneficial to a student? These days even an ereader, with its ability to give you the definition of any highlighted word, doesn’t offer the same sense of exploration that a dead-tree dictionary does.

Have you tried living without a computer for a week, or even a couple of days? Last week my hard drive gave out and I was forced to be without my electronic tether. Though I still had some access via my smart phone for basic email and internet connectivity I found it was more of a hassle than it was worth. Without the distractions of email notifications and chat pop-ups or even the instant access to look up whatever struck my fancy of the moment I found myself slowing down and speeding up at the same time. Suddenly there was time to read – and reflect on my reading in a thoughtful, leisurely manner – without the feeling that I was “missing” something else. I was able to tackle a project in the home that benefitted from my not constantly “needing” to check in with email or get lost in flitting blog reading. Because I owned the time I was able to plan it better, and the result was finishing up my home office in a single day, a task that had eluded me for well over a year. Imagine how much better-focused kids might be if they had to budget their physical time without the distractions of digital time sucking it away from them.

Back in the pre-computer days of early child development there were studies warning against adults giving children coloring books. The science suggested that a sort of learned developmental dyslexia occurred when young minds were taught to keep within the lines, preventing their hands and arms from learning how to form shapes freely. Kids who had learned to contain their hand-eye coordination within a smaller, tighter space did not possess the confidence of motor skills to form basic letters, where kids who had been allowed to throw their arms wildly across black fields of paper (and walls, and floors) developed a confidence of movement that rendered shape-making easy. Those who understood the teaching methods of the Montessori schools were not surprised by this. Computers, tablet screens, keyboards, all of this focus narrows the scope of a child’s developmental attention to a space two feet in front of them, with limited hand movements and the confined space that prevents spacial exploration. Add this to the fact that physical education classes are often not required, that recess and free time to play is limited, and you have a society of children being raised for a life of cubicles.

I don’t believe The Waldorf way or the Montessori method are the only models, but what they share in common is an understanding that educating young minds has to do with unhurried, undistracted thought and an exploration of the physical world. What the creative elite in SIlicon Valley understand is that creative thinking can be taught, and learned, and technology is more of a hinderance to education than a panacea.

Perhaps when the crypto anarchists are finished occupying wall street they can turn their attention to public education.

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First, I want to thank everyone for dropping by last week when I was hosting Poetry Friday. It was a bit of a crazy weekend, and it turned out that the computer problems I was having behind the scenes were, indeed, part of a very real and very large problem. Anyway, that was fun!

So last week I shared my tale of woe as a kid in a computer costume that just. didn’t. work. A few years later my friend Marc and I hatched a plot to come away with the largest Halloween haul in the history of trick-or-treating. No false modesty here, we pulled it off, much to the horror of our parents. Two pillow cases, full to the point they nearly didn’t close, each.

red and orange
leaves of fall

two boys scheming
candy haul

making costumes
planning route

counting houses
lotsa loot

right at sunset

house to house
two boys careen

pillow cases
weighted down

“we musta hit
half the town!”

kitchen table
piled high

candy mountain
year’s supply

picking favorites
making trades

parents tossing
things homemade

tightly rationed
(sneak a lot)

candy? naught!

“next year we won’t
mess around,

next year we take
the WHOLE town!”

I think the worst part is when you’ve already eaten all the “good” candy and all that’s left are banana taffies and waxy hard butterscotch wrapped in cellophane. Question for you commenters: what is your least favorite candy? Or what candy do you like that no one else does that guarantees no one will try to take it from you? For me, I can’t stand sour candies, and I’ll eat the Necco wafers. Bonus if it’s an all-chocolate Necco pack. They aren’t my favorite, but I don’t have the same problems other people seem to have with them.

Want more treats that won’t ruin your teeth (at least I hope they don’t!)? Head on over to Jama’s Alphabet Soup where this week’s Poetry Friday is congregating.

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(SOUND: A computer fan WHIRRING, becoming increasingly LOUDER as it revs up its RPMs)

ANNOUNCER: When was the last time you backed-up you’re hard drive?

GAL: I don’t know. Doesn’t the computer do that on its own?

DUDE: Back-up my hard drive? You mean on my computer?

ANNOUNCER: You use your computer for everything these days, from shopping online to gathering information to keeping up with the news.

(SOUND: TYPING furiously underneath)

GAL: I’ve got my family photo album right at my fingertips.

DUDE: My entire CD collection is there, all 900 disks worth!

ANNOUNCER: But did you realize that you’re just one small, electronic blip from losing it all, one sudden disk drive failure from having everything you own disappear?

(SOUND: A mechanical K-THUNK and the WHIRRING DOWN of the fan, SILENCE.)

GAL: Hello?

DUDE: Wait! Where did all my music go?

(MUSIC: Jaunty LIBRARY tune from the 1960s)

ANNOUNCER: It can come without warning, and when it does there is little you can do to bring it all back unless you’ve properly backed-up your drive. Gone are all your precious memories, your hard work, even your passwords, preferences and settings. Gone, in a single instant.

DUDE: Bummer.

ANNOUNCER: And when you do finally get your computer operational it could take days before you can sort through re-establishing all your accounts, relocating and building your bookmarks, figuring out exactly what was lost and whether or not you could replace it. And for you writers out there, imagine all those pages and pages you’ve written that suddenly won’t be there.

GAL: I think I might cry.

ANNOUNCER: It doesn’t have to be this way. Whether you use the cloud or an external hard drive, all it takes is a little time putting things in place now so that you can avert tragedy later. And backing up is easy. In some cases you can set up a program to do it for you automatically overnight so that you can sleep soundly knowing that, short of an electromagnetic pulse, you won’t lose any of your valuable digital files.

DUDE: Electromagnetic what?

ANNOUNCER: For the health and sanity of you, your loved ones, and your computer, back-up your hard drive.


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The other day I was talking to my teen girls, I don’t remember about what exactly, but I casually mentioned that something-or-other had come to be expected now that we’re living in another depression.

“It’s a recession, dad, not a depression,” one was quick to correct.

But it’s not a recession, I told them, it’s a depression we’re living in. They looked at me, shocked. A recession, well, that’s something the nation recovers from over time, eventually. But a depression? That’s serious. They study the Depression in school and things were really bad then. So if just saying that is enough to cause them to rethink their world then perhaps we need to change the message. Perhaps we need to look around and see that we really are living in a depression.

Of course, we’d know this if we weren’t so constantly distracted by technology and entertainment to see it. Would you like to prove this to yourself? Put down your smart phones and laptops for a month, turn off the TV and go to an actual sporting event or movie in a theatre, use public transit or walk everywhere you need to go no matter the weather, read only newspapers for information, and pay for everything that week using only cash. Doing this, putting yourself physically back into the world, you’ll start to see more of what’s around you. It’ll look damn depressing.

With this idea of my girls thinking we are only in a recession (call it deep, call it double dip, whatever) and not a depression I began to wonder if our well-honed ability to distract ourselves has prevented us from truly being able to have an effective protest. I was thinking this last night while I was making dinner and listening to the radio when a story came on featuring a profile of an article in the Sunday New York Times about how the Occupy Wall Street protests were creating a sort of public architecture. The Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman had enthusiastically embraced the movement’s occupation of a public/private space as a reinvention of a democratically formed community, with its own organically borne standards and definitions of that space. Kimmelman’s article boldly skips along drawing comparisons with Vietnam protests taking over Central Park in the 60s, Bejing and Berlin in ’89, the democracy movement in Cairo, all as a through-line to the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccoti Park.

It’s an interesting idea on the face of it but the tone of both the article and the radio interview struck me as just being a little too brightly off-key, like a child singing too loud to compensate for their fear of forgetting the lyrics. The lyrics in this case are the echoes of the Great Depression, and the exuberance of all this communal democracy drowns out the reality that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the modern manifestation of the Hoovervilles of the Depression, not some bold political wind of change.

Replace the displaced dust-bowl farmers and displaced factory workers with un- and under-employed Americans who have been convinced to amass bad debt and accept lower wages and these Occupy Wall Street communities look like nothing less than the shanty villages that sprung up during the Hoover administration before “too big to fail” became a viable means to keep financial solutions alive. It pains me to think of these protest encampments springing up across the country under Obama’s watch because I fully believe he inherited these problems and doesn’t have what is necessary to fix or change things. I think the movement may turn out to be a true political zeitgeist with the ability to shift the direction the country takes, but perhaps not in the ways we imagined.

The only positive hope I can hold onto through this repeat of history is that as these Obamopoleis continue to spring up and take root that eventually the government can and will deliver the necessary reforms and programs that place us at the cusp of an FDR-like change in civic and civil responsibility. I’d like my girls to see a country that stopped yelling at one another long enough to build something good. I’d like for them to witness what it means when people work together to ensure that everyone gets the same chances, that there is more life than playing video games on a touch screen, or believing that if enough people repeat the same fiction about living in a recession then surely things aren’t so bad that they need to worry about them.

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Earlier this week I realized I missed by other blog’s anniversary, and today I’m featuring some old posts as tweets (see yesterday’s announcement here). In looking through the archives i came across an occasional non-review post, a tangent, a rant, something that would have shown up on this blog had it existed at the time.

One of those was my appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut that I wrote when he died. I originally thought I would simply add it to the links but then thought it probably deserved a home here as well, so I’m republishing it.  It’s as much about me as it is about him, and I’d like to think he wouldn’t have minded it so much.

My Vonnegut
originally posted at the excelsior file
Thursday, April 12, 2007

It occurred to me at some point in the last year that I should be thinking about writing a personal obituary for Kurt Vonnegut. It wasn’t that I thought his passing was inevitable, I merely wanted to be prepared because I knew the moment I heard the news I probably wouldn’t be able to articulate my ideas and feelings. I kept putting it off, occasionally convincing myself that it was ghoulish to believe the man didn’t have more years in him, that I still had plenty of time.

Looks like I missed the deadline.

It started in my garage. In my early teens the garage became one of those in-house sanctuaries for exploration and time alone. It was there that I discovered boxes of private things my dad owned. This didn’t initially strike me as odd as my parents clearly held different personal and political views and to prevent discord they defaulted to abstinence. Politics were not discussed because they supported different parties. We owned more music than books but because they had different tastes (mom dug Motown, dad was a country-folkie) it was never played. Apparently there were books belonging to my dad that didn’t belong with what few books we owned in the one bookcase in the living room.

It wasn’t personal taste that caused the segregation of those books, but the dangerousness of their subject matter — Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) by Dr. David Reuben and Welcome To the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It might have seemed rational with my hormones raging that I would have gravitated to the book about sex but a quick glance at its contents scared me. The book made repeated references to the sexual practices and activities of men and women, and to my teenage mind that meant adults, which included my parents, and I didn’t want any unsavory mental pictures. That left me the Vonnegut to puzzle out, which I did over the course of a month’s worth of bathroom visits. The bathroom was my other sanctuary and allowed me to read the book in secret. My parents probably thought I was masturbating.

The advantage of a short story collection is that you get a sampling of an author’s voice and talents. While there were stories that I appreciated — “Harrison Bergeron”, “D.P.” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” — I wasn’t quite satisfied. I felt like there was something more, something I wasn’t really getting. It was time to go to the library.

This Vonnegut person had a good smattering of books on the shelves, the most promising of which was Cat’s Cradle. I pulled it down and found a nook at the edge of the adult reading room and began reading. The chapters were short, like an early chapter book, but the story was told in an almost glib voice, staccato phrasing and disjointed. I didn’t get it, mostly because I was unfamiliar with the style. I put the book back and gave up on Vonnegut.

A month later in a casual conversation with a classmate named Po I found another person who’d heard of Vonnegut. No, she hadn’t just heard of him, she was practically an apostle. Her older brother had hipped her to his books and she was fan enough to recount all their plots in great detail. What she told me not only rekindled my interest but was exactly the confirmation I needed to know going in: “He’s a cynical bastard, Elz, you’ll like him.” I think that’s what she said. She might have actually said “you’re like him.”

As luck would have it in these situations Vonnegut had a new book out called Breakfast of Champions. I had no idea what I was in for but I was determined to figure out what this Vonnegut person was all about. There were raised eyes from the ladies at the check-out counter of my library but nothing more. I had planned to wait until I got home to start reading but curiosity got the better of me. And there I was, standing in the middle of the sidewalk reading the words and looking at the pictures (pictures! juvenile scrawl in the author’s own hand!) thinking: I can’t believe they would publish this.

In his own way, Vonnegut casually begins his book on matters that seem tangential to the story, or offered up as background. What he’s actually doing is setting up his leitmotifs and his riffs, a verbal overture if you will meant to fool you into thinking that the story’s coming, soon, sooner, just wait. In Breakfast of Champions there is talk of stories being published in nudie magazines, wedged between beaver shots, and for those who might be confused he offers his own drawings of what those photos would look like followed by a drawing of the animal it is compared with. I might not have been ready to deal with the realities of sex, but this I could understand!

And then a funny thing happened: I started liking books again, started liking reading. Over the course of seven years of formal education I had slowly had the joy of reading drained and beaten out of me. The initial flush of excitement that comes from being able to read for yourself had slowly been choked by endless worksheets full of directions, SRA booklets and Ginn & Co. readers with serviceable, workman-like stories designed for comprehension questions. The encouragement to read was still there, the library talks and the individual recommendations from teachers, but the joy had been deadened. By seventh grade the materials we were being introduced to had importance and carried weight as classics (or at the very least culturally significant) but there was little fun to be extracted from the exercise of reading, much less from the subject matter.

Vonnegut gave me hope. There were adults in the world writing books that were as outrageous as the British comedy that was being exported to PBS, full of the absurdities of mankind told with a dry acerbic wit. I got it, enough to send me back to Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. It sent me to the drama section for a script of a PBS television adaptation of his stories called Between Time and Timbuktu. I reread the short stories with a new eye. By the time I was in eighth grade and had to write a book report/personal narrative in long-form (over 12 pages) I not only wrote in my version of Vonnegut’s style, I made him a character in the report. I used to say Vonnegut taught me how to write but that’s not true; Vonnegut gave me permission to borrow his voice until I could find my own, and he gave me a few hints about where to find it as well.

Vonnegut’s name attached to a review in either Newsweek or Time made mention of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth. I read Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint as a result. Comparisons to Twain were made, but as much as I appreciate Twain’s wit I never cared for the style. Understanding this didn’t make it easier for me to find the kinds of voices I was looking for in literature but it did lead me down some unusual paths. I was too impatient to actually learn the finer points of craft in my own writing — I would race to tell a story but skimp on details, butchered spelling, sucked at editing for clarity — but I didn’t let piddling details stop me. Another friend once referred to some poetry I attempted as Ginsburg-esque, an insult at the time because I wanted to be forward-looking, not beatnik. When it came time to head off to college I brought along two treasured authors: Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski.

Perfect for art school.

I suppose the death watch on Vonnegut officially begins in the mid-1980’s. In the same year he published his last great book (in my opinion) Galapagos and attempted suicide. There was, in the back of my mind, a hope that one day I might be able to meet the man, that I would be in a place where we would both have something to talk about to each other. More than fanboy idolatry and perhaps something close to peer. Or master and student. But if my onset of puberty happened on-time my creative maturity has taken somewhat longer and the thought of ever being even a fledgling disciple long past.

At a certain point when my beloved creatives began to shuffle off this mortal coil I realized my time with each of them was precious and limited. In the ever-present question of whom I would invite to a fantasy dinner for conversation the list of possible names on the roster keeps getting shorter. Up until yesterday Vonnegut’s name was at the head of the table. Robert Altman was at that table until last year. Something tells me J.D. Salinger is going to bow out before I can send the invitation.

I figured Vonnegut would play the wise old cuss until the very end. For all his doom and gloom he held in his heart a place for the redemption of humanity, no matter how much he argued for the other side. That is until recently. The election and re-election of George Bush and the policies and actions of the Bush administration finally broke his resolve. Here is a man who, as a US Infantryman, survived the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II and witnessed all of human history for the second half of the 20th century and could still find glimmers of hope that we weren’t headed for self-destruction as a species. But for the last six years he has had that hope whittled away until finally, in his essays for In These Times (later collected in Man Without a Country) he had concluded there was no longer any reason to hold out hope.

In short, George W. Bush killed Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut had anticipated dying from his addiction to cigarettes. He considered it an elegant form of suicide. Even twenty years after his official suicide attempt he was still going strong, still smoking, still unable to kill himself. Much like his faith in humans to not blow themselves into smithereens, that optimism that informed his cynicism kept him alive. Like many of us, we want to know how the movie is really going to turn out. The minute he began to feel all was lost was when he began to give up. I know he died from brain injuries suffered after a fall in his home, but somewhere in that brain the switch to fight for survival had been flipped to the off position.

In time, as with all writers, all that remains is the voice. For those who have left us many years ago the sting of that loss is dulled, if present at all. Those born today will not miss Vonnegut the person for lack of the intangible sense of having walked the Earth at the same time he did. Somehow, being alive in the time of a writer gives their voice a certain meaning, a sense of something shared. In the end the voice still carries on, in books, in recordings, in memories of speeches given. The voice is time-stamped, dated. He has said all he will ever say.

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a County

Good-bye, Blue Monday.

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Earlier this week I was stumbling through some old posts from my review blog, the excelsior file, and I noticed something that surprised me: I missed the blog’s fifth anniversary.

Granted, I’m sure the blog didn’t notice either and there were no hurt feelings, but still, five years. Five years and nearly 500 posts. If I’d been thinking ahead I would have tried to land that 500th post on October 3rd, the actual anniversary.

I felt obligated to do something and in the moment I decided to re-run (and tweet) the first book I reviewed on the blog, Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger. Then I got the idea to look through the posts and see what else I’d written about over the years. Man, there’s some wacky stuff in there!

Hey! I’ve got an idea! Why not share some of it on Twitter!

So tomorrow, Sunday, October 16, from 8 AM to midnight Eastern, I’ll be posting a tweet to a different review every 45 minutes. That’s 24 selected review, rants, observations, and a couple of Poetry Fridays thrown in (before they migrated to this blog), 24 peeks into what I’ve been reading and writing over the last five years. The selection is fairly random, consisting of favorite books, lesser-known books, old books, new books, and a couple of snarky reviews just because I was really feeling it when I wrote them.

I certainly don’t expect anyone will be sitting around waiting for my tweets all day, but if you’re interested i’ve given them all an #excelsiorfile hashtag for easier locating.

I’m not fishing for blogiversary gifts here, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop by the blog and check out some reviews tomorrow.


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Friends, Poets, Netizens,
Welcome to the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Fall is my favorite season, and October is my favorite month. I have so many very strong memories latched to October that most other months can’t really compete. The fiery changing of the seasons, the promise of Halloween and whiff of Thanksgiving around the corner, the apple-crisp air, the renewed promise of a school year that hasn’t yet gone off track, the annual brush fires that send ash into the sky and turn the sunsets orange… oops, I guess that’s more of an LA thing.

Halloween, even today, still inspires me to want to dress in an awesome costume, though I rarely get the opportunity. This year, however, it looks like I have two costume events back-to-back and preparations are underway to pull together something a step above thrown-together. And in thinking about the future I am reminded of the past, when I was a kid and we were both too poor and too creative to buy a costume from a store.

sigma nine

cardboard box
spray-painted silver
rectangular spy hole
between two large mag reels
which served as eyes
for the sigma nine

old stove
and a tilt-out tray
fashioned from the flaps
cut from the cardboard box
of the sigma nine

limited vision
no ventilation
awkward mechanics
sigma nine

can’t hold flashlight
can’t ring doorbells
can’t store candy
sigma nine

in flat monotone
are you a robot?

door after door
no one understood
a washing machine?
a tape recorder?
a robot from space?
no! i am the future!
sigma nine!

sweating and dizzy
after only one block
the box was replaced
by a mask and a cape
the future could wait
for sigma nine

Looking back, it’s funny that my most elaborate costume was totally impractical in terms of trick-or-treating. And why would anyone give a computer candy anyway? I did much better dressed as a masked thief in the night and I don’t think I ever made myself as elaborate a costume as that since.

The Midday Gather-round

Whew! Well, that’s everyone up until noon. I think. If I’m missing anyone, give me a shout in the comments. I’ll try to check in with further updates tonight but things are looking to get hectic. I’ll also check back in over the weekend, and you can always click Mister Linky link below and click-through to everyone else without any obligation on your part!

The Saturday Eye-Opener

Things seem to be slowing down, but perhaps there will be some weekend additions? I’ll check back in tomorrow for a final update.

Your turn. Click the Mister Linky link below and be sure to fill in your name (and the title in parens). Oh, and leave a comment as well!

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There are many who believe that Death works alone, but he has many relatives all plying the family trade. While Death certainly is the one who comes and plucks the soul in the final moment his Uncle Pestilence and Aunt Famine will often prepare the soul in advance, as will his cousins War, Neglect, and Madness. Of them all the most morbidly playful is Death’s younger sister, Misfortune. She is like a cat toying with a mouse, amusing herself all the while giving her selected playthings a false sense of hope for escape.

A man woke up one morning and found himself served with eviction papers. Through no fault of his own he had been convinced he could afford his home but hadn’t fully realized the nature of economics and was suddenly without a place to live. He sold what possessions he could, stored the keepsakes, and went in search of a temporary housing.

After taking up a spare room with a friend the man suddenly found himself made redundant by his employer who had sent his job overseas to be done at a fraction of the cost. He went in search of new work but discovered he was considered too old for most positions, though the employers couldn’t admit that by law, and they reasoned the man would surely find the work beneath him and leave. Why train a new employee who was worth more than they could pay when they could find a college intern to do the job for free anyway? Without income to contribute to the food and utilities he consumed at his friend’s place the man was forced to move on.

The man knew of a neighborhood where property was often neglected and found a building with a basement that was easily accessible and unoccupied. For the cost of a padlock he was able to secure for himself a suitable room that contained a wash basin with running water and a few electrical outlets that worked. Entering and exiting in the cover of night the man was able to outfit the basement room with discarded furniture and a bed he built from cargo pallets and a piece of foam. Which was all very well as the season had changed and the rains had come. Daily the man would go out in search of work, scrounging meals from the trash cans at cafes and the dumpsters of restaurants. He would collect recyclables as well and used the money he gained to wash his clothes and by essential toiletries in order to maintain whatever level of civility he could. He was destitute, and growing less ashamed to admit it, but did what he could to not make it appear so obvious when you saw him.

But winter came, and the basement was cold and damp. He managed to find a small space heater and hung old wool blankets used them to build a room within the basement room to contain the heat better, but he became sick with cold and it progressed to pneumonia. Too weak to work, barely strong enough to go to the free clinic for antibiotics, the man spent weeks in the cold basement unable to scrounge for food or collect recyclables. His skin grew pale, circles darkened around his dull eyes, and staring into the vibrating red coils of the space heater the man was certain things could not get worse.

He woke to the acrid smell of smoke stinging his nostrils. There was noise and shouting in the night, chaos as people who lived above him hurried to leave the building. A siren in the distance made it clear that the building was on fire. The man grabbed what few possessions he could and stood on the sidewalk with the other residents watching the building burn to the ground. Still weak, the man collapsed and next found himself in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. He was delirious as he looked at the EMT who was tending to him – he was certain that looking over the paramedic’s shoulder was a beautiful woman with kind, warm eyes and a smile that wrinkled as it beamed. In that brief moment he knew Miss Fortune had been with him all along and that it was only in this state that he could see her.

Suddenly there was a jolt. The ambulance had been slammed into by another vehicle and knocked onto its side. Only the man survived the accident and was barely able to free himself from the stretcher before both vehicles were engulfed in flame. The man took his vision to be a sign that Miss Fortune had smiled down him, that she was releasing him from her spell, his surviving the accident was proof. He had survived so much during the previous two years and in that moment of sudden clarity could actually feel himself getting stronger.

He spent the night wandering the streets of his town and a new life became clear to him, a new path. He knew of a shelter that would provide a shower and an opportunity to prepare himself for job interviews, and he knew exactly where he would find a job. He chided himself for not remembering about these things before this moment, but he felt so good that all he could do was laugh at his own folly. As it was early in the morning, too early for the shelter to be open, he took a seat in a bus shelter across the street and waited. As the sun rose a pregnant woman came to wait for the bus and the man stood to giver her his seat.

It was a stupid miscalculation, a clumsiness perhaps brought on by all that had come before, but when the man stood up he stumbled over his own foot and fell head-first into one of the steel corners of the bus shelter. The impact caused the man’s brain to swell and hemorrhage and he died after being in a coma for three days.

Miss Fortune had been with him to the very end, though she had help along the way.



Tales From The New Grimmoire is an on-going project wherein I rework all the stories in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes. Today’s story was adapted from #240 “Misfortune” and is a blend of our current political climate and a dose of personal experience. Or, as they say, “based on a true story…”

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There once was a prince so anxious to get married that he asked his father to find him a bride, quick. His father, the king, being oblivious to his son’s urgency, agreed.

“Your wish is my command, son. However, you must be married to nothing less than a princess so we must send word that we are seeking the finest princess in the land.”

“Whatever, pops. Just hurry!”

A proclamation was sent throughout the land, and soon the palace was overrun with young ladies claiming to be princesses. The prince pointed to one of the princesses at random.

“Her! I want her!”

But the king did not think the girl the prince chose was a princess, and under interrogation it turned out the king was right, she wasn’t a princess. In fact, none of the girls who showed up were princesses.

“I want a wife! I want a wife! I want a wife!” the prince shouted, like an impatient child. “At this rate I’ll be dead before I have a wife!”

The queen – who it should be known was the true power in the kingdom, for she was wise and could see beyond the surface of many things – noted the peculiarity of her son’s behavior and decided to step in.

“Calm yourself, my son. We shall find what you are looking for soon enough.”

Soon enough there appeared at the door a young woman. She was bedraggled, her clothes muddy and faded, her hair in tangles.

“You can NOT be serious,” said the prince. “Girl, you’re a mess.”

“You come to us like this and expect us to believe you’re a princess?” said the king.

“I came from a distant country, as fast as I could,” said the princess. “In order to gain a chance I had to forgo traveling with a retinue as they would slow me down. True, my clothes have faded in the sun and become muddy with travel, but I felt if I was to have a chance against those who lived closer I required haste as my master.”

The queen was pleased, for here was a girl as desperate as her son to marry and she hardly seemed to care to whom she was married. And so the queen devised a plan to test her suspicions.

“I know an ancient test to tell if, indeed, she is a princess and worthy of our son. She shall spend the night with us and in the morning we will know.”

“But how?” said the prince.

“There are ways. Now, my son, I need to you take to your bedchamber and prepare to share your bed.”

“Mother!” said the prince.

“What?” said the princess.

“Do as I say or no one shall get what they want!” barked the queen. And once the prince’s bedchamber was ready the queen took the princess aside and spoke with her.

“My son will not bother you in the night, but he is rough in bed, tossing and turning the whole night long. If you should be his bride you will need to prove you can sleep with him the night through.”

The princess agreed, reluctantly, and reported to the prince’s bedchamber as instructed.

“My mother has lost it,” said the prince.

“Trust me, she has nothing on my mother,” said the princess. “Well, let’s make the best of this.”

The prince and the princess went to bed and were soon visited by the queen.

“I have brought you both some warm milk to help you sleep,” she said, carefully handing them each a cup of warm milk. The milk seemed to have an instant calming effect on the prince and princess and they were both nearly asleep before the queen left the room. What they didn’t know what that the queen had added medicines to their milk, a deep sleeping potion for her son and another for the princess that would cause her to wake up after a short spell.

Within an hour the princess awoke and quietly gathered some bedclothes to sleep alone curled up on the floor next to the fire. Meanwhile the prince slept as deeply as the queen intended, so deeply that he lost control of himself and wet the bed during the night.

Sleeping on the floor was rough but the princess knew it would keep her alert that she could wake before the prince and pretend to have slept with him through the night. As she heard the prince stir she rushed up from her place by the fire, tossed the bedclothes back onto the bed, and proceeded to the window as if greeting the day. The prince, shivering and cold from having slept on a wet mattress, sat up embarrassed and alarmed.

“Good morning,” the prince said cautiously.

“And to you, you highness,” said the princess.

At the sound of their voices the queen entered, having spent the night camped outside their room.

“Ah, children,” said the queen,  “How well did you sleep?”

“I had a most marvelous sleep, one of the best ever,” said the princess.

“Really?” said the queen.

“Oh, yes,” said the princess. “Trust me, I’ve been forced to sleep on beds full of hardened peas, and beds full of pebbles, and all sorts of lumpy beds.”

“How odd,” said the prince, although he was grateful that the princess didn’t seem to have noticed the condition of their own bed.

“Yeah,” said the princess, “I told you about my mother.”

“And you, my son? How did you sleep?”

“I?” said the prince. “I slept the sleep of angels in a heavenly pillow of cloud.”

The queen nodded and smiled, pleased that he test had worked.

“I suspected something was up, given the desperation with which you both wanted to be wed, and so I devised the pee test.”

“The pea test?” said the princess. “But that was the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever lay upon.”

“The most comfortable mattress you’ve ever lied about more like it,” said the queen. “For if you had spent the night in that bed you most certainly would have been most uncomfortable sleeping in the prince’s urine.”

“What?!” said the princess.

The princess ripped off the bedclothes and saw that, indeed, most of the mattress had been soaked. The prince and the princess looked at each other in alarm, then to the queen.

“I see right through you both. Neither of you desires a partner of the opposite sex and are hoping to use your position and marriage to hide the fact from the world. But a marriage of convenience, built on lies and deception toward one another, will only suffice to make you both miserable.”

“Well, what now, mother?”

“You shall both be married.”

“But you just said…” the princess sputtered.

“Yes, because the rest of the world is not yet ready to accept who and what you both are, it is better than you appear married in public and live openly with each other in private. The outside world need not know what you do in private and with whom, and I suspect that you will be able to work out a suitable arrangement. I only want what any mother would want, if their hearts were true and honest, for their children to be happy. If you will allow it, I will set about with the marriage arrangements and make sure all runs smoothly. There is some trickiness involved in your producing an heir, but we can discuss those matters at a future point. If you can make a ceremony of your happiness I can assure you true happiness will follow. Are we agreed?”

With this the prince and the princess fell to their knees, each kissing one of the queen’s hands.

And they lived happily ever after, but not the way most people imagined they did.

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