Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

"the night we drank cold wine"

I recently did edits on a story that I hadn't looked at in a very long time.

In 2009, I wrote a story that was supposed to be about fairy balls, wine, and dancing. In 2010, I sold it to Electric Velocipede, where it sat comfortably and lazily while EV went through some changes in their publishing situation and I slowly forgot about it. In October 2012, I received an email full of editorial comments for a story that felt like a distant, time-travelling cousin.

When I wrote "The Night We Drank Cold Wine," I felt terrible for one of the characters. You poor, dear girl, I would say to her in my head, how unlucky and foolish can you possibly be? I could, as a writer, understand her choices. I could not, as a person, quite get the feel for them.

Three years later, I get it.

This probably says something about my powers of clairvoyance or the salutary qualities of either fiction or three years of living.

"The Night We Drank Cold Wine" is, at long last, out in Electric Velocipede #25. You can read it HERE. If you do, I'd love to hear what you think. I am astonishingly nervous. This is only my second ever published story and I'm still a-quiver with the novelty and terror of the experience.

It starts like this:

Being late, Rhodes says, is just a symptom of bad luck. It doesn't have anything to do with the person waiting.

He tells me this so I can imagine all the unlucky things that keep him from where he wants to be: misplaced keys, traffic jams, a stopped clock, bad directions. Sometimes, Rhodes leaves without thinking about how to get where he's going. He wanders from his door, takes the circuitous route, and ends up somewhere else, having never paused to check the time. When he's really late, he calls.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

the orange tree

The woman's life hadn't lived up to expectation. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disappointment. Every morning, she woke up, put on some clothes, and went to sit in the vacant lot that she could have seen just fine from her bedroom window. She sat next to the tree that grew in the center of the vacant lot and waited.

Her chair was one of those fold-out deals with a mesh seat designed to stay dry, stay clean, hold up under sun and rain and sagging posteriors, but it failed in all respects except the last, which it only accomplished with great resentment.

The woman sat in the chair and shifted, uncomfortably.

Every now and then, a young man or a young woman stumbled into the vacant lot, their faces sunburned and knees at the point of collapse. "Thank God," they would say. Or, "Holy smokes." Or, they wouldn't say anything at all and instead staggered forward as if they were, at last, arriving somewhere.

And the woman would say, "Please, take your pick." And the young man or young woman would step up to the tree, barely seeing the woman sitting in the chair beside it. They reached into the dark, glossy leaves and pulled down an orange, perfect every time. "Your heart's desire," the woman would say, "I hope you like it." The young people rarely heard. They were gone, the orange clutched to their chests, their feet kicking up high behind them. They never bothered to say a simple thank you, never offered the smallest gesture of gratitude, never thought that, maybe, the woman might appreciate something from the cheap coffee shop on the corner, that a hot cup of coffee, in a situation like this, goes a long way to making up for a lack of manners.

Skimp on the charity and you might as well call it low-grade misery.

One morning, the woman woke up. She put on some clothes and went to the vacant lot where the tree was waiting.

"Tree," she said, "don't you think enough is enough?"

The tree didn't answer. It was not that kind of tree. The woman wrapped her arms around its trunk and pulled. It was not a very large tree and, after struggling for some hours, the woman uprooted it. She lifted it onto her shoulders and began to walk. She walked out of the vacant lot. She walked past her house. She walked down the street and ignored the smell of burnt coffee coming from the shop on the corner. She walked until she got tired, and then she shifted the tree to her other shoulder and walked some more.

The woman walked out of the town, through a suburb, and on until she came to the beach. She put the tree down in the sand.

"Tree," she said, "this is your chance." She reached down into the tree's dark, glossy leaves and pulled out an orange. It was perfect: round and richly dimpled. The woman dug her fingers into the perfect flesh and pulled the orange apart.

A man tumbled out. He was small at first, having just emerged from an orange, and then he grew. He was handsome, he was naked, and he looked confused. "Where am I?" he asked.

"At the beach," the woman said.

"What is a beach?" The man was staring at her as if she were the only thing in the world. He couldn't be bothered, it seemed, to take in anything else, not the sand or the salted wind or the water stretching out to the sky.

"Are you serious?" the woman asked.

"I suppose so." The man was staring so hard that his eyes were beginning to water.

"Are you stupid?" the woman asked.

"I suppose I am."

The woman picked up the tree again. She dragged it to the ocean and pushed it in, slogging into the water until the waves started to pull the tree out instead of pushing it back to shore. The man watched her the entire time. It didn't occur to him to offer to help.

"Goodbye," the woman said.

"What does that mean?"

"It means you stay here and I go somewhere else." The woman walked back up the beach. There was water and sand in her shoes, but she ignored the discomfort. The man walked beside her for a little while, which was awkward since he was naked, and then behind her for a little more. Then he sat down on the side of the road. She hoped he would be alright. It was entirely possible that the tree had made a mistake, that he was someone else's heart's desire, someone who would find him on the side of the road and pick him up, despite the nakedness, in an act of good samaritan meeting hapless hitchhiker, a story to tell friends and children and grandchildren, solid evidence for the existence of luck or fate.

The woman thought about this as she walked back to the town where she lived, in a small house next to a vacant lot. There was a coffee shop on the corner, and when the woman put her hand in her pocket, she was pleased to discover a few bills, enough for a coffee and something sweet. She sincerely hoped she hadn't made a mistake.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

youth speaks

On Tuesday evening, I had the very great pleasure of joining Tristan and Mark (one of the most wonderful couples I know... think an excess of brains, beauty, and heart, multiplied by two) at a fundraiser for Youth Speaks. Youth Speaks is an organization that promotes the education and support of young people through spoken word, poetry, and writing. I had heard about them before, thought they sounded interesting, but never actually made the effort to investigate because I am both lazy and forgetful.

But, on Tuesday night... On Tuesday night, I saw these young people get up on a stage and perform poems to several hundred people. The poems were about their lives. Not poetic metaphors or images or strings of evocative rhythm set down in an attempt to make something readable, universal, or worthy of literary notice. These poems were raw communication, words and wishes and heart-wrenching feeling, laid out so bravely that they shocked me into remembering something about the importance of making art.

When you are lucky enough to do work as an artist, you are constantly thinking about what you are trying to say, what you are trying to make, how you are going to light the jet fuel of compassion, empathy, understanding, reaction... I think especially as a performing artist, you think about how you are going to reach that person on the other end, whether they are an actual audience member or some theoretical critical eye. You dig into your art and you are working on it, toiling over it, banging away with that ice axe on the frozen waters in people's souls.

And it's easy to forget how the making of art goes both ways. Just the act of trying to get something across, of boiling down the messiness inside you so someone else just might be able to understand, or enjoy, or be moved by what you have to say, is huge. It forces you to look hard at things and clarify. To say, this is what matters, this is what I feel, and this is what I believe.

Seeing those young people up on that stage made me remember that making art (poetry, music, stories, dance, whatever) is a chance to slam into the walls of your interior architecture, to figure out where they are and what they're made of, where you might find them splendid and where you might want to cut a door.

Tuesday was an inspiring night.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

tunes recently enjoyed no. 2

"Telephone/telephone/demon/telephone" - Beep!
Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D, Aria #2 - Hilary Hahn

I am terrible at making mix tapes. I've never had the knack of being able to figure out what makes one tune flow satisfyingly into another. The "shuffle" option makes me happy. As long as I have a grab bag of songs I like, the order I hear them in is of negligible importance... Except, sometimes, one song falls after another in such a fantastic way completely by accident that it makes me like both more.

"Telephone/telephone/demon/telephone" is a slightly unhinged wallop of noise. Lots of weird sounds enter in weird, but impeccably placed ways. My ears want to lean right into it to try to figure out what's going on and it somehow remains a happy exploration, a pleasant confusion instead of a resentful stumble... And then the Stravinsky piece comes in, alternating piercing stringency with these smooth, fatty folds of sound... And, for some reason, my brain thought this was the most splendid, most felicitous and delightful of combinations. I had to make a playlist just so I could keep hearing the two pieces one right after another.

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Benjamin Britten

I've always thought of Britten as being full of odd sounds, and odd distances between sounds, and while I've found most of his stuff that I've heard to be interesting and full of stuff to chew on, I never really liked it in a visceral way. There's a harshness and baldness that unsettled me, a sort of bleak earnestness that made me feel uncomfortable. But this opera is a pleasure. It's beautiful and funny, and it revels in its oddity and the satisfaction of making good noise; there are bits that make me think of someone jumping up and down in a spill of paint just to see the way it splashes. The whole thing is wonderful, but I love the "on the ground, sleep sound" bit (which also happens to be the easiest thing to find on YouTube, thanks to Wes Anderson).

"It Could Happen to You" - Lorin Benedict and Sam Ospovat

This is really strange. But, it's wonderful. Trust me. A combination of intensely bizarre scatting and wild, but delicious drums, the whole Passwords album is addictive. I never thought I would say that about something like this, but it's true.

This track is my favorite. It somehow manages to parade through both pure noise and song, unmooring meaning from speech and throwing explosives at my imagination. I start filling in dialogue, then drop that in favor of images, and drop that in favor of picturing the landscape of the sound. It's like having a really awesome, impressively compressed, completely insane version of "Fantasia" attacking your brain.

Beethoven symphonies nos. 1-9

I've become a Beethoven symphony junkie. They're so grand. Immensely gorgeous. Glorious and spectacular and epic, and honestly so. They're clear-hearted and unconfused, emotionally brash and absolute. Listening to them makes me feel like I need to push the edges of my own canvas out, but they also make me want to believe harder, feel more, go galloping around in neon.

I've been listening to the New York Philharmonic versions of these, directed by Leonard Bernstein, all conveniently streaming on Spotify.

Piano Concerto No. 2, Larghetto - Frederic Chopin

I've been listening to this compulsively over the past few days and every time I do, my eyes well up at about two minutes in, all harshness, all cynicism, all coolness and flippancy collapsing under the onslaught of those sweet falls of notes. I'm not actually sure what it is about it, but this piece jerks the tears right out of me. It conjures wholesome ache and longing, somewhere deep in my gut, and I find myself wishing for things like sunny days and landscapes that roll out in a carpet of green and love. I've been listening to a bunch of recordings, but this video is Arthur Rubinstein with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, November 2, 2012


1. (last night)

We are sitting across from each other, playing a board game. The game is homemade. The board is a series of black-and-white shapes that irreducibly depict houses, sidewalks, trees. The names of the pieces are "Nancy" and "Sluggo." We have been playing the game for some time when it turns inside-out.

It's a very Escher-like event.

We find ourselves walking on a black-and-white sidewalk, towards a black-and-white house, in a black-and-white suburb. We are not Nancy. We are not Sluggo. We are foreigners and aliens, softly pliable messes dragging confusion behind us. The smallest disturbance will transform us completely, before we have the chance to protest.

2. (I don't remember)

I look up, and my aunt is looking back at me. Two perfect mushrooms have sprouted from her eyes, their round white stalks centered over her pupils.

3. (five years ago)

It is a windy day, but we are at the beach, stretched out across from each other on opposite sides of a blanket weighed down by bottles of wine. We are playing chess. We are a little bit drunk. We are also somehow flying kites.

I can't decide on which piece to move next. My remaining rook, for some reason, has grown a series of spikes from the flat edges of its parapets. I feel the need to examine these at close range. "It's nothing," I say. "Harmless." He doesn't say anything, which strikes me as rude. I consider that it might be funny to crack a bottle of wine over his head, but it seems that he has turned to sand. I reach across the board and brush a finger across his eyebrow and he collapses into the beach.

4. (approximately twenty years ago)

I am in bed and I have woken up because of the weight on my feet. I stare into the dark, and the more I stare, the more I see--slowly, slowly--the black mass that resolves itself into a head, shoulders, arms, a skinny torso and knees pulled up in an attentive crouch. Death stretches himself out on top of me and I can't breathe.

5. (approximately seventeen years ago)

I am driving a car, except I don't know how to drive, and it is imperative that I cut a hole in an anonymous chest with a piece of glass that can only be obtained at high speed.

6. (within the last five years)

The canopy is made out of white roses that smell like tuberose on steroids. I am standing under it, and all I can hear is the buzzing of bees, a whole colony of them. If I look up, I can see them, their crooked black legs moving through the petals. I am dressed all in white and I am marrying someone who is wearing a mask. I'm wearing a mask too. We hold each other's hands, but we're wearing gloves, so that doesn't give us a clue to our identities either.

7. (now and then, recurring)

I am being chased and the only avenue of escape is to jump off the roof of a building and fly. This is a possibility, but a difficult and exhausting one, and I know the building is too high. The alternative though is to be murdered in my sleep, so I jump. My muscles wear out quite close to the ground, but not close enough.