Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

bits and pieces

June 26, 2017

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: there is no such thing as unsweetened tea! There is sweetened tea, and there is tea. Simple as that.

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The words “tattoo” and “tattoo” are completely different. The first is an evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters. Its first English use was in the mid-17th Century and is derived from the Dutch “taptoe” that meant, literally, “close the tap (to the casks).”

The second has a Polynesian origin and refers to the inking of skin with designs. It first appeared in English with this meaning in the mid-18th Century.

You can now make even more interesting conversation at parties.

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My son said he saw a sticker in the back window of a car that said 26.2, but he thought it looked wrong. Closer inspection revealed the words in small type below it: “Number of Oreos I can eat in an hour.”

That seems a little low.

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I regularly look at the Calendar at Duotrope’s Digest to see if any of the themes of upcoming journals match what is going on — even remotely — in any of my unpublished stories. I saw a journal calling for stories about “the face in the photo” and one of my One-Match Fire stories, “Moving Day”, includes the son finding a picture of his father as an infant, with a cryptic notation on the back that sets his imagination and worry on fire. The photo makes another appearance in a later story, so it is an important discovery in the cycle. (See this post for more background.) And so I imagined that my story might be a fit for the theme the journal was soliciting.

Thus I began researching the submission requirements for the journal and found something odd. Submitters within the U.S. must send in a paper document by snail mail. That’s old school (though I am old enuf to have begun my writing life submitting this way and looking askance at this newfangled email submission business). My guess is either the editor is still looking askance at email or they’re using this more labor-intensive method to winnow out impulsive submissions.

So I’m going to prepare a printed version of the story and submit it. All it will cost me is a little time and a little postage (plus a return-addressed* envelope with postage).

*I read an impassioned response to the phrasing “self-addressed envelope” which is the standard wording in the business and which everyone understands: your own address is on the face of the envelope so they can send you the inevitable rejection letter. The writer who objected to this said that a self-addressed envelope would be one that did the writing of the address itself. Better phrasing, he insisted, was “return-addressed envelop” since it is both more precise and, well, possible. You know I’m not so very obsessive about our evolving language, but I was impressed with the passion of the man’s point, and I’ve followed it ever since.

 

 

rise up, or the sins of a writer

June 19, 2017

So I’m reading Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout right now. It is her first novel, from nearly twenty years ago, and I’m finding wording in it that bugs me.

One of you fine readers originally suggested I read Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge, and I’ve been delving into her works regularly ever since. Strout takes her time telling her story, giving a great deal of attention to minor characters and creating a world that is credible and tangible. Best of all, she writes sentences that often demand pausing and re-reading to get the full effect. I’ve copied some of her sentences and passages into my journal. (She’s also not shy about using sentence fragments for effect, my particular writing “sin.”)

But I’m finding a writing sin recurring in Amy and Isabelle that surprises me. Several times I’ve come across the words “rise up” and “gather together” and the like. The apparently unneeded redundancy has always bugged me; perhaps it is a result of the years when I was committing journalism (as the writer Sue Hubbell called it). I wrote lean in those days, and nearly any time I could shave out a word, I did. And what other direction can one rise than up? You can’t gather apart, so why do you need the modifier “together”? And so on.

Yet these occur repeatedly in this novel. Perhaps it does not bug her the way it bugs me. Or perhaps her editor suggesting cleaning these, but Strout insisted her words remain unchanged. (Iris Murdoch was famous for not allowing edits to her works.) I don’t know, but I do know that Strout has a new novel out, twenty years into her career, and if I read it soon, maybe I’ll find that she no longer sins in this way.

“what’s that?”

June 16, 2017

I stopped into a local big-box bookstore this afternoon to pick up anything by Tracy Smith, the new Poet Laureate of the U.S., because I wanted a gift for my wife — an avid poetry reader — to have on her return home this evening from a week in Portland, seeing our granddaughter.

I could not find the poetry section and had to ask. I was then lead to a far corner of the store and to the four or five shelves devoted to poetry (which included Homer and all of the other Greek classics).

I told the woman helping me that Tracy Smith was the new Poet Laureate. She said, “What’s that?”

They did have a single slim volume of her work, Life on Mars, which I gladly bought.

I had a similar experience that I recounted here.

bits and pieces

May 17, 2017

Two Saturdays ago, when I was out for my freakishly early morning run, aiming for seven miles, I pulled up lame at about mile two-point-five. (Should those be en dashes?) My right calf cramped up about as bad as it ever has. Normally when this happens, I just try to run through it. And normally, that works; whatever the complaint was, it generally proves temporary and by the next mile I often can’t remember if it was the right or left calf or knee or ankle or quad that was the problem. Not so this time. It hurt for the duration, and I called the run finished at mile four, with three miles left to get to the bagel shop. I called in ground support and limped along until my wife arrived in the car.

I gave my calf the day off the next morning and then tried a much more local run on Monday, managing to coax five miles out of my body. But my calf seized up again. My next two runs were on the treadmill, which is easier on the body, I think. And then I went out again on Saturday, thinking my calf was healed enuf. Not so, again. I managed to get six of my planned seven miles, but that’s it. I’m not running again until this coming Saturday, May 20. And I hope my calf is back in the game by then. If not, I have a problem because my run this coming Saturday is the Brooklyn Half Marathon, a run it is nearly impossible to get into (though my clever son-in-law — again, hyphens or dashes? — showed me how to beat the odds). That’s thirteen-point-one miles. Never mind whether my heart and lungs will cooperate. If this calf issue isn’t resolved by then, I’m going to have an epic experience. I’ve never limped across a finish line, but I fear I may soon. So, stretching, resting, heating pads, (non-alcoholic) hydration, sensible shoes. I figure my angry calf is a lame excuse, don’t you think?

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I managed to get the rewrite done of my One-Match Fire story “Men at Work and Play” that I mentioned in this post. I’ll let it simmer for a while then go back and re-read what I’ve re-written. I’ll likely tinker with it further, but I’m glad I’ve gotten it in place. The story needed an edge.

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No fresh rejections for my queries of One-Match Fire, but also no new queries sent. I’ve had this nagging thought that I’m not finished with the novel yet. Not only does the tinkering I mention above suggest that, but I’ve begun making notes on a whole new story to add to the collection. I’d been thinking about this story for some time, more as a missed opportunity than a hole that needed filling. But I’m also bugged by the word count of the novel. It barely reaches 63,000 words, which is pretty much the minimum to qualify as a novel rather than a novella. (I’m not sure why that’s important to me though.) Another few thousand words won’t boost the total by much, but it might ease my tormented mind. It would also flesh out the relationships narrative and allow for more character development. I’m pretty sure I’m going to write this new story, which will have a flashback in it, so it will visit two time periods in the novel.

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I joined a fitness challenge at work that runs into the middle of next month. Basically it involves logging the number of minutes you exercise, and exercise can be broadly defined. Not only does it include the running and weight work I do, but things like mowing my yard, gardening, and even tending my grandson can be logged. Several of the runners in my department formed a team with the ambition of winning this challenge. (Not sure what it is the winners get though.) On the first day, when I went into the system to log my hour of running, some individual had already logged 2,000 minutes. Never mind that there are only 1,440 minutes in a day. (The entry was subsequently edited down to 1,052 minutes, which means the individual was still “exercising” two-thirds of his/her day.) The highest our team has placed so far is forty-second, but I think that is, in part, because some of us are not as diligent as others in logging the minutes. (I won’t be surprised when we see a sudden surge as a week’s worth of minutes gets logged.)

Each individual is encouraged to log 900 minutes over the month and a half of the contest. At the end of last week, I’d already reported 300+ minutes. This problem with my right calf, however, may slow things down. (Lame excuse.)

maybe I should write licensing agreements

May 8, 2017

I was thinking the other day (as I was upgrading the operating system on my Mac) that I may be the equivalent of the guy who writes the software licensing agreements we all click through.

I have two dozen short stories “out there” (and five dozen feature articles), plus nearly a decade of posts here on this humble blog, yet is any of it ever read anymore? My latest One-Match Fire story is coming out in that anthology soon, and I suppose a few people will read it — and I am grateful for that — but will it just disappear into the fog of the millions and millions of written words out there, never to be picked up and read again? Even I haven’t gone back and re-read some of my earlier stories in a long time; isn’t it even less likely that any other human soul has?

I’m not sure what I want. Sure, it would be nice if my stories were read and re-read and savored and recommended and admired long after I shuffle off this mortal coil. But that doesn’t seem reasonable (unless I were Herman Melville, say). Yet a tiny fraction of that doesn’t seem too much to expect (even for a person of more humble skills). And I know I am not alone in my plight (or self-indulgent moaning — you decide). Most writers likely suffer the same “fate” as I. Yet I imagine the bits and bytes that make up my published stories, or the lit mags that languish on shelves, are never visited again after their initial brush with attention. Do my stories even exist anymore? (I have a similar thought about a book I re-read and learn that I remembered nothing about it from the first read. Can I even say I’ve read a book if I can’t remember anything about it?)

Again: not sure what I’m trying to say here (or puzzle through). Am I writing solely for myself (not as the only reader but as someone who takes satisfaction from creating something new in the world)? Is that enuf? Is it reasonable to expect more?

Thoughts? Enlightenment? Similar musings or navel gazings??

two countries, separated by a common language

April 10, 2017

I am currently reading the novel Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon. It’s about a woman whose boy has been abducted, and it’s mostly psychological rather than gritty and harrowing (but it is harrowing in its low-key way). The novel itself came out in 1981 but it was reissued by Persephone Books in 2010 in a gorgeous edition that will stay on my shelf long after I’ve finished the novel. (In fact, Little Boy Lost by Laski, that I mentioned here, is a reissue by Persephone Books. They obviously love the work they do.) Persephone Books is a UK establishment devoted to bringing back to life the works of neglected authors — mostly women — of the 20th Century.

So it is curious to read a story set in Boston in the late ’70s and come across the words “tyre” and “grey.” (Haven’t come across “colour” yet. UPDATE: I did come upon “colour” later in the book as well as “bum” where American English might have said “bottom” or “butt.”) I must have acquired a copy intended for the British market, but that’s all right.

My copy is also second hand. I found it through ABE Books, where I’ve spent literally hundreds of dollars over the years. It sat on a shelf at some used book store (I think on the campus of Yale University), evidently for years. Each time I open the book, I get the strong scent of mildew. Not really a pleasant smell, but an honest one.

the reality of the other

April 6, 2017

“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

Iris Murdoch
“The Sublime and the Good”

I’ve long fixated on this quote from Iris Murdoch. It is, on the face of it, so very obvious. Of course other things exist outside of our life and influence! But it’s always seemed harder for me to realize this, to make it real in my head, to see with this vision.

Consider the man in the car next to you or the woman wandering the mall with a bag of things or the person sitting in the toll booth or any random individual you see in the background of a newscast. Each of these people has a life as valid as yours, as full as yours is with hopes and dreams and frustrations and kindness and cruelties. Each of these people is more than just a walk-on character in your life story, just as you are more than a walk-on character in their life stories. And there are billions of these people. Billions of realities as real as you.

At least, that’s how I interpret Murdoch’s famous quotation.

I recently finished reading Murdoch’s novel An Unofficial Rose (in my quest to read through her entire fiction canon a second time). In it there are two young characters: Penn, a boy of 15 who is visiting from Australia, and Miranda, a girl of 14 who is his cousin and budding love interest. (He thinks he loves her, not the other way around.) So of course he broods about her constantly. And among his broodings is this little passage:

But what one loves is, after all, another human being, a person with other interests, other pains, in whose world one is oneself an object among others.

I think that distills Murdoch’s precept into a realization in her young character (even if it is perhaps more deep and thoughtful than one could expect from a 15-year-old boy). Too bad he doesn’t follow through, but like many of us, he has a hard time seeing with that vision.

Penn is a foolish boy, and Miranda is a clever-beyond-her-years girl. He presses his suit, physically and futilely, and is rebuffed handily.

Read into this, if you wish, some parallels to The Tempest. Penn as Caliban and Miranda as, well, Miranda.