screw

lagscrewpic1lagscrewpic2lagscrewpic3

 

 

Today, we have our second series of poems for the third annual napomo at the dictionary project in honor of National Poetry Month. All month we will be posting poems written from bibliomanced dictionary project words. In an added twist, this year, two poets are writing to each word. We are discovering what happens in these pairings when two different minds and aesthetics hold space for the same word.

 

Poets Johanna Skibsrud and Matthew Schmidt have written on screw. Please enjoy their poems and feel free to write your own poem inspired by screwin the comments if you so desire. The actual piece my finger landed on when selecting the word was the image of a lagscrew below.

 

 

screw1

 

 

screw  (skro͞o), n.  [ME.  screwe; OFr. escrone, hole in which the screw turns  <  L. scrobis, vulva],  1.  a mechanical device used for fastening things together, consisting of a naillike cylinder of metal grooved in an advancing spiral, and usually having a slotted head: it penetrates only by being turned: male (or external) screw.  2.  anything like such a device.  3.  a hollow cylinder equipped with a spiral groove on its inner sufrace into which the male screw fits: female (or internal) screw.  4.  the act of turning or twisting; turn of a screw.  5.  a screw propeller.  6.  [Chiefly British], a) a stingy person; miser. b) a crafty bargainer.  7.  [Chiefly British], a bit of tobacco, etc. (in a twisted paper).  8.  [Chiefly British] a worn-out horse.  9.  {Slang], a prison guard.  10.  [British Slang], salary.  v.t.  1. to twist; turn; tighten.  2.  to fasten, make secure, tighten, press, insert, etc. with or as with a screw or screws.  3.  to contort; squeeze; twist out of natural shape: as, screw one’s face up.  4.  to force to do something; compel, as if by using screws.  5.  to extort or practice extortion on: as he screwed me out of money.  v.i.  1. to come apart or go together by being turned or twisted in the manner of a screw: as, the lid screws on. 2. to be fitted for being put together or taken apart by a screw or screws.  3.  to twist; turn; wind; have a motion like that of a screw.  4.  to practice extortion.

 

 

 

Desire Must Be Taken Literally

 

What exists?

 

Already.

 

Even in darkness.

 

If not:

 

the idea of darkness.

 

Marked, therefore,

already, by

 

the idea of light.

 

What is there but that

to grow slowly

 

toward, or away?

 

What but that

 

to propel

 

that most

uncertain element,

 

the soul,

 

slowly toward

the idea of itself?

 

To hover, as above,

or outside of itself.

 

A question.

 

Toward which

the mind also turns

 

in a deliberate spiral—.

 

The mind, the simple

lag-screw

 

according to which

 

we conjoin,

 

and therefore

establish,

 

between that most

 

uncertain element,

 

from which we came,

and the world, which is

 

most certain, some

 

relation.

 

What, then, the soul,

but the simple

 

opening, carved

by the mind—

 

as it constructs,

 

like a joist or a beam,

 

upon which the idea

holds,

 

a further idea?
As it insists, if only

by virtue of its

 

continuous effort

to do so,

 

the possibility that

 

the mind will

also hold?

 

That it will still

be possible,

 

therefore—

 

if only

very briefly—

 

to suture to the

uncertain idea

 

a single real thing?

 

 

 

Skibsrud portrait, fall 2013, 1Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize winning novel, The Sentimentalists, a book of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, and Other Stories, and two collections of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being. A second novel, Quartet for the End of Time will be released in fall, 2014. She lives in Tucson.

 

 

 

 

 

Cyclical

Shades drawn—darkness crept scantly
scantily through slats—a cover of destiny
destination to which each day pours itself
out. Outside lined slats, thump of bass
an apartment adjacent in rhythm, enjoys
Saturday evening victuals, imbibes in whether
Sunday will ever step from shadow to show
itself, a difficult concept to grasp in utter
dark, that even through stars appear away
through several named spheres exiting the planet
seem on the verge of consummation, of consumption
in blackness which harnesses a vast swath
of earth, here, now, as somewhere else
someone else is sunning themselves by a rill
twisting grass blades, a tune upon lips
accompaniment to slow burble sluicing
submerged rock on its way to a place
any party herewith has been except tangentially
or rather mentally, in eye of idea
where a picture once seen must be
like this place where the rill—after turning
into other names, empties itself, finally
in an ever ebbing body that removes
all notion of meaning in here, now
until again a cycle is run and rain
falls on windows, behind shades
draws a party at an apartment indoors
bass fading into a dull thrum
in a different time when someone is idle
rill tricks, trickle thought into a coalescence
of sunburst over horizon, another contemplation commences.


2013-04-23 23.54.53Matthew Schmidt is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt, Eye On Life and The Missing Slate.

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neb·u·lous

nebulous1 nebulous2 nebulous3

 

 

This is the dictionary project‘s 200th post! It feels like a significant milestone. So thank all of you for reading and commenting and showing up to consider words and language. Today also begins the third annual napomo at the dictionary project in honor of National Poetry Month. All month we will be posting poems written from bibliomanced dictionary project words. In an added twist, this year, two poets are writing to each word. We are curious about what will happen with these pairings, about what will happen when two different minds and aesthetics hold space for the same word.

Today, for our first word, we have poets Jamison Crabtree and John Myers. Please enjoy their poems and feel free to write your own poem inspired by nebulous in the comments if you so desire.

 

neb·u·lous (ˈnebyələs),  adj.  1.  hazy, vague, indistinct, or confused: a nebulous recollection of the meeting; a nebulous distinction between pride and conceit.  2.  cloudy or cloudlike.  3.  of or resembling a nebula or nebulae; nebular.  [ < L  nebulosus full of mist, foggy, cloudy.  See NEBULA, --OUS]

 

First we have Jamison Crabtree:

 

Jamison Nebulous

 

 

 

jamison2Jamison Crabtree is a Black Mountain Institute Ph.D. fellow at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He looks after six cats and his work appears (or is forthcoming) in Thrush, Blackbird, Hobart, Whiskey Island, The Destroyer, The Offending Adam, and Apt.

 

 

 

 

 

Now, John Myers:

 

John Myers Napomo Nebulous

 

 

 

Photo on 2014-04-09 at 22.47

 

John Myers grew up in the Endless Mountains. He has work forthcoming in Aufgabe, Denver Quarterly and The Corduroy Mtn. He lives in Tucson and is learning to play the flute.

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mezair

circus-horse

 

It’s the last day of february and the last day of flash fiction february at the dictionary project. Thanks for joining us this month and please enjoy our final piece by Alison McCabe.

 

mezair  n.  Dressage. a movement in which the horse makes a series of short jumps forward while standing on its hind legs.

Airs Above the Ground

Mr. Moore carries his belly in front of him as he heads for Sam. His shirt swells like a young cheek around a lollipop and, if the gray beard and heavy walk didn’t make his sex so obvious, you might ask when the baby was due. He stops directly in front of Sam so the distance between them is close and Sam can smell honey-roasted peanuts on his breath.

“Negotiations in ten,” Mr. Moore says. “You’ll want to get the drip going.”

Sam nods, as always, and follows Mr. Moore across the midway into the tent.

The sword swallower wants decaf. Sam waits for the coffee to brew and looks her way. Her hair is black and the longest he has seen. Her skin is so white it is almost blue. Her fingernails are short, bubblegum pink. She licks her lips with her tongue, split down the middle; each tip is pierced, as are her eyebrows, nose, the dimples of her cheeks, and other places, Sam guesses. On her collarbone is a tiny red apple tattoo and, below it, in script, Eve. Of course it’s unsurprising. Nothing much surprises Sam anymore. They all stand out in the exact same way.

Everyone sits around the table with Mr. Moore at the head. From what Sam can tell, a thin gentleman with an uneven smile is in charge of their crew because he does most of the talking. He talks fast, like everything is dire, and not one word, not even a syllable, can wait. The others don’t seem interested in the conversation. A large woman stands in the corner opposite Sam because the chairs are too small to support the weight of her frame. She is the biggest Sam has ever seen, though he isn’t convinced that customers would be satisfied after dishing out to view such a hefty display. It’s an old act that worked back when Jumbo was just an elephant and not the go-to size for a tub of popcorn, or a corn dog/fried pickle combo. He thinks he would like to remind Mr. Moore that practically everyone is fat these days, so really it’s nothing special, but he doesn’t want to offend the man, thickset as he is. He guesses Mr. Moore can’t afford another misstep; the paint is starting to peel on the welcome sign, and one more failed investment might be enough to topple the whole thing down.

Sam walks over to where Mr. Moore sits. “I’d drive a hard bargain with this one,” Sam whispers into his knobby ear—the one part of the man that’s small, baby-like even. On the lobe are short, blonde hairs.

“I’ll have sugar with mine, Sam,” Mr. Moore says.

“What I’m saying is we need to be cautious.”

Mr. Moore swats Sam away. The back of his hand brushes Sam’s chin. “I know what I need to be,” he says. “We don’t need to be anything.” He coughs into the top of his fist, smiles at the thin man, their spokesman. “Excuse me,” Mr. Moore says. “Now how many freaks you got?”

“You mean real ones?”

Mr. Moore nods.

“We have Sparky.” The thin man puts his hand on the shoulder of the body beside him. It’s so covered with hair you’d have trouble finding the person beneath or even the creases in his face. Except for small blue shorts, the man is exposed. “Rest assured, he rides a horse too, dressage and everything. You want capriole? You got it. You want levade? Mezair? Because you know how it is nowadays putting someone like Sparky on display with no other selling point. Everybody’s gone sensitive.”

“And the others?”

“They all got selling points. We swallow swords, eat light-bulbs, read frickin’ minds.”

“I mean where are they?”

“You’re looking at them.”

“That’s it?”

“They’re outstanding, really.”

Excluding the two businessmen, there is only the sword swallower, the large woman, Sparky, and a young man with thick, black eyebrows in an orange turban. Sam brings them coffee, already poured into mugs. He makes two trips because they are too hot to cradle in his arms all at once.

“You salaried?” Mr. Moore asks.

“Work off commission.” The thin man pauses. “Barbara gets double, though. We all agreed.” He looks up at the fat lady.

“Double?” Mr. Moore widens his eyes. “Christ, what for?”

The thin man stares at Mr. Moore and shakes his head. “We decided. We all just agreed.” He takes a pen out of his shirt pocket,  scribbles something down and passes it to Mr. Moore, under the table. Sam hovers beside him. getting stomach stapled, it says. has to happen soon.

Mr. Moore crumples the napkin and glances up at Barbara. Her cheeks and neck turn red. He lowers his head and sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Thing is you haven’t got enough for an entire act. We need our ten in one.”

“Those have been dead for God knows how long. Nobody knows what to expect anymore.”

“Well, maybe five is enough, not four though.”

“You haven’t seen what these kids can do. Sparky doing dressage, I’m telling you. We’re talking capriole, we’re talking frickin’ mezair.”

“I grew up half a mile from this boardwalk,” Mr. Moore says, “in a studio above a bar, on a blowup mattress, with three women who all claimed to be my mother. And you’re telling me there’s something I haven’t seen. I’d like to know what that is.” He shakes his head and his eyes land on Sam, who’s leaning now against a filing cabinet in the corner. Mr. Moore stares at him for a moment, mouth shut tight until his lips disappear. “Be a doll, Sam” he says, “And bring us that bundt cake. Top shelf in the fridge.”

 

The_Horse_in_Motion-animation

 

 

 

 

authorphotoBorn and raised in New Jersey, Alison McCabe lives and writes in Tucson. She teaches English at the University of Arizona where, in 2010, Alison received her MFA in Fiction. She is currently at work on a novel.

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bre·tesse

pocket_watch_3663976_by_stockproject1-d30nugi

 

Today, we are delighted to share our second post for this year’s flash fiction february. Please enjoy this piece by Debbie Weingarten.

 

bre·tesse  n.  brattice

brat·tice  (brăt′ĭs)  n.  1. A partition, typically of wood or cloth, erected in a mine for ventilation.  2. A breastwork erected during a siege.

 

 

Sue Ann wakes sweating and tangled in the bed sheets. For a long while, she groggily observes her own bedroom as though it were a photography exhibit: a plastic cup of water on the night table, a door standing open to the bathroom, a red toothbrush perched near the sink. Her own reflection—doughy and wrinkled—is stretched to fit in the brass post of the headboard.

From the top of Frank’s dresser comes an incessant ticking.

“Oh stop it, you,” Sue Ann clucks reproachfully in the direction of the dresser, and takes another pill.

For weeks after Frank’s death, Sue Ann existed in a kind of catatonic state—unable to taste her food, to dress herself, or to bathe. Her concerned children came to visit, then a doctor from the city, and then little colorful pills began showing up beside glasses of water. They made her feel funny, but she was too tired to argue.

Tick, tick, tick.

She had almost been rid of the watch, she remembers. Before the funeral—which everyone said had been lovely—she had wound and polished it, and slid it onto her husband’s wrist. After all, he hadn’t been without it in fifty years, and it seemed obvious that he should be buried with it. But then she had noticed how still his hands were, how cold they were. And she had panicked, placing the watch in her dress pocket instead.

Now she wishes it had been buried underground, a muffled ticking to accompany Frank’s postmortem process. When it needed to be wound again, there would be no dutiful wife to carry out the obligation, and it would finally be silenced.

Tick, tick.

It is the hundredth night since Frank died, and Sue Ann has to sleep with the light on. Darkness seems to extend the magnitude of her grief, and the light, fluorescent as it is, makes Sue Ann feel strangely as though the sadness belongs to somebody else.

Her legs are restless at night, and Sue Ann thinks briefly about going for a run. She laughs at the thought: herself, an old lady, skin that tears like tissue paper, running through the woods in the middle of an August night. Ridiculous. She flexes her toes and thinks of Frank.

Her husband had spent his entire life underground, developing late-century improvements to the coal mine’s brattice ventilation systems, until the mine had suddenly closed its doors in the early nineties. The community was left devastated and depressed, and overnight, the strongest of men became jobless and lost. Day after day, Frank sat on the porch as though it were his very own tomb.

More than a decade later, a cement staircase was poured, and busloads of school children clambered underground to view a century’s worth of pick axes and coal cars. At first, the town had been largely offended by the museum, but it brought in tourists, who brought money, and so it was eventually embraced.

It had been a Tuesday, and Sue Ann had encouraged the visit as a kind of  “closure”. It was the first time Frank had stepped into the mine in fifteen years, and his heart had seized as soon as he made it down the stairs.

“He just dropped to his knees,” one witness told the police. “Dead.”

The irony still consumes Sue Ann. She repositions her pillow and lays down again, waiting for the familiar chemical pull of the medication.

Tick, tick, tick.

In the dreams, she and Frank are always standing in the mine. Sometimes they have brought a picnic. Once, Frank teaches her to juggle with three red apples. For an entire week’s worth of dreams, they stretch out against the rocks and make love they way they did at the quarry when they were twenty. Sometimes they take to their old fights. Once, the mineshaft fills suddenly with bats, and Sue Ann wakes up screaming.

Tonight, Sue Ann has brought the watch. The gold band catches the light from the lantern, throwing a strange pattern on the rock wall. It reminds her of being on the river with her father, of the way moonlight catches the white bellies of dead fish.

Tick, tick.

“My watch!” Frank says, in immediate recognition. “I was wondering where that thing was.”

“It was a dreadful mistake,” Sue Ann tells him. “I can’t stand to listen to it, but I can’t seem to let it die. It just keeps ticking.”

“Well bring it here,” he says to his wife, and she does. “Would you like to smash it, or should I?”

“You don’t want it?” Sue Ann asks.

“My dear,” he says, “What would I use it for?”

Frank has always been practical. And strong, even in his old age. The semi-darkness of the mine suits him—he wears it like a familiar coat. He does not fumble over the rocks or fear the darkness, the way that Sue Ann does. She leans against the wall and watches him as he bends to inspect a pile of rocks.

“This should do it,” he says, pointing to a large jagged stone. “What do you think?”

She nods, and Frank lays the watch on the floor of the mine.

Tick, tick, the watch says in protest.

The force of the rock smashes the face of the watch into smithereens. Sue Ann shrieks as the glass shatters and the watch jumps a foot in one direction. Frank puts one finger to his lips.

It is quiet.

Sue Ann wants to laugh hysterically, but she can feel her legs again, and the sheets, and the pillow, and she becomes aware that the dream is ending. Far off in the distance, there is the call of a bird and something is dripping.

In the mine, the lanterns flicker. Frank drops to his knees.

“This again?” Frank wheezes, his voice piping up through the darkness.

“I’m afraid so,” she says, “Good night, my dear.”

Darkness consumes them.

 

 

 

 

 

1008343_549471125165_1979540744_oDebbie Weingarten is a graduate of the funky and beautiful Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where she received degrees in Global Studies and Creative Writing. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she grows vegetables, makes babies, organizes on behalf of small farmers, and aspires to one day finish a collection of short stories.

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stalk

agave-stalk1

 

the dictionary project’s 4th annual flash fiction february begins today with a post from Kimi Eisele on stalk. We hope you enjoy!

 

stalk (stôk),  v.i. [ME. stalken; AS stealcian (in comp.); prob. < steale, high, steep (with allusion to a stalking gait); for IE, base see STALK (a stem)],  1.  to walk in a stiff, haughty manner: as he stalked out of the room in anger: sometimes used to figuratively, as plague stalks across the land.  2.  to pursue or approach game, an enemy, etc. stealthily, as from cover.  3.  [Obs.], to walk or move along stealthily or furtively.  v.t. to pursue or approach (game, etc.) stealthily.  2. to stalk through: as, terror stalked the streets.  n.  1. a slow, stiff, haughty step or gait.  2.  The act of stalking game, an enemy, etc.

 

Stalk

 

A few weeks ago, in a moment of desperate fortitude, I secured the perimeter. I hired a thick-fingered man in steel-toed boots and Carthartts to drive stakes into the ground, and together we hung a fence cobbled from barbed wire, chain link, and corrugated aluminum. Later my hands bled from the cold and the metal, but I welcomed the sensation and more than that, the security.

 

Now I’m shuffling around the house picking scabs while it lurks at the edge of the property. Yesterday it circled 12 times before noon and another 37 by dusk. I can’t always see it, but I can smell it—burnt sugar, faint banana, and canine anal glands.

 

Besides the man with the steel-toed boots, I have hired other specialists. A woman in jeggings who swings a pendulum from a chain and gives me definitive yeses and nos, a card reader in a room full of deer and elk trophies, an exorcist with sharp needles, belly dancers, a florist with eyes the color of irises. While a colorful lot, the trouble with these specialists is that their prescriptions and palliatives don’t last. I come home bruised and weary, and when I look out it is still there.

 

I’ve wondered about calling the electrical people to see if they can run voltage through the fence and zap the fucker.

 

Meanwhile, I have been gathering large stones and building cairns, which I hope will accumulate into further fortification. This morning, distraught, I hurled one of the stones and accidentally hit the fence, destroying part of it. So I called the steel-toed boot man again.

 

He looked like the kind of man who might dance and as he worked, I imagined his chin bobbing, his pelvis bumping, his shoulders bouncing. When he finished, he put his hands on his hips and peered down the length of the fence. “That’s something else,” he said.

 

I stared at him bleary-eyed. What? He’d seen it? It was there right now? I nearly stepped on his boot and climbed into his arms. But then I realized he was looking at a thin trunk-like stalk rising up from the agave plant not far from the gate. I hadn’t even a clue it was there.

 

The stalk rose nearly eight-feet high, green with triangular leaf-like spines. Toward the top, a dozen or more branches reached out like skinny arms ending in hand-like shapes with excessive fingers. Though delicate, they looked like they could hold a lot.

 

“They call that a century plant,” he said. “But it’s a misnomer. Really only needs 20 or 30 years to do that.”

 

“Twenty or thirty,” I repeated, as if hearing a judge’s sentence.

 

“Yup. Takes everything it’s got,” he said. “Now it’ll die.”

 

He bent over and examined the ground at the base of the agave, rump to the sky. “But you’ve got pups,” he said.

 

If I’d been more myself—stronger, bolder, less addled—I might have dropped something (a pebble? a dime?) into the crack of his ass. Instead I stepped backwards and felt the sting spread across my chest into my throat.

 

I smelled a slight trace of banana and wondered if I was going to have to run for it. Glancing at the part of the fence he’d fixed, I worried the repair was inadequate.

 

“Let me know if you want me to come back and get rid of that,” he said, circling his hand at the agave. “I’d need different tools.”

 

I tried to imagine the kinds of tools it would take to remove what I most needed him to haul away.

 

After he left, I hurried in and made some tea and sat at the table in silence. Soon the neighbor’s lights went on and I could see figures moving around the kitchen. I held up the binoculars and spied. What I saw made me envious—wild gestures, flushed faces, a flying plate. Rage seemed practically joyous.

 

I sat still for a long time, not daring to lie on the floor. Once darkness came, the smell grew stronger and accompanying it was a loud snarl. I pressed my hands into my chest. Had my steel-toed helper brought a giant scraper I would have used it to strip off my skin. Had he brought a claw, I would have gouged out my organs and lay them on the walkway—a glistening offering. Had he left some rope, I might have stood on a chair.

 

But there were no tools, so instead I went outside and stood at the fence. From the corner of my eye, I could see the agave stalk wavering gently, a thin courageous friend. I opened the gate. I fell to my knees.

 

 

 

photo(1)Kimi Eisele lives in Tucson, where she writes and makes stuff like dances, papercuttings, puns, friends, and—on good days—joy. Find out more than you might want to about her at www.KimiEisele.com.

 

 

 

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mor·tal

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

 

mor·tal  (ˈmôrtl) adjective  1. (of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being) subject to death: “all men are mortal” synonyms: perishable, physical, bodily, corporeal, fleshly, earthly, this-worldly, human, impermanent, transient, ephemeral; of or relating to humanity as subject to death: “the coffin held the mortal remains of her uncle”; informal  conceivable or imaginable: “punishment out of all mortal proportion to the offense”  2. causing or liable to cause death; fatal: “a mortal disease”  synonyms: deadly, fatal, lethal, death-dealing, murderous, terminal: “a mortal blow”; (of a battle) fought to the death: “from the outbuildings came the screams of men in mortal combat” synonyms: irreconcilable, deadly, sworn, bitter, out-and-out, implacable: “mortal enemies”; (of an enemy or a state of hostility) admitting or allowing no reconciliation until death synonyms: unpardonable, unforgivable “a mortal sin”; Christian Theology, denoting a grave sin that is regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace; (of a feeling, esp. fear) very intense:”parents live in mortal fear of children’s diseases” synonyms: extreme, (very) great, terrible, awful, dreadful intense, severe, grave, dire, unbearable: “living in mortal fear”; informal very great; informal dated long and tedious. noun  1. a human being subject to death, often contrasted with a divine being synonyms: human being, human, person, man/woman, earthling: “we are mere mortals”; humorous a persona contracted with others regarded as being of higher status or ability: “an ambassador had to live in a style that was not expected of lesser mortals.”

 

Like many, I was struck and deeply saddened by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death earlier this week. As so many gifted artists do, he opened himself up to this world in order to make the work he did and he couldn’t, at this particular moment, contain it all. Being so permeable in a world so full can be hard to bear. Today, the dictionary project hosts an essay by Mike Miley in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

 

Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

 

I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt the first time I noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. His performance in that film usually doesn’t get mentioned because the film is so clearly Oscar bait for Al Pacino, but in it Hoffman plays the nasty ringleader of Chris O’Donnell’s school chums, a real bastard whose sense of entitlement is surpassed only by his lack of remorse over it. While everyone else in that film was sheepishly letting Al Pacino chew up the movie, Hoffman was busy dominating the film with an unapologetic youthful bravado that demanded your attention and respect. I normally looked away from bullies in the movies, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he was just so real, so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In a perfect world, it would have been a star-making turn for Hoffman, but that wouldn’t come until later. Much later.

Plenty of acting and writing textbooks stress the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, but that all just sounds like empty platitudes after you’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman do it. Hoffman acted in 3-D long before such a thing was cool, and he did it selflessly, without calling attention to the fact that he was doing it and demanding your accolades. Even though that’s what all actors are supposed to do, he did it with such commitment, honesty, and passion that he revealed how much other actors had been holding back on us, slipping us illusion and evasion when they were supposed to be delivering truth and contact.

Hoffman gave each of his characters the fullest depth of emotion and transformed words on a page into living, breathing human beings who stumbled their way through life with dignity. Whether Hoffman was front-and-center in a film (the widely lauded Capote, the criminally underseen Owning Mahowny) or barely noticeable in the background (Magnolia, Moneyball, Almost Famous) he commanded the screen, making both the film and everyone around him better. Paradoxically, his smaller parts are where Hoffman made his largest impact in a film. In the hands of lesser actors, these would be considered thankless supporting roles, but in the hands of Hoffman, these roles are those ones that stuck with you because rather than settling for making these characters into cheap jokes, Hoffman made them human beings, warts and all. In fact, Hoffman made you love his characters because of their warts, because they were unguarded and caring enough to let you get close enough to see their flaws. Hoffman gave truth to such human shortcomings and made you feel less ashamed about the flaws you had.

Like most people feel about their favorite actors, I liked Hoffman best because I identified with him: overweight, pasty, equal parts ribald, joyous, compassionate, and pathetic—this guy was exactly how I saw myself. But now that I think about it, that’s just how we all are. That’s the kind of truth you can only learn from a great artist, and while we may have just lost a lot of great work from such a giving human being, he’s already showed us more about ourselves than we could ever hope to know.

 

 

photoMike Miley teaches Film Studies and Literature at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. His writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, The Huffington Post, Moving Image Source, The New Orleans Review, and now here. He just #killed his Twitter for New Year’s and is toying with the idea of coming out of retirement and making films again.

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re·cord

Music_Vinyl_records_014636_

 

 

 

re·cord  (ri-ˈkȯrd;  for  n.  &  adj., ˈre-kərd also -ˌkȯrd ),  v.t.  [ME. recorden; OFr. recorder; L. recordari, to call to mind, remember  < re-, again + cor, cordis, heart, mind],  1.  to set down, as in writing; preserve an account of: as, record the day’s events.  2.  to register in some permanent form, as on a graph or chart, an indication of (a motion or event) as it occurs: as, a seismograph records earthquakes.  3.  to serve as evidence of; tell of: as, the marks on the house record the height of the flood waters.  4.  a) to transform (sound) by electrical or mechanical means and register it in some permanent form, as the grooved track of a phonograph record, the magnetization of fine wire, etc. so that it can be reproduced at will by a reverse process.  b)  to register thus the performance of (a singer, orchestra, piece of music, etc).  5.  to show; indicate.  6.  to set down or have set down in a register: as, record a vote.  v.i.  1.  to record something.  2.  to admit of being recorded.  n.  [ME.; OFr.  <  the v.i]1.  a recording or being recorded; preservation in or as in writing.  2.  anything that is written down and preserved as evidence; account of events; anything that serves as evidence of an event, etc.  3.  anything that the written evidence is put on or in, as a register, monument, etc.  4.  an official written report of public proceedings, as in a legislature or court of law; documents preserved as evidence of proceedings, as of court.  5.  the known or recorded facts about anything, as about conduct, performance, one’s career, etc.  6.  a flat disk, cylinder, paper roll, etc. on which sound has been recorded.  7.  the best performance as the highest speed, greatest amount, highest rate, etc., reached and publicly recorded  adj.  making a record; being the largest, fastest, etc. of its kind: as, a record audience, record crop. Abbreviated rec.

 

 

 

 

As the marks on a house record the height of the flood waters, as the grooved track of a phonograph record

 

 

 

Facebook is a continuous looping record. In one convenient space, the site culls together notes and images about our lives, or rather the pieces of our lives we choose to acknowledge and honor. If we could print it out like ticker tape, there our life would be: photos of parties with friends, new love, graduations, jobs, promotions, holidays, our smiling glittering sparkly faces. Our status updates could be read aloud, providing a sort of voiceover featuring our own voice. How easy it would be to parse through this record and collate it in a binder. The table of contents categorized according to biographical data, friendship, love, career. Only we would know how far it is from the truth.

 

Except for those folks who tip the balance strongly in the venting category: regularly acknowledging their sadness or anger, most of us hold back our hurts on facebook. I’m not talking about annoyances at the grocery store or anger at issues of social injustice: I’m talking about pain. We don’t want to burden others or we don’t want others to perceive us as having moments of weakness, sadness, and deep hurt (read: being human). So instead, we do the same thing to our image that we criticize advertisers for doing. We photoshop our lives. We crop. We blur. We dodge. We burn. We create a record of a life that we can be proud of.

 

There’s one problem with this. Our record is not real. As we shape ourselves, we deny parts of ourselves. And in not allowing people to see us in our full humanity, we don’t allow ourselves to be fully “like”d or loved. And we are all worthy of being loved not in spite of but because of our beautiful, flawed human selves.

 

There is danger in this limited perspective. As we spend more and more time socializing in these spheres presenting our constructed selves, we have less and less opportunity to connect with others and meet each another as we really are. We try to meet our needs for comfort and security in an artificial and inadequate space to meet these needs.

 
This blurring of the whole picture can happen in our real lives too. Even when I am in prolonged struggle, most people would not know this, sometimes not even dear friends. I don’t always show I’m having a hard time, but that doesn’t mean that I am not having a hard time.

 

I’m not suggesting codependency or suddenly flooding everyone we know with our deepest fears. I’m suggesting that we honestly let ourselves be seen, that we show up and allow others to show themselves to us in all their complexity. This kind of vulnerability can be challenging to bear on both ends. When we share, we face our deepest fears of rejection and defectiveness. When we listen, others’ vulnerability can remind us of our own in a way that may make us tempted to turn away.

 

Mindfulness has permeated all aspects of our culture these days. I recently read on The Huffington Post that 2014 is “The Year of Mindfulness.” Elementary schools have integrated it as a practice for kids to calm themselves. CEOs are meeting with mindfulness leaders for their own lives and to integrate it into business practices. The Seattle Seahawks announced after their recent Superbowl win that mindfulness meditation is part of their training regimen. I think the omnipresence of mindfulness talk now is in direct proportion to our need for it. In our high speed world, people need to learn how to sit and be with themselves. Mindfulness has so many benefits. Sitting and breathing and observing seems so simple so it can be misinterpreted as easy. However, it takes tremendous courage to show up and be present. It is brave to be with ourselves.

 

The other night, I watched an unexpected gem of a movie called Safety Not Guaranteed. The premise of the movie is largely unimportant to the undercurrents of the film but it is this: a journalist and two interns go to research a guy who has posted an advertisement asking for a partner to travel back in time with him. Experience with weapons is needed and safety is not guaranteed. You enter the film thinking it will show a humorous encounter in which these “normal” characters meet an “eccentric” character and the drama that ensues. But the film is really about intimacy: how each of these characters desperately wants to connect to someone and how they try and fail and sometimes succeed in this kind of connection. They gain faith and lose it and then gain it again. The opening that is required is risky. The staying, when all they want to do is go, is sometimes impossible. We observe them in the time between the desire to leap and the leaping itself.

 

I was in an improvisational dance workshop at the beginning of the new year and four rules were set up at the start as guidelines and gauges: Show Up; Pay Attention; Be Honest; Be Open to What Happens Next. I keep thinking about how simple these rules are about the process of being alive. And about how simple they are. Yet how everything in me resists these simple guidelines sometimes. Particularly the last one, being open to what happens next. Because that part, that what-happens-next part, is the part we have absolutely no control of. It’s why showing up and paying attention is threatening. We can have control over tuning out or remaining absent, even how honest we want to be with ourselves or others. But what happens next? The outcome? That is never ever in our control. The part that is in our control is the opening.

 

For the record, right now I am sitting at my desk (where I am trying to write now, I always end up on the couch) and as I type I am watching a cactus wren climb the dead branches outside. I know he is a cactus wren because of the white and black polka dot plumage on his back and the way he is poking his beak into the wood of the tree. Cactus wrens have never ceased to be exotic to me even though I have lived in the desert for six years.

 

I was talking with a friend last week about how I wish facebook had an “honesty button.” So you see someone’s status update about their promotion or the best night of their life and when you press the honesty button, a new window appears which says “I am also so afraid of getting older that I just spent the last forty-five minutes researching anti-aging creams” or “I’m worried I’ll never find meaningful work” or “My marriage is falling apart” or “I’m scared I’m a terrible mother” or “I’m worried I’ll never find love.” Next to the album of family holiday photos is an honesty button: “This perfect image was taken ten minutes after my eighteen-month-old threw up and my three-year-old threw himself on the floor in a tantrum when I was functioning on a few hours sleep.” I’m not asking for every vulnerability, just a little equilibrium. You know, for the record.

 

There are two of them now, the cactus wrens, and they are hopping up a long tree limb that hangs over the neighbors’ little wooden awning. One of them is hanging upside down as he pecks. I read on the Internet that cactus wrens form strong pair bonds, lifelong bonds, and defend their territory together.

 

I was on a walk with my dog this week when I heard the aggressive chirp of a hummingbird and looked up to see a gray bird with a green iridescent throat flying, suspended in air between the tree branches. Next, I saw the bird lean over, something in its beak. It took a second to register what was happening. Another tiny orange beak peaking out of a brown nest. A tiny bird being fed. I know these moments are happening all the time, but I was paying attention for this one.

 

My students are writing advice columns in which they use their own heartbreaks and moments of truth to advise others; I read them and think of how much wisdom they have already, at 18, 19. Last night, I went to a reading where one poet read poems about falling in love, accidentally, with their best friend several times. Another poet read about love and grief and loss and wild things. And on the patio, a woman pulled a bow across a violin making the strings scrape, a dissonant beautiful twinge. A man moved his hand towards and away from the radio and suddenly there was the piercing vertical rise and fall of a transmitter. We were all huddled in the courtyard listening.

 

Carl Sagan said, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” Vastness and uncertainty is the raw material we have to work with. I believe we can bear the uncertainty if we bear it together. We can let go of what we think of ourselves and allow ourselves to come into being. We can make a record that is closer to what’s true and invite others to do the same.

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sum·ma·tion

summation2014

 

 

sum·ma·tion (səˈmāSHən ) noun

1. the process of adding things together: the summation of numbers of small pieces of evidence; a sum total of things added together.

2. the process of summing something up: these will need summation in a single document ; a summary; in Law, an attorney’s closing speech at the conclusion of the giving of evidence.

 

 

The end of the year is a time when we tend to take stock, to think about what has happened over the past year, to make peace, to give thanks, to look forward.

As is always true for me, the holidays are a mixed bag. I am reminded of those favor bags from kids’ birthday parties. Sometimes you get something really cool like a paddleball and sometimes you get those wax lips. Anyway, most of the time, you get a mix. It’s near impossible for me to get through the holidays without feeling a pretty large amount of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: not the least of which are dear ones, family, friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I don’t want for food or clothing. I am not consumed by worry about my basic needs being met. I have amazingly creative, smart, caring people in my life.

But the holidays often demand that we be perpetually cheery and grateful, that we shelve our uncertainty. This is not realistic or fair to ourselves. Our uncertainty is always there, and it is pretty friendly with fear and doubt. The holidays also bring with them the end of the year, and for many of us, the end of the year brings an appraisal. It’s as if our lives are our finances and we are working them out in an Excel spreadsheet. Was there enough personal growth? Can we tally a sizable number of accomplishments? How did we fare in love?  How many friends and family are we in touch with and how can we measure their love? It is always easier to remember the heartache and trials. Those arise readily. It seems like there can be a process of looking at the year, judging it and deciding if this year merited itself.

For some of us, this begins, albeit unconsciously, before we enter the holiday fray. We think about what it is we are going to talk about from our year. What aspect of our lives will make sense to our friends and family? How do we make our lives measurable? I find this process exhausting. Because the heart of the heart of my year doesn’t happen in these large moves, defeats or accomplishments but rather in moments of profundity and understanding and grief and joy.

A dear friend of mine told me last night that she is making a “Good Things Jar” for the new year. Next to a large mason jar, she will place scraps of different colored paper, ready and waiting to mark the good things that happen in her life. The small and the big ones. She will fill the jar with these things and next year, on New Year’s Eve, she will read them: remembering her year and all the good that was present in it. I love this idea. I love the ways we can remind ourselves of all that is good. Because we need reminding.

In The Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes about how the brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. We are hardwired that way, because for our ancient ancestors, survival depended upon it. If they didn’t remember what could kill them, they died. The way it plays out for us nowadays is that we ruminate and fixate and mull over negative experiences, not just the ones that are going to kill us but the ones that caused us pain. What once protected us from dying can now prevent us from being fully alive.

There is a term in Buddhism called “mudita.” It means joy. However, it goes beyond that. Mudita is about experiencing genuine joy for others. And while it seems like this comes from a selfless place, it doesn’t. Mudita comes from a place of recognizing our oneness with others. If we are having a hard time but are able to partake in another’s joy, if we can recognize how we are connected to this other person, we can be joyful as well. Still, joy is something we have to come into on our own.

I have known people who will ask how I am and, when I answer honestly about having a challenging day or a hard time, will say things like: “Well, you have so much be grateful for” or “Think about all your blessings” or “Look at how many people are worse off.” And that doesn’t feel honoring. It feels like they are made uncomfortable by my grief or fear and are trying to excise it. Perhaps because my grief or fear reminds them of their own. But we cannot be coaxed into joy. We must find it ourselves.

I think the way that we find it is by being more aware, by making the conscious choice to stay with our joy when we feel it. Good things jars and recalling happy memories with family and literally counting our blessings are all ways to build our own joy, which can become a kind of refuge when fear or uncertainty or envy arise. Mostly though, we need to pay attention when are feeling joyful. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, we need to water the seeds of joy in ourselves and others. Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain a few simple steps to take throughout our days to grow our joy:

  1. Help positive events become positive experience: Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.  As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.  Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  2. Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  3. Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

 

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Often, we will make a list of new year’s resolutions, most of which point to areas in which we feel inadequate. They point to our own sense of lack. But maybe resolutions don’t need to be about dramatic change in behavior or in circumstance. Perhaps the simplest and best new year’s resolution is to resolve to pay attention. To notice all the opportunities for joy we already have. Then our intentions for the year aren’t built on a belief in our deficiency but on a recognition of our own abundance.

Life is not a score tally for a board game. I find that the greatest pain and suffering for others and myself comes when we try to keep score with our lives. There is no way to add and subtract and compare two different lives. To do so is to pretend that we know the intimacies of someone else’s path. To do so is to pretend we know what is going to happen in our future. We simply have to honor where we are and honor that means we don’t know quite a bit.

I read an old Charlie Brown cartoon today where Charlie tells Lucy: “Life isn’t like a textbook. The answers aren’t at the back of the book.” What if instead of this becoming a source of frustration it became an opportunity for wonder? Look at how much I don’t know! Look at how much I have the opportunity to learn!

I like watching lawyer shows where the attorneys deliver their summations in court. So often they are clear and wrapped up tightly, like the bow on a Christmas present. The decision seems so simple and easy. Life is not like that. We deliver our summation and then a few days or weeks or months later, we deliver it again. At the end of the year, we look and listen and sum our lives and then we do the same thing a year later. But the words are always changing, the verdict is malleable.

As we approach the new year, perhaps we could remember all that we have learned this past year that has prepared us for the new one. Perhaps we could remember that this new year brings not one but countless opportunities to begin again. We can choose to remember in the myriad of experiences we have that they all add up to being truly alive.

 

 

 

 

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Xan·a·du

OLJ xanadu

 

xanadu2

 
 

On this last day of november and for our last post of nonfiction november, we are excited to share this piece by PR Griffis on Xanadu. Enjoy!

 
 

Xan·a·du   /ˈzanəˌdo͞o/   n.  a poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place.

 
 
xanadu 800px-Xanadu_on_Map_of_Asia

 
 

XANADU

 

I was eight years old in 1980 when Xanadu, the film starring Olivia Newton John, was released. I don’t remember much of the film itself—something maybe about Greek goddesses come to life through a billboard and arriving in sunny Southern California to rollerskate. It seems like maybe there was an older gentleman who wore a yachting outfit, or maybe that was one of those B-list-star-filled episodes of CHiPs.

 

Two things are important to me where Xanadu, the film, is concerned. First, I was in love with Olivia Newton John, and had been since I saw Grease at the drive-in two years before. She might have been my first cinematic crush. Good girl, poodle-skirt, bobby socks, and saddle shoes Sandy, or teased hair, black leather, high spiky heels Sandy, either one. As with Bewitched, where Elizabeth Montgomery played both blonde housewife witch Samantha and Aquarian-age party-girl witch cousin Serena, it was only different flavors of the same thing, each impossibly lovely in its own way.

 
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Second, the thing I remember best about Xanadu is the title song from the soundtrack, sung (natch) by Olivia Newton-John. This, of course, only a year or so before “Let’s Get Physical.” Which: yes, please.

 

I was surprised and saddened as a child to discover that Olivia Newton-John and Juice “Angel of the Morning” Newton weren’t related. I was particularly taken with female singers—Crystal Gayle, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn—especially of the crossover type, of which there were a plethora in the late 1970s.

 

“Xanadu,” the song is, if you’re not familiar with it, a dreamy disco tune, ONJ’s voice undulating beneath swirling veils of layered synth. It is also personally notable as the first instance I can recall of misapprehending lyrics. I was maybe twenty before I came to understand that what I had heard as testing me wasn’t right was actually destiny will arrive.

 

“Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from which Xanadu enters the western lexicon, is notable for beginning with the workmanlike slack-stress metrics of which junior high poetry unit horrors are made: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.

 

Coleridge claimed to have received the inspiration for “Kubla Khan” after reading Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, which ponderously-titled book details the travels of Marco Polo, who is believed to have visited Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan, ruler of Mongolia and part of China, in the late 1200s.

 

Also notable: Coleridge had administered himself “an anodyne for a slight indisposition” (read: opiates) and fallen asleep for a few hours after reading Purchas. The poem, he claimed, came to him fully formed during this sleep.

 

So, after a three-hour dope nod, he roused and wrote “Kubla Khan” the place of stately pleasure domes, the place of sacred rivers running through caverns fathomless to man.
 

378px-KublaKhan
 

Did I first play Marco Polo at about this same time—eight or nine years old—or shortly after? When was it that I first assumed the role of blind explorer, navigating chest deep and unseen water, attempting to reach far-flung and ever-shifting ports of call?

 

Coleridge claimed to have been interrupted in the midst of his writing by a man on business from Porlock, the remainder of the poem evaporating, the phrase “a man on business from Porlock” now a synonym for interrupted genius.

 

Grease was my favorite movie when I was seven, in 1978; “Xanadu” was my favorite song in 1980, when I was nine. Somewhere in there was Charlie’s Angels. I was in love with Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith, and Farrah Fawcett, in that order. I knew, deep down, I was supposed to be in love with Farrah Fawcett, if for no other reason because she was married to the Six-Million-Dollar Man, Lee Majors. She was, during this time, Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

 

One has to imagine that transoceanic travel, travel east from Europe to Asia in general, must have been fairly dodgy if Columbus, some two hundred years after Marco Polo’s voyage, tried to establish a route by heading in the opposite direction. Travel of that sort at that time being akin to—maybe even more dangerous than, statistically speaking—the space travel of our own age. And certainly, the desire to boldy go where no man has gone before, the human yen for discovery—equal parts a pull of the unknown and a pushing away from the known, the ultimately unsatisfactory—is well documented throughout human history.

 

Zeitgeist, maybe, is nothing more than a convergence of arrangements from possibilities theretofore nonexistent or inaccessible. Marco Polo, certainly, enlarged the realm of possibilities through his travels to and return from Asia, as did the introduction of culture and technology represented by the Moorish conquest of Iberia. Would the transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus have been within the realm of possibility without these happenings? Is it coincidence that the reconquista of the last Moorish-held Iberian lands and Columbus’s voyage both occurred in 1492?

 

2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, three years before I was born, the year before men landed on the moon. Interestingly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” David Bowie’s “Star Man,” and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” all of which take as their subject matter space travel, all came out in 1972. It’s as if these songs are the product of some Aquarian age that had as its focus some tenable objective correlative, a means by which we might transcend the bonds of space and time, some century after time and distance had been shattered by means of the telegraph and railroad, the means by which we might realize a place where we could make ourselves anew.

 

The Velvet Underground’s 1967 “I’m Waiting for the Man” is about scoring dope in Harlem, a venture much less dodgy than traipsing through Mongolia in the late 1200s, to say nothing of (a diminuendo, voices dying with a dying fall beneath the music from a farther room) rocketing into outer space.

 

When I was seven, my best friend Weldon and I used to take turns being Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors. His bed was an ocean, the sheets were the waves, and we would dive under the water and kiss open mouthed. Because we were only aping what we’d seen on TV, we didn’t know that there was supposed to be tongue involvement. I don’t remember either of us being concerned who was Lee Majors and who Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

 

In 1980, it was Xanadu and Olivia Newton John. By 1981, I wanted to see The Road Warrior more than I wanted anything. The next year, Conan the Barbarian came out, and I wanted to see that more than anything.

 

Does it reflect some grimmer reality in the national zeitgeist, this trending away from disco, from dancing, from musicals and magic? Or is it a graphing of the process by which a boy who saw no difference between playing with Barbies and GI Joe, a boy with no firmly fixed gender predilections, learned his place?

 

Travel, journey, being the primary means by which American narrative is given structure. If you are dissatisfied with your lot, move. Move from Europe to the Americas. The primary motivation of the Spanish foot soldiers who first came to the Americas—a journey from which they might not return—was the promise of land, of gold, of glory, all of which are ways of saying opportunity. Move. Move from the East to the Midwest, the South, the West. Move out onto the oceans and hunt white whales, move out onto the plains and hunt buffalo and first peoples and precious metals and one another.

 

And once even space and ocean have been thoroughly explored, begin in earnest the inner exploration, the exploration that does unto self what exploration did to the oceans and the west and the south and the east. Rocket off into inner space. Is it coincidence or convergence that syringes and Saturn rockets bear a striking resemblance to one another?

 

Xanadu, now, is a synonym for paradise. The final frontier, inner or outer. When we were twelve, my friend Robert and I rode our bicycles out into the country—white rock roads sectioning off ten-square-mile tracts of farmland—and found a low water crossing that emptied into a small pond. The idea of a place where water washed over the road and into a small limestone pond, wreathed round with willows, it was almost too much for the mind to bear. I decided that we would call it Xanadu. Because this is what we do with places that were already there when we arrived. We name them to suit us. We name them in keeping with the breadth of our understanding (see: The New World).

 

I didn’t know what to call the thing I discovered I could bring into being when I was nine or maybe ten, a year or two after we’d moved to a new and smaller town, where I was at first and for some years largely friendless. Call it The Man From Porlock. Call it Xanadu. Call it The Autoerotic Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Another kind of blind exploration, in any case, there in the dark of my bedroom. Marco. Polo.

 

How elegant the space station in 2001. How workmanlike, how quotidian, the International Space Station. How sad that our grasp for the stars has been shuffled off, that astronauts from the country who first put men on the moon now have to fly coach. How strange that some three short years after Kubrick realized his masterpiece of humanity’s uneasy relationship with technology, that technology became firmly means to end, just one more way to speak of distance, a means of metaphor.

 

The space program having, of course, its roots in the Nazi V2 rocket program, the same technology used to propel our most ardent aspirations towards the stars was wedded to one of the dirtiest moments in US history, another product of World War II. Little Boy, all grown up and become the ICBM, with something like 500 times the destructive force. Perhaps the fact that Russian and American scientists now work side-by-side in the ISS is a step towards the kind of utopian ideals embraced in, say, Star Trek.

 

Robert and I figured out later that the creek that supplied the water to Xanadu—our found and primeval paradise—ran through a cow pasture. Which meant that the water in Xanadu, in which we’d swum and splashed with such abandon, was chock-full of cow shit and all other manner of agricultural effluvia.

 

David Bowie, of course, released “Space Oddity” in 1969, the year after (and inspired by) Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey; “Space Oddity” introducing into the lexicon the figure of the lost astronaut Major Tom.

 

Odysseus, of course, being a Greek soldier who had a hell of a time getting home from the Trojan War.

 

In 1980, Bowie sings “Ashes to ashes, fun to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”

 

Coleridge wrote to John Thelwall in 1797: “I should much wish, like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes… I can at times feel strong the beauties you describe… but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge that can be acquired child’s play – the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things?

 

Time speeds up as we age. The hours before it is permissible to wake one’s parents on Christmas morning, the last few weeks of summer vacation, when no more swimming or playing or reading or sleeping will satisfy—sated with relaxation—these lasted lifetimes. Now, months pass in no time at all. The three and a half years I spent in the Army, the four years I spent in high school, these seemed like a million years. Everything—time, distance, suffering, joy—is relative, is how I understood Einstein’s theory. Who, for instance, is to say a three-hour dream of paradise is not one million years slept and awoken from?

 

Weldon was not the last guy I did stuff with. Into my early teens, I dated girls, and I experimented with boys. Girls were terrifying in their terra incognita, as boys were terrifying in their potential, should our experimentations become public knowledge. The small Texas town where I grew up having clearly defined boundaries, and fairly heinous standards and practices for people who transgressed them, I wasn’t certain enough in my orientation—a Kinsey Scale 2, say—to risk the potential for social and physical harm to act any further than I did on what was, in any case, more curiosity than identity.

 

A few years after Robert and I discovered Xanadu, we found an abandoned limestone quarry outside of town. There were a couple of places where the water was deep enough to jump off the ledges into the pools below. If you hit the bottom, though, it raised up purplish clouds that gave off an awful stink. After we’d been swimming there for awhile, we saw the rancher whose farm the quarry bordered dumping a wheelbarrow-full of horseshit into the water from just about the spot where we usually jumped.

 

I traded one identity for another, always, I think, wanting to feel safe. To feel accepted. Musicals for post-apocalypse, disco for metal, extroverted and nerdy for stoned and jockish, push-ups and sit-ups for things that worked faster and more reliably, gender-fluid for gender rigidly defined.

 

Growing up in an agrarian community in Central Texas, my youth was at least somewhat defined by small bodies of water and the presence of animal shit. That, and an uneasy relationship with gender, with White Male Power that probably defined—necessitated—my movements outward, onward. As with Marco Polo, as with the conquistadors, as with Lou Reed and David Bowie and Elton John, I had to move, pushed as much as pulled. I was defined by all of these, and that discovery of personal Xanadu—and what is paradise for us here on earth but a moment’s reprieve, one moment being all we have at any time—of a dozen different sorts, of personal erasure and continuous making anew.

 

 

 

Author PhotoPR Griffis lives and writes in Willimantic Connecticut with his wife, the writer Mika Taylor, and their dog, Petunia Von Scampers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fuse, Diagram, Defunct, and Devil’s Lake. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel of as-yet-undetermined length, and sometimes attempts to Twitter: @PR_Griffis

 

 

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whack

"Why You Can't Ring the Bell of 'High Striker,'" Popular Mechanics, 1935

“Why You Can’t Ring the Bell of ‘High Striker,’” Popular Mechanics, 1935

 

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

 

Today, in our fifth post of nonfiction november, we feature an essay by Raha Namy on the word whack. Enjoy!

 

whack  \hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow  2:  to cut with or as with a whack

 


Whack

You are in bed, in Denver. It is 18th of November, 2013, late at night. The lights are off and you are Viber messaging with him on your iphone. He is in his office, in Tehran, 28th of Aban 1392, morning. You send hugs and kisses and wish him a peaceful day. You tell him how much you appreciate his being supportive of you applying to the teaching position in Beirut, Lebanon. He sends you goodnight kisses.

You go on FB.  You respond to a friend’s message from Baltimore who is checking up on you to see how the edits for his translation of a TED talk on the subject of metaphors are going on. You have not even started yet, you text him. You need to get everything for the job application ready in less than a week.

The position begins at the beginning of the next academic year. You planned to stay in Denver and write and translate for another year, but the job is too appealing to just disregard. And you did not go looking for it; it came find you. A German-American friend, a colleague writer, who knows you enough to know what inspires you, texted you yesterday and said, “Do you know about this position?”

Still on FB, you get another message. The circle with the face of the friend in Tucson appears on the screen. You are to write something for the nonfiction month of The Dictionary Project. You stop yourself from immediately checking the message and continue on with the other conversation, all the while hoping for a word your ESL can handle. Even though you are a writer writing in English, the language is and will forever remain your second one.

You finally open the message box and read: “Hi. Your word, freshly bibliomanced, is: Whack.” You think, “What? What the hell does that mean?” You have a sense that it is a colloquial word, but you have no idea what to with it. You are sure you have never used it in any of your writings or in conversation. You continue to read:

“\hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow 2:  to cut with or as with a whack.”

That is not really helpful. You check your iphone’s Merriam-Webster app, then the iFarsi one. Now you can’t go to sleep. You get up and turn on the lights and your laptop. The New Oxford American Dictionary on your Apple tells you:

 

“whack |(h)wak| informal

verb [ with obj. ]

strike forcefully with a sharp blow: his attacker whacked him on the head | [ no obj. ] : she found a stick to whack at the branches.

• murder: he was whacked while sitting in his car.

noun

1 a sharp or resounding blow.

2 a try or attempt: we decided to take a whack at spotting the decade’s trends.

3 Brit. a specified share of or contribution to something: motorists pay a fair whack for the use of the roads through taxes.

PHRASES

at a (or one ) whack at one time: he built twenty houses at one whack.

out of whack out of order; not working: all their calculations were out of whack.

PHRASAL VERBS

whack off vulgar slang masturbate.

DERIVATIVES

whacker noun

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: imitative, or perhaps an alteration of TWACK”

 

You check The Free Online Dictionary, use Google Translate, check the Urban Dictionary, the Aryanpour Online Persian Dictionary.

You then go to your bookshelf. You check your Little Oxford Thesaurus from 1998 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English from 1981 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Hezareh English-Persian Dictionary that is shedding more and more pages everyday. It reads:

 

whack

 

You have no idea what you are going to do with the word. You have six days to write your essay, you tell yourself. Nothing will be resolved tonight. Go back to bed.

Sometime during the night you dream of a cemetery. In the distance a mass of black bodies moves slowly toward you. Puppets. Wooden. Much taller than humans. Women. Wrapped in black veils. Only their faces showing. They move as if being dragged on a hidden conveyor belt. You hear voices. From their direction. None of the mouths move. The voices ask, “What happened to our children?” The bodies move. The wind blows. “Where are our children?”

You wake up around 7:30 with a Viber message that reads, “Kisses. Wake up beauty.” You send a kiss back and write, “Have fun and say hi to everyone.” You know he is out with friends. You turn around in bed. You open the BBC page on your iphone. The first headline reads, “Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut.”

 

P.S. Three days later you send in your application documents for the teaching position in Beirut.

 

 

R. Namy is a freelance writer and translator. Wandering everywhere, she has given up on finding home anywhere.

 

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