Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dial a Prayer

My Sigma Chi days were short. After accepting my invitation to join, I moved my scant belongings into a small room on the bottom floor--a pile of tee shirts, two pairs of jeans and a Sears cassette player. The window had a view of nothing but a parking lot surrounded by trees, and hardly anybody in the house had a car. I borrowed a VCR from the front room and practiced being Dan Akroyd from a recording of a live Blues Brothers performance. It's a funny thing how easy something looks until it's tried. John Belushi got all the press, while his partner quietly stood eclipsed by his shadow, apparently happy to do so. I learned to appreciate Dan Akroyd as I frantically scissored my feet like electric clippers in an all but impossible attempt to imitate him. Once in a while I could see a dark shadow pass the window after the dull report of a slamming car door in the lot outside, checking me out on the way by and avoiding my gaze as I tried to see who it was. I must have looked like a circus clown to them, bouncing around with sweat streaming in tiny rills.

I refused to sleep upstairs in the sleeping porch with the rest of the pledges, and in general I thumbed my nose at any authority whatsoever. Pledges were supposed to be humble, but I was anything but. The members were getting restless. All along it was as if I had a foot out the door. I never intended to stay, although I never consciously acknowledged this. I just wanted to know what it felt like to belong to a respected house.

But I have to be honest about something. I was drinking too much, and I had basically given up on getting a degree. My grades by now had dipped below a point eight, which means I had an F average. The friends I had anymore only had pity for me, seeing the inevitability of my way. Sigma Chi was my last shot. I was meteor, a bright comet that was about to fizzle. And like a dying man whose doctor has told him to make his final preparations, I was living like there was no tomorrow. I wouldn't be back next year, and only I knew that for sure.

You may remember Conrad, the guy who invited me to join. He and I went to a bar for a few drinks on a Friday night. We sat with Sherrie, who met me for the first time that night, but I remember she had the hots for my friend Jay the semester before, and like all women that approached Jay, she was something to behold. It must have been the Sigma Chi shirt I was wearing, which to me had special powers, like a super suit, that rendered me irresistible. I had a brief chat with Sherrie that I wish I could reproduce, but it ended with her giving me her phone number, then going away with her girlfriend.

Conrad looked at me funny as she left. "You think you did pretty good there, don’t you?"

"Yeah, I think she likes me." I was glowing and it showed.

Conrad shook his head. "No chance. She just got through telling me that guys are always hitting on her and she’s sick of it."

"You're a cute kid Conrad, but a little naive." I said, "Perhaps she just wanted to back you off."

He raised an eyebrow as he motioned toward the bar napkin in my hand, "No way is she going out with you."

"We'll just have to see about that."

I waited for as long as I could, a day perhaps, picked up the phone and punched in the numbers written with such flowing, feminine style. One ring was all it took. My heart stopped as I groped for something to say, but I didn't need to bother. A recording of a man's voice spoke first, kind and understanding.

"Let me ask you a question: have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? Only through Him can you find eternal sal--"

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In My Country

I saw a great movie this weekend called, "In My Country." Let's just say that we are lucky to live where we do. And let us just further say that being white is a privelege that can't be taken away, and can't be given back. Go ahead and whine. Self denigration, loud protestation and empathy don't change a thing.

I'll say the word, but resist your inner file manager, the one that says, "Ah, this goes right here" in the Shit That Doesn't Affect Me folder. Already your eyes are glazing over, because the phase triggered an unconscious brain mine, your heart rate accelerated and your hand is absently twitching the mouse towards the Next Blog button. It's a choice really, how we live our lives. We all know that bad stuff happens, and some of us are really put out by it. Hell, we might even get indignant and pretend to really care, especially when rightly accused of apathy. But next week I'll have totally forgotten about it, swimming in the Soma of my own petty problems, and my life will continue unabated on it's present course.

What's the word?

Later. I have more to say.

I admire the kind of person who gets up one day, tired of all the bullshit, tired of hearing people complain about the state of the world, tired of talking about the injustice of it all, and takes action.

Do you ever wonder what it must be like to be a field reporter? Someone who doesn't hear it first on the news; rather someone who gets a call at three in the morning. Get your ass to Oklahoma City. Someone who walks through the rubble of an explosion and finds a shoe that fits in his white-knuckled fist with a tiny, gushing foot still in it? Someone who witnesses an execution with the family of the condemned man's victim and his sobbing mother, tendrils of smoke snaking from underneath a metal kippah, the smell of burnt meat wafting and pervasive, like a roasted pig in a pit. Someone who walks through a refugee camp after eating a hot breakfast, and sees the body of an emaciated child, skin pulled impossibly taut over a rib cage like a vacuum sealed freezer bag, with a fly casually cleaning its wings atop a sightless open eyeball. Someone who has consoled and transcribed the events of countless victims and survivors of violent crimes.

I do. But I live right here, in my little office that overlooks my slice of the Shire while the world turns on its hostile axis. I wish sometimes that I would have joined the service, or traveled abroad. I feel fortunate to have shoveled shit, to have worked in the freezing cold, to have rubbed two pennies together and wished them into silver dollars, to have loved and lost, to have tried so many times, to have been told I couldn't do it, to have risen above the caste I was born to.

Maybe if we all had to see the dark side of life, to squirm from its oppressive grip, we would have some respect, for each other and for the lives of people who never even had a ticket in the geographic lottery. Maybe we would have more of a stake in the future.

If I could do it all over, I would live a different life. I'm happy, but feeling a little guilty, like I'm living on the backs of slaves. I'm not rich by my country's standards, but on a world scale I'm living in Graceland. Make that Disneyland.

But like I said, I'll get over it. A movie like In My Country is like a cup of Peets: jolting, but the buzz eventually wears off.

The word? Oh yeah.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Who's Better Off?

Ironically, it was mommy and daddy who couldn't sleep, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring--not even a mouse. Don't always believe what you read, even on food labels. Oh sure, it might say decaf...

Downstairs in the front room, which I believe is called the "living" room--I can never remember which is the family room, and which is the living room, so for arguments sake, the living room is the room classically reserved for the formal china and fancy schmancy table and chairs--is what we classify as our play and guest room, depending on the context. We set up a queen-sized bed for dad's recent visit, when it was only known as the playroom. It also has a fireplace, so we put the Christmas tree next to it and hung the stockings. Jackson and I slept in the bed and waited for Santa. He promised to stay up all night waiting, until we let him know about Santa's ability to know when you are sleeping. Kapow! Fast asleep.

Jackson got up first and saw all the presents. He was excited, but not like I used to be. It wasn't disappointing, just interesting. The world has changed for kids. Maybe I make a little more money than the average Joe--I'm not rich, but when political pundits say there is a war on the middle class, I'm it. Middle: not poor, not rich, just playing the game by the rules.

When I grew up it was different.

I saw a train set in a toy store that I pointed out to my Aunt Bev. "That's what I want for Christmas." She frowned. I was young, perhaps eight or nine. But the look on her face is with me still, not like a photograph; more like a strand of DNA, a twisted ladder whose rungs connect her pain to mine, her desire to provide to my outstretched hands, her disappointment to my dawning comprehension of our place on the food chain.

"Maybe something...” she paused. The words were difficult. "...a little smaller."

"NO! I don't want anything else. I want that."

My dad would have back-handed me over the train table, through three displays and the display window, and onto the front sidewalk, shivering and bleeding. But my aunt just whispered, "I-I'll see what I can do."

She told my step-mother, who talked to me when we were alone. "Your aunt Bev told me you asked her for a train."

Shame washed through me like a chill wind. Mom looked at me with those eyes that see, that could read my thoughts as from a teleprompter. Her expression softened when she saw that I understood. For once she wasn't angry. And I sensed something else too, something I would rarely see from her--a faint wisp of compassion, like a nip of perfume.

I found an old Lionel train set in my grandmother’s basement that used to belong to my father. It was heavy and smelled of oil. It didn't work any more, but I set it up anyway and imagined it did. That was the closest I ever came.

My own kids don't wait nearly so long. They have three train sets, remote control cars and planes, a Game boy, race tracks, Hot Wheelz, board games, figurines of dinosaurs and every genus of animal from the African deserts to the Arctic, and a crate of Disney movies that would take weeks to get through. When my oldest gets up on Christmas morning, he gets back in bed next to me and tells me Santa came, and waits patiently for me to wake up. Sometimes I put toys into the attic, and it takes months before he notices. I was made do with a broken down train set that only left from Dream Central Station. My son can play with a new toy for a day and lose interest.

Who's better off?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas is Upon Us


We interrupt our normally scheduled posting to bring you this breaking news. Check out Moni's new song. She's been telling us about it for a while now and due to much encouragement from her friends, she has finally put it online for us to check out. I am impressed, so drop by, have a listen, and let her know what you think.

Now, back to business...


Christmas is almost upon us. I looked at the mountain of gifts we bought for our kids, and thought, man, this really bites! After wrapping five or so, I got into a groove. Not a wrinkle or tear, and all my lines straight. My mind started wandering to a long ago time when my brother and I couldn't sleep, my eyes drooping like Adrienne Barbeau's breasts, anxious to catch Santa in the act--but I never could stay awake. The morning came and my eyes popped open, the sun cast striped beams through the slats of my window, dust dancing in and out of its swath. I kicked the upper bunk and my little brother jumped to the ground as if jolted with a cattle prod.

"Did he come?" I asked him.

His body was a coiled spring--like a wide receiver waiting for the quarterback's signal. "I'll go see!" And off he shot, through the door, his feet padding through the hallway and stopping at the entryway to the living room--then back again.

"He did come--and he ate the cookies!"

I was already sitting up by now, and my feet found my slippers. "Let's get mom and dad!"

We ran into their room. The air rumbled from dad's snoring, but that ended with a loud report as we jumped between them and announced that Santa had really come, and they had to see.

And even dad, the crusty old crab-legged curmudgeon, couldn't resist our infectious enthusiasm, even though the battle was hard-fought behind those brown eyes.

Now I have my own family, and my own two boys who wait impatiently for Christmas morning. We've tantalized them further by setting up a bed by the Christmas tree and letting them sleep there on Christmas Eve. Jackson told me a secret that he is going pretend to be sleeping so that he can catch Santa in the act. But I know another secret. Jackson could sleep through an earthquake.

So Christmas morning the kids will awake to cookie crumbs and a thank-you note, and a mound of colorful packages that were carefully wrapped to be thoughtlessly torn open.

Christmas is for the kids--at least that's what I always thought. There is no greater joy than to see your children laugh.


To all my blogger friends: thanks for dropping by with all your words of encouragement. I'm not sure how to wish you the best this Christmas without sounding like a Hallmark card, so consider yourself told. Here's to you my friends, may we still be going strong next year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Captain Caveman

I've been swimming in a sea of new technologies. Was it Darwin that said use it or lose it? That certainly applies to the brain. I'm in the software development business and I can tell you, complacency is the drooling tongue on the back of food stamps.

We've all lived the great hipocrisy, the self-creating lie. You must have experience to qualify, and yet how do you get it but on-the-job. Companies typically keep you working on the same task ad infinitum, until you could do it blindfolded, wrists bound and mouth gagged. They don't want you to learn something new--that would make you a marketable commodity, increasing your value and bargaining position come review time.

So what do you do? Lie of course.

Q: Do you have any experience with Web Services?
A: Services schmervices. Of course I do.
Q: Can you tell me what a Web Service is?
A: I could, but then I would have to kill you. Ha ha ha.
Q: Wow. Smart and funny. Seriously, what is a Web Service?
A: I know what it is, but do you?
Q: I'm not the one being interviewed.
A: That's what I thought.
Q: What?
A: You don't even know what a web service is.
Q: I was hoping you could tell me.
A: Oh, so you want me to do all your work for you?
Q: You are applying for a job aren't you?
A: Yeah, but I was hoping to learn something new here, to live in the now.

You get the picture.

I'm in a customer-driven business--what the customer wants, the customer gets. Mostly. So when a customer asks for the latest and greatest technology, and several others are chirping about the same, we move to learn and adapt our products. This happens every five years or so.

Our CEO is a typical dinosaur that comes from a time when you clubbed your woman over the head and drug her to the cave for a thirteen second bout of unprotected Zug Zug. He still keeps a stack of punch cards in his desk drawer, and has been known to pull one out and fondle it when reminiscing about the good old days, when programmers didn't suck.

He thought the internet was a passing fad, the buzzword du jour. But customers complained, so our products went online. Now customers want to consume our products as web services, and Captain Caveman is grumbling again.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Island

I saw a great movie this weekend, but I will warn you: if you haven't seen it then I am about to spoil it for you. I have to. Otherwise I can't really talk about it.

The movie is called The Island. Did you get that from the title and the image? Remember, I only get to see movies when they come out on DVD, and only after the kids go to bed. I thought the science fiction movie had gone the way of disco, a guilty pleasure nobody can admit to. How many sci fi films have you seen that you can truly call original or engaging? Not many. But this movie gave me hope.

Let's dispense with the disclaimers first. One one level, this film was nothing more than a hollywood action film that John Woo is probably kicking himself for not getting involved with. One scene has the actors falling from a several story skyscraper and landing safely in a net. Visually stunning but insulting to the intelligence. I will say that I hate action films for this very reason. If you are a fan of John Woo, Van Dam, Segal, etc, and love to watch bullets fly A-Team style, cars explode Dukes of Hazzard style--well, this movie is just perfect for you.

What intrigued me was the actual fiction, you know, the story, that despite the intrusion of all these pyrotechnics, really stole the show. The story is set in the near future, where people are cloned as insurance policies to the insanely rich. If you need a new heart--no problem. It will be harvested from your clone and a new clone will be grown to take her place. The insured think their clones are insentient beings, bags of protoplasm with no self-awareness, and the company presents it this way. But the reality is that these clones are living, walking, talking people who think they live underground, protected from a contaminated world. The Island, they believe, is a Garden of Eden, where the lucky few are sent by lottery. Of course there is no Island, and those that are sent there are euthenized when their real function is executed.

It reminds me a little of the Truman Show, another movie that I loved. Because this is a realistic, believable and forseeable future. Money rules. If you have it, you can have anything.

For all you Bush bashers out there, what movie would be complete without a passive aggressive, back handed slap of the president? The president has an insurance policy as well, who Ewen MacGregor refers to as an idiot. If this were Bill Clintons day, he would have been portrayed as the clone who couldn't keep his tool in his tights, even though his sex drive had been removed. I don't understand it sir. We cut it off but it keeps growing back!

Oh, this is funny. I was about to rave about the writer, Caspian Tredwell-Owen, so I googled him and found that there is a suit filed in Federal Court. Apparently this story is a copy of a low budget Indy film called Clonus.


Oh, and Scarlett Johanssen. Nuff said.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gotta Turn it Off

Sunday was the last weekend of football for me. The Cowboys... got... crushed--by the Redskins. That's like getting beat up by your little brother. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. This was the worst ass kicking the Cowboys have taken since... I don't remember when, and frankly I'm burnt out from thinking about it. It's hard being a Cowboys fan, and it has been for nine years or so. I was like an excited puppy at the beginning of the season, so happy that I hardly had bladder control. But today I watched the total self-destruction of a crew that seemed destined for a division title and a deep run into the playoffs. Now, if they make it, and that's a big if, who cares. They were embarassed like a cheerleader whose top flew open, caught on camera like God created her for the world to see, destined to be wallpaper on computer monitors across the America.

I'd be surprised if Bill Parcells returns as the coach next year. He won't be fired; he's just too old for this shit anymore.

Listen all. I've been busy and haven't been around as much. You know the drill, we've all said it, we've all read it, so you can fill in the rest.

It's late and I'm going to bed. I hope to spend some time trawling tomorrow, but I think I am going to be swamped for some time.

Geez I'm tired. Does it show?

Good night.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Progress Report

Work has certainly kept me away from my blogging responsibilities lately. That's a good and bad thing. Good because I am happily chugging away and my day flies by, bad because I miss my daily labor of love. Maybe someday I can do this for a living and have the best of both worlds.

Keep practicing.

Janey gave me a writing technique book to read called Techniques of the Selling Writer. At first I thought, geez, what a dry, formal, pedantic read--but I quickly got over it. It was written nearly forty years ago, and writers have since then lightened up. But that was only the first chapter. In chapter two, the pace quickened and the advice was golden. I especially liked the section on the use of the word "had." The book advises to avoid this evil word at all costs, because it slows the pace if only for a jarring instant, taking the reader out of the now. I put the book down and reviewed my short story and counted around ten offenses--and I smiled. I learned something.

I'm also reading All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. I haven't gotten very far, because my time is limited. What was that old saying? If you chase two rabbits you catch none? I can't help myself. Bragg is amazing. His recollection of the tiniest detail is humbling. It's no wonder he was a writer for the New York Times. The book is a memoir, homage to his mother who raised him in the harshest of impoverished conditions. I don't know much more about the book, but my initial reaction is that Rick Bragg has an unpretentious, easy-to-read style that invites the reader to read on. He comes from a humble background, and has risen to the top despite all roadblocks that would stymie the average person.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Happy Fifth

In a clearing amidst a grove of oak trees, surrounded by farms and swampland, lives a cape style, three-story home, red like boiled lobster. Inside, past two young boys jumping from the living room couch onto a stack of pillows and blankets on a dark, wooden planked floor, past their mother folding piping hot t-shirts--softened silky smooth with the fragrance of baby powder--from the dryer into a basket, and upstairs past their father hunched in his office chair, sipping coffee and staring blankly into a computer monitor pretending to work, through the attic hatch that pulls down like a dragon's maw--with a folding ladder tongue--by a retractable string as the springs groan in protest, and into the biting cold, in the farthest dark corner on a sheet of chipboard stretched atop open ceiling rafters stuffed with dirty pink, cotton-candy-like insulation, lies a box marked "Mom's Things" in black Sharpie.

The box is sealed with packaging tape over every crack to protect it from bug intrusion. Inside are stacks of papers, books, and pictures, and trinkets that once adorned her desk at the Houston car dealership where she steadfastly kept herself busy while the cancer spread through her lungs, up her spine and into the brain. A little green book, hardly the size of a palm, could be seen just under top flap of the box if it were opened. Inscribed in plain gold letters is the title, "One Day at a Time." Tucked into the book's pages is a card in an opened envelope, with a platinum and black chip featuring the roman numeral five tucked inside, and a message written in neat black-ink script, "Happy fifth Mom. I'm proud of you."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Almost Out Of Time

What a weekend.

We were heading to Santa's Village until the big snowstorm hit, so we waited until morning when the snow plows and sunshine had made the world safe from dumb ass drivers. Sure, I have four wheel drive, but not everybody else.

On Saturday morning we packed our things into laundry baskets. We have suitcases, but laundry baskets are more convenient for one or two-day trips. Emmett fell asleep at ten in the morning, which is not like him. His eyelids were drawn irresistibly down, and his breathing was labored and shallow. For a week now he coughed and thrashed at night, but so far we thought he had a cold. Beth took him to see the pediatrician, who calmly told her to take him to the emergency room.

"Can I pick up my husband on the way?" Beth asked the doctor.


At the emergency room, Beth filled out a registration form and waited to be called. When she was finally shown to a room, and after chest x-rays from technicians, she waited for two hours for the doctor to come in. By now Emmett was dehydrated and hungry. The doctor apologized, but he didn't know she was even waiting until minutes ago.

I wish I had been there. Think Shirley MacLean in Terms of Endearment. If you haven't seen it, just watch the scene when her movie-daughter has cancer and hasn't had her pain shot, and MacLean goes to the nurse’s station to secure one. Get the shot. I'm sorry maam-- Get the shot! GET THE SHOT! GET THE SHOOOOOOT!!!!!

But it ends well--Emmett's infection is viral, a huge relief because I almost died when I was a baby from the same. Not that I can remember. Emmett "called" me from the emergency room, just to say hi. I've never heard him utter a word on the phone, not even a grunt. But I heard him clearly, "Hi dada." In the back of my mind, after we hung up, the eerie thought crept up from my unconscious, "What if that was the last time I ever spoke to him?" I scooped him up when he came home, and he rested there with his cheek on my shoulder--and I didn't tire so quickly.

Last night he woke up while the wife and I were watching the Fantastic Four downstairs. Another first, Emmett got out of bed. Mind you, he's just two years old now, so there are many firsts. The volume on the TV kept it from us for a while, but like a strange disturbance in the force, or a tickle of Spidey sense, we realized something was wrong and I paused the movie. Emmett screamed at the top of the stairs in a hoarse rasp, unique to having done so for a while, which pushed my panic button and propelled me up the stairs in three or four bounds. I scooped him up and he collapsed into my shoulder without so much as a sniffle.

Can you say melodrama?

Oh well. We brought him downstairs and he passed out between us. His sweet little angel face looked towards the heavens, and Beth and I took turns touching his face and pinching his nose, exploring the behind his ears and feeling his soft little neck. Then I thought of Jackson, older now and annoyed with such attention.

There isn't much time left before Emmett won't need us like this anymore.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Good Friends, Good Coffee

It's Friday in New England and we are getting pummeled with rapidly accumulating snow. This is the time of year when I ask myself what the frack I'm doing here. But Jackson is over at the neighbors sledding and drinking hot chocolate, so for him this is just a colder slice of heaven. There isn't much more to wish for than a happy child.

Thanks for all the comments on my book review. Eve made a good point, that I shouldn't be shy about my opinion. It was proffered honestly. I feel a little bad that I'm picking on a dead guy, but then again I don't have to worry about him finding my remarks and putting me on the black list with any of his publisher friends.

Janey gave me a link a while back to a list of questions to consider in a reading-group discussion on the Larry Brown book. After reading through them I felt I had missed some subtleties, of which there is no doubt. But I still didn't care for it, but perhaps it was well crafted, even if the story wasn't personally moving.

I don't know if I mentioned, but our friends Vicki and Richard visited a couple weekends ago, friends I've had since before I met my wife. They were engaged and living together, and I was the single guy who would most likely be so--forever (cue the evil laugh). But of course I did get married and had our first son before they got pregnant themselves. My wife and I became outsiders to them for a while, until they had a child of their own. Vicki gained an immediate appreciation for the trauma we went through raising a child without any help from anyone. After Vicki had her baby, she gained a new respect for us, and we've been good friends ever since.

Back in the early days before kids, we would sit in their small San Francisco apartment and play Euchre and smoke the wacky, laughing, telling stories, imitating our favorite Star Wars characters--as time raced like the Lombard traffic that roared unnoticed outside our windows.

During their recent visit, the most amazing thing happened. The kids played with one another. They didn't need us. Then Vicki said, "Hey, I know. Let's play some Euchre." Whoa. How long had it been? It took us a long time to find two decks of cards to shuffle together, but we did. And we managed to play three full games before the kids finally called an end to our foolishness. They acted like they didn't remember the rules, saying things like, "Now what's higher, the Jick or the Jack?" Yeah right. They stomped us so bad, that when we won our first point somewhere in the second game, Vicki said, "Aww Rich, that's so cute. They scored a point."

The only thing missing was the wacky that we took for granted in those days. I've said before that I don't have any way to get any here, and I'm not about to ask around.

We got a FedEx package in the mail today. Inside was a beautiful framed picture of their boy and ours, sitting together under the canopy of our play set in the back yard, a nice reminder of our time together. Richard is a photographer, and a damn fine one at that. As Jackson and I were looking at it, the phone rang.


"It's Vicki."

"Vick," I said, "we just got your package. I just love the picture."

"Oh," she paused, "are you just now opening it?"


"Have you seen the coffee?"

"No, you sent me some coffee?"

"Yeah, but it's special coffee."

"Like Starbucks? Cool! I just r..." Then it hit me. "Ohhhh. You mean special coffee."

"It's just a little, so don't get too excited."

"You are insane, and unbelievably cool."

"We had such a good time with you guys, and we were talking about it when we left your place that night, and we decided we had to do it."

Like I said, it's the little things in life. It's nice to be reminded that there are a few people out there that so highly of you.

The snow has let up, so it's off to plow I go. Tomorrow morning, if the weather allows, we are off to New Hampshire and Santa's Village. Then on Sunday it's Jackson's birthday.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Review: Father and Son by Larry Brown

The general feeling I get when I put this book down, is that I must be missing the point. I surfed around for other book reviews to get the reaction of other more sophisticated readers, but unfortunately, it seems I am left alone to fend for myself. The jacket builds the expectation that a master is going to take you on a psychological thrill ride; but the reality, at least for me, was quite different.

The story begins with the release of Glen Davis from prison, where he has been for three year years for manslaughter. Glen is a pure force of rage, and has revenge on his mind. His girlfriend Jewel has waited for him faithfully during his internment, and has been raising the child that Glen gave her--a child that Glen refuses to recognize as his own. Glen returns home to his father, Virgil, who Glen hates because of an affair that Virgil had with Mary Blanchard, which hurt Glen's mother, who died while Glen was in jail. To complicate matters, Virgil and Mary had a son, Bobby, who is the sheriff that put Glen away, and who is seeking to have a relationship with Jewel.

Does this sound like a soap opera to you? It does to me too.

There are other characters, whom Brown spends time building. Glen has a brother Randolph, or Puppy as everyone calls him, who picks him up from jail. Later we learn about his failed attempt at running a car repair business, and his strained marriage. In the end, it seems that Puppy was an extra, playing no integral role in the outcome of the story. I can only assume his part fed into the theme of fathers and sons, but served no other purpose beyond that.

It seems that much of the book was spent feeding an artistic theme, but didn't propel the story forward, leaving me wishing this were a short story instead. The ending was done well, but it took an age to get there. Even then, when the story's "Sweet Sue" was metaphorically tied to the railroad tracks, we are tortured with descriptions of the countryside, and treated to fond memories of days gone past.

Make no mistake; Larry Brown is a gifted writer. His scene descriptions are beautiful, and his dialog feels authentic. For my own tastes, I'd like to see more story movement and the art seamlessly woven in. In the end the message is one we've all heard before, with nothing new to add. It really hit home when I described the story to my wife, who summed it up in one word: typical.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Free Writing

I am taking a three week writers workshop from my local community education department. The teacher had us free write, which is writing without correction or pause, in response to prompts she gave. It was a little intimidating, but I was surprised at what came out of me when I let go. Of course I held back a little when my mind wandered down the darker roads because I didn't want to freak anyone out on my first day. Nothing bad. The prompt was, "It was the first day of..." So I went with "...the new year, and I had resolved to never drink again. Unfortunately it was also the night of the bachelor party, and I was the best man." Pretty soon I'm talking about strippers and her hairy knuckled escort. The mental brakes brought me into a tailspin thinking, I have to read this aloud.

The teacher participated in the drill too, and read it to us. I was amazed. She talked about the first day of college, how she wanted to back out once she got there. I can't reproduce her prose, but I remember this line: "I didn't know if I wanted to plant myself in a garden of strangers." She has a background in poetry--and it shows.

My friend Joe sent me a link that pokes fun at Chuck Norris. You can find the whole thing here, but my favorite is this:

Chuck Norris sold his soul to the devil for his rugged good looks and unparalleled martial arts ability. Shortly after the transaction was finalized, Chuck roundhouse kicked the devil in the face and took his soul back. The devil, who appreciates irony, couldn't stay mad and admitted he should have seen it coming. They now play poker every second Wednesday of the month.

I'm almost finished with the book Father and Son, so I'll review it tomorrow. I've been a little scarce on other blogs. I will visit everyone soon.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hi Sigma Chi

After my aborted attempt at being a Greek, I decided to give the frat life another try--nobody ever accused me of being a quick learner. The only problem the first time around, I figured, was the lack of estro-curricular activities. I just needed to find a cool fraternity whose name wasn't the torn ACL of trivial pursuits.

Sigma Chi had an informal rush, which is to say that you could just join without all the official fanfare. If they liked you, and you liked them, you became a sorta-pledge until you went through basic training with next year's recruits.

I'll have to give him a name, but for the life of me I can't and don't want to remember him. Let's call him Conrad. Conrad was about five ten and a 150 pounds soaking wet, but he had a smug confidence, a cool veneer that I longed to crack with brass knuckles. He was the runt of the litter, but was Rico Suave and boyishly handsome, with a built-in twist of evil that naturally made him irresistible to the fairer sex--at least he thought so.

Conrad represented the house during informal rush. He showed me around the three story affair, not much different than any other on frat row. It had a large kitchen and dining area on the first floor, bedrooms along long corridors on the second floor, and a sleeping porch on the third. And of course the ever-present smell of stale beer chemically fused into the floors and counters.

Conrad told me that Sigma Chi was having a "date" function, and I was invited. "You can get a date, right?"

I knew just the girl to ask. She had a boyfriend at home in Puyallup. Pronouncing Puyallup, by the way, is one of those insider things that only Washingtonians can do. So, for your edification, it goes like this: pew-AL-up. The accented syllable is pronounced like the name Al, as in short for Allen. But I digress. She was a nice mixture of pretty and cool, making her pretty damn cool, and she was delighted to help me out. She belonged to a sorority but lived in the dorms. When I told her it was Sigma Chi, her eyes lit like you see on Star Wars when C3PO wakes up from a nap. I brought her to the house and introduced her around. There really wasn't any sort of function that night, just a few guys in the TV room watching a video--and nobody else had a date. Mine, however, impressed the hell out of Conrad, who informed me that the guys in the house really liked me, and that if I chose, I was invited to join the house. I gladly accepted.

It was totally different than being a Fiji. Girls of a wholly different category just hung around, for the fun of it, needing no invitation whatsoever. The house had functions with the well-known sororities, and the house members had girlfriends that made me chew on my open palm. Of course I bought a shirt that advertised my house affiliation, and suddenly the girls were stopping me on the street to have a chat.

My dreams had come true, and I proved to myself that I was "cool" enough to bluff my way into the fold of a good house. But there was the pesky problem of paying the rent. But worst of all, I sucked at being a pledge.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Small Things

It was a nice family weekend. Recent Christmas holidays have brought the deaths of my mother and grandfather, and for one reason or another we haven't been at our own home with our own tree for quite some time. This weekend we dusted off the ornaments and decorated the tree. The last to come out was the train, which orbits the tree stand in a large oval. The kids don't see the train, or the "Ch-choo" as baby
Emmett calls it, but once a year, so the excitement level is extreme.

Our neighbors invited us over for dinner, and we had our best visit yet. Our five year olds are engaged to be married when they come of age, and it is the cutest thing ever to watch them sit close together on a couch that could accommodate six or seven kids across, with their legs drawn up and leaning into each other. A Kodak moment as they used to say.

We've been friends for almost a year now. But this weekend is the first time our personal history with drugs came up in conversation. We had this same talk with our friends in California, almost again a year after we met. If you have any experience living in a neighborhood where you plan to stay for a spell, there are many personal habits you might want to keep to yourself. I'm sure some of my younger blogger friends will disagree, that being yourself is the only way, but life has taught me a few lessons in group dynamics. If a single person in a community with a loud voice takes a dislike to you, the wheels of fate will run you over and plant you six feet under. I promise you. Issues concerning religion, sex, drugs, abortion, political leanings can be your undoing. So naturally, it's best to keep your mouth shut.

And that is hard for me to do.

That is why I am always the ice breaker between us and our newest friends. I don't come right out and ask, or tell; I talk around the issue like a game of tetherball. As the ball travels around the pole, the rope pulls it closer to the pole the more revolutions it makes. I don't keep madly batting at the ball; rather I serve it up for my "opponent" to either hit it back or pass it along in the same direction. My neighbor Tracy decided on the latter, and soon enough we were sharing old college stories. It turns out too that her husband Ian and I have a similar taste in books. So now I have a handful of Terry Pratchet's, which is only a small slice of his collection.

Life is about the small things.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Robert Gregory Browne

I found a new blog from a new novelist, Robert Gregory Browne, who just got a two-book deal from St. Martin's Press. His book, A Measure of Darkness, comes out in 2007. He details the whole process from the beginning, how he managed to get his story in the right hands, the acceptance from the publisher, getting assigned an editor, etc. Reading it I get a bit of a vicarious rush. St. Martins publishes one of my favorite authors, Wilbur Smith. A Measure of Darkness is a cop thriller that has a supernatural twist. Although none of my writing so far, at least on this blog, has ever attempted it, this is the kind of writing that seems to interest me most.

I remember watching an episode of Six Feet Under. Nate's wife was murdered the previous season. He was jogging when a dog captures his attention, beckoning with its eyes for Nate to follow, which he does. The dog leads him to a psychic, who tells him that his wife is trying to reach him. It sent chills through my spine. The show isn't about supernatural activity, but once in a while something unexplained happens like this.

Wilbur Smith wrote a book that just floored me called the Sunbird. I won't explain the story in detail, but the first half is about the discovery of an ancient civilization that had almost been wiped from existence. The second half goes back in time and details its fate. The principal characters in present day, the discovering archaeologists, are reincarnations of the principal characters of long ago. One of old characters communed with the God Baal, and was able to draw from him some magic. It was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, and a gripping read.

Anyway, best of luck to Mr. Browne, whose career has certainly begun in earnest. As for me, it's time to get serious and join the party.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


My wife and I watched the first season of HBO's Rome. At first my wife, ever the wimp that she is, couldn't stand the graphic violence, and the overt sexuality of the society that existed in the first century BC. But as the season progressed, we both became fascinated by the complex story line that entwined itself around the actual events leading to the death of Julius Caesar, and the fictional characters Pullo and Vorenus, who always manage to be at the right place at the right time, and are silently instrumental in all major historical developments.

Pullo is an overlarge teddy bear, a little dopey, but loyal to a fault. Vorenus is a stoic man who lives by a strict code of ethics, for which he is willing to die for. He loves his wife dearly, but he can't escape the trap of his societal programming that dictates the place of a woman in a relationship. Vorenus is deeply conflicted, and faces several moral dilemmas throughout the series that pit his sense of duty to that of friendship and love. Pullo is a much simpler man, who often is a victim to his own impetuousness. He lives only to fight and have sex, and to protect his friend Vorenus, even if Vorenus doesn't appreciate him.

Both Pullo and Vorenus are soldiers, and fortune always puts them in the critical midst of the fray, which captures the attention of Julius Caesar, who takes a liking to Vorenus and promotes him eventually to Senator.

There is so much more to it. HBO attracts the best of the best. The actors are outstanding, and the casting is perfect. The actors that portray Julius Caesar, Vorenus, Pullo, Marc Antony, Octavian, Brutus and Cicero are spot on. All the others too for that matter, but these are the key players, and they are simply amazing. The season ends with the death of Caesar, but the actual history of the fall of Rome promises another season that is rife with possibilities. We will see the rise of Marc Antony, and the subsequent war with the young Octavian, who is only sixteen this season, but is played by a brilliant young man who bears the mantel of authority convincingly.

If you saw this series, then you know what I'm talking about. If not, then look for the DVD collection soon; put it on your Netflix queue. I followed a link by Hugh Hewitt once (settle down my liberal friends) to a history of the Roman Revolution that starts with the career of Tiberius Gracchus to Octavian/Augustus, and I highly recommend that everyone read it. It's easy to follow, and easy to leave and come back to. I read the whole thing, amazingly enough, well before I saw the Rome series. When I revisited the history again, just today as a matter of fact, I was amazed at how closely the events of the Rome series followed the historical facts. Plus, with that viewing experience behind me, I was riveted by the read, especially the part concerning what happens after Caesar, and how Octavian becomes the first emperor of Rome, and holds the GNP of Egypt in his personal fortune.

Check it out here.