Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hey, Wanna Read a Short Story?

I recently experimented with teaching my own fiction in my ENGL 1102 class. I found it oddly uncomfortable, not because of anything the students did or didn't do, but because I found it embarrassing to talk about my own work in front of a captive audience. I can do this all day long with an audience that has voluntarily appeared at a reading, but somehow opening up to my students seemed too self-serving to me.

When I thanked them for their participation, I told them it was a good experiment, but that I probably wouldn't be doing it again, they seemed a little taken aback. They talked about how neat it was to actually have the author around to ask questions of, and they encouraged me to give it another try. Later, I received several emails from them suggesting that instead of my whole collection, it might be easier to focus on just one or two stories, and they suggested, overwhelmingly, my story "Negative Space," one that is also pretty popular at readings.

Over at Authors Electric, where I do a monthly post, I have uploaded my keynote speech for the Georgia Highlands College inaugural Writers' Collaborative Conference, which I gave in Rome, Georgia, this past March. In it, I reference "Negative Space" and give some background into the story. 

It's also my only Thanksgiving story; I hope you enjoy it:

Negative Space

She had been gone two months when her mother called to invite me to Thanksgiving dinner. The invitation surprised me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have. From the time I met them, Jessi’s parents tried to make me feel a part of the family. On a cold day in February, eight months after Jessi and I met, we moved in together. I felt weird about going to her parents’ house to get her things, but as soon as I walked in, Grace gave me a hug and ushered me into the sitting room for coffee. Jessi’s father, Jimmy, met me in the kitchen. He stood over me in his dusty overalls and workboots, glowering from under his wide-brimmed hat with a look that said, “You must be the low-down son of a bitch who’s taking my little girl away,” and chewing on the remains of a cigar.

I tried to stammer a greeting, something to reassure him that my intentions toward his daughter were honorable (a tricky thing considering we were just about to shack up together). In the South, especially Owen, Georgia, it’s imperative for a prospective suitor to impress his intended’s father with assertiveness and confidence.

I stammered like Porky Pig and stared at the space between my head and the floor.

Then I noticed a callused hand stretching out into my line of sight, and when I looked up, he was grinning around his cigar. “Welcome to the family, son. Keep her straight, now.”

All that aside, I still felt awkward with the idea of spending Thanksgiving with the family of my now estranged wife, so I declined.

“Now, Aleck,” Grace sounded like she was scolding a small child for getting his Sunday pants grassy. “There’s no need for you to be spending the holidays alone.”

“I won’t be alone,” I lied, “I got some people coming over.”

I could tell Grace saw through my scam. I could picture her on the other end, leaning against the doorframe with the phone cradled between her shoulder and cheek as she stared sadly at my picture in the den holding her right arm across her chest so that her hand supported her left elbow while she idly twisted a gray-streaked strand of black hair with her left hand like a schoolgirl calling a boy for the first time, nervous and unsure of what to say. “Well, the invitation’s open if you change your mind...”

“I know. I just have these people coming.”

My mistake was deciding to go anyway. But you see, Grace was right. I didn’t need to be alone on Thanksgiving. And since my family’s gone and even the most anti-social of my friends goes home for the holidays, my only other option was to join the legions of losers, down-on-their-luck bowery bums, and other Edward Hopper extras at the Waffle House for the traditional Thanksgiving fare: scattered, smothered, and covered.

Grace and Jimmy met me on the porch, she with a hug and he with firm grip.

“Come on in here, Aleck; let’s get that chill off you. Everybody’s here but Jessi, and I expect her directly.” She ushered Jimmy and me in like a hen nudging her chicks into the coop.

“Gracious, Aleck,” she scolded as I took off my pea coat, “what have you been eating? You’re all bone and hair.”

“How you been keeping, son?” Jimmy asked, not giving me a chance to answer his wife. “You staying for the Tech / Georgia game this afternoon?”

“Is’at Aleck?” came a booming voice from the den. “I didn’t think you was coming.”

I looked at Grace and Jimmy as if they had spoken. “My ... uh ... friends had to cancel.”

“That’s what I figured,” Grace returned with a smile. “Go in there and say ‘hey’ to Uncle Birch. We’ll eat just as soon as Jessica gets here.”

There was a fire burning in the den, and Uncle Birch sat with his bare feet propped on the hearth, smoking a pipe, and staring into space.

“I saw that picture you took in the paper today,” he snapped.

Here we go, I thought as I entered the den and took a seat on the sofa. “You did, huh? What’d you think?” I knew the answer before I asked the question.

“Tell the truth, I didn’t think too much about it at all.” Birch made a face. “PETA [he pronounced the name as if it were something disgusting he found on his shoe] picketing the governor’s mansion about eating turkeys on Thanksgiving.”

“Well,” I said, trying to ward off one of Birch’s diatribes against the evils of the Animal Empire, “I guess they got a right to their opinion.”


There are phrases that do things to people. Words that can turn an ordinarily sane man into a raving lunatic. “Tax break” is one such phrase. “Communist Manifesto” is another. For my father it was “Left-wing liberal” or “equal opportunity employer.” Uncle Birch’s phrase is “animal rights.”

You see, Jessi’s great-uncle Birtram, who at seventy-one is the oldest living member of the Collins family and the acting patriarch, has been steadily losing his mind for as long as anyone can remember. He doesn’t rave. He doesn’t forget anybody’s name; quite the contrary, Birch Collins has the best memory of anyone I’ve ever known. He can remember the name of everyone he’s ever met and can tell you to the minute when he met them, the last time he saw them, and the details of any event in between.

No, Birch’s dementia takes the form of an irrational conspiracy theory. He believes, with a conviction bordering on the religious, that there is a conspiracy among the animal kingdom to overthrow humanity and rule the world. It began in the late sixties when in the midst of a raging mid-life crisis, Birch got hold of some bad acid while he was making out with a twenty-something political science major and listening to Pink Floyd’s album Ummagumma. The acid kicked in just before Birch did, during track six, “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” and Birch watched his partner transform into an epileptic snake with a she-wolf’s head.

Since then he has done everything he can to stem the flow of this international conspiracy of the lesser species. In the early seventies, he lobbied to make George Orwell’s Animal Farm required reading in all grades because it “shines the light of truth on what’s really going on.” The mid-eighties found him launching a grass-roots campaign of one against the comic strip Bloom County because it allegedly supported crossbreeding among the species by having “an obviously in-bred penguin marry a beautiful young hippie girl.” He even credited himself with the strip’s demise five years later.

It’s no surprise, then, that Birch has been barely on speaking terms with his family since they became vegetarians.

Rather than respond to the “unneighborliness” of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, I sat before the fire, studying the den. Grace rarely lit more than one lamp, and the heavy curtains were usually drawn, giving the room a cozy kind of cave feeling. The stone fireplace took up most of the outside wall.

Above the fireplace hung the large Collins family portrait. The picture had been taken in front of the weeping willow in the backyard. Grace stood smiling shyly in the background with Jimmy on her right staring sternly into the camera and Birch on her left positively scowling (having decided, I suppose, that primitive animal worshippers were right and cameras really did capture the soul but uncertain whether or not this played into the lower creature’s hands). In the foreground sat the two sisters, Jessi between her mother and father grinning slyly at the cameraman with a come-hither twinkle in her eyes, and her older sister, Leslie-Anne, between Birch and Grace smirking mischievously.

I had taken the picture shortly after moving in with Jessi. Grace wanted me posed between the two daughters, but the camera was new, and I couldn’t figure out the timer feature. If you took the portrait out of its frame and looked closely at the left-hand side, though, you could just see the edge of my right sleeve in the negative space. To make up for my absence, Grace had stuck a black and white five-by seven headshot into the bottom right-hand corner of the larger picture.

Sitting proudly beneath the portrait on the right-hand side of the mantle was the framed GED Leslie-Anne had received the year before from Catagua Technical School. Across from this, Grace had placed Jessi’s Master’s of Arts degree in sociology. I smiled when I saw this, remembering the first day I had seen her.

I met Jessica Belle Collins when we were both kicked out of an introductory course on anthropological issues in post-modern and contemporary feminist sociology. On the first day, during a discussion on dating rituals, Jessi made the unfortunate mistake of referring to her gender as “chicks.”

“We do not,” Dr. Malcomb coolly informed her slowly cleaning his wire-rimmed glasses with a white handkerchief, “refer to women as ‘chicks.’”

Jessi looked down contritely. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “Broads, dames, skirts. Whatever.”

I was the only one who laughed.

My reverie was interrupted, however, by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

“That’ll be Jessi.” I rose from my seat.

Perhaps, I’d later tell myself, I should’ve actually told Jessi that I’d be joining them for Thanksgiving. I simply assumed her mother had cleared it with her beforehand. Of course, Grace may well have done just that, and then told her I declined. Either way, I’m sure she was just as surprised by my presence as I was by that of the skateboarder she brought with her.

The first thing you noticed about him was the three-inch strip of short, black hair extending from the forehead to the neck of his otherwise bald head and ending in a ponytail, which reached to the middle of his leather jacket. Then you noticed the metal chain connecting his left ear to his right ear by way of each nostril and his upper lip. Various other rings and bars and studs accented what was left of his face. He even had silver trinkets woven into his baby-blue goatee. I hated him immediately.

“My friend, Ratt,” Jessi said by way of introduction as she removed her fur-lined coat revealing a woven halter top and a black pleated mini-skirt. Patent-leather Mary Janes over black knee-highs completed her outfit. “Ratt, this is Mom and Dad.” She nodded towards Grace and Jimmy then motioned towards Birch emerging from the den. “That there’s Uncle Birch. Uncle Birch, this is Ratt. He’s going to eat with us tonight.”

Birch glared at the prepubescent punk and slowly mouthed his name.

“That’s Ratt with two t’s,” Jessi added reassuringly, “like the band, not like the rodent.”

Birch would have none of it, though, two t’s notwithstand-ing. He shook his head and snorted in disgust as he shuffled into the dining room, mumbling something about hell and handbaskets. Ratt said nothing.

That left all the introductions done but mine. There we stood in uncomfortable silence: me, my wife, and the prick. I could tell Jessi was uncomfortable, and even though I shouldn’t have, I felt sorry for her.

However, I couldn’t simply stand there smiling and pretend to be some friend of the family. I tried unsuccessfully to grin and be civil, but all I could do was mumble something incoherent and stick out my hand.

Ratt sucked on his whiskers, and grunted noncommittally, but otherwise said nothing. Jessi smiled at me as I slowly lowered my hand, and Grace ushered us into the dining room. I couldn’t tell, though, if her smile came from gratitude, discomfort, or humor. Maybe all three.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Jessi murmured to her mother as they entered the dining room, “but he didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” she leaned in towards Grace’s ear, “and I didn’t think he would come.” She nodded in my direction.

“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Grace said absently, glancing from her daughter to Ratt to me, “We can just pull up another chair.”

I looked at the place settings on the small table, and felt briefly like an intruder. Grace had prepared a Thanksgiving dinner anticipating only the immediate family. Now I was here unexpectedly, and Jessi had seen fit to bring her friend. Watching Grace examine me and the boy, I could all but hear her silently calculating whether there was enough food or not.

I took a mental count of all assembled. There was Birch sitting at the head of the table and trying not to stare too openly at my wife’s companion who had just taken the place beside him. Jimmy took the seat next to his uncle. I glanced at Jessi sitting to Ratt’s left then at Grace retreating into the kitchen. I stood uncertainly behind the only other open seat not wanting to take Grace’s spot.

“Here, Mr. Ratt,” Grace emerged from the kitchen with a folding aluminum chair, “you can sit here next to me.” Her face fell when she saw that Ratt was already sitting between her daughter and Uncle Birch. The young rodent merely continued to chew on his whiskers and said nothing, but Jessi’s eyes widened.

“That’s alright, Grace,” I volunteered before Jessi could speak, “I don’t mind sitting next to you.”

It was Grace’s turn to look disappointed, but only for a second. “Well aren’t you just the sweetest thing.” She patted my cheek and, after some quick shuffling of plates and silverware, placed the new chair to her right. Then she returned to the kitchen and brought out a little plate of sandwiches that she put beside Birch’s place.

“Them my meat sammiches?” He asked.

“They are.”

Birch lifted the top slice of bread off one of them and inspected the treasure within. “D’you remember to put the jelly on?”

“I didn’t forget,” Grace said, “but I didn’t do it either. You know what the doctor said.”

“Yeah I know what he said,” Birch rose from his seat and went into the kitchen, “and I’ll die and burn in hell before I listen to someone who donates money to the humane society.”

Grace just shook her head in exasperation and continued setting out the food. Shortly we could hear the sounds of Birch shuffling through the garbage can, and then he emerged from the kitchen carrying a white aluminum can with the word “MEAT” printed on it in large square letters. He looked at all assembled, smiled, and held the can aloft as if it were the Holy Grail and he were Percival returning from the quest. He took his seat and set to work spreading a clear gelatinous substance from the can onto his sandwiches.

“The jelly’s the best part,” he informed us solemnly.

After Grace had placed the food on the table and taken her seat beside me, Jimmy looked at Birch and nodded. Birch bowed his head, and we all took hands (I noticed Birch cringe before taking the prick’s hand).

“Our Heavenly Father,” Birch prayed, “thank You for this bounteous food and all Your many blessings. Please help us to mend our ways, which are evil in Your holy sight, and help us to be better stewards of your creation. In Your name we pray. Amen.”

We all repeated “Amen” and squeezed each other’s hands.

“Well,” Jimmy looked over the food spread out before him, “I reckon we can eat now.”

That’s when I realized that we weren’t all here. Five place settings, and Grace hadn’t planned on either Ratt or me attending.

“Where’s Leslie-Anne?” I asked.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

“She won’t be eating with us this year,” Jimmy coolly informed me.

Birch cleared his throat and looked pointedly away, mumbling.

“She’s eating with Denise’s family this year,” Grace added then slapped herself on the forehead. “Will you look at that? I forgot the main dish.” She rose from her place and once again disappeared into the kitchen. She returned almost immediately, carrying a platter upon which sat a strange looking pinkish white loaf, and set it in the center of the table.

Birch regarded this addition with a crinkled face and a scowl. “What the hell is that?”

“You know good’n’well what that is.” Grace again took her seat and flapped her napkin into her lap. “It’s the turkey.”

“The hell it is.” Birch was struggling to keep his voice calm. “It’s that damned turkey substitute. Where’s the meat?”

“I’ve told you before, Birch, you don’t have to eat the tofurkey. That’s why I made you the sandwiches.” Birch snorted in disgust, and Grace calmly dipped mashed potatoes on her plate, passed them to me, and turned to her husband. “Jimmy, please pass me the peas.”

There was an awkward silence during dinner. I know that family gatherings often degenerate into silence as each member slowly understands that the time spent away between holidays has done nothing but increase the generational gap between himself and his relations. In fact, it’s my firm belief that that’s why we have so many football games on holidays; it keeps this realization at bay. No matter how far we’ve grown apart over the last year, we can still stare blindly at the television screen and cheer for the same team. However, this silence sprang not from distance but from its opposite, and Grace did not allow television in the dining room.

“How’ve you been?” Jessi murmured as she reached across me to get a second helping of food.

“Okay, I guess.” I looked at the space between her leg and mine and wondered fleetingly if I could touch her bare knee. “You look nice.”

“Thanks, wanna roll?”

“Uh ... sure, darlin’. Where?” I wondered fleetingly how we’d get away without offending anyone.

“Right here, silly.” She smiled at me, and for a brief second, I was taking the family portrait again, madly in love, and a million miles away from nowhere.


“Right here.” She offered me a towel-covered basket with steam escaping. “A roll. Do you want one?”

“Oh! Yeah, yeah. Thanks.”

She frowned at me, shook her head, and turned back to her plate.

Birch had not taken his eyes off Ratt since asking the blessing. At first the old man had tried his best to be discreet, glancing at his neighbor only when taking a bite of food and then quickly scanning the rest of the table. Gradually though, Birch became less and less surreptitious until now, he glared openly at the kid with a look of mixed disgust and curiosity. This attention was not going unnoticed by its object either. After a minute or so of this scrutiny, Ratt set his fork down and stared defiantly back at the old man.

“Dude, what’s your problem?”

Birch jerked as if he’d been slapped. “Eh? You talking to me, sonny?”

“Yeah, man. Why you wanna keep staring at me? Didn’t your mama tell you it was rude?”

Jessi patted his shoulder and murmured something into his ear.

“Listen, babe. I don’t care if he is senile,” he shook her off and looked again at Birch. “That don’t make it right to stare.”

“Well,” Birch leaned closer to him. “You do have all that...” he waved his hand in the general vicinity of Ratt’s face, “stuff stuck in yer face. If you dress y’self up like a circus freak and go paradin’ down the street,” Birch took a breath, “and don’t charge nothin’, people will stop and look.”

“Birch,” Grace said softly, “let it go.”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Birch tossed his napkin on his plate and glared at his niece. “You may want to turn a blind eye to what’s going on around here, but I won’t.”

“Not now, Birch,” Jimmy kept his voice even but firm.

“Why not now? You two want to pretend there’s nothin’ goin’ on, but I can’t live thattaway. One daughter a damned anteater livin’ with another woman like man and wife. What do you reckon they’re doin’? Playin’ tittly-winks?” The old man leveled a finger at Grace then moved it to Jimmy. “Y’all know how I feel about those shenanigans. I’m tellin’ you, homer-sexuality is just a plot to thin our numbers for the revolution by keepin’ folks from procreatin’. But don’t nobody listen to me. No sir, I’m just ol’Barmy Birch, but you’ll see.

“And you, missy,” he turned his attention to Jessi, now. “You broke my heart; you know that? Now, there ain’t no shame in leavin’ a husband. If two people cain’t get along, there’s no point in livin’ together. But shackin’ up with someone while yer still married is beyond the pale.” Jessi’s face drained, and she put her hands in her lap.

“You’re married?!” Ratt turned so quickly his chain flicked him in the right eye.

I cradled my chin on steepled arms and looked at my wife from the corner of my eyes. “So this is why you don’t return my calls, huh?”

“You’re married to this loser?!” Ratt’s chain flicked him in the other eye as he turned sharply away from Jessi.

Birch continued. “As if that wa’nt enough, though, this is who you choose to share yer bed with.” Birch waved a disdainful hand at Ratt. “A damned wannabe rodent. What’re you tryin’ to prove, boy? Why you wanna decorate y’self up like a goddamned porky-pine fer? And what kinda name is Ratt? Ain’t you got any human decency? Any pride?”

“That’s about enough, Birch!” Jimmy rose from the table and grabbed Birch’s shirt. “These are guests in my house, and you will treat them as such!”

Birch looked from his nephew’s hands to his face with an expression of pained betrayal. “You’re takin’ their side, Jimmy? Against your own blood?”

Jimmy released his uncle and took his seat with a sigh. “Jessi and Leslie-Anne are my blood,too, and their lives are their own.”

Birch quietly rose from his seat and pushed it under the table. “Well,” he said as he walked out of the dining room, “I should of expected as much from a couple of vegetarian collaborationists.”

We sat around the table for several heartbeats before anyone said anything; finally, Grace broke the silence. “Well, would anyone like some rhubarb pie?”

“I appreciate it, Grace,” I slid back from the table, “but I should probably be going. It’s getting late.”

Grace looked up at me from her seat then turned her attention to Jessi who was still sitting in her place and staring at her hands in her lap. “Are you sure, Aleck? I wish you’d stay.”

I knew then that Grace had set this dinner up for me. She knew Leslie-Anne wouldn’t be here tonight, and she still set five places. I looked down at her and knew that she had hoped that Jessi and I would reconcile, or maybe she’d been denying that anything at all was wrong. Probably both. Hope and denial are so frequently intertwined that one is often mistaken for the other.

I looked at Jessi again, then at Ratt sitting in my place. Grace may have wished for a reconciliation between her daughter and me, but I knew that it wasn’t going to happen. That bird had flown.

“I should go.” I folded my chair and leaned it against the wall. “I’m sorry.”

“Wait a minute, Aleck.” Jessi folded her napkin into her plate and pushed herself away from the table. “I’ll walk you out.”

“I’m sorry you had to find out like that,” she said as we stood on the porch looking out at the overcast afternoon sky.

“So, do we get one lawyer or two?” I stood on the top step of the porch not looking at her.

“I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She folded her arms across her chest and stood next to me. “Talk about something else.”

“How long has it been going on?” I looked at the space between the porch and my car and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from my pocket.

“Since July.”

“Why?” It was all I could think of to say. “He’s what? Twelve?”

“He’s twenty-four, and I don’t know why,” I could feel her looking at me. “Maybe because he makes me feel real for the first time in my life. Everyone I know, except for Uncle Birch, goes through life like a zombie. They don’t act; they react, and sometimes not even that. Even you.”

“Oh, really?”

Her voice became more animated now. “Yes, you especially. You’re so busy looking at the world through your camera lens that you forget to actually interact with it. Everything’s a composition for you. Something to be studied, observed, and then rearranged into your idea of order.” She raised her hands as if to illustrate a point, and let them fall uselessly by her side with a sigh.

“I don’t know,” she continued. “Maybe it’s a safety mechanism for you or something. Like if you don’t interact with the world, it can’t hurt you. If you organize it yourself, it can’t control you. You always keep yourself aloof, Aleck, apart from everyone around you, and your were holding me apart right along with you. Maybe, I just wanted to be a part of life. I was tired of being just a picture for you to appreciate.”

I shook out a cigarette and tapped it on my palm, then lit it. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I stood there for a minute, thinking about the family portrait. How I’d been unable to make it into the big picture, so I’d been stuck in later in black and white.

“Ratt treats me like a person. We do things just for the hell of it. When I met him, he was racing shopping carts with his friends down the embankments behind Kroger. I didn’t know him from Adam when he asked me to climb into his buggy because he needed someone to steer. We spent three hours just pushing each other downhill in the shopping carts. Just because it was fun. When was the last time you and I did anything just for fun? He’s good for me, Aleck. I’m good for him, too.”

We stood in silence for a minute, and I realized that though I had lived with my wife for years, I never knew her, but she understood me perfectly.

“What’re you going to do now? Where are you going?” She asked, taking my cigarette from me and pulling a drag off it before stomping it out on the porch.

“I don’t know. I’ll probably go to the Waffle House and then out to the studio. I still have some frames to fix for Saturday’s paper.”

I looked at her and smiled. “I’ll be fine.”

Jessi shook her head and went back in.

I stood on the Collins’ porch for a minute, thinking about what Jessi had said. Like so many of her explanations, her words seemed crystal clear as she spoke, but once she left me alone, they began to grow foggy and unfocused, leaving only the sensation that Jessi had a point, whether I could remember it or not. As I turned to go, I could hear the sounds of Jessi and her mother cleaning up after the aborted dinner while Jimmy, Ratt, and Birch cheered the Bulldogs on in the den.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more, the full collection, Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories can found in Apple's iBookstore and at the following links:

Friday, October 4, 2013

If It Ain't Broke, It Ain't Congress

Warning: This blog contains politics. I try to keep my personal politics and religion out of my public blogs, but I couldn't help myself this time, and since it's been so long since I've posted here, I had to post something.

In case you hadn't heard, the government packed it in and called it a day Tuesday morning at 12:01 am. Depending on who you ask, it's all the Democrats' fault or it's all the Republicans' fault. Either the Dems acted like pissy teenagers and stubbornly refused to budge on the Obamacare issue, or the Pubs acted like pissy teenagers and took their shit and went home since they couldn't get their way.

Congress: that great, benevolent asylum for the helpless

There are arguments to be made on both sides (though admittedly, not all of them good). Personally, I think that while there's plenty of blame to go around, the Pubs can carry the lion's share of this fiasco. But I'm not so closed-minded as to think some of you out there don't feel exactly the same way about the Dems.

The whole fiasco seems doubly stupid given that so many opponents of Obamacare are in favor of the Affordable Healthcare Act. But this post isn't really about Obamacare, nor is it about the shutdown (so, yeah, flamers and trolls, please don't turn this into such a debate in the comments section, if you can absolutely help it, thanks).

This is about politics in general. It's about what's wrong with both parties, which can best be summed up by Marx (no, the other one):

There should be nothing at all surprising about this recent turn of events. Partisan politics has grown increasingly more vehement for the last thirty years. The truth is the problem isn't really Democrats. The problem isn't really Republicans. The problem is the two-party system itself. Ever since Newt Gingrich discovered C-Span in the 1980's, partisan politics has gotten more and more divisive and less and less cooperative.

Say what you like about his whack-a-doodle politics, I think we can all agree that the man had some groovy hair.
The advent of conservative talk radio, and its liberal cousin, have not helped matters.

However, it doesn't matter how long Dems and Pubs have been at a virtual impasse. The fact remains that for the most part, both parties absolutely refuse to work together. Oh, both sides say they want to work together. Both complain that the other refuses to sit down with them and talk. But this sounds more like an estranged married couple trying to explain why the divorce settlement isn't going well.

I blame the word compromise.

compromise (for most sane individuals and the rest of the civilised world): an agreement reached by mutual consent:

So who's going to argue with Atticus Finch? Lawyers and politicians, apparently:

compromise: a) giving up your own misguided thoughts and beliefs and agreeing with my clearly superior beliefs, b) being forced to give up my clearly superior beliefs just to appease you and your misguided worldview, c) fuck you

Somehow we have come to the point where both sides have decided compromise is a synonym for weakness. 

And it seems both sides have taken these words to heart, so we can really blame Jon Stewart for this fiasco, I guess.
Again, this is not about Obamacare here; there are plenty of examples of the two parties refusing to compromise, which I'd love to link to, but apparently googling "Congress," "compromise," and "refuse" brings up primarily Obamacare and shutdown topics with a handful of historical Great Compromises (curiously, none of which are more recent than the late 1800's), and I am just too lazy to keep trying. Just trust me on it or read a history book.

Both parties seem to demonize the other as either rich white men manipulating the poor white men through racism, sexism, and religion or lefty socialists who want to destroy the very fabric of our great nation and rip away our god-given rights to be bigots. 

So this is what we have reduced ourselves to: insults and name-calling. Kurt Vonnegut once claimed that adults tend to behave pretty much the same as teenagers, but he was being generous in regards to politicians. 

They behave exactly like elementary schoolchildren.

Just ask Sesame Street.

And they will continue to as long as there are only two powerful political parties. Nothing can ever get accomplished, really accomplished, without compromise. And as long as politicians continue to act like spoiled pissy brats, nothing can ever get accomplished in a Congress that is almost always roughly split down the middle (Yes, I know we have majority parties and minority parties, but there's never really more than a minor majority). It's too much to hope that politicians will start acting like grown-ups, so if we want to make Congress work (I'd say work better, but there's a government shutdown on), the only thing we can do is crowd the playing field some.

Which is why I have become a Democrat who votes Libertarian. I do not agree with all of the Libertarian platform. I don't have a problem with universal healthcare, for instance. I have no problem with government regulations on businesses and food inspections (and no, I'm not going to debate these things with you in the comments if you don't agree with me. I can't convince you, you can't convince me, so what's the point?). 

But I fervently believe that nothing in the government is going to change until we have at least three parties in both houses of Congress. The Libertarian party is the third largest political party after the Pubs and Dems, so I have begun throwing in my hat with them.

I catch flack from my Democratic friends sometimes. They tell me I'm "wasting" my vote on a party that cannot win.

I live in the deep South, any vote I cast is wasted. My vote for the Democrats is equally wasted on a party that cannot win, and the Pubs will win my state whether I vote for them or not. 

In actuality, if I want my vote to not be wasted, the only party I can vote for is Libertarian. Sure they won't win my state either, but if more Southern Democrats and more Northern Republicans voted Libertarian, they'd actually have a chance at gaining enough of a percentage to qualify for the same federal funds as the other two parties for the next round of elections. It would then be conceivable that we could, one day soon, have a third party in Congress, which would also mean fewer seats to both of the other parties. No one party can get a clear majority in this situation, and thus all parties would have to work together whether they wanted  to or not. 

At least I hope so, children are not known for their keen reasoning skills.

Nice words, Jack. Did you try them on Jackie O when she found out about Marilyn?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Southern Yankee in King Arthur's Court

In case you haven't heard: I have been invited to join a European (mostly UK) weblog group on electronic and independent publishing. I am only the second American to be asked. I will be contributing a new post on the 23rd of every month starting this month. 

Here is my introductory post.

If you're wondering what else is happening in the UK besides royal infants, check out the articles of my colleagues. It will be a far more effective use of your procrastination than looking at pictures of Grumpy Cat on facebook.
And since you're not likely to find one better than this, I've saved you the trouble.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's a Nerd; It's a Pain, It's a Super Annoying Bitch!

So my wife, Tina, took me to see Man of Steel for Father's Day, and I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of it. I find it refreshing to finally have a great Superman movie. (Superman: The Motion Picture was good, but no offense to Chris Reeve or Richard Donner, it was not great, nor does it hold up to adult viewing). 

Tina also enjoyed it quite a bit, though she did yearn for Tom Welling's Clark from Smallville. Admittedly, I agree Henry Cavill's Clark is far more socially savvy than his television counterpart and this made him a very different Kent from Welling's portrayal (think of a blend of Christopher Reeve's self-deprecating version and George Reeves' suave and self-assured (though still mild-mannered) Kent from the 1950's/60's TV show The Adventures of Superman, leaning a bit more towards the latter end of the scale). However, I'm not entirely sure that Welling's corn pone naïveté is really what's called for in Snyder's script. But like I said, Tina pretty much liked it.

However, sadly not everyone in the theater appreciated the film as much as I hoped. The woman sitting next to us seemed to have a litany of problems with what she called "literally thousands of plot holes" (and what sane folks call "not paying basic attention to the simplest plot details and exposition). 

Fair warning: Here there be spoilers from here on out...

"So let me get this straight, if I leave my iPod buried in snow for a thousand years, it'll still work? That's bullshit."

Yes, it is bullshit. However, nowhere in the film does this happen. What does happen is that a Kryptonian spacecraft, buried for a thousand years does indeed still work. However, the fact that it's a fucking spaceship implies that it uses technology far beyond ours. For all we know, the damn thing runs on ice, so yeah, its still working after thousands of years? Got no problem with that. No, your iPod won't still work, but neither will it transport you interstellar distances and keep you alive for the journey. 

"I don't care who you are, even Stephen fucking Hawking couldn't figure out to turn the spaceship around so the key would fit."

Bitch, please. First of all it wasn't a ship, it was an engine. Secondly, the scientist/engineer doesn't turn it around; he adjusts a panel that is clearly (even to my non-Hawking eyes) off kilter. Thirdly, barring a miracle, Stephen Hawking, for all his genius, would find it hard to adjust the radio station, much less heavy machinery.

"How dare they have Superman kill! Superman doesn't EVER resort to murder."

So he'd let Zod kill the family in order to keep his morality intact? What the fuck kind of Superman have you been reading? NOTE: Zack Snyder, in a recent interview, explains that the murder of Zod is the turning point for Supes. It's the reason he no longer resorts to killing. 

"I may not know much about geography, but I'm pretty sure Metropolis is in Kansas, so how the hell does it have a harbor?"

First of all, I may not know much about geography, but I'm pretty sure Metropolis is a fictional fucking city. It can have a harbor, an international airport, and a hermetically sealed geodesic dome over it if the writers want. Also, it can be in Moscow. However this is academic since Metropolis was in Kansas only in Smallville. Everywhere else, it's a stand-in for New York City thus on the East Coast.

Also, I may not know much about physics, but I'm pretty sure a man can't fly. Why not bitch about that, too?

Finally, when the credits were over and there was no coda scene, she literally started channelling my two year old nephew when he doesn't get his way. On the literal verge of tears, she says, "And there's no scene at the end! ... We waited all this time for a scene at the end, and they didn't even bother to give us one."

Oh, there was scene at the end all right, lady. You made damn sure of that.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Why John Green Can Kiss My Ass

In the book section of today's Guardian, there is an article in which bestselling author John Green, speaking to the Association of American Booksellers, explains in no uncertain terms why he has no desire to self publish. I am not offended by his not wanting to self publish; he managed to find a good agent and a good publisher and is riding that train as far and as fast as he can, and good on him! I have no problem with traditional publishing and wish him and any other traditionally published writer all the success in the world. Who knows? If God/fate/ka wills, maybe one day, I'll even have the opportunity to publish traditionally.

Honestly, I cannot completely argue with his reasons for preferring traditional publishing, i.e. the input one receives from an agent and publishing house editors that help make a possibly "self-indulgent" novel far more readable and universal in appeal. I will say, however, that agents and professional editors do not have a monopoly on good revision advice. Anyone who reads extensively, has a good ear for quality literature, and is willing to devote the time it takes to read a book and offer constructive criticism on it can do so just as well (in some cases better) than agents and editors. 

No, what pisses me off most about Mr. Green's comments is the pompously offhand manner in which he dismisses self-publishing as a concept. In the article, he clearly implies that self-publishing consists of "widget-selling" and "profit-maximisation" (sic). Really, John Green? Seriously? Are you actually suggesting that independent publishing is too commercial? 

What really burns me up, though is his fear that self-publishing "threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature." This is probably the most common insult hurled at independent authors: that we are somehow diluting American literature by circumventing the divinely appointed gate-keeping functions of Random House and Simon and Schuster. Brad Thor, author of several techno-thrillers (that I will not list because fuck that guy) claims that the role of traditional publishing is to "separate the wheat from the chaff" he continues: "If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract."

Well that certainly worked out for John Kennedy Toole, didn't it? For those of you who don't know this name, here's a recap. In 1964, Toole wrote what is often considered one of the "seminal" works in 20th century American literature.
Seminal: "highly original and inlfuential [...] central to the development and understanding of a subject" (abridged from the OED)
Anyway, so Toole writes this SEMINAL book, A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so good, it won a Pulitzer in 1981. Now maybe you think its odd that a book would win a Pulitzer 1981 if it was written 17 years earlier, and this is a good point. The fact is, though, it didn't get published until 1980. See, publishers kept rejecting it. Over and over. This Pulitzer prize winning novel was considered unpublishable in part because "it isn't really about anything." (Obviously, this was before Seinfeld  made stories about nothing marketable). Well, you may be saying, Toole eventually got his book published, and it won an award: YAY! Well, not so much. Toole killed himself in 1969 (while it may have had nothing to do with his book being rejected over and over, I'm sure it didn't help). His mom found the manuscript, and several publishers turned her down, too. Then she hounded Walker Percy, an influential Southern novelist who happened to be teaching at a local college at the time, until he read it and convinced LSU Press that it was good enough to publish, and it won the Pulitzer the next year.

So much for separating wheat from chaff, Mr. Thor, at least in enough time for the farmer to reap the benefits.

Brad Thor, however, is at least partly genteel in his disparagement of independent writers. Sue Grafton, on the other hand, seems positively offended that independent publishing exists as a concept:
"To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall."
Well, I am absolutely abject, Ms. Grafton. Please accept my most humble apologies. I had no idea that my unmitigated audacity in publishing my little collection of short stories somehow disrespected your alphabet mysteries. Also, how foolish of me to think that all the time I have spent learning what kind of trees grew in Texas in the late 1800's, what superstitions revolve around poker hands, and what kind of firearms were available in the late 1800's in order to write my Western was actually research, reading, and study.

The assumption, here, by writers such as Green and Grafton, is that good writers get picked up by publishers and bad ones self-publish. (Yes, thank the good lord and all that is holy that traditional publishing saved us from Twilight and Glenn Beck's novel).

If John Kennedy Toole is one example of how traditional publishing is flawed, let me introduce you to Richard Monaco, who shows how well independent publishing can work. In 1977, Monaco published his first novel, Parsival or a Knight's Tale with MacMillan. It became a bestseller, was a main selection of Quality Paperback Books, and was nominated for that year's Pulitzer Prize. It's sequel, The Final Quest, was also a Pulitzer Prize nominee and, oddly enough, lost to Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Throughout the 80's and 90's Monaco was a consistent bestselling author until, through a series of circumstances beyond his or anyone's control, he wasn't. Last year, when he decided to finally publish two new novels, he couldn't find a publisher for them. This two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee could not get a publisher to look at either of his two manuscripts, so he decided to publish them independently, and both have been generally well-received, and Monaco is now gaining a new generation of fans.

The point I'm trying to make here is not new. When I first set out to write this post, I came across it in a couple of places during my research, but David Vinjamuri of Forbes draws exactly the comparison I set out to make. You don't hear big-label musicians trashing indie bands. On the rare occasion you do, it is because of a dislike of the band's music, not because they had the audacity to not get picked up by a label. Everyone loves independent films (anyone heard of Kevin Smith?), but God knows there's enough crappy indie films to fill most of Calcutta. However, A-list actors and directors consistently work independently in addition to working with major studios (Samuel L. Jackson does about as much work for independent films as he does for studio blockbusters, for instance). This brings me to the great irony of this whole diatribe: It is sparked by statements given to a group of independent booksellers. I find myself wondering if Green followed up his statements by telling these people that they were threatening the overall quality of bookselling by not being Barnes & Noble?

Yes, there is a shitload of crap being independently published; however, there's also a crapload of shit being published traditionally. (That Fifty Shades of Grey began as self-published fan fiction and "graduated" to traditional publishing should serve as argument enough against Brad Thor's "wheat and chaff" comment). And just as there are a lot of horrible books published traditionally, there are quite a few independently published books that are well worth the time. Ever heard of these books?

The Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Ulysses by James Joyce
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Yep, all of these were worthless "chaff" written by "wannabes" looking for "short-cuts" and "profit-maximisation."

Monday, May 27, 2013

YouTube Poetry Making Garble

I am doing some consulting work for a textbook company; I am watching some teaching videos and writing summaries for the company's web page. YouTube has a transcript function that allegedly gives you a word-for-word transcript of the video...only not so much. Not even at all, really.

Imagine if James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg got high with Kurt Cobain.

Now imagine they decided to write a poem.

What would result from such an experiment would be the YouTube transcript function:

"If they didn't do what I mean, they are
Watergate when the professor needed to stop."

"Letter Mister decided to make the eats lengthy, hopping around campus with a lot
Of hot . . .
That's right"

"Written linguistic-coated needy are part and parcel of
Video/audio/spatial patterns of meeting"

"Dependency credit is expected:
It's really quite a bit of equipments"

"Let's say that he has
at student,
we said

"He wants to get it in the inner peace for thirty-six eighty.
I hear your voice, and i hate to say justify, but why wouldn't you just give a shit?"

"I'm going to die for the powerpoint reputation"

"If you'd like more information on the Korea,
Certainly don't feel free to contact
Maniac R. Campbell Dot Martha"

"We that
and the people get off dub
make that that packed with parts"

"You did you, and I had pain."

"Studying literature,
According to recent caboodle
And learning tour, right well has
Individuals on people's lives, both in school, could be on school,
And ultimately even hands."

"The funny thing is empty:
It didn't eat much or help about this. Up with the human
Of a literature worker!"

"You know, you go back twenty years ago to where you know these billboards.
On a draft,
Ethical kateri?
They're doing trucks!
Separate separate us!
You know their
Products are having with it.
There do employees
Right whales.
Camp Read Well?
He's at the top
Of problems."

"If they don't have this,
It seems unlikely
That boasted, at least, will get a promoter up these
To Walt Whitman's boring ass."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Next Big Thing

The Next Best Thing’s a game of tag that scores for both writers and readers. The idea is simple: a writer answers ten questions on his or her blog about a work in progress, then passes the baton to three or more writers s/he admires. The baton passer provides links to his or her own tagger and to those s/he tags. In this way, each of the writers receives at least four touts…and interested readers can click on the provided links and hopefully find a new author to read, recommend, and enjoy.

I was tagged by Reb MacRath, author of The Boss MacTavin Action Mysteries, a series of action-packed, darkly humorous, and hard-boiled mysteries set in the South. His Q & A can be found here.

Reb and I share a mutual friend in writer, Brad Strickland (aka Ken McKea), author of the Jim Dallas Thrillers. Brad suggested Reb tag me as one of his three writers as I had recently published my collection of short fiction, Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories.

Let's get started, shall we?

1. What is the working title for your book?

Guns of the Waste Land

In it, I retell the King Arthur/Holy Grail legend as pulp Western. It's my first foray into historical fiction as well as the Western genre.

2. Where did the idea come from for this book?

In the mid 1990's, while researching for my Master's thesis in American literature, I came across an old college reader from 1968 titled Heroes and Antiheroes: A Reader in Depth. In it, editor Harold Lubin claimed that the cowboy was America's answer to England's knight in armor. He made a fairly convincing argument comparing, among other things, the so-called "code of the West" to the chivalric code of medieval times.

The idea of how the Arthurian legends would have played out as a spaghetti Western immediately occurred to me and clanked around my head for about ten years until I finally put fingers to keyboard two years ago to hammer something out.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Some kind of amalgamation of Western/Fantasy I guess. Mainly I think of it as a book.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ardiss Drake (Arthur Pendragon): Jeff Bridges
Lancaster O'Lock (Lancelot du Lac): Colin Firth
Guernica (Guenivere): Penélope Cruz
Merle Tallison (Merlin): Donald Sutherlin
Gary Wayne (Gawain):  Simon Pegg
Boris (Bors): Colin Farrell
Percy (Parsival): Bradley James
Red Mort (Mordred): Adam Beach
Ghost in the Water (Morgana):  Irene Bedard
Braddock (inspired by Richard Monaco's Broaditch): Ossie Davis

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The once and future king rides again...now with more lead and added grit.


Quit fucking up the land and each other, y'all; grails don't grow on trees, you know.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Probably self-published. Less of a headache, about as many sales, and unless I find myself magically transformed into Stephen King, slightly more take home money in royalties.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

I am still hammering away at it, but I hope to done with the first draft by year's end or shortly after.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger and The Parsival series by Richard Monaco (Parsival or a Knight's Tale, The Grail War, The Final Quest, Blood and Dreams, and The Quest for Avalon)

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've been interested in Arthurian fiction forever. I first read Malory's Le morte Darthur in middle school, and in high school a friend gave me her copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon to read, and I loved the idea of telling the old tales from new perspectives. As a senior in high school, I stumbled upon Monaco's Parsival series, and it became my absolute favorite retelling of the grail legend.

I never cared for the Western as a genre until writing this book. Since beginning my research on it though, I have become a fan of Little Big Man, True Grit, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and the HBO series Deadwood

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The first chapter won second place in TAG publishing's 2010 Great American Novel Contest in the category of literary fiction.

And now the three authors I want to hear from:

1. Richard Monaco's Parsival series, as you've read above was one of my greatest influences as a writer. The first and third books (Parsival or a Knight's Tale and The Final Quest respectively) were also finalists for the 1977 & 1980 Pulitzer prizes in fiction. His most recent novel is Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha, a hard-boiled murder mystery set in 16th century Japan.

2. Scott Thompson is the author of Young Men Shall See which placed first in TAG Publishing's 2010 Great American Novel Contest in the literary fiction category and has been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year in the first novel category. He is married with two little boys. You can read his other writings in magazines like Georgia Backroads, Southern Writers Magazine, and The Georgia Connector. Thompson's next novel, Children of the Mist, will be available summer 2013.

3. Tony Daniel is the author of the upcoming novel, Return To Sender. This is his first novel, and the book is the first in the Pyramid Investigations Files series, a paranormal mystery series. He is a devoted Parrot-head, classic movie fan, and writes every day, whether it be on his computer or on cocktail napkins. You can see some of his work on his blog, Tales of the Midnight Cruiser.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A New Blog

A few years ago, I had a blog, Musings of a Bored English Teacher. It was a lot of fun, and I updated it fairly regularly for a couple of years. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and it became more cumbersome to keep updating. Also, I had been writing a story in installments about a bizarre trip to Roanoke, VA I once took, and hit a writer's block. I have a tendency towards single-minded obsession, so I found myself unable to continue the blog if I was unable to finish the story, and about eight or nine years passed.

I've recently decided to try my hand at blogging again, so rather than returning to my old blog (which is still out there floating in cyber-limbo, I checked) and again obsessing over the unfinished story, I am starting completely over, and I am no longer going to pressure myself into posting regularly.

If anyone is interested, I am posting news about my new projects, readings, and other speaking engagements on my author Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/EmilysStitches). You may also visit my author page on amazon.com (amazon.com/author/leverettbutts) or follow me on twitter (@levbutts).

In the meantime, enjoy this new blog!