I went to an outlet mall last weekend to begin the slow process of buying Christmas gifts. It seems as if I usually begin with the third-cousins whose names I can't remember (they're youngest and therefore easiest to buy for), and work my way up the familial ladder in order of closeness of relations. It only took about ten minutes before I bought something for myself.
At a Border's Outlet I bought a brand new Moleskine for less than five dollars. I was so happy with it I pulled the plastic off of it and flipped through the blank pages while I waited in line at other stores.
Nothing is as promising as a new notebook. I imagine this is the way painters must feel about snow white canvases. A blank notebook seems so perfect to me that I almost hate to write in one. The moleskine I bought will inevitably end up buried in my desk for the next few years, stored away like a wine bottle. It takes time for me to mark on a brand new book.
Now I have Moleskines and drawing books that are covered with lines of dialogue and rambling observations. They have phone numbers written on their backpages like public toilets, and crude pictures crawling out from the margins. These are old soldiers. I know them well enough to ask them to consider words that might be, well, stupid.
That's really my problem with new notebooks. I want the first thing I write in them to be important. When I look at a blank page I image that I can write better than I can, that if I wait I can come up with a new foundation for society or philosophy of life. But if I rush, if I write down something that made me laugh or random voice in my head, the blank pages in front of me will never live up to their potential.
New notebooks allow me to imagine myself as greater than I am, to hover above perfect semetrical lines evenly spaced on the pages and see a library worth of seminal thoughts spinning in a hundred directions. This may be hyperbole, but a new notebook feels at least close to that way in my hand. This is a warm hyperbole.
Ink changes a new notebook into just another attempt, shot, something done.
So for now my new Moleskine is sitting on my desk undisturbed, and when I open it and see all the nothing written there I am sure that I am a genius.
My short story "Boys and Girls in Motels" will appear in the new edition of The Pacific Review, and my short short "A Long Line of Liars" was recently featured in Blood Lotus.
Other than that there has been a steady stream of rejection letters, but they are tempered with requests to see more of my work which is encouraging. I even got a revision request from a good journal. Hopefully with my teaching duties at two colleges coming to an end I'll have more time to write. I hope so. It's been awhile since I've been disciplined enough to make myself write (right), and it's like falling back in love.
I called a friend last night who I hadn't seen in months to find out how things are going with him. The news wasn't good. Due to budget cutbacks in the state of Kentucky he will be out of a job in the public defenders office in a few weeks, and his options are running out. He's left to search for legal work hours away from home, and considering going back to work as a part-time clerk at a bookstore, but he had another thought- teaching.
My friend has a Master's degree in Philosophy, and thought he could find a job as adjunct faculty since his professional position has been removed. This is becoming a familiar refrain among my friends. They have advanced degrees, real world experience, publications and so on, but have had no luck in finding a meaningful job.
When I was growing up my Dad used to tell me that all I had to do was get a degree in anything, and I would be fine. He was sure that once I had a degree I would be able to earn a living, and have some security. I have a Master's degree myself now, and am sorry to say that I haven't found that to be the case. I teach part-time at two colleges, and have for years, but have been unable to find a full-time job. In fact I still work at a restaurant five days a week to get by.
My friends are no better off. They wait tables, tend bars, and teach at the same time. They move from professions were they have responsibilities and respect to unskilled positions where their educational level is of little value. They email me and ask how the market is in Cincinnati. They are all concerned about the market.
After talking to my friend I am afraid that the system is collapsing on itself. People like myself are spending over fifty-thousand dollars to receive educations that don't deliver a comfortable, modest life. When we graduate the situation gets bleak as time goes on, and we end up heading back to the same institutions we graduated from to make ends meet. When a star dies it slowly collapses into itself, and forms a black hole- a dense spot in the universe where no light can exist.
My situation might be a little different from my friends as I wanted to become a professor and enjoy teaching, but the thought that teaching has become a stogap measure for them saddens me. I hope that in the future the students I teach can make a living with the knowledge they've gained, and that the life that they have imagined becomes a reality. That's is what we were told all along.
I have been getting stranger and stranger catalogues in the mail lately. I've flipped through pages of novelty birdfeeders, t-shirts advertising Polish pride, and fifty pages of decorative baskets. I don't know how the decision to mail these things to me is made, but they do make quick disposable reading. Today after receiving a catalogue for knives a few questions came to mind.
First, having a commemorative knife made in your honor is the best sign that you've made it. The first page of the catalogue today featured a whole set of Johnny Cash knives. If I ever need to stab a man in Reno just to watch him die, I know which knife to use now.
Secondly, apparently it's ok to sell all manner of Nazi and Confederate paraphenalia if you refer to them as "historical artifacts." I find this more than a little disconcerning, and have trouble accepting that SS daggers are mostly bought by historians.
Lastly, one of the Swiss army knives featured had over thirty tools. One of the tools featured was referred to as a "medical spatula," so apparently if one buys this knife and can't find a rolled up dollar bill or a key they are still prepared. I always had enough trouble getting the knife blade out on those things.
I've always had trouble remembering anniversaries, but this week from the Today Show to NPR one in particular has been garnering a lot of attention; the twentieth anniversary of The New Kids on the Block's "Hanging Tough." This album was a seminal event in the modern cute-boy-band era. Their sugar sweet pop songs crooned on every radio station, and their faces plastered the covers of grocery store magazines for years afterwards. Now they're back, and reunited for a stadium tour.
For me the New Kids on the Block (or simply NKOTB as my wife and sister continue to refer to them) symbolize the music of the 80s. I remember Top 40 charts chocked full of Phil Collins, Wilson Phillips, Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, and other bands with sappy love songs and bouncy ballads. It seemed that all the music I heard while growing up wasn't produced by artists, but was music produced in much the same manner as Diet Pepsi: cute boys and girls, flashy ads, simple lyrics, and engineered for the widest audience possible.
Now that I'm older though, I believe this is unfair. Every era has its share of empty pop songs, and surely the 80s (a time when I was admittedly too young to have much perspective) had music that was challenging, engaging, and worthwhile. I decided to investigate if there were any albums that were truly worth revisiting from the year 1988, and this is what I found. The following are eleven albums which deserve a twenty-year anniversary celebration more than "Hanging Tough."
1. Sonic Youth- Daydream Nation "Teenage Riot" alone has more value than any Joey solo.
2. Living Colour- Vivid "Cult of Personality" is harder than Donnie.
3. Pixies- Surfer Rosa "Gigantic" is a much better stadium rock song than "Hanging Tough."
4. N.W.A.- Straight Outta Compton Though this album was a favorite of all the white kids in Raiders hats who beat me up, I still had rather hear it than "Please Don't Go Girl."
5. Public Enemy- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Elijah Muhammed is a much better spiritual leader than Maurice Starr.
6. Metallica- And Justice for All Though they have since cut their hair, they never danced in sync to please nine-year-old girls.
7. Tracy Chapman- Tracy Chapman Cuter than Jordan.
8. Leonard Cohen- I'm Your Man More brooding and quiet than Johnathan, and he's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
9. Slick Rick- The Great Adventures of Slick Rick Dirtier than the Kids are clean with a better beat.
10. Jane's Addiction- Nothing's Shocking Twenty years later their members have never been on The Surreal Life or Dancing With the Stars.
11. R.E.M.- Green If you want a vacant song that is dorky enough to be fun I'll take "Stand" over any New Kids song. In retrospect I wonder though when college rock became alternative rock, and also when the line dissolved.
So I guess 1988 wasn't the terrible year for music I remember it as. For every band I heard on the radio there was another who didn't get nearly as much airplay on my local Top 40 station, and I encourage all those who are considering going to a stadium to see NKOTB to instead listen to an old album by The Sugar Cubes. Then again some people like to revisit their childhood. As I look up from my computer I know that all my G.I. Joe's are in a box twenty feet away, waiting to spring back to life.
Months ago I began my political career in the most modest and appropriate fashion I could find. I wanted a position with no real responsibilities; one with a title, but no work as I find myself faced with a new stack of papers on my desk each day. Becoming the president of anything was out of the question since I had no interest in accountability or becoming a figure-head. Likewise was true for positions such as vice-president, mayor, councilman, secretary, et cetera. I searched for a position with a humble title, and nothing else to speak of. My first choice of Kentucky Colonel since I hoped to join the ranks of Colonel Sanders, Hunter S. Thompson, and Johnny Depp, but my inquiries led only to a deadend so I moved on to the next best thing. I became an ambassador, not for a small island nation mind you, or some hamlet buried in Eastern Europe, but an ambassador for something a little closer to home. I became an ambassador for Maker's Mark Straight Kentucky Whisky.
My appointment as an ambassador for was simple. I filled in a form on their homepage, and was told that soon a barrel of straight Kentucky whisky would be engraved with my name. Months passed. There were no press conferences to attend, nor passports to sign. I had a title I believed in and my days clear to pursue my own interests.
This week I received my first official correspondence from the folks back home in the mail. Inside the packet was the birth certificate for my barrel bearing the official seal of my charge which stated that Maker's Mark Barrel 795403 was dedicated in my honor in recognition of my "loyalty, outstanding dedication, in-depth knowledge and services as an honorable Maker's Mark Ambassador." I was glad to see that my long months of service had not gone unnoticed.
Of course the birth certificate came with a status report. My barrel is made of "Charred American White Oak," and houses "Around 50 Gallons" of fine Kentucky bourbon in my honor. I was informed that its contents were "Well-rounded with a distinct character" which affirmed my belief that those I represent are certainly not simple or lacking in character. If they were less distinct I would find it much harder to fulfill my duties.
Lastly, my packet contained business cards should I need to get fast-track through customs, or get out of any misdemeanors while conducting my official duties. After all, what good is a title if it doesn't come with a business card?
Things back home are going well. My barrel waits to settle in for a long seven year rest while I sit in another state attending the duties I have been assigned: enjoying a drink in the evening, and thinking about those I miss on the other side of the Ohio river.
One of the hallmarks of "Generation X" is that they possess both a repulsion and strong attraction to nostalgia. The idea of gaudy 80s Hair Metal and WWF superstars pop up in conversation as objects of ridicule and emblems of a simpler, happier time. While I'm not sure if my age qualifies me for inclusion in this group, I had a ten minute conversation with a few friends last night that went more or less like this:
Me: "Honky Tonk Man" Them: "Ultimate Warrior. Shaking the ropes." Me: "Brutus the Barber Beefcake looked like the lead singer for Slaughter." Them: "Remember the British Bulldogs?" Me: "The Bushwackers." Them: "What about Flotsam and Jetsam?" Me: "They should have an Intercontinental Belt in the UFC. You know, for the fighters the fans love but who could never be champs." Them: "Ravishing Rick Rude had handprints on his tights."
To continue on with this fairly accurate transcript would be pointless. What struck me however was that it wasn't a conversation at all by any rights. There was no context nor any cohesiveness. The ten minutes we spent together wasn't an exchange of ideas. It was much closer to the experience of pulling pictures out of an old photo album, one we collectively shared in our memories, to recall our heroes in their prime and wonder where they fell apart.
No Depression Magazine is going out of business after their current issue is released. The news was announced on Newpagesblog.blogspot.com. Apparently their ad revenue had fallen to the point that it was impossible to continue on after 13 years. The magazine was so closely tied to the music industry that it had no option but to suffer along with it. This is sad, because not only are we as a nation losing a generation which appreciates the album as a form of expression, but we are also steadily losing a generation of young voices and readers.
By the end of this month I will have sent stories out to every literary journal, magazine, and church bulletin in the country. In a few months I will be greeted by the rejection slips from many if not all of them. I can only take comfort in the hope that maybe one of my stories will hit, and in the idea that I might develop a healthy rejection-related masochism over the next few months which will be fed at little cost by the United States Post Office.
Writers and poets have a strange attraction to prisons. In the minds of those I've spoken with prison represents quite time alone with steady meals to do our work in peace. I wonder why monasteries don't have the same daydream appeal, but can only conclude it has to do with the fact that being bothered by chores and meditation seems more of annoyance than the occasional chance that we might be stabbed to death with a homemade knife.
Attention spans are dropping. I fast-forward through thirty-second-long clips on Youtube. I speed up movies that get slow and zip through commercials on my DVR. Technology helps us live faster, and this worries me. An old Tai Chi instructor once warned me not to rush through life, because if I did I would only get to the end quicker. This is one of the strikes against reading. It's slower, contemplative. The speeding up of our world is apparent in the nostalgia cycle with television shows like "Best Week Ever." A few years from now we can look forward to fast-forwarding through wrap up shows about how great the last twelve hours were.
First let me start by saying that I am far from a motorhead. When it comes to cars I can't go on about superchargers or the superiority of specialized suspension kits in comparison to their factory counterparts. My knowledge is basic. I know where the gas goes, and have a vague understanding of how to change my oil. In an emergency I might be able to change a flat tire, but the odds are probably fifty-fifty. Lately, however, I have been picturing my dream car.
The car I envision speeding down a leaf strewn country road in is not a classic muscle car like a Ford Mustang. I don't picture myself taking the turns in a chopped up Chevrolet Chevelle or Dodge Charger. No, my dream car is a Pontiac Fiero; a silly half-breed of sports car and sub-compact with all the styling the late 80s had to offer.
I am aware of the Fiero's drawbacks. For one, there is no backseat. The interior is a little cramped which is obvious by the way the stereo speakers have been mounted in the headrest of the driver's seat rather than in the dash. It's also not that powerful for a sports car, and due to the fact it doesn't weigh very much when compared to other sports cars it tends to be more than iffy when driven above seventy-five. The Pontiac Fiero though does have it advantages.
The first advantage is that it's cheap. Fiero's on ebay range from three hundred to around two thousand dollars. This is due in large part to the fact that most have hundred of thousands of miles logged on them by this point, and have long since been marked by cigarette burns and the occasional spilled beverage. It's important to lust after the achievable. Life is easier that way.
Another advantage to the Fiero is that I can appreciate its awkward charm. It looks like a suped-up go-cart which hopes to be a real sports car one day. It has potential which has never been fully realized. It just needs a chance- a fresh start.
Lastly, how many Fiero do you see on the road today? Camry's are as ubiquitous as SUVs. Mini-Coopers and Impalas make me yawn. If I had a Fiero and drove it with pride and vigor I can imagine my neighbors watching me pull into my driving with awe and confusion. Maybe they would approach me with a smile and say, "Are you driving a Fiero now?" I would nod and lean against the hood with a toothpick in my teeth.
So my dream car might not stun showroom crowds in Detroit or pace laps at the Indy 500, but for three hundred dollars I can imagine the American highway would be a little fiercer. I can see myself driving into the sunset in a little firecracker that never found its footing, past its prime, taking another shot at being a true sports car.
Tis the season to imagine one's self as a better, more vibrant and productive person. New Year's resolutions are things which I've informally considered, but never put down in writing before since in the past I've had the good sense to know that I won't keep them. But since this New Year's Day is the first holiday I've had free from work this year I thought it would be a nice change to take time for a little introspection and come up with a list of promises I'm sure to break. Who knows? Maybe I'll be able to keep a few in spite of myself. Here are my resolutions for 2008 in no particular order.
Read more. In the past year my reading has steadily gone down hill. Textbooks and lesson plans have replaced the short story collections and novels that I used to tear through. This year I make a promise to myself to read more often. I will also try to read more small press literature since some of my favorite books in the last few years have been put out by publishers other than the major houses.
Subscribe to more literary journals. It's the least I can do if I want them to publish my work, and it's great to be blown away by the work of someone I've never heard of.
Produce more work. Even though as of late I've been teaching five courses and working another part-time job, if I am honest with myself I always have an hour or so a day that I could use to write instead of surf the internet or consider how far television has fallen.
Spend more time with my family. I said these were in no particular order.
Exercise. I think I'm required to include this by law, or at least as a matter of tradition.
So that's it for promises. I could go into more self-auditing, but I'm far too tired to bother to pick myself apart further. If I keep one or two of these I'll be happy. It's New Year's Day and anything seems possible. I end with an appropriate quote that arrived in my inbox today via The Writer's Almanac.
"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man."- Ben Franklin
When conversing over email with a friend earlier this year, the subject of how my writing had been going came up. I tried to find an artful way of expressing both my frustration and my desire to keep mailing envelopes stuffed with stories to the four corners of the country and this is the best I could come up with.
Certain Buddhist sects practice what is called "spirit training." This practice can entail anything from picking up stray leaves off the temple grounds, dusting picture frames, or cleaning floors with hand-towels. The purpose of spirit training is to breakdown the ego with tasks for which their is no acclaim. Through doing work which one doesn't receive praise or encouragement it is hoped that the practitioner will lose his sense of self and be able to be more fully dedicate themselves to the spirit of what they hope to achieve in the future. My writing this year has been my own form of spirit training.
This year I have received thirty rejections, and no acceptances. The most troubling part of my struggle this year however has been the number of times I've received no response at all. I have one story which has been out for over a year, and another which has been out for two. A half dozen stories and essays have been mailed for ten months or more. Silence. Spirit training. I go to my basement to write each night and hope that in the morning good news will find me. I go on.
My year hasn't been completely devoid of success however. A story I placed years ago finally came out in print in an anthology from The Jesse Stuart Foundation. Two poems I sent out last winter are forthcoming in Main Street Rag. I've a gave a reading in Louisville, and had a college class use one of my stories as text. There have been reasons to continue.
I have made progress this year as well. My work, at least in my eyes, has gotten better. I'm close to finishing two books and they are much better realized than the earlier drafts I had completed in the past. And there is still the hope that something sent long ago will find a home.
But for now here are my Writey Awards for 2007:
My experience after submitting to The Florida Review in December of last year.
Rejection is something that any serious writer becomes accustomed to and expects. Most any literary journal no matter what the size is flooded with submissions. To give you an idea when I was an M.F.A. student at Spalding University one of our responsibilities was to read submissions sent to The Louisville Review. In an upstairs room of a wonderful old stone building students like myself would find boxes stacked floor to ceiling that were filled with work waiting in numbered envelopes. We were asked to read at least five and rate them from one to five. By the end of the residency most of the work might have been reviewed, but there was always more stories, essays, and poems than student readers.
It takes time to get a response. Three months is a short time, six months is becoming the standard, but every work deserves a response. The Florida Review fell short in this regard. Not only did they not respond (which I can understand because work does get lost and my work has disappeared in the mail before), but they never answered any emails sent to check on the status of my story after six months. They also didn't answer the phone messages I left. In the end, it left a sore spot since I got the sense that they didn't care.
Best moment of 2007:
If I had to pick one moment I would say that it was the reading I did as part of The InKY Reading series. I read three short-short stories, two of which originally appeared in The Southeast Review, and had a wonderful time.
The Final Tally:
Rejections: 30 Acceptances: 0 Waiting for response: 19
Here's hoping that 08 brings more shining moments at the mailbox, and more fruitful hours spent night watching the type stream on late into the night.