To sleep, perchanceTo sleep, perchance

“Above the autumnal opacity of the park the night is flushed by a vague reddish glow.  In the ravaged upholstery of the treetops crows wake with caws of mindless alarm and, deceived by the false dawn, take off in noisy squads; their yawping, reeling disarray throws tumult and vibrations into the murky redness tartly redolent of herbage and fallen leaves.  Eventually the great flurry of loops and turns all over the sky subsides; calming gradually, it descends, lighting in the combed-out tangle of trees in a ragged, provisional file that still shows signs of unrest, rife with misgivings, chatter falling silent, plaintive queries.  At last the swarm settles down for good and becomes part of the sibilant stillness of the surrounding languor.  And night, deep and late, resumes its sway.” — Bruno Schulz, “Fatherland” (trans. Wieniewska)

AbscissionAbscission

“Autumn is the human soul’s yearning for matter, essence, boundary.  When for unexplored reasons human metaphors, projects, dreams begin to hanker for realization, the time of autumn is at hand.  Those phantoms that, formerly spread out over the furthest reaches of the human cosmos, lent its high vaults the colors of their spectra now return to man, seeking the warmth of his breath, the cozy narrow shelter of his home, the niche that holds his bed.” — Bruno Schulz, “Autumn” (trans. Wieniewska)

Such a pretty face should be dressed in laceSuch a pretty face should be dressed in lace

Very few of the stories I’ve had published have undergone no substantial rewrite, “substantial” being a subjective term that, whatever it may mean, almost certainly means more than giving a story a “polish” (whatever that may mean).  “Rag Doll” was first drafted about fifteen years before I finally got it into a shape a publisher would accept.  Mad Hatters’ Review published it earlier this year, along with three other of my stories.

(And on the subject of first drafts, early this afternoon I finished the first draft of the project I’ve been working on for the past four months.)

Comin’ to life, stayin’ aliveComin’ to life, stayin’ alive

“Once upon a time, there existed gods but no mortal creatures.  When the appointed time came for these also to be born, the gods formed them within the earth out of a mixture of earth and fire and the substances which are compounded from earth and fire.  And when they were ready to bring them to the light, they charged Prometheus and Epimetheus with the task of equipping them and allotting suitable powers to each kind.  Now Epimetheus begged Prometheus to allow him to do the distribution himself–‘and when I have done it,’ he said, ‘you can review it.’  So he persuaded him and set to work.  In his allotment he gave to some creatures strength without speed, and equipped the weaker kinds with speed.  Some he armed with weapons, while to the unarmed he gave some other faculty and so contrived means for their preservation.  To those that he endowed with smallness, he granted winged flight or a dwelling underground; to those which he increased in stature, their size itself was a protection.  Thus he made his whole distribution on a principle of compensation, being careful by these devices that no species should be destroyed.

“When he had sufficiently provided means of escape from mutual slaughter, he contrived their comfort against the seasons sent from Zeus, clothing them with thick hair or hard skins sufficient to ward off the winter’s cold, and effective also against heat, and he planned that when they went to bed, the same coverings should serve as proper and natural bedclothes for each species.  He shod them also, some with hoofs, others with hard and bloodless skin.

“Next he appointed different sorts of food for them–to some the grass of the earth, to others the fruit of the trees, to others roots.  Some he allowed to gain their nourishment by devouring other animals, and these he made less prolific, while he bestowed fertility on their victims, and so preserved the species.

“Now Epithemeus was not a particularly clever person, and before he realized it he had used up all the available powers on the brute beasts, and being left with the human race on his hands unprovided for, did not know what to do with them.  While he was puzzling about this, Prometheus came to inspect the work, and found the other animals well off for everything, but man naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed, and already the appointed day had come, when man too was to emerge from within the earth into the daylight.  Prometheus therefore, being at a loss to provide any means of salvation for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts, together with fire–for without fire it was impossible for anyone to possess or use this skill–and bestowed it on man.  In this way man acquired sufficient resources to keep himself alive.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)

The gleaningsThe gleanings

“We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries.  They have long been faster, bigger, tougher, more deadly.  Now they are much quicker at calculation and infinitely more adept at memory than we have ever been.  And so now we decide that memory and calculation are not really part of mind.  It’s not just that we move the goalposts; we mock the machines’ touchdowns as they spike the ball.  We place the communicative element of language above the propositional and argumentative element, not because it matters more but because it’s all that’s left to us.” — Adam Gopnik, “Get Smart”

EnchantedEnchanted

“We played host to mysterious distinguished strangers and lost ourselves in conjectures in our desire to penetrate their disguises.  In the evenings everyone gathered in the great hall, where, by flickering candlelight, we listened to one tale or revelation after another.  There were times when the plot spun through these stories jumped out of the narrative frame and stepped among us, live and hungry for prey, and tangled us up in its perilous whorl.  Sudden recognitions, unexpected disclosures, an improbable encounter pushed their way into our private lives.  We lost the ground beneath our feet, placed in jeopardy by contingencies we ourselves had unleashed.  From far away the howling of wolves was carried on the air, we brooded over romantic entanglements, ourselves halfway caught up with their coils, while an inscrutable night rustled on the other side of the window, fraught with shapeless aspirations, ardent, incomprehensible confidences, unplumbed, inexhaustible, itself knotted into labyrinthine convolutions.” — Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams” (trans. Wieniewska)

Give life an inch, it’ll take a whole planetGive life an inch, it’ll take a whole planet

“The town lives under the sign of the Weed, of wild, avid, fanatical plant life bursting out in cheap, coarse greenery–toxic, rank, parasitic.  That greenery grows under the sun’s conjury, the maws of the leaves suck in seething chlorophyll; armies of nettles, rampant, voracious, devour the flower plantings, break into the gardens, spread over the unguarded back walls of houses and barns overnight, run wild in the roadside ditches.  It is amazing what insane vitality, feckless and unproductive, lives in this fervid dab of green, this distillate of sun and groundwater.  From a pinch of chlorophyll it draws out and extrapolates under the blaze of these summer days that luxuriant texture of emptiness, a green pith replicated a hundred times onto millions of leaf surfaces, downy or furred, of veined translucent verdure pulsing with watery plant blood, giving off the pungent herbal smell of the open fields.” — Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams” (trans. Wieniewska)

ProbatedProbated

“The honor of parents is a fair and noble treasure to their posterity, but to have the use of a treasure of wealth and honor, and to leave none to your successors, because you have neither money nor reputation of your own, is alike base and dishonorable.” — Plato, Menexenus (trans. Jowett)

Narcissoid voidNarcissoid void

“What do I look like?  Sometimes I see myself in the mirror.  A strange, ridiculous, and painful thing!  I am ashamed to admit it: I never look at myself full face.  Somewhat deeper, somewhat farther away I stand inside the mirror a little off center, slightly in profile, thoughtful and glancing sideways.  Our looks have stopped meeting.  When I move, my reflection moves too, but half-turned back, as if it did not know about me, as if it had got behind a number of mirrors and could not come back.  My heart bleeds when I see it so distant and indifferent.  It is you, I want to exclaim; you have always been my faithful reflection, you have accompanied me for so many years and now you don’t recognize me!  Oh, my God!  Unfamiliar and looking to one side, my reflection stands there and seems to be listening for something, awaiting a word from the mirrored depths, obedient to someone else, waiting for orders from another place.” — Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

Touch-up paints are available in most common colorsTouch-up paints are available in most common colors

Usually, once I’ve published a piece, I make no more modifications to it.  This is a rule I abide by strictly except for those occasions when I choose to break it.

This week I’m posting “Karen and the Dropout,” a story published in 2010 in White Whale Review.  Prior to publication, Randi Shapiro, the fiction editor at WWR, emailed me that she thought there was something a little off about the ending, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  I fiercely and in detail defended the choices I had made, and we let it go at that.

About six months later, as I was preparing “Karen and the Dropout” for inclusion in a collection of short stories, I saw that whatever it was Randi had seen and I couldn’t see, it did seem that if I cut the final five words from the story, the ending would be much tighter and significantly less wistful.  So that is what I did, and that is the version I have posted to this site.  You can go to the WWR site and see the previous version, but I wouldn’t.  This one’s better (I emailed Randi after I made the cut, and she agreed).

It’s still summer here, but soon…It’s still summer here, but soon…

“At last came the season of autumnal winds.  On its first day, early in the morning, the sky became yellow and modeled itself against that background in dirty gray lines of imaginary landscapes, of great misty wastes, receding in an eastward direction into a perspective of diminishing hills and folds, more numerous as they became smaller, until the sky tore itself off like the wavy edges of a rising curtain and disclosed a further plan, a deeper sky, a gap of frightened whiteness, a pale and scared light of remote distance, discolored and watery, that like final amazement closed the horizon.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

Goes well with a saladGoes well with a salad

“Casserole Man” was a story I wrote in the mid-90s.  It took me the rest of that decade to get it right, and once I had, it was published in the now-defunct Chiron Review.  That would have been around the same time (spring of 2002) I met the woman I’m now married to–or, to whom I am now married, if you prefer.

(NB–That “of” that you think should really be “off” is not a typo.)

It rained here early this morningIt rained here early this morning

“Girls and young women return from the market.  Some have serious and regular eyebrows and walk looking sternly from under them, slim and glum–angels with basketfuls of vegetables and meat.  Sometimes they stop in front of shops and look at their reflections in the shop window.  Then they walk away turning their heads, casting a proud and mustering eye on the backs of their shoes.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

Felis nocturnisFelis nocturnis

“Everyone is stuck within himself, within the day to which he wakes up, the hour which belongs to him, or the moment.  Somewhere in the semidarkness of a kitchen coffee is brewing, the cook is not there, the dirty glare of a flame dances on the floor.  Time deceived by silence flows backward for a while, retreats, and in those uncounted moments night returns and swells the undulating fur of a cat.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

At the sound of the chime, it will be nowAt the sound of the chime, it will be now

“We all know that time, this undisciplined element, holds itself within bounds but precariously, thanks to unceasing cultivation, meticulous care, and a continuous regulation and correction of its excesses.  Free of this vigilance, it immediately begins to do tricks, run wild, play irresponsible practical jokes, and indulge in crazy clowning.” – Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)

On the road to nowhereOn the road to nowhere

Colorado is one of the places where God kissed Mother Earth.  Susanne and I spent the past few days there, in and around the Conejos River valley.

When we arrived at our lodge, the first thing management wanted us to know was that a bear had been through the compound the night before, thoroughly inspecting the trash cans.  The District Wildlife Manager had been by later that morning and had left a supply of circulars to be circulated, “Be Bear Aware.”  We have bears near where we live, so we already generally were.  One of the things the circular instructed one to do “if bears are present” is to “remove all bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders.”  Lodge management had taken down the hummingbird feeders not long before we arrived.  The hummingbirds were pissed off.  They were diving down on the chains from which the newly-removed feeders had been hanging, and were flying about with the angry buzz they put in their wingbeats when they are upset.  They’re fiercely territorial animals, as anyone who’s ever been buzz-bombed by one can attest.

We didn’t get to see the bear, it didn’t come back around while we were there.  We saw deer, which is not hard to do in Colorado.  They were mule deer, so common they might be considered the four-legged finch of the Rockies.  There were also plenty of GEICO squirrels, playing Truth-or-Dare with passing vehicles.  And free range cattle, there were those, at one point a herd of them being driven down the road by two mounted drovers (“cowboys,” yes) and an Australian sheepdog.

There was a train, the Cumbres & Toltec, which pulls carloads of tourists through the mountains along a narrow-gauge track that a century and more ago was the way to get around up there.  The train is pulled by one of the little engines that could, chugging along, slightly sulfurous black smoke pouring from its funnel.  Susanne and I rode it, taking the parlour car, which is the last car on the train, far removed from the smokestack.  We were served Danishes, fruits, and rum cake, while the car attendant was quick to evict anyone from the car who hadn’t secured parlour-car passage.  No, the attendant did not throw the miscreants under the railcars, simply shooed them back to the cattle-car where they belonged.  Several of the Republican guests in the parlour car complained, having preferred to see the interlopers tossed from the train and made to walk back down the mountain to the station, but the Democrats, who always outnumber the Republicans though at times are slothful and inattentive, would have none of it and proposed that everyone on the train be allowed into the parlour car.  “Let them eat rum cake,” the Democrats said, “a crumb apiece for everyone,” to which the Republicans struck up a chant of, “Nanny-staters!  Nanny-staters!”, until the car attendant got everyone settled down and back in their proper and duly-purchased places.

Susanne and I spent the next day along the banks of the Conejos, sitting under the trees while the waters rushed by.  Downstream a little ways, a fly-fisherman cast and cast again.  Susanne had her pencils and her sketchbook, and she sketched.  I had a copy of the manuscript I’ve been working on, and on it I did work.  Robins and crows and other birds were about.  Mosquitoes sought meals, and many died for their efforts.  Hummingbirds remained angry and went elsewhere.

“Conejos” means “rabbits,” but we didn’t see any of those.

No one ever gets it rightNo one ever gets it right

“Parenting is hard.  As any one who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot.  Things go wrong that you have no control over, and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those, either.  The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.” — Elizabeth Kolbert, “America’s Top Parent”