>End in Sight–again

>I’ve been working on yet another revision to my novel. When it was my MFA thesis, it was described as “complex” and “ambitious,” and I failed to recognize the veiled criticism in these adjectives. I’m not ashamed to admit now that I wasn’t up to the challenge I’d set for myself, which is more or less the story of my life. But at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2004 I got some sound advice from Richard Bausch: Divide and Conquer. My complex, ambitious novel had two separate timelines with overlapping characters, interwoven through 400 pages. No wonder the deluge of queries didn’t stir up any interest among agents. Too complex, too ambitious. (Which is not to say there weren’t other problems, but that’s a different story.)

Following Dick’s advice, the book is now two books. I have just finished unraveling the first strand, which was originally backstory for the second strand. But it didn’t quite stand on its own, I realized. What to do? At the gym this evening, on the treadmill, I realized that there are three new scenes I have to write to make this work. I know where they go, I know what’s going to happen, I know how to punch up the ending. I needed to write it down, so as not to forget it, as I did recently with a story I wrote in my sleep, but I had no pen. And as I stood at my locker, forcing myself to memorize what I’d come up, I looked down. There was a brown pen, dropped by a UPS guy. I picked it up. I’m ready to go.

[Book two, I think, will be easier, becuase it shouldn’t require much new material. I hope.]

>State of Disunion

>Except that (i) we have a President who is a fascist liar (for which reason I won’t be watching his speech this evening–what would be the point?); (ii) our environment is under attack by corporate raiders and global-warming disbelievers; (iii) the Christian Taliban/relgious right is growing in arrogance and strengh, insisting that alternatives don’t exist, and that there is only one way; (iv) human and civil rights are also under attack by the belligerant militarists, arm and arm with the evangelicals; (v) consumer protection laws are being dismantled by the corporate-controlled Republican regime; (vi) the so-called “tax reform,” which is nothing more than a scheme to shift the burden of financing government from the owners of capital to the consumers in the economy, i.e., the poor, is looking unstoppable, given the President’s unwillingness to listen to reason; (vii) despite the election in Iraq, which by no means means that democracy has taken root there, Americans continue to die there for this illegal and immoral war; and (viii) those who dissent are still spat upon as traitors who should “leave if they don’t like it,”–the country’s in pretty good shape.

>Premature

>Let’s just say it’s a little early to declare the election (either Iraq’s or ours) a success.

John Coyne, founder of Peace Corps Writers, sent this today.

Seems like we’ve read this story before!

The New York Times — 09-04-1967

U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote

Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror

by Peter Grose, Special to The New York Times (9/4/1967: p. 2)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3– United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.

Pending more detailed reports, neither the State Department nor the White House would comment on the balloting or the victory of the military candidates, Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for president, and Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, the candidate for vice president.

A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, 1966, to which President Johnson gave his personal commitment when he met Premier Ky and General Thieu, the chief of state, in Honolulu in February.

The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Deim was overthrown by a military junta.

Few members of that junta are still around, most having been ousted or exiled in subsequent shifts of power.

Significance Not Diminished

The fact that the backing of the electorate has gone to the generals who have been ruling South Vietnam for the last two years does not, in the Administration’s view, diminish the significance of the constitutional step that has been taken.

The hope here is that the new government will be able to maneuver with a confidence and legitimacy long lacking in South Vietnamese politics. That hope could have been dashed either by a small turnout, indicating widespread scorn or a lack of interest in constitutional development, or by the Vietcong’s disruption of the balloting.

American officials had hoped for an 80 per cent turnout. That was the figure in the election in September for the Constituent Assembly. Seventy-eight per cent of the registered voters went to the polls in elections for local officials last spring.

Before the results of the presidential election started to come in, the American officials warned that the turnout might be less than 80 per cent because the polling place would be open for two or three hours less than in the election a year ago. The turnout of 83 per cent was a welcome surprise. The turnout in the 1964 United States Presidential election was 62 per cent.

Captured documents and interrogations indicated in the last week a serious concern among Vietcong leaders that a major effort would be required to render the election meaningless. This effort has not succeeded, judging from the reports from Saigon.

NYT. 9/4/1967: p. 2.

>I had a dream . . .

>In which I was walking down a city street–Chicago, I think–and came across the headquarters of Poets & Writers. The building was grand and colossal, a cross between a Las Vegas Casino and a temple on some shimmering Greek isle. Not sure if this was a good omen or bad one.

>Shaved Ice

>When it snowed here last week, I didn’t bother to shovel. There was warmer weather predicted, there wasn’t much to begin with, and what the heck is a 4-wheel drive vehicle good for if you can’t get out of your own driveway without breaking your back anyway? The afternoon when the temperature hit 65 degrees, the stuff disappeared like beer at a tailgater.

Ice and snow were in the forecast for this weekend. When the flurries started Saturday afternoon, I made a last dash for the Kroger–where I saw every other resident of the county–and then settled in. Snow turned to sleet turned to ice and this morning there was a nice glaze on the trees, the grass, the driveway. I skated out to the mailbox for the paper and saw it wasn’t as bad as expected, but still it was plenty slick. Since I was expecting guests for lunch (my dog had a playdate with a beagle), I resolved to put my newly asphalted driveway to the test and got out my shovel. Which will never be the same–asphalt and ice will chew up a plastic shovel pretty fast. Did you know that? There was hardly any snow to deal with, but the ice, about a quarter inch thick, was a challenge. At some point it felt like I was only shaving the driveway, and not really engaging in permanent ice removal. It would come back.

Fortunately, though, so did the sun, and my effort–I’m convinced–aided in the melting process. My guests arrived, no one slipped and fell, the dogs had a wild time in the yard, and we had a nice relaxing afternoon by the fire.

>An Untold Death

>Occasionally, often for no discernible reason, a name from my past comes to mind–someone from high school, maybe, or my college fraternity; sometimes I can even place the name in time. Yesterday, I recalled a friend from 4th grade. My recollections aren’t very precise, but I remember we were part of a magnet experiment in Indianapolis, where students from various city schools were pulled together into one class at School No. 84 on the city’s north side. It was something to be proud of. I remember a few of the kids from that class: Lorna, Irwin, Alan, Steve, Craig. But because my father changed jobs, we moved out of state at the start of fifth grade, and would lose touch with them all. All but Craig. We wrote from time to time, less as the years went on, and even traded visits–the Greyhound bus ride being quite an adventure for a child travelling alone in those days.

I Googled Craig, which is what I can do now that I couldn’t when these memories struck a few years ago. And what I discovered is that Craig died, in October, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He had become well-known in the Indy music scene, and the web had lots of information about him. His death brought Vicky to mind. I dated Vicky in grad school, but we had an unpleasant breakup and hadn’t been in touch since–a long time ago. I Googled her last year. She died a few years ago, of heart failure. Then there was Vince. I knew Vince from my law firm, so he was a more recent friend, but we hadn’t spoken in some time. I Googled him last year, and found news of his death, in an accident on the DC beltway.

This is a strange way to get the news, one that drives home our–or is it my?–disconnectedness.

>In an Uncharted Country

>Writing prompts come from the strangest places. Usually I am struck by a character, a person I have seen or heard about, and then I place the character in a scene and then watch what happens. Since I am trying to complete my story collection, though, about people in the small Virginia town of Rugglesville, and have written 10 stories so far, I am now working on following some of the characters who appeared in earlier stories. Since most of the stories are meant to “resonate,” I am hoping that readers will want to know what happens next as much as I do. So it isn’t the characters at this point.

I started a story today, tentatively called In an Uncharted Country because of the automated announcement I received a couple of days ago from Glimmer Train that January 31 is the deadline for submission to the Very Short Fiction Award competition. For GT, “very short” is under 2,000 words. While I have a stable of flash pieces, under 500 words, I didn’t have anything nearing 2,000. Time to write something! I can do it by Monday, I know I can!

So the new story follows Walt, the main character from The Clattering of Bones (Spring 2004 issue of Timber Creek Review). When last seen, he has given up hope that his wife, Patsy, will come home, so he gets in his truck and drives away. Where will he go? That’s what the new story will reveal.

>Christian Taliban

>I mean to be mostly literary in this forum, but from time to time I won’t be able to keep myself from straying into the social and political realms. I did that on Day One, but I’ve been good since then. But today, in part because I just saw George Bush in a news conference on TV, I want to speak about my biggest worry, and that is the rise of Evangelicalism, or what I have dubbed the “Christian Taliban.” It is the most important concern we face, I believe, because it not only affects how we live day to day–at least in my community, which is predominantly a deeply conservative one–but also because the political leadership in this country is infected, and guided, by the same disease. Intolerance. Arrogance. Belligerance. It is all part of the same problem. Here in Augusta County, Virginia, the disease is currently manifested in the debate over Weekly Religious Education, or WRE. It seems that school children are excused during the day once each week for 60-90 minutes to attend Bible study classes. With a signed note from a parent, children can opt out of this program, and this option is apparently what keeps the program from being a Constitutional violation. But the participating children and parents alike defend themselves from criticism of this coercive program by calling their detractors God-haters and Satan-lovers, and blaming all crime on the “removal of prayer from the schools.” We are in the grip of an epidemic that I fear will never go away.

>The Return of OA

>The resurrected Oxford American arrived in my mailbox today. (Or, more precisely, my mail tub. See yesterday’s post.) It looks terrific, with lots to explore, including pieces by Barry Hannah, Michael Parker and Carol Ann Fitzgerald, among many others. Welcome Back!

>Junky

>Apparently, I’m addicted to mail. On my recent sojourn in Mexico, it was difficult to go more than a day without hitting an internet café (a monkey of a different sort), to check email, the New York Times, update this here blog, etc. When I returned, the first thing I did, after picking up Bhikku from the kennel, was head to the county post office to claim the mail that had accumulated over the course of those 20 or so days. There was a lot. There always is. Since moving to rural Virginia nearly three years ago, there has never once been a day when I go no mail. Sometimes just a catalog or political trash, sometimes just a magazine, but ordinarily I can count on a literary journal or two, a rejection letter from one of those same journals, a bill, occasionally an actual letter, and the catalogs, magazines and political trash. So when I leave the post office after a trip, it is always armed with one of this postal service tubs, the ones they are always claiming to be short of, filled to the brim with mail. Once I left with two.

Last Friday, with my mail tub in arm, I watched the postal service employee efficiently scrawl on the hold-mail form, “Resume Delivery 1-22-05.” She had me sign it. I was pleased. There would be more mail the next day.

But there was no mail. I know this because I put outgoing mail in the mailbox on the street, raised the red flag, and then watched the snow fall. At 8:00pm, although barely an inch had accumulated, the flag was still up. The mail-woman had not come. I didn’t blame her. The roads were bad. I could wait. (Indeed, I hadn’t quite finished going through the tub I’d picked up on Friday.)

So the flag was still up today, Monday. By that time, I’d built a considerable pile of outgoing mail, including a couple of pieces that required special attention, like my Bread Loaf application that I planned to send by Priority Mail (not because of any rush—the deadline is March 19—but because I wanted delivery confirmation), so I made a trip to the post office. It never occurred to me to do anything but drop off the tub (they do run out, you know) and my outgoing letters. I went to the gym, I ran some errands, and came home. Order had returned: the flag was down, signaling the pickup of my Saturday mail and, more importantly, the all-important delivery of fresh mail. What would there be? An acceptance for one of my many outstanding submissions? A Christmas card from the Brogans? (They usually don’t send their cards until February, but it could be early this year, you never know.) The New Republic? The books I ordered from Amazon while I was in Mexico?

I trotted across the road to the box, opened the lid and—nothing. Black emptiness. Cold air. No mail. Could it be that there was nothing for me? That nothing had arrived in Augusta County, Virginia for me since Friday? Was the streak at an end? No. It couldn’t be. There must have been a mixup. Somehow the redelivery message didn’t get down to the trenches where it needed to be. A mistake has been made. Heads will roll. Where the hell is my mail?

Update: Indeed, mistakes were made. On Tuesday when I inquired at the post office, a second tub was handed to me. When on Friday I picked up the held mail, apparently the agent missed some, and the carrier didn’t know what to do with so much mail for me, since it wouldn’t all fit in my mail box. So she did nothing, presumably expecting that I’d figure out there was a problem and investigate. She was right.