11/28/11

When I Was on the Radio

I'm taking a nonfiction workshop this semester with Diane Roberts, author, scholar, and writer/broadcaster for NPR in Tallahassee. She reads short, 3-minute pieces every month or so on the radio, and she encourages her students to read their own pieces, kept to under two minutes. They aired mine yesterday. I didn't record it 'cuz I thought there'd be a podcast or something, but there's not. But you can read the text!

Following Directions
The directions said to sprinkle the white powder around the edges of the colony, dissolve four tablespoons in a gallon of water, use a stick to poke holes in the mound, pour in the mixture, and watch them die. Did the success of this product really depend on my watching them die? If I didn’t watch, would their lives go marching on? Did this poison function like a quantum particle, fixed in space only when observed? Was there a way I could watch to make the product more effective? Like, say, with malice? Or compassion?
            I peered into the toxic crater left by my watering can. The ants scrambled in double speed before halting altogether. Some died with their mandibles tucked into their thoraxes; some with their abdomens cringed upward like middle fingers; some lying sideways like sleeping dogs. As the bodies piled up, I felt both curious about their deaths and culpable for their lives. Perhaps, by requiring this vigil, the company hoped to make me aware of the massacre at my feet so that the killing would not be blind, death not in vain. After half a minute, I had seen enough, and went to water the flowers.

10/17/11

My Warehouse Reading

Most Tuesday nights at The Warehouse, a dingy bar in the arts district of Tallahassee, the FSU English department hosts a reading from either graduate students in the Creative Writing department or established writers visiting the program. The graduate student readings always include a prose reading and a poetry reading. I'm a Lit major. But I'm a wannabe Creative Writing major. So, this past summer, when the organizers were short a prose reader, they asked me if I'd like to read.
     At first, my impulse was to say No. Why would I, a Lit major, want to risk ridicule and embarrassment in front of my discerning (and often judgmental) colleagues? I told them Maybe and hung up the phone. As I sat in the pool reading postmodern poetry and thinking it over, I remembered a story I had just written and sent to a friend in the Creative Writing department. She replied with, "PUBLISH THIS NOW!" so I figured it'd be good enough for a reading.
     Plus, what better way to advertise myself as a possible transfer into the Creative Writing program? If the audience liked what I read, they'd be more inclined to welcome me in. (This dream has since been deferred by time constraints and a Master's thesis I'm not willing to abandon.)
      I told the organizers Yes, and thank you for the consideration. In the ensuing months, I expanded my story by a few pages, tightened the prose with the energy only an impending public reading can inspire, and got a photo snapped of me swinging a driver and wearing my catfish hat.

Since I had no real writing credits, I went golfy with my bio:
2007 club champion at Winter Pines Golf Course in Winter Park, Florida, Paul "Catfish" Haney finds much of his inspiration for writing out on the links. He plays a controlled fade, has an all-world short game, and, as a rule, when it comes to the professional tours, only roots for Americans. In case the golf thing doesn't work out, Paul is also working on his Master's degree in Literature at FSU.
      I wasn't too nervous in the days leading up to the reading. In cases of public speaking, I always remember the advice Terry Henderson, my Freshman Speech teacher at Valencia Community College, gave me: Be Confident. Be Prepared. And Don't Sweat It. So I summoned my confidence, rehearsed my story a few times, and got on stage in pretty good shape. And after I launched into my story and heard laughter from the audience at the right moments, any remaining nerves fell away and I felt comfortable up there, like the speaker from my story.
     Eric Lee, the PhD candidate whose poems have concrete images, narrative progressions, and lots of humor, was slated to read after me. Beforehand, he requested that the hosts set up the recording equipment and make a podcast of the evening. I said, "Yeah. Podcast!" So they recorded the show. But for the podcast, they had to cut out Emani Jerome's vulgar introduction of me (something about rusty cars, cocaine, and glory holes), and had chopped off the last two minutes of my story (don't ask me why). When you click on this link below, check out Season Six, July 19, 2011. My reading starts about 5/6ths of the way through, at about minute 50:00. (I won't speculate on why we got 50 minutes of Eric Lee but couldn't finish my 15 minute story. Nope. Not speculating.)


And here's the remaining part that you didn't hear:

“I’m leaving a note for Mrs. Shoene,” Mr. Commando said from behind the desk, raising a pen in his right hand and giving it a demonstrative click. He licked the tip and scribbled on a piece of paper, mumbling as he wrote.
The intern slapped his thighs in frustration. “You all did a great job today. I hope you discovered, and I think this is Stoppard’s point, that words are continually flowing through our minds, and this unconscious outpouring creates meaning as much as . . .”
The bell rang. I reached down to get my things and saw Rickie dash out the door, yelling “Poop” on his way out.
Kevin darted after Rickie, his bag slung over one shoulder, the handle of a tennis racket sticking out, yelling, “Hey, wait up!” Mr. Commando muttered something underneath his breath and scribbled with more vigor.
“…A conscious flow of words,” the intern finished, then exhaled and thanked the students moving by him toward the door.
I stood and put on my backpack. Alice looked at me through her thick glasses as she exited the classroom, and I heard her laughter down the hall; Jacob, holding a water bottle, stuck his finger in my face as he walked by and said, “Next time Paul Haney;” Virginia avoided eye contact with me and moved past with her pony tail swishing behind. I nodded goodbye to the intern whose wet spots had almost reached his elbows. He gave me a thumbs up, the motion jostling his locks, and turned to face Mr. Commando who had set down his pen and was glowering with crossed arms.
Going out, Ron Wright turned to me and said, “I don’t know what he’s writing in that note. I hope we don’t get in trouble. We didn’t use any bad words.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Ron,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “The words don’t mean that much.”
I was almost right. That day, the words meant nothing; the space between them, the stillness that surrounds, everything, or less than nothing.


9/12/11

A Rambling, Polemical Reaction to Spike Lee's Visit to FSU

My maternal grandmother, Alida Mae Towers, had the lineage and opportunity to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was a descendent of Ethan Allen who led the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont against the British troops. But she didn’t join. “The war’s over,” she said of the issue. “Let it be done.” The same message could be sent to those deep-rooted southerners who refuse to lay down their figurative and literal guns after the Civil War. Although my mother and father were transplants to Florida from New Hampshire and Indiana, respectively, I am a child of The South. I’ve been privy to the rancorous fraternity of Confederate descendants. Because of my pale skin and blonde hair, southern folks assume I’m of their heritage and confide in me their private misgivings over racial intermixing and black celebrity. I’ve seen them stockpiling weapons, heard their jokes that involve that word starting with N which my father called “the dirtiest word in the language,” watched them display the Confederate flag on bumper stickers (or sometimes full back-window decals), as patches on their hunting caps (with, of course, no adumbration of intimidation, no suggestion of an empowered lynch mob, no question of what, or who, they’re really hunting), as tattoos on their bodies and flags they fly on holidays.
            “When I see the stars and bars, that’s just as bad as the Nazi swastika,” Spike Lee said Thursday night in the Ruby Diamond auditorium on the FSU campus. As provocative as it was incendiary, Lee’s statement spoke to the adversarial dualism still in existence between staunch southern loyalists and the rest of the country.
He spoke to a crowd of students from FSU and FAMU, a traditionally black college in Tallahassee. In slacks and a sweater-jacket, Lee walked onto a stark stage with only a stool wearing a hat repping area code 404 out of Atlanta, home to his alma mater Morehouse. The 54-year-old professor of film at NYU and Academy-Award-nominated director talked a little Seminole football, then spoke about the need for college students to choose a major in a field they love, and not in the field that will make them the most money. “That’s not real living. That’s just existing,” Lee said of those who spend their lives in a profession where collecting wealth is the only aim. He encouraged students to expose themselves to the arts, to film and literature, to ignore familial demands of a lucrative career path because “Parents kill more dreams than anybody.” He said what you’d expect him to. The crowd had heard it all before. There was a palpable anticipation for the Q&A portion of the evening.
            Eventually, Lee finished his narrative about chasing dreams instead of dollars, and a number of hands went up with questions for the director. The crowd of boisterous students wanted to know about his comments that Tyler Perry’s movies were “coonery and bafoonery,” about his opinions on the ways digital media has changed filmmaking, about the crisis of fatherhood and violence in African-American communities, about what he took away from film school and the secret to his success. Lee, street-wise and profusive with his profanities, said he realized, while in film school at NYU, that most first-time directors write their own scripts, and that knowing how to write effectively was the most important factor in becoming successful. “If you can write, you get paid,” Lee said. “And you’ll be better off for it.” This was a nice nod to composition courses in college. In fact, we teach his journal to Do the Right Thing from our freshman anthologies. Of acting, Lee suggested that auditioners become acquainted with rejection and maintain a firm sense of their goals and identity. “Rejection will make you crazy,” he said. “You gotta have a notion of who you are.” I took this advice to apply to writing as well, as writers should become inured to and comfortable with the many rejections they will receive in a lifetime. He also spoke about the importance of staying dedicated to ones craft, saying, “If you’re trying to find a shortcut, I question your commitment.”
            Lee’s presentation targeted college freshmen and sophomores, film school students, and the African-American community. Since I’m not included in any of those demographics, I found myself straining to hear a message I could take from the evening. But the most compelling moment came four or five questions into the Q&A when Spike asked the microphone-bearers to hand one over to a young white male standing in the middle of his row in the middle of the auditorium. Spike said to give a microphone to the guy in the blue shirt.
            “Actually, I’d say this is a shade of green,” the guy started, establishing a tone of discord.
            “What’s the question?” Spike said, looking annoyed.
            “What are your thoughts on William T. Sherman?”
            Spike Lee crossed his arms. “Why don’t you tell everybody what you’re really asking.”
            The guy went on to inform the crowd that Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, is a reference to General Sherman who burnt a trail of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah during the Civil War. As I browse through General Sherman’s Wikipedia page now, I see that General Sherman led an army of northern white, free blacks, and black slaves, and I see that General Sherman is considered one of the most bellicose and blood-thirsty—albeit effective—generals in US history. Although he didn’t consider blacks to be equal to whites in the eyes of God, he carried out orders that granted, after his siege of the South, 40,000 free black men their 40 acres and a mule, expropriating the land from defeated southerners in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. President Andrew Johnson took that land away within the year. By naming his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, Spike Lee is reclaiming the revoked property of his forefathers, repurposing the language to make the phrase something black Americans can be proud to own, and reasserting, with each new production, the empty promises and history of racism tied to the American government.
            As I listened to the questioner, I saw in him that perverted idea of justice rising from southern hostility toward outsiders that compelled him to challenge Spike Lee on his reclaiming, repurposing, and reasserting. The questioner’s warped assertions, spawned from an angst toward the Other passed down through generations, was symptomatic of the thinking of white southerners embittered by a 150-year-old defeat. Don’t those dispirited chastened by higher authority attempt to chasten and dispirit others? Don’t white southerners seek to exert superiority over African-Americans because they themselves were made to feel inferior? So this student felt he could put a whole auditorium in its place. You could see the truculence in his demeanor and hear it in his voice. Each time I encounter this brand of hostility, I think of H.L. Mencken.
            In 1920, H.L. Mencken, eternal opponent of stupidity, addressed just this type of southern holdover in his glorious essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” In it, he argues that the “bankruptcy, demoralization and despair” left in the South in the wake of the Civil War drove the upper crust of southern society northward into the refuge of culture found in the states above Virginia. “The South has simply been drained of all its best blood,” Mencken writes. “The vast hemorrhage of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its masters.” Mencken identifies Georgia specifically as the epitome of bad breeding and ignorance, writing, “If one turns to such a commonwealth as Georgia the picture becomes far darker. There the liberated lower orders of whites have borrowed the worst commercial bounderism of the Yankee and superimposed it upon a culture that, at bottom, is but little removed from savagery.” Furthermore, Mencken says, when the lower orders of white mobilized upward to fill the vacancy of decent human beings lost to northern climes, the white folks that were left had bastardized and in-bred bloodlines whereas the gentry had left behind a class of mulattos born from intercourse between wealthy white males and black slave women. The mulatto class, as relatives of the region’s best genetics, had a greater cultural aesthetic and produced more valuable art—indeed every original form of American music—than did the debased new aristocracy who treated lynching as a sport “because the backward culture of the region denied the populace more seemly recreations.” In Mencken’s mind, the intellectual superiority of the mulatto class, not to mention their better looks, fueled the jealousy and hatred felt by the newly authorized lower-class whites, raising the stakes of racism.
            Some of Mencken’s article doesn’t age well, such as when he writes of the Southern mulatto: “Like all other half-breeds he is an unhappy man, with disquieting tendencies toward anti-social habits of thought.” Also, Mencken tends to flatten ethnographic distinctions regionally and racially in a time before sociologists had reliable methods of tracing lineage. And, of course, I don’t share in his complete disdain of Georgian culture. The state did, between then and now, give birth to the estimable Allman Brothers.
            Nevertheless, Mencken’s essay sheds light on the castigations implied in the student’s question for Spike Lee. “What are your thoughts on William T. Sherman?” veiled an accusation that Lee, by utilizing the government’s incentive program of “40 acres and a mule,” was celebrating the scorched countryside of 1865 Georgia and mocking the Georgians who assumed authority and to this day hold bitterness toward that mulatto class who received the salubrious genetics of the upper crust. If Lee were to applaud the efforts of General Sherman, his lauding would induce the ire of those southerners galvanized by an engrained acrimony and congregated beneath the Confederate flag. If Lee were to disparage the General, he would have proven the Georgian’s point, admitted to the irony of the name of his production company, and reasserted Caucasian dominance over those from outside the Dear Ol’ Southland. However Lee chose a third option. Lee pointed out that the government never followed through on their promises to the black soldiers, and drew a distinction between the loss of property and the loss of life.
            “What do you want me to say? There was a war going on. Slavery had to end,” Lee told the student in front of an audience whose majority probably couldn’t have cared less. “What do I feel about Sherman burning a path of destruction from Atlanta to Savannah? What about 400 years of slavery?” Then Lee used an analogy tying in one of his films, Do the Right Thing, in which a rioting mob burns down the Italian-owned Sal’s pizzeria. Lee said people come up to him all the time asking how he could have let that white man Sal’s lifelong investment go up in flames, while those people ignore the fact that Radio Raheem, a black character, has been choked to death out front by the police. People become so concerned with the loss of property that they forget the loss of life, or forget that a black person’s life is not 3/5ths of a life, but 5/5ths of a life. A whole life. Like Sal’s Pizzeria, all the wealth and material that constitutes the path from Atlanta to Savannah had to burn to make a point that slavery needed to end. Sorry, Georgia, but the Confederates lost. “When I see the stars and bars, that’s just as bad as the Nazi swastika,” Lee said, then added, “People walk around like the Confederates won.” Come on, Georgia. It’s time to give up the gun.
            After the talk, my friends and I filtered out of the auditorium and met up at a bar. I mentioned the exchange between Lee and the student to the bartender, expressed my discomfort with the Confederate flag.
            “It’s just a piece of fabric,” the bartender said.
            My eyes widened.
            “Look at it this way: The Confederate government was around for four years. How long has the American flag been flown?”
            “233,” I said, after some quick math.
            “Right. And black people didn’t get civil rights until the 1960s. So slavery was executed under the American flag for way longer than the Confederate flag.”
            “But there’s so much hatred connoted in the Confederate flag.” I said, then decided to turn around and drop the issue. A barroom in Tallahassee is not the place to be discussing the merits and demerits of the stars and bars.
But it got me to thinking. The American flag, though flown throughout the years of oppression and subjugation, maintains within itself an evolving symbolism that grows alongside our definition of what freedom entails and who deserves it. The American flag may not be a perfect representation of universal liberty, as now the culture living under it struggles to assimilate human beings filtering in from south of our border, Muslim-Americans who struggle for belonging in a society still living under the shadow of Puritan paranoia toward other religions and a news media that runs on fear mongering, and finds itself conflicted and bifurcated over progressive family units. But one day, if we overcome our psycho-societal complexes, the stars and stripes could represent totalized liberty. If anything the red, white, and blue, colors that have no determined significance, represent the possibility, the potential for, the yearning toward an unprejudiced and fully realized humanistic reality.
The Confederate flag, however, has no hope for morphing into a worthwhile entity for the growth of our nation. It can only ever represent the Confederate States of America, a government that lasted for four years in the mid-19th Century but whose ideology of a state’s right to allow its citizens to carry on the universally deplorable and morally bankrupt institution of slavery lives on through the symbolism woven into the fabric of the stars and bars.
            Then again, just as a faction of unthinking Americans categorically equate the Koran with terrorism, to flatly reject the symbolism connoted in the Confederate flag may be an over-determined reach, like Mencken’s stereotyped ethnographies, that refuses the flag’s message of state’s rights and southern heritage. The KKK sports the flag, but so does the South Carolina Statehouse. Nevertheless, I hope those southerners who slap the Confederate flag on their cars, raise it from their flag poles, and tattoo it on their bodies will keep in mind the symbolism it carries and do so for the right reasons, and not because of a lingering animosity toward blacks and the rest of America because the Union chastened their families during the Civil War. Considering the educational and economic impoverishment that pervades the region, it’s doubtful that the South will rise again. At least I hope it won’t.

8/15/11

Another Time and Place

When I saw those hospital curtains, my mind traveled elsewhere. Suddenly I was 8-years old, brought to see my maternal grandmother on her supposed death bed. Amid shuffling nurses and beeping instruments on wheels with tubes and digital screens, the curtains to her stall opened like the unveiling of a museum exhibit.
I saw my dad sitting by my grandmother’s side. He waved me in, had me hold her hand, then stepped out with my mother. In the hall, aunts, uncles, and cousins waited around. Standing by her bed, her papery fingers laced in mine, she looked up at me with milky eyes and mouthed the word “water.” I broke grip and got the nurse who said, Of course she can have some water.
     Soon, a priest came in and prayed over my grandmother, and my uncle explained to me about the last rites. She would live for two more months.
     This time, I pulled back the curtain and saw my mother under a swale of blankets, an IV plugged into her arm, her eyes clear and alert. Two aunts and a cousin stood chatting by her bed. She had gone in that morning with sharp pains in her abdomen. An inflamed pancreas, the doctor told us, caused by gall stones. We were in New Hampshire, a few miles from my mother’s childhood home, for a family gathering. She goes every summer, but I hadn’t been in a decade. After bending down and kissing her cheek, I held her hand, and she reminded us that the last time she laid in a hospital bed was 27 years ago when I was born.
     Of course, she’d come through. But I realized right then that the reason I came to New Hampshire that summer was to be there in case my mother needed a glass of water.

8/13/11

For John

My friend John Phillips passed away this summer. At 27 years old, he was president of Pursuit Watch, an organization dedicated to educating the public and the police about the dangers of high-speed police chases to third party civilians. John’s father had founded Pursuit Watch after a runaway felon struck and killed John’s older sister in 2001 during a high-speed pursuit. When John’s father died of a heart attack in 2007, John stepped in as president.

I had heard the news that John was in the hospital fighting for his life through a group on Facebook, "Stay Strong for John," but the page said little else. Needing to know why, I Googled “John Phillips” and “hospital” and found an article from Michigan that said 10 days earlier he had accidentally hit and killed a child chasing a ball into the street with his pickup. The child's mother's boyfriend had run out of the house with a large knife and, in a swell of anger, stabbed the driver. The boyfriend was now awaiting trial for attempted murder.

The article featured a mug shot of the boyfriend with pursed lips and hard, angry eyes. This man stabbed John, I thought. John must’ve been visiting his girlfriend’s family in Michigan. I imagined John in his truck when he struck the child. He must've jumped from the cab and ran to help the boy. When the boyfriend emerged from house wielding a knife, John must've shuffled backward, waved his hands in the air and shouted No. As the knife plunged in, he must've buckled over, holding the wound while emergency sirens grew louder, bearing down on the bloody melee.

I emailed the article to my mom with the note, ‘More tragedy for the Phillips.’” Two days later, the Facebook group announced that John had had a stroke. From the blood loss, I figured. And then, when John died, the stroke was all that was mentioned—nothing of the stabbing. My mom emailed me back that the John Phillips who got stabbed in Michigan was 34 years old, not 27. It was a different John Phillips altogether.

By the time I got home for the funeral, my embarrassment for spreading that false information was overshadowed by my sense of loss. I wrote a short elegy for John and kept it in my pocket during his service in case I felt compelled to speak. I didn’t get up and share it, but it touched on our elementary school years, our golf games, John’s passion for the Braves and the Magic.

The last paragraph read, “I came to consider John a personal hero. Never preachy or passing judgment, John led by example, always proceeding with strong moral character and conviction. He had been through so much and remained in good spirits, found the resolve to turn hardship into growth, setback into solution. Charitable, altruistic, he embodied the positive change he demanded of the world, touched the hearts of everyone he met, and the world is a better place for having had him in it. We’ll miss you, John.”

7/31/11

In Response to Adam Frank's "Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present"

In a recent blog post on npr.org, Adam Frank writes that “your present is at the mercy of many overlapping pasts.” Because it takes time, however infinitesimal, for a light wave to bounce off an object, be detected by your retina, and speed across your optic nerve to the sensors in your brain, nothing you see is in real time. What’s more, because light travels at a constant speed—300 million miles per second—objects farther away in your view are older than the ones closer to you. Rearview mirrors should carry the disclaimer, objects are older than they appear. The stellar bodies we gaze upon in the nighttime sky emanated their glow light years ago, and today we perceive them as equal parts of a coherent skyscape, when in fact each star is of a different era. Only the coherence demanded by human rationality can maintain the illusion of simultaneity between objects set in spacetime.

Frank says that these “multiple, foliated pasts” seem to disprove Presentism, a philosophy of time that states the past and future do not exist—the Now is all there is. Although I agree with Frank when he purports that efforts to inhabit the present moment, whether through meditation or mindfulness or drug use, will reveal an all-pervading oneness, wholeness, and unity with the ceaseless Now, I find it hard to place the isness I've felt at times in the same arena as the time-lag of perception. Interconnectivity exists in a different valence from the now-narrative of our senses. True, we can only ever perceive the past. True, the present is an illusory concoction in the cauldron of our senses. But being present with yourself occurs beyond the senses, in that Emersonian oversoul, and when you inhabit the Now, you inhabit a negative space of infinite possibility where picayune distinctions fall away. A space in which time collapses and the past and future converge.

7/9/11

Images for Twitter: Four Airports in a Day

Many times when I'm on an airplane, I'm inspired by the cloudscapes viewed through the window, the sense of going somewhere new, the passivity required of travelers as the airline shuttles them to their destination, and I pluck the notebook from my pocket and scribble furtively, huddled in my allotted space, blocking my writings from the view of the person next to me. Once, on a late afternoon in 2008 as I flew over the middle of the country, up over the Rockies, and down into San Francisco, our plane seemed in competition with the sun to first reach the Pacific horizon. The sun won, as you might have guessed, but our plane battled hard, and that competitive effort won us an extended sunset that cast its reds and oranges onto the clouds at eye level, the farmland below, and the mountains in between. We landed in San Fransisco in the newborn darkness as the sun dipped below the Pacific in its ineluctable march to meet other hopeless competitors. For the last line of that entry, I wrote, "The ocean / The bay / The end of the day."

I don't think I'll ever get tired of staring out the window of an airplane. Last weekend, I flew to Burlington from Tallahassee to spend time in my motherland of New Hampshire/Vermont where I hadn't been in almost 10 years. As both BTV and TLH are dinky little airports, I made two connections both ways. Tallahassee-->Charlotte-->Washington D.C.-->Burlington going there; Burlington-->Philadelphia-->Charlotte-->Tallahassee coming back. For each of my six flights, I booked a window seat. I also just got a new smart phone, and thought I'd post to my Twitter account as I traveled. But for some reason, either bad phone connection or incompetence, I couldn't get connected. In the air, and some on the ground, I scribbled what I would've like to have posted to Twitter inside the back cover of the book I was reading, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. Here is what I wrote:

Going Out

The Tallahassee airport is a hairy wart stuck to Capital Circle and attracting mosquitoes.

Looking out the window of an airplane, the clouds are landforms--mountains and shorelines--and our cities lay at the bottom of the ocean.

Kudos to the flight attendant who laid the smack down on a passenger's unruly children somewhere over South Carolina.

The Charlotte airport buzzes like a slaughterhouse. Travelers tumble down the chute, go through processing, and plop into the packaging of the airplane.

In the south, the clouds are made of cotton thrown in the air by jubilant slave hands who stood in front of city hall to hear the mayor read the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Lincoln Memorial sits like a lion figurine at the bottom of a toy chest; the Washington Monument has his father's nose and high cheekbones.

The Raegan International Airport is a smorgasbord of faces to focus and feed on as you pass along your way.

The Capital Building is an ice cream cone dipped in white chocolate.

Clouds are ghosts of mountains that crumbled before men could grace them with names.

The Burlington airport is a trampoline to break your fall from atop a two-thousand story building.

Relaxation is hearing water lapping at the shoreline of Lake Champlain from your room overlooking Windmill Bay at the end of the day.

Coming In

There are two kinds of boats on Lake Champlain: those have have hit the bottom, and those that will.

Blinding white clouds deflect the sun and wonder why we rise above their protection.

At 22,000 feet, the clouds comprise a hierarchy casting shadows on each other.

The Philadelphia airport is a serpent who speaks every tongue of Babel.

I didn't speak to a soul on the airplane, but many spoke to me.

Seven species of cloud meet and inspect each other with curiosity like animals at a watering hole on the Sahara.

The air above Charlotte ripples like the thighs of an obese woman who finally decides to get in shape.

Cloud nurseries are staffed by firm but loving nannies.

The Tallahassee airport may be a hairy wart, but it's my hairy wart.

4/29/11

An Email I Just Sent to the Golf Channel

Dear Golf Channel,

I am 26 years old, have a 5 handicap, and live in Orlando, Florida. Needless to say, I've been an avid fan of your network since its inception back in the 90's. However, I've become disappointed with the apparent political bent of your programming, as evidenced by your featuring Rush Limbaugh on The Haney Project (no relation) and your continuing broadcast of Trump's Wonderful World of Golf. These two men, Limbaugh and Trump, have led the radical right in the recent defamation of our commander in chief, President Obama. And while I respect anyone's right to their own political opinion, too often have I felt chastised on the golf course for not sharing in my fellow golfers' excoriations of the president, and I must cringe when I turn on my favorite channel to find further promotions of these harmful and unfounded political agendas. Golf should not have a conservative or liberal bias; it should be open and welcoming to players from all walks of life, because the golf ball does not know or concern itself with a player's party affiliation. But too often, unfortunately, through exorbitant and exclusionary green fees and price tags on equipment, and a good-old-boy mentality, golf proves how much further it has to go to distinguish itself from the days when African Americans were allowed only in the caddy yard. Your network should pride itself in a neutral stance, uphold its integrity within the world of sports journalism, and stop catering to a radical right-wing agenda. And until you do so, you will have lost a viewer, fan, and advocate. Unless you do what is right by the integrity of the game, this proponent of the Golf Channel will have turned outspoken opponent.
Respectfully,
Paul Haney

1/28/11

Put it in the Dumpsta'

When the gods in the hills raise a clatter, jovial and apocalyptic, issuing a thunderstorm to cleanse our cities with wind, rain, and the rhythmic booming of thunder, they listen to Dumpstaphunk for inspiration. Dumpstaphunk plays on a stage or from a speaker at the barbeque in the backyard of that Olympic compound in the mountains where dancing deities conjure in their cauldrons the funky back beats of their stormy designs. Present is Thor, raising his hammer and striking his anvil, turning out torrents that echo with nasty jams. The bass is slappin’, the organ is kickin’; you’ll forget that time is tickin’. This fresh groove from New Orleans blew into Tallahassee on a Friday night in January. That night, the funk fell down like rain.

One must be careful, in our post-Katrina world, when using a storm analogy to describe a band from New Orleans. But even as Dumpstaphunk can throttle up to the force of a Cat. 5, their earthy, muscular grooves possess powers to reinvigorate the spirit of the Big Easy. Dumpstaphunk, the five-piece band with style for miles, is the current embodiment of that brand of funk bred from the musical masters of N’awlins—Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and their literal forefathers, the Neville Brothers. They also cue the grooves of Sly Stone, George Clinton, and James Brown as they forge their funk: downplaying harmony and melody, bringing rhythm to the forefront, and emphasizing layers of thick bass lines and steady backbeats.

Thankfully for us, they spread their music far beyond the Orleans Parish.

I had seen Ivan Neville’s Dumpstajam, a version of Dumpstaphunk, on a Saturday night in October 2010 in Live Oak, Florida at Bear Creek Music & Art Festival—that enchanted gathering where the funk resides; where campers, jammers, revelers, and hula-hoopers unite to hear the best funk, soul, and groove bands around. While Dumpstajam was indeed impressive, I was somewhat distracted from the band’s potency at Bear Creek amid the maelstrom of funk swirling throughout the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground. To play up to their late-night billing among the venerable musicians performing that weekend (Umphrey’s McGee, moe., Soulive, Maceo Parker), Dumpstajam featured a myriad of guest performers who represented some of the greatest talents in soul music. The addition of these guest musicians transformed the athletic arrangement of Dumpstaphunk into a protean orchestration of deep booming bass lines, bellowing keyboards, vociferous vocals, garrulous guitars, and howling horns.

Dumpstaphunk proper played that Sunday night in October, but by that point responsibility had lured me back home to Tallahassee, so I missed the show.

On that Friday in January, I experienced the stripped-down essence of Dumpstaphunk: no horns, no guest players, just the five band members in a tight, streamlined performance. The band was already cookin’ when I walked in the club, The Engine Room on Railroad Avenue, a mid-sized venue with a good selection of bottled beers. Immediately, I lost myself in the throbbing of the crowd and remained entranced for the next two-plus hours. I danced with strangers. I smiled broadly. I even made a new Facebook friend. These are things I don’t normally do. I felt outside of myself.

Not only did the band wrap me up in an impulsive and involuntary trance of dance, I came to form, if only in my spellbound brain, a concord with its members. They felt like friends from a distant lifetime whom I hadn’t seen in ages. Memories of Bear Creek flashed through my mind, and I felt the harmony of the festival washing over me. What’s more, Dumpstaphunk was better than Dumpstajam, as they got to show what their band can do when unadorned.

Back on the drums, Raymond Weber, all smiles, holds down the beat. Every so often, he yells “Somebody scream!” and the crowd erupts—a primal and compelling appeal for audience involvement.

On the far left of the stage, Nick Daniels, bass, has a somewhat intimidating presence. I imagine he’s taken a few phunks out to the dumpsta’ in his day, and that he doubles as the band’s bodyguard and bouncer. You want this guy on your side.

To Daniels’ left, Ian Neville plays guitar. He’s younger than the rest of the band, has a bitchin’ afro that adds to his guitar glam, and quietly does the work of laying down the funk.

Next to Ian Neville, Tony Hall also plays bass (that’s right—two basses), and sports the most fitting mustache in the business, trim and tight, all business. This unassuming everyman exudes energy, motioning to the crowd and flexing his facial muscles to the groove.

On the far right of the stage, Ivan Neville, Ian’s older cousin, perches behind his electric organ and makes that Hammond howl. He leads the band, sings the songs, and addresses the audience. There are three things you need to know about Ivan Neville. The first thing is that Ivan Neville is a nice guy. On stage at Bear Creek, he couldn’t say enough about how much he enjoys the festival, about the quality of the music, and about how he’s a fan just like you and me. “So if you didn’t know,” he told us, “now you know.”

The second thing you must know about Ivan Neville is that he loves women. It’s a tradition for the band, when playing “Standin’ in Yo Stuff,” to invite the girls in the audience on stage to dance. When they played this song in Tallahassee, the women in the crowd stormed the stage and lavished their energies on Dumpstaphunk, who grinned wide and rode the rhythm amidst the assemblage, while the men in the audience were left to dance with each other.

Soon after, the band launched into their signature tune, “Put it in the Dumpsta’.” The third thing you need to know about Ivan Neville is that he cares about his fans. This isn’t a case of fan disillusionment, but a fact that can be proven. The song “Put it in the Dumpsta’” is as much a groove that fuses funk and rock as it is a piece of altruistic advice to move forward from times of hardship and distress and focus on the present moment in which all is well and phunky.

“We gonna take all the bad feeling. All the ill will. All the bullshit. And we gonna’ get rid of it right now,” Ivan says in the song. “And what we gonna’ do with it y’all?”

The crowd and band respond: “Put it in the dumpsta’!”

“You’re on your way to the show. But you’re driving a little too fast. The cop pulls you over, takes your weed and keeps it for himself. What you gonna’ do?”
“Put it in the dumpsta’!”

Not only has Dumpstapunk, in “Put it in the Dumpsta’,” confronted real-life problems faced by their followers, but within their music they’ve constructed a refuse bin for fans to dispose of their troubles and blunders, their failures and mistakes, their niggling concerns, bad mojo, and hoodoo-voodoo juju. Dumpstaphunk didn’t have to provide fans with this storage space for life’s detritus, this theoretical waste bin accessible through the wisdoms of funkdom. So why did Dumpstaphunk clue us in?

Because Dumpstaphunk cares.

Try it out. The next time you come home from work to find your cat has hacked up a hairball on the rug, clean it up, then put it in the dumpsta’. Not just the hairball, but the stress that goes along with it.

Next time you’re late to class and the teacher glares and marks you tardy, take your seat, clear your mind, then take that tardy and put it in the dumpsta’.

When the girl you’re sweet on says she’s too busy with work to spend time with you, and then you hear she’s down at the corner bar having drinks with your best friend, lift that girl up out of your mind and put her in the dumpsta’.

If you make it to the bus stop just in time to see the bus throttling down the road, and you start running but the driver won’t stop to let you on, take a seat on the curb, take a breath, and put that driver in the dumpsta’.

The next time Dumpstaphunk comes to your town but you’re low on cash, your car’s broken down, you’re behind at work, deprived of sleep, and haven’t called your mother in weeks, ball up your excuses in a wad of nonsense, and put it in the dumpsta’. Go see Dumpstaphunk and allow the nasty, stinky storms of phunk to blow those stresses out from your soul.

1/1/11

Wicked Slice

Over Christmas break, I wanted to increase my knowledge about the nature and philosophy of composition, especially in fiction, so I could apply that knowledge to my writing, blogging, corresponding, and to my studies. To acquire books on that subject, I visited the FSU library, and also ordered a couple off Amazon. On top of that haul, I brought the three texts I'm teaching in Freshman Composition this semester home to Orlando where I spent three weeks, hoping to familiarize myself with the material before beginning the semester. I also brought a couple odd selections of general interest. Not to mention a few Golf Digests.

Here, in no particular order, are the books I brought with me to Orlando, but didn't get around to reading:

--Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein—an ancient, crumbling instructional from 1908.
--Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study in Constructive Postmodernism, by Donald L. Gelpi—I checked this book out for a chapter about theism, a concept I used in a critical essay about theology in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and I thought I might read further on this interesting and often ambiguous subject.
--Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass—a paperback instructional that I’ve heard isn’t so bad, from 2001.
--Introduction to the Short Story, 4th edition, edited by Robert W. Boynton and Maynard Mack. A collection of short stories with editorial “Considerations” to cogitate on.
--The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing the Research Paper, by Bruce Ballenger, the hyper-personal but comprehensive authority on Freshman research essays.
--Beyond Words: Cultural Texts for Reading and Writing, Ruszkiewicz, Anderson, and Friend. Glossy and operating in the obvious, this Freshman reader at least contains articles and chapters from Steinbeck, Kerouac, David Brooks, and Paul Theroux.
--Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, by Ray Bradbury. A book by Ray Bradbury about zen and composition? Count me in.

These are the books I read partially:

--The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins—the notorious call to atheism by the world’s most truculent philosopher. I got about 70 pages in before having to move on. It's still on my 'need to read' list, though.
--Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is an influential writer on the process method of composition promoted by the First Year Composition program at FSU. The first third of this essay collection details Lamott's struggles with alcoholism and drug use in the 70's. It's funny and profound, written in Lamott's funny, biting voice. But the second third turned too religious and familial for me, so I put 'er down.
--The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardener. I had some time to kill in the Tires Plus waiting room, and one night sitting in my car waiting for a friend to get out of work. Gardener makes heady, high-minded assertions about the craft that will surely be edifying one day when I can concentrate on the text.

In short, I brought home a bunch of books and didn't get all that much reading done. There's one last book, however, which I managed to finish:

--On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, 2000. The cover looks as old as the Esenwein book, but the contents bring writers up to date with the conventions adhered to by Stephen King which helped him become one of America's most prolific authors. Truth be told, I've never read a novel by Stephen King. I was at first a bit turned off by his simple, unadorned writing style (King proclaims his style "Proletariat"). But King makes it work with straightforwardness and simplicity. After 40 or 50 pages, he had sucked me in, especially after recounting how the first novel he sold garnered him $200,000, in the 70's, and how he collapsed to the floor when his agent told him how much it had sold for. That recounting is enough to put stars and dollar signs in any writer's eyes. King also offers an interesting exposition of 'ly' adverbs (thankfully, especially, shittily), dialogue tags (he prescribes the use of 'he said,' 'she said,' only if necessary, and nothing more), his own voracious reading habits, and the fact that he blares Metallica while he writes.

As a personal aside--I don't get writers who compose while listening to music. I don't understand them, I don't trust them, and I don't feel safe around them. I work best in total silence. If music's on, those lyrics might just squeeze their way into my work, and the train of my thought gets constantly derailed.

I got a lot out of the King instructional. In it, he includes one exercise where he instructs his readers to envision a divorced couple with the woman stalking the man, in five to six pages. If I remember correctly, King intends to demonstrate how character and conflict allow plot to form and unfold without purposeful construction from the writer. This is what I came up with:


Wicked Slice


Charles lagged his long par attempt to two and a half feet.

“Nice putt,” Mitch replied. “Mark it please.” Mitch stepped up to his five footer for par and rattled it into the hole. “Buried it,” he said with a small fist pump. Picking his ball out of the cup, he said to his competitor, “Knock it in there.”

“It’s inside the leather,” Charles replied. “I’d give the putt to you.”

“If it’s so good, go ahead and make it.”

Charles stepped over the ball and stubbed the putt, moaning as the ball missed to the right. “Shit. You’re three up.”

The two men walked off the seventh green toward the eighth tee box. Mitch considered himself a halfway decent golfer and didn’t hesitate when Charles, a novice, proposed a fifty-dollar match that afternoon. At Merrymount Golf and Country Club outside of Santa Rosa, California, members were wealthy, and cash matches were the norm. Even though Charles had fallen three down through seven, and already with a shank, a blade, and a stubbed putt didn’t look poised to mount a comeback, he continued on cheerfully as if unconcerned with the bet.

“It’s nice having you back out here, Mitch. Merrymount missed you.”

“You know, Charles, it’s good to be back.” The two men set their bags down on the side of the eighth tee. Mitch took in his surroundings: the April sky with its languid cloudscape, the hazel mountains nesting low on the horizon, the green expanse of the pristine golf course he had played on since a child, the decorative pond and fountain fronting the eighth green, the dark woods bordering the course and their mysterious animal noises: the hoots, the snarls, the rustling of ground cover. As his eyes scanned over those shadows of the woods, he caught in his periphery the flash of metal, and a human face. He focused his eyes and saw nothing. His warmness faded, and he shivered.

“See something?”

“Yeah. Maybe. Probably nothing.” Mitch pulled out his 8-iron for the par 3 and teed up his ball. “I'm three up, right?”

“Not for long,” Charles said.

Mitch made a smooth swing and sent the ball whooshing toward the green. Starting low off the clubface, the ball rose as it carried toward the target, plopping down behind the hole, and spinning back to about fifteen feet. As he watched the ball fall out of the air, he saw the tinny flash again in the woods behind the hole.

“What is that?”

“You’re fifteen feet away and complaining?”

“No. Not the shot. That--” Mitch stopped himself. “Nevermind.”

Charles stepped up to the tee. “I think I'm due,” he said, then stepped back and took a few gangly practice swings. He stepped over the ball, jerked the club over his head, and, on the downswing, slammed the club into and through the ground. The turf beneath his tee sailed through the air and splashed into the water. The ball rocketed flat off the clubface toward the hole, screamed over the pin, bounced off the cart path behind the green, and sailed into the woods. As the ball entered, Mitch, watching in amazement, heard a strange sound like the squawk of a fettered seagull together with the cry of a snared raccoon. The hair on his arms and neck stood.

Charles slammed his club, displacing more turf on the teebox. He flashed anger, his face glowing red. A gob of mud stuck to his clubhead. He marched down to the pond and plunged the clubhead below the surface. After jabbing it in a few times, his club coming out clean, Charles seemed pacified. The two slung their bags over their shoulders and walked around the hazard toward the green.

“So where you been all these months anyway, Mitch?” No trace of Charles's irritation from the previous moment remained

“You didn’t hear?” Mitch raised a suspicious eyebrow. “It was all over the news.” They stepped onto the decorative bridge and walked over the feeder canal.

“I don’t watch much news. Heard some talk around the club, though. Some legal troubles?”

“You could say that. My wife went missing. Went out for cigarettes and never came home. That was eight months ago.” Mitch stepped off the bridge. Glancing at the shadowy woods to his right, his breath shortened and his pace quickened.

On hearing this, Charles stopped at the bridge's edge. “God Mitch. I’m so sorry.”

Mitch glared back. “Come on. More golf to play.” As Mitch walked up to the green, set down his bag, marked his ball, and repaired his divot, Charles continued around the back of the green to look for his overshot ball. Mitch walked to the side of the green and waited. He gazed out over the pond and fountain, silently cursing Charles’s ignorance in the matter of his wife's disappearance. Doesn’t watch much news, he thought. He must’ve seen the paparazzi camped outside my gate, right down the road. What a dope.

The authorities had interrogated Mitch for weeks about the disappearance. They dug up the couple’s financial history and interviewed their friends, coworkers, and family members for details about the couple’s relationship. Though the body was never found, the detectives accused Mitch of murdering his wife and discarding the evidence. The District Attorney built his case: the DNA in the trunk of Mitch's car, the affairs committed by both husband and wife, the couple's struggling finances, the insurance policy. The state was out to make Mitch an example, to condemn him as a rich elite with the hubris and connections to think he could get away with murder. After a quick but expensive and public trial that had ended just a week prior, Mitch was acquitted thanks to his crack team of lawyers. Throughout the process, Mitch only longed to get back out on the course.

“I can’t find it,” Charles hollered from within the dark woods. As per the etiquette, Mitch started over to help his partner look for the missing ball. Mitch walked down the slope over the back of the green and, looking up, caught again the flash of a metal blade, and a face, pale and hollow. He froze. Charles emerged. “I think it came in on this line,” Charles yelled out, motioning with his arms the line the ball came in on.

“Just concede the hole,” Mitch said through locked teeth, voice quavering.

“Nonsense! With the way I scramble—if I can find it, I can get it close. Mind giving me a hand?”

Mitch hesitated. That flash of a face had the adumbration of his wife’s features. He moved toward the woods, his steps measured and deliberate. It’s all in my head, he told himself. A blur of white moved by and Mitch jumped. Only Charles stomping around. Mitch called out, “Okay then. I’ll concede.”

Charles poked his head out from the tree line, dense and tangled. “Come on--you're putting for birdie. Give me a hand in here!”

All in my head, Mitch repeated. I buried her 50 miles from here. Watched her die. Watched the bitch bleed to death dug a hole and buried her. No such thing as ghosts. No such thing as spirits. No such thing as soul. My wife is not in those woods.

With new resolve, Mitch reached the tree line and used his hands to spread open the branches. A current of cold air swept over him. Peering in, he saw only trees, thicket, and underbrush. He stepped high with his right leg, found stable footing, entered with his body, and followed with his left. Inside, he became disorientated, eyes not used to the half-light, feet on shaky footing. From beside him came that same squawking cry he heard on the teebox. He looked but saw nothing. His vision hadn't recovered. The cry continued, louder. It echoed in his head, was was all he could hear. A piercing, heinous, inhuman howl. “Charles!” he cried out. “Charles!” But Mitch couldn’t hear his own cries over the resounding bestial din. Falling to the forest floor, he balled himself up like a fetus and screamed.

The squawking cry cut out with a final slam—-the slam of a car trunk. Fumbling for his bearings, Mitch felt the metal roof over his head, the tarp beneath him crinkling as he moved, the rough fabric lining the walls of the trunk, the spare tire under the tarp whose valve stem grated against his shoulder, the tire iron jutting painfully into his thigh as the car gained speed and the trunk began to jostle. When the car hit smooth pavement, Mitch knew she was driving down the highway. He grappled in the blackness, pounding with his fists and pleading for his life, knowing what woods she was taking him to. Golf balls and golf tees spilled from his pockets. After a while he found a position where the tire iron wouldn’t jab him, but his head banged against the roof of the trunk with each turbulence of the road.

The ride lasted about an hour. The car pulled off the highway, slowing as the road turned to dirt and gravel. “No!” he called out to his cramped confines. “Not me! Not like this! Oh god—save me please!” The latch of the trunk lock clicked. “Please no!” The lid flew open. “God help me!” Light flooded the trunk, blinding him as he held his hands up over his eyes. “Please no. Please! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he recognized the vague outline of his wife’s face hovering over him. He saw the flash of the blade as it came down sharp with a strike and a slice.


Charles’s ball bounded out from the woods, bounced off the cart path, ran up the bank behind the green, and settled inside a foot. Charles emerged exultant from the woods. “I told you I’d get it close!”