Leap Year Musings

"What did the tomato do when he saw the pretty girl walking down the street?" my father used to ask, eliciting a head cock and an eye roll from me and my brother. We'd run to keep from hearing the punchline, run fast like the world spinning round, backward so fast we'd start losing time and--Oh my! It's a leap year!

Happy February 29 everybody. The day when the world gets to catch up from all that running backward it's done over the past four years. This pale blue marble we live on just can't keep up with father time. It circles around the sun straining backward, putting on its magnetic brakes just to keep from hearing the punchline. Strains so hard it takes a full day every 1,460 to catch it back up to speed.

And we've got to halt our lives, stand by and wait while Earth gets back on our time. I say we throw a party for everyone who's on schedule. Every February 29, all those who have their papers finished and houses refinanced, wills notarized and Christmas shopping done, should have a parade. Streamers, banners, confetti, shriners on their tiny motorcycles and fat-headed politicians hanging out of their convertibles. "Four more years!" we'll all shout, and it won't be for the governor.

Those whose birthdays are on February 29 will be exalted as the future of humanity, beings out of time. I'm turning 28 this year while others of my generation are turning 7. There's something otherworldly about you people.

Those who aren't caught up can do so on this day. We'll close the government. We'll talk the electric companies into giving us the day for free. On an official decree, there will be no new news on February 29. 24 hours to catch up on the great stories we missed over the last four years (have you seen Hoarders? Damn!) If the Earth needs a day to get back on track, how can we deny the same benefit to her children?

In a perfect world, Mr. Bones. In a perfect world.

So really, what do you plan to do today? Go to work? It's a Wednesday, after all, and the boss will be calling for his TPS reports. The traffic on the interstate's not going to jam itself. Someone will have to get the office lunch order and get the evil eye for forgetting Martha's mayonnaise on the side. Unfortunately, life as we know it must go on.

Today, Aimee, Tino, and Chozzles and I are driving to Chicago. I set this blog to auto-post since I'll be in the car all damn day. My catch up day is a travel day. I'm gaining distance, but as far as time goes, it's a wash. 

We have AWP to look forward to. And the Windy City. Cold rain, skyscrapers, museums and the Red Line.

So what did the tomato do when he saw a pretty girl walking down the street?

Ketchup! of course.


An Idiot for Trying

I spent yesterday banging  my head against my capstone essay, this program's version of the master's thesis. Come 11pm, I needed a break. Instead of tuning in to the over-hyped NBA dunk contest, I found An Idiot Abroad on the Science Channel. Since I'm preparing my writer's mind for my trip this summer by taking in travel memoirs, nature writing, craft of writing books, and television and film on travel, railroads, and America, I figured I might get something useful out of the program.

The producers, including Ricky Gervais, give their idiot Karl, who's really not so dumb, a bucket list of exciting options. Each week he chooses from the list. This week, he chooses "whale watching." However, those two words don't come close to conveying the litany of trials and ancillary activities for our hero to endure before he reaches his goal. The show's logic flows like this: Carl wants to go whale watching. That happens in Alaska. What do we know about Alaska? Ice road truckers. Polar bears. Eskimo. Snow, ice, and mountains. Carl's whale watching must involve all of these things, too.

Soon enough, Karl finds himself slogging for nine hours through five-foot deep snow guided by an Alaskan who giggles each time Karl falls over and patronizes him by saying "awesome" when Karl can keep his skis straight enough to slide 10 feet down a slope.

They pause to get Karl's thoughts. Standing in front of a beautiful mountain vista, sheer rock faces and snow drifts everywhere, mountain peaks stacked on top of each other, he says "Back home, you look out, see it's like this, and you stay in with your Colombo box set."

When they reach their cabin, the man tells Karl that, if he needs to poo, he'll have to wipe with a chunk of ice. Then the man sits down and sings Karl a song:

"It's more than I can bare / because I love you so dear / I really caribou you." Karl stares unbelieving, mouth agape, into the camera

Later, an Inuit woman takes Carl to the northernmost point in the U.S., Point Barrow. Karl seems disappointed. "There's nothing here." He stands amid a sea of snow and ice. "I thought there'd be more to it."

I had to see for myself, so I looked up Barrow, AK on Googlemaps. The land there is porous, spotted with lakes, all elongated in the same direction, like stretched taffy, as if the north pole's trying to hoist the land over its shoulder like a duffel bag. There's an airport there, a pizza shack named Artic Pizza, a high school and even a college. Everything's covered in snow. And I wondered, do arctic residents dream about the tropics?

Basically, Karl's always pissed. Each bucket list entry becomes the most trying ordeal of his life. Be careful what you ask for, the show seems to say. They rarely show Karl smiling. His life is lived in constant disappointment and subverted expectations. He might as well be wating for Godot. The satisfaction of a life well lived may never come for Karl. And that's what makes him an idiot. He expects fun adventure from his producer Ricky Gervais who, because it pleases the audience, will only deliver him more misery.

The viewer must wonder where the line between Karl the man and Karl the character lies. At the end of the day, does Karl order a steak and bourbon? Does he stay in a nice hotel every so often and laugh in his warm bath as he orders room service? Does he suppress his smile for the camera?

In this show, Karl finally sees a whale, but he's gone through such torture to see it that, between sea sickness and the stench of octopus organs, he cannot marvel as the spume of water shoots from the sea; he can only gag.

That's Karl's voice--dejected, fooled, resigned to the absurdity of his life. What's my voice? It's out there, on the rails, I suppose. But I know it's not Karl. It's something different. Something that celebrates. Something that redeems.

Meanwhile the Travel Channel plays 10 straight hours of Ghost Hunters followed by When Vacations Attack. That's got to be the worst damn name for a show ever invented. Vacations don't attack people. Vacations don't have the capacity. Bad things happen on vacations, yeah. Bad things happen even on staycations. But in no way ever can someone be attacked by a vacation.

And now, it's time for me to get back to my trying adventures in writing a capstone essay.


Kerouac's Been Reading Hemingway

It's Valentine's Day. Or "Pal"entine's Day as we like to say in these here parts. But I already took care of those things in their proper venues and mediums.

What I aim to tell you today, dear blog, is that my summer plans are coming together. I'm (not)working on our department's version of the master's thesis, the capstone essay, as we speak, and will have it done and defended by April. But that doesn't mean I'm graduating just yet. Hold the robes, cancel those hotel rooms, 'cause I'm pushing back my graduation date 'till summer so I can work in the reading-writing center for six more weeks, earn a paycheck, enroll in 6 credit hours to get funding, take out one last round of student loans, buy a 45-day Amtrak rail pass and take off across America from late June to early August. For some of those credit hours I'll work one-on-one with Dr. Ned Stuckey-French, essay scholar and contemporary nonfictionist, to come up with a regionally specific reading list and erect a blogsite to record my travels and bring them to you, dear reader. It'll be called Haney on the Trainey: Paul's Gone to Look for America.

"I just hope I don't come back flat broke," I said to Dr. Ned.

"So what if you do?" He said. "Who cares? You're broke now, aren't ya'?"

He makes a good point. In the meantime, while I'm laboring toward the finish line for this M.A., I've been reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road each night before I go to bed as a kind of guiding text for my journey. Last time I read OtR was back in middle school, when Alec lent me his father's copy. We played a lot of Ouija back then, too, and one time Alec tried to make me think I was Dean Moriarty, or Neal Cassady's character in OtR, in a past life. However, I'll never be able to explain the shaky movement of the cursor in Joe's bedroom with Lucas and that cold breath of wind that made the candle flicker. We ran out screaming, then had to gather ourselves to go back in, put all our hands on the cursor, and move it over "Goodbye."

I read a lot of Kerouac's fellow beat Ginsberg (the Carlo Marx character in OtR) for a class last summer, and wrote a paper attempting to define "Beat" through "Howl" and some secondary texts. So when I revisited Kerouac, I expected a lot of those propulsive, ejaculatory breath lines. What I found was simpler, more rudimentary. The novel begins, "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead." Kerouac eases you in, uses plainspeak to set your feat on the ground, hands on the rails, before taking you on a road trip in which you sometimes find your head in the stratosphere; but after each of those elevating moments, he falls back on his straightforward prose to ease the landing.

Conversely, Ginsberg's anthem to the anti-conformist begins (as all you TMBG fans will know), "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." All those modifiers. All that propulsion. From saw to destroyed to dragging to looking, verbs like rapids, adjectives unraveling--best, hysterical, angry--coloring the lines, quickening the pace, darkening the mood, propelling you forward at breathless speed.

Meanwhile Kerouac plods forward, one step, then another, at a pace where you can take in the sites but not exhaust yourself too quickly. You don't sprint at the start of a marathon (as if I'd know), nor does Kerouac blast from the gates in his semi-autobiographical travel novel (how's that for a literary genre?). But there was something else in Kerouac's style, something rugged, blunt. "He's been reading Hemingway," I said to myself, and I thought back to the Hemingway chapter I always think back to, the last one in A Farewell to Arms, where our first-person narrator-protagonist Henry, who has just escaped from his certain death in WWI with his nurse-lover Catherine by rowing a boat into Switzerland, reports the birth of their baby and subsequent death of Catherine. He does with with the brutal, unfiltered honesty and unadorned prose we revere Hemingway for: "It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn't stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die."

That's his love, his newborn child, the atrocities and contradictions of war hefting upon themselves and culminating in Catherine's death. The tone the narrator uses--"it did not take her very long to die"--belies the pain, but also buries it deep beneath each word. Each character in that sentence pregnant with its own duality of love and war.

But then, once Kerouac's got you firmly grounded in OtR, he heightens his prose and hits you with pyrotechnics, beat blasts of elocution. By page 8, in that most famous passage, he writes, "But then [Carlo and Dean] danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yarn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"

The energy, the phantasm, the narrative exertion and expenditure leaping after those burning beats. The percussive outpourings rival those in "Howl"-- "boxcars boxcars boxcars."

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing
              through snow toward lonesome farms in grand- 
              father night,
So I'm reading along, noticing how Kerouac navigates this Hemingway-Ginsberg continuum for rhetorical effect, from the ground to the clouds and back to the ground again, and I come across this passage on page 53: "...Come on, Sam,' [Roland Major] said to his invisible pal. 'Take the wine out of the water and let's see if it got cold enough while we fished.' Straight out of Hemingway, it was." Ah-ha! I knew it! Kerouac's been reading Hemingway (duh! you might say, skeptical reader. Who hasn't been?)! Allen Ginsberg is a character in OtR--Carlo Marx--and Kerouac himself--Sal Paradise--has been reading Hemingway.

Okay, so I've proven my point. I've done lots else this morning, but somehow I haven't touched that capstone essay. Dear blog, how will I motivate myself to do good work when I haven't this time-consuming, mandatory project hanging over me?


Get it, Toni

So I'm working on the capstone essay for my M.A. and it's about Toni Morrison, and I'm reading through Playing in the Dark looking for material to plug into my introduction, and I come across this quote: 

"Writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer. Both exercises require being alert and ready for unaccountable beauty, for the intricateness or simple elegance of the writer's imagination, for the world that imagination evokes. Both require being mindful of the places where imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision. Writing and reading mean being aware of the writer's notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability" (xi).

And I'm going, Yeah Toni. Writing and reading, for a writer, are the same thing, require the same involvement, the same set of actions, establish the same connection between imagination and language. We're always writing, composing, listening to and mulling over the words in our minds. We've all read books that we've turned around and written back to themselves. By consuming and understanding the language, letting it ring deep in our hearts, chewing on the words like sensuous candy, metaphysical mouthfuls, we've tasted ourselves, tasted humanity. Our engagement, our decision to chew, swallow, or spit, is our "response-ability."

We're all writers, y'all. We all have words and thoughts and expressions. Our bodies and the trappings we've built around us serve as textual mediums, same as a book or magazine or computer screen. Better, even. In 3-D.

And I'm thinking of Robert Olen Butler who says fiction comes from the same place from where you dream. That's the name of his book, From Where You Dream. Writing allows a writer to relay her dream to others. Only the internal censor prevents a writer from fully fleshing that dream, being open all its crevices and nuances, honestly portraying the events as they unfold in the mind. Writing lets you reach across spatial and temporal boundaries to express your human self.

Get down with your bad human self!

Then I remember a conversation I had last night with W-- at the Beer Snobbery. We got to talking about Stephen King's Thinner, where a gypsy casts a hex on an obese man and the man gets thinner and thinner until he's in danger of disappearing into nothing. Joe Montegna steps in and blows the gypsy camp to bits, and to save his daughter, the gypsy father makes a truce with the thinning man, the "white man from town." The gypsy stabs the mans hand with a knife and milks the blood into a pie. From that point, the man starts to put his weight back on, but he must get someone to eat the pie, and soon. Whoever eats the pie will face their certain demise. He goes home and feeds it to his wife who's been cheating on him with the doctor. Spoiler alert: Everybody, including the innocent daughter, dies.

There's another Stephen King story I read recently called "The Breathing Method." A woman in the 1920's learns the breathing method for labor from a doctor who's ahead of his time. People think she's whacko but she keeps huffing and puffing and when she goes into labor, on the way to the hospital, her cab skids on some ice and throws her from the vehicle. She gets decapitated by the wreckage, and the doctor runs down the steps and sees her headless body still wheezing rhythmically from it's exposed esophagus. 10 minutes after the accident, the body, still  breathing in short, rapid bursts, gives birth to the child.

Now come on. Who would let themselves write stuff like that? Or John Coffee, the Magical Negro who can cure what ails you with his magic hands and lungs full of fairy dust. I'm convinced. Stephen King has no censor. He writes quickly, outracing internal criticism, and creates these fantasies grounded in folklore and imagination that appeal to the widest audience.

I'm not saying we should all write like Stephen King--plain prose, proletariat, a "literary Big Mac"--but to turn off that censor and allow yourself to create. To be aware of language and let it speak itself, flow forth from the conduit of your body. Awareness without judgment. What are you trying to hide? It belongs to us all.


Why Bicycles are like Pens

Lately, I've been riding the house's bike to and from school for the extra exercise, fresh air, and because, when you suss it out, it doesn't actually add any time to the commute. Circling around to find a parking spot with your car, then slogging up the hill toward the Williams building, can be really stressful, like playing Whack-A-Mole on the fastest speed. You sometimes forget to breathe. But rolling up on your bicycle, helmeted, lights installed for riding at night, and parking just outside the front door feels glorious, like happy hour on Friday afternoon.

Then again, Tallahassee is not the safest cycling town on the map. We've got hardly any bike lanes and a large population of texting-distracted undergrads, as well as baby boomers who distrust cyclists, bus riders, and carpoolers--anything other than autonomous automobile drivers--as progressive socialists. I know because I subscribe to my neighborhood's email list, and you should have heard them howl about the new proposals for bike lanes and bus stops. Here's an actual message sent to our community. (Note: the names may or may not have been altered to either protect or ridicule the participants.)

Lord PriesTooMuch,
Do I have this right, Tennessee Street is too busy and the city’s answer is to close two lanes? The closed lanes will then be dedicated to bikes, the primary mode of transportation for less than 1% of the population; and to buses, the mode of transportation for which no one will give up their car.  This project is a lot like the government’s high speed rail train wreck, spend money on transportation solutions that don’t work. Unfortunately, this plan has probably progressed too far for common sense to stop what will be a self-inflicted disaster.

And that's why we need helmets and bike lights: to protect ourselves from these rogues who when driving treat pedestrians like so many arcade-game point grabs. Knock a hippie off his bike: 2 points. Hit a baby in a stroller: 5 points. Kill a man in French Town: extra life!

When I was in middle school in Orlando, my parents made me wear a helmet to ride my bike to school, which I thought was so uncool. When I'd get out of view of our house, I'd take the helmet off and hang it from the handlebars. One day, while biking up the spacious sidewalk beside a busy road, General Reese, my right knee came up and caught the helmet against the handle bar, sending me swerving off to the right and into the road. Luckily, it happened during a gap in the traffic, and I scrambled to correct my path and get back on the sidewalk before the next car came speeding head-on at 40 mph. The lesson is, helmets can only help you when you wear them on your head.

The other night, I rode home in the rain, sporting my helmet, front and rear lights flashing, wearing my backpack. My books papers stayed dry, but the front pocket where I keep pens, pencils, and gum, got wet. The next day, when I reached in for some gum, my hand came back out wet and sticky. The water and the friction from the writing utensils and the jostling and had effectively chewed the gum inside the pocket. So tonight, I washed my pens and pencils carefully with a soapy paper towel, dried them off, and remembered cringing when a woman on Hoarder's let her pen collection go. She had a barrel full, and the crew got the angle from inside the dumpster when those hundreds--maybe thousands--of pens cascaded down into the metal container. It felt like watching someone pour bottle after bottle of good beer onto the ground. I wanted to slap that person.

There's nothing like a good pen, one that feels good in your hand, writes well, and has a place for your fingers to rest. Pens help you go places, like bicycles. We should cherish them.


Do I Really Sound Like That?

Remember answering machines? Nowadays, we "check our messages" by holding down the number 1 on our cell phones and receiving bits of sound that exist somewhere in the ether. In the olden days, however, people had boxes with tiny cassette tapes connected to their land lines to record and play back phone messages. You'd walk in your house and look to see if the light on your box was blinking. Because none of us had cell phones back then, and very few of us pagers, these devices played an important role. While you were out, friends asked you to come play, sleep over. Bill collectors knew they'd be heard. Far-flung relatives sang you happy birthday.

I remember a friend's family once left an interesting greeting. It said the traditional stuff, "You've reached the Floyd's. We're not home. Leave a message." But then, at the end, it said, "and if this is Carey, we'll meet you on the north side of the gate at three-o-clock." They left that recording on there for months. They were so ingenious. A pre-cellular text message.

Other families would choreograph their greetings. Everyone would gather 'round the microphone hole and wait to say their part. "You've reached Diane, Corey, and Fido," at which point the dog would bark hello. I always wanted to have the Grateful Dead playing in the background, but mom would record over these greetings.

Sometimes, you'd leave someone a message, and then meet up with them out in the world (how did that happen before cell phones? I don't remember). When you'd walk into their house, you'd see that light blinking and remember that you had left a message. "Oh god," you'd say. "Don't play that." But your friend would, laughing cruelly, and you'd suffer through hearing your own voice through that tiny speaker. "Do I really sound like that?" you'd ask.

"Of course you do," your friend would reply.

The first time I heard myself on the answering machine, I must've been 10 or so. I realized that the voice I hear from myself, filtered through and echoing around in my head, is different from what everyone else hears. What a stunning revelation.

Recently, I wrote a book review for one of my professors, Ned, the book review editor at The Fourth Genre, a literary magazine. I knew my review was a little long, 9 or so pages, and that Ned would give me some comments and edits to help trim it down. A week later, he emailed me a track-changes version with lots of slashed out words and sentences, and many phrases rewritten. That's cool. That's good. He's the editor. That's his prerogative. Plus it helps me see where I can shorten, tighten, clarify and vivify.

But reading through some of phrases he reworded made me wonder, "Do I really sound like that?"