Sunday, March 30, 2008

B'G'D!

So we went to the store.

As you know, the choice in infant helmets is quite overwhelming these days.

Yet so important – Baby’s first helmet, and we don’t want him to look gauche!

At first, we gravitated towards the Fonda-Nella – you know, the model with its cute little layer of overlapping pentagonal polyprop plates that shift to accommodate your baby’s growing brain and the impact the world might have upon it? (Literal impact, of course!) But then Ted complained of how the design reminded him of plate tectonics, which we as devout Christians do not approve of, which in turn led to the Fonda-Nella getting the shaft.

Next, our attention turned to the no less than formidable Oei!Schoei!, which when Baby becomes Toddler also comely morphs into the darnedest lil’ tricycle helmet you’ve ever seen! Visor down, and tyke-man looks like the Terminator, I swear b’g’d! Which somehow made Ted, bless his peachy heart, feel just a tad bit threatened in his manhood. Now, hear, would I ever forget that Ted’s the True Man about the house? Like I wouldn’t let him and the boy take turns on those awful sweet breasts of mine? Like I wouldn’t!

In the course of all this oohing and aahing and measuring and hatting up Baby, our charming sales clerk mentioned there is still a horde of folks out there who dare to bare-dome it! In this day and age! I mean, what’s the alternative? Pay some illegal immigrant like fifty-seven kay to baby-proof the hood?

Finally we were introduced to the Rattler, a steel suspension cage (Real Leather Straps!) with some serious gladiatorial appeal. Baby got strapped in and banged his head against the wall as hard as he could, and he didn’t stop smiling for even a sec!

So the Rattler it was.

“Now I can finally try to bash in the little bugger’s head for real!” Ted exclaimed while extracting his Visa from his wallet. And although I knew my hubbie was, like, so totally joking, his remark served to make me upgrade our purchase to the Ultra-Deluxe model with its outward facing set of stainless spikes. Jes’ makin’ the world a safer place, one baby at a time!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

BABYLON BLUES (a fragment)

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 lies underneath the water line. The coffins are drowning. The undertakers have holes drilled into the sides, but when it rains, the coffins still go floating in the pits. You can hear them rattle at the underside of the gravestones.
That is only true, of course, for the Protestants.
The Catholics have their own peculiar rites.

*

I met her at the ACE hardware store on Oak Street. We were both eying the quickly shrinking piles of plywood.
“You look like the kinda guy that knows how to wield a hammer”, she said. She sees me often at Donna’s bar, she added. Quite possibly.
“And I bet you have a car.”

We bind the boards to the roof of my dinky Toyota. First we board up her shotgun house in Bywater, then we drive over to the Vieux Carré.
“I like your t-shirt”, I say. The front reads “Babylon”, the back says: “And on and on and on…”
She does not reply. Then, casually: “The least I can do is buy you a beer.”

The city loves to cozy up to its drowsy river. The Mississippi, soggy with the sediment of the collective dreams of this feeble continent, sways slowly -- drunkenly -- through its bed of mud and heavy metals. But not today. Today the wind whips foamy crests on the water; a dirty surf licks the levee. In the narrow window of Reverend Zombie’s Voodo Shop the Legba dolls are shaking; Erzulie stares with wide open eyes over the vast emptiness of the Quarter. The bars are closed. Pat O’Briens, Johnny White's, Molly’s, The Famous Door, The Cat’s Meow – all empty boxes of unreachable promise.

I must have a bottle of something or other on top of my fridge. And the Quarter is on higher ground than the rest of the city -- in my apartment, we will surely weather the storm.

*

The Catholics are smarter. They do not bury their loved ones. They shove them in narrow alcoves high above ground; the heat of the eternal Louisiana summer slow-cooks their dead. After a year of baking the remains are shaken into a cotton bag and thrust to the back of the niche, to make room for the newly deceased – perhaps it is cooler in the back.

Once I too stood at the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. I knocked three times on the hollow cover; with her gold-rimmed lipstick my girlfriend drew three crosses on the wall. We left the lipstick there in the dirt, a meager offering; we hoped Marie would like the color -- Rouge Sensation. Apparently she didn’t: The baby never came and my girlfriend packed her suitcase.

*

Did the rain start? The pale light in the room is compatible with the hypothesis of rain: softly filtered, phlegmatic and pure, a study for an alchemy in blue. The CD player hiccups. The lamp on the nightstand flickers. The power plant delivers its final sob: Girl you gotta love your man.

She grabs a cigarette and gathers the sheet around her; she steps onto the balcony. The windows are nailed shut; the door is still open. The very last board, meant to close us in completely, bangs against the railing. I step into my boxer shorts and press myself against her, the wind a hot lush breath against our necks. We fit well together. How often, how closely, how warmly can strangers fit together.

There’s another shipwrecked couple on the other side of the street. They wave at us from their balcony – forty-somethings, the woman sports a motherly layer of fat, the man a ponytail. They did not need a sheet; they did not need no boxer shorts.
And while our neighbors merrily proceed with their copulation, we raise our eyes to the heavens and watch the fraying clouds nibble at the fraying moon. There come the first drops of the fraying rain. Time to hammer those last nails.
When I am done, I slither down the drainpipe. My bare feet land in a puddle of glimmering slime. I run upstairs and slide next to her in bed. The darkness is palpable, the night a bath of ink.

Why me, I ask. I am a dime a dozen.
Why Noah?, she asks. After the Lord commanded His flood, He needed a righteous man, just one man, one righteous man and his companion. It didn’t matter that the Righteous One was a drunkard – he was steadfast, watchful, gentle, and firm.
You are my righteous man. You are steadfast, watchful, gentle, and firm.
She promises me this: If by accent the world would drown again tonight, the two of us will populate the earth.

*

The rain rages against the plywood. A hellish wind – this is no whistling, no howling, no wailing -- this is a throbbing, thumping sound, all the fury of the West-African continent condensed into one gigantic boiling, pounding fist; here comes the fuming black devil Satan tearing up the town with hurried, bloody claws.
In St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the Protestants are dancing. The catholic souls take a breather from the heat.
I take her in my arms.
Life is what happens when you stop asking questions.
The wind is shaking the foundation; the rain is thrashing the walls.
Tomorrow, I say, all of this will be over.
She agrees.
Tomorrow, little boy, everything will be over.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

HULLO

Hullo.
I am your new neighbor.
I wash my car in the driveway, wearing nothin' but a tiny pair of flipflops and really tight Speedos.
If I like you, you will notice.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

IT SINGS WHILE IT BREAKS APART

This happened about two years ago.

I stepped out of my door, late for a breakfast appointment. I crossed the street in between two banks of heaped-up snow and walked past the synagogue. A young man sat on his knees on the icy pavement. He was fumbling with the latches of a guitar case. He had curly hair and a goatee and the look of slight bewilderment oftentimes observed in Syracuse residents after five solid months of freeze.

He stopped me with his hand.

"Step back, good sir", he said. "This is going to be ugly."

I inquired via eyebrow; he answered.

"I promised I would smash my guitar in front of the temple. And I will."

So I stepped back and watched as he carefully removed his dreadnought from its case. He held it gently, his hands high at the neck, the bottom of the box resting quietly on the concrete. He simply stood there for a second, still and meditative, his fingers by force of habit caressing the wood -- a baseball player becoming one with his bat. Then, in a blinding flash, he raised the instrument and smashed it down. Hard. As hard as he could. Then he raised it again. And smashed it down as hard as he could. And again. And again.

An acoustic guitar looks like a frail thing.
It is not.
It takes force and determination to break open the seams, to crack the boards.
And it sings while it breaks apart.
At first resounding like a gong, it soon screams like a bag of broken bones. Then it cracks and it's all dry splinters.

That's when I left. This was way too intimate a spectacle.

But ugly? It wasn't.

My breakfast companions only half-believed me when I told them the story. They wanted to know if I had asked the man why. What were his motives?
The thought to ask had crossed my mind, I said.
But I decided I did not want to know.

Sometimes the sheer beauty of a gesture is only marred by explanation.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

DOGGONE FORTE

All in all a productive lunch meeting with My Agent at South City Kitchen. She had the Open-Faced Awkward Turtle Sandwich; I had the Pan-Seared Pork Prostate -- Southern cuisine, dare I say, at its relaxed/finessed best.
We went over a few of our current projects.
My Agent still has high hopes for Jesus is Alive!, a harried piece of expressionist writing in which some black kid from English Ave truly-really-honest-to-God turns out to be Christ Reincarnate, except that He gets accidentally shot and killed by the Atlanta Police for obeying the traffic rules -- for Those who drive under the speed limit and signal Their turns are Those Who have Something to Hide, and one cannot be Cautious Enough. When a Deputy Chief is sent to the morgue to plant a gun in the dead kid's pockets, the Messiah's slab in the morgue turns out to be empty, and All Hell Breaks Loose. Or not: it's still a toss-up whether the book will climax in a gory zombiefest or turn into a deeply spiritual story of Personal Redemption. I'm confident we'll figure that out before going to press.
The both of us also quite excited about Amanda: Woodward!, a farcical Bildungsroman set in the porn milieu, and My Agent was so right in pointing out we could go mainstream, with still plenty of steamy encounters, if we retitle it Holly: Woodward!
Unfortunately shelved is my self-help trilogy that was to appear under the Baffle House imprint. The first installment -- The Fuck?!?, A Sex Manual for the Utterly Clueless -- is all but written; the second installment -- The Hell?!?, Christian Rebirthing for the Utterly Clueless -- is in its final draft; it's the content of the third volume -- The Heck?!? -- that we simply cannot wrap our heads around.
Also shelved is now my screenplay Gaylord! -- which My Agent unhelpfully called nothin' but a swift-footed tranny fantasy. She is right. I should not let my own psycho-sexual development get in the way of the veritable potboiling that is -- as I admit here humbly -- my doggone forte.
Chef Dean Dupuis, in the meantime, outdid himself with the desserts: Lard-Fried Chocolate Bunnies, Stuffed with Sugared Sweetbreads for her; Bacon-Encrusted Pecan Torte Smothered in Ham-Smoked Buttercream for him.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

My very first post on this semblance of a blog was a translation of my contribution to a collection of brief pieces written (or updated or excerpted) on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. Here in the States sometimes also equated with the War on/against Terror. (Yes, our government is fighting ... a noun. Not people. War against Terrorists is too long a designation to digitally project onto on a virtual banner waving behind Big Poppa Bear Bill O'Reilly. Plus, putting it that way makes much clearer what we should be doing: Get the terrorists and bring them to justice, but then we would have to acknowledge that terrorists are a relatively small set of individuals, not a[ny] country.)
All contributions to that collection can now be found online.
Most, including mine, are in Dutch; a few are in French and Arabic and a few (e.g., by Dahlia Wasfi, Haifa Zangana, Harold Pinter, and Tariq Ali) in English.
None of us, it appears, are very happy about this War thing. Which should also make us think. Can we find writers and true intellectuals (BPPBO'R does not qualify, of course) who, at this juncture in time, would still argue that the war was worth it, good for humanity, a turning point for the better in history, a glowing example for our children and grandchildren to emulate? Five-hundred billion dollars (and counting) well spent?
'Bericht aan de bevolking' translates roughly as 'to whom it may concern'.
This concerns us all.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

THE GAME

Today, some dude (One of the things I love about teaching at an engineering school is that some of the students are so clearly dudes. Not in any Budweiserian sense; more in the fake-flaky laid-back "my last haircut was seven months ago and that is not a beard, it's just carefully studied negligence" meaning of the term. Inner dorks get snuggly embraced here, although I also notice that the outer dorks do not get hugged so often. Other big advantage: You never get hit on by students. Like, never.) introduced me to The Game. (Or maybe I just made it all up. Long day. Who can tell oneself apart from one's dudes, after a long day following a sleepless night on account of trying to work one's way through all the implications of an Alan Lightman novel?) The metaphorical unshaven dude mentioned he picked it up from some other dude at MIT. (Or maybe he made that up too. Just as I maybe made him up. That's a double layer of fictiousness for you.)

Oh. The game!
Here is how it goes: Once you get introduced to The Game -- which is, for you, RIGHT NOW -- you are in it. And next time you think about the game, you are out. Simple as that. (Now that you got bumped out of the game, you can spend the next year of your life trying to get Heidi Klum to acknowledge that you are out. Bonus points if she gives you three kisses for your trouble.) One extra rule: You now have to announce clearly to any bystanders that you are officially out of the game. Then you have to explain to them what that means. In doing so, you introduce them to The Game, so they are in, until, of course, they think about it, which kicks them out.

What I like about the game: (a) It is the opposite of Zen. As soon as you become aware that you are playing The Game, you're out. Slog on in ignorance, my friends; mindfulness will exile you forever. (For, I forgot to mention that, you can only play The Game once.)
What I do not like: (b) It surely lasts too short to be interesting. One tiny snicker of a thought and you're done. It doesn't hurt at all. Therefore, I would like to introduce a 24-hour grace period. This has the effect that the player will create some awareness of being in The Game, and some attachment to that rare status, so that when s/he thinks about The Game 24:00:01 after being introduced to it, the pain cuts deep.
What I also like: (c) It is soooo easy to cheat. Especially with regard to the I-am-out announcement. Nobody can check on this. Any witness, say, of your induction cannot ask you for your status, for in doing so that person would, were you still in, cause you to think about The Game and thereby force you out. So, yeah, (d) for all I know, everyone is in The Game, except for you, dear reader, in about 23 hours and fifty-seven minutes. And, oh boy/girl, will you be unhappy then!

WOW! NOMINATED!

Shortlist Announced for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2008

Arts Council England today announced the shortlist for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2008, in association with Champagne Taittinger.

Six contenders from over 90 entries have been shortlisted for the prize, worth £10,000. They are:
o Castorp by Pawel Huelle, translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones from the Polish, published by Serpent’s Tail
o Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German, published by Quercus
o Gregorius by Bengt Ohlsson, translated by Silvester Mazzarella from the Swedish, published by Portobello Books
o The Model by Lars Saabye Christensen, translated by Don Barlett from the Norwegian, published by Arcadia Books
o The Way of the Women by Marlene van Niekerk, translated by Michiel Heyns from the Afrikaans, published by Little, Brown
o Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen, translated by Paul Verhaeghen from the Dutch, published by Dalkey Archive Press

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize celebrates an exceptional work of fiction by a living author which has been translated into English from another language and published in the United Kingdom in the last year.

This year’s shortlist sees a strong show of European authors alongside South African author Marlene van Niekerk. The eclectic themes encompassed in the shortlist includes: a witty foray into the minds of two intellectual giants; the sinister story of an uninspired artist who discovers his sight is failing; a first world war ‘prequel’ to Mann’s The Magic Mountain; a tale of post-Apartheid South Africa told through folklore, diary entries and songs; an epic story of 20th century history spanning Einstein’s lost theorem and the Nazi legacy; and a fictional act of redemption for an archetypal villain of Swedish literature.

Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature Strategy, Arts Council England said:
“The judges had a hard task getting down to the final six, but have chosen a shortlist of very accomplished books that demonstrate a huge variety of ideas, stories and adventurous writing from around the world.

“The authors’ ability to introduce readers to the rich diversity of life illustrates why making international writing in translation available to everyone is so important.”

Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of The Independent said:

"This is a shortlist of tremendous breadth and depth. It offers excellence and excitement across many kinds of fiction, from period comedy and psychological drama to historical epic. The range and quality of these books is a tribute, not only to the talent of their authors, but to the skill and commitment of the translators and publishers who help to bring the best of the world's fiction to readers in the UK."


--- Gotta love the sponsor. Literature should sparkle, right? I guess we now know what will be drunk at the award ceremony; the suspense is in WHO will be drunk.

Monday, March 3, 2008

THAT OTHER THING I DO

Cognitive psychology is a beautiful, never-ending enterprise. To lose yourself in the details of the mind, in phenomena that lasts for only a few milliseconds and then dissolve into the great melting pot of consciousness without leaving a trace, it's like trying to guess the number and function of the cogs of a tiny machine encased in a steel box that has been welded shut, just by shaking it. There's a warning sticker on the outside of the mind: Warranty void if opened. No user-serviceable parts inside. Yes, this is the life! This is the real deal; it's like getting a chemistry set for Christmas, but someone forgot to include the instructions.


-- from Omega Minor