Saturday, July 01, 2006


When I was a child, my favorite magazine was the now defunct Omni. As a repository of science fact, science fiction, and the occasional foray deep into questionable scientific ventures like ufology and cryptozoology, it, along with Scientific American and 3-2-1 Contact, served as the template for my dreams.


On the way to buy coffee, I started thinking about the barista at the store we frequent. He's slightly older than myself and scheduled for exploratory surgery over the weekend. Quickly, he is learning how heavy a word like malignant might feel or how light the word benign can be. I hope he isn't forced to twist his tongue around words like "cyclophosphamide" or "doxorubicin."


I never read fiction as a child, even though I remember countless hours at the local library under my father’s watch. I always wandered to the non-fiction section of children's books and perused the wildlife sections—focusing inevitably on the section reserved for snakes. Freudians might have you believe this had something to do with sex. Personally, I wonder how Freud could have failed to notice the endless fascination most young boys have with those creatures that make their parents squirm. Perhaps, my obsession had more to do with learning to face fear.


After a fairly long conversation with the barista, where I offered the best platitudes I could manage and did my best, simply, to listen, the conversation followed a trail of cigarette smoke back to his days in college. Cigarettes were sold in the cafeteria. He'd studied International Relations, but money ran dry a semester short of graduating. I told him he should finish—take a year of evening classes at one of the schools around here, then look for a sales job.


One day, when there were still swings on the set behind the brick apartment complex where I grew up, I sat on one of those blue plastic swings talking to my friend. We were, I assured him, going to be scientists. We could work in the same lab. But we both needed to study hard. I was, I think, 11.

He's an electrician now. I'm a writer.


On the way home, I thought about the barista again, stung a bit by his absence—even though I expected it today. He was having surgery. The lump on his shoulder was biopsied. The spot on his chest will be the subject of a CT scan in a few days.

I drove the usual route home, singing along to a pop song, and smoking another cigarette. I'm not certain when I decided to become a doctor, but I know when I changed my mind. I dropped chemistry my first semester of college. I just couldn't understand basic solution chemistry.


In fleeting moments, I wonder how much longer it would be even vaguely feasible to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. I wonder what life was like for William Carlos Williams, and if he thought, even for a moment, that the aims of his two professions are sometimes the same: to help us with our fears and to comfort us when no help can be had.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Lately Blues

Outside slivers of lightning divide the sky and cool, cool rain tumbles, intermittently, on the sidewalks and stalks of wild grass in our overgrown lawn. Dixie, the Jack Russell terrier whose lineage we’ve begun to suspect, is laying on the spread out comforter, her head propped near the base of the faux arts-and-craft torchiere near my office closet. Archie, the sickly Italian Greyhound who has inexplicably stopped coughing, is sprawled on his back on the sofa in the living room next to my wife, who is watching one or another decorating show.

Now, the rain is nothing more than a few drops of dew on the yew bushes that line the front porch. The neighborhood is as quiet as a daycare at naptime. The murmur of traffic on far off streets drifts along with the whispers of crickets.

Where have I been?

It has been three days since I sat here contemplating the shape of my night, thinking of poetry. Since then, I've struggled through the barrage of acronyms, jargon, split infinitives, dangling participles, and comma splices that is copyediting; I've attended a baseball game where the oldest professional franchise in the country lost to a cellar-dwelling team from Kansas City; and I've almost slammed my head against the wrought-iron patio furniture with enough force to jar myself out of the moss-covered ditches where my novel currently festers—not that I recommend or actually practice anything resembling self-flagellation (other than copyediting).

On the other hand, here is what I have not done lately: I have not managed to write a poem; to clean out the sink or my coffee pot, both of which are becoming threatening enough that I may leave the light on in the kitchen over night; to mow the lawn, which is now sprouting wildflowers, clovers, and toadstools; to do a load of laundry for myself; to venture forth into the wilderness of Cincinnati to see live music at the best festival the city holds each year; to shop with my wife for enough groceries to supplement my all-cereal diet; to shave my head again before 3/4-inch strands revolt against gravity with posture more perfect than most of my body can manage.

More and more, I'm realizing that such sacrifices are simply part of the writing life. There is only so much time in the day, after all, and, like 80% of the world, I enjoy sleeping and watching the World Cup—often simultaneously. Consequently, I make choices, every day, about what I want to accomplish. Often enough, even with those choices, I don't accomplish what I set out to do, and unlike most aspiring writers, I don't, at the moment, need to work 40 hours a week. More, the goals I do set and sometimes reach are—compared to corporate work—minimal. If I write a total of 1,500 words in a single day, including this project, I'm thrilled. I'll stroll around the house as though nothing could ever be wrong (until tomorrow), smiling in what my wife must think resembles a creepy imitation of a beatific smile on the lips of a saint painted by Titian.

Yet, I think, the sacrifices a writer must make run deeper than what I've managed to communicate so far. Often enough, when I think I should be tapping away at my keyboard, furrowing my brow to find the next line break, I'll waste minute after a minute checking a variety of email accounts, hoping for a bit of email that isn't an advertisement for Viagra or a thinly veiled attempt by a Nigerian twenty-something to convince me to buy him a Cadillac. Despite the constant presence of two dogs who are almost as attached to me as they are to sleep and the company of my wife for most of the week, I still find this lifestyle lonely. I still long to be somewhere else—like a cocktail party where the only sound that rises above the chatter of conversation is the clinking of martini glasses.

Yet, if asked to imagine a perfect day, there would be words upon words firing the synapses in my brain, shooting electrical impulses up and down my spine. There would be the constant click of the keypad clattering on in time to the swirling sounds of recorded guitar that fill my office.

I contradict myself, I know. Sometimes, happiness is a contradiction you understand.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Real Spaces That Aren't There

What has happened to the day? Already it's late—far later than I suspected it was. Yet my wife is still awake for some peculiar reason. And she's cleaning. Perhaps someone has laced Cincinnati's water supply with a mind-altering substance of some sort. If this were so, the streets outside would be brimming with panic-stricken zombies, would it not?

Outside, instead, the Ohio streets are quiet. The crickets chirrup rhythmic intonations into the night. Our air conditioner whirls away, its slightly off-center fan rattling with each revolution. A jet, from departure point unknown, passes overhead on its way to the sprawling international airport in Northern Kentucky that my wife sometimes vanishes to for three or four days.

I'm really not sure what became of the day. My wife, at one point, managed to convince me to embrace procrastination for the sake of a little nostalgia in the shape of the first Harry Potter film. Business remains undone and a handful of chores—like mowing the lawn, changing the oil in our car, and scaling a small mountain of dishes—seem as though they might sprout arms, legs, and a baseball bat and threaten to smash my kneecaps up if I don't straighten out my act.

I did, however, spend an inordinate amount of time on If you've never visited, it is an interesting site that offers a workshop-like environment where you can critique poems, stories, screen plays, and myriad other artistic works and peruse comments on your own work. The range of talent and experience is very, very impressive. You'll find, on occasion, professional writers looking to hone this or that side project. Indeed, I believe several published novelists are active on the site. In addition, you'll find numerous people who have not had the opportunity to study the craft—either through their own reading or through a writing program.

Like an academic workshop, one of the best things about such a site (and there are myriad others out there if you look) is the practice of reading and commenting. You have the opportunity to develop your own critical skills while, hopefully, helping someone else do the same. For me, I tend to find the critiques I offer others far more helpful than any advice I receive on a particular submission because, well, not every comment proves useful. You might, for example, read comments from a reviewer who doesn't know what a zinnia is, and inexplicably, doesn't decide to look it up. More, such sites do not rely on people who will be graded for their ability to comment on your work. Unlike a class at a local college or a community-based workshop, no one on the site is actually obliged to comment on your poems. Consequently, you end up with a mere handful of reviews—of varying quality.

The worst thing about such sites, however, is the potential for procrastination that they represent. Chatting on discussion boards or flipping through a variety of poems and stories (that aren't yet polished enough to be published) can whittle away at writing time almost as fast as an evening with DVDs and a large bucket of popcorn.

All in all, however, there may be better sites out there (feel free to leave suggestions), but I like Zoetrope. I keep my expectations in check and try to limit the amount of time spent on such a site (i.e., not writing). I think, with such an approach, it's a valuable tool, as long as I remember that my name, not reviewer X, will travel with any poem I write.

After all, if I agreed with everything some poet or poetry student told me, my brain would be muddled mush by now—nothing more than a breakfast for Ohio-based zombies.