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Tuesday 1/14/20

This blog launched in June 2018. The same month I began composing stories at a faster rate than any time in my life, including from March 2012-December 2012 when I wrote sixty works of short fiction (and sixty works of nonfiction simultaneously). The blog, word count-wise, is the size of seven full-length books. I write this journal as books. I write this journal for a lot of reasons. Today on Downtown we discussed the blog, now that 500 individual entries have been posted. I tried to be thoughtful.

Last week on Downtown I discussed girl groups, Sam Cooke, the Beatles. Over the weekend The Daily Beast published this 2000 word piece I wrote on Netflix's Dracula series as a possible post-sexist excursion into the world of the Count.

Over the last three days, I have walked three miles each day and climbed the Bunker Hill Monument five times each day. Yesterday I was the only one in there for the entire time-which has never happened before over five climbs--and today I mostly had the obelisk to myself. This morning I completed the 7500 word essay begun the other day about moving, called "Mow the Tiles." A few more lines:

What I wrote when we lived in Illinois was quite dreadful. On the embarrassment meter, as work, the scores would be imposingly high, but were I to revisit those words now, I suspect I would not see them as attempts at stories and poems, per se, so much as processes behind the making of stories and poems (for I had yet to realize that my stories would also be poems, that I would have no need for outright poems), tiles being mowed. I’d see how listening to albums helped me realize a song can teach you much about structuring a story. Writing a song was not about lyrics; a lot of it is shape-based, for both music and narratives on the page.

Did almost everything about moving suck? Yes, everything about Chicago sucked for me, and I am not stating that here was an excellent way to go, nor advising anyone else to go the way I did. You don’t want to be alone, you don’t want to be friendless. But let’s say you are—for a time. Or life has gone—again, for a spell—in a manner akin to as if it had pistol-whipped you. A lot of people will try to wait out those periods. A lot of people give in to the pain of them. They never once more get whole. It’s like a war injury, a limp or breathing condition—too much damn mustard gas—that never goes away.

I was back East, out of college—but by only a few years—when my father died of a heart attack in Chicago. He was at a work meeting, sitting in his chair, and he collapsed. I envision his face going flat against the table, but I do not know that it did. My dad had instigated a CPR training program at his company. I’m not aware if that is why the people at the meeting were able to keep him alive. Probably not—I am sure some knew CPR anyway. But I thought about it.

He never regained consciousness. I flew out. My mother and I held his hands as he died in the hospital. I smoked back then. The last time I smoked was that morning. Without my dad, and without my dad to be there for my mom, Kerrin’s situation got worse and worse. She struggled to make friends more than ever, ran with bad crowds, doubted herself, fought so much anxiety, had so little self-esteem. Gateway drugs gave way to heroin. She overdosed a number of times. My mom tried everything, all kinds of clinics. Kara and I tried to tell her, get her to see, that this was not her fault, that she was doing everything she could for our sister, but that it had to come from her.

Opioids are an evil thing. Take them once, they will probably take you forever. They can take parts of the people around you, too, who love you, whom you love. They are even more adroit in taking those people when those people are alone, which my mother, in some ways, was, without my father. She had us kids, she had her friends, but it is not the same.

I went to Chicago again after my mother found my sister’s body in her room. She was thirty-three. By then my mother and I didn’t really talk. I was battling my own kind of hell in my industry, and had gone through a divorce the likes of whose plot points of betrayal, treachery, and design, one would not encounter in ten thousand opera plots. I threw myself into my work, which I had already been thrown into for a long time, but I went to another level, then more, then exponentially more; and I got better and better, and more productive, more accomplished, by the day, could do things I never thought I could do, did not think any human could do, had never imagined that a human could do. Write a novel in a week while six disparate pieces—something on sports, on film, on music, on art, a work of fiction—were published, and create ten other pieces that same week while sending out 125 letters to people who resented you more because of the successes you were achieving all of the time in their gated-system where you are supposed to be a kind of person, from a kind of school, who is just like they are, with the same cronies, the same half-assed logs to roll down the same meaningless hills.

I wrote 1600 words of that piece yesterday, as well as the entirety of a new short story called "Polio Pools," and a piece for JazzTimes on a box set of Hank Mobley's Blue Note recordings made between the years of 1963-1970. Some lines from the Mobley piece:

Alternatively, here is a boxed set opening a door on reality: Mobley was a tenor genius dogged by left-handed compliments, but if you think there was any member of the tenor pantheon with whom he could not hang, you need a better official hagiography. Having decamped from Davis’s band, Mobley retooled his sound throughout 1962. Previously his attack had been of an aerated variety, vaporous tendrils of notes enveloping you like that pie smoke tempting hungry tramps from windowsills in early cartoons. From 1963 on, Mobley extolled a harder edge, a whip of rhythm that snapped and asserted, dispensing with the specter of blandishment.

Even Mobley disciples know little of his work post-1965, a reason this box carries max value. In the autumn after the Summer of Love, Mobley blazed with one of his best units, featuring Jackie McLean on alto; his perfect percussive partner in cerebral hoodoo in Billy Higgins on drums; and a kind of fiery, post-bop brother in Blue Mitchell on trumpet. They waxed Hi-Voltage, and note the sparking kick (in thick, jute-like analogue) of “Flirty Gerty,” which sounds like a Larry Williams title and resounds as rhythm and blues from the far side of Saturn. Mobley was earthen, but he could get futuristic.

A Caddy for Daddy from 1965 ought to have been a kind of brand-maker as the Mobley set that made inroads to pop culture. Its prevailing groove is as danceable as any on Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, which is apt, given the trumpeter’s presence. Morgan is clearly stoked by how Mobley thinks, a constant theme of these disparate line-ups. One listens to Mobley, but one also listens to other players listening to Mobley. Like Andrew Hill, who might seem more foil than ally, but their harmonic interplay throughout October 1963’s No Room for Squares date is akin to a stylistic dance-off between Stravinsky (avant-gardist) and Handel (tunemaster), highlighting intoxicating overlap.

"Polio Pools" is told by a woman, looking back when she was a girl. There was a dog park near her house, at the start of a forest, sort of cut out of the forest. If you walked beyond the dog park, you encountered what had been a sanctuary for people with polio, that is now overgrown. Not many people know about the overgrown sanctuary, but this girl did. She describes two swimming pools, because swimming in shallow water provided comfort for people afflicted with polio. One pool is dried up, the other has water, and she swims in it, thinking she's contracting the disease, then gets in bed with her older sister, thinking she is giving it to her. As an adult she spends her Sunday nights at cafes, before she is married, as she is during the time when she's telling us this story. And at the cafes she looks at photos of her sister's kids, and we learn one of her reasons, which is quite surprising. She wasn't sure what polio was, thinking it akin to leprosy. She's going to have kids of her own, and she's worried she might pass something down to them. Her husband laughs, tells her science doesn't work that way. But he asks what she was trying to do back then anyway. And she explains. And it is a very surprising answer. Some lines from the story:

In winter, on Sunday nights, before I was married, I’d come home from a café where I was reading and put on my sweats, which meant I would not be going out again, though I would be displeased with myself. The shades had not gone up in years, and I cocooned.

The café was a meeting undertaking—meaning, perhaps I would have cause to say something to a man who was also reading. Our patter could be revisited the next Sunday night, if these visits were part of his routine—or if he altered other plans to see if I would be present again—and we would go from there.

Darkness fools you in winter, coming in at half past three. By six it’s long established. Like a paved road—you never question when it was dirt. Darkness rushes you.

In high school I would get in bed with my sister when I felt I had to be close to somebody. She would be leaving for college and I still had three years left. Later she’d send me photos of her kids as I sat in the café before I put on my sweats.

I looked at the photos more than I read my book. Same kids I had seen thousands of times. People would usually say millions of times, but it was not millions. I’m not sure how long you’d have to know someone to see them millions of times. I was popular and she was not, though she did everything better. You probably never could see someone enough times that it was really millions.

We had a dog park near our house on a hill set back in the woods. The dog park was more like the semi-cleared part of a forest. You could keep walking beyond the sound of barking behind you. There had been a sanctuary here for people with polio. I did not know what polio was when I was in high school. I thought it was like leprosy.

The sanctuary was overgrown by the woods. It felt like a secret. I liked knowing. Few did. The people with polio went here because they could not be around regular people is how I understood it. And they swam. In shallow water pools. There were two. Both were rimmed with vines and leaves, but only one still had water, and I would go after my parents were asleep, after my sister Kim was asleep.

On Sunday I wrote another short story, in full, called "Eleven Watermelons." It's about a woman with a seven-year-old kid, and the kid comes home each day and he has these very adult things going on. He has to fire people at work, he has a new girlfriend, it looks like he might have raped her, he's married, he has kids, he gets divorced, he fights for custody, he has bypass surgery. Again, there is no story like it, and the end is a total surprise. Some words from it:

Leigh was chopping celery when her seven-year-old boy Matthew walked into the kitchen. He looked spent, as if he had come off of a sugar high or reached a peak of excitement about something but was now on his way down.

“I have a nasty head on me, mom,” Matthew said, which was his way of saying he felt a migraine coming on. Leigh chopped celery in 4/4 time. She imagined a hard bop number playing as she did so—a tune by Dexter Gordon. She diced onions in waltz time; Bill Evans was playing then. Matthew had a head for jazz.

“How is my little man?”

He did not enjoy the appellation but did not wish to be short with his mother. She was always chopping those damn vegetables. She seemed to need soothing. Anyway, it was not his place. But he could be polite.

“Okay, so there is this girl at school, Melissa—“

“Go on.”

Obviously, he was going on. Another reminder why he wanted to keep these conversations brief.

“Long story short, she’s really into me, I’m really into her, she thinks we can build something, and I don’t disagree. I’m going to let it play out. I wish I could talk to dad about this.”

Leigh kept chopping. Dexter Gordon ceased playing in her head. She chopped sans meter, rubato-style. “Me too,” she said. “Lie down. She how you feel after.”

“About talking to you?”

“No. Your head.”

The next time Leigh remembered Matthew coming home from school he said he had some choices to make. Kids were really important to Melissa. He didn’t know where he stood on the matter. Plus, there had been some confusion after a party. She wanted to hook up at first, but she didn’t later—during, in fact, was when she changed her mind, and he thought she was being playful maybe and anyway it was too late to stop.

“So I have been trying to smooth that over. Trust me, she wanted it. She was ready.”

Leigh understood Matthew to be quite dramatic. He was a talented thespian. The school did plays. They were progressive plays. She appreciated running lines with him.

“Did you hurt her?”

“Nah. By the end, it wasn’t unlike you and dad.”

Leigh was not sure what that meant. If he was referring to the end end, or maybe they had been too loud when they were intimate. One time she yelled out “rock me” when she pretended to climax, which was horrifyingly embarrassing for her to hear, let alone her kid.

“How much do you miss dad?” Matthew asked.

“A lot.”

“No, I mean if you could quantify it. On a scale of one to ten. Or fruit sizes. Grapes to cantaloupes.”

“Eleven watermelons.”

“Sucks, bro,” Matthew concluded, and walked off. He said “sucks, bro” often lately.

On Saturday I completed another story, "Orange Needles." Sent it to the publicist at Harper's. I've already put up excerpts. Strong. Today I began another story, and I have it, I have it all in my head, and I am sitting on something major. I love the feeling of having it, of knowing I have it, before I have formally moved my fingers as many times as they will be moved. The story is called "Terms We Are Coming." Some sample lines:

It is said we ask more questions as children than we do at any time in our lives, which seems a bad way to live, but I remember asking one question more than any other when I had been a child, and that was if my parents named my sister Lestiah because she’d be dead. Was that why she got a fancy name and they named me Adrianna, which was not basic but still sub-level, comparatively.

We did lots of puzzles—so many golden giraffes and sapphire seas—and they said her skull would be like puzzle pieces and I was not sure if that meant I would play with it. She’d only be available for a short time. Few hours. A day. Maybe a week. I heard my father tell my mom that she might not even see both the sun and the moon but it would be nice if she did. We shouldn’t do it at all, then, I said, my head up against my mother’s stomach, as though it were a seashell with better answers. They said a lot of families wouldn’t, and I did not know why ours had to be different.

But I was most worried I would like my sister. I formed deep attachments. I could do it with a toy. My first teachers. You would have thought they were my parents except that I didn’t love them. My sister would not have all of the parts of her skull, thus negating the efficacy of the puzzle reference. No one does a puzzle if they know there are missing pieces. Shouldn’t do a sister either, went my logic, though “Come to term” was as familiar to me as “I know you are but what am I.”

When it was really medical, it meant I would have a sister for a few hours, a day, perhaps a week. When it was not medical, it got pluralized. Plurals have a way of making things worse. It is not like terms come to you. They wait knowing it will be hard for you to arrive at them. “What will it eat?” I asked. “She will be nursed,” my mom said, and I thought how quickly and much life changes in a letter or two. I said “okay” instead of nothing.

What this means is that I have composed, in full, fifty-nine short stories since writing "Fitty" in July 2019. (At least ten others--but it's more than that--are in various states of completion.) There is no run of productivity and art-making like this, and it was but one of many things I have done over the interval. It's all there. It's all true. And what is happening to that person is also all true. What publishing is doing to that person, that person alone who can even approach doing what he does, is all true. I've published five pieces since Christmas. All kinds of pieces. By pieces I don't mean anything on this blog. I mean a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Daily Beast piece, etc. I pitched three op-ed ideas to The Wall Street Journal. Two pertained to the baseball Hall of Fame, one a fool who works for The New York Times. I should pitch something about cheating.

Yesterday at the Starbucks the barista said to me, "I have to give you credit, you're always reading." I had a copy of Dostoevsky's The Idiot with me. He said it like I weathered punishment well, and I wanted to add that it wasn't like I was reading anything by Blake Butler or Mark Doten as a form of moronic in an attempt to try and look smart by reading stuff that no one in human history could ever enjoy. But this is what has become of reading. The association of it as something boring, painful, a total slog. I will get people reading again. Even if they are just reading me. There is certainly so much of it that they could spend their life reading no one else, and all of it would be different, still. But I am going to be the one person who gets people reading again, and comments like the one the barista made to me will not be so very common going forward. Nice guy, though. I like him.

I am stuffed up and my throat is scratchy. I cannot get sick. I was vigilantly conscious of my sounds in the Monument the last two days. I fight to keep going. I fight to get beyond thousands of people who hate me and want me to get nowhere. I write works of art, with ease, before the sun comes up, before they wake up. I fight some more. I put up some lines on here. I do more in two weeks--before we even get into the quality of what I do--than they will do in thirty years. Could do. More range than they could ever imagine. Then I walk to another town, and I run up and down and obelisk that has 294 stairs, and I sweat, it drips off of me, and I do these climbs solely so my heart can be healthy and I can fight this battle, make more art, keep going, and eventually end this system of hate and bigotry, and get people reading again. I don't know. I was just more conscious, hearing my breath echoing, my footsteps echo, of my dedication, the historical singularity of this dedication-. But it is just one of reasons why I am going to prevail.


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