Friday, December 19, 2008

Visiting Writer: Emily Dressler

Emily Dressler obtained her MFA in 2008 and teaches writing courses at the University of Akron. Emily was copy editor for the Buchtelite as well as editor of the Akros Review for a number of years. Emily served a brief stint at Brown Mackie College and the International Institute. She is currently a fiction editor for the national journal, Barn Owl Review. Emily was runner up in The Atlantic Monthly college fiction contest and was recognized as a Coulter Emerging Writer by the University of Akron. Emily's story "The Bloody Nose" will appear in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. Emily lives in Kent with her boyfriend Rob, cat Potato, and turtle, Spike. For a brief time Emily cared for a black baby squirrel. Emily was a vegetarian, but because she was too poor to afford to discriminate, she now considers herself a Freegan—someone who prefers free food*

Matt pointed out that his brother's turtle is named Soup. Emily felt this was a superior name.

Emily read the story "The Drought." The story was one in a series of stories following a central character, Helen, through childhood, young womanhood, and eventually, adulthood. Emily emphasized that the collection was not a novel and while perhaps the storyline would be more complete if it were conceived as such, she's not ready to write a novel, nor does she want to think of the Helen stories as a collection aspiring to be a novel.

"The Drought" follows Helen during the summer after her mother moves out. It is a story that has both a first kiss and a dead body. Helen spends a lot of her time with a boy named Alan, with whom she shares the kiss. They swim often in a pond behind the Edgerly's house. It is here where the kiss happens; it is here where Helen and Alan view Mr. Edgerly hanging from a tree, socks inside out. "It's not a mystery story," Emily said. Sometimes people stop loving for no reason at all, whether they stop loving a spouse the way Helen's mom stopped loving, or the way Mr. Edgerly stopped loving life itself.

Tony thought the awkwardness of Helen and Alan's first kiss was very romantic.

Emily talked about how she came up with the story. She admitted the spark came partially from reading two plays: one called "The Quare Fellow," which made her think of the phrase "hangman's daughter."

"It stuck with me," Emily said. Another play gave her the image of a man waiting by a hearth. Emily admits that the creative process is mysterious and urged the fiction students to use their own method of storytelling: "Even if it isn't a strategy, if it works for you, go with it."

Tony liked the story, and admitted that Emily must be very creative to have conceived "The Drought" in such a way. Tony confessed that most of his stories come from dreams, though he is working hard on a story about real life. Emily agreed that this was a good idea.

Emily confessed to writing a story that centered around Mrs. Edgerly after her husband's suicide. In the story Mrs. Edgerly sets out all her dead husband's things for a neighborhood garage sale.

We discussed in-class writing exercises, and because I have a tendency to assign a lot of them, I asked Emily if she thought they were a waste of time.

Emily agreed that all writing, formal or informal probably informs your serious work, but felt that a lot of in-class writing assignments could be crossing the line. Emily credits Eric Wasserman with assigning an in-class exercise that helped her understand her own story "What it Means." The exercise is: Imagine your character as the opposite sex. What do they want?

We discussed workshop. Geneva felt that sometimes workshop can be discouraging. Emily replied, "So can driving to work in the morning, getting out of bed, showering, tying your shoes. Especially tying your shoes."

* red meat, free or not, is out of the question.

Thanks for your reading, Emily!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Visiting Writer: Rick Strong

Rick Strong taught high school English at Padua for two years, and Junior High English at Columbiana County. Rick went to Law School at Case Western Reserve University. He was a trial lawyer representing doctors, hospitals, rail roads and car manufacturers for many years, and recently completed his MFA. Rick taught composition during his MFA process and now teaches composition at The University of Akron and writing at the law school. Rick’s wife taught first grade in the Brunswick school district, and his daughter works for an environmental organization. Rick has one dog (Casey), one cat, and drives a Toyota Prius.

I found out more about Rick’s fascinating life over a Greek Salad in the café. Rick worked in an aluminum foundry, an emergency room, and at a McDonalds, among other places.

Though Rick considers himself a writer with a lower case “w,” he read a piece composed in a Cleveland State workshop under the guidance of Sheila Schwartz titled “The Shovel.” The assignment was to write about an object. Rick’s piece opens with a man who has fallen on some icy steps and hit his head. The individual, we discover, is a retired lineman who had taken some things before bowing out: a chainsaw, a picnic table, a coal shovel, among other items. He tells the reader that he took the items because he felt as if they were his due. For service. For instance, he was once almost crushed by a falling tree while clearing debris after an ice storm. It becomes clear that he sees his rights to these items as some form of hazard pay.

The narrative is retrospective, so we learn that he came to repent and feared reprisals of the spiritual variety, therefore under twinges of conscience, gave the stolen items away either to Goodwill, the Haven of Rest, or, in the case of the picnic table, a needy boy-scout troupe. The coal shovel, on the other hand, was chucked into a river. It’s a shame, we’re told, because those shovels last forever. It’s also a shame because the narrator had used the shovel to clear the ice from his steps, and its absence is the indirect consequence of his fall.

It seemed as if the short showed a man who had felt his duty as a linesman entitled him to certain perks. It’s unclear if the story is a morality tale or not—if we are to interpret it as such, “though shall not steal” seems to be the proverb that rises to the top, yet it’s the narrator’s conscience that seems to get him in trouble. If he hadn’t felt rotten about taking the shovel in the first place, he never would’ve felt the need to toss it into a river, and his steps would not be icy. Such a clever Catch- 22 for such a short piece.

Rick designed an in-class writing assignment for my fiction students. Students chose objects from a box—items included a mini-flashlight (my item), Christmas candy, a gold coin (“Can I keep it?” one student inevitably asked, but returned it all the same at the end of the period), a mini-cassette, a cell phone, a small hammer, a yellow Livestrong bracelet, a chew toy, a tennis ball, etc. The students were directed to write a short that revolved around the object (I think of Chekhov’s ashtray) and were encouraged to use a character they know well from their other stories. We wrote for a good 20 minutes, and I’m looking forward to see what comes from the exercise.

In the meantime, Rick, like the rest of us, is working toward being a writer with a capital “W.”

Thanks for the reading and the lesson, Rick!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Visiting Writer: Dawson Steeber

Dawson Steeber has a degree in fiction writing from the Northeastern Ohio Universities Masters of Fine Arts Program. Dawson was accepted into the Academy of American Poets in 2008, and was awarded a Coulter award for emerging writers in 2006. Dawson is a fiction editor for the Barn Owl Review and teaches for the University of Akron. A little known fact about Dawson is that he once traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon in the trunk of a ’77 Pontiac Grand Prix (see interview). Dawson is originally from Western Pennsylvania, and has spent the majority of his life wandering in a nomadic fashion. He has recently settled in Akron where he lives with his wife and son Giovanni.

Can I say this about Dawson? He fits in. He seemed more at home in my school than me! …and I’ve been there since 2002. To know Dawson is to know exactly what I’m talking about. He seemed old friends with the hall monitors, knew a visitor in the Cosmetology lab, and chatted up the graphics and auto body instructors. Anyway, Dawson, a lifetime laborer, seemed very at home within a vocational school; he asked the assistant diesel instructor some questions that might take a few hours on the Internet and a couple volumes of Chilton’s service manuals to decode.

Dawson read a new story called “In the Coming Days” to my senior fiction writing class and allowed them to offer constructive criticism. The story follows a character, Nelson, through a difficult time in his life. We learn that Nelson struggles with drinking, and that his pregnant wife has left him.

Geneva said the story was “Very descriptive. Like a snake.” Geneva compared the beginning of the story with the movie “The Mist.”

Matt said the narrative thread of the story was that the “wife left.” Nichole thought the narrative thread was Nelson’s drinking problem. Someone pointed out that the story was pretty long, and Dawson put his head down and sighed. “This is one of the shortest things I’ve got!” Nichole said she enjoyed the story so much she’d read more.

Someone said “More action!” Casey pointed out that this piece starts in the middle of the action, with a fallen tree, and the fact that Nelson gets cut on a broken bottle of bourbon created the potential for metaphor… He bandages his cut hand (with gauze and duct tape), yet tears the wrapping off before the wound has healed… by following the advice of another older character in the story, he “lets it bleed.” Casey pointed out that this could be considered evidence that Nelson has difficulty acknowledging the severity of old wounds and therefore has difficulty healing.

I appreciated the phrase “let it bleed,” and though The Byrds are mentioned, we get an echo of the Stones.

When prodded later over a “not just any” turkey sandwich and a cup of “dueling cheddar” soup, Dawson credited his interest in books (dirty realism in general) with the German born American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. Dawson claimed to have disliked reading until he encountered Bukowski. “If it weren’t for books, I’d probably be dead,” he said with a sardonic grin. “Or in prison. Books saved me. Well, books and my wife.”

Thanks Dawson! The reading and conversation was essential!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Visiting Writer: Eric Morris

Where to begin? Eric was a senior Chef and Restaurant Management student at the Career Center when I began teaching in 2002. Now he is a first year Northeastern Ohio Universities Masters of Fine Arts student in the consortium. Among other things, Eric is a self-proclaimed failed rock star, teacher at the University of Akron, and (perhaps most importantly) appreciates a good hot deli Italian sandwich.

Eric braved the elements to visit my fiction class at the Career Center. The class felt very comfortable asking questions, and Eric was as comfortable answering them. The students appreciated Eric’s down-to-earth-ness, his Rural Mythologies, and his beard. At my request, Eric read a portion of his mythologies piece titled “Religion,” and chose his favorite—“Tomatoes” in which we were made to feel the difference between a hound and a dog, and learned that even though Eric might not like tomatoes, he writes a lot about them…whether hitting them (hopeful baseball-sized rotten fireworks) with bats, or in the form of ketchup-packet body calligraphy.

Eric’s poems are like multi-course meals for the head; they’re stacked with startling imagery, hilarious moments, clever turns, and distinct voices. In Morris’ poems we’re as likely to meet a sword swallower as a seemingly broken man in a powder blue tuxedo singing a tearful “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to his own reflection. Above all, Eric’s poems crack, sizzle and cook with originality.

If y’all can stand the cliche—Eric’s visit provided some much needed soul food on a dreary day. You rock Eric. Thanks for the reading!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Visiting Writer: Matt Harpster

Matt Harpster resides in Medina, Ohio where he teaches night classes at the Medina County Career Center. He grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ohio and is still comforted by the scent of manure freshly spread onto a field. In his former lives he has been a farmer hand, waiter, maintenance man, construction worker, security guard, youth minister, counselor and coach. He loves to sit down and learn the story of other people’s lives. Occasionally, Mr. Harpster writes primarily for his own amusement. He is loved by his wife Ingrid, daughter Ellie, and Springer Spaniel Susie.

Matt Harpster visited my fiction class on Friday. Matt read a family piece that was loaded with symbolism and sensory language. When Matt had finished reading I asked if there were any questions. Tim (pictured below) said that the story answered all of his questions. We asked Matt about his process and he said he started drafting the piece by writing all the powerful memories associated with his uncle. The story is chocked full of symbols. For instance, we pass over a bridge under construction in the very first paragraph-an indication that we're traveling to the past, yet the landscape of the past has changed. Harpster uses something as simple as a sand dollar as a way to bring gradations of death and hope into the story.

Harpster's Creative Non-Fiction Writing 101

1) Have fun.
2) Don't be afraid to embelish on memory.

Portals into Memoir-

Write two pages of something you can’t deny.

Write two pages of what got left behind.

Write two pages of something you wrote or did that you no longer understand.

Write two pages of apologizing for something you didn’t do.

Write two pages about a physical characteristic you are proud to have inherited or passed on.

Write two pages of what you had to have.

Write two pages of humiliating exposure.

Write two pages about a time when you felt compassion unexpectedly.

Write two pages of what you have too much of.

Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.

Thanks for your reading, Matt!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Visiting Writer: Jeremy Sayers

Being a former carpentry student at Central Hower High School (class of 1977) Jeremy Sayers could appreciate the building trades wing of our school, and it was obvious he held a special appreciation for the animal care and management barn. Thanks to Jeremy, this city slicker now knows that piebald describes a horse of two colors.

The purpose of Jeremy’s visit today was to give a reading and hold a Q & A session with my fiction class at the Medina County Career Center. Jeremy read the short story “Consequences” from his thesis—a collection inspired by family histories. “Consequences” was taken from his father’s involvement with the Civilian Conservation Corps. “Five dollars was a lot of cash then,” Jeremy said, regarding the opening scene in which CCC members are receiving their pay, the wrinkled dollars green as Christmas candy. The Civilian Conservation Core “was one of Roosevelt’s more optimistic programs” that encouraged vocational training. It was downright spooky how the vocational atmosphere of the Career Center helped to conjure the spirits directly off the page—suddenly we found ourselves walking down a mud path, barely discerning the names on headstones in a ramshackle cemetery.

Jeremy, when asked what inspired him to write, responded, “I grew up around storytellers.” To hear Jeremy read is to know you are in the presence of a true storyteller. The students were dazzled by the dialogue in “Consequences” and marveled at how he was able to get it “just right.” When asked the question, “How did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Jeremy responded that he had held stories in for so long they had just needed a reason to come out. Jeremy praised the NEO MFA as being one of the reasons he decided to put his stories to paper. The students appreciated the transformative power of the language, and admitted they felt as if they “were really there.”

(No one was ready for this picture-the best of the series.)

Thanks for your reading at the Career Center, Jeremy!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Fiction Means to Me

I’ve recently been asked by a student, of all the types of writing, why fiction? Why not non-fiction, or poetry? The truth is that I see value in all forms of writing, but my particular sensibilities drift toward fiction. Why?

I reject the idea that fiction is purely escapist. I think there are a fair amount of those kind of writers, and those type of readers. I have been one in the past and will probably be one at some point in the future, but the idea that fiction only provides a means to escape reality is an opinion held by those who do not, or perhaps cannot, take the printed word seriously. Serious fiction has a way of awakening the right type of reader to certain truths that stated otherwise, might seem absolutely absurd—like this blog entry is starting to sound kind of absurd…if I were any kind of fiction writer, I might be able to think of a metaphor or allegorical anecdote involving a chicken and a peacock, but at this point, I don’t think it’s possible because I’m still defining (by writing the truth of how I feel) my position.

Serious fiction is emotional autobiography; it may be a dream crafted to communicate a period of intense turmoil, joy, disappointment, fear, love, etc. An experience that has gestated in the writer’s subconscious. A good example is Tim O Brien’s The Things They Carried. Tim O’ Brien carried around his experiences from the Vietnam War until he was able to find a method to give them voice. The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, and it amazes me to this day that Tim O’ Brien a) doesn’t have children b) made up the story “On the Rainy River.” Many books of fiction have been written by individuals who have survived war (it seems the most literal example of an intensely emotional experience that I can think of right now)—A Farewell to Arms is one, For Whom the Bell Tolls is another. Someone learning to appreciate serious fiction (sometimes it’s hard to appreciate an experience like A Farewell to Arms because emotionally, it’s second, and just barely, to being kicked in the privates) might ask why didn’t Hemingway just give us the facts?

Maybe that’s just not how he was wired up. Maybe he spent so many years as a journalist, that he arrived at a certain contempt for what Bob Pope might call “truth unflavored.” I suspect that Hemingway, and all other fiction writers, just liked making things up.

The “facts” of our days are warped by our subconscious into dreams at night; so it probably goes with the writer of fiction. I imagine most writers, established and emerging, choose fiction because they see it as somehow more honest than truth. In most cases, the story’s probably much more interesting.

What do the rest of you think?

What are the arguments for non-fiction?


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Friend and Neighbor

The freezer

My neighbor Dennis had to move out of
his mother's house when she died.

I liked him because he looked in on my grandfather,
and was a refugee of the drug culture

He told me once he was prosecuted for owning a marijuana
plant. The prosecutor in his case was brought
up on Murder One months later when
a cocaine deal went bad.

When his mother died, Dennis had to clear out.
"You want that freezer?" It was old and noisy.
"100 bucks, and I'll refund half your money if it
dies within the year."

I looked at Dennis's thin arms and legs.
Call it charity. That thing wasn't budging for
anything more or less grand.

The wheels rolled off the dolly halfway to my house,
a friend and I carried it the rest of the way
in humid rain, like a coffin, on its end.

Now it buzzes on my back porch, and even
though it sounds as if it is near death, it
keeps on.

I sit and listen while I write this
wondering what the hell this life
is supposed to teach us.

- Summer 2007

When I graduated college, Dennis came to my party. He gave me two frozen pork chops from his freezer. "Congratulations, Mr. Skarl," he said, and grabbed a Silver Bullet.

"How's it going, Dennis?" I might hail from my porch, from yardwork. "Buzz on!" Dennis might reply with one arm in the air. All was right with the world.

Dennis owned (I think it was) a 1967 Olive Green Corvette. It sat broken down in his mother's garage for years. One day, the tentative heartbeat of its powerful engine carried out to me. The Corvette was old, blowing smoke, but running. In his younger days he drove it cross country, from California to Ohio and back. The speedometer boasted 160 mph. "More like 140," he said, knowingly.

According to Dennis, the best defense against wild coyotes is peeing a ring around your campsite.

His cat, Tuscarawas, was black and white. He didn't own that cat. But he did feed it.

Dennis, here's to you.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


“What kind of artist wears a beret?” I asked.

“The kind that uses a Polaroid,” she said.

And she was right. There was no process—just snap, bang. It was too easy to be art, and the beret was just a pretentious little joke we never tired of.

How the camera worked was a mystery.

She claimed the batteries were in with the film. “Just point and click.”

I should be able to make something of it, that old gift. I suppose that if I tax my brain, the meaning will come shooting out of my mouth like a developing print.

I suppose what frightens me most is the possibility there is no meaning.

Before, we used to write the date on the back of each picture and keep them in order. In a book.

Life as a clear sequence of events.

Life like pearls on a string.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Snow scarf. Missing pearl. Simple lunch.

Broken watch. Sun.

Mosaic tile. Hardwood floor. Jade. Stairway.

Blue pill. Plaster.

Water whorl.


Monday, October 27, 2008


The snow is gone, but the snowman lives on.
I have collected as many of my neighbor's golf balls as I could carry.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


My neighbor has been driving golf balls against the side of an aluminum shed. He doesn’t set up right next to the shed either. He tries to hit it from a long distance. Don’t mistake me—he hasn’t drawn a bulls-eye or anything—he just aims vaguely. When a ball hits the siding or the roof, it makes a dull, resonating “gong” that has the power to rouse me from slumber. I forced my way into the shed today and ran my hand over the indentations. There must be a hundred. I have planned to drag a mattress from one of the unused beds here to prop against the siding and muffle the blow.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I left the house today. My snow man has begun to melt, his face sagging, drowning in all this white, leaning slightly as if to say, “Ah, oblivion! Some cruel god has cast me into form, and finally… release!” A dog or something has carried off the beret, and he faces his fate bareheaded and humble. If only it were that easy. The sun cannot deliver us anymore than the moon, or the indifferent array of stars. If only he were aware of the value buried deep within, capable of its deliverance notwithstanding ruin. If only…

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The garbage men came and hauled away what I didn’t use. They looked at the snowman and pulled their stocking caps higher on their heads. The snowman seemed absurd, so rich and useless—these men, so poor and useful, and I ached for all my uselessness-bones marinating like a stew. I wanted them to knock the snowman over and haul it away. I had thrown the Polaroid onto the trash pile. It was a snap judgment, but its glass eye has been forever closed. There’s not much left.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


In some old black and whites, leaves turn a yard into an ocean. There was no beret for the photographer that day because it was fixed atop the snowman. I had found one of her pearls under the couch and a needle in one of the cushions, rolled the pearl into a snowball, some cold oyster, and just kept going. The needle was another story. It entered my wrist. The day I broke the Polaroid, I took it up into the white birch, slipping on branch ice, juggling, using my ass for leverage, but I couldn’t bring myself to snap a picture. Maybe it was the needle in my wrist, or the way the world looked stark white and formless. I had wished I could have found a key under the couch, something old with a few harmless teeth. Or a foreign coin. Something exotic. Something that did not hurt.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What Reading Means to Me...continued

Most of my adolescence was spent pretending I was someone else. A need to transcend the mundane manifested itself through the years I spent sitting around a table role-playing with character sheets and dice. Sometimes role-playing involved playing at war in the back of the allotment. In these fictional landscapes, the possibility of death lurked like a dark bird on a highwire.

When I was in fifth grade, we moved from Barberton to Canal Fulton, Ohio. Not much of a distance, twenty minutes in a car, but what a change! Suddenly, I was truly alone. My friendship with Paul evolved as a default—he was the nerd no one liked—I was the nerd no one knew. It made sense that we should become friends.

Paul was, is, very smart—he went on to be valedictorian—but he was also quite imaginative (it has been my experience that these two qualities don't necessarily go hand in hand; however, they are not mutually exclusive either). Weird was our peers’ word for imaginative, and I suppose Elvish script (it was on our book covers, and in some cases we wrote it on our bodies) was weird to anyone who had not read The Lord of the Rings and there was a lot of those types--leave reading to the nerds. For us, sitting around a table on a Friday night, experiencing a Tolkienesque world through an imagined persona was as good as it could possibly get. The dice were the means to act, and act we did. Sometimes we dressed up as our characters or acted out battle scenes. Our enthusiasm drew other social introverts, and soon enough, we had enough people to start a real campaign—it lasted seven years.

Dungeons and Dragons experienced a rebirth during the nineties. It had been admonished since its inception as a game that further disconnected people from reality, inspired violent behavior, and in some cases, caused lasting mental harm. All three of these side effects could be true for all I know, though I have firm suspicions they are not, I thank God that no one forbid our role-playing. Sometimes I wonder if Dungeons and Dragons could have vented Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s psychotic behavior into a harmless, hot steam. We certainly had violent tendencies (what teenagers don't?) and our discussions, had they been broadcasted or written down, could nowadays be considered grounds for expulsion.

I remember my first characters —vital statistics lovingly printed with a mechanical pencil on graph paper. There was Randolph the Mighty—he was my first—a fighter-mage. I needed the best of both worlds—the ability to cast fireball and swing a bastard sword. Dragnor was an unfortunate one armed thief. Kynnance was an elven mage with strange runes tattooed on his body. I had, of course read Tolkien in middle school, but he inspired so many other writers. I especially liked the worlds of R.A. Salvatore, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I remember Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman explained magic, in terms of wizard’s magic, in The Deathgate Cycle as the ability to bend the constant line of reality so it crossed the parallel, chaotic line of all possibility. Naturally, I was interested in the realm of all possibility. Where better to find it than the blank page? It seems writers are indeed magicians and the best books can act as portals to those inspired landscapes.

I played war with friends from the neighborhood. I recall the dank smell of dirt, wet leaves, army surplus flashlight on one hip, canteen on the other. We all had plastic guns—in some cases they were metal—they were all fake, but looked dangerously real. If there happened to be any sissy orange plastic, we pried those parts off or spray-painted them black. We were serious. We took no prisoners and humped the entire woods that spanned for five or six miles behind the allotment—these same woods became the place where we learned to drink or smoke- an irreverent place.

In sixth grade, a man came in to speak to us about the Vietnam War. James Crumb was the father of one of the girls in my class. He talked about how he was drafted. He spoke of his dread but also his sense of duty. He told us his weapon was the M-60 machine gun. That was the gun Rambo held with one arm. He had my attention.
He gave us real answers to our questions. “Were you scared?”


“Did you kill anyone?”


He brought with him a cardboard box full of books telling his experiences in the war. I was a sixth grader with five dollars lunch money. I decided I could afford to go hungry. Those days I remember thumbing through military equipment guides, marveling over the pictures of guns, tanks and missiles in our library. Here was a living, breathing story. Crumb carried an M-60 machine gun, which could fire 160 rounds per minute. He called it the pig because of its weight and the pig was called on often.

I still have the book. Its cover is a map of Vietnam which highlights the areas Crumb fought in or traveled through. I believe the memoir was self-published because the typeset looked like Courier and there were misspellings. None of these things mattered to me. Here was a true account--truth that wasn't filtered through the news or a history book.

At one point, he described diving into a foxhole to avoid mortar fire. Many others had the same idea and soon he was buried under soldiers seeking refuge. A shell hit them and these bodies saved his life. He described finding a mass of slaughtered Viet Cong that had been exposed to the sun for weeks and he described their efforts to clean up the bodies, how their sunbaked skin stuck to the hands of the American soldiers. I remember the smell of cooking flesh, ravenblack, swirling, bonesmoke clouds. The description of how his own reflection grew unrecognizable. It was one book I never forgot.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Reading Means to Me...

To write such a thing presupposes that I know what reading means. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve lost the meaning, which is why I’ve decided to write this thing in the first place. At best it will be a discovery. Maybe we can explore together? We’ve found a white pillared house at the end of the street. Still another, stone-front, a light burns from a window at the back. The houses are old and the furniture is dusty. Is that memory’s decay? Rooms are dark and the dark gets thicker where the walls come together. Here we may find our meaning. Do you have your flashlight handy?

First memory of writing involves my father sitting cross-legged in the large, lavender straightback living room chair. The lamp on the round table next to him casts light across the lenses of his black rimmed glasses and across the open page on which he writes with a yellow pencil. The book he is busily filling with words is dark blue with darker whorls. The word RECORD is stamped across the front in gold. My father keeps a stack of these journals in his closet, separated into two piles. Some covers are red, some are green, some are brown. There are quite a few.

I suppose before I could read or write I watched my father perform these rituals with a sense of hopefulness about the adult world. How marvelous that someday I would sit and write in a book! After I’d learned to read, I would lift one from the top shelf of my parent’s closet and open to a page that held a date and a description of what I’d done that day. He kept a journal for us.

The first entry was written after they, my adoptive parents, brought me home from the hospital. I’ve always wondered if being adopted has enhanced my reading experiences. I don’t suppose it has, though knowing nothing about my biological parents or my biological ancestry, I have always felt the benign possibility that I could belong to just about any culture. I wonder if my willingness to become someone else within the pages of a book is enhanced by my feeling like the darling of the world. Perhaps not, but I knew the world was large and interesting and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

Suspension of Disbelief

In childhood, I really didn’t have much disbelief to suspend. My reality was shaped by the adults in my life—my parents, teachers. And like many young Americans, I lived in a world in which I was visited by the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Leprechauns. It was a world where magic was as likely as the mundane, and you were as likely to run into a witch as the mailman. It’s the magic I want to tell you about. We’ll start with the leprechauns.

Every St. Patrick’s Day eve, my sister and I would set out cookies for the leprechauns. We were skeptical. What would they leave us? We were given proper procedure for visiting leprechauns—spread sheets of white paper on the floor. We were told leprechauns had excessively dirty feet. We’d know whether or not they visited based on what kind of trail they left. So, we gathered as much white paper as we could find and spread sheets throughout the house—down the hallways, up the stairs, into our bedrooms.

On St. Patrick’s Day morning, my sister and I were astonished to find little black footprints across the papers, and the cookies were gone. I scooped up all the evidence and took it to school. By third grade I began devising traps to try and catch one. My parents swayed me from the more devious – a few sharpened pencils, a school-boy punji pit. “You don’t want to hurt the leprechauns.” I settled for a box trap. Besides sooty feet, these leprechauns were crafty. All of my attempts were foiled!

At school, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Scalera, led the leprechaun hunt. We were told to bring a shoebox from home and some yarn. During our St. Patrick’s Day party, between bites of clover cookies and green Kool-Aide, we strung yarn from our open shoeboxes to the ground. In our shoeboxes we placed a clover cookie. We were told leprechauns only ate four leaf clovers, to stay lucky, but with any luck, a clover cookie might do the trick. Our teacher told us leprechauns were invisible, so we’d have to watch our strings closely to be sure if one had taken the bait. So, I watched my red yard intently for movement.

Nearly everyone caught a leprechaun. Finally, I did too. The string moved—he was climbing into the shoebox! I closed the lid once I was sure he was inside and called my teacher over. She congratulated me and we lowered our heads to the box to listen. He was in there! I heard the scratching! Privy to how slippery these soot-footed pigmies could be, I wrapped my coat around the shoebox and began the walk home.

My parents congratulated me. Afternoon wore on to evening, and I wondered if he had eaten the cookie. I wondered if I was suffocating him. I knew he couldn’t be happy in the shoebox. By bedtime, I resolved to let him out and opened the box. There was the green clover cookie, untouched. I was beginning to feel a little ridiculous, in truth. Had I been duped by my parents and my teachers? If so, it had worked, and it had been a blast!

Later I learned that my parents pressed the sides of their fists into a black stamp pad to make tiny feet and thumbprints for toes. Mrs. Scalera had scratched one side of the box while we listened. I was convinced I had caught a leprechaun that day. It was a feeling I knew I wanted again, but how could I trick myself?

As a kid, magic was a large part of my life. School was frightening. In kindergarten, David Winfield, the kid who sat next to me, had a thick down on his forearms. Inevitably, one kid ate glue. The black girl from across the room showed me her middle finger when the teacher wasn’t looking. The teacher herself—Mrs. Railsback, a large matronly figure I associate with Mother Goose, could be frightening. I made kids laugh at school by making faces. “Entertaining again, John?” She’d ask, disapproving. I began to dread school. As a fussy kindergartener, my parents relied on magic.

I was entrusted a magic coin. I knew my father knew everything about coins because he had quite a collection—coins in rolls, coins marked in books with prices. I was sure he’d know if one were magic or not. I was to keep the valuable magic coin in my pocket and if school started to grate too much on my sensibilities, I was supposed to reach into my pocket, rub the coin and think of all the stuff I could do when I got home. I thought of my swing-set, the kind with the rusty frame, corner pole pumping with each pass. My large stuffed Mighty Mouse. My red Huffy bike. I always felt better when I thought of these things and school became easier to stomach. Soon I gave the magic coin back to my parents. School was getting better every year.

Then I had Ms. Meek. She was a thin woman, wore her chin length black hair straight and sharp, her nose was long, and she painted her severe mouth with bright lipstick. She was a fierce, bony woman. I remember coloring a picture of my dog, Amos. He was a black dog, so I colored him black. “Is your dog really black?” she asked. Something in her voice always accusatory. Maybe her racial sensibilities were offended by a black dog named Amos. “No,” I said dejected. “he’s not.” It was her way of making you feel guilty. Of course he was black.

That year, coupled with conjugating –ing verbs (I had a hard time remembering when to drop the e, or double the consonant), I needed the coin. I looked through my parents things. I knew it was somewhere on their dresser—where my father kept valuables—his college ring, my grandfather’s police badge. I found the coin at the bottom of his wooden valet. I lifted the coin, comforted by its weight and texture, and read, stamped across the front – COUNTRY KITCHEN.

In kindergarten I assumed these were runes of great power. This was truly my first lesson in the importance of literacy. As I grew more aware of the world around me, magic was suddenly in short supply. However, like Jack and his magic beans, I pocketed the coin and thought of the magic the coin held in those early school days. From then on, conjugating -ing verbs held fewer terrors.

My first memory of a chapter book was in third grade, when I was finally beginning to feel like a big kid, had mastered my times tables, borrowing, could read fluently, and conjugated -ing verbs in my sleep. The book was called The Witches, by Roald Dahl. Older students who visited Mrs. Scalera would giggle when they saw she was reading us that book. I felt jealous that they knew something I did not! Story time came at the end of the day, and every day, we would gather on the floor around Mrs. Scalera, who sat on a stool. She would read out loud—at least a chapter. My walk home from school was addled in fantasy.

Looking back, she read to us not to meet some academic content standard, or so her school would look good in the newspapers. I don’t even think we took a fourth grade proficiency test back then. She read because The Witches was a great story that lent itself to being read aloud. That and she loved scaring the pants off us. I know this is true.

Mrs. Scalera was short, had straight, shining red hair to her shoulders and horrible teeth. She would open her mouth and tip her head back to show us the bridgework. “I never brushed my teeth when I was your age. These operations hurt worse than flossing. Be sure you floss or the same will happen to you!” One of the students lost a tooth, about the size of an ivory pebble, and brought it to school in his pocket. It was Mrs. Scalera’s idea to soak the tooth in Coca Cola, our, well, my, favorite drink. It took about a week for the tooth to turn totally black. To this day I always brush my teeth after drinking Coke.

The story of The Witches follows the main character, orphaned (a trend in Dahl books), and his Grandmother, who smokes long black cigars. The book talks about real witches and how it’s a little known fact they truly exist and delight in killing children. Children smell like dog’s droppings to witches, Dahl wrote, and they took the “same pleasure in killing children as you do in eating a large bowl of strawberries and cream,” or something to that effect. Mrs. Meek, my second grade teacher, the one who made us conjugate –ing verbs was growing in my memory to fit his description of a witch. Imagine how this would affect an imaginative child, especially coming from the mouth of his teacher! But, the book was also a survival guide for children. It spoke of how to identify witches. This knowledge, she said, could save our lives.

In grocery stores, on the street, everywhere, I longed to spot a witch. Dahl told us witches wore wigs, because they were naturally bald. Real witches could often be caught scratching their scalps, which chaffed from rough wig lining. They wore long gloves to hide their talons, and their shoes were square because they had no toes. I wanted it to be true! The danger made life for a third grader, a third grader who looked forward to visits from the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, very exciting because Santa never stood leering over your bed, the Easter Bunny would never kick holes in your house, and the tooth fairy wouldn’t consider taking just one or two more teeth…

It was the book The Witches that made me into a reader. I checked all of Dahl’s books out of our school library that year, for many of which there was a waiting list. I finally found a way to give myself the feeling of holding true magic in the palm of my hand. Or, a shoebox with a real leprechaun inside. I grew to love the weight of a book. I still grow giddy with the smell of a library book. I loved the way a bookmark stuck out from between the pages. I was hooked and it began with Roald Dahl.

I discovered I loved his other books almost as much as The Witches. I read The BFG, The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Charley and the Chocolate Factory (though that one was my least favorite). I couldn’t wait to get my hands on these books when each page held danger, adventure and humor. In fact, I still read my favorites for their capricious weirdness. Roald Dahl is not considered a very important writer amongst literary critics, many of whom I’m convinced were never children, but he was the writer who made me love fiction. Roald Dahl made me thirst for odd tales and danger. His words were bizarre candy—sweet, though you never knew if they would blow off the top of your head, force steam from your nostrils, or change the color of your hair. Roald Dahl inspired me to imagine, to dream, and for those reasons, I will forever love him.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


The following is a general announcement to the Cleveland Browns—“If you lose today, you will break this little guy’s heart.”

The truth is that the wardrobe of any guy this little more genuinely reflects the parents’ tastes (see Jen Sullivan’s most recent blog). In fact, I don’t think the Browns will break my heart if they lose today. Dr. Dukes has me re-reading Mystery and Manners, and it was O’Connor’s contention that the South produces more writers because they lost the War. I’m wondering if there’s any correlation between writing and being a Browns fan.

Friday, September 19, 2008


So this doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's my thesis advisor, ahem, but I just received a copy of Eric Wasserman's chapbook "Brothers" from Cervena' Barva Press. I was impressed with the author's ability to create compelling conflict in just a few pages, though, given his approach in the classroom, I should not have been surprised. Ha, ha. The chapbook itself is very handsome and the writing is stellar. With only the first chapter to go on, I imagine the book itself must feel like equal parts Arthur Miller and the Cohen brothers-but it's all just Eric Wasserman! Congrats and l'chaim!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

art story

I found this picture on the web, and it started me thinking about story art, or art story. For high schoolers, the work of Chris Van Allsburg and Scott Mutter can inspire some pretty off the wall stories. This is one of Dave McKean's.

When I visited MoMA, I saw Picasso's "Two Acrobats with a Dog" for the first time. Talk about a picture that screams for a story!

What do you think of writing that springs from a picture? Do any of you know of any other artists whose work might inspire stories? What about stories that are masquarading as pictures?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

So I'm reading a book called Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, the first woman and youngest person to circumnavigate the earth alone in a boat. The story is that her dad offered her an ultimatum- "Either go to college, or I'll use this tuition money to buy you a boat." She took the boat. The catch was that if she took the boat he expected her to sail around the world. She did it, and Maiden Voyage is her story. I had never heard of her, and I really like the book. I don't feel for the writing the way Maxwell Perkins felt about Beryl Markham's, but hell, I'm not Maxwell Perkins. I DO think Tania Aebi is a really tough chick- and she can write, which makes her that much tougher.

I'm teaching Oedipus the King to some advanced seniors. I've been really impressed with their insights.

"Why is there a plague at the opening of the play?"

"Sophocles needed a reason for Oedipus to find Laius' murderer."

I imagine life got a lot harder for storytellers when the pantheon broke up. (I refer to them as if they were a band, but that's how I always imagined them-Hermes as Paul McCartney, Poseidon as Ringo, John Lennon... probably Dionysus). What's the implication? Writers could no longer use the gods to act out conveniently in their stories.

Jocasta brings up the idea that life is chaos, and that we are all living day to day at random. When 70 mph winds took down a tree in my front yard and I was out there with an axe chopping away, (I can only guess how folks in New Orleans, heck, even Texas feel about this right now), I felt subject to really powerful forces, forces as unruly as that rock and roll pantheon.

The prophesy, of course, proves this idea wrong, and that Oedipus' actions do have consequences. I was asking my students how they feel about this, and, "Of course Mr. Skarl we know there are consequences for what we do... that's why our parents make rules, there are rules at school, the law, etc." They've been told this their whole lives, have been shown that their actions have consequences, and it's why they're good kids, but I wonder... what happens when the individual outgrows parents' rules, teachers, etc. ? Well, my students say, you're supposed to turn around and create and enforce rules for young people- there's a swapping of roles.

I had to ask myself, is this how it's supposed to work? Am I staying up past my bedtime to create bellwork for students so they don't feel the fingertips of chaos? Is this what teachers are for? What about writers? Is their job to filter chaos until it's palatable? Anyway, it got me thinking... about my job and about my life. About what I need to do as one of Wyatt's parents. I appreciated a moment of clarity in an otherwise chaotic day.

Thematically I was kind of excited to see this idea of chaos versus order brought up so soon in the year... it's such a motif of John Gardner's Grendel, which is next on our list after Antigone. As for Wyatt, he's hooting away on his play mat, batting a blue elephant as I type this. Who knows, maybe I'll take a page from Tania's father's book. Either eat your vegetables or break the world pogo stick record. It's over 23 miles. How badly do you hate broccoli?

Monday, September 8, 2008

flavor text

Could flavor text work in a novel? (I almost wrote, "I'm just thinking out loud here," but I'm not really thinking out loud at all, am I?) If you don't know what flavor text is, it's probably because you spent time in high school talking to girls or playing a sport other than academic challenge. Flavor Text is the little blurb at the bottom of a Magic The Gathering playing card that hints at a larger story within the context of the playset. I guess what I'm envisioning is a typical third person narrative broken by chapter, yet at the beginning of most or all chapters, there's some of this flavor text to hint at a larger story... mostly past events, conversations between characters in the book, journals, and possibly even the creative writing of certain characters. All of this flavor text would have to inform the larger story, or maybe even be menioned in the larger story, yet I'm afraid it might slow the reader down between chapters, and if it were that important, couldn't the writer find a way to work it into the chapters in the first place? Maybe... yet I don't think I'm envisioning the reader of such a story galloping through at a breakneck pace set by an author who is more concerned with suspense than they are with content (you remember The Davinci Code).

Friday, September 5, 2008


The other day in Intro to Fiction Writing we were talking about sensory strokes, and we read a short-short called "Breakfast" by John Steinbeck. My students appreciate shorts from the Norton anthology Flash Fiction, but I think "Breakfast" works really well as a sensory scavenger hunt (the story appeals to all five senses). We also read the Chekhov letter about writing description and tried our own hand at a Checkovian sentence.

"I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like "The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc," "Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily" — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. ... In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she."

I handed out a poetry starter (purchased through Teachers Discovery... it is an often vivid, often strange picture designed to act as a creative springboard) and urged my students to write a flash piece that attempts to do the following:

Preface- don't simply describe the picture.

1) Attempt at least one sentence of Chekhovian description.

2) Create at least one character (Chekhov suggests a he and a she; in the case of an openly gay student... I have one... a he and a he is okay too).

3) Try to create some element of suspense.

Today we workshopped the stories. I asked them to type them out if they liked what they wrote and bring them in... about half of them typed their story. We had a really great mini-workshop, and I attempted to define the three types of common workshop comments. There's the Paula-sickeningly sweet and uplifting (never a bad thing), the Randy must start with "Yo dawg," and must be honest in an I-still-want-to-be -your-friend kind of way, and the Simon, which is always brutally honest, and sometimes mean (your attempt at dialogue is really laughable... you make Lovecraft look like Elmore Leonard). By the end of it, the kids who hadn't typed their story were jealous of the ones who had, and we had a really great spontaneous workshop.

I had written with them in class, as I often do, and I was surprised how much I liked what came out. I have many binders full of junk from these experiments, but I really liked this one, so I typed it and threw it into the Xeroxed manuscripts and let them workshop mine, too. It was a lot of fun.

Here's what came out of me-

“My Heart is More Like Guernica”

The light saturated the stage from overhead and rimmed the brass horn blue while deepening the dark skin of the man holding it to indigo— the kind they don’t sell any more at the campus art supply. It was as if some divine brush or pen was filling in the open spaces with chiaroscuro melodies—melodies as rich as the oils in my art box, or as rare as those of Renaissance paintings. No, I think Picasso’s Three Musicians, but tonight my heart is more like Guernica. She has not seen me yet and she was wrapped in a kind of blissed-out blues trance that I knew well— the melody had wrapped its strong arms around me on many nights, yet I seemed immune to its seduction on this, the same night I hoped to dance with her. I leaned my artist’s portfolio against the chair I had been sitting in and made my way through the crowd toward the stage. I don’t know why I dragged along my portfolio, perhaps as some unlikely shield behind which I hoped to avoid what I know now must be done, to avoid her glance, so much like a siren’s song. How many times had I attempted to capture her features with a pen or brush? No matter, the past has dried on the palate, and I have this one chance. I step onto the stage and she sees me—we are here, this is now.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

baby update

It is the consensus of strangers that Wyatt must eat well. I am unsure if this means they are calling him chubby or healthy, or both. He has handled our return to school quite well, thanks to all the help and hard work of our mothers. They don’t read this blog, but they deserve a virtual shout-out regardless.
He laughed the other day. It was a truly infectious sound. He sounded more stunned than joyful— apparently peeing in the bathtub is surprisingly liberating. He is in the habit of talking, or attempting to talk. We’ve had quite a range of conversations considering his young age. His reactions are various, and thoughtful, given the wrinkling of his brow.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

SO I only bought one item at the flea market— a first edition hardback of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I bought the book on a whim when it first came out, read it, enjoyed it, and recommended it to the drug councilor at my school. She took my copy and, by the time I got it back, it was missing the dust jacket, the binding was broken, and it was stained strange colors. I didn’t mind, considering that the book was becoming as beat up as the author claimed to be. I let another friend borrow it, and I should have known, considering the friend… I never got it back.

THEN, Oprah endorsed it, I think my mom even read it, and all the stuff about the story being a bunch of lies came to the surface. Oprah berated the dude on national television, and everyone and their brother came out with a statement about the book, most of which added up to “I wasn’t fooled.”

CALL me a fool. I read it in 2003, I think I even shed a tear or two— something I miss about reading— and swallowed every line. Even the scene with the root canal. Was I mad that it wasn’t true? I have to be honest here. No. I couldn’t care less. The story happened for me in the place stories happen when I read them, and fiction or non-fiction, in my opinion it was a good one. In a way, I'm glad he lied so that it got published, and so I got to read it.

I know quite a few people who only read non-fiction. Usually, I consider this the mark of an immature reader, or someone without the gumption to daydream. In a few cases I’m right. In a few cases I’m not. But when someone writes a story that grips you, true or no, isn’t that magic? As Wireman says, "God punishes us for what we can't imagine." (Duma Key)

I’D say it’s worth a dollar.

Monday, July 21, 2008

summer of bargains

It all started when I bought that meat from some guy on the street. (I know, it sounds like the beginning of bad fiction) He was hauling around a freezer in the back of his truck, and I was in the front yard with my dog, and he asked me if I liked steak. I've never been very good at lying when asked a direct question, so I told him the truth. Hell yes, I like steak. The rest is history, recorded I suppose in the annals of this blog, which has become more and more like quacking into the void. Recorded there, yes, and in the interior wall of my arteries.

We took Wyatt to Hartville flea market the other day, bargain hunting for the first time. Truth be told, we left him with my parents, who set up there weekly. We did not use him to whittle the vendors down, though in retrospect, it might have worked. I may be biased, but he is turning into a very handsome young man (at seven weeks).

I bought a brass door knocker in the shape of a sperm whale for three dollars. I don't know why I bought it, just that I was attracted to it. I think it will go into the basement, and I plan to screw it into the wall, or the fireplace mantle. Certainly not a door. It had occurred to me to mount it on the wall in my study, next to the desk, so I can reach over and knock on it at will. Don't ask me why, I swear I couldn't tell you. You're supposed to go to a flea market with a quest item (probably a subconscious throwback to all those years spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading the Dungeons Master's Guide list of magical equipment and writing modules) -- a quest item is the supreme sought after item for your particular player character. Mine happened to be a sitar (I saw one out there once, and it was cheaper than the extra pickup I could buy for my Strat), but I found an unassuming quest item- a telescope- something I've always been looking for, but never quite realized. I'm pretty excited about it. I've always wanted to see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter, and perhaps now I will. It came cheap, because it's a cheap model. When I asked the guy if there's anything I should know about it, he said, with an innocent expression. "Nope. Works great." Well, the first night I tried to use it, I saw nothing but blurry white dots. I came to find out it's a Meade, (check out these pictures) but it's missing the diagonal and the eyepiece. The cheap telescopes use a .965" aperture eyepiece and focuser. What you want is the capacity to use 1.25" eyepieces, so, what could have been a really disappointing turn of events ended up being advantageous. I ordered a diagonal that converts .965" to 1.25", and I also picked up a 9mm, 1.25" eyepiece. Wow. I know. Jupiter here I come.

Flea markets are a great place to buy cheap books, too. And pipe bowls that double as the carburetor blower of a miniature 1987 Trans Am- the kind with the bird painted on the hood. Anyway, I got some cheap books for the classroom library (not the Trans Am... thought I'd clarify). I bought an advanced readers' copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which I originally lent to a student and never got back (if you're reading this Mandy, you know what to do), a clean hardcover of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (what a great book), an audio version of Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. (CD, $5!!), and issues 1-4 and 7 of the original Punisher series. For $10! D&D, a telescope and some paperbacks! I might as well be back in the eight grade, staring at the designs in my bedroom ceiling on Friday night. I know, that sounds a little pathetic. The truth was that I would call girls... only to tell them about the designs in my bedroom ceiling...

Monday, July 7, 2008

house work

So I stripped three layers of shingles from the garage, first layer dating back to 1954, and apparently in 1954 they didn't use tar paper, so some of the shingles stuck to the boards (not plywood), and the nails stuck because the boards were old and dried out. After the shingles and old nails were gone, along came the tar paper, luckily, because it rained on Thursday before I could finish, but I pulled off the eaves and fascia and replaced those mostly so the squirrels stay OUT. Cut a ridge vent and finished the roof on Friday and started the soffit under the porch eaves. Lots of restless energy.

I was trying to think if I've ever read a scene that involved roofing. I don't think so.

Postscript 7/25/08 I recently read a story by Dawson Steeber about two roofers. It's a knockout.

Monday, June 30, 2008

I've been thinking a lot about the story within the story, not necessarily a frame, but something really short, like a fairy tale in a novel. I was reading Knut Hamsun's Victoria, and he does this. Victoria is a love story, and there's one chapter that's just a fairy tale about love and the pursuit of love, and I remember thinking it would be such fun to write a themed fairy tale for a novel. How would you stick it it there? Just slip it in as a chapter on its own, the way Hamsun did it, or what? See, I like the idea of a novel being layered. Layering is huge in teaching right now. Some pedagogists believe that if a lesson is layered, in other words, if it includes activities of interest for all (or most) of the multiple intelligences, or tiered for many different levels of ability, it will be more of a three dimensional lesson. I suppose this is a decent approach to teaching, though admittedly a lot of work, but I wonder if a novel can function in a similar way? I know a novel is not supposed to be a lesson, yet I wonder what makes for a satisfying read? I guess it depends on who you are, and I don't think it's possible to apply the theory of a layered lesson to writing a novel, but I do wonder how many different types of writing can fit into one.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Recent exercise - carrying Wyatt upstairs for a changing (at first, now I use the pack and play). He's starting to smile now, which has been very rewarding, though people (cynics) tell me it might be gas. He definitely focuses on objects. For instance, he loves the giraffe wall cling above his changing table, and he likes to stare at bright lights and faces. Again, (cynics) say a baby would stare at a ping pong paddle, or say, a frisbee, if you held it in front of them. Sometimes I get the impression that he wants to do things that his body won't yet allow. For instance, the day he was born he started lifting his head. It's mostly when I've got him against my shoulder. He definitely wants to play frisbee golf- he knows this is a wonderful summer activity. At the moment he is patiently enduring the unfortunate truth that his hands are not yet large enough to hold a distance driver. Or a fishing pole! Did you know today is National Catfish Day?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rolling on three hours sleep. Let the bottle feeding commence. Not as bad as it sounds. I was up most of the night reading. I've got three books going- Catch-22, which still never fails to put Wyatt to sleep, and is quickly becoming a test of endurance for papa... how much of this kind of back and forth stuff can a person read? I don't know. The answer seems to be how much could a person write? Right now it looks like 400+ pages. I hope the narrative picks up a bit because a few hundred pages in it's becoming overwhelmingly clever.

Surprise hit is Caveman's Guide to Baby's First Year, which I thought was going to be something like babies for dummies. Who knows, maybe it is, and this dummy doesn't know any better, but the book has surprised me by being both clever and useful. I know I told some people I wouldn't be reading any how-to-daddy-books, but this one is a far cry from Chicken Soup for the Daddy's Soul, all right?

Can't forget Barn Owl submissions.

Living the Wisdom of the Tao is this month's bathroom material. That, and #63 of Wolverine's new series. They'll never top the original, but the new one is not bad. On one cover (issue #2) he's reading Walden. What kind of poetry would Logan read if Logan read poetry... hard to say, but I'll bet he's a Hemingway fan.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


For a while there I felt like I was driving down a dirt road at night with “Blackhole” by Beck playing at full volume on the cd player, which is a great track but lures me into a catatonic state. I guess I would advise this track selection if you happen to be driving down a dirt road at night, but I might go ahead and be presumptuous and suggest something like Time Out of Mind. There are a few tracks on that album that are just creepy enough to call up images of backwater goofballs loading corpses into the trunk…something like Nashville meets Fargo. My kind of backwoods music.

Do you remember when I said on bad mental days I’d enjoy watching the candle that resembles a hunk of wood burning? Yeah, well, that’s been the last couple of days, but I kind of had a breakthrough today, and I’m not going to write too much about it in fear of cursing it, or hyping myself, but I guess I’m hyped, and in the long run, I wonder if that’s all that matters.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I hate feeling like the day was pointless, but as I sit to write about it, that's what I feel. Maybe not pointless, but uninspired... it's bad when the highlight of the day was waiting for a Fed Ex delivery... maybe I need some crab apples for my cheeks. No, highlight of the day was taking Wyatt out for the first time. To General for lactation advice, then to Target for a Frappuccino (us, not him...what a lengthy Wiki page!...I still like the discussion on the refrigerator Wiki page over what distinguishes a refrigerator from a freezer...what? was Aqua Teen a rerun that night?) then to Ritzman's pharmacy. I talked to the pharmacist about him, and some (older) woman who encouraged carrie to stick with the breast feeding. Ritzman's has good black licorice by the way...but what I've been looking for for some time now is those old licorice pipes. Those were the best. See what I mean? I feel like I've inherited the attention span of a newborn. Maybe it was the movie we watched... Bee Movie. I think I'd rather be stung by bees. Sometimes I like kids movies... like Bug's Life wasn't bad, or I kind of liked the one about the French rat, but this one was pretty dumb, I thought, and then I always chastize myself for being too critical of something that probably doesn't even warrant such criticism. I also rented I'm Not There... looking forward to that one, and I was psyched to see the Hunter S. Thompson documentary in the works. Timely? Perhaps...

I've been reading Wyatt Catch-22 before bed. His favorite name is Chief White Halfoat.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Senior Novel

I taught Siddhartha this time around to my graduating seniors and because one of the keys to enlightenment is reflecting on past experiences, I am going to do that here... that and I'm going stir crazy without anything to do and it's only the first day of Summer Break!! This is my third time teaching the book, and I think I was able to do a far better job technically this year than the first two times I taught it. The first time we all read it, the second time I taught it as the part of a literature circle- students chose from Night, Angela's Ashes, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Siddhartha. I think something like three kids chose Siddhartha. Most chose Angela's Ashes because they laughed at my description of the book. One kid chose Malcolm X, and a bunch chose Night, although, as far as holocaust literature goes, I like All But My Life, though I have not attempted to teach it. Anyway, I think Siddhartha went well because I was able to explain some of the religious aspects more completely (Mara, Maya, etc.). Buddhist scriptures help, particularly "The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress," and "The Bodhisattva as the Preacher of Patience," though some students equated the Bodhisattva's attitude toward death and rebirth with the Islamic fundamentalism they hear about in the news. The were a little dumbfounded at first by the Mandukya Upanishad, but reacted positively (mostly) to experimenting with meditation. They didn't like the ragas as much as I did, but I imagine it might have been their first experience with eastern music. One female student reacted very strongly to Siddhartha's treatment of Kamala in that she thought he used her. Male students were quick to point out that as a courtesan, teaching Siddhartha about physical love in exchange for gifts was her job, though it didn't sway this young lady's opinion of Siddhartha- she herself was a single parent, and I could totally see where she was coming from. If I teach the book again, I'm going to want to explore the concept of a courtesan with them a little more fully, so they don't think she was just a prostitute. Male students identified with Siddhartha's "party stage" when he becomes addicted to gambling and wine, and Vasudeva as the wise old man. I'm thinking maybe they have such a figure in their lives, maybe a simple farmer or man of the earth type they identify with the character. Students enjoyed researching famous couples and judging whether or not they thought they were successful, ie. found love with one another. They were attracted particularly to learning about Johnny Cash and June Carter (and I started to see some similarities between Johnny Cash's story and Siddhartha's), and Bonny and Clyde. The more bookish students researched instead Jung's theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, and how they related to the book. They were successful (sometimes) in making personal connections with the book through journaling. For instance, one student compared Kamaswami to an unfriendly flea market vendor. We were able to have a few guided small group discussion about the book once they were finished with it, but hardly any discussion as they read. Usually it was me lecturing- something I hate, but at 9:00 am they tend to be catatonic.

So usually it's ups and downs with teaching a novel- it's work, so they're not going to love you for it, much less thank you
(until years later... maybe), and if it's classic literature, they're not going to make immediate connections...the exception may be The Catcher in the Rye, which I taught to juniors, and they made many connections, even in the first chapters.

My first year I taught Harry Potter to seniors, and a lot of them liked it. There's a good suplimental text for those who may want to teach it without having to wade through the sixth grade lesson plans called The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. Because that book can exist purely as a fun read, I "taught" them some history of magic within particular culture, and quizzed them over chapters. Tried to keep the atmosphere positive, encouraged them to read more of the series. That was just as the second movie was finished. I was glad they thought the movies were so-so.

Year two I taught A Clockwork Orange and experienced some resistance to the Nadsat language, and one parent refused to allow their student to read it, so I swapped it with Brave New World. We had fun finding obscure pop culture references to A Clockwork Orange, and most picked up on the Nadsat by chapter three. They really struggled with understanding the big questions of the book, or at least some had a hard time caring about Alex at all. The psychological background stuff was intimidating to some, but I tried to simplify Aversion therapy and Behavorial conditioning with some analogical lecture.

I'd like to teach the book again some time, but next year I'm taking over advanced courses, and I want to start the year with Oedipus and Antigone. My plan is to see how many books they'll read without enacting total mutiny.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

So I was playing guitar yesterday just to see how Wyatt would react. He was up on our coffee table in his bouncy chair, and of course I expected him to be enthralled. Maybe even reach out for it. As I was playing I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up just in time to see that he had his first instance of projectile vomiting. It arched up over the side of his chair and onto the carpet. Apparently he doesn't like the red hot chili peppers. Not to eat, folks, the band. Music, remember?

He has a nickname, which is unrelated to the projectile vomiting. Rhutabega. Rudy for short.

My friend Sara told me PBS has a cartoon with a little boy named Whyatt Beanstalk. The show is Super Why! Apparently his superpower is his imagination. I might have known about this if my TV recieved more than two and a half channels. How cool is it that he has a book on his costume? I've thought a lot about exposing Wyatt to TV and all that, and I am mostly against it, however a show about a kid with a super imagination couldn't be so bad. Wyatt will probably have to figure out that most television is garbage on his own though. I was reading that the Kings (Steven) never had a television. Even when they could afford it. They just sat around at night and read stories to each other. How cool is that?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Big Babies

So now that I stare at Wyatt all the time, everyone looks like a newborn. I was driving and this guy passed me on his motorcycle, and he STUCK OUT HIS TONGUE. What a large baby, and what a noisy toy. There was this other guy sticking his head out the window of his car to check for oncoming traffic, and he dug his chin down on his shoulder the way Wyatt does when he wants fed, and he looked like a big baby. Maybe people only look like newborns when they're driving. No, that's not true. The kid that waited on me at Target looked like a very stylish baby. His hair was up in one of those faux-hawk things, and he had no idea what I was asking him.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wyatt Leonard Skarl

Wyatt was born at 2:07am on June 2, 2008. He was 19.5 inches, seven pounds. Remember the post about the dream of the train and the number seven? Well, he didn't walk seven steps at his birth, but we were in room seven, which is cool, but not nearly as cool as if he had come out fully enlightened. I guess that's what his life is for.

His favorite story (well, maybe my favorite story at this point) is "The Color Kittens," and he doesn't mind Yeats either.

Glad I have the laptop; I've been able to manage quite a bit from the room- I brought Carrie a plant from home (Holden II- the first Holden died), some cake, and thought about sneaking Grendel in (our dog). I've been grading final reader response essays and checking out the Barn Owl Submissions. I can't believe we have so many!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tuns out Jomax, Tri-sodium Phosphate and Bleach will eat the skin from your hands. Mixing it reminded me of George's Marvelous Medicine, but instead of making me really really tall, I just got burned really really bad. Well, sort of bad. Well, not really bad- it just kind of ate a few layers of skin, and now my hand sweats. I'm not sure if this will be good or bad for my hands (see blog entry Man Hands) You should see the mildew though... Well I guess you can't now.

I should stop working outside, but I can't. The prospect of having a child at any moment is driving me a little crazy. It looks like rain tomorrow. Maybe I'll start a project inside. There's at least one floor I have to re-do, and a noisy freezer that needs to go to the basement.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mooney Skarl

Still no baby, babies. I'm thinking June first for some reason. That's this sunday. I built a swing. Well, actually it's just a frame... the swing itself has yet to materialize. I used some plans I found online, however. I think I made a sturdier frame by using carriage bolts instead of nail plates. hmmm...
I'm seriously getting pretty good at using my reciprocating saw though. You've seen those guys that carve with chainsaws? Yeah, I'm going professional with my reciprocating saw. No one would want to watch it the way some people can watch a guy carve a bear out of a tree trunk with a chainsaw, but it might be a little bit like something you see at the Warther Museum. "How did he do that? With a reciprocating saw?" With any luck, people will come to regard me as a contemporary of Mooney Warther. Hey, I wonder if Carrie will go for that name...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hello world. It's been a while. I cleaned my computer desk, so that now it's not layered with stacks of papers and other things. I was burning some incense tonight while I was cleaning and playing guitar with a friend and woah... it's good stuff. I think it's from World Market of all places, but it's called,,,oh wait, I threw away the packaging. Too bad.

I was typing something the other day about the Hemingway story with the Romans drinking wine from stone bowls... the ones that had just finished crucifying Jesus. I forget what I was going to say about the story. I think I was going to fashion the text I was writing into a fancy pattern or something... not a crucifix. Like a bulls eye or something.

So yeah, I got to play some guitar today with a friend. How awesome is that? I'll tell you, it was very awesome. He was playing my fretless bass and he had bought some nylon strings, and the black nylon strings for the fretless bass are pretty awesome.
And I'll tell you folks, some days you feel like a rockstar, some days you don't. Today I felt like a rockstar. It was the guitar, yeah, but it was also the way the sky was sunny, but still threatening rain, and the rhododendrons out front finally bloomed and a big bud like a pink crown fell to the ground, and there are some white flowers blossoming somewhere that stick to the bottoms of your shoes and you end up tracking them inside, and my bonsai tree hasn't died yet, and I opened a few windows, and time moves on regardless, and now it's Sunday the 18th of May, 2008.

I keep waiting for Carrie to go into labor. It's kind of weirding me out, but then I talk to her, and not really. Did I tell you, we picked the baby name? You're going to like it. I promise.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

So here's the room now that it's done. I was driving home from the library and I was reading the first paragraph of a book I got, and it goes like this:
"In the beginning was the myth. God, in his search for self-expression, invested the souls of Hindus, Greeks, and Germans with poetic shapes and continues to invest each child's soul with poetry every day."
As I swerved to miss two large grey geese crossing the street I couldn't help but gape at these two sentences. I think the idea that I'm soon going to have a child is coloring my thoughts, but I just think this passage is pretty super. The book is Peter Camenzind, and like all of Hesse's books (except Journey to the East- I found that one tiresome... maybe it was a bad translation) I was... am... hooked. I don't know what it is, but everything in this book is magical. There's a whole passage about clouds that is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Maybe I'm getting soft. The book is set in the Alps, and I once dreamed of a woman giving birth in one of those telpherage cars high above a mountain range. Maybe it was the Bermese mountains. I think I envy anyone who grew up in a time and place free of television, roads, cars, phones, computers, fast food, cell phones. The World is Flat, indeed. I think we've flattened it irrevocably... the way I almost flattened those geese.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


So I painted the baby's room and put in carpet and put together the crib and all that. This was actually a while ago... I'm just getting around to writing about it though. I consider myself something of a paint expert. I used to work in a hardware store, and I sold paint and wallpaper. That was when I used to skateboard (see rad pic), so I wore a chain wallet and had long hair, but I knew how to match a paint with a border. Once someone asked us to match a paint color to the color of the sky. We didn't use computers or any of that garbage, it was all done by hand and eye, and anytime you added pigment you dried a sample and checked to see if it was accurate. For the color of the sky we just held it up until it disappeared. I liked working with wood stains the best though. I don't know why. Stains are semi transparent, so you had to know your wood and take into consideration the color the wood may bring to the equation. For instance poplar is sometimes green, so you may have had to add a reddish stain to counteract the green, or pine is yellowish, and so you may have had to add a drop of violet if you didn't want a lot of yellow... oak is often red, and green counteracts red, and so on. It's too bad the little place I worked closed. Support local businesses; though it's not always possible. Little hardware stores are being totally over run by the large corporate chains. I know people who work at the large corporate chains, and they do well there, salary and benefits, but I always think that shopping local helps to support someone's unique energy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Eye of the Ewe

So I have one of those Magic 8 Balls on my desk and occasionally I'll ask it really dumb stuff as a way of releasing negative energy. I just asked it if I'm going to make what I don't know...but it said "outlook not so good." For some reason that answer puts me more at ease than any of the others. Maybe I should design my own Magic 8 Ball, but it would have to be a striped ball, or maybe not even a pool ball, like a sheep eye, and a three sided dice could float around in the aqueous humour and when you read your fortune you'd be staring into the eye of the ewe. There would be three potential answers to any question: "Absolutely! The World Loves You." "Go Back to Bed." & "Nope. You're Totally Screwed." Maybe "Don't Ewe See?"

Friday, April 11, 2008

Tractor Day

So today was drive your tractor to school day as well as senior skip day... I'm trying to discover the link. I guess the kids who wanted to come to school also wanted to show how hardcore they were in yet another way. Those are some wheels, man. My favorite is the guy with the poncho. He gave me some of his poems to read.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

With Honors

So I was inducted into the National Technical Honor's Society as an honorary member. I'm pretty happy about this, though I wish I had more technical skills to speak of.
Animal Management
I walk Grendel, and give him baths, and sometimes clean his ears with Q-Tips. I have tried a variety of methods - mothballs among them - to keep the squirrels from the garage, though they have nested in there again! Our school has a horse. Gosh, I've never even ridden a horse. But I have kissed a dolphin.
I mow the yard. Usually. Pick up sticks.
I like to cook actually. Well, grill.
I'm fond of seeing my name in print.
Auto Body
I've used Bondo a few times. And they showed me how to weld once.
Auto Tech
Sometimes I change my own oil. I'm pretty good at hanging air fresheners from the rear view.
BandAids- check.
I built the deck, didn't I? (I had help)
Sports Fitness
I rode my bike down the hill into the backyard two days ago.
Microsoft Networker
I'm a Mac kind of guy.
Early Childhood Education
Pretty soon...

Saturday, March 29, 2008


After the birth video in class, I dreamt of my child. In the dream I taught him how to say “birch tree” and he recognized the white birch by pointing and saying “white.” I was carrying him in my arms when the stars in the sky began to rain down on us like frayed firework sparks that tingled, they didn’t burn, yet I shielded him with my body.

Carrie had a dream about the baby that involved a locomotive with the number 7 painted on one of the boxcars. Apparently some people think the number seven represents perfection and the train is a conveyance of sorts, which speaks of the birth? I am not sure. Perhaps the arrival of his spirit? This speculation is kind of scary, but here’s what I know about the number 7 (after some research):

It is a natural, or lucky, prime number

It is also a safe prime

Biblically there were seven days of creation; God rested on and therefore sanctioned the seventh day as the Sabbath… (there’s a bunch of this religious stuff…)

Most mammals have seven bones in their neck

Seven is the number of external holes in the human head: two eyes, two nostrils, one mouth, two ears.

There are seven colors in the rainbow

Only seven heavenly bodies are visible to the naked eye

There are seven wonders of the ancient world

“7” is a really clutch Prince tune. All 7 and we'll watch them fall / They stand in the way of love / And we will smoke them all / With an intellect and a savoir-faire / No one in the whole universe / Will ever compare / I am yours now and you are mine / And together we'll love through / All space and time, so don't cry

Buddha walked seven steps at his birth

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Before the birth class tonight we were at Luigi’s and I was sinking into the booth when someone behind us said “Don’t sit there,” and because I was sinking I thought they might be in the know, so I turned to see it was my childhood friend and his parents. It was odd seeing them there like that because I had run into the father at the grocery the other day, and I really like the guy, but his big eyes always used to scare me as a kid...not big eyes, it’s just the white shows all around the colored part. The mother is wonderful and I basically lived at their house until we moved. I remember filling a yellow plastic wheelbarrow at his house and getting upset because someone put a worm in there. Someone played a Chicago song on the jukebox, a glittering beacon of expensive tunes and cheap sex in the corner, and I can’t remember which Chicago song, but it was high and dramatic and made everything sparkle with nostalgic significance. I noticed a tiny Goodyear blimp painted into the idyllic Luigi’s Mural. I saw we were eating with the same silverware my parents used to set out, and someone behind me said, “I’ve been coming here for fifty years and I always get the pizza.” A woman walked by with an American flag embroidered into her sweater. Two little kids ran shrieking to the juke and fed in dollar bills. They played one song, a really old Green Day tune and ran off. I noticed a young couple, teenagers, flirting in a booth across the room, the boy clean cut, the girl, had she been born twenty years ago might have been dressing like Debbie Gibson, smacked the boy over the head with her menu. Carrie got up to talk with a woman she teaches sixth grade with. I sat in the booth and cut my pizza with the familiar fork. A waitress punched in numbers on the juke, a cheese salad in one hand, and Journey came on— the one about hugging and squeezing and touching. The teenage boy tired of sitting across from his girl, slid into the booth beside her. The waitress told us the couple behind us had picked up our check, I tossed a few bills on the table for a tip and Carrie was going to the car, and as I squeezed past the people waiting in line for a seat, as Rod Stewart came on the jukebox singing “Forever Young,” I pushed out the front doors with a box of leftover pizza in one hand, feeling like maybe, just maybe, we weren’t all royally screwed.