The Barricade Wars: An Ongoing Saga

By the light of day, this photo appears innocuous--even placid--but make no mistake, lives were lost on this field last night. Orange was smeared on these unfinished roads.

Slash, ranking field general for the eighth lit-barrier brigade, had suspected an ACME attack for some time. When a pair of delineators dropped down from the highway, feigning injury, Slash had his medical personnel see to the enemy.

Alas, it was all a ruse.

Three dozen target arrows, flanked by two full regimens of traffic cones, attacked from the south. The skirmish was long and costly--thirteen brave barricades lost their lives.

Nine sandbags, hard, dedicated little soldiers, were drained on the side of the road.

Slash called in a water-filled barrier wall to end the skirmish, an awesome display of military might. By dawn, the ground was littered with crushed ACME traffic cones. By rush hour, the field had been cleared--Bob's Barricades had held the line.

Our group continues its migration north; we hope to soon join our comrades at Mt. Pleasant Road...


James Lee Burke and Pegasus Descending

James Lee Burke can really write.

You have to believe in something. Everyone does. Even atheists believe in their unbelief. If they didn't, they'd go mad. The misanthrope believes in his hatred of his fellow man. The gambler believes he's omniscient and that his knowledge of the future is proof that he is loved by God. The middle-income person who spends enormous amounts of time window-shopping and sorting through used clothing at garage sales is indicating that our goods will never be ashes blowing across the grave. I suspect the drunkard believes his own self-destruction is the penance required for his acceptability in the eyes of his Creator. The adherents of Saint Francis see divinity in the faces of the poor and oppressed but take no notice of the Byzantine fire surrounding themselves. The commonality of all the aforementioned lies in the frailty of their moral vision. It is also what makes them human (294).

Burke's novel Pegasus Descending is peppered with snippets of clear, introspective prose such as this. It's one of his great strengths as a stylist, that ability to impart keen observations on the human condition through narrator Dave Robicheaux.

That old saw about there being a distinction between literary and genre writers falls apart in the wake of analysis of works by writers such as Burke, Randy Wayne White and Jeffrey Ford. Some critics draw the line between the fields by distinguishing between tone and style. Others look at subject and theme.

Well, there's plenty of style here, and more than enough in the way of meaty human issues (race and class struggles, guilt and gluttony, courage and morality) to fill a couple of novels.

Burke paints a vivid picture of New Iberia, Louisiana. His setting is textured and vibrant, his human characters as much a part of the way things have always been as the gators and coons of the low country. Like his Florida counterparts, Randy Wayne White and John D. MacDonald, Burke is interested in testing and measuring the boundaries of the human conscience. Robicheaux is no easy character to figure--even when he goes blind with anger and beats a man nearly to death we see shades of morality in his behaviour.

I only came to this writer's work after having looked at the excellent film In the Electric Mist. I highly recommend this novel, and I'm looking forward to working my way through the rest in the series in the months ahead.


Earth Hour

Kudos to the city of Jacksonville for its participation in Earth Hour. The city will turn off the lights on the bridges and at The Landing; it's one of over 300 major American cities that will take part in this pledge to conserve resources.

I know this type of thing is fashionable, and it's only a brief commitment, but it also sends a strong message to those who are thinking hard about issues like resource depletion and clean energy.

The world is trying.

By now, we know all the tips by rote (digital thermostats, compact-fluorescents, LEDs, energy-star appliances), so no need to get into them. But here's another thing we're doing. We're unplugging all of the appliances. When a toaster is plugged in, even if not in use it has completed the electrical circuit. Power is running to that socket, on standby for use.

We've unplugged a lot of those things. We haven't used the HVAC in about six weeks here in Florida--it's been great open-window weather--and we're hoping to see a steep decline in the energy bill this month from JEA.

At any rate, happy Earth Hour and, if you're looking to take out a feel-good comedy, you could definitely do much worse than Role Models...


A Formula for Rest

Ourl ittle girl is a week old today. While Jeanne and I are rookies at this, we seem to have stumbled upon a solid formula for getting Lyla to rest at night.

Babies love routine, and we've tried to create one that works. During the day, we try to keep her stimulated with songs, stories and play, hoping to keep her awake as much as she's comfortable. As the day nears its conclusion, Jeanne makes sure Lyla has a nice big meal. We then:

  • wash our little one's face. In the future, this will be a full-fledged bath;
  • read her a story. Last night was the excellent Guess How Much I Love You;
  • give her a hands-free swaddle (bundling her arms has been problematic--she likes to feel herself);
  • pop a cap on her head and a pacifier in her mouth (soothies, for those keeping score);
  • turn on Pandora (classical music, Enya, Jim Brickman, etc.) and let it play.

That's worked well. Lyla's had plenty of rest over the last two nights and that's good for all of us.


A Brief Note on RaceFail '09...

The first quarter of 2009 has seen a passionate and often contentious debate on numerous subjects related to race, identity, cultural appropriation and the complexities of esoteric/exoteric social systems. Dubbed RaceFail '09, the debate has sprawled across the internet, pulling writers, editors and fans into a discourse that has generally been labeled either a boondoggle or a watershed.

In my examination of the discussion, I think it's more of the latter. While the discussion has derailed in places, a lot of it has, admirably, remained on task. At its core, it's an examination of institutional privilege, cultural representation (or lack thereof) and the status quo in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

I see RaceFail as a watershed moment because it opened the channels of communication to examine these topics. Cultural critic Sut Jhally (UMASS) has posed the theory that one of the ways the dominant, entrenched power structure remains ensconced is a direct result of a dearth of scrutiny. Silence, in that case, really is golden.

It makes sense. Generally speaking, a discussion of gender equality often gravitates to a look at feminism and women's rights (and not any meaningful discussion on the Good ol' Boys' Club). Discussions on sexuality tend to focus on the GBLTG community, not the prevailing attitudes of the heterosexual community about that community; racial discussions seldom shine the light on white privilege.

In the case of RaceFail, the discussion did lead many writers, readers and editors to reconsider their notions on what it means to inherit a place of prominence in American culture by virtue of race. That's no small feat. It takes a lot of energy to be honest with one's self.

In our literature classes at the college, I ask my students what they learned from the work. Many often reply, simply, "Life's not fair."

Well, right.
We all understand that. As Moonrat outlines in the preceding post, luck plays a large role in seeing your work in print.

She outlines a number of ways in which writers can hedge their bets to mediate the influence of luck on the decisions that affect their work.

But what if you are a writer or artist of color, and the field you are trying to break into is, and historically has been, governed by a (generally) homogeneous power structure (gatekeepers, as many like to label them)? What if the characters you've created don't fall neatly into the traditional/profitable molds that you see within the greater field?

Sheesh. The odds just got a little longer, right?

That's why I think this discussion has been good.

If a number of editors and publishers and writers and fans have taken the last few months to honestly look at how they create characters and deal with each other, then that is good. If this discussion somehow catalyzes a movement toward fewer insulting and/or clumsy character representations and greater opportunities for artistic exposure well, then that's great.

Many of you who read this blog are students at the college. If you've got the time (and believe me, you'll need a lot of it), click on the first link to Ann Somerville's journal and take a look at the conversation.


Recognizing a Crossroads

A funny thing happened to me in the middle of 2006.

I learned how to tell a story on paper.

It wasn't that I couldn't write in the years prior to that revelation. To the contrary, I'd earned a master's degree in English and had become fairly proficient at composing the critical essays that are the life-blood of that academic pursuit.

I'd published fiction and non-fiction and spent better than a year writing sports for a couple of community newspapers in the Portland metropolitan area (I still miss covering the vaunted Greater Oregon League, let me tell you).

I'd written short stories at Linfield--most of them pretty marginal. I penned a 100-page horror novella based on the legend of the Stick People. My classmates seemed to enjoy it, but our instructor actually made the comment (disdainfully) that I was "writing for Hollywood."

Generally speaking, my stories at that time were ok--you could read them, and they had a few nice turns of phrase. But they didn't have much in the way of voice. Every writer needs to find his or hers, and mine was more than a little, well...bland.

Here's a great link to supplement this discussion, by the way.

I was reading all the authors I admired, and I was writing pretty frequently. Those are two of the old canards on getting there: write a lot and read a lot (huh, who would have thought?). Then one week, I felt a shift in my work. It felt more alive on the page--more energetic and vibrant. And, best of all, it felt more like me.

The results weren't immediate, but over time they became tangible. The form rejections have dissipated; I get fewer forms now than I do positive notes with feedback (and no, it's not an oxymoron--a "good" rejection is indeed a courtesy and a boon to the writer).

I probably wrote a million words before experiencing this shift, by the way. Like I said above, not all of those were invested in writing fiction, but I mention that only to underline the notion that this is all an immense process.

Now, when I sit down to write a tale, I'm fairly sure it'll have my signature on it. I can feel it there, and there's a measure of satisfaction in that.

I'm writing this because I'm going to retire a few stories that have been out on submission. These tales are ok--they're technically proficient, with a few nice turns of phrase. But they never get far in the editorial process, and I'm not sure I want them out there right now speaking for my abilities. I think there comes a time when you need to put some of these tales to bed, and I thought I'd gone through that stage with my Linfield stories, but it turns out that the personal validation I was looking for in my own work was still a ways down the road.

Will any of these tales ever see print? Who knows? Ray Carver once called his early work "awful," but when the stories were later collected and printed, audiences were much more charitable.

And I think that's what makes a life of writing such an illuminating experience. There are stories up the road, just around the corner. There are chances to take and places to explore that will stretch and redefine your voice as you blunder down that path.

Incidentally, I've spent the last two days working on the most bizarre thing I've ever attempted. It's going to be fun, and it's going to be long. I'm also working on edits for a pair of stories that have found, at least provisionally, solid homes.


The First Day of Spring

Life is extraordinary.

Last Friday morning, Jeanne shook me awake from a deep sleep. "I think it's time," she said, and we sprang into action and began to execute Project Offspring.

Nineteen minutes later we checked into Memorial Hospital. We verified that, in fact, Jeanne was in labor and we settled in to wait for our little one to join us.

We went through the morning, monitoring contractions, and then things picked up the pace in the afternoon. Shortly after one we had our mid-wife in the room and we were gearing up for the Great Struggle.

Let me say this: My wife is amazing. Her strength and spirit are powers to behold.

At 1:53 in the afternoon, on the first day of spring, Lyla May Powell came into the world. She's a beautiful little girl--even tempered and very sweet. It's been a supreme joy just getting to know her, and we're so excited about where her future might take her.

She weighed seven pounds and six ounces at birth, and she's nineteen inches long. She scored a 9/10 on the APGAR scale, which is great in terms of her overall health.

We feel very blessed to have such a beautiful and healthy little girl with us. I thank all of you have offered advice and wished us well, and we look forward to introducing you to Lyla very soon.


The Barricade Wars: An Ongoing Saga

I am called Blink.

For three years I've commanded a platoon of barricades--hearty, diligent barricades--who stood through rain and wind in our occupation of the northern portion of St. Johns Bluff Road.

Ours has always been a simple mission--to guide others in times of strife and chaos.

The only threat to our mission comes from those who would usurp our position. The armies of ACME Barricades have penetrated deep into the Southside, claiming projects on streets and in neighborhoods where once, only Bob's Barricades directed traffic.

There are those in our ranks who have questioned the direction of Bob's Barricades and our very king, Bob himself, has come under fire. Treason abounds, and jealous thoughts have invaded the core of even the bravest of the traffic cones.

My fealty, however, is resolute, and I will not slander our leader, regardless of our present dire circumstance.

We became suspicious after the first migration. The great machines of progress had worked their magic on the road, transforming a dirty expanse of cracked grey into a ribbon of smooth, black asphalt. I assumed the shift would be temporary, and I sent Slash and his platoon south, to the place where the road intersected with Atlantic Boulevard and the sidewalks were still a network of cracked concrete.

I never knew they would be replaced with cones. Foot soldiers--the smallest and most mobile of our kind--were installed outside of the BP near monument. On that first night, I sent a scout to discern their identities, and we learned for the first time that they were representatives from ACME.

Progress continued. My men were moved, despite our best efforts to maintain our position. We had endured all of the petty indignities: the men who put out their cigarettes on our broad shoulders; the motorists who knocked us askance without so much as a glance in the rear view.

And then we were moved. A re-location transport moved up and down the road, collecting the brave souls of our company and replacing them with ACME cones.

Oh, how they grinned as we were taken away.

It's been nine days. Three quarters of our company have stopped blinking at night. Some have turned on each other.

Our situation is grim.

Tomorrow, I will send an emissary to the north. The machines of progress are on the move, and there is word that the roads near Mt. Pleasant have fallen into disrepair.

We shall endeavor to move our forces into position before the enemy beats us to the punch...


Good News and the Golden Gate

I received a batch of good news today on a story I wrote about that bridge above. Further updates as news breaks...


In the Electric Mist

French director Bertrand Tavernier applies a steady hand to the atmospheric In the Electric Mist. The movie is based on James Lee Burke's novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

It's a good movie, and I'll be starting the book this weekend.

Tavernier puts the setting in the storefront window in this one, and that's a solid choice. It's a beautiful film. After moving to the South from the land of snow-capped mountains, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Brackish cypress creeks and mangrove swamps didn't have much appeal to me back then.

But, like the Spanish moss that festoons just about every green thing in Northeast Florida, the low country has certainly grown on me. There is a beauty in the swamps--and a mystery. It's this mystery that drives Tavernier's film toward a satisfying conclusion.

The pacing is just about right, with enough exposition (the film opens up by briefly flashing Tommy Lee Jones's name on the screen, then cutting to a voice-over) to help us get a feeling for Dave Robicheaux, an honorable cop with questionable tactics. Tommy Lee Jones is only getting better. In a stark contrast to the career arcs of such contemporaries as Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, Jones is delivering the goods in his golden years (not unlike Clint Eastwood). Last year, he gave two of the top ten leading performances in No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah.

Here, he's a delight to watch and even more fun to listen to. His accent is a thing to behold. I'd love to hear him read the audio book version of Burke's novel in just that voice.

Like I said, the film moves well and it covers a lot of territory. We see a little bit of redemption in the story of Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard--good) and John Goodman is compelling as Baby Feet Balboni.

I missed any publicity for this one in the theaters, and that's a shame. I would have liked to have seen the Louisiana low country on the big screen. If you're looking for a nice film this weekend at your local Blockbuster, you could do a heck of a lot worse than In the Electric Mist (B grade, overall).


Pay to Read Online

Here we are, writing and reading through an historically poor economy.

I spent over an hour today at the Duval County Fairgrounds, picking through books at the Friends of the Library Book Sale. It was $10.00 for a grocery sack filled with books, and I nabbed nineteen for that amount.

And let me say, the tables were picked. I couldn't find any good King titles. Not one Lansdale. No Richard Ford or Jeffrey Ford. No Neil Gaiman, no John D. MacDonald, no Chuck Palahniuk, no John Connolly.

The sum total? Four Michael Connollys, four John Grishams, one John Farris, one Robert McCammon, one Michael Crichton, three Elmore Leonards, one Peter Straub, one James Lee Burke, one Lawrence Block...so on and so forth.

Now, I've already written about the importance of supporting a magazine in these rough times. But, in case you need another look at what is amounting to the paramount discussion on where the world of writing is headed, take a gander at this article, and the discussion that ensues, at the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

I applaud all of the quality markets and editors who are making a very serious job of publishing work in this down time. I'm simply thankful for the hard work that editors devote to putting together a quality magazine (online or print), and I think they deserve a ton of credit for having the stones to do that.

As an aside, I just asked my wife if she'd be willing to subscribe to the Oregonian online, and we both agree that we would. The question then boils down to what that would mean. Could online subscriptions ever eclipse the economic thrust of advertising, or would content providers find some common ground between the two?

To be honest, I can't imagine paying much more than six or seven dollars a month to read the Oregonian online. That said, I can certainly live with that, while maintaining my subscription to the physical copy of the Florida Times-Union.

So here it is: would you pay for online content? If yes, how much?

The Week That Was

You know that sensation that prickles your skin just before a real gully washer splits the skies and fills the streets with rainwater? You know that pungent, coppery smell just before the earth and the heavens are bridged by electricity?

We're just about there. Not quite, but just about there. The storm clouds have massed. The temperatures are dropping.

Jeanne's having a couple of contractions each day. Officially, we're still looking at three weeks, but our little girl could come any time. Like I said before, it's danged exciting. Jeanne, by the way, is amazing. She and I took a two-mile walk a little bit ago. Her spirit, attitude and strength are inspirational. I'm looking forward to watching her parent the little gal, to be honest.

In terms of the last week, I went back to work. I've got three delightful groups of students at the college, and I'm looking forward to reading some good student writing in the coming months. It feels good to be back at a place so filled with positive energy.

I had a great week at the word processor. The prose flowed well, and I had a lot of fun. I received a pair of very kind personal rejections (with an offer to re-submit upon revision) and two form rejections on short stories.

Jeanne and I hosted seventeen at the house last night to celebrate the birth of Delaney Finch, the daughter of one of my colleagues at the college. It was a lot of fun, and now I know a little more about roasting thirteen pounds of skin-on pork. I made two types of pulled pork (apple cider mop and mesquite smoked) and two types of homemade barbecue sauce, as well as a mess of baked beans and some homemade coleslaw. Friends brought cake and ice cream. They brought homemade beer and oranges plucked from their back yard.

It was a nice way to spend a Saturday, and Jeanne and I feel very fortunate to have forged the relationships we have here in Florida.

I hit the Jacksonville Public Library's mondo used book sale today and nabbed a grocery sack of books for the mere pittance of ten clams. I fit nineteen books in that sucker, all but three of them hardbacks. I was able to grab a couple of Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke. I wouldn't have known to look for them if I hadn't seen the fine film Into the Electric Mist last night. Review forthcoming later this week.

We hit 82 today in Jacksonville. I ran the bridges downtown, heading down the waterfront, where Hooters was packed and folks were drinking margaritas at Cinco de Mayo. The sky was clear and the water was glittering and I was running back over the Acosta bridge when I looked down and saw a large woman sunbathing with her top off on a yacht that was puttering down the river.

Huh. Florida.

All in all, it was a good week, and I'm pretty excited to see where this week takes me. We're covering some great stories in lit. class and watching On the Waterfront in the film class. My buddy Kris Schaub is flying in from Oregon to get waxed in three rounds of golf.

And maybe, just maybe, the clouds will split and we'll have a new addition to the Powell family.


Lack of Posts...

A trio of wise men (I think it was the Beastie Boys) once said:

My posse's gettin' big...and my posse's gettin' bigger

That's the situation for the Powell family as well. The dearth of content around these parts is due to the fact that my wife and I are in the dog days (figuratively, we're not having a litter, Octo-mom) of pregnancy.

Our first child will be joining us at any time. It's danged exciting.

I'll have some things to write about soon, I promise...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...