Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End

Goodbye old year--Hello, new one. I wish I could say something profound or interesting, something other than a cliche, on this, the last day of 2009.  How grateful I am to still be alive, for family and friends and another year to look forward to.  For all the interesting things I've learned and fellow writers I've met, albeit not in person.  Other bloggers, like William Michaelian over at Recently Banned Literature, does it so, so much better!

And, wouldn't you know it, my friend down in the States, the one who gave me the "Write 10 short stories by Christmas" assignment, reminded me this morning that I hadn't made my deadline, and that I should try, before midnight tonight, to crank one out one more, so as not to have left such a dismal record of compliance. And so I did, being "under the gun" so to speak; I just sat down and ... wrote.

What to write about, on such short notice, at the end of the year, when a dozen yet-to-do tasks loom waiting? The state of the world today, our awful economy, gratitude for what one still has ... love in small gestures?? None or All of the above?

At least I can say I spent some minutes of the last morning of the old year ... writing. (Not that that gets me off the hook for my 'assignment'). But I plan to stop procrastinating in the new year. Honest.

So here is my little story. Some of it is semi-autobiographical (the smuggling episode). Some of it is recently factual (the state of my toast this morning). Some of it is based on memories or random observations of human behavior. Most of it, though, is purely imaginary. I call it:


There are, they say, no coincidences in life. An event you might think is accidental is not really accidental. Fate determines where you’re eventually going to end up and though you may try to maneuver things toward a different outcome, circumstances arise, randomly and completely out of your control that put you back on the path to your destiny.

Who IS this mysterious “they” that seem to know what we do not? What if your destiny is, oh  ...  sameness?  How, in heaven's name, do you climb out of everlasting sameness?

Such were the dark thoughts that gathered like a heavy cloud in Dennis’s head this morning, the last day before the beginning of yet another new year.

“So what resolutions did you make for New Year’s?” his wife asked, scraping the burnt toast with a butter knife, sending blackened flecks of toasted ash cascading into the sink.

Dennis was tired of burnt toast every morning for breakfast. He’d fixed the damn toaster eight times and still couldn’t get it to work right. If you pointed the knob to “Light”, the bread came out the same way it went in, slightly tanned but still too soft.  If you selected “Medium”, the toast burnt to a charcoal-black crisp. If you selected "Dark"--well, they never did, after it first started malfunctioning.  If "Medium" could practically incinerate a slice of bread, what might "Dark" do?  He could not even imagine.

“My resolution for the new year,” Dennis replied, “is to buy a new toaster.”

“You know we can’t afford that, honey,” said his wife.

She had to go and remind him, again, how poor they were. Some people replaced their toaster every year, not out of necessity, but simply because they grew tired of its style, or color, or wanted one with more sophisticated and unnecessary gagetry. My fate, thought Dennis, is to have to endure burnt toast for the rest of my natural life.

“No, really,” said his wife. “What are your New Year’s resolutions?”

That, of course, was a trick question on her part. Dennis knew that his wife knew that he broke every resolution made at the beginning of every year, well before the first week had even ended. It was like a game with her, he chuckled.   It’s as if a little alarm goes off in her head at that exact time every year, alerting her: “Hey look, it’s that time of year again. Let’s remind Dennis how little things have changed, how after almost 45 years of couplehood we seem to have gone right back to where we started,still in the same boring little house in the same depressing neighborhood, still eating burnt toast and unable to afford even the smallest of new appliances.” 

It was, of course, not that way at all. Dennis's wife thought no such thing. They certainly could afford to buy a decent toaster.  They were even given one as a gift--twice--by their grown children, but Dennis's wife, unbeknownst to them,  gave them away.  Her reasoning was that they already had a toaster, while their next-door neighbor, and a newly married niece, at the time had none.  Dennis just got defensive from time to time, about his inability to move mountains, which is what it would take to change their economic situation so that buying a new toaster, or a new anything, wouldn't create such a perceived dent in their finances.  Dennis's wife was what they called, a "penny pincher"  Even if they had had the money, she would have balked at spending it.

In the beginning, when they'd first married, he found this quality admirable.  He knew no other woman who-- say if her washing machine broke down and couldn't be fixed or replaced for another month or so--would willingly, and even cheerfully, wash every single item by hand, including the bedding and braided carpets.  But Dennis's wife did, and thought nothing of it. He was impressed, at first.  Then it just got ... tiresome.  If she'd only work less and stop trying to do everything herself, she'd have more time for, well ....him.   

Dennis filled his cup with the dark, steaming coffee, grabbed the plate with the toast, and shuffled off to his chair in the living room to read the paper. Another day, another year, what’s the difference.

His wife, who knew his routines by heart, settled back into her own. She put aside the scraped and now buttered toast, turned on the faucet and rinsed the sink, poured herself some tea, and headed for her favorite chair to resume her knitting. Another day, another year, another wrinkle, another few gray hairs, another age spot on her arthritic hands. She examined the little baby sweater she was knitting for their grandchild, smiling with pride at her expert craftsmanship.  It cost her only a few dollars for the yarn and she had all the time in the world.  Were she so inclined she could have sold it for more than $50 to the Baby Boutique in town, who would have sold it for even more, that's how fine a garment she could make.  But the thought never occurred to her; this was a product of love and her entire heart went into each and  every careful stitch.

“Hey,” called Dennis from the living room, making her lose her train of thought.

“Hey what?” she called back.

“Wanna go take in a movie today?”

“You know we can’t afford the movies,” she reminded him. Dennis’s wife tried to remember when was the last time they had gone to see a movie. She remembered that their daughter, who lived in the city, called movies “films”.

The neighbor across the way was shoveling snow out of his driveway. Sounds of metal scraping against frozen asphalt, a familiar sound that took her back to her childhood, her father scraping snow from the concrete porch, the same sound … scrrrraaape… scrrrraaape … scrrrraaape. She smiled at the memory.

“So,” said Dennis. “You wanna go or not?”

“We have exactly $12 in the cookie jar,” she reminded him.. “And that’s to go for a new toaster, remember?”

“Oh what the hell,” said Dennis, rising from his chair and folding his newspaper. “Why the heck not? Do us good, to see a flick once every coupla years.”  Dennis's wife never heard him call movies "flicks" before.

Another year coming and more likely than not, they would still be eating burnt toast every morning. Dennis was sure of it.  How he managed to convince his wife to go see a movie, he couldn't remember.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the movie theater that afternoon. As they crossed the street, just before they got to the other side, Dennis’s wife spied a shiny object sticking out of a trash can on the upcoming sidewalk. It had a cord dangling from it. She let go of Dennis’s arm and went over to investigate. It seemed to be intact—no rust or dents or noticeable damage. She looked at Dennis. Dennis looked back and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Well?”

Without saying a word, Dennis’s wife lifted it out of the trashcan and began stuffing the shiny object into her coat (because it would not fit into her  purse) and they proceeded into the theater to buy their tickets for the matinee. When they got inside, the usher, noticing the uneven bulge under her unbuttoned coat, wondered if she might be trying to smuggle a giant bag of home-popped popcorn into the theatre, to avoid buying it at the concession stand, whose prices, in his opinion, were outrageous. He decided to just let it go--his good deed for the year.

The next morning Dennis and his wife slept in, it being New Year’s Day, and when they got up, Dennis’s wife cleaned up the shiny toaster they’d found in the trash, put it on the counter and plugged it in, and placed two pieces of bread inside it.  It was missing a knob so one couldn’t predict the Light/Medium/Dark outcome. They both stood there, in their bathrobes, coffee and tea in hand, in front of the toaster, and waited.

“What if it explodes?” Dennis’s wife suddenly asked, thinking no person in their right mind would ever throw out a good, working toaster. It was thrown into the trash because it didn’t work. What was she thinking, to bring it home with them last night?   Theirs was still perfectly fine.  She imagined an enormous bang and a cloud of black smoke filling her small kitchen, the walls catching on fire, the cubboards melting, all their possessions … gone.

But the toaster didn’t explode. It just emitted a low, mechanical “mmmmmmmmmmmmmm”. “It’s humming,” said Dennis. That means it’s working!

It wasn’t a hum exactly, more like a cat purring.  Dennis’s wife came closer and bent over the toaster and peered inside.  Warm air was coming out of it and the coils were slowly turning red.   She became hopeful. In less than a minute a small, soft "clink” was heard and the two pieces of toast popped into view. Dennis grinned. His wife clapped her hands.

But when they pulled out the toast, they discovered why the toaster had been so readily abandoned. Each piece of toast had a lightly toasted half and a completely burnt half. How very bizarre. They tried it several more times with different types of bread, they turned the toaster upside down and shook it, they even cut the bread into half-pieces, but no matter what they did,  it always came out that two halves would be lightly toasted and the other two halves completely burnt.

Dennis sighed. His wife laughed.

Now, nothing seemed to have changed for these two people. Although Dennis tinkered with the toaster and tried to fix it, the results were still the same.   Sameness prevailed.  And so they made do, just as they had  always done, just as they planned to always do, for however long remained to them upon this earth.

One thing, however, had changed. Dennis began looking forward to his toast in the morning. He, of course, chose the lightly toasted halves of the two slices that came out of the toaster. His wife took the burnt halves and stood over the sink, as she had always done, scraping the blackened flecks into the sink.   Then she'd spread a thick slab of butter on the now well-crusted but still perfectly edible toast, add a dab of orange marmalade, take a sip of tea, and head for her reading chair. Neither her toast nor her routine had significantly changed.  It was, after all, her little ritual, the scrape, scrape, scraping of the toast every morning. And she did not like altering her routines, however weird other people might think them to be.  But she liked going to the movies that time with Dennis.  That was fun.  Perhaps they might do it again.

The $12 in the cookie jar soon climbed to $25, then $50, then $75—more than enough to buy a new, quality toaster, one that would make perfect toast, every time. And in due course, one was purchased, and the old, humming former shiny reject found in the trash can, which had nevertheless served them well for so many months, found a new life--or at least its parts did--at the recycle center.

Another year rolled around, and to all intents and purposes, nothing had really changed. Or had it? Was it this couple’s fate to be forever stuck in their sameness and inability to rise to a higher level of happiness? They didn’t seem to be unhappy—except about the burnt toast, and that was only Dennis, and that situation, as we have seen, eventually resolved itself.

Did Dennis view himself as stuck in sameness?  This thought had once briefly crossed his mind. Their increasing lack of money, brought on by retirement, a reduced income, and an unstable economy, bothered him. But everyone he knew was in the same boat. They had a roof over their heads, they had enough to eat, and the neighborhood, though sometimes boringly predictable, was full of memories and--familiar. Their daughter visited often, they would soon welcome another new grandchild. Dennis had his routine. His wife had hers.  He was okay with things.  The "same", he reflected,  could be both frightening and welcomed.

His wife concurred—or would have, had he asked her. Each of them greeted each new year hoping some things would stay  the same, that there would be no new catastrophes, no new unwelcome surprises, nothing approaching that they could not handle. But they looked forward to some changes. They planned to re-do the kitchen at some point; Dennis's wife talked about their maybe taking a little trip somewhere.

“So," that little voice that picks apart your newly written prose to probe its worth, suddenly whispers in my mind before the ink is even dry.  "And the moral of the story is ....?"

There is no moral to the story.  It’s just a story.
About a man,
and his wife
and their toaster.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL. And I emphasize the word Happy. :)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Word Virus Epidemic and Predatory Metaphors

I watched an interesting film the other day called "Pontypool", based on a book by Tony Burgess.  It's about a mysterious deadly virus that strikes a small town in northern Ontario.  It's advertised as a psychological thriller--but it's also a kind of linguistic zombie flick. 

The strange virus that affects the townspeople is caused by infected words in the English language, so that when certain words are spoken and understood by another, they become contagious. When you become infected, the words gets lodged in your system and you start repeating them obsessively, which, as director of the film Bruce McDonald explains, is possibly your immune system working overtime to try and save you from the virus by trying to destroy their meaning.  You become confused, unable to remember how to string words together. If you want to say, for example, "Let’s go for a coffee" it might come out "Giraffe five eleven." It becomes so intolerable, "you attack somebody and try to chew your way through their mouth. So it goes from repetition to mixing up your words to extreme violence."

The two main characters, Grant and his co-worker Sydney, are holed up in a soundproof room at a small radio station in the basement of a church when a mob of cannibalistic townsfolk begin frantically beating down the doors.  Grant and Sydney's only solution is to not say any words in English. Since they don't know which words are infected, it's better not to speak at all. (They try speaking in French, which the townspeople don't understand, so this buys them a little more time, but not much.)  Then Sydney begins showing signs of having been infected and Grant must figure out a way to stop the progress of the disease.  He realizes that not understanding a word disinfects it and asks himself, "How do you make a word strange?"

Meanwhile Sydney starts chanting "Kill!  Kill!  Kill!" and heads zombie-like towards Grant.  Grant has to convince her that kill does not really mean kill.  "Kill is ... kiss," he says.  Kill doesn't mean kill anymore.  Kill now means Kiss.  He makes her repeat it over and over:  Kill is kiss, kill is kiss, kill is kiss, until she's "cured".

Reviews were mixed about the cinematic worth of the film.  Some, who wanted more gore, thought it boring.  Some simply didn't "get" it.  Others, like myself, found the premise intriguing.  It parallels the breakdown of civilization and our inability to communicate with one another, hints about the deterioration of language and disillusionment and instability.  If the author's intention was to invoke unease in his audience, he certainly succeeded.  It also impresses on you the idea that nowhere you go is really safe, and loved ones and people you have known all your life can suddenly turn on you and viciously attack you.

The author and screenwriter Tony Burgess, in an interview refers to the film as "a chapter that the book imagined or forgot, or couldn't fit in"--as if the book were alive and writing itself.  The book, he says, is "kind of randomly related to itself."  I tried to think of a work of poetry or fiction that I'd read recently of which I could say that it was intentionally or randomly related to itself.

Another intriguing idea he put forth (in the interview) was that the film is "really a metaphor for metaphors that keep hunting you, long after they've been meaningful.  They keep coming at you."  What really interests him, however, is: "Are there figures of speech that become predatory, long after their meaning as figures of speech have left the stage?"

Metaphors that hunt you down, stalk you, come after you ... metaphors that are ... predatory.  Made me think of Jungian archetypes run amuck, for some reason.

I found the concept highly interesting, and the film was unlike any zombie-type horror film I have ever seen.  It didn't need graphic scenes of agonizing torture or bloodied walls or hacked off limbs or severed heads to impart the sense of extreme fear.  As long as you kept quiet and didn't say anything, you would be safe.  But they (Grant and Sydney) were trapped in a radio station and the frenzied mob had entered the building and they needed to announce to the world how to stop the disease.  Except to do so would mean talking, broadcasting over the airwaves, and that would, of course, draw zombie-like townfolk in even greater numbers to them. 

I hated the ending.  I suppose it was inevitable.  I still hated it.  (Have you ever seen a horror flick with a happy ending?)

I generally don't like horror films.  Psychological thrillers, yes.  Mysteries and mind-teasers, definitely.  Torture and dismemberment, no matter how artful or shlocky, for entertainment sake ... I squirm and cover my eyes or leave the room.  Even the "classics" -- Night of the Living Dead, pod people, zombies on the march ... give me nightmares.  But this one, "Pontypool," I couldn't stop watching. 

Ah,  the inadequacy of words, and the sheer power of words -- existing simultaneously from their creation to their combustion to their eventual transformation.  How ironic--that to cure someone of a disease that renders them incapable of remembering how to form intelligible word connections, you had to take a known, familiar word that still had meaning--and recast it as gibberish.  Kill is kiss.  Yellow is crowded.  Girafe five eleven.

Anyway, what an idea!!  A virus caused by words--but only in the English language.  It's not all that farfetched to think of a future scenario where a virus could be specifically designed to attack only those of a certain genetic disposition, dispensed by vaccination for a fictional disease whereby the recipients, when innoculated, would be rendered incapable of creating or bearing offspring. Anihilapop. Or one where the world's food supply has become so contaminated that one is reduced to eating the bark of a tree, boiling one's own manuscripts for soup, or  marinating one's shoelaces.  Now that is scary!!

Click here to see a trailer of the film.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unning the Uns

late, too long
ago for the
unsaid, the

trapped in the chokeholds
of regret
solidified in memory,
the unsaid repeats
what couldn't be voiced,
the undone enacts
what never was

as if one could
unwordings, or


~~ Annie Wyndham

* Photo of "Francis", a woodcarving from Vermont, sentinel of the house; he sits at the window, eyes whatever world I happen to be living in at the time, watches till I return, a familiar face in the window, always there, always waiting, keeper of my memories, a mere piece of wood, but named, and an infinite friend.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Holes between Words

I came across an intriguing essay today by Jordan Benjamin, who had gone to Vilnius, Lithuania in 2006 to learn the language of his great-grandfather.  While there, a friend and fellow-student from Paris tells him of his interest in "the way certain modernist writers use the spaces between words to convey meaning."  He (the friend) is particularly interested in "the way these writers describe the inevitability of falling into the holes between words."  What does that mean, exactly, the "holes between words"?

One tries to reconstruct reality through words but finds them inadequate.  You're left in a kind of limbo waiting for words "to present themselves."  They don't.  So you look outside of language to say what words can't say.  Jordan Benjamin's friend, however, believes that these holes or spaces between words are an essential part of language and that "they constitute half the text."   (The holes themselves--those empty spaces where you wait to find the words--are part of the text?  The missing threads, as it were, haven't yet been woven but are still somehow part of the existing fabric?)

Existence itself as a language, of words and not-words.  Jordan asks himself  "If you believe existence is a language, then what does it mean to fall in love with a language that is dying?”

Good question.  And I have one as well:  Might language inherently contain the seeds of its own demise, where "the space between the words" widens and one falls into the wordless hole lacking the key to close the gap?  Are there spaces or holes within its structure that cannot be filled--even by non-words--and how does that translate into "text"?  Texts can be preserved--up to a point.  But if one can no longer read them, speak them, or interpret them ... then what?

Waiting for Words

Languages that are dying
leaving spaces that morph
into gaps
of unreachability . . .

Poets that struggle
to fill the void
left by words not yet

The comings and goings
of logos
into and out of
the spaces
among them
in a swirl of

waiting to be united

or expire

*26 Birds -- photo taken by awyn, Winter 2004, in the back yard.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace to All

To friends and readers of this blog (all four of you) :) Happy Holidays!!

Peace and everything good in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


They followed me home
I kept saying shoo
Go away, go back.
That’s what happens when
you talk to animals.
Like they even understand, he said.
Or maybe it’s that I ran with them
and not to him.

You play like a dog, he said
in that voice that hints of
Why do they follow you
Are you
part dog?

~~ awyn

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Giants Among Us

He was a doctor
      who wrote poetry
he told the Truth ...

He died of a car accident.
No wait, it was a heart attack.
Actually, it was suicide.
But it may have been poisoning ...

He was a doctor
he told the Truth.

He was warned ...

Silence the speaker, the voice is
still heard.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh Dear

Received a photo in the mail today from S., which inspired two very different little poems, which shall be titleless:


‘Tis the season
to be jolly
make your lists
and hang the holly

Kids are wired
Santa’s tired
looks as if
his wit’s expired

Poor little V.
has missed her nap
doesn’t want
on Santa’s lap

It'll all change
in a little while
when he brings toys--
then see her smile!


even myths eventually
tire of themselves
and yet ...
for some,
the elation stays,
if only
in memory


[They really should make better-fitting beards...      :) ]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sad Happiness

That seems to be a contradiction, like "soothing pain" or "silent scream" or "lonely crowd".

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski, in an essay I read recently, describes Rilke's Duino Elegies as "an enchanted forest," and that after a while the reader finds himself resembling "a snowy owl flying silently between the dense spruce branches with the utmost facility … with a kind of sad happiness that is, it seems, a proper response to great poetry."

Zagajewski recounts his initial reaction to first reading the Elegies:

Standing in the street filled with the mediocre din of a lazy Communist afternoon, I read for the first time the magical sentences "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels' / Orders? And even if one of them pressed me / suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed / in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure." The street suddenly disappeared, political systems evaporated, the day became timeless, I met eternity, poetry woke up.

I could relate to that because I had a similar reaction on my first reading of them, where everything ‘disappeared’ … I forgot where I was, and I, too, "met eternity", and for the first time felt real poetry. Those words, those few lines, had the most profound effect on me.  The power of a poet's words, to take you somewhere so far beyond everything you have ever known or experienced, opening up this entire new world of mystery—and understanding.  I remember thinking, at the time:  “I have to tell someone!” 

Tell them what?  And how would I explain it?  "Here—READ this!!"  … and have them look at me with those eyes—you know the kind—and suppose they grab the book from my hands, read a few lines, then shut the pages and hand it back to me, scrunching up their eyebrows and shaking their head, as if I had just showed them an exotic fruit they don’t know what to do with.

How is it that the exact same words that bring such pleasure and meaning to one, for another mean absolutely nothing, like the random, unintelligible scratchings on some unscalable brick wall?

But those words—“sad happiness”—that's like being in an armchair, eyes closed, blocking out everything except the sound of the cello playing music so sad it pulls the being out of your soul.  And yet …  these can represent some of the happiest moments of one’s life, unable to be shared with no one but the shadows of the night, where the very air that surrounds you is one of complete, and utterly undefinable … Happiness.

Sad happiness.  The transcendence of, yet retained envelopment into ... isness.  Where are the words to play that, like the cello plays its musical counterpart?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Hotel Made of Ice

I can't believe it's ten years already that they've been building the necessarily short-lived Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) up near Quebec City.  Made entirely of snow and ice, this unique, 36-room temporary hotel opens again this year on January 4 until April 4, 2010 when it will, of course, have begun to slowly melt.

Here, from around $189 Cdn. (per person) for the basic one-night Nordic Escape to the more elaborate Polar Getaway package (which starts at almost $800 per person), you can experience an adventure few people have ever had--to spend the night sleeping on ice.

It suddenly occurs to me that many a homeless person having to do just that for the entire winter, not as an 'adventure' but for sheer survival, would probably find this ironic--that someone would actually pay for the experience. 

But you've got to admit, it's an interesting idea.  Introduces people to try 'braving the elements', so to speak.  Each suite in the Ice Hotel offers a unique design. (If you're into sports, there is the Hockey Suite, for example.)

You might like to stop off at the ice cafe or visit the ice bar while you're there (pictured to the right--click to enlarge).  Those icycles on that chandelier look like the ones that hang from my roof all winter long, except these are more sculpted and decorative and, unlike the outdoor slicycles, won't sometimes fall on your head when you walk under them.)

You will be sleeping on a bed made of a solid block of ice on which sits a wooden box frame with a mattress on top.  The mattress is covered with blankets and you'll will be provided an Arctic sleeping bag designed to withstand temperatures of -30 C (-22 Farenheit).  Not to worry, it won't get that cold.  The temperatures inside the Ice Hotel average around -3 to -5 C (about 26F to 23 F, respectively). Perfectly doable.

Don't want to spend the night but curious to see what it looks like inside?  You can come as a visitor for around $16 adult, $12 children--or if applicable, under the family rate (2 adults + 3 children) for $40.

You can even get married at the Ice Hotel!!  Picture being surrounded by white, with crystals made of ice instead of glass.  How cool is that!

The Ice Hotel is located at Station Duchesnay near Lake St. Joseph, a 30-minute drive from Quebec City.  To see more views of the inside of the Ice Hotel, check out Sandra Bellefoy's photo gallery on flickr (click here).

~ ~ ~
Quebec's annual Winter Carnival is coming--from January 29 to February 14, 2010.  If you have never been to Quebec City, it's well worth a visit then.  There are wonderful (sometimes huge) ice sculptures all over town, and plenty of activities for one and all, such as sled races and snow rafting and dogsledding.

And for the very brave and thermally ready, the Bay Snow Bath! (Some Quebeckers, of course, are rapidly heading down to Florida or Mexico, as I write, ha ha..  Not everyone likes winter, and where some of us actually welcome snow, there probably are many, many more who just shudder at the thought of five whole months of it, without a break.  By May, I admit, I'm ready to start thinking garden again.)

The other day we drove up to St. Anne-de-la-Parade for a doctor's appointment, through fog as thick as paste, and noticed some men out on the river testing the frozenability of the ice.  It's not yet quite thick enough but in a few weeks will start the big event for which the village is known--the emergence of 200 or so little ice-fishing cabins onto the frozen river (plus a little restaurant).  Click here to see our little ice fishing expedition last January, with photos of our "catch".)

And now, to go out and shovel a path for the cats ....

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Word Survivers of the Blackout

Writer, cartoonist and artist Austin Kleon has a new book coming out in April, 2010 showcasing his Blackout poems. No, they are not poems composed during a blackout--they are poems made by blacking out words in a newspaper and leaving other ones unblacked out. The unblacked-out ones eventually will constitute the poem(s).

Basically, you're limited to the words appearing on that one page and after choosing the words you want, you  then obliterate everything left on the page by covering over it with a black marker pen.  I decided to try it. But the newspaper we receive here is in French. Does it have to be from a newspaper? I turned to the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Poets & Writers and opened it up to a random page, and gave it a go.  I also timed myself.

Wouldn't you know it would be a page with three ads, taking up the entire page:  one for Eastern Kentucky University for their Master of Fine Arts program, one for, an on-line print-on-demand outfit, and one for Carpe Articulum, a Literary Review. No sentences on the page, just bulleted blurbs and deadline dates. Hmmm.  This is not going to be easy.  This is what resulted:

Stern universe,
hard, binding...
any man, a brief master.
Easy, the hidden control of
multiple carp, dead.
Lines?  Don't submit.

That makes absolutely NO sense.  I think I prefer choosing my own words.  This is too much like those word games "Find the Missing Word" or in this case, Find the Words That'll Mean Something If You Can Figure a Way to String Them Together Poetically.

In the future perhaps we'll have Word Vending Machines where when you insert a coin, out'll come a bag of words that you can then take home and ingest ("Eat my words!"), or you can lay them out on the kitchen table, like a puzzle, and see if you can make a poem out of them.  The advantage over those little magnetic refrigerator-door words is that you can always get a fresh supply of new words. Still, the selections are limited. I can imagine wanting to cheat:  "Ah, if I only had a better adjective!!"  And--"Do the words have to be chronological?  Can I move that word on the bottom back up there to the top?"  That sort of thing...

Austin Kleon's newspaper blackout poems are better. To see his collection of the poems on flikr, click here.

I like that idea of a word machine, though.  Unused words could be redeposited back into the machine for others to use.  But the whole idea of blackening out words ... is a tad too redactionary for my taste.  (Government censors, take note,  if this trend catches on, it might result in a shortage of black markers!)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Inadvertent Mergings

A friend, concerned--and rightly so--that I too often succumb to bouts of undiscipline with regard to keeping to a writing schedule, has issued a bit of a challenge: Write 10 short stories, he said,  before December 25th. That's 10 days from now!!

I should mention, in all fairness, that he assigned me this task way back in November. I am just now getting around to it.

Some people have a tremendous problem with writer's block, and for days sit in front of a blank piece of paper or computer screen, unable to find a subject to write about, much less the words to do so. I have the opposite problem: my head is exploding with words and stories and ideas--but I don't get them out. They stay locked in there while I procrastinate. That will have to be one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2010--start revising those old stories languishing in the desk drawer, get those sentences  and images out of my head and write them down, and establish some kind of regular writing schedule--and stick to it.

Okay, here we go, Story No. 1, nine more to go.  [The writingstyle is intentional--not all the stories will be in this vein.  I was just experimenting.]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Lawrence passed his 62nd birthday alone in his study sorting through his writings and stacks of unpaid bills when the telephone rang. It was his editor, the woman he had hired to transform his pencilled outpourings into readable, grammatical text.  But this time he had an important project that he wanted completed as soon as possible:  he instructed her to compile all the poems he had ever written to a former lover, a certain French woman with whom he had spent a magical summer some decades ago in the South of France, and arrange them into a little booklet that he intended to publish before his death.

Lawrence thought of Death often. He felt his was imminent and no amount of reasoned argument could persuade him otherwise.  Although he had occasional bouts of indigestion and struggled with insomnia, he was, in fact, as healthy as a horse.

He was tired that day, though, out of sorts, not wanting to deal with the mechanics of assembling, organizing, arranging and placing the poems in the order he might want them to appear in the booklet.  It required just too much concentration, and though he thought it a necessary and worthy endeavor, he simply couldn't face it, not this morning, when it was all he could do to make the coffee.  So he simply handed the thick folder of old, typewritten poems over to his editor, asking her to see to their final preparation. Now what Lawrence didn't realize, and the editor didn't know, was that there were three particular poems in there that were written for someone other than the French woman to whom the collection was to be dedicated.

One frosty morning a week or so later, the editor came to his house with the completed manuscript.  Lawrence had been unable to sleep and had been up since 4 a.m. A mug of dark, cold espresso sat abandoned on his desk, alongside three chewed-up yellow pencils and a dozen wadded-up balls of paper, evidence of his continuous battle with Blockitis.. 

"It's all finished, Lawrence," said the editor.   "Have a look at it and let me know if there is anything you want changed or added or deleted."

Bleary eyed from lack of sleep and fighting a nasty cold, Lawrence waved her away with a sweep of his hand, as if swatting a fly.   "I'm done with it, I can't think anymore," he said. "I trust your judgment. Go ahead and get it printed up."  The editor left and Lawrence went back to bed, sneezing and coughing.

Lawrence felt that he had already done the hard part--the writing and preserving of the poems. That was, of course, back when his heart was actually into writing. It wasn't anymore. Try as he might, he could never top those first, early poems. It was as if the boldness and intuitiveness, the sensitivity and passion which seemed to come so naturally then had slowly deserted him, until finally, he became nothing more than an old, discarded vessel whose interior cracks ceased to contain even what he deemed the smallest, finest parts of himself. He did not really need to be involved in the tweaking and arranging and formatting and all those other tedious technical specifics of manuscript production. That's what editors are for, right?

In short time the manuscript found its way to a small, local outfit that specialized in publishing poetry on demand. Pods, they called it.  A lifetime of writing and no one asked to see his work anymore.  There was no new work--hadn't been for some time, actually--but that was beside the point.  They still could have asked. Anyway, Lawrence had instructed that 200 copies be printed of the love poems booklet, which he planned to distribute to his family and friends, his writing colleagues, and his alma mater, if nothing else than to remind them he was still there; and he planned to have dozens of copies strategically placed at the three bookstores in town.

One morning about about a week later, his cold now gone, he was sitting in his study, after the first full night of sleep in weeks, rested, alert and ready to work again.  Sipping his piping hot coffee he opened his mail to find a copy of the newly published little poetry booklet that the editor had sent him, and he began thumbing through it, rereading, with high pleasure, each and every poem that he had written those many years before in the throes of his passion for the lovely Marianne in Paris. He liked the way the way the booklet looked, especially that stunning photograph of himself on the cover, in black and white, where he appeared far more sophisticated than he usually saw himself.  He liked the way the little book felt in his hands, the way each page's poem recounted scene after scene after scene of tender memories, revealing the hidden, adoring glances and the shared, magical hours of their impassioned lovemaking.

He was so enthralled with the overall production and so caught up in the memories evoked by the first ten poems that he put the book aside and closed his eyes to allow himself a brief, quiet visit to the past.  Distracted by the barking of a neighbor's dog, he grumbled and picked the book up again, inadvertently skipping a section of the book that, had he noticed, contained some poems that really didn't belong there.  And then he came to the last page--the finest poem of them all, in the editor's opinion--a farewell pleading from Lawrence to his lover, asking her not to ever, ever forget him. Except this particular poem was not written for Marianne Lefournier of Paris, France but to one Isabel Edith Elizabeth Jackson--of Wicita Falls, Texas.

When Lawrence saw the title of the poem, the blood suddenly drained from his face. Tiny beads of sweat
suddenly appeared on his forehead.  He rushed to the phone to call the editor. "How could you
let this happen?!" he blurted into the mouthpiece.  "That last poem should not be in there!"  Pacing the room in circles, he punched the air with the fist of his free hand, as he detailed the poem's history.

"You should have looked the material over more carefully before handing me the folder," scolded the editor. "You said to put ALL the poems into the booklet. How was I to know one of them wasn't meant to be there?"  Neither Lawrence nor his editor, at this point, was aware of the two other misplaced poems that had also been erroneously inserted.

Well, the damage was done. Two hundred books had already been printed and on being distributed. Poor Lawrence had neither the funds nor the energy to have them all recalled, corrected and reprinted. He slumped into his armchair, clutched at his hair and moaned. "What if she sees it?" he wailed into the phone.

"Marianne?" said the editor. "Why, I think she'd be flattered, Lawrence. That last poem was truly beautiful.  And there is no way she could know it was not originally meant for her."

"No, no!" Lawrence cried, "Not Marianne! Isabel!! Isabel Jackson!! I wrote that poem for Isabel Jackson, not Marianne!!  Isabel lives in the next town over! What if she comes over shopping this week and sees it in the bookstore?  We had a wild affair for a few months when I was on sabbatical abroad but I broke it off because she was so violently jealous. She once threatened to kill me, you know, if she ever caught me with another woman."

"I see," said the editor, who then suddenly remembered something.  "Lawrence, uh, we inserted Marianne's name into the opening line of each and every poem in the book, remember?--yes, well, I can see how that might make this Isabel woman a bit miffed, should she read it, that the poem you wrote to her was subsequently altered and recycled addressed to another woman."

"She won't be merely 'miffed'," cried Lawrence. "She'll go ballistic!" He recalled with horror the first days of their courtship when, after an imagined slight, Isabel had shown up at his door at three in the morning, demanding an apology, and when he wouldn't let her in at that hour, she stood on the porch shrieking as she hurled a brick through the living room window, shattering glass and dirt all over his newly purchased Persian rug.

Lawrence shuddered at the memory. He shot up out of the armchair, jammed on his coat and boots and rushed to the bookstores to grab back all the copies of the poetry booklet, before Isabel--should she be in town that day--would discover its existence.

Now while Lawrence was in Bookstore #1, hastily stuffing the booklets into a large vinyl sack he had brought with him, Isabel Jackson was wandering among the shelves of Bookstore #3, examining the newest releases in the Mysteries and Science Fiction division when a thin volume lying on a table nearby caught her eye. It caught her eye because of the photograph on its cover. "Oh my God, that's Lawrence!" she said aloud. She recognized the photo immediately--it was one she herself had taken some years before, when they had gone to the beach one afternoon. Her copy was now in a landfill somewhere, after she had summarily shredded it, not wanting to be reminded of the only man in her life to have ever dumped her.

She looked at the title and blushed. "Love Poems for All Time," it said. She tried to remember the last time

she had seen Lawrence. It must have been, oh fifteen-sixteen years ago or more. Though they lived in adjacent towns they had never, in all that time, bumped into one other, mainly because they frequented different social circles and truth be told, Lawrence was somewhat of a recluse.  Consumed with curiosity, not only by the sudden appearance of this book of poems that she believed were about her, Isabel opened the book and began reading the dedication page. "For my beloved, always and forever my true love, only you, Marianne."

Marianne?! Who the hell is Marianne?!! Isabel was so taken aback, she dropped her bulging handbag, which fell to the floor with a loud clunk, startling a fellow bookbrowser in the next aisle. Her fury mounting, Isabel flipped the pages forward so roughly that a salesperson who happened to be walking by, stopped and frowned at her. "Don't worry," she said, answering his concerned stare with an even stronger glare back, "I'm buying it."

Isabel stopped and sat down, suddenly out of breath. Thank God for those wooden stools they place everywhichwhere in bookstores for people to not have to stand so long.  All that pent-up emotion made her overheated and lightheaded. She loosened the collar of her jacket, took a deep breath, and continued reading. Like the stills from a silent film, page after page of her former lover's infatuation with another woman--a foreign woman!!!--passed visually before her. She felt like an eavesdropper, hiding behind the curtains, shocked and humiliated, but unable to look away. That was bad enough--to discover that he'd loved another woman--but the worst was yet to come. On page 22 was a poem about a tryst at Cafe D'Orsay.

"Wait a minute.  He took ME to that cafe!!!"  she shouted.

"Shhhhhhhhh!" said a voice behind the bookshelves.  Reeling from the realization that Lawrence had not only taken both her and the other woman to the same cafe AND that he sat with this Marianne person in the Exact. Same. Corner table! near the window overlooking the street, Isabel completely, as they say, lost it.

She viciously ripped the page from the book, then felt immediately guilty.  No matter how angry she was at that cad Lawrence, she needn't have taken it out on the book.  She lowered her eyes and attempted to smooth out the cover, now bent and mangled.  Still...   Her blood boiling, she forced herself to keep reading, and on page 39 discovered a poem Lawrence had actually written to her, Isabel, titled "To My Love with the Auburn Hair".  She knew the words of this poem by heart.  They still stayed with her, not so easy to erase as the shredding of his picture had been.  Except now it contained an additional word at the beginning of the first line that she hadn't remembered being there before.  It said "Marianne, my auburn-haired beauty ..." 

Her poem, now addressed to this Marianne person!!  Isabel skipped to the last page.  She had had enough.  More than enough.  But she was curious which poem Lawrence had chosen to end the book with.  Obviously this Marianne woman wasn't currently with Lawrence; Isabel would've heard about it.  People talk.  She still had her sources.  She knew he was alone.  Lawrence, in his later years, gave all his attention to his books.  They were his loves now.  At this stage in his life girlfriends were irrelevant.  Or so she believed.  So let's see, what poem did he end with?  Isabel was about to receive her second big shock when she saw its title.

It was THE poem--the one he'd written especially and exclusively for her, the night after their afternoon at the beach, where he had unabashedly declared his undying love for her (well before the brick-hurtling incident, of course).  And now, without the least compunction or even miniscule sense of decency, it was being dedicated to someone else, this French someone named Marianne.

Isabel had read about fits of apoplexy in novels but never imagined she herself might ever be afflicted with one. "How could he, the absolute ...CAD!" she sputtered, stamping her foot on the bookstore's worn red carpet. "These were my poems!!!

"SHHHHHHHHHH", pleaded the voice from behind the shelves again, only louder.

"This isn't a damn library!" Isabel shouted, hoisting her hefty bag over her shoulder and storming out the doors of the bookstore, leaving the volume she had promised to buy, bent and ripped and discarded in the corner of the aisle.  She headed for ...

You're wondering what happened next.  Did the aggrieved Isabel eventually track down the dasdardly ex-poet and exact her revenge? Would the French woman Marianne across the ocean ever become aware of the drama involved in the publishing of that obscure little booklet meant solely for her? Did Lawrence fire his editor and abandon the idea of ever again publishing poems written to former lovers? We will never know. Because the word limit has been reached for this particular short story and, well, rules are rules.


Note:  This was a true story, by the way.  And no, he didn't fire me. Names were changed here to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty (the fictional Lawrence's real-life counterpart bravely admits he took both women, in separate years, to the same French cafe. "What was I thinking?" he says), as were locations and nationalities, physical attributes and reported quoted remarks. I have taken liberty not only with the character of the protagonist but totally fabricated any and all events after the inadvertent improper filing of the poems was discovered and publication halted.  Rather than being upset by this revelation, however, the poet in question actually found it amusing.  And we are taking steps to prevent such a frightening scenario as that depicted in this fictional account from ever becoming a reality.

I have asked his kind permission to post this story assignment here on my blog.  I'd initially feared he might be offended, my using certain elements of our professional editor/client project as the idea for my first writing assignment.  To the contrary, he insisted I include it, as another wacky example, I suppose, that "Truth is stranger than Fiction", and so, there it is..

For those who believe in serendipity, in the wildly improbable but easily exampled notion that there are truly no coincidences in life, it makes perfect sense to imagine that that last poem in the story, written to an auburn-haired lover in the heat of a passion that has long since thoroughly evaporated, itself insisted on having the last say in the matter, so to speak, its language being  applicable to either woman, neither of whom currently seems to want to be associated with its author.  The poem is convinced, however, apart from that unfortunate reference to a particular shade of hair, that it speaks of a certain universality.

As for Isabel Edith Elizabeth Jackson (who doesn't actually exist), it was all the proof she needed that men in general, and poets in particular, are indeed fickle, monstrous beings who think nothing of airing their personal affairs as improbable verse just to get their words published. And like spiders fashioning intricate webs, glistening, practical, and deadly, where all manner of creatures could be caught in them unawares, altering their lives forever, they continue to weave these treacherous threads of deceit.  The character Isabel wishes me to state that.  I would never word it in such a way.  Honest.  True to nature, it is this character, Isabel, and not the poem that ends the cruel charade, that wants to have the last, and final, word.  So I let her.

So there it is, Story #1, in which the words exploded out, thereby clearing the way for a cleaner closet, so to speak, hopefully one where its imaginary inhabitants will gush less but say more, i.e., opt for quality rather than sheer quantity.  But ... it's a start.

Story #2 will be about the secret life of a tool shed. And definitely not comedic.
Stay tuned.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Four Little Quoties

There are books in which the footnotes or comments scrawled by some reader's hand in the margin are more interesting than the text. The world is one of these books.
                       ~~ George Santayanna

What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.
                      ~~ Eugene Delacroix

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
                     ~~ Anonymous

Does one really have to fret about enlightenment?   No matter what road I travel I'm going home.
                    ~~  Shinsho

* Photo by awyn.  I don't remember the year it was taken.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Painting One's Mother, Preserving One's Youness

A wonderful little book you might like to read, called The Painting of You, by writer, poet and fellow blogger William Michaelian of Recently Banned Literature.

What can I say about The Painting of You except--go read it!  Once you open it up to the first page you will not be able to put it down.  There is something for everyone here--for poets, writers, mothers and sons, children and parents, caretakers, and readers of memoirs alike.

What's the book about?  It's an autobiographical account of a man caring for his mother who has Alzheimer's Disease; about his and her dreams, their family history, the struggle to maintain communication, the pain of watching a loved one slowly disappear as you become a stranger to them. 

In the book, Michaelian asks, in a poem, how he should paint his mother...

As a puzzled soul
looking out the window,
or a curious girl,
looking in?

And suppose the two
are friends--what then?

Does one begin
where the other ends?

Or must I paint them
both again, one as the other,
each as they have
always been?

The book is also about fatigue and weariness, aching limbs and decades-old dishtowels, and tea stains and powder clouds, "far too little and far too much", and ...  fleeting glimpses of grace.

Imagine a writer--any writer's--happiness at having been able to preserve, and share the moments of those difficult but important years, and to pass them on, as legacy, not only of the time and person written about ...  but the words themselves, as legacies.  Like threads being spun on a loom, each generation a band of connection, as if when one thread becomes tangled, or severed, an invisible hand emerges to find the missing loop, reconnect the link again, so that the whole of the picture remains forever intact.

I thought to write a review of this book but it would be really really difficult to top the one already written by Paul Martin over at The Teacher's View.   Read Paul's review here--he says it so much better than I ever could.

But truly--this is a very special book that one can read again and again.  If you want to get a copy,  information on ordering it in either print copy or as an ebook, can be found here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

In the Neighborhood

I was at the bank the other day and on the counter near the teller was a bowl of red noses.  Well not noses, exactly, but little cardboard replicas of the mascot for Operation Nez Rouge (Operation Red Nose).  Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and with a string attached, sort of like a keychain, the little fellow with the red nose had a message printed on the back.  Translated from the French it says, basically, "Let us (Red Nose) take you home."

Operation Red Nose was started in 1984 in Quebec City by Jean-Marie de Koninck, who wanted to do something about the problem of people driving while intoxicated, which seems to increase around the holidays. He recognized that drivers don't take taxis home after leaving the bars, not because of the cost, but because they don't want to have to go back and get their cars the next day. So his idea was to create a kind of escort service to have someone come and pick the person up and drive them home, in their own car.

Now in its 26th year, the guys (and gals) of Red Nose will be there for you if you've been drinking and aren't fit to get behind the wheel. They work in teams to drive you home in your own car, for free. Given that this will soon be the season of the dreaded black ice, this is a very good service to be available.   Red Nose teams also show up, in costume at office Christmas parties, restaurants and clubs around the holidays to remind people they're available.  They are always given a hearty welcome.(And what a nice idea, to put their calling cards on bank counters and gas stations and grocery checkouts, where people can take one and hang it on the dashboard of their car, "just in case.")

Meanwhile, some other local news:

Kruger is planning to temporarily interrupt production of its Paper Machine No. 3 situated in its Wayagamack plant, a mere 10-minute walk from my house, for a period of two months starting from the 23rd of this month. Trois-Rivières was once known as the pulp-and-paper capital of the world but demand for newsprint has declined throughout North America (90% of the mill's production goes to the U.S.)  Last summer we visited a recycling facility near here, which is struggling to survive because the price customers pay for their recycled paper has gone way down and they are losing money.  The temporary shutdown of Paper Machine No. 3  at Kruger will affect 100 workers. Production will resume on February 23.  At least, for that short time, maybe there will be a little less pollution billowing out from those smokestacks.  Yay.

There are some storefronts in my neighborhood that have been empty for over two or more years.  Our little post office in the shopping strip closed a year or so ago and now to mail a package, unless you want to go all the way downtown, the closest one is the Cinq Etoiles Depanneur (kind of like a 7/11) where, in a corner just past the fresh breads and croissants and pie counter, across from the copy machine is a mini-mini-postal outlet.  Just last week the Animalerie (pet store) around the corner closed down and left.  The place would be perfect for a little coffee shop or used bookstore.  Don't I wish!

Jobs are hard to find here, as are family physicians.  It took me over 5 years to find one who would accept new patients, and that came about only through sheer luck.  Last summer in our sector there was a devastating fire which completely destroyed an entire building, displacing eight families.  Scarcely four months later, the debris has been removed and a new building erected in its place, ready for occupancy.  A gigantic waterfront project is underway and bridge repair is ongoing at Pont Duplessis. So while some parts of the economy are only eeking along, others are slowly picking up.

Anyway that's some of the news from secteur du Cap this week.  L'Accorderie will have a community supper on the 16th.  That's the local service-exchange organization where people are paid in hours instead of cash and the Hour Bank keeps track of hours earned or spent.  Everyone's supposed to bring a plate of food enough to feed four people.  Santa has said he'll show up.

The snows have arrived, and with it the bitter cold.  L'hiver encore....  I love winter, though.  It makes me feel alive.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

International Human Rights Day Today

As we celebrate International Human Rights Day today, a little reminder of some folks around the world who aren't exactly celebrating just yet:

Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has been under house arrest in Burma for almost 14 out of the past 20 years.

Her crime?  She was elected Prime Minister of her country in 1990 with 59% of the vote.  The military junta prevented her from assuming office.

She was taken forcibly to detention, where she remains today.  She is denied visitors.


A young Tibetan writer and university student, Tashi Rabten (pen-name Te’urang), the editor of the banned literary magazine the Shar Dungri (Eastern Snow Mountain) on the 2008 protests in Tibet, is feared missing, according to Tibetan bloggers. He was a student of Northwest Minorities University in Lanzhou and has not been seen since July 26, when the university closed for summer holiday. Tashi also authored a collection of work called “Written in Blood”. [1]

According to the Washington based International Campaign for Tibet, there are fears for his safety because his recent book is being dealt with as a “political matter”. A Tibetan source told ICT that Tashi has been under surveillance for some time.

Sangpo, a 30-year-old monk from Lhora Monastery, was arrested on August 8th after a surprise raid in his residence, after Chinese police found a scroll painting of the Dalai Lama and a a half sack full of Video CDs of Dalai Lama’s speech in his room.

He was taken away and his present whereabouts remain unknown.  Imagine that. In Tibet today you can suddenly disappear, without a trace, simply by having a CD of the Dalai Lama in your house.
Tibetan nun Yangkyi Dolma, from Kardze, arrested on 24 March this year, died four days ago,

on December 6th, in the early morning at Chengdu hospital, according to confirmed information received by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.  What caused this young woman to die while being detained?

On 6 June 2008, three monks, Tsewang Drakpa, Thupten Gyatso and Gyatso Nyima staged a peaceful protest in Drango County, Kardze,calling for more freedom and human rights for the Tibetan people. Within minutes of their protest they were arrested and are now being held in Chengdu city detention center.  Visitation rights have been denied to their families. You are not allowed to protest peacefully in today's Tibet.
Kunga Tsayang, a Tibetan monk of Amdo Labrang Tashikyil Monastery, who wrote under a pen name "sun of snowland" (Tib: Gang-Nyi) was an amateur photographer,  passionate writer, essayist, and chronicler of the new Tibetan generation.  He was arrested last March 17th for allegedly posting political essays on an internet website and sentenced last week, in a closed-door trial, to five years in prison.[2]

Tenzin Choedak, a Tibetan returnee from India, was sentenced to 15 years of  imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Yuan in September following his participation in last year’s spring uprising in Lhasa, according to reliable information received by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. The protests that began on March 14, 2008 in Lhasa spread across many parts of Tibet.  Choedak was arrested after his image was caught on CCTV footage, showing him protesting in the streets.

In mid-2008, monks at Pangsa Monastery staged a peaceful march against  China's crackdown of the March 14 protest in Lhasa and other peaceful protests that year.  Eleven of those monks have gone missing, their whereabouts unknown.  Their names are: Khenpo, Thupten Lungrig, Nyima Tenzin, Lobsang Tendar, Pema, Lhakpa Tserin, Tenpa Thinlay, Lhakpa, Kangtsu, Thupten Nyima, and Gyatso Kalsang. Engage in a peaceful protest in Tibet, and you can 'disappear'.

IN CHINA there is harassment, surveillance and unlawful house arrest for signers of Charter 08, persecution of human rights lawyers and practioners of Falun Gong, as well as incarceration of over 1,200 religious and political prisoners.

 Human rights lawyer Wang Yonghang has been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in connection with his work representing Falun Gong practitioners and for publishing articles on internet sites outside of China.

Human rights activist Huang Qi, who was critical of the government's response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province and who gave legal advice to its victims has been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment following an unfair trial. 

IN THE MIDDLE EAST: On 27 December, as 2008 drew to a close, Israeli jets launched an aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5million Palestinians live, crowded into one of the most densely populated areas of the planet. In the following three weeks,more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including some 300 children, and some 5,000 were wounded. Israeli forces repeatedly breached the laws of war, including by carrying out direct attacks on civilians and civilian buildings and attacks targeting Palestinian militants that caused a disproportionate toll among civilians.

IN AFRICA:  On 24 November, three prominent Sudanese human rights defenders were arrested by the NISS in Khartoum. Amir Suleiman, Abdel Monim Elgak and Osman Humeida were arrested and tortured in custody before being released.

The conflict in Darfur continues unabated with increased attacks and violations of international humanitarian law: rape, murder and destruction of dwelling places leading to mass evacuation and homelessness.

IN MEXICO:  Serious human rights violations committed by members of the military and police including unlawful killings, excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary detention. Several journalists killed, human rights defenders threatened.

IN UZBEKISTAN: a mere seven years ago  34-year-old Muzafar Avazov, then being held in Jaslyk Prison, had his fingernails ripped out and was boiled alive [3] It's now 2009; has there been any improvement in this country's human rights record? Nope. According to Amnesty International, "There was little improvement in freedom of expression and assembly. Human rights defenders, activists and independent journalists continued to be targeted for their work. Widespread torture or other ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners, including human rights defenders and government critics, continued to be reported." Government officials of countries that do not immerse prisoners in boiling water continue to express concern.  But that's as far as it goes. 

IN THE U.S.A.: Continued reports of police brutality and ill-treatment in prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities. Fifty-nine people died after being shocked with Tasers, bringing to 346 the number of such deaths since 2001.  Prisoners held without trial, indefinitely, in Guatanamo Bay.

Women the world over are still being subjected to rape, beatings and murder by husbands, soldiers, and strangers.

For Amnesty International's State of the World's Human Rights Report 2009, click here.

 ~ ~ ~ ~

I began this posting intending to include but a few examples, and leave it at that.  But I soon became overwhelmed with the sheer number of reports of arrest and detention, torture and abuse, violence and extreme measures toward people without regard to their basic human rights.  The stories are endless; names and photographs of people suddenly taken away, missing, dead.  The victims' plight is noted, catalogued, and except for their families and small pockets of concerned and dedicated activists, the incidents are soon forgotten by the majority of us, busy with our own lives.

But for today, for this one day, December 10, the day set aside for Human Rights, let's call attention to them.  That it's still continuing.  That this blatant, malicious mistreatment and abuse of a fellow human being by means of intimidation and force, just because one can--is not going unnoticed.  We should not remain silent. We will not remain silent.

Imagine a year without all these stories not coming in, week after week after week.
Imagine a world where one doesn't feel it necessary to beat someone to a pulp just to prove a point,
where laws are not routinely circumvented or ignored and lawbreakers are held accountable and made to face the consequences. Imagine it one day not being all about Control--control of one human being,  or of a whole group of human beings, or of an entire country, by entities who simply want to be ...  in control.

Perhaps, in future, a more substantial effort to change this situation can be made, not by merely voicing perfunctory official "expressions of concern" and turning a blind eye because one doesn't want to anger one's economic partners in international trade or one's politial allies in some joint endeavor, but by attention to the matter and meaningful action.  This is more than a game of the dance of diplomacy.  These are people's lives at stake.

Every human has the right to be.  To just ... Be.  Not just some, but all.  All, equally.

If only words in the Declaration of Human Rights we sign and proclaim ... would amount to more than just words.

Sources:  Amnesty International, Tibetan Center for Rights and Democracy, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights reports, International Campaign for Tibet

Monday, December 7, 2009

Men on Camels

Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar
they may have come by camel, or horse, or on foot
but most scenes depict them as riding in on camels

they came, bearing gifts
to honor an infant
who would grow up to promote Peace
and an end to violence and hatred

Three weeks ago in South Darfur
300 armed men on camels attacked two villages, killing 11

they come, bearing arms
to rape, murder, pillage,
spread violence, instill fear.

Only 18 more days left till Christmas.
Parties, carols ... shopping ... gifts ... family
300 armed men on camels


According to the UN, Sudan has blocked peacekeeping patrols in Darfur on 42 separate occasions this year amid fears of a new conflict in the region. Around three million Darfuris have been displaced by government forces and allied janjaweed militia since 2003.  In Darfur, over 300,000 have died since the conflict began in 2003.

Six humanitarian aid organizations including the International Committee of the Red Cross and French group Doctors Without Borders have suspended work in eastern Chad after Laurent Maurice, an agronomist for the ICRC and his five Chadian colleagues were abducted near the Sudanese border. [1]

Three UN peacekeepers were killed in Darfur on Friday, three UN peacekeepers were killed on Saturday.  [2]

Peace on Earth
Goodwill to men

when will there be

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rip out the seams, let words go


the walls of the empire are
chipped and sagging, waters

rise as vultures circle,
all law gone, emaciated

children left by war
choke on deadly vapors, we’re

in the grip of Kali Yuga
waiting to be dissolved

into Time, you
will meet the

man of your dreams,
in three months

a change in your life
beware false friends

does the color green mean
anything to you

someone you know
with the initial D

will bring you a gift
take it

-- Annie Wyndham

* Photo of frog that emerged from earth in process of preparing for spring garden, April 17, 2006 He did not especially like being disturbed, glared at me, then hopped away.  Had I known he were there, I'd have moved on.  But when what looks like a stone begins moving, you approach with deep caution.  He later took up residence in the crawl space beneath the cellar window--or it was one of his relatives.  I call them all "Freddy."  They come, they go ....  Good to know they survive the winters.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Spoons clack clack clacking
on a knee
feet stomping to a tune
whose words he has
Everyone's into it,
and he sits quiet.

He’s suddenly nine years old again,
the all of it being absorbed,
stored away, to be eventually

It dares to drag him back,
is met with a heartbeat of
behind that self-built wall.

Deny all you want, it teases.
Your eyes stay hard
but your toes ...
your toes are tapping underneath
the table.

Dead giveaway,
mon frère.

-- Annie Wyndham

*Photo by awyn

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Despair as a form of hope

On November 11, Veteran's Day, The Rumpus Net reprinted an essay by Steve Almond, Boston-area writer, recounting his experience attending a talk some years ago by Kurt Vonnegut at the Connecticut Forum. Here are some excerpts from that essay (quoted portions in red):

Our citizens aren’t used to having their fantasies punctured. We don’t mind watching guys like Jon Stewart josh around about that silly war in Iraq, or global warming. But when someone actually points out that our species is goose-stepping toward extinction – without a comforting laugh line at the end – things get uncomfortable...

He [Vonnegut] had spent his entire life writing stories and essays and novels in the naked hope that he might redeem his readers. As grim and dystopic as some of those books were, every one was written under the assumption that human beings were capable of a greater decency. And not because of God’s will, that tired old crutch. But because of their simple duty to others of their kind.

Now, in the shadow of his own death, he was facing the incontrovertible evidence that his life’s work had been for naught. Right before his eyes, Americans had regressed to a state of infantile omnipotence. They drove SUVs and cheered for wars on TV and worshipped the beautiful and ignorant and despised the poor and brushed aside the science of their own doom. They had lost interest in their own consciences, and declined to make the sacrifices that might spare their very own grandchildren.

A woman at that gathering tells Steve Almond that she shared a cigarette-smoking session with Vonnegut--in a revolving door.

“I followed him, you know. Every time he went to have a cigarette. I just followed him and bummed a cigarette and we sat there talking. He was totally cool, too. Totally on top of it. They wouldn’t let us smoke inside and it was too cold outside, so you know what we did? We got in one of those things, those doors that spin around—”

“A revolving door?”

“Yeah. We got in one of the compartments and he pushed it around till there was just a crack. It was pretty warm in there and we could just blow the smoke outside.”

Almond found himself later focusing on that image--Vonnegut and the pretty young girl "puffing away like a couple of truants".

It helped me feel a little less hopeless. This made no sense. Vonnegut has been killing himself for years, or trying to, with those unfiltered Pall Malls.

But something occurred to me ... something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgment of the distance between ourselves and our appointed happiness.

At certain moments, it is reason enough to live.

~ ~ ~ ~

To read Steve Almond's essay in its entirety (and I can't recommend it highly enough), click here.

Can't find your copy of Kurt's Man Without a Country? Click here for a lengthy sample.

Some Vonnegut quoties:

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. ~~ Sirens of Titan.

Here is what I think truth is.  We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. ~~ Cold Turkey.

And my favorite:

All time is all time. It does not change.  It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations.  It simply is.  Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber. ~~ Slaughterhouse Five.

Click here for a video tribute to Kurt Vonnegut (with a scene from his talk at the Connecticut Forum, where he says he has a message for future generations, i.e., "Please accept our apologies").

Who, I wonder, will be the Kurt Vonneguts of the coming generation?