Archive for December, 2014

Scared Little People

December 27, 2014


Our absolutized aversion to dealing with any kind of tragedy imposed from without has truly dark applications. It is precisely this existential-dread level of ass-covering and risk-management that informs the American security state’s adoption of the drone “signature strike,” in which men and perhaps some bystanders near are killed by drone attack even if we have no idea who they are. Their “pattern of life” in Yemen is just deemed too risky for their existence to be endured by the American military. Fire away.

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Scared Little People

Eighty-six hours in stress positions
Those horrible people make us so mean
We burn the tapes of Crucifixion
We glamorize torture on flashing screens
We shrapnel the flesh of people who gather
At weddings and funerals and blitzkrieg scenes
Protecting the lives of people who matter
From monsters who claim to be human beings
We hide from ourselves avoiding detection
Righteous folks we’re pretending to be
That’s not a window; that’s a reflection
That stain on our soul is a shocking decree
What a scared little people we have become
With hearts and brains rendered totally numb

by Richard W. Bray

They Hate Us for Our Sunshine

December 26, 2014


Seems like every time I look at
Some Eastern magazine
Another California-Hater’s
Blowing smoke out of his spleen

They hate us for our happy
They hate our smiling gleam
All those people pissing
On our California Dream

Cheering drought and earthquake
Feeding on their scorn
Watch the news like porn

Huddled by their heaters
I can almost hear them scream
All those people pissing
On our California Dream

Baited by our beaches
Folks come from all around
Y’all stop by; you’re sure to find
Someone from your hometown

They hate us for our sunshine
They hate our happenin scene
All those people pissing
On our California Dream

by Richard W. Bray

Flinging our Souls

December 24, 2014


I’m goofy for words. And I will happily read and read and read until I find a combination of words which “strikes like a chime through the mind.” Then I will read some more.

Thomas Hardy forges a concoction of meaning, sound, and feeling when he tells us that a singing little bird

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Of course, every line of “The Darkling Thrush” is a work of art.

Poetry and language are the same thing. Perhaps the people we call poets live the music inside the words with greater intensity than the rest of us do, but all words are music.

Consider the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

From Us She wandered now a Year,

There are a thousand less lovely ways to tell us that a woman has abandoned her family. And the beauty of the sound and rhythm of this line is assaulted by the sadness it conveys.

Here’s the entire poem:

From Us She wandered now a Year,
Her tarrying, unknown,
If Wilderness prevent her feet
Or that Ethereal Zone

No eye hath seen and lived
We ignorant must be—
We only know what time of Year
We took the Mystery.

There are so many things we are not told: Who is this woman? Whom did she abandon? Where? Why? The reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Robert Pinsky proffers a handy metaphor: Novelists wade through words while poets skate on their surface.

by Richard W. Bray

Juliet and Roasted Almonds (by Gwendolyn)

December 23, 2014


Initially blanch raw almonds:

Bring water to a boil. Pour boiling water over almonds and let sit for 70 seconds. Drain and add almonds to a bowl of iced water for approximately one minute. Drain almonds again and peel. We found it easier to work in 1 to 2 cup batches as almonds peel easier when wet. Additionally, we found that adding one teaspoon of baking soda per cup of water to boiling water helps the almonds’ skin blister and makes them easier to remover. Allow almonds to dry for a bit before roasting.

To roast almonds:

Drizzle Extra Virgin Olive Oil over the almonds and toss to coat. Roast almonds in a preheated 275 degree oven on a rimmed cookie sheet for approximately 40 minutes or until they are honey colored (mixing every so often to be sure that the almonds do not burn). Turn off the oven and open oven door for approximately a minute to lower temperature and allow almonds to dry in oven as the oven cools down. Toss with extra fine sea salt or coarse sea salt depending on preference.

Great Writing Isn’t Alchemy, It’s Hard Work: Alfred Kazin’s Trip to the Beach

December 17, 2014

aaaaaa el

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Steven King (On Writing 147)

As Stephen King notes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (145).

But many people don’t realize that writing is a craft to be mastered. They think it’s some sort of alchemy that mysteriously springs out of one’s experiences. That’s why some people who know very little about writing think they could produce a great memoir or an enticing novel. They love their fabulous lives so much. They are so glamorous, so amusing, and they know so many unique people—the book would practically write itself.

With the application of talent and much work, a great writer can reveal the beauty and complexity of a common experience. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin relives the train ride to and from Coney Island on a hot summer day:

It was from the El on its way to Coney Island that I caught my first full breath of the city in the open air. Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings, that old train could never go slowly enough for me as I stood on the open platform between the cars, holding on to the gate. In the dead calm of noon, heat mists drifted around the rusty green spires of unknown churches; below, people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight. With each homey crásh-crásh crásh-crásh of the wheels against the rails, there would steal up at me along the bounding slopes of the awnings the nearness of all those streets in middle Brooklyn named after generals of the Revolutionary War. I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face. As we came back at night along the El again, the great reward of the long parched day, far better than any massed and arid beach, was the chance to stand up there between the cars, looking down on the quiet streets unrolling below me as we passed. The rusty iron cars ground against each other, protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn. But in the steady crásh-crásh crásh-crásh there was a comforting homeward sound as the black cars rocked on the rails and more and more men and boys in open shirts came out on the top platform fiercely breathing the wind-changed damp air. In the summer night the city had an easy unstitched look—people sat on the corner watching the flies buzz around the street lamps, or at bedroom windows openly yawning as they stared past us (137-138).

First, notice the extreme paucity of adverbs.

I tell my students that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. When you choose the right nouns and verbs, fewer adjective and adverbs are required.

For example, I could say “My landlord is a mean, ugly, tyrannical, bossy, gruesome, overbearing man.” Or I could simply say “My landlord is an ogre.” The appropriate noun eliminates the need for several adjectives.

And speaking of adjectives, notice how Kazin utilizes several noncordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are parallel, modifying their nouns independently. That’s why we separate them with commas (big, bad John; new, green car). The effect of coordinate adjectives is cumulative; however, noncoordinate adjectives, when properly employed, multiply meaning into something new and beautiful: “first full breath” “rusty green spires” “long parched day” “rusty iron cars” “comforting homeward sound“ “wind-changed damp air” “easy unstitched look.” (Alfred Kazin’s beloved mother was a seamstress.)

I’ve affirmed the elegance of simple sentences. I will repeat myself: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. And simple sentences are even more beautiful when they are rare. Like a great jeweler, Kazin positions a gem in the middle of his creation: I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face.

Notice the strongest character in this paragraph, the anthropomorphized train: “protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn” “Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings.”

Finally, notice how Kazin plays upon the illusion that world itself is in motion: “people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight” “streets unrolling below me as we passed.”

by Richard W. Bray

It’s Better to Burst Than Ripple Away

December 10, 2014


I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line
I’ll never be humble
And I’ll never be tame
A man’s gotta rumble
And play his own game

Won’t live a life
That lingers
Till the coals are dust
Always quit the casino
Before I hit bust
Won’t swap my tomorrow
For yesterday
It’s better to burst
Than ripple away

Gotta live in the sunshine
If I wanna survive
I’ll never be yoked
To your nine-to-five
Pity the fool
Who tries to fence me in
I ain’t gonna go
Where I already been

Won’t live a life
That lingers
Till the coals are dust
Always quit the casino
Before I hit bust
Won’t swap my tomorrow
For yesterday
It’s better to burst
Than ripple away

by Richard W. Bray

Discovering and Correcting Un-doable Subject-Verb Combinations

December 4, 2014

aaaaaaaa subject verb

These new disposable diapers work hard to keep babies dry.

I call sentences like the one above undoables. Undoables contain a subject which is incapable of performing its assigned action.

I tell my students to correct undoables by picturing the subject executing the action: Can you imagine a disposable diaper working hard?

Each sentence in the following paragraph contains an undoable. See if your students can spot them and explain why they are un-doable.

       One concern that restaurants bring up is the issue of hygiene. Cleaning products take steps to improve cleanliness. However, halfhearted activities will not prevail. Furthermore, the way that many restaurants are maintained does not keep in mind adequate procedures for maintaining a germ-free environment. Many restaurants claim to be clean, but how can we be sure this is true? Our current situation is wreaking havoc on the intestines of restaurant customers. Unhealthy food should force restaurants to have higher standards. Therefore, strict policies must win the battle of the dirty kitchen. That’s why new laws should enforce minimum standards of restaurant cleanliness. Only then will America’s stomachs earn a respite from unhealthy bacteria.

by Richard W. Bray