The Search for the Perfect Book

“Today you are you!  That is truer than true!  There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”
— Dr. Seuss

The holiday season is upon us, whether we like it or not.  I’ve gotten off to a late start this year.  Late for me – a person who generally has holiday cards in the mail the day before Thanksgiving and all gifts purchased and ready for wrapping by the first of December.  Today is the 12th of December.  The cards just went out a couple of days ago and only half of the gifts have arrived from the various online locations from where they were purchased.  I haven’t done the dreaded Black Friday mall-walk for many, many years.  What’s the point?  Most things are cheaper online anyway.  And they’ll usually ship things to your house for free.  Why go out in freezing cold weather and wrestle with a harried woman over the last just-released-director’s-cut-of-fillintheblank-movie?  I pre-ordered that film a month ago online.

Tonight, my kitchen table is strewn with bubble wrap, brightly colored wrapping paper, rolls of scotch tape and countless ribbons and bows.  The gifts (the ones that have arrived) have been removed from their cardboard boxes, the plastic wrapping taken off and set to the side for filling in the spaces between breakables and gift box.  The tree is lit.  The fire is roaring in the wood stove.  And the moment has finally come, the one that I wait for every year.
You could say that I’m a bibliophile.  I love books.  What’s more, I love searching the web for that perfect book.  The book that I know the person I’m buying it for doesn’t know that they want or need, but will cherish for years to come.  That’s not an easy thing to do, let me tell you.  I’ve made many missteps along the way.  And most of the time, I end up with a book the receiver enjoys and appreciates – but to find the cherished book…that’s the oft missed goal.  Although, I can usually approximate how close I am by the inscription that best fits the book selected.
Generally, the mark of a perfect book boils down to the perfect inscription.  Some books call out for lines of poetry to be written on the inside cover.  Others need the words of great philosophers or novelists or even phrases written in a foreign language.  And when that happens, I know that I’ve found a good book that will say something or mean something to the receiver at the time.  But that will be all.  It will be a book that marks time.  A book that, years later when the person who received it finds it again, dusty and neglected on their bookshelf, will think, “Oh yes.  I remember what was happening that year.”  Other books are nearly impossible to find inscriptions for because, let’s face it, if a book doesn’t call out for an inscription of some sort – any sort – it’s probably not a good book in the first place.  But the book that demands an inscription that recalls childhood is the book that will be cherished forever.  Because it is not tied to any one event, rather, it is tied to possibility and innocence.  It is tied to an idea of a life.
This year, I think I just may have found that perfect book.  I know this book is the book because there is only one inscription that will do.  That inscription comes from the incomparable Dr. Seuss.  It’s happened only a few times in my book-giving years, but I’ve found that when a book calls out for a line or two from Dr. Seuss, it is as close to the perfect book as I’m ever going to get.

The "S" Word

Some of you who have followed my previous blogging attempts in the past may be familiar with this piece.  And yes, I do realize that it’s cheating the whole GaBloWriMo goal.  But, I did spend five hours last night working on an essay and that makes me feel slightly (just slightly) justified.  Plus, it’s early in the day and I may still write and post something new on here…you never know.  

I’d like to, slowly, get my old CNF experiments up here for those who haven’t read them and to keep a record of the journey.  This piece was written in the spring of 2009.  I was teaching a survey course in American lit titled, The American Dream: Myth or Reality?  It was also the very beginning of my experimentation with CNF.  Enjoy!



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“Socialism…”

I hear the word come out of my mouth and immediately, as if the bomb itself has been dropped in the middle of the acrylic covered desks that are jammed tightly into this basement classroom, my students’ bodies stiffen. Their eyes narrow ever so slightly. Did she just say the “S” word?

We are completing our discussion of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s impossible to discuss the novel without the inevitable mention of the “S” word. But I am careful with them. After all, it’s not their fault they’ve been told that all other forms of governance are evil and designed to strip away their God Given Rights. Never mind that they exercise those rights loosely. Freedom of speech is okay as long as we’re not overheard criticizing our government. Freedom of religion is okay too – so long as we’re keeping a watchful eye on Those Damn Muslims. But it’s not their fear of the “S” word that disturbs me.

“This book is depressing,” says a girl in the back whose name I have not yet memorized.

“Why does Sinclair have to make it so depressing?”

I tell them literature chronicles society’s past and ask where we see this kind of corruption in our society today. The room is heavy with silence. One young woman, sitting safely in the back of the room, tentatively raises her hand. Her response is more of a question than an assertion.

“Politics?”

My smile and nod is enough affirmation to encourage a slew of hands. Law enforcement. Health care. Professional athletics. The War. This last one is met with nervousness. They all immediately turn to me, scanning my face for reaction.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes. These are all wonderful examples of modern day corruption.”

Then Patrick, one of the many basketball players in this class, speaks up:

“Yeah, but what can we do about it?”

It’s not really a question. He isn’t looking for ideas on how to organize, to start a movement, to petition government. The answer he already knows is evident in the faces of everyone around him. They look me squarely in the eyes, Yeah Doc, what do you have to say about that? And I give them the spiel about groundswell movements that shaped our world – Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, the organized protests against the Vietnam War. Maria raises her hand.

“It’s like what happened after 9/11. We all came together then, didn’t we?”

Their varied expressions shift. They suddenly look incredibly vulnerable.

“Yes,” I say quietly. “Yes, we did.”

And I see that I was wrong. It’s not the addition of this new “S” word they fear. It’s the loss of so many other “S” words. Safety. Security. Society. Sanctity. They look for them tentatively, hesitantly. They sit utterly motionless, a nation defeated. Dan cocks his head to the left.

“So… is this gonna be on the test?”

On Heat and Water

So, this is exactly what I’m talking about.  I woke early this morning to put final comments on some poems for a community workshop I’ve been trying to attend for months.  I finally had all my ducks in a row: I had written a new poem for the workshop, I had diligently read and re-read the other participants’ poems, I had commented intelligently and awoken early to get ready.
And then.  The propane company called to say they would be there at 10 o’clock to fill my desperately empty tank.  The same time the workshop was scheduled to begin.  Okay.  I have to have heat.  I mean, I live in Mississippi and all, but it still gets pretty darn cold here at night.  So, no problem.  I’m committed. I call the workshop leader, tell her I’ll be late – but I’ll be there.
And then.


My trusty propane technician busted a joint on a water line while trying to light the pilot on the hot water heater…which is located upstairs and directly above my kitchen.  While I was running around finding pots and bowls to catch the water and covering the quickly growing pools of water on the floor with towels, I couldn’t help but laugh at how life gets in the way of even the best laid plans.  Once again, I called the workshop leader to inform her that I would not, after all, be making it to this morning’s workshop.
The propane people have left with a promise to repair the ceiling that will have to be completely torn out and replaced.  The fans are pointed to the floor, drying the remnants of our little indoor rain shower.  And I have thirty minutes before I have to leave to pick up a friend at the airport.  
But, you know what?  I’m smiling.  I’m smiling because I’m learning a very important lesson right now.  Even though I missed the workshop, even though I had intended to spend a couple of hours working on an essay that has a deadline fast approaching and was unable to, even though I didn’t get to hear my peers’ feedback on the new poem I wrote – I’m writing now.  Right now.  With 15 minutes left before my trip to the airport, I’m writing.  And what’s more, I couldn’t wait for the guys who created this mess to leave so that I could sit down and write.  Even if only for a few minutes.
We all need heat and water – even if it’s falling from the ceiling and dripping into our great-aunt’s antique tea cups.  Especially when it’s falling from the ceiling.  We need it like writers need words and a reminder that, well, shit happens.  Work around it.  Keep at it.  Never, ever, ever stop.

Sara’s Day

Here’s the first installment of my own NaNoWriMo; although, I’m changing it to GaBloWriMo (Gabriel’s Blog Writing Month).  I can’t help feeling that this is really rough (as it should be since I just wrote it today) and a bit sentimental….or something.  The end, most definitely, sucks.  But hey, fiction’s not my thing.  At least, it never was.  And yet, that seems to be what comes out lately.  Go figure.  Have no fear, I have no intention of writing a short story every day.  It just so happens that I woke up to the not-so-happy news that my propane tank was empty and I will, therefore, be very cold for the next couple of days.  How that little event sparked this story, I’ll leave you to figure out.

Sara had never been in charge of the propane before.  So, it came as a surprise when she woke up to find the thermostat sitting at a cool 54 degrees.  What the hell, she thought.  She poked the little arrowed button to see what it was set at.  71.  She poked it a few more times to bring it up to 73 – nothing.  The frost had settled in the middle of the night and Sara looked out her bedroom window at the sparkling whiteness covering the crab apple trees.  She reached for a sweater, threw on an old pair of men’s work boots and walked outside to the propane tank.

The frozen grass crunched under her heels and Sara shivered.  The propane tank was a hundred feet behind the house and, beyond that, the pond lay rippling gently in the frigid breeze.  There were several knobs and a metal line running to the top of the tank.  On the very top and in the center was a hinged dome.  Sara lifted it and found the gauge.  The tank was empty.  Shit.  She made a mental note of the phone number on the side of the tank and hurried back inside.  The woman on the other end of the line didn’t seem amused with Sara’s request to have the tank filled today.


Unless you’ve already placed an order,” she said, her voice rough and scratchy with too many years of smoking non-filtered Camels, “you’re gonna have to wait.”

“How long?”

“A day, maybe two.  And since you let the tank empty out, there’s an additional charge for a leak test.”

“I don’t care, I just need heat out here.”

“Alright,” the woman sighed.  “We’ll call you when we can get out there.  It’s gonna be six hundred and forty two bucks.”

Sara winced as she hung up the phone.  She didn’t know where she was going to find six hundred and forty two dollars.  And the Colonel had a vet appointment in an hour.  That would cost her at least a hundred.  Sara stood silent, the phone still in her hand, looking off into space.  Things had been hard lately, and they were getting harder.  Mr. Hays at the factory had nearly cried when he told her that things were bad.  The economy had hit them hard.  People just weren’t buying prefabricated shelves.  Sara had worked on the line at Eastern Assembly for three years.  Six days a week she stood on her feet for ten hours a day, sliding little plastic bags filled with screws and bolts and nuts – twelve screws, four bolts, four nuts – under the press.  She pulled a metal lever sometimes eight or nine hundred times a day, sealing the bags and moving them down the line to be packaged with the pressboard shelves.  She learned after a couple of months to wear ear plugs, the hum and clank of the machines, the air compressors sounding off in two minute intervals, was deafening.  In three years, she hadn’t made one friend at Eastern Assembly.  The noise in the factory was too loud for even casual conversation.  And you had to keep a close eye on what you were doing.  The pieces had to be counted, the bag had to be properly sealed, the line had to keep moving.

Sara had been out of work for six months.  The unemployment checks were barely enough to cover the mortgage and she had borrowed about as much money as she could stand.  Those calls to her mother were hard.  Sara knew her mother didn’t have the money she gave her every month.  She wondered where it came from.  And now, the propane.  The Colonel nudged Sara’s hand to let her know he needed to go outside.  She opened the door, letting more cold air into the already cold house and then headed to the bathroom to take a shower.  Sara turned the knobs on the faucet to let the water heat up and turned around to look in the mirror.  The years had been good to her, despite the heartache and tragedy that seemed to follow her around like an imprinting baby duck.  Her family had been cursed, it had seemed, during most of 1990s with a string of tragic deaths.  First her mother’s brother died suddenly and unexpectedly from causes unknown.  He’d been a bit of a shady character and, when the coroner came to collect the body and the officials began trying to figure out who he was, the fact that he had seven different aliases tied up getting his body shipped across the country so he could be buried in the family plot.  Sara’s mother had had to travel to California and had discovered eighteen shaving kit bags filled with cash in the rafters of his garage.  A year later, Sara’s aunt died of breast cancer, another year later and her grandfather died.  And then there was the accident.

Sara placed her hand under the tap and felt the cutting sting of the ice cold water slice through her hand.  Shit.  She’d forgotten that the water heater also ran on propane.  She cursed under her breath while she jerked the knobs closed, stomped into the bedroom and braced herself against the cold while she stripped out of her sweatpants and nightshirt and quickly threw on jeans and a sweater.  The Colonel’s appointment was in thirty minutes.

The Colonel was a Bloodhound Labrador mix Sara had found wandering on the side of the highway five years ago.  He was matted and starving, his ribcage and hipbones protruding unnaturally from his long, lanky body.  But even then he was commanding.  She had pulled over on impulse, not because she was especially fond of animals or even wanted a dog, but because the Colonel was standing there, regal.  His long nose was pointed into the air, his shoulders were broad and firm.  He couldn’t have demanded more that she stop if he had been a squadron of Marines in full battle gear blocking the road.  When she got out, he came to her immediately, sniffed her over and then hopped past the car’s open door and into the back seat.  What choice did she have?  She had tried to find a home for him, but no one wanted a starving, full-grown, 140 pound beast.  Besides, the Colonel had clearly found his home and didn’t appear to be leaving any time soon.

Sara went outside to start the truck.  It was an ’84 GMC pickup on its very last legs and would need a good ten minutes of idle time before it would even consider moving.  The Colonel sauntered up and waited patiently for Sara to let the tail gate down.  She knew he wouldn’t let her rest until he was in the bed, so she dropped the gate and then hopped into the driver’s seat, praying the truck would start.  Sara gave the gas three good pumps before turning the key.  The engine sputtered.  Sara held the key firmly in place and continued pumping the gas.  Slowly, and with extreme trepidation, the engine roared to life.  Thank you, Jesus!, Sara shouted at no one in particular.  She left the Colonel and the truck idling while she went back inside to finish getting ready.

As Sara packed her purse with her wallet and sunglasses, scrounging around in the bottom of the bag for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t empty, she glanced over at her desk and noticed the date on the calendar. She stood stock still for just a moment, her gaze fixed on the calendar, not breathing.  She had forgotten. Then, just as suddenly as she had been shocked into stillness, Sara startled back, grabbing her purse and a scarf, and lumbering through the door into the cold where the Colonel was waiting for her.

The truck was warm, though sputtering.  Sara sat there for a moment, her hands on the wheel.  Then she put the truck in reverse and backed out of the driveway.  The pine trees lined the road, shimmering in the morning light.  Sara stopped where her road met the highway and then crept slowly into the first two lanes.  No one was coming.  This is where everything happens, she thought.  Sara closed her eyes and put the truck in park, straddling two lanes of the highway.  She knew the Colonel would understand.  Her whole life had been leading up to this moment.  She could feel the wide expanse of concrete underneath her, spreading out on both sides like a hard, dark ocean.  The wind whipped through Sara’s cracked window.  Sara held her arms out, lifted her face to the sun streaming through the windshield and imagined a father building a snowman with his son.  The little boy laughs and runs from his father who chases him with a snowball.  The little boy laughs and runs into the open and waiting arms of his mother.

Too-Too-Too-Too Much Time on My Hands

Okay.  It’s officially been six months since leaving my tenure-track position at Delta State University where I loved working with students, hated the bureaucracy, and barely had a moment to breathe – let alone write something.  Since then, I’ve had good intentions.  Words have been slowly creeping back into my head.  My eyes are gradually readjusting to actually seeing what’s in front of me.  When I was overseas a couple of months ago, I actually wrote something new.  Whoop di doo!

As the year (and, let’s face it, the decade) comes to a close, I’m beginning to feel some pressure.  And it’s coming from inside.  By the grace of all that is good in this universe, I’m blessed with people in my life who, just by their very nature, give me ample time and space.  No one has asked what I’m working on or, that dreaded question, “How’s your writing going?”  Not one person has said, “Hey!  What have been doing for the past six months??”  Thank god.  Because if I had to answer that question honestly, I’d be forced to admit that I haven’t done much of anything but think about what I should be doing.

Well, alright.  That’s not totally fair.  The first two months of my “writing life” were taken up with packing up the old house and moving in to the new one.  Then, of course, the dreaded renovation, that was supposed to last eight weeks but is already into week thirteen and counting, began.  I travelled some.  Smoked a lot.  Put out some feelers for “future” projects and started blogging.  But I had a conversation with a friend the other evening that has me thinking.  This friend, wise and serene by all outward accounts, suddenly stated that she was unhappy with her life.  If only, she said, she could quit her job.  Then she would finally have the time to do all those things she’s always wanted to do.  Like what, I asked.  Oh, you know.  Meditate. Read. Write. Take Yoga. Play Piano.  That kind of stuff.  Ah.  Yes.  That kind of stuff.  Basically – everything that was on my own list when I left teaching.

I’ve accomplished none of those things.  And while the writing is beginning to come, painfully slowly, the rest of my list sits and collects dust.  I’m forced to wonder if time is really, in the end, what we need.  I want to go back to my grad school days when I was living art.  I mean, really eating, sleeping, dreaming art.  The writing was always there.  My camera was always out.  I attended every reading, read voraciously, and barely uttered a sentence that didn’t have something to do, in one way or another, with poetry.  Even the meditation group I belonged to (and regularly attended) was centered on writing.  I don’t know.  Maybe I was obnoxious back then.  But I was connected to something, some muse (if you’ll forgive the drama), that I lost along the way.

For several years now, I’ve been blaming my lack of creativity on the fact that, after finishing my MFA, I entered a PhD program in American literature.  The creative brain does not survive well in a critical environment.  Or so I told myself.  Then, after the PhD, it was the job.  My first job centered primarily on teaching literature.  Not creative at all, I said.  So I left that job and took another that centered primarily on teaching poetry.  Hmmm.  That didn’t work either.  And so here I sit.  With nothing but time and a blank screen.

I don’t think it’s time that we need.  I think it’s focus.  Too much time means too many options.  What shall I do today?  Oh, I don’t know.  Well, there’s always laundry and dishes to do.  The animals need feeding and attention.  The bills have to be paid and, would you look at that?  Those files are in complete disarray!  After that, well, I need to attend to my relationships – so I’ll spend some time on Facebook commenting on people’s walls so they know I’m thinking about them.  Maybe I’ll have lunch with so-and-so or drinks with the girls.  It’s actually quite easy to get to the end of the day and look back and have absolutely no idea what you did.  Even though you were doing something at every possible moment.  And I’m not even a TV watcher.  And I don’t like BonBons.

So, here is the solution of the day.  I’m going to attempt (NO) – scratch that – I am going to write something on this blog every day until the end of the year.  Yes, I know that’s only 23 days.  But one must start somewhere!  It will be a challenge because the holiday is quickly approaching and I have travel plans and guests arriving and a party to throw.  But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  There is always something else to do.  There will forever be something else to do.

Consider it my own little NaNoWriMo – only I’m not nearly ambitious enough to even try to write a novel.  For now, at least, I’ll settle with dribble.

Food Art

Here are some photos recently developed from a bakery in Maastricht, Netherlands.  There was something really beautiful about what I saw there, and I wanted to share it.  Enjoy!