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A Match

Topher Chapman was the Marco Polo Regional School Chess Club President, which consisted of 14 syllables if you included the definite article. He was also five-time National Chess Association Teen Tournament Regional Champion, but this is significantly less interesting as it contains 21 syllables. This year was Topher’s final year of eligibility, and he was pretty determined to take the State title, which would replace “regional” with “State of New York” (a total of 22 syllables).
Topher’s success was due in part to his unpredictable style. While he largely followed advanced strategies, it was more important that the game end with an even number of total moves between the two players. At the early stages of the tournament it was easy to track the total number of moves, because Topher could dictate play with little resistance. If he needed to extend the game, he simply added nonsense moves that his defeated opponent failed to notice. At the higher levels Topher was certainly capable of defeating his opponents, but managing the total moves became increasingly difficult. Thus, “regional champion.”
Over the past year, he had compiled a collection of exactly 200 permutations of the most likely attack and defense combinations that ended with an odd number of total moves. He studied them religiously in preparation for the upcoming NCA teen tournament. These were the combinations he must avoid at all costs. However, before Topher could compete in the tournament, he had to get through his senior year of high school.
This seemed rather straightforward. He was doing well in his classes, and his school was relatively without bullies. He had come to an agreement with those few offenders. They could be “members” of the Chess Club, giving them a free period, so long as they came in peace and came in pairs. Membership had held steady at 12 for the last two years. Everything seemed in perfect order until Margot Markov transferred to Marco Polo Regional. As a requirement of her transfer, she had to participate in an extracurricular activity. When she chose Chess Club, she was succinctly denied. Topher had no other prospective members, and was therefore unwilling to admit a thirteenth member.
While he had no actual authority to deny/accept membership, Margot Markov was not aware of this. She told her mother she was rejected, her mother threatened a sexism suit, and Margot became the thirteenth member the next day. As part of the “plea bargain,” the Principal insisted that Margot be offered an opportunity to represent the school at Sectionals. Because of his track record, both at the tournament and as Club President, Topher was able to negotiate a qualifying match between Margot and himself. A showdown.
Unfortunately for Topher, he was too distracted to count the total moves and found himself otherwise poised for defeat. Margot, a competent player, couldn’t quite figure out Topher’s seemingly weak tactics. She was hesitant to go for the kill. In the middle of the chaos, Topher played to a stalemate.

Epilogue: The stalemate resulted in Junior Oliver Frickman being sent to sectionals, but more importantly, it left the story short of 500 words by just one. This was fine with Topher. He had his high school diploma and an additional 12 free days in his summer. He spent all of them with Margot, whom, it turns out, doesn’t like tricycles, third wheels, three-tined forks, Neapolitan ice cream, or March. Topher didn’t know a lot about love, but he did like that it came in pairs.

true life: I survived my MA program

I’m pretty sure I mentioned my thesis in almost all my recent blog posts. From late August until late January, it was my life; I ate, slept, breathed, bled thesis, thesis, thesis. (Literally: I got a few paper cuts while shuffling through my research.) It was all I thought about, often what I dreamed about, and pretty much the only thing I talked about. It was a tremendous source of stress, which is probably unsurprising, given how big a project it was (2 years of research turned into 78 pages, including Works Cited).

And it is with a huge sigh of relief that I can now say: It’s finished. I handed it in, received my grade, and now my diploma is in the mail, and I am done. Forever. (Well–with this particular program, at least.)

I don’t think I can put into words the giddiness I experienced when I handed my final copy off to the Graduate School. It literally felt like a weight had been lifted, at least spiritually speaking; suddenly, I could think about other things again! I could talk to people! I could go out! I could read a book for fun! A flood of possibilities washed over me, and yes, it was as absolutely overwhelming as it sounds. I spent a day basking in my new ability to do nothing, which I think was a good idea, and is something I’d recommend to everyone as they come away from a big, stressful writing project. Whether it’s a thesis or just a 10-page term paper, take that time afterward to let yourself breathe. Give yourself some kind of reward, if you can. Maybe sleeping all day is your reward, or maybe it’s spending 5 hours playing your favorite video game. Maybe you get a massage (the reward I promised myself), or go out with friends, or binge watch something on Netflix.

I can’t emphasize this enough: When you’re finished, disengage. Let the stress trickle away before you tackle something else. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

Writing Through the Winter Blues

I don’t hate the winter.  I just don’t like living it in Northern New Jersey.  A few weeks ago a friend and I visited Bennington, Vermont for the first time.  We were scoping out hundreds of acres of land that a larger group of mutual friends hope to buy with the long-term plan of building a sustainable community and home stay.  We’ll build our own houses out of hay and clay, chop wood, grow food, ferment vegetable, raise farm animals, and use wind, solar and firewood for heat and energy.  Live off the grid so to speak.  Give up the dialed in life for the farm life.

It was 13 degrees below zero in Bennington while we were there, and yet as we hiked the acreage and I envisioned my hay bale cabin with two wood-burning stoves, the winter was only beautiful.  Waking daily at 6am in the hills around the Green Mountains on a crisp winter day to cross country ski mini trails, trekked only by a few locals per week, seems like a lovely way to experience winter in the Northeastern United States.

But as of now, I wake to a crowded street next to a progressive grade school, on an artsy block of Montclair, NJ with no driveways and houses on top of one another, in a house that is slowly losing the battle to long Jersey winters.  Don’t get me wrong, Montclair, NJ is one of the best towns in the US to live in for an aspiring artist and musician like myself, but in the winter, everything gets a little more difficult. With no garage to work on projects and an overly cluttered house filled with lots of music gear, and piles of  stuff belonging to transitional friends in their mid 20′s, and the only escape being the crowded, icy, narrow sidewalks piled high on each side with frozen, gray, ugly snow tattered with plastics and debris, there isn’t much to do except play my guitar, plan my band’s schedule for the coming spring months, and binge watch “The Wire” – and I hate when I love a TV series so much that I sacrifice multitudes of hours to watch a crime drama instead of indulging in my own art.   The Wire is that good.

But this crappy Jersey winter hater frets not, because in exactly two weeks I board a direct flight from Newark airport to San Jose Costa Rica where I will catch two buses and by 5pm on February 17th I will be at Rancho Mastatal, a sustainable living education center in a small farm town in the foothills of an old growth rain forest in rural Costa Rica.  There I will again occupy my other home, “Starboard Cork,” a solar powered timber-frame and clay-walled structure that those same friends and I, who plan on invading Vermont, built at a similar community in Costa Rica.  In two weeks I will spend my days shirtless in shorts and flip-flops, tending to the crops, feeding goats, keeping an eye out for deadly, tropical snakes, and making farm-raised feasts for friends, students and guests.

So you may see by now, that this writing, which was camouflaged as a blues riff, whining about my winter doldrums, is in actuality a bragging rambling, from the guy who has everything he will ever want or need.

Once upon a time, long before presidents and pink hearts…

“Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she doesn’t have a lot to say.
Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day.

I wanna tell her that I love her a lot,
But I gotta get a belly full of wine.
Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl,
Someday I’m gonna make her mine.
Oh yeah, someday I’m gonna make her mine.”

- The Beatles, “Her Majesty”

Once upon a time, long before presidents and pink hearts, there was a portly, though rather charming man who commanded rapt attention from even the most easily distracted, including children and tiny kittens. He was loud and excitable, but kind. He was wise in the ways that both soldiers and priests are wise.  His complexion seemed to match the clay soil in the royal gardens, as if he were grown there, burnt by the sun and fed by the clouds into something more than human. The music of his voice carried so far that even hermits and dragons would wake to the sound, after dreaming of ale and wood smoke and warm beds with soft bodies. But the most fascinating thing, the thing that she noticed long ago, before all that came after, was his hands. Fingertips tell stories that no lips could ever hope to tell.

Her majesty always wore blue. She made this choice when she was six and swam in the ocean for the first time. Something that magical and free was something to be imitated, and so silk bodices in various shades of teal and turquoise were crafted by the royal seamstress. Flecks of quartz were sewn into each dress, and silver and pearls were made into delicate earrings and bracelets. She never wore a crown, though in spring and summer she wore a ring of flowers, lily of the valley or moonflowers to complement her hair. She was mercurial, but never mean. When she spoke, her voice could both command and comfort her subjects, like a witch’s conjuring. Though she was beautiful, it was her laugh which pulled him, gentle and strong, like trying to stay upright in a receding wave.

Halfway between winter and spring, a rich and beautiful pagan tradition still prevailed. Masked men draped in hides swaggered with antlered heads and mugs full of mead, while the women floated, hair unbound, sheer fabrics skimming bare feet. Their slender fingers held stronger drinks, and their faces were hidden in masks made of pheasant feathers.

Her majesty waited in the palace bedroom, which the servants said always smelled like sun striking soil after days of rain. When the moon was high and round in the sky, she rose. Tonight, she chose a satin silver sheath and fragrant jasmine garland, a lace garter on her right thigh, just wide enough, and a mask made of owl feathers, brown and white.

One stag stood tall and fierce. A maroon stained hide and black feather mask covered a Roman nose and forehead, Viking eyes peering through. He seemed to be borne of a fire which burns blue with intent and purpose. His belly was full of mead, his head finally empty of war, and his sword absent from his belt.

She moved slowly around the fire and smiled when she spotted him: an honest, open smile, the only kind she wore. He made a joke. She laughed. He whispered three words into her neck, and then three more. He gripped her bare shoulder and she felt as if a seed was planted there, traveling through her bloodstream to her heart, threatening to crack,  recklessly bursting the cavity to bloom.

Her majesty reached for her garter, once she knew it to be true. She grasped a small knife with a finely crafted mother of pearl handle, warm against her skin.

Sacrifices are only borne of love, and possession is a mortal wound.

The Sovereign Nation of Love is Destroyed in a Nuclear Holocaust! Let’s hear it for President’s Day!

As it happened, the President of Love was a renowned liar.  It almost goes without saying that the Vice-President of Love was also known for his ability to lie, but was unable to lie with the absolute guile of the President. She was believed to be the greatest liar who ever lived.  So, when it happened that she announced, during the State of the Union Address, that she had happened to propose marriage to her Vice-President and that he had happened to accept, no one really happened to believe it, despite the fact that he had happened to smile and nod in agreement quite convincingly. She’s just saying this to distract us from the deficit. No, it’s her lack of an exit strategy in the Bermuda Triangle. No, it’s her stance on music piracy!  Over the next couple of weeks, people started to come around to the idea –– still no one believed it would last. Even if they do get married, she won’t trust him! And him her! He’ll cheat! She’ll cheat! They’ll both cheat! It’ll never last! Never! But it happened that it did last, right up until the moment that they died in each other’s arms. It had happened that while the President of Love was incapacitated for a regularly scheduled colonoscopy or endoscopy (no one could be sure which), the Vice-President had the responsibility of retrieving the nuclear launch codes, in case of emergency attack, and keeping them on his person. Unfortunately, as it happened, the Vice-President was a bit of a nostalgic lush and whenever he had a chance, he would have Victoria’s Secret Service whisper him down to his old law school tavern for six or seven of his favorite Rye. There was something about Rye in an old wood tavern that made him starry-eyed. As it happened, he was doubly starry-benighted on this occasion and left the nuclear codes beneath his empties. Unfortunately, the busgirl was in a bad way about being rejected by a very handsome waitress and didn’t notice the Vice-President had left anything behind. She also didn’t notice when it had been picked up, but she did notice the mushroom cloud rising in the distance. Serves her right, she thought as the fire approached her. But the President and Vice-President of Love knew a good fifteen minutes in advanced of the mushroom cloud: they had intelligence. As it happened, the President and Vice-President of Love had just concluded an intense and rigorous debate about experimental philosophy, when the President turned to the Vice-President and sighed, if only I hadn’t pretended to love you all these years, this would never have happened. The Vice-President of Love turned to his President and laughed, No, it’s my fault. If only I hadn’t waited till that one time to be so convincing, then none of this would have happened. They both stared blissfully into each other’s lies as the fire ate through the rock and concrete of their underground bunker. Maybe we should tell the truth?

Just this once ?

Never.

It doesn’t become us.

Blog for the Blogless

So here’s something that I struggle with as a writer…no really, here it is. You’re reading it.

I’ve started and stopped a thousand different blogposts. Some of them made it to near publication, others are still rattling around in the attic. I’ve read so many posts on personal and professional blogs, and thought to myself, I could do that. Sometimes, very rarely, I’ll think “I could do a better blog.” “So what’s stopping you?” I say to myself. And that’s when I have nothing to say in response. So here’s a post about my inability to post. Assuming I actually publish it, my inability will be a thing of the past.

I’m not sure exactly what intimidates me or stymies me about blogging. It might have something to do with all the snarky, pithy, witty personalities I associate with blogs. These are personalities I do not feel comfortable inhabiting. I’m more of the slow, plodding, heavy-handed, overthinking writer. I don’t feel sleek and modern enough for the blogosphere. I can’t breathe in the bloggy air.

I try to tell myself that there are a thousand ways to write a blog, a blog for every voice, an audience for every blog. I tell myself that those cheeky personalities are just personas, edited personas. But the fear remains. There’s some sense of immediacy in blogging that terrifies me. It might be the piranha pit of discussion that ensues below even the most mediocre FB posts, or it might just be the vast, digital landscape itself. I don’t really have the answer, but it feels good to write about it. Maybe most blogs are just exercises in self-expression or DIY therapy. Even if the readership is nonexistent, even if the readership is a dozen spambots discussing natural male enhancement and dating websites, even if the readership is the same group of people who listen to you piss and moan in the real world, it still feels kind of magical to drop a digital page into the digital abyss.

So is this where I “sign off”?

Thanks for tuning in.

Catch me next month. Same blog time, same blog channel.

Au revoir!

…how do I shut this thing off?

…Are you still there?

 

Maybe next time I work on endings.

Be a goddess in a garbage bag.

“I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade

Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,

I promise to go under it.” – Bob Dylan

What motto do I live by as a writer? What motto should all writers live by? Very tough questions to answer. There’s so much out there. Should I use some Mark Twain-isms? Some Kurt Vonnegut verbal amazement? The typical Hemingway typewriter bleeding stuff? Keats or Coleridge or Blake (faves)? In the end I’ve settled on atiny bit of music and Hunter S. Thompson to offer some expression. No real surprise there, I suppose. I left out the Hunter quotes that were not appropriate (there’s a lot of them).

I tend to use a lot of lyrics in my posts. I can’t help it. I love words and I love music. They love each other.

“I’m a word freak. I like words. I’ve always compared writing to music. That’s the way I feel about good paragraphs. When it really works, it’s like music.” – HST

awesome mix

And that’s exactly what it is- whatever your preference. A screaming soul of a guitar solo or obnoxious snarling primal scream, acoustic vibrations and near-whimpering vocals, a ten minute jam or a manic violin, chest cavity vibrating bass hooks or catchy synth pop, the best hip hop drop beat you’ve ever heard, the funkiest trumpet whine your spine ever slunk to, drum rolls and hits that puncture your skin and poke your toes. Or (cliche) but actual chills, like this song:

“There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah” –“Hallelujah” [Jeff Buckley version]

Writing is a blaze of light, the strongest fuel you can ever give your heart and mind without it exploding into the vibrations of a thousand galaxies, and only those who have become utterly blinded now and then understand. It doesn’t matter if the page feels no more than a dumping ground for bottles filled with mud and slime, shoes with loose heels, half-eaten sandwiches and chewed electrical wires. Sometimes, holy water turns black as ink, and you exit purgatory and walk on water, just for a few moments. You’re blessed and possessed.

That’s the feeling that made me feel like this a long time ago (and still) though there have been some awfully awful dry spells and doubts along the way:

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.” – HST

So where’s the motto? There’s been a few between the lines, so far, if you read closely- but… here:

“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively … For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order, if you don’t lie to yourself and use the wrong words.” – HST

Writing can be a way to find truth- truth you might not even know is there. Don’t lie in your writing because you’re lying to yourself, to your very being- really, you can’t. There’s a feeling I would get when I first started writing of thinking that I wasn’t allowed to write certain things, I couldn’t say things just that way, the strangeness had to stay behind muscle and tissue and bone, humming and pumping softly like the ocean in a shell. But you’ll never hope to answer any big questions that way and you’ll never come close to fulfilling curiosities or adding a few stops to the endless mind train at night, coal fire sweat between life and dreams and nightmares.

“She laughed. ‘It won’t last. Nothing lasts. But I’m happy now.’ Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them.” – HST from The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson did not give himself nearly enough credit. Lots of writers don’t.

I Love writing because it makes me Happy. Can it really be that simple? I must be a priest(ess) or a fool. Or both- divinely idiotic. And tough. All requirements if you write and occasionally wield the big ones. So temporary. But so beautiful.

priestessthe fool

a matter of perspective

This is what procrastination looks like to me:

When I’m procrastinating, it’s all fun and games. Literally. I procrastinate in familiar ways: Netflix, video games, Tumblr, cleaning, petting my dog, contemplating the meaning of life. And it’s great. When I’m ignoring my responsibilities, I’m happy.

And then it all comes crashing down as I realize my deadline is that. much. closer.

I never used to be like this, and sometimes the old Heather who insisted on getting things done ahead of time comes around for a visit. I think, for me, it’s a question of stakes: the more important the assignment, the more I want to procrastinate. It might be fear; this is a problem that kicked its way into my life ever since I started in on my thesis back in September. It doesn’t get much more high stakes than that.

So I procrastinate. I avoid. I hide. And when I finally do decide to open that Word .doc, I’m overwhelmed with anxiety. I do it anyway, though, and… then I realize it’s not as bad as I made it out to be in my head. I think a lot of writers experience that. I think a lot of writers also experience the relief and joy I sometimes experience when I actually manage to get something done; then the above .gif still applies, but instead, I’m happily flailing about productivity instead. I much prefer that, especially since the joy I feel over being productive tends to stick around a lot longer than the joy I feel over having earned another gym badge in Pokemon.

What It Looks Like When The Weird Turn Pro (Kind of)

I am done writing. I’m really excited about this, and so I’m going to write whatever the hell I want right now because I CAN. Freedom is a beautiful thing.

This  month’s prompt is to write about some part of the writing process from our perspective. I’m going to choose “writer’s block” because I think we all experience it, all the time, more frequently than we would like to admit. I experienced this with the very last paper I had to write this semester. I think it was because I really didn’t like the author and just wasn’t feelin it. I had already written two papers, totaling almost 40 pages. I had to write another (at least) 15 and I hated nearly every second, because it was like being chased by rabid dogs and covered in bacon. That you can’t eat, which is even worse.

So I’m going to use the late great genius Lou Reed (the song “Andy’s Chest”, it’s good go listen to it) to explain. This is how it feels having writers block under a deadline and having lots of pages left to write:

“Oh, all the trees are calling after you
And all the venom snipers after you
Are all the mountains boulder after you

And all the bells are rolling out for you
And stones are all erupting out for you
And all the cheap bloodsuckers are flying after you”

Seem like a bit much? No, it’s not actually it’s 100% accurate and completely dire and awful and not paranoid at all. It’s, to use another of my bros Hunter S. Thompson, “THE FEAR.” I get it and I get it bad. However, HST also said “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Which is a fave of mine. Because, being the weirdest, I always find a way to turn pro. Sometimes that involves locking yourself in a room and sitting in front of your paper until you force your fingers to type SOMEthing ANYthing on the screen. Or a stiff drink. Or a few, even. The amount doesn’t matter, you’re not driving. You’re working on a paper.

I wish that I had a magic recipe for overcoming writer’s block. I don’t. You have to push through it. You have to turn pro, embrace the weird, put your head down and work. One trick I use: delayed gratification. IF I get another few pages written THEN I can [insert something fun, delicious or somehow gratifying here]. The weird mind tricks work. The good news is that when you come through it and write that paper (even if you think it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, as I often do), this is how it feels (again, I give the floor to Mr. Lou Reed):

“And curtains laced with diamonds, dear for you
And all the Roman noblemen for you
And kingdom’s Christian soldiers, dear for you
And melting ice cap mountain tops for you
Oh, oh, and knights in flaming silver robes for you
And bats that with a kiss turn prince for you
Swoop, swoop, oh, baby, rock, rock.”

I don’t have to tell you how awesome it is when you overcome that block, but that comes pretty close. Dig your heels in and get it done and all that is wonderful and right in the world will be yours.

Swoop swoop baby. Rock, rock.

Told you I was weird.

 

 

Ah, how to begin

Writing is not easy for me and, I dare say, for most people. I live in a world full of journalist; tortured souls every one.  But they do talk and they talk a lot; about their stories and of course, themselves. It’s this meandering conversation through the news of the day, the office gossip, the lives of their children and finally their stories, that color the work they do. Not so long ago, if you walked through a newsroom, it was full of chatter, writers clustered together, groups crammed into offices or on the phone. It looked like nothing was getting done; a room full of procrastinators. But talking about ideas and defending them, in other words brainstorming, is a crucial part and for some the best part, of the writing process. Besides, even people who write for a living, sometimes find that sitting down to write can be the hardest part of the process.