Sometimes when Stephen and I do birthday or anniversary cards for each other, we're able to take an image and simply change the faces out with our own or update in small ways. Sometimes one of us gets a bee in her bonnet and has to collage something together using more than one or two images. This year, I had an idea to have Stephen in a garden with a paintbrush, painting flowers into existence. When I googled to look at initial images of pretty women (because, you know) in gardens, I came upon all these old fabulous illustrations for seed packets and catalogues.
There wasn't a single that suited me best, so I created my card by cobbling together pieces of different illustrations.
For the outside...
And for the inset...
The backgrounds and flowers came from the first two illustrations (one of which, you'll notice, isn't a seed packet or catalogue but a farm annual) (incidentally from a company who shares names with Stephen's grandmother on his mother's side, the one who was a great influence on him, encouraging him to be an artist; it was one of her married names... she had a few... she led a very interesting life. Stephen wrote blog posts about Elizabeth Pennington Foster Matson Alberts Dahm Burpee here and here) (where was I?) (to get you up to speed, I started this sentence saying the backgrounds and flowers came from the first two illustrations...) and I cobbled together the wording from the wording on these as well. Then with the inset illustration, I had to expand the area of the peas and that took more cobbling. As did photoshopping out background lettering and details and expanding the space of the outside backgrounds. So, yeah, this card took a good long time.
The illustration for the inset, interestingly, is an ad for a stove company. But it worked great as a stand-in for one of those insets of impeccably-dressed ladies in the garden. I'll admit, I allowed Stephen's face to be probably a tad larger than it should have been. It was small enough as it was and, with making him a woman, I was losing clarity and recognizability when I reduced it, particularly for the printing of the card, and the primary goal is to create something that is Stephen.
The image I used for his face was an outtake from a Madeleine Prévert photo session:
We drove out to the Oregon Country Fair for his birthday yesterday, and had a picnic breakfast of sandwiches and cava in the parking lot as we waited for the fair to open, and he opened his card then.
He was surprised when I told him a little bit about the process and told me it looked like I'd just put his face on a single illustration, so whew, I knew I'd done what I'd set out to do. But if you want to see something really pretty, you should see Stephen's little flower garden along the side of the house, the first of much more gardening to come for our still new home.
June 8—A Boy was wating water and throwing rocks at Me Mara and Edina.
In my early days, I often only wrote once or twice a month. Most of these early year entries are not on Father's Day but whatever came closest. I have no idea what wating is supposed to mean.
June 27—I got a permonent (perm) my first.
There was no June entry at all for 1980.
June 14—Today I'm 12. I got a radio and a disk. I also got a bra but it's the wrong size so I have to change it. I still nead to change my personality at school. Maybe everyone will forget it, and I can start over next year. Wish me luck!
No Father's Day entries yet, but I was sure not to forget writing on my birthday.
Ah, the first actual father's day I wrote on - yay!
June 20—I got 2 new coins from Isriel, from Shena for my collection.
OK, so no mention of Father's Day or Dad. Sorry, Dad.
June 19, 20, 21—I was at home at Heathers and back home again. I saw Heathers new house. I finished Marna and started Misty.
Annnd another entry that encompasses Father's Day that didn't mention Dad at all. I found time to write about the two stories I was working on (because obviously I was a great writer) but I couldn't find the time to sneak in a "Happy Father's Day"? Hey, Dad, did I mention I'm sorry?
June 19. Alot has happened since my last entry. On Friday, we had our last Amnesty meeting [the one club I was in, in high school, Amnesty International]. I had to say goodbye to Jason Lamm, who was the one we always called mouth, and Kevin who we called Speady Gonzales and Tim, and Bob and that red-haired kid who's always there. Of course, I'd see Paul today. Over the weekend, I met Heather's friend, Chelle. She's really neat and we all had a great time. I had my algebra final yesterday (I bombed) and World Cultures (C) and English (?) today. On Friday night I was really angry. I had a period. I had to say goodbye to Mr. Ward, today. On Friday, he gave me, as a gift and a reminder of everything, one of his lunch bags & he autographed it. I gave him a short letter today thanking him and telling him how beneficial it has been having him as a teacher & a friend. On the weekend we found an injured duck & today we found a baby bird. We took the duck to the wild animal care center & the bird's still here.
OK, am I ever going to bother mentioning my poor, neglected father in here AT ALL? For the love of god. This is supposed to be a blog post about my dad! How can I do that if I spent my entire childhood being an ingrate of a daughter?
OK, finally! Jeez! Here's the first time I get an actual Father's Day entry in my youthful career as a journaler. Better make it count!
June 18, morning— Day before yesterday was, infact, a most peculiar day. Peculiar? Well, filled. I can say that for it. It was a very filled day.
First, I did a little writing. I wrote a little card-thing for dad. It read:
Actually a week and a half, because while I was thinking about how full one week could be, another half week went by.
Sometimes all that happens in your week is that you set up an air conditioner and a couple of book cases. Then a new week starts and a Monday work day is followed by the seemingly mundane fact of a small bit of foam on the floor of your office upstairs. I said to Stephen, kind of jovial: "Someone yorked on the carpet" and went to clean it up.
Tuesday, after at least two more, increasingly weighty pukes the night before and another I found in the morning, we were off to the vet where they took blood and X-rays. Nicholas wasn't eating and was in obvious distress. On the way to the vet, me in the passenger seat with Nicholas curled on my lap, I saw a billboard advertising a medical study to stop dogs from being poisoned, followed a little farther by a building off the freeway called something like Cherished Pets, touting itself as a "pet cremation and funeral center."
Wednesday. All tests negative and Nicholas still not eating, not drinking, looking up at me on shaky, spindly Chihuahua legs with tail tucked. The vet said go to Dove Lewis for an ultrasound. We knew Dove Lewis from the time, years ago, that Nicholas ate a bit of a dog toy and it lodged in his intestine and he had to have surgery, and this was looking scarily similar to that time. Driving to the place, Nicholas curled on my lap again, Stephen said, "Oh god, I never saw that before," passing by Cherished Pets.
Park the car, head up the pavement to the animal hospital. The wall along the walk is all individual bricks engraved with the names of beloved departed dogs and cats.
Green vomit on the floor of the animal hospital. Ultrasound. Animal Planet on silent on the big screen TV in the waiting room. Consultation in one of those little rooms, and yes: obstruction in the intestine. The very jolly animal doctor said, "We're going to get him into surgery and get that puppy out!" Would the vet really have said "puppy"? I don't know. That's how I remember it.
We were back to Northwest Neighborhood Veterinary where it just so happened to be our vet's surgery day. We left Nicholas there and Stephen dropped me off at work, where I looked at spreadsheets for about three hours and waited for Stephen to call from home saying the vet had called to let us know whether Nicholas had survived.
You can't help it. You look at the phone and picture the way it will ring and how Stephen's going to have to tell you the vet called and she's sorry, there was nothing she could do.
The photo on my computer desktop was Nicholas. I sent an email. The little profile picture in the corner of the message was Nicholas. I jumped on the project management program we use and made a comment on a to-do list of one of our graphic designers, and the little profile picture next to my comment was Nicholas.
I picked up my phone to check for messages in case something awful had happened and Stephen couldn't bear to call me and could only broach the subject in a text.
It was 6ish when the phone rang. Heart pounding. Stephen's "Hello!" was cheerful, so it must be OK. He said he'd called the vet and they were still in surgery, so he had to leave now to pick me up in time to get to the vet before they closed. We drove over. We waited. The girls behind the counter were all cheerful so it must be OK.
When they finally brought him out after surgery, Nicholas was belly-shaved and dopey, the tip of his tongue peeking out of his mouth. We took him back to Dove Lewis for an over-nighter, and drove home to sleep alone. I went to the store for comfort food and we sat in front of the TV and I ate half a frozen pizza.
Thursday. June 1, my nephew's 18th birthday. It was also the day they announced the PubWest Design Awards. Crazily, I won the gold in the small format cover design category for my book cover of Jamie Yourdon's novel Froelich's Ladder.
I'd never won anything before, except for the Easter egg coloring contest at the grocery store when I was a kid, and that time I'd tied for first place with a girl who made rainbow-colored starbursts all over her egg.
There was a link to the PubWest awards page, and people were sharing it on Facebook and I was so honored, but I couldn't concentrate on anything but Nicholas. When we brought him home, we took him out in the backyard to pee and he immediately threw up in the grass. The last time he had this surgery, the recovery was just as bad as the stress of the surgery itself, with lots of hours of doggy distress and a trip or two back to Dove Lewis because he seemed to be healing up so poorly.
Dr. Prull said the critical thing in this first day after surgery was that he eat and keep it down. We gave him some of the special diet the vet gave us. He refused it. We let him rest. We gave him some of the special diet. He refused it.
Finally, Stephen called the vet and left the message that he wasn't doing well and wouldn't eat. I sat in my office upstairs with Nicholas at my feet in a nest made of his doggy bed covered in towels and blankets. The pain medication made him sleepy and he didn't seem to be in as much discomfort as the last time, but he wouldn't eat, which meant we couldn't give him his antibiotic and we thought for sure we'd be taking him back to Dove Lewis for the night.
I said to Stephen,"When she calls back, let's ask if we can try giving him cottage cheese," which was part of the bland diet they'd suggested before the surgery.
Stephen said, "Just try it."
So I did. And he ate it.
Joy. It wasn't until Nicholas started eating again that I finally shared the lovely news about the award. Clicking share was somehow like saying cheers and sipping champagne to Nicholas.
Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Me at my computer doing design work, sometimes with Nicholas in his nest on my lap, sometimes with him asleep at my feet. The ritualistic feedings, hiding pills, squirting antibiotic in his mouth with one of those syringes. At night Stephen slept in the bed and I slept upstairs curled up on three pillows on the floor with Nicholas in his nest next to me with the cone on. He had one of those blue cloth cones, but he still hated it, and I'd wake up here and there in the middle of the night always to find him lying, eyes open, staring at me.
Other bits of life happening around all of this. Our realtor gave us fresh cut peonies for a vase on our dining room table. I had a visit from writer Alex Behr with an advanced reader copy of her book Planet Grim and a handmade pillow as an extra thank you for the design work I did on her book cover. On facebook there were pictures of more advanced readers, this time for the second in Jeff Johnson's Darby Holland crime series, which I also did design work for. There were literary readings we couldn't go to. And protests and antiprotests in downtown Portland, and don't even get me started on politics, with tweets and covfefes heading into Comey's testimony.
Monday. Back to work while Stephen stayed home with Nicholas. It was the first time I'd left him since the surgery. At the door on the way out, Stephen made an impatient face before I could say anything and said, "Don't worry. I can take care of him." In the car, I put on my seat belt, switched on the radio and put the car in gear, one hand out instinctively to protect Nicholas, invisible, in the passenger seat, as I pulled out of the driveway.
From work, I emailed Stephen at two hour intervals asking for progress reports.
Tuesday was a scheduled day off because I was speaking to a graphic design class at PSU. It was a wonderful hour and a half in which I showed slides of various book covers and outtakes and told stories and took questions about inspiration and process and working with publishers. There were, oh, fifteen to twenty students, all eager and interested. They asked lots of great questions. It was fun to talk about my self-taught, DIY process, fun to tell them that they undoubtedly had more skills and knowledge, already, than I do and yet, look what I can do, meaning my gosh, look at what they can and will be able to do.
I told about the first time I used Adobe Illustrator: "I was so excited about the program, but there was something wrong with it! There was a pen tool but when I tried to draw with it, the line turned into this weird object, and there was an eraser, but it wouldn't erase anything in my pictures!"
Big laughs from these students who knew exactly what I meant. I felt glowy inside. These were my people.
Wednesday, a full week since the surgery. Nicholas in his bed on the kitchen floor as I cooked breakfast and lunch. His recovery was so much better than the time before. So much better. He rarely seemed uncomfortable. He rarely seemed at all interested in the incision place. I worked all day and then that night was the first time we left him alone by himself, to go out and celebrate Bradley K. Rosen and his novel Bunkie Spills.
I spent years in Tom Spanbauer's basement reading, critiquing, and having a love affair with that book as I sat next to Brad at the workshop table. Brad's reading that night at Powell's City of Books has got to be one of my favorite book launches ever. (Thank you to Laura Stanfill for these pictures.)
One hundred plus people packed the place and Brad's reading was quirky and hilarious and heartfelt, and he had complete, self-deprecating command of the audience. Doug Chase's intro was perfect. Brad's entrance, playing a harmonica like Bunkie, was perfect. His "reverse moment of silence" where he got the whole crowd to holler admiration to Tom Spanbauer, was better than perfect.
And it was an evening of such community. His Dangerous Writing friends, other writing friends, musician friends, Oregon Country Fair friends, family.
So much to pack into little over a week. And more, still. Some things I feel jinxy to talk about, some things that I feel best to just give a quick line to because of their import. A loved one's pregnancy. A loved one's senior class project, which I just read. A loved one in the hospital. A loved one getting married (today) (now). Yesterday was the ten year anniversary of the death of Stephen's father, which I can't quite believe. Ten years. Last night we got together with the family and went around the room and talked about him and told stories. What everyone said: I'll just say it was beautiful.
Saturday now. Me on the computer. Nicholas curled up in his bed at my feet. This morning, as I slept in (in bed with Nicholas for the first time since the surgery) we had our first hummingbird visit to our garden.
Step 1: Heft thousand pound air conditioner up stairs to the
furnace that is your office space.
Step 2: Turn on space heater which doubles as a fan and turn
dial to Fan-Only so you roast just a little less while you work.
Step 3: Lay out all pieces and read instructions as to which
piece is which, speaking each item out loud for maximum learnability.
Step 4: Sweat.
Step 5: Try to figure out how to fit three plastic things
together to create "window panel assembly" to fit in window but
window is tiny and there's no way all three panels together will fit in window.
Two panels together (main panel plus one extension panel) will fit in window
but instruction book doesn't say you can use two panels, only three, and you
don't want to disobey instruction book. Try putting two panels in window. They
fit, but the window opening is vertical, and when you let go of the two panels,
the extension piece slides back down inside the first panel. (You have missed
the part in the instruction book about using blunt-tip screws to secure panels
Step 6: Read part in instructions instructing you to use enclosed
strips of foam to cover edges of extension panels. Instruction book doesn't
state whether "edges" means
long edges or short edges.
Step 7: Repeat step 4.
Step 8: Watch many YouTube videos. These videos will omit
the part of the instructions you didn't understand where you can use the blunt-tip
screws to secure panels together (which, in your defense, you missed because
the vague language made it sound like the screws were to secure the panels to
Step 9: Realize you've got the space heater set on Heat
rather than Fan-Only and say the eff word and repeat sweat 4, I mean step 4.
Step 10: Finally understand the thing about the blunt-tip
screws. Remove two blunt-tip screws from screws packet.
Step 11: Realize you forgot to stick the foam pieces to the edges
of the plastic panels that will end up in a landfill someday with the rest of
all this god-forsaken plastic stuff. Stick foam pieces on panels.
Step 12: The blunt-tip screws are now lost.
Step 13: See step 4. Also consider crying a little.
Step 14: Sit down and start to write a blog post about it because fuck it. And, hey, this is more fun. Feel
proud of yourself and begin to gain a warm feeling of self-recognition.
Step 15: The window panel assembly is now lost.
(You should really be a better housekeeper.)
Step 16: Locate window panel assembly and, miraculously,
blunt-tip screws and take it all, with screwdriver (wow, you're a genius, you
remembered to bring the screwdriver), to window. Sit in blast of hell from
window and lay two-part assembly upright in window, being careful to keep
panels fully extended, reach for first screw and – how the goddamn hell are you
supposed to keep the panels extended and screw in the screw at the same time
with only two hands? Every time you go to screw in the screw, the extension
panel falls down. The screwdriver is one of those magnetized ones, and you try
just using one hand for the screwing but then the fucking screw falls out. OK,
fine, stick your fucking foot out through the fucking hole in the plastic
window panel and use your fucking big toe to hold the works together while you use both
hands to screw in the fucking screw.
As you go to secure the second screw, a crow dives in a black flash right past your window, passing so close you can
see the feathers, swooping in a great arc toward the grass and then flying off into
the sunny neighborhood.
I hadn't known Andrew Stark before accepting his story "A Code for Everything" for City of Weird. My reaction to his submission was one of those instant love affair things. I probably fairly knew I'd accept it from paragraph one. The story does all the things that make my brain happy. It's a wonderful mix of nerdiness and heart. It plays with science (yum) and and philosophy (yum) and language (yum), and is told through the lovely deadpan voice of a robot dog named Barney.
It's a story that took a little extra care for publisher Laura Stanfill to typeset as it contains phrases like:
Another example of the delicious nerdiness in the piece: Barney the robot dog and his companion (also named Barney) live in various homes throughout their life together, and Barney the dog describes each of these homes down to the exact latitude and longitude. As an example of just how nerdy I also am, when I was editing City of Weird, I created a Google map and plotted out every landmark and plot point I could think of in every story. It helped me to root out some errors in a couple of the stories and it allowed me to track how much of Portland I was covering, but mostly it was just me nerding out on this book I was gathering together. Along with finding and plotting out such City of Weird landmarks as Kelly's Olympian, the clock tower at the Amtrak station, Powell's City of Books, the Poppy Lounge, the unnamed haberdasher in Jonah Barrett's "Alder Underground," and the site of the former haunted Burger King on Burnside and Broadway (along with LOTS of other landmarks - I really nerded out), I was able to paste in such spots as:
45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst
45.496224° N, -123.121649° W outside Forest Grove
and find out where Barney and Barney lived. And of course, these places were exactly where they were supposed to be.
"A Code for Everything" is the only story in City of Weird that unquestionably takes place in the future, and it is one of a handful of tales in the collection that would consistently make me cry.
Andrew was raised on the Ojibwa Indian Reservation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He has lived and worked in Chicago, Montana, Los Angeles, and Portland. I met him briefly when he lived in Portland during the creation period of the book, but by the time it was published, he'd moved out of state again.
His work has appeared in various publications, and he is co-founder of LOST WKND, the international literary arts and culture publication based in Minneapolis. You can check out LOST WKND here.
Recently Andrew's story "A Code for Everything" was one of four City of Weird pieces to be adapted into radioplays by Cynthia J. McGean, and produced and directed by Sam A. Mowry of Willamette Radio Workshop. The first live performance of these plays was on stage at the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver, Washington, and the pieces were beautifully adapted and performed. Sam A. Mowry, also a radio actor for WRW, gave an expert performance as Barney the robot dog, voicing him exactly as I have heard him in my head, and pacing the piece beautifully, getting lots of laughs from the audience and bringing the story to a heartfelt close.
I didn't even know we had a UFO Fest! I'm excited.
In the meantime, here's a taste of Andrew Stark's lovely work:
The child, Barney, names me after himself. He seems timid at first, when his parents bring me back to their 2,350-square-foot Cape Cod at 45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst. They walk me in and set me down. My olfactometer picks up 1,622 different odors, including jojoba in the woman’s perfume, and alarm pheromones emitting from the child. He peeks from around the corner; I wag my tail and yip. Although I understand fifty languages, my communication is limited to barks, howls, and mammalian semiosis. Eventually, he approaches and strokes my head. The tactile sensors lining my skull allow me to respond, and I close my eyes. Likewise, a number of sensory corpuscles near the surface of Barney’s hand send discriminative sensations traveling up the posterior columns in his spine and into the medial lemniscus of his brainstem, causing the electrical membrane potential of certain cells to rise and fall, opening channels and allowing for an inward flow of sodium ions. Once the sensations reach his medulla oblongata, a number of axons synapse with a number of neurons in his gracile and cuneate nuclei. He smiles.
May 17—I went to a piano odition then out to
lunch then to a supermarket. i was in
the Toy area with Shena and a cloun junped out and scared me.
May 15—Today we got out of
school 12:00 AM. Lené came to my house
today. Hector died. He suffered.
We don't know why. I'm getting a
[Hector was a hamster.]
May 11—Today I got in another
comercial. I was a background. We made a mound of sand for friendly the wolf to
sit on. Shena, Heather, Tom, Edina,
Mara, Ryan and I walked in the background while friendly the wolf talked. We went home.
I watched video taped movies.
[The campground where we were camping was filming a commercial and we kids hung around and made a general nuisance of ourselves until they told us we could be in the background of the commercial in order to get us to go away. I was thrilled. Friendly the Wolf was a puppet.]
May 23—Heather came over we went to Jan's and Sarah's house
and there we rode ponies and rowboats.
Jan Struck works for Mom in the French Pantry, Sarah's her dauter.
[The French Pantry was my mom's restaurant.]
[bonus] May 27—Jamie got her
period. I'm jealous. Mom says she'll get me some things just
incase I do. She might get me a bra soon
May 9—We came home. Shena & Mara are spending the night. We got to listen to Beatle music in the car.
19—I dreamed I went to Paul McCartney's house.
The Beatles were there.
May 8—Happy Mother's Day! We swam, sunbathed & played with
frogs. I was reading "Will there
really be a morning?" I saw the
"Billie Jean" video like Mom wanted me to. We came home.
We had more Heather presents.
Heather went home. Mom, Edina,
& I had a talk. We had lobster for
dinner. Happy Mother's day. I made mom a card with a picture of the
"I [heart] you" sign on it.
(May 7th) I had my
1st period on Friday and Mom made a big deal about it. I can understand why but still I didn't think
it was any big thing. I was raving at
the time. I was burning mad for many
reasons that summed up to—life. I was
pounding my fists against my bed until I noticed I looked like a maniac. I didn't know about my period until I sat
down on the toilet. We once again went
up to the lake. I began a book of short
stories—I have finished now, 'Box of Forgotten Hope."
[When I talk about my "town," I'm talking about a game we used to play where we each created a town out of little toys and dolls. Lloyd Hailey and "the tooth brush one" and "Toybox" were stories I wrote.]
I gave Mom a Beatles tape and we
listened to it the whole way home—really loud, because Mom’s ears were plugged
with a cold. So, I was singing my
loudest along with it.
I brought home with me the tape on which I taped the
music for my little “I don’t care” song.
I was listening to it. It is
somewhat better than my old songs on that tape of mine, but…
I remember when my dream was to be a singer. I actually thought I had it in me. Oh God, was I wrong.
I don’t understand my having that dream. And, pieces of it still clutter up in my
brain. I still write my little songs,
even record them. And, what talent do I
People used to tell me I had talent for music. So, I took 6 years of piano lessons, took a
tiny course in classical guitar, and thought I had it. I wrote songs—slow ditties where I
strummed my guitar and sung my little, un-trained throat out. At best they were the style for the dippiest
Well, now my style (what style?) is alittle better. I have a beat now. My few songs are less mellow. But, still, I have nothing great. And, I have an awful, untrained voice. I can only strum my guitar and mess up
chords. I also use my Yamaha or the
organ at the lake—so, I’m cheating.
I’m begining to wonder what my talent is. It is obviously not music—I can’t even dance.
How did I get started on that writing? I made a play for my town called “Marna
Terrace” and I could not do it that way because of the special effects
needed. So, I decided to write it, and
Heather decided to join me and write one of her own. Thus began my huge obsession with writing.
Heck, I’ve got to face it. Nothing I’ve written has been better than
“Shows potential”. The books I have
scrawled down in my little journal books are all awful. “Lloyd Hailey” has been disregarded. My little toothbrush one won’t win—no
way. And I don’t even want to look at
I wrote a poem for Mom for Mother’s day, as I usually
do. It went something something,
something… these things make up motherhood…
It was really stupid. When she
read it outloud, I had to leave the room.
Then, she thanked me for it, and said it was good. She said that she wanted
me to write it out in caligraphy,
When I put out the call for submissions for City of Weird, there were a few authors I gave nudges to in hopes that they'd submit. Karen Munro is one of them.
I first read her work when we were both contributors to a lovely anthology called the Pacific Northwest Reader, edited by Carl Lennertz and published by Delphinium. Karen's was hands down my favorite essay in the book, and I've followed her work with delight ever since, including great otherworldly stories like "The Cure," published on Midnight Breakfast and told from the point of view of a reluctant werewolf:
I should have known something was wrong when I woke up naked on the kitchen floor next to a half-empty bag of puppy chow, full as a tick.
Karen is particularly good at working the confluence of two emotions, as she does with loneliness and humor in "The Cure."
I went back to Heather. I know. I wasn’t her husband anymore. And she wasn’t my wife. She owed me less than nothing. But the junkyard where I chowed on the dog was in her neighborhood, and I was sure that wasn’t a coincidence. When I changed, something drew me there. Sooner or later I was going to wake up at her doorstep, and after that—maybe I’d wake up in her apartment. Full, bloody-mouthed. I wouldn’t be the first guy who went after friends and family when he turned into a wolf. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’d caused her pain.
Karen deftly navigates the intersection between need and horror in "Pringreen," published on Split Lip Magazine:
That’s Pringreen. There—that mantis of a man propped on the corner with his hand in his pocket, fondling something. A dent in the top of his stovepipe hat as if someone put it there with a single outraged blow. The tails of his coat dusty and soiled. I think he’s looking at you. If he is, if he comes this way, I’ll go.
But perhaps he’s just considering the bakery sign behind us, or that scruffy fellow on the curb. Perhaps I’ve misjudged the angle of his gaze. You seem a regular, a decent sort of man. Not one of Pringreen’s. But it’s so hard to tell what secrets a man has heaped up inside.
So, yes, I nudged Karen about submitting a story for City of Weird. I was so impressed with her imagination, which is both beautifully fanciful and incredibly brainy. I knew she was the perfect candidate for this collection, and when I finally made my decisions about the story submissions I'd received and had my publisher take the blinders off and could see who had written the stories I'd chosen, there she was.
Karen's story "The Color off the Shelf" deals with many fascinating, intersecting themes and topics: the power of books, race and the whiteness of Portland, the allure of the impulses that scare us. Malcolm, a young black college student working on a dissertation about the African American tradition of toasts and boasts, is drawn to a section of Powell's City of Books that he never knew existed, a dank basement labeled as "Deep Storage." Down there, he discovers an old, deeply racist book.
The grown up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile White . . .
The passages that Karen included in her tale are so offensive they seem unreal, yet she took them almost word for word from actual existing books that made up a genre known as "scientific racism," a pseudoscientific study of techniques and hypotheses meant to support or justify belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority.
I got together with Karen one day to chat and eat cake, and she surprised me by telling me that the impetus for her story was the fact that H. P. Lovecraft, the man commonly known as the godfather of "weird fiction," the genre celebrated in City of Weird, was a notorious racist. Like really, really racist. And it's in his stories. It was a fact that I hadn't known. I loved finding out that "The Color Off the Shelf" was a direct reaction to that. Karen drew on the old African American tradition of toasts and boasts, a form of narrative poetry: another thing I hadn't known about before Karen gifted me with her story. As Malcolm enters the mysterious "Deep Storage" he recites one of the most famous toasts to calm his nerves.
Looking for any imagery I might find surrounding toasts and boasts, I came across the above album cover for a recorded version of a book called Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition. More info on the book is here and the CD here. I don't know where the image is from, but it depicts a scene from the very toast that Malcolm turns to...
“Shine was downstairs eating his peas,” he began. His favorite
toast, the ballad of “Shine and the Titanic.” The wily, smart black man
escaping the white man’s shipwreck. The walls of the staircase seemed to
be getting narrower, and he needed to concentrate on something. At
first his arms had been almost fully extended—now they were bent at the
elbow like chicken wings. A sour smell curled up the stairs to meet
“When the goddamned water
come up to his knees.” The staircase had an angle to it, he was sure. A
kind of disorienting cant, as if a giant finger had flicked it from one
“The captain said, ‘Shine,
set your black self down.’” He paused and looked back. Behind him, the
stairs soared like a sheer wall. Inconceivably distant and far above was
the little wooden door he’d come through. He swallowed. “‘I got
ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.’”
The book that Malcolm finds at the bottom of the nightmarish staircase grabs onto Malcolm and won't let go - or is it Malcolm who won't let go? "The Color Off the Shelf" is about the ways in which we can be drawn to the things that terrorize us - but it also mirrors the way we as readers, film-watchers, art-lovers can let our appreciation for art cloud our judgment. We don't want to admit to the racism of people like Lovecraft because we so enjoy the other things those imaginations have churned out. Is it OK to love the art if the artist is so deeply flawed, if the deep flaws carry through to the art we love?
What I love is that the power of books works both ways. We can't change the fact that such an important figure in horror fiction's canon (and many more figures beyond that) held such offensive beliefs and embedded his art with it. But an artist like Karen can come along and turn that dark magic into something beautiful.
Karen will be reading from her story at the last official City of Weird launch reading, Monday, April 17th at VFW Post 134 in Portland, where one of the stories takes place. More info on it is here.
An interesting article about Lovecraft's racism is up on Salon here.
A little more info on toasts and boasts, with a rendition of "Shine and the Titanic," as well as the toast "The Signifying Monkey," a children's tale about a lion and a monkey, is here.