So Many Beautiful Diamonds

A Japanese understanding of Zen Buddhism describes the universe as a web, and at each node in the web is a bright diamond that reflects the sparkle of every diamond set around it.  

I am an individual diamond in the web, and so are you.  Yet, we are not ‘individual’ in the rustic American sense of the word, because we impinge upon each other.  

Inevitably, I reflect you, and you reflect me.

This is true even if you are the last man on Earth.  If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody (or nothing) hears it, does it make a sound?  Of course it makes no sound.  The tree requires your ears to absorb the sound, just as much as you require the tree to send vibrations through the air to your strangely-shaped listening receptacles.

A single man alone in the world would simply become a powerful reflection of a man-less world.  Not merely psychologically, but biologically, physiologically, and in all other ways: his skin would be filthier like the bed of a forest, more rugged like the hide of an oak.  He would stalk his prey less like a man, and more like a beast.  Medieval men used to wear the same clothes till they fell off.

The forest where the lone man lives is the institution that surrounds him.  If he lives on a small, barren island, he is himself barren, stripped to his bones, crusted in sea salt, and burnt by the high sun.  The sea is a separate institution from the forest and applies different outputs on the man.

We do not live with these prehistoric institutions, though.  Most of us, that is to say Americans or Westerners more broadly, live under the influence of highly cosmopolitan institutions.  We change out clothes at least daily.  Even if you reside in rural areas, rapid information flow condenses and delivers this cosmopolitan world to your doorstep, a neat little package from wonder land. 

You are becoming more a man of the world every single day.  In spite of your best efforts, you are everything else, and everything else is you.  

Who would you be if you grew up in pre-Revolutionary France?  A devout Catholic, most likely.  Who would you be if you grew up in 1990s Miami?  How about 1960s Oklahoma?  You are what you are because of where you are.

What institutions today surround us and shape our being?  There are a few big ones that need mentioning:

Entertainment: Netflix, Amazon, cable television, New York Times Best Sellers, televised sports.

Media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the legacy corporate cable cabals, the legacy corporate print and web outfits.

Education: Universities, pop science articles, blogs, podcasts.

Humans: other people who are also walking reflections of these same institutions.

When young people say, “I need to take a year off work and move away so I can find myself,” what they mean to say is: “I need to shut off these extraneous inputs to find who I am, in my core.  Who I was before social modifications.  Who I was born as, before I had a body, when I was still a detached soul.”  So they go off to Argentina and hike the Patagonia and drink little cups of steaming coffee on quaint resort patios.

Often, they come back feeling relaxed, even accomplished, with supple skin, but they feel no more closer to themselves once they have reintegrated – once they have returned to the cubicle and reinstalled the Tinder app.

Ok.

So here we are, getting jerked back and forth like a fly on a fisherman’s rod:  “Here is peace, finally.  No, that wasn’t quite what I was looking for.  Let’s try over here.”  

After every new stop on the train, we climb back on, “All Aboard!” and eventually after doing this for so many years – maybe 20, maybe 30 – we realize we will be back here again.  

What we are looking for, without saying as much, is not some deep revelation of our true untampered soul, which cannot be achieved.  

We are looking for the right institutions to nourish the soul and infuse it.  Nothing else will.  We want to be surrounded by so many beautiful diamonds.

This is why institutions matter.  If they are ugly, we are dull.  If they are bright, we are beautiful.  

And if I could break these grotesque and unhappy institutions we now have, I would.  The corporate media would be swallowed up by troubadours, the cubicle farms traded in for unkempt libraries, the tech-giant trusts shattered each into a billion pieces (one smithereen for every dollar BezosGatesZuckerberg have), and gleaming fresh cathedrals carved out of every ghastly facade of modern architecture.  

Lastly, there would be a magnificent courtyard of flagstones and fountains set beneath the open window of every home, where people would converge and talk and smoke on indian summer nights.  

Together, we would flow in a single stream, bound by the hard banks of our new, attentive institutions.  

Why I Write

When I ask a friend what a movie or a book is about, I am usually asking about the plot.

Like most people, I want to know a couple of early plot points to get a feel for the subject matter, the time, the place, the setting, and the essential characters of the story.  I’ve never asked what a story is about and received an answer like, “redemption in the face of temptation.”

Authors disagree over whether one should begin his story with a theme or with a plot.  Some authors develop plots and allow the themes to emerge naturally.  Others develop themes and build a plot around them.  In either case, the use of theme is a major difference between genre fiction and literature.  For my entire writing career so far, I’ve operated on the former strategy; I invent plots, and the themes reveal themselves as I write.

This works well for short stories.  I can write a publishable short story in one sitting.  In fact I’ve done it.  The novelty of a fresh plot can propel me to the end and keep me interested enough to keep me writing, and writing well.

Problems arise when I use the same method to write a novel, or a long short story, or even a short short story that I don’t have the time to finish in my first go.  A fine plot is rarely enough to sustain my interest for very long.  If I wait long enough, I’ve thought out the whole plot and it becomes stale like your favorite song overplayed so many times that you barely notice when it comes on anymore.

Sometimes feel compelled to write the whole plot out.  This is especially important in crime fiction, I am told, because in order to construct believable plots, you need to map it from beginning to end.  That’s what James Ellroy did for his greatest novels, like The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, or American Tabloid.  Ellroy’s novels are tight and make a lot of perfect sense.

Other crime authors, like the legendary Raymond Chandler, never plotted anything out.  The integrity of the mystery is lost, sure.  There are holes and unanswered questions.  Chandler didn’t even notice one major gap in his debut novel The Big Sleep until it was made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart and the director called to ask about it.  But Chandler’s novels are still classics because they were buoyed by excellent style and wit.

I think that in order for me to complete a novel there must be some greater importance assigned to the great effort rather than merely an interesting plot.  Frankly, there is no plot in the world whose novelty alone can keep me in its rapture.  Perhaps these things happen with age.  We lose our wonder, but only because everything we’ve wondered has come to pass.  So it is with me as I drift toward 30 years of age.  I don’t read the descriptions on the backs of books anymore.  I just flip to a random page in the middle, read it, and see if I like the style well enough.

In his book, Why I Write, George Orwell describes four forces that compel a writer to write.  He suggests that every author has a mix of these four factors, to varying degrees depending on the writer.  Put succinctly, they are egoism (leaving a legacy), “aesthetic enthusiasm” (think language and style), truth seeking (or what Orwell calls the historical impulse), and the political motivation.

As I’ve grown, my own motivations as a writer have changed.  I’ve been writing since I can remember.  In my earliest memories, I am laying on my grandmother’s pink living room rug writing stories.  When I was twelve, I finished my first novel about a retired medieval war hero who is unjustly pegged for war crimes and must either turn himself in or defeat the nation he had once killed to defend; in total, a 150 page Microsoft Word document, Times New Roman, single space, 12 point font.  For a project in 8th grade, I wrote another 50 page story about a Spanish pirate who, in his lust for the power and wealth he had been deprived of as a child, kills the one friend who had made his childhood bearable.

I’ve never been as productive, nor as inventive, as I was when I was young precisely because when I was young, I couldn’t have known that everything had already been invented and that there was therefore no reason to reproduce it.  James Ellroy, in an interview at Paris Review, claims that he doesn’t read any modern novels or watch any television for this reason.  He doesn’t want it to influence his work.  He says he sticks to the classics.  It shows.  Not only is he a superb writer, but he seems oblivious to the politically and socially sensitive conventions that permeate modern art and entertainment.  It makes his work not only well-written, but refreshing in its candor.

Sometimes I wish I could escape into such a reclusive state.  I never knew if it was true, but I always admired The Ramones for the old legend that they didn’t listen to any music at all.  It’s an ideal state, somewhat approximating the conditions of childhood in that your imagination remains unlimited and un-jaded by experience.  Yet I believe it is unrealistic, or at least unrealistic in the degree I think would be required to un-jade myself.

So now I have to locate something else that motivates me since my happy childhood state of inexperience and ignorance no longer does.  I’ve reached a point in my creative career where I am too experienced to experience childish inspiration, but perhaps still too inexperienced to write anything very meaningful.  My childhood works were certainly meaningful; but only to a naive child.  They were also totally inspired, but totally lacking in stylistic discipline or anything resembling an appealing use of the English language, except occasionally by accident.

I once read somewhere, or perhaps was told, that writers shouldn’t even attempt writing until they are in their 30s.  There seems to be some evidence of the merit of this advice.  Orwell didn’t write his first novel till he was 30.  The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton often expressed his embarrassment about his first book, The Seven Story Mountain, which he wrote about his conversion to Catholicism and his spiritual journey to becoming a monk.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course.  Plenty of writers wrote great things before they were 30.  Hemingway was 26 when he published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Yet by then he had a wealth of experience that most people his age probably had not by that point.  If the rule ever applied, I believe it applies to me.

A good writer requires life experiences.  I believe I am on the verge of acquiring enough of those experiences to say something very meaningful about the world.  That is my current motivation for writing anything now.

I write essays like this one and many others of a more political and social nature precisely because I observe the world and believe I have something valuable to say about it.  I’ve never cared whether or not people agree or disagree with what I say; the exercise is primarily for my own edification and enlightenment.  Writing is the best way for me to reflect on or understand the world.  If I attempt to sort things out in my head, I’ll end up daydreaming about baseball, beautiful women, Chipotle for dinner, or some other distraction.  I will never arrive at a conclusion.

Looking at Orwell’s four reasons for writing, I would say truth-seeking and political motivation weigh rather heavily.  I know this, yet I’ve tried to maintain my old habit of starting fiction with a story and allowing the theme to emerge.  Sometimes themes emerge that convey things that don’t make sense, or convey messages I truly don’t believe.  I know these stories are flawed, but I submit them for publication anyway, and receive swift rejections.

The stories I have published just ‘worked.’  It’s like when Clark Griswold couldn’t get the Christmas lights on the house to work after trying a million things.  His wife flips the breaker downstairs just as Clark plugs the cord in for the hundredth frustrated time.  It works!  Clark never knew it was his wife flipping the breaker.  Likewise, I never know why themes emerge successfully in some stories and poorly in others.

I often compare story writing to baseball.  A hitter who hits the ball and makes it onto base three out of every ten times at bat is a hero.  That means our greatest baseball legends failed more than half the time they tried not to.  The lesson here is that failure is inevitable.  In fact, failure might be more a frequent occurrence than success.  But it only takes one success to erase a lifetime of failures.  That’s the way I felt when I got my first story published.  The pile of rejections no longer mattered.

However, this is not to say that .300 batters are just luckier than most.  They are only more lucky because they are more talented and better trained.  They’ve made everything about their form as precise as machinery.  They have adopted a batting stance and a unique rhythm that gives them the best possible advantage.  Sometimes batters in protracted slumps meet up with their batting coach and change one or two seemingly trivial aspects of their swing – maybe they tap their foot or take a step, maybe they keep one foot further back, or they adjust their grip on the bat or the length of the swing.  This is occasionally enough tinkering to get a batter to hit again.

I believe the same is true for many things, including writing.  In this spirit, I think I should recognize my strengths and adapt a batting stance to accommodate them.  I am not excited by crafty plots and gimmicky twists; more often I feel encumbered by the mere thought of them, and smothered into total inaction by their weight.  My childhood approach to story writing will no longer suffice if I mean to improve my skill in writing fiction.

I will now begin stories for what motivates me at my core: ideas.  I think about ideas all the time.  I don’t mean ‘story’ ideas.  I mean ideas about life, around which stories and characters can be generously wrapped with all the beautiful trappings of literature that make the message palatable, understandable, and suddenly obvious.

Evidence of Life

Bill Weaver drove 40 miles before stopping

roadside.

He couldn’t remember pulling out the gas nozzle at the Sunoco.

 

After a fill up,

he’d normally shake the nozzle off like a dick at a urinal

but this time he had no memory of it.

 

It was hanging out the gas tank

forty fuckin miles

and no one said boo

or flashed their lights to flag him down.

 

Bill brought it into the bar,

stage prop for the night,

and drank coca cola

while the men laughed and told his story

to any patron looking to listen.

 

They had the evidence

for those who needed to see.

Ansel’s Leave

 


Below the elbows, his arms were canons.

He used one to knock on the cottage door.  It made a dent and a sliver of white paint broke off, leaving a fresh, bright scar in the wood.

He listened for movement inside and heard bare feet slapping the floor, each step panting under quick weight.  A girl flung the door open without checking first.  In the country, they didn’t check.

The girl in the door was dainty and dirty.  Her brow and chest wore thin coats of glittering sweat.  Her lips were dry and pinched together in places.  Her hands were bony and red.  She’d been working.  Her body temperature and heart rate were slightly elevated.  90 BPM, but decreasing.  She had blue eyes.  She looked at him.

She saw his arms, which were canons.  They seemed dangerous, the way their energy sight-glass indicators glowed and swelled with green fire.  The barrels of the guns had once been a matte gun-metal gray but now were singed black from overuse.  They were scarred shiny in places and badly dented.  Five flexible aluminum plated cables wove out from each barrel and connected into chromium fittings on his shoulders and spine and in the back of his head where the hair was melted off.  Fat heaps of scar tissue had grown like barnacles over all the fittings.

The girl’s eyes frisked each cable, tracing them up to his shoulders.  She inspected his face.

“You must be Ansel,” she said.

He nodded.

“I am Rynn.  Do you remember me?”

He blinked.

“Hallerynn.  I go by Rynn.”

Ansel nodded.

Her bony hand went up and touched the dry contours of her lips.  “You cannot speak?”

He lowered his eyes.

“Oh,” she said.  Her wince turned over into a smile.  “Nevertheless, I remember what you sound like from my dreams.  I was small when you left, but my dreams brought me good memories.”  She nearly laughed at the thought.  She held it back.  She had many fond memories of Ansel, construed in her own imagination, of course.  Ansel hadn’t been there.

They stood examining each other.  Behind him, in the field, several sheep stirred.  One was rooting around the high flowered grass beside the porch, casting a long, preoccupied shadow.  A purple and white spotted butterfly danced past, grazing Rynn’s hair.  She brushed it away.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “Come in.”

He bent through the door.

Fresh killed ducks were hanging from the ceiling.  Their necks were broken and their heads were drooping down where the wire was cinched.  Their eyes were bulging and black.  He dodged through them.

He followed Rynn into the middle of the cottage, where cheese was drying on racks draped with linen. There were stairs that went up, and a lacquered railing.  He didn’t remember a railing.  That was new.  The stairs were wide, but cluttered with jars packed full of leafy herbs and bright spices and dried fruits.  There was a narrow opening where someone could weave a way up and down between the jars, and the steps were faded in those places like a path beaten through the trees.

“Would you like to sit?” Rynn used a dirty rag to gesture at the rope hammock.

He shook his head.

“I wish you would.  You look tired.  Are they heavy?”

Ansel lifted the canon arms so that they were parallel to the floor.  Then he dropped them and felt his shoulders stretch.  He shrugged.

Rynn went to the hammock and lowered herself into it, slowly, as if to show him how.  She was dirty and her hands were calloused, but she had grace.  He cocked his head at her.

“Your father and brother are bringing in a lamb.  They’ve roasted it.  I’ve been smelling it all day coming in on a breeze from the creek.  She was a big, fattened lamb.  Her name was Joan.  She was saved for Vitus’ inheritance feast.  Then we got the message.”

She crossed her legs.  She wrapped the rag around her thin hand.

“Vitus remembers you,” she said.  “He remembers when you left.  I’ve spent my life asking everyone about you.”  She hazarded a glance, tried to read an expression, then looked away.  “Did you wonder about me?”

She waited for an answer, and when she received nothing from the hulking man with canon arms, she gazed out the window.

“Vitus would never tell about you.  Father, I couldn’t bring it up to him, else he turn into a sopping mess.  Worse than spring in the valley, the way he’d cry.  It could break his mood for weeks.  And mother, well, I never knew her.  She died once you left.”

Ansel stood there, looking down the barrels of his guns.  The green flames made strange lights on the walls.

There came the faint rattling of a bell.  Rynn swung up onto her feet and bent low to peak through the crusted window panes.

“Here they come!” she looked at him and smiled.  “Here they come!” The warm tips of her fingers pressed into the flesh above his elbow.  She pulled him out the back door.

The field was very green, sloping down where it turned golden with dandelions.  There was an ox cutting through the gold, horns twisting in the falling sun, the bell around his neck clattering, and a blackened lamb draped over his back.  Two men were leading the ox up the slope.

They came within two paces of Rynn and Ansel and stopped.  The bell clattered and the ox snorted.

The older man was thin and strong.  His hair was white and stiff like the beard of a young grain stalk.  His eyes were blue and heavy with years.  The other man was much younger, but an adult still.  He looked like Rynn, with those same dry, pinched lips.  He regarded Ansel for a moment, then went about pulling down the lamb.

“Ansel,” the old man said.  He looked at Ansel’s face.  “What has happened to your face?”

Ansel looked down.

“My son.  What happened?”

“He cannot speak, father,” Rynn said.

The young man got the lamb off the ox’s back and swung it over his shoulder.  He nearly tipped under its weight, but he regained his balance and trudged up to the cottage.

Father looked at his daughter pleadingly.  “What did they do to him?”

“Father!” she hissed.  “He can hear perfectly well.”

“My son!” he said and wrapped his arms around Ansel’s bulging shoulders.  He buried his face into Ansel’s chest.  He gripped Ansel’s arms.

“Enough, father,” Rynn said.  “Don’t be a sap, now.  What a happy occasion.  Let’s eat.”

They sat to eat inside around the table.  Vitus cut the lamb into large, steaming slabs and set out four pots.  Rynn said, “Just three, Vitus.”

They all looked over at Ansel.

“How do you eat?” Rynn asked, because no one else would.

Ansel stood and shook the straps of his pack off his shoulders.  The pack slid down his arms and landed heavily.  He used a cannon to pry apart the pack’s drawstring opening.  He jammed the cannon into the pack.  There was a click and a hiss.  He pulled out one cannon and replaced it with the other.  There was another click and hiss.  He lifted both arms and rested them on the table.  The muzzles were covered by green cylindrical attachments.  The aluminum flex tubes twisted and snapped like hoses taking pressure.  Ansel sat there with his hoses rushing.

Vitus took away Ansel’s bowl.

Father gaped and could not touch the steaming heap of lamb in his pot.

Rynn stabbed blindly at her pot, unconsciously ate a few slivers of lamb, gnawing as if she could not taste.

Vitus hung his head over his own pot and shoved the meat into his lips.  Ansel watched Vitus eat until the bowl was empty and shining with grease.  Ansel looked away as Vitus cut off a second portion and dropped it into his pot.

“Are you home for very long?” Father asked.

Ansel nodded once.

“You have to go back?”

Ansel shook his head.

Father smiled.  His heavy eyes watered.  “Ansel.  My eldest, my first born.  The farm is yours, you know.  Vitus will stay and help you until you can get things running.  I am far too old to go on managing this place.”

Vitus rolled his eyes.  “To butcher the lambs, will he just blast them in the head?”

Father’s eyes widened.

Rynn said, “Be kind!”

“I am being kind,” Vitus said.  He inspected Ansel like he was reviewing a sick cow.  “You would burden this poor boy with a farm.  He hasn’t got arms.  His mouth is melted shut.  He cannot speak.  He could not even eat his own produce should he like to.  There’s no pride in it.  How would he survive here?  He feeds by plugging protein cylinders onto his guns.  What’s he going to do with a farm?”

“Boy, be still!” Father yelled and threw down his napkin.  “He is the first born of this family!  You owe him your respect.  What’s more, your brother spent the last decade battling across the stars so that we could tend our flocks in peace.  This farm would not be here without him.  You would not be here without him.  Show him your gratitude!”

“Tended the flocks, have you?” Vitus’ face laughed, but he did not, for the occasion was far too serious.  “I’ve tended the flock while you’ve wept pitifully for your son and wife and grown weak with despair.  I am the only one at this table due any gratitude.”

“Begone!” Father commanded, with his finger jabbing crooked like a lightning bolt toward the ceiling and his voice cracking.  “Begone now!”

Vitus left through the back door and did not close it.

The father dropped his head into his hands.

The girl chased out after the boy with tears running down her dirty cheeks.

Ansel’s protein canisters sighed and popped off.  They spun on the table like coins until they clattered and were still.

Ansel stood up, full.

“Don’t listen to that boy,” the father said.

Ansel stood at the back door, looking out.

“He will come back.  He loves you, you know.  We all do.”

Ansel went out the back door.  The boy and the girl were far off, just shadows.  At the bottom of a hill was a fat roll of hay that was twice Ansel’s height.  Ansel waded through the grass toward it.  He sprung up onto it, then dropped down and sat.

He swung his legs the way kids do when their feet can’t touch the ground.  He looked up.

The stars were out.  They were full in the night sky.  If he could block out the ambient light seeping  into the corners of his vision from the cottage, Ansel thought he could just as soon be in space, gazing out from the sortie bay of an Orthodox Cruiser, or camping on an asteroid in Cambodia Sector hours before leading a shock-force raid on its tunnel fortresses.  The only difference was that in space, the stars didn’t flicker.

The stars flickered here because their light was disrupted as it passed through the atmosphere.  That’s what the science said, but Ansel thought it was because great battles were tearing through the galaxies – war without end on every solar front, reaching the valley’s dumbly grazing sheep only by way of gentle beacons on the tapestry of a country night sky.  Ansel thought it funny because the stars didn’t do anything in space but coldly burn.  Out there, they made no shows.

Ansel calculated distances to the stars he had been to.  He looked at one, and its distance in light-years toggled immediately onto his retinal implant display.  He looked at another star and watched the number change.

Ansel watched for some time.  The green flames roared in his canon energy indicators, then subsided.  He slid off the hay roll and landed heavily on his feet.

He stretched his legs and back.  He bent and swept the muzzle of his canon arm over the top of the high grass.  Dew sprinkled off the blades.  He watched a glinting drop run along the rim of the gun barrel, capturing all the moonlight within its small amorphous boundaries.  He watched it suspend there on the edge of his canon, and finally detach and fall.

Then he, Ansel, went into the hills with his canon arms swinging by his side and the sheep moving out of his way.