Wednesday, February 29, 2012


It might have been because of Inspector Gadget. Or possibly Mr. Wizard.

Or maybe there's some natural phase during which little kids just want to be inventors. Probably when they're around seven, about the time they realize they're their own little selves. About the time they look around and figure out that nothing--in the whole grey, knee-scrapy world--nothing is how it is because they made it that way.

Babies think the outside world is them. If they feel pain, the whole world is pain: joy, joy. Seven year olds, maybe suddenly, see that nothing of the world is them, that everything is impacting and nothing has been impacted.

Maybe they even feel as Elizabeth Bishop did:

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

(Looks ever-so-slightly as if she could have come from my mom's family)

And when I became a David of six years and 362 days--on August 30th, 1989--I needed to make something that I could put my mark on, so that I'd stop falling off the meaningless world.

Though I doubt the exact date, I actually believe that I had some existential feeling like Bishop's around that time, spurred on by a Where's Waldo-induced sense of anonymity. But I think it's equally true that an Inspector Gadget marathon and a marathon session of drawing pictures with my crayons on a large roll of butcher paper was just as important in launching my career as an inventor.

Because I hated the permanence of crayons.

Smeary and imprecise as they are, crayons left me dissatisfied with my blue houses and half-suns, my chimneys and robotic dragons, my cities on the moon and my dinosaur butts alike. My drawings were sometimes half-decent, but what I really wanted to do was clean them up. Why I wasn't satisfied starting all over again, I don't know. I still have a tough time abandoning any work I've done, maybe out of vanity. Except I don't need anything to be perfect, I just need it to have a some kind of use. I have an overactive need to be practical (which, incidentally, also slows down my writing instinct), and did then too.

So, if I drew a useless Triceratops ass, I'd have a difficult time convincing myself that coloring was a useful vocation the next time I picked up the Aquamarine (why I drew butts in Aquamarine, I can't tell you). Same goes now for a useless, is-this-worth-it poem (except the difference is I can keep tweaking those).

Crayon drawings were forever.

So, I set to work on what would be my first invention: The Crayon Eraser. I think I'd picked up somewhere that inventors were supposed to identify a problem they saw in the world, and then address it. Crayons (pronounced "crans") and their indubitable indelibility (pronounced in-doo-bi-ti-bull in-del-i-bil-i-tee) were my world's biggest dilemma.

The creativity involved in identifying this problem was not matched by the creativity that would have been required for solving this problem. I had no working knowledge of eraser components, or potentially effective astringents, or detergents, or trichloroethanes, or magic.

I did know addition, though, so when I thought about crans and erasers, I figured 1 cran + 1 eraser = 2 cranerasers. And so I jammed little pieces of Aquamarine and Black, Chestnut and Lavender into the pinkish, parelellogramic pencil eraser I had on-hand and hoped for the best. I surmised that each color I wanted to eventually erase would need to be embedded in that pencil eraser--each bit a kind of kiddie anti-matter that would neutralize wayward outside-the-linesing.

When all was set, I allowed the eraser to marinate for awhile. Then I began my experiment by trying to erase a half-sun, and since you've been patient up until this point, I won't drum up any extra suspense: as you will have guessed, my eraser failed, and it failed miserably. A dappled Forest Green covered that half-sun before my dream crumbled all over the butcher paper.

Alas. I went to wash up before supper.

This had been a cold, blue-black moment.
But I still felt: You are an Inventor!


P.S. I've just read that Baking Soda might be an effective crayon eraser, and so, since my erasing idea has come into being, I'll be taking my next post to expand on the six other invention ideas I've developed since 1989, lest they all be made obsolete by a common household Soda or Starch.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ow, Ow

This week, because I'd been feeling slothful, I took up a physical challenge: on Monday, I ran two miles in 20 minutes, Tuesday brought it down to 19, then 18, and on until yesterday when I ran two painful miles in 15 minutes. I'm no cross country star, and this jogging has made me entirely sleepy.

Today, in the seventh day, I'd planned on trying the 10,560 feet in a mere 14 minutes (754 feet per minute). I calculated that I'd have to average 8.6 on the treadmill and 9.4 on the pain scale.

But I was particularly exercised to do this because Megan tells a story (dubious) about having to run this exact distance in this exact amount of time to qualify for girls' soccer at her high school.

Regardless of the truth of that story, today I wanted to qualify for girls' soccer.

Today, I wanted to run like a Lindsay.

At my own high school, Girls' Soccer was a showy sport. Young ladies who played the beautiful game used to shout out "aoww aoww Girls' Soccer" at assemblies and meals and when they got good grades on tests and, generally, whenever they damn pleased. So "Aoww aoww Girls' Soccer" became a thing my more cynical friends and I said too, in darker circumstances.

Didn't make the trivia team? Year Book has a picture of you dressed as Gandalf? Girl you like is dating a guy named Travis? Aoww, Aoww Girls' Soccer indeed.

Still, I thought that Megan's story and my own memories of Deerfield Academy soccer joy could motivate me. I wanted to make the team.

Though this is far too much setup for what will turn out only to be a moderately successful pun, I didn't quite succeed today, didn't have it in me to break 14 minutes, or really even try after nearly falling asleep on my feet this morning.

And so after a slower, and still sore-making jog, I just keep thinking, "Ow, Ow Girls' Soccer."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Birthplace of the Tomato

A few months ago, I made this short movie about tomatoes. Right now seems like a decent time for some summer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spelling Trouble

Winsome, adj., "Attractive or appealing in appearance or character."

Maybe I was that in fifth grade, maybe not, but one thing's for sure: I was a top-notch speller, and I was often left on my own during Language Arts to compile five words for my extra-special-top-notch-end-of-the-alphabet spelling test, while most of the other students toiled with words like toil and test and trouble.

I'm on W,
I might have taunted. Have fun back at T.

Tasked thusly, I took to the classroom Webster's--which we kept next to the giant black-and-white throw rug we used as a chessboard, next to the Ukraine-less globe, next to our Starter-jacket-stuffed cubbies--to find my words.

Winsome would work. Hard enough to satisfy the teacher, Mrs. Kimball (who sometimes referred to herself as The Dragon Lady for difficult-to-discern reasons), and easy enough that it wouldn't give me any sort of real trouble. Winsome. An attractive word, mnemonically simple. I winsome, I losesome. I get my golden star.

Whydah, n. "Mostly black African weaverbird."

We were studying African-American history--including the Revolutionary era black poet Phyllis Wheatley (W-H-E-A-T-L-E-Y), whose struggles, for difficult-to-discern reasons, caused me to giggle uncontrollably--and I had already started to develop my love of really sketchy tangential connections, so maybe I figured Whydah would work as an addition to our curriculum.

Whydah would also allow me some cursing opportunities, as in Whydahhell not? (I loved to curse innocently and I added "damn" onto the end of any popular song lyrics I could remember--"Say Live and Let Die, Damn, Damn, Damn"--which incited more giggles among my fellow W-word chums).

We were weird.

Wholesomeness, adj., "conducive to or suggestive of good health."

(If I don't know what wholesomeness means I promise I won't know what conducive means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

Meanwhile, I was pretty wholesome at the time, as you can probably tell by the fact that I found "damn" to be a most scandalous curseword. I remember tattling to my teacher about a paraprofessional who muttered the word under her breath. (Nothing was done and she was left unimprisoned).

Damn aside, it was in fifth grade that my cynicism started to bud like a useless--totally useless--simile. Take my treatment of former slave Phyllis Wheatley. How could I giggle about her travails: her impoverished circumstances, the fact that her grocer husband, John Peters, was sent to debtors' prison?

I remember that his arrest seemed like a grand hoot of misfortune after my gleeful recess. And I guess I can understand laughing at the most inappropriate thing in class, or at the troublemaker's struggle, or even sneering at what seemed to be the exaggerated opulence of Mrs. Wheatley's pain.

But it seems like all of those reactions require a weird kind of maturity--a recognition of standards--that also should have kept me from being so cruel. Somehow, though, I was old enough to notice the dark humor of desperation, but not old enough to wipe that smile off my damn face, or recognize an actual person's actual damn humanity.

In other (spelling) words, I was edging out of Wholesomeness but hadn't come close to Wisdom.

Wistful, adj. having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.

What was I then, anyway? Shortpantsed spelling champion, or rebellious curser? Wholesome or wise? And where would I be headed in sixth grade? With the kids who already wore deodorant and undershirts, or with the kids who'd always smell forever and ever?

And why couldn't I be wholesome and damn-trumpeting at the same time? For that matter, what was to stop me from saying "shit" on my birthday and still kiss my mother with that mouth?

All of these questions. All W's. Who. Where. Why. What.

I wasn't sure of the answers, but I knew I wasn't what I'd been in third grade, nimrodishly studying long division while somehow still captaining the schoolyard soccer team; powerful enough to institute rules that only benefited my team of jocks while brainstrong enough to semi-master all things quotient.

How had the Davids diverged?

Wistful. It seemed easy to spell.

Whore, n., the same as prostitute.

(If I don't know what whore means I promise I won't know what prostitute means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

I don't remember picking this word as a prank, but is it possible I was unaware what a prostitute was? Yes, I think so. Pretty Woman had come out and its ads are among my first pop culture referents, but the meaning of the movie definitely evaded me.

And I think it's possible I thought that the new spelling word was an archaic question--whither, wherefore, whence, whatsoever, wherewith, howsoever, whore. And I wouldn't have been able to conceive that something so naughty could actually appear in a school dictionary anyway.

Mrs. Kimball dealt with all of this very well when I presented my list to her. She said I should find a replacement for this particular W. I wondered why.

"Is it a swear?"

"Not really. It's just not a polite word," she said.


She probably thought she was being duped, the target of a nasty 11-year-old's nasty joke. Either that or she felt sorry for me. I was, after all, about to be fed to the middle school wolves and, as I've painfully catalogued elsewhere, I had a limited vocabulary when it came to crudeness. How would I survive? Would I have to ask what a prick was and be thereafter labeled prick-ignorant?

I replaced whore with whatever.

After I passed my test, the group of us got demoted back to T, task and toil, and I remember having some unexpected trouble spelling trouble.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Spring Lit Fest Update

Fiction Writer Amy Hempel will visit OU for Lit Fest this year.

Amy Hempel is the author of four collections of stories. Her COLLECTED STORIES won the Ambassador Award for Best Fiction of the Year, and was named one of the New York Times Top Ten Books of the Year. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Hempel has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a United States Artists Foundation fellowship, the REA Award for Fiction, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction.

Her stories have appeared in Harper's, GQ, Vanity Fair, The Quarterly, The Yale Review, Tin House, Playboy and many other publications; they have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and others.

Her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Vogue, O, the Oprah Magazine and many more.

She co-edited, with Jim Shepard, the poetry collection UNLEASHED, and is a Contributing Editor to Bomb magazine.

A founding board member of The Deja Foundation, she teaches creative writing at Harvard and at Bennington.