"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

El Pintor

El Pintor
A deadly still evening in Albuquerque. Which meant nothing really. ‘Still’ was relative, even the deadly variety. There was always some noise. If it got too quiet, someone could be counted on to shoot someone else, or start a fire, or crash a car – anything to get the sirens going. Not that it took anything more serious than a stubbed toe to land the EMTs, a ladder truck, a pumper, the Haz-Mat team, the Bomb Squad, a half-dozen APD squad cars, and the Fire Chief on your doorstep, but most Albuquerqueños didn’t like to take chances. “If it’s not worth doing right, do it wrong” was their motto.

On this particular still night, 34 year-old Edwin Lujan was walking his wife’s AD/HD-afflicted Jack Russell Terrier , Cutie Pie. It was 9:52 pm. Edwin Lujan knew this because he kept checking his watch. He wanted to get home in time to watch The Simpsons reruns and the dog was not taking this walking endeavor seriously.

“Dammit, Cutie Pie!” he hissed. “Hurry up and poop!” He felt acutely embarrassed over calling the dog by its name and using the word ‘poop’ in public. He was mortified that one of the neighbors might have heard him. This was a transitional neighborhood in Albuquerque’s heights, primarily auto mechanics and construction foremen who were doing as well as most mid to upper-level management at other firms. Edwin, the manager of a temp-services office, was the only male on his street that did not work in the trades, and therefore felt inadequate. He stopped, listening quietly to hear if any of the neighbors were out, working on cars or just slurping beers in their yards.

Skish! He looked around frantically. Skish! There were no street lights here – he couldn’t see who was hissing to him. Skish-Skish! Ahead, a cinder block wall divided a neighbor’s yard from a bike path that ran along one of the city’s arroyos. Skish-Skish! He gingerly peaked around the corner. Two teenagers, known on the street as “Spud” and “Li’l Cheeto,” were busily tagging the wall with spray-paint. Skish-Skish! Cutie Pie barked. The teenagers turned to look at Edwin.

“Wuddafug you looking at?” one asked him. Edwin ignored the question. He was busy gazing in fear beyond the young men to a form moving from the shadows. The teenagers followed his gaze, turning around. The form carried a Mossberg 590 pump-action police-issue riot shotgun. And wore a mask. One of those halloween masks that just cover your eyes. He also wore a painters’ hat. And painter’s coveralls. And a cape. And, before anyone could laugh at his ridiculous appearance – chuck-CHUNK – he ripped off a perfectly executed one-handed cocking of the shotgun and leveled it at the boys. They stood motionless, staring at him. Then Li’l Cheeto started to step back. He spoke to his friend but his eyes stayed on the shotgun.

“He ain’t gonna do shit with that gun, Spud,” he whispered. “We can just walk aw-” The shotgun roared, blowing a small depression in the ground next to the no-longer-confidant teen’s feet. Edwin thought he would wet his pants, but managed to hold it in. Cutie Pie, however, jerked the leash free and ran for home. The form chambered another shell. He reached into a back pocket and withdrew two large zip-ties of the sort police use for temporary handcuffs.

“You,” he said, indicating Spud. “Tie your amigo’s wrists with this. And do it right.” When it was done, the form walked closer. The shotgun pointing at Spud, he forced the now bound Li’l Cheeto to his knees then pushed him over into a patch of dried goathead thorns. The young man howled. “Now you,” he said. “Face down, hands behind your head!” Spud did as he was told. Slinging the shotgun over his shoulder, the form knelt on the small of teenager’s back. He pulled both hands back and slipped the second zip-tie around Spud’s wrists and pulled it tight.

“OK, Rembrandts. Let’s take a look at your work.” From his belt he pulled a large 4-cell Maglite and focused it on the tagged wall.

“Citizen,” he said, calling to the dazed Edwin. “Citizen,” the form called again. “I’d like you to help me evaluate this artwork.” Edwin walked over and stood beside the masked man. The names “Spud” and “Li’l Cheeto” were scrawled on the wall. Somehow, “Spud” had been misspelled.

“You call that ‘art’?” the form asked Edwin Lujan.

“Not really. You?”

“Nope.” The form turned to the handcuffed boys. “The jury has spoken fellas. This show has closed.”

“What the hell?!” one of them yelped. “You can’t do this! You ain’t no cops!”

“No,” said the form. “I’m not the cops. I’m…” He paused for dramatic effect. “El Pintor!” From a pocket on the inside of his cape he withdrew a pair of swimmers goggles. With his toe he rolled the first tagger over on his back. He bent down and placed the goggles on Spud’s face.

“Wuddafug?!” yelled Spud. He couldn’t see anything. He could however hear the sound of a steel ball rattling back and forth inside of a can of paint. “What are you doing, sir?” he asked at little more quietly – and respectfully.

“I’d advise you to hold your breath,” said El Pintor. Spud did as he was told, just in time, as the vigilante started spraying the youth pink – bright, vivid, Barbie pink – from head to toe.

Ten minutes later, El Pintor helped the teens to their feet. “I hope you have learned your lesson about violating other people’s property,” he told them. They ran off, still cuffed.

“I can’t believe you actually painted them,” said an awestruck Edwin Lujan. “That was totally awesome!”

“Oh, I didn’t paint them,” said El Pintor.

“But, I saw the pink–” Edwin started to say.

“Paint’s too easy to clean off. No, that was a special industrial-grade dye. Completely harmless – aside from the social stigma of having bright pink skin for several months.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: The Memory of Running


I just finished reading “The Memory of Running,” the first novel by Ron McLarty. It’s friggin’ brilliant, in my view. The story is about Smithson “Smithy” Ide, a 43 year-old drinking, smoking, self-described overweight loser. He is seemingly friendless and on a lifelong downward spiral.

The story opens with Smithy’s parents dying as a result of a car crash. A few days later, Smithy finds that his sister—who disappeared years earlier—was found dead in Los Angeles; her body being held on the county’s tab as she was homeless.

Smithy sets out, almost by accident, to recover his sister’s body, leaving his home in Rhode Island. The twist is that it is on his 35 year-old Raleigh Bicycle and the scene that begins it all is an absolutely hilarious downhill plunge.

The story—published in 2004—follows two tracks; one in the “present day” of 1990, and one in the past. The latter describes Smithy’s relationship with his crazy (literally) sister, Bethany, and gives us a glimpse of one family’s struggle to deal with a young woman who is not quite crazy enough to be institutionalized full-time, yet not sane enough to be left on her own. Smithy tells us briefly of his time in Vietnam, and how he came to be wounded.

We also—through both tracks—learn of Smithy’s relationship with his next-door neighbor, Norma, who has had a crush on Smithy since she was six.

Smithy seems to remain a “loser” through the story, and things just never seem to go completely right for him. Or do they? McLarty serves us up several moments that make us wonder about the nature of “loserness.”

McLarty’s Smithy has drawn comparisons to Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, and even Yossarian. I guess. Holden Caulfield certainly. For me, the similarity is in the style and subject matter. I found “The Memory of Running” to be very reminiscent of a John Irving story. Irving’s tales are filled with events that are, not necessarily impossible, but usually improbable. (I’m thinking specifically of the girl who lives in a bear costume in “The Hotel New Hampshire.”)

At 338 pages, it’s still a fast read. The dual tracks make it a real page-turner, as each chapter becomes something of a cliffhanger. The story is by turns, funny and horrifying. Smithy is constantly beaten down by the world, yet never seems to take it personally.

I highly recommend this book to fans of John Irving, Wally Lamb, Ann Tyler.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (December 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670033634
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670033638
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 167 Reviews 4.2 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 25, 2009

Roaches for Blogging


The last place i lived was a single story four-plex that had a roach problem—not from a cleanliness issue. It was just in one of those parts of Albuquerque (like around the arroyos) that tends to have roaches. We have many areas of town were, at night, they just come out across your lawn and hang out on the patio.

Anyway, in this apartment, I would get an average of 4 to 8 of them come in through a crack under the baseboards in the bathroom. They didn't get in my food or bedroom. I only ever saw them in the bathroom and the hallway.

So I made a deal with them. I left a compost heap out in the back by the patio. Then i laid down the law with them. I would leave them the heap to hang out in, but if they came in the house, they were mine.

For a couple of months the roaches held up their part of the bargain. Every now and then, some young punk would wander in. I'd apologize as I'd scoop them into the dustpan. "Sorry, dude. You know the rule." then I'd dump it in the toilet and flush. I figured that, survivors that they are, roaches could probably hold their breath for a while. Or not. It was their choice entirely.

In the whole course of the thing, I came to some sort of cosmic understanding of the little buggers. I wasn't revolted, or angry, or freaked out. They were just insects; Foreigners who'd crossed my borders. They had different customs than me.

Eventually, we'd meet up in the hallway in the wee hours as I stumbled to take a leak. "Take a hike, pal," I'd mumble. And that was that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ants Understand the Greatest Mysteries in Science (But Not the Stock Market)

(From Utne Reader Online)
5/15/2009 5:57:42 PM

by Bennett Gordon

Ants and the Stock Market.

On their own, ants are pretty dumb. It’s not their fault: Their tiny brains don’t allow for a lot of intelligence. Taken together, however, ants are some of the most evolutionarily successful animals on the planet. They account for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the biomass of all the land animals on earth. And they didn’t get that big by making a lot of mistakes.

“Individually they’re totally incompetent,” ant expert Debra Gordon told Radio Lab, “but as colonies they do great things.”

Scientists are questioning how such an individually unintelligent animal could make so many correct decisions collectively. Though ants have a queen, the queen doesn’t order around her subjects. In reality, they exhibit an amazing ability for nonhierarchical, collective decision making.

They way ants, bees, and some fish naturally make decisions, according to Susan Milius writing for Science News, is “all about quorum.” The animals will often send off little scouts, acting individually, who report back to influence the groups as a whole. Some ants have been observed throwing other ants over their shoulders and dragging their fellow ants off to build consensus for ideas. Eventually, with individual persistence, collective decisions are made.

How those decisions are made represents one of the biggest mysteries in science, mathematician Steve Strogatz told Radio Lab. In nature, order can simply materialize from disorder. Strogatz points out that scientists (and Creationists) grapple with the question of how this happens, but still don’t understand.

The collective decision making occurs in humans, too, in ways that are little understood. “Human groups deciding as a whole have scored spooky triumphs,” Milius writes. In one test, people were asked to guess the weight of an ox. Individually, every guess was way off. Together, the median of the guesses was within 10 pounds of the correct weight of 1,198 pounds

If humans are able to exhibit such accurate collective decision making, how could the stock market and the real estate crisis go so horribly wrong? The problem, according to Stephen Pratt of Arizona State, is that ants don’t have a stock market. “If they did,” he says, “we could rely on them to have figured the whole thing out.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Proud to be Canadian

British newspaper salutes Canada . . . this is a good read. It is funny how it took someone in England to put it into words... Sunday Telegraph Article From today's UK wires:

Salute to a brave and modest nation - Kevin Myers, 'The Sunday Telegraph' LONDON :

Until the deaths of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, probably almost no one outside their home country had been aware that Canadian troops are deployed in the region.

And as always, Canada will bury its dead, just as the rest of the world, as always will forget its sacrifice, just as it always forgets nearly everything Canada ever does.. It seems that Canada 's historic mission is to come to the selfless aid both of its friends and of complete strangers, and then, once the crisis is over, to be well and truly ignored.

Canada is the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance. A fire breaks out, she risks life and limb to rescue her fellow dance-goers, and suffers serious injuries. But when the hall is repaired and the dancing resumes, there is Canada, the wallflower still, while those she once helped Glamorously cavort across the floor, blithely neglecting her yet again.

That is the price Canada pays for sharing the North American continent with the United States , and for being a selfless friend of Britain in two global conflicts.

For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different directions: It seemed to be a part of the old world, yet had an address in the new one, and that divided identity ensured that it never fully got the gratitude it deserved.

Yet it's purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy. Almost 10% of Canada 's entire population of seven million people served in the armed forces during the First World War, and nearly 60,000 died. The great Allied victories of 1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers in the entire British order of battle.

Canada was repaid for its enormous sacrifice by downright neglect, it's unique contribution to victory being absorbed into the popular Memory as somehow or other the work of the 'British.'

The Second World War provided a re-run. The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels, and ended up policing nearly half of the Atlantic against U-boat attack. More than 120 Canadian warships participated in the Normandy landings, during which 15,000 Canadian soldiers went ashore on D-Day alone.

Canada finished the war with the third-largest navy and the fourth largest air force in the world. The world thanked Canada with the same sublime indifference as it had the previous time.

Canadian participation in the war was acknowledged in film only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign in which the United States had clearly not participated - a touching scrupulousness which, of course, Hollywood has since abandoned, as it has any notion of a separate Canadian identity.

So it is a general rule that actors and filmmakers arriving in Hollywood keep their nationality - unless, that is, they are Canadian. Thus Mary Pickford, Walter Huston, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, William Shatner, Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg, Alex Trebek, Art Linkletter and Dan Aykroyd have in the popular perception become American, and Christopher Plummer, British.

It is as if, in the very act of becoming famous, a Canadian ceases to be Canadian, unless she is Margaret Atwood, who is as unshakably Canadian as a moose, or Celine Dion, for whom Canada has proved quite unable to find any takers.

Moreover, Canada is every bit as querulously alert to the achievements of its sons and daughters as the rest of the world is completely unaware of them. The Canadians proudly say of themselves - and are unheard by anyone else - that 1% of the world's population has provided 10% of the world's peacekeeping forces.

Canadian soldiers in the past half century have been the greatest peacekeepers on Earth - in 39 missions on UN mandates, and six on non-UN peacekeeping duties, from Vietnam to East Timor, from Sinai to Bosnia.

Yet the only foreign engagement that has entered the popular non-Canadian imagination was the sorry affair in Somalia , in which out-of-control paratroopers murdered two Somali infiltrators. Their regiment was then disbanded in disgrace - a uniquely Canadian act of self-abasement for which, naturally, the Canadians received no international credit.

So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbour has given it in Afghanistan ?

Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac , Canada repeatedly does honourable things for honourable motives, but instead of being thanked for it, it remains something of a figure of fun. It is the Canadian way, for which Canadians should be proud, yet such honour comes at a high cost. This past year more grieving Canadian families knew that cost all too tragically well.

Lest we forget.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I done did it -- and gave the speech to boot.

Here I am at the convocation, giving the undergraduate speech. I've got to say that the whole thing was one of the most awesome moments in my life. Here is the speech....

I have always been something of an armchair polymath… with a little interest in all subjects … and just enough knowledge of them to be dangerous… or dangerously annoying. I was one of those guys who informs you … against your will … about the most inane things: like that Cashew nuts are part of the Poison Ivy Family, or that fluorescent methyl salicylate is why you can shoot sparks off your teeth when you bite a Wint-o-green Life Saver.

I guess it’s a bit surprising that a guy who knew about so many things performed so horribly in high school. In fact, it was only in my art classes that I got A’s. The rest of my grades were poor…. Not even good enough for the guidance counselor to suggest vocational school…. College was never an option back then, and I wound up the next 15 years in a series of low-end, low-wage jobs... Soldier… Cook… bartender… day-laborer… cab driver.

Eventually I managed to turn my artistic side to good use took a nine-month crash-course in production art, and bluffed my way into a series of graphic design positions including managing the art departments of several different regional retail operations.

But, as much as I enjoyed art and being creative, Graphic design wasn’t living the dream. It was not what I wanted to be when I grew up.
This is something we all come to grips with at some point. As children, we all want to be a policeman or a fireman or a nurse or an astronaut, or Brett Favre…. Well, maybe not Brett Favre.

The point is we all have plans, hopes, and dreams, and often as not, we don’t see them come to fruition.

As a child, I wanted to be a sailor, like Popeye. Later, I wanted to be a veterinarian. In middle-school I was a fan of Jacques Cousteau, and wanted to be a marine biologist.

While graphic design wasn’t, as I said, living the dream, it did provide enough money to get by on.

Earlier I referred to myself as a polymath. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a polymath is, basically, a person whose knowledge is not restricted to one subject area.

And because of my interest in so many different things, I always said that, when I retired, I was going to spend the rest of my days in college, taking classes…This was my new dream.

A friend, tired of hearing this idle threat, asked me why I was waiting until retirement? Why not now?

Well, as one of the truly great philosophical minds of our times, Homer Simpson, said, “I’m no Super Genius. Or are I?”

Sure, I knew why the Dutch wore wooden shoes, but I also knew that I was no super genius. I had doubts that anything had really changed over the nearly thirty years since high school.

Nonetheless, at age 45, I began a fairly remarkable journey. I took the tests, and, started at TVI taking core classes and building up credits to transfer to UNM.
I was a single parent, working full-time—a forty plus hour work week, and I was carrying 12 to 16 hours a semester, going to classes at night and on weekends. A pretty hefty schedule, and in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting great successes.

But a strange thing happened. I started getting A’s. Though at first I laughed at it as a fluke, I began to realize that, yes, I could do this! After the few two semesters, the grades began to become something of a personal competition for me. And then I made the Dean’s List! I never thought such a thing could be possible.
I wasn’t sure what my end goal in college would be, I’d thought about the school of architecture. What happened, though, was that I took a class…for fun…in Creative Writing… and I liked it… And I did really well in it. My instructor, a UNM grad student, encouraged me to pursue writing.

I realized that I did not—by any stretch of the imagination—possess the math skills needed to pursue my dream of being an architect. But I did possess the skills I needed to pursue another dream.

See, ever since I can remember, I’ve written stories. It started with “The Death of a Toad,” an autobiographical confessional-style tale written around age 8. It continued with the stories I wrote and illustrated as a wannabe comic book artist in my pre-teen and teen years. It continued on as an adult, in journals and letters to friends, telling stories and recounting adventures. The fact that I could do those things well … never had occurred to me.

In the years since coming to UNM, I’ve had the greatest encouragement from all of my professors, leading me to grow as both a student and a writer. My senior honors thesis was extremely well-received. I was awarded the Vicente Ximenes Scholarship for graduate study, and UNM’s Creative Writing MFA program has honored me in its acceptance of my application for this coming Fall Semester. My dreams of a continued life in academia have also been realized.

No one is more surprised to see me here than me. A whole new sort of dream has been presented to me and I am going to live it. Now at 50, I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. Thank you

And here's my son, Gabe, who came out to see me. This was the first time I'd seen him since he went out on the road last summer.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

It's That Special Day

It's 6:33 on a Saturday morning. Today is graduation day. I'm sitting out in the workshop, editing my speech down and thinking about what got me here. Five years of work coming to a culmination and I have oddly ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Today I feel...

As a new feature on the Moonpie Chronicles, we are introducing the wildly unpopular "Today I Feel..." series. THe rules are pretty simple and only Vance and I can play, so tuff darts, buddy!
With a little bit of this thrown in...

Winding it down

I'm off in less than an hour to take my final final exam (in math) and I'm finished.

I'll be graduating summa cum laude and have been asked to give the undergraduate address at the convocation. That's on Saturday.

Following that there shall be reveling and much merry-making. And booze.