The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

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Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)

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Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.

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Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.

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A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.

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Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”

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Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

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The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.

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An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.

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Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.

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Getting Past Reptilian, Waiting for Grateful

In a week or two I may be grateful for yesterday, but this morning I feel beaten up. Grateful: I reached a new level of understanding my personal call as a world citizen. Beaten up: several brushes with reptilian anger. That’s ungenerous, I guess. Reptiles are people, too.

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Keep your nasty tongue off my book. (Credit: http://www.corbisimages.com)

Brush #1 didn’t have much effect on me, other than starting the day on a rancorous note. I rarely read book reviews, mostly because mine have been crappy, but while sipping coffee and warming to my writing hour, I checked out Michiko Kakutani’s assessment of Norman Rush’s novel Subtle Bodies. Why would the New York Times publish such a slaughter? Kakutani went after Rush like Hannibal Lector sliced up that poor jail guard in Silence of the Lambs: the lovely aria of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” playing as a blood-smeared Anthony Hopkins basks in his kill. I’ve never read Norman Rush and never heard of Michiko Kakutani, but it’s hard to imagine a novel that deserves komodo dragon treatment like this:

  • “an eye-rollingly awful read”
  • “Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like ‘narcissistic,’ ‘ridiculous,’ ‘irritating’ and ‘pretentious’ in the margins.”
  • Adjectives employed: “cloying”; “claustrophobic”; “totally annoying”; “insufferable”; “flimsy”; “tiresome”; “solipsistic”
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I ate the author with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (Credit: Wikipedia)

Geez! As you might expect, writers don’t cozy up to such savagery. Jonathan Franzen has called Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York” and “an international embarrassment.” Ha. Take that! A nasty book review is no skin off my nose, but when I left Starbucks and headed off to church work, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah, how sweet the morning air is.”

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And how may I assist you today? Statue of Cyclops at the Natural History Museum in London (Credit: Wikipedia)

Cut to late afternoon for brush #2: Micah called to report that at long last he received a response to repeated phone messages about fines associated with his drug-related felony conviction. In short, the kid’s been trying to set up a payment plan and eating weeks and week of courthouse static. Far from apologizing for failing to get back to Micah, the Cyclops who finally called ripped him a new one in loud, deep mumbles. I have only my son’s word to go on, but it sounded to me like a verbal Rodney King ass-whipping–this for someone who’s been clean for over a year, following all the rules with bowels aquiver, and holding down a full-time job.

$%&*@! I don’t remember the last time I’d been so enraged. The evening was a controlled train wreck as I strained through a meeting and a short worship service and washed the day down with a couple of splashes from an econo-box of burgundy. (By the way, for a fun piece on capitalizing wine names, check out this by William Safire.)

This morning, my prayer was like a car out of alignment. I’d written a letter to the local probation office—probably never to be sent—to drain off some of my anger yesterday afternoon, but my prayer a few hours ago kept pulling toward the conversation I’d like have with the Cyclops. I’ve named him this, by the way, because he didn’t have the courtesy to identify himself when he called.

Much as I’m uncomfortable with anger, it’s not all bad. The late Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview that he found hate to be a wonderfully motivating force for his writing. Upset people can accomplish a lot. But now for my gratefulness: anger is not my calling; it’s not what I have to contribute as a planetary resident; though fury is having its way with me now, I know what I ought to be about. In the flawed silence of prayer, the Spirit helped me learn a couple of things: 1.) I’m not going to deny the rage residing in my chest, which has me gulping in cleansing breaths. 2.) I consume my earthly share of oxygen, avocados, fossil fuel, and beverages for a single reason: to regard everybody and everything with loving eyes. That’s it. That’s the ball game.

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I’d like to place an order for twenty-seven Phyllis Dillers, please. (Credit: Allan Warren)

Of course, I specialize in messing up this calling. Naming my son’s caller the Cyclops is a failure, but I’m still operating out of my own reptilian brain. I want to let out a rant against the guy from probation like Chevy Chases’ tirade against his boss in “Christmas Vacation.” I want to give him a turbo purple nurple, a burlap wedgie, a swirly in a ballpark toilet after One Dollar Succotash and Sauerkraut Night. I want to fill his house with clones of Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Carol Channing, Sam Kinison, Mr. T., Pee Wee Herman, Phyllis Diller, Gilbert Gottfried, Tiny Tim, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and the cast of “Gilligan’s Island.” You get the idea: my heart’s pumping crocodile blood at the moment.

Noodling around with creative revenge is fun, but it’s not what I’m about. I’ll get past this cruddy karma. What I won’t get past is love. Most of my wells are shallow or fetid, but for whatever reason, I have love to spare. So, thankfully, when shamatha gets my brain human again, I’ll get back to work. Eventually, in my imagination I’ll have a compassionate conversation with the Cyclops, taking into account the probability that he listens to a dozen people a day lying, playing stupid, or making excuses. His red voicemail light is hot to the touch.

I’m eye-rollingly awful at some jobs, but most days I can hold what’s before my eyes in a kind embrace. I’m grateful to have words to put to such a life purpose. Pray for me that I understand myself.

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Corny? Yes. I want to hug the world or at least rub noses. (Credit: FotoFeeling)

A Syrian Invasion of Presence

Yesterday at 5:35 p.m. I lay down in my air conditioned bedroom, set the iPhone alarm for 6:30, and closed my eyes. Naps after 5:00 are rare because they can mess with night sleep, but I was tired, boss, dog tired. On top of all the usual bothers that wear a soul out, a catchy promise had been attacking me repeatedly: no boots on the ground—namely, Syrian ground. Please, enough with the no boots on the ground. Shut up! I preempted the alarm at 6:27 and got up.

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A perfect addition to the “boots on the ground” campaign. (Credit: Catherine Leblanc)

For the record, I’m for putting boots on Syrian ground, millions of them if that would solve the toxic problem. I don’t know the specifications of combat boots these days, but let’s start with a million of those. We should also have a million of those trendy powder puff boots girls now wear even with shorts. If the ground is going to be dusty, a couple million should be cowboy boots. To jazz things up, I’d like to see 750k red stiletto boots. What the hey?

I love the idea of boots in the Middle East, but if we put any soldiers in them, I’m slipping on my old guy gardening sneakers and marching with a “Make Love, Not War” placard. No boots on the ground is horse crap for two reasons: 1.) Yes, it’s fun to say, especially if you add a cackle and W-style grin. But we’re not talking about boots; we’re talking about human beings. So stop calling them boots. It’s like calling a woman a skirt. 2.) Remember H. W.’s “Read my lips. No new taxes”? Careful what you promise. How wise is it to rain Tomahawk missiles on Bashar al Assad while assuring him that you won’t follow up with troops if he doesn’t get the message—even if you don’t intend to? In football terms, quarterbacks shouldn’t telegraph their passes.

I propose a new promise in place of the boots deal: No Tomahawks in the sky. I voted for Barack Obama and generally support him, but come on, let’s get a clue. Expecting violence to promote peace is madness. My astute ten-year-old neighbor Patrick, who has Down’s syndrome and doesn’t bother with state-of-being verbs, describes how well shock and awe ends conflict: It not working!

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Credit: blog.orlandoweekly.com

Photographs of dead Syrian kids make lots of us want to take a vintage tomahawk to Bashar al Assad and company. I can even understand those who say in frustration, “Just bomb them off the map, all of them,” though this is a curious response to indiscriminate gassing in which children are collateral damage.

Just as America’s collective outrage twelve years ago at precisely this time was warranted and righteous, so too Assad’s saran gas ought to have us bloodshot with anger. If we want to make ourselves less pissed off, then bombs and boots might do some good. But if we want to make the world more peaceful, then we have to find within ourselves forms of bravery and valor that at first glance look like impotence.

You’ll ridicule me all the way to Damascus, but I believe an invasion of presence would be a much more effective response to Assad than weaponry. Instead of launching missiles, what about sending citizens? I’m not kidding. Let’s not put boots on the ground, let’s put loafers and sandals. Instead of guns, let’s carry cell phones and camcorders. Instead of Kevlar, let’s wear luau shirts.

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Birmingham, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore)

Our mission? If we really want to stop tyrants from massacring their people with gas and machetes—I mean want to stop them enough to risk personal harm—then I bet thousands of civilians from dozens of countries standing beside vulnerable children and their parents and grandparents would deter brutality much more decisively than military action. Obviously, the danger would be enormous, but nothing magnifies the rotten face of violence like witnesses and testimony. Remember the fire hoses of Birmingham? Or Gandhi’s march on the Dharasana Salt Works? Mindful, strategic non-violence can be effective.

The trouble is, peaceful invaders have to be willing to inhale saran gas. Or maybe we can just bring gas masks for everybody. Forgive me; I haven’t fleshed out all the details of this campaign.

A soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, 18th Engineer Company, Task Force Arrowhead wakes from his bed on the back of an armoured truck at FOB Mizan in Afghanistan

Somebody has to wear the boots. (Credit: Tim Wimborne)

Go ahead, call me naïve, a crazy pinko. But I challenge people of conscience to speculate about the pragmatism and morality of a Syrian invasion of presence. How can the United States and other countries best demonstrate that Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people won’t be tolerated? What speaks with the greater clarity and wisdom: Tomahawk cruise missiles and no boots on the ground or thousands of courageous warriors armed with their eyes and voices? My money’s on the eyes and voices.

Watching the Clock Rock Evenly

At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

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Most of the news is still fresh to me. I’ll read it. I promise.

If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.

“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.

“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.

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This photograph is proof enough for me of napping’s clear purpose: Thomas Edison asleep in the afternoon. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

  • Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
  • Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
  • Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
  • Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
  • Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
  • Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
  • Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
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No, this isn’t me, but a fellow Mr. Chunky Trunks. (Credit: Ian Hooton)

But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.

Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.

I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me

They are rockin’ evenly

I am older than I once was

And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.

No it isn’t strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same.

That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.

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I bought three books for a quarter each. I’m all about simplicity but laid down these two bits to say, “I call BS.” No, you can’t be happy no matter what. If you can’t say something wise to people sitting around a deathbed, then stifle yourself.

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This Dr. Ornish cover is guilty of a typo. It should read, “Eat More Lettuce, Weight Less”

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Note the artistic reflection of my dumb hand and iPhone taking a photo of this book. One of the many unsavory questions from the authors: “If you could be one article of clothing, what would you be, and who would you want to belong to?” I’m leaning toward Charles Kuralt’s suspenders. I want to see America, baby!

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If I could pick the Coleman household’s china, I’d get all different plates, bowls, etc. Kathy prefers a pattern. Okay, but I still bring home refugees. At this sale an old guy tried to sell me Ike and Mamie and LBJ plates–out of his trunk! No, thanks.

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A twenty-cent purchase for one reason and one reason only: Marvin Gaye: “The Christmas Song”!

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My favorite, $5.00. A coconut pirate whose skull cap lifts up so you can put in a beverage, stick a straw through a hole, and sip away. Bulky, but festive. He may be Wilson’s cousin.

A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.