Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Poisoning the Gulf

A rogue pelican flutters thirty feet above the coastline bordering Louisiana's southern peninsula. No longer capable of spreading its wings to their full width, its movements appear awkward, its trajectory tilted as if the bird were attempting to fly at a ninety degree angle.

It hitches a ride on an ocean breeze, the winds pushing the incoming tide toward the deserted shoreline.

Lowering its body to a foot or two above the rolling waves, the bird dips its head into the water as it veers into a glide. Submerged no more than a second, then rising, struggling to gain altitude.

Its bucket-shaped bill, designed for scooping unsuspecting fish from the ocean's current, has captured only a mouthful of sludge, which slowly drains from either side of its mouth like a busted sewer pipe. Rotting sewage returning to its basin to ferment under a bayou heatwave.

The pelican hasn't fed in a week. While fish dot the water's surface in vast numbers, their silver scales resembling diamonds sparkling in a field of tar, they're floating with the tide, lost to the poison. The few survivors have gone deep, in search of an ocean free of disease.

A filmy layer of mucus blocks the pelican's vision, allowing it access to a world gone black, through a line of sight the size of a pinhole. And of course there's the added weight to consider. With every plummet to the water in search of food, a fresh veil of oil coats the bird's already failing wings. Unlike salt-water, the poison refuses to filter through the its feathers, but instead clings to anything within reach, forming a mold, slowly enveloping its victim like a spider's web.

Hunger pains grab the bird's spine and clench. It calls out for assistance, but finds none. It is the last surviving member of its flock. And the weight continues to push downward to where the black sea awaits.

We've plundered our world's resources, pierced its core and released the bile within. It rose to the surface, its tentacles reaching for our shores, choking the life of every living soul in its path. A mass of slimy filth, polluting our ecosystem, turning our once green waters to mud. And all for a population bent on moving faster, on keeping our food colder, and our water warmer.

The Gulf lies in ruin. A sea of tar. Waves of poison splashing ashore and tainting our sands to a gelatinous ooze. The underbelly of our planet's core. A multitude of seaborne bodies floating atop an ocean dying, its curse spreading further with the current.

And unnoticed to anyone but the dead or dying, a once majestic bird, now nothing more than hollow bones wrapped in soot, releases a final screech before plummeting from the skies to its floating grave below. Swallowed up by the poisons set free by those held in charge of sustaining our planet.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Conversation with David

...I thoroughly enjoy meeting with my editor/agent/confidant for a session of literary bull...the seasoned veteran offering his pupil a length of rope with which to grasp if he so desires.

I leave each session feeling a bit wiser, re-focused, and a tad foolish from the realization of knowing so little about an industry I've dreamed of partaking in.

I slouch in a chair along the corner of his desk, him behind his Mac, eyes drilling holes through the monitor. The room is silent. I'm buried in revisions. Behind schedule. Feeling a bit timid, awaiting something negative...sarcasm, an irritable sigh, anything. What I receive is silence, which is worse.

Anxiety being pushed aside by impatience, I say, "I'm seriously behind. I know. Tell me I really suck at this. I can take it."

He throws me a glance. Says nothing.

"They've got me working tens all month. I'm getting one day off a week, which I've gotta spend with my kids. If I'm lucky I'll get to see my wife before Christmas. Don't give up on me, okay? I'll get it done."

Nothing. Eyes glued to the screen.

"Did I mention I saw John Grisham downstairs in the lobby? I flipped him the bird, told him to take his business elsewhere...that I'm the big fish in this pond."

"You need to learn how to relax," he finally says, offering me a grin.

"But I'm miles behind, and feelin bad. This is huge for me. Something I've always wanted, and I'm blowing it."

"You're doing no such thing. Tell me...what chapter are you working on right now?"

"Finishing 21. Trying to."

"And you've made those changes we discussed to the last passage?"

"I think."

He rolls away from behind his computer, scooting on the wheels of his leather chair, sliding to a stop directly in front of me. "What do you mean, you think?"

"I'm not sure if it's good enough," I mumble.

"Okay then, let me hear it."

I feel my brow lowering. "Hear it? You want me to read it to you? Out loud?"

"To me, and to you as well. Listen to what you're saying as you read it."

"But that's..."

He holds up a hand. "Just humor me and try it."

Feeling like I did back in the sixth grade, standing in front of the class, giving an oral report on why students should be allowed to chew gum in school, I look down at the papers in my lap, thumb to the section I know he's interesting in, and begin.

"For a moment we remained on the path, our shadows lengthening with the passing hour. While the ominous cloud-cover had produced no rainfall, it left the darkening skyline marked like a bruise.

"Side by side we watched as Mom's smile faded, her gaze wandering toward a stand of skeletal evergreens in the distance. A bottle of ketchup in one hand, a plastic fork in the other, her attention utterly focused on the decaying firs, their branches reaching out for assistance.

"A lone blue jay swooped in from above, finding a suitable perch for the evening. It called out, noticing our presence, its crest rising from its head in the shape of a razor blade. Mom paid it no attention, her thoughts lost in the thicket."

David held up a hand, stopping me in mid-sentence. "Well?"


"What do you think?"

"What do you mean by that? I'm supposed to be asking you that question."

"Which is why I'm asking you instead. Do you like it?"

"It's okay."

"Can you do better?"

"So you're saying it's crap?"

"That's not what I said. I asked you a question. I'm wanting your opinion."

I frown, deciding on an answer. "I kinda like it, but I could tinker with it if you want. Or if you don't. Or whatever. I don't know what's going on right now."

David's shoulders bounce as he giggles, and I'm reminded of Jesse Duke, watching his nephews in the General Lee glide over a slow moving river in Hazzard County in order to escape Sheriff Roscoe.

"You already knew the answer," he says. "By reading it aloud, you answered your own question for both of us."

"So what's next...will I be painting the fence in your back yard, or waxing your car while unconsciously absorbing some mystical trick to writing a best-seller?"

David hesitates a moment, then, "Ahh, Karate Kid, I get it. Nice touch."

"Thanks. So what are we gonna do about these deadlines?"

He shrugs, holding a smile. "You're not dealing with Random House, you know. We'll be fine. We're an independent, which means we're a small fish, but a personable one. One who understands. Who wants their writers to succeed to the best of their abilities, which we know you have. Your story's good, it just needs some tuning. And it'll get done. And we'll be fine."

He leans forward. I realize I'm about to hear something worth remembering.

"The publishing industry has unfortunately turned into a contest. I'd like to call it a competition, but sadly I cannot. More like a popularity contest. Those in the know, do quite well. As for the others...well, normally it's one and done.

"The trick is to put something out there that simply demands to be read. A cover that can lure both young and old. A story line capable of attracting even the casual reader. And written with a voice good enough to cause people to want more. That's when you win. And that's why I'm not worried about any deadlines. I'm not as concerned about the when. It's what's inside that we've gotta nail down."

I heave a sigh. "Okay. Sounds good."

"But you can still wax my car if you want."

"Uhh, I don't think so."

"Well, you brought it up."

"See ya next week, David."

I rise from my chair and head for the exit when he says, "Hey El, just so you know...I thought it was pretty good."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Revised excerpt from "Broken"

...the drama that is my life. Bordering on 60 hours per week at the day job. Coaching my sons's ball teams whenever time allows. Trudging through endless revisons between the hours of 2 and 4 am...no, really.

...the following is the latest passage from "Broken" that I've been slicing and dicing whenever not overcome with exhaustion. Enjoy:)

***Like Coach Hummel, Doug Stutzman, our sixty year old coach of the Farm Team, was a local icon from his younger days, having once held many athletic records in baseball and basketball. The majority of them were quashed by Hummel two decades later, but searching for any sign of animosity within Stutzman's weary soul would've been futile.

He roamed the ball diamond, his posture stooped, pausing at every position, granting each of us a moment while balanced on teetering knees. Cartilage whittled thin like mucous and stretched taut.

His chin, grizzled with spiked fuzz the color of ash, resembled a used eraser on the end of a pencil. Rounded off and worn down to a nub. Likewise, a pair of silver tufts peeked out from under his ball cap, hovering over each ear.

He spoke with a throat full of gravel. The kind of sound coughed out of the failing exhaust from a farmhand's delivery truck.

Dad later told me that in his youth, Coach Stutzman carried himself well over six feet in height. Now, following a lifetime spent sacrificing his joints for that winning layup or a stolen base in the bottom of the ninth, he'd become a calloused old man, trapped in a body breaking down. And by week's end, I adored him.

***"Broken," by Elliot Grace : 2011

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Going the Distance...

...my younger son arrived home from school one day last week armed with a toothy grin, and the type of announcement that simply couldn't wait until everyone was present at the dinner table. Following a series of intense time trials in Phys Ed., my son, nicknamed "Boo," which is a story for another time, had qualified for the school's Mile Run during Field Day.

The famous "Mile Run" has come to be known as one of the most highly anticipated events to close out the school year. A week prior to the race, every student is granted the opportunity of running a mile under the watchful eye of their Phys. Ed instructor, stopwatch in hand. The top twelve times in the school were then invited to participate in the "Mile Run," for grade school prominence, among other awards to be handed out on the last day of school.

Boo's qualifying time was around seven and a half minutes, earning him a second place overall finish in the third grade, but just good enough to make the cut versus several fourth and fifth graders, who's times were around the seven minute mark.

Knowing how I'd once been a "track trekky" during my highschool days, my boy came to me after dinner with a simple request...help him win the thing.

The race was in three days. His opponents were some of the best grade school athletes in the area, making names for themselves in baseball and on the hardwood during the winter months. And my son, a decent athlete himself, but normally one who would prefer to watch the Iron Man sequel over a backyard sprint through the neighborhood, wanted me to figure out how to shave thirty seconds off his time.


On Sunday morning we went to the school. With the sun already pushing the mercury up over seventy at ten a.m, we had the entire track to ourselves. I showed him how to properly stretch his legs, and off we went.

It took all of a half a lap before I started noticing a few things.

"Why are you breathing so hard?" I asked.

"I didn't know I was," he huffed.

"You sound like you're about to have a heart attack. If you wanna win this thing, you've gotta learn how to breathe, okay?"

"I know how to breathe, or I'd be dead."

"Pay attention. Try taking longer breaths. In through your nose...out your mouth. Concentrate on that instead of pumping your legs for a couple minutes."


The panting slowed, and by the end of the first lap his chest was rising and falling with decent rhythm.

We rumbled through a half mile in silence. I'd forgotten how good it felt, that burn in my lungs. The blood pumping through my legs. It'd been a while.

"Doing okay?" I asked Boo, who'd managed to stay at my side despite the rising humidity.

"Yeah, I guess," he said. "Side's starting to hurt a little though."

"Think about something else," I suggested. "Do you hear that noise your feet are making?"

"Yeah. Kinda loud."

"You sound like a pony on concrete. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Try landing on the balls of your feet, without hardly using your heels. It uses a lot less energy and might gain you a little time."

The transition was awkward, but he continued to work on it, forgetting about the pain in his ribs.

We jogged into the final lap, both our faces glistening, but our breathing calm, our legs pumping.

"Time for your most important advice," I said as we rounded the final turn. He tossed me a glance, letting me know he was listening. "Back in school when I ran the mile, I'd always run against a few guys who'd take off way too fast at the start, and burn up all their energy too soon. I'd always hang back. Control my breathing, keep my legs pumping steady. Then at the halfway point on the last lap, I'd use up all that energy I'd been saving the whole race, and do this..."

I took off in a mad sprint for the finish. I wasn't sure I could still pull it off, and paid for it later that evening with a series of muscle cramps, but the message sunk in.

"That was awsome, Dad," Boo breathed, stumbling to my side.

We walked a lap before heading home. Cooling down. Lost in thought. Then he asked me something I hadn't been prepaired for. "So Dad, when will your book be done?"

"Well, a little while yet, I guess," I said. "There's edits. Then revisions. Boring stuff that'll make the story sound better."

"It's been a long time," Boo said.

I studied my son's shadow angling toward the distant bleachers, considering what he'd said. Thinking there was a lesson in there somewhere. As we neared the car, our legs at last coming to a stop, I figured it out. "I guess writing a book is kinda like this race of yours," I said. "It's gonna be grueling, and probably a struggle. Your brain might suggest you give up. But if you stay focused, remember your goal and most importantly, concentrate on your breathing...well, who knows."

"Yeah, who knows," he said. Then, "I just hope I don't finish last."

I patted him on the shoulder. "Just finish the thing. That's what's important. Not quitting."

A downpour the night before had left the turf soft and a bit precarious. And as I watched the runners line up side by side, I figured the conditions might slow the athletes a bit, helping out my Boo.

With the entire student body in attendance, including the parents of those participating, the horn sounded, and the runners took off.

As I guessed, a half dozen overly excited runners took off in a full sprint, rounding the first lap with cheeks puffing, chests heaving. Other runners followed, and Boo took up the rear. I studied his expression as he finished the first lap. His face was a stone. Eyes on the ground, his breathing calm.

At a half-mile, the excited sprinters had slowed considerably, but remained in front of the pack. Trailing everyone was my Boo, in danger of falling a half lap behind, but with an air of indifference. I was beginning to wonder if he'd decided to forego a shot at winning the race in order to concentrate on simply finishing.

Minutes later, the runners entered the final lap.

As some of the runners found themselves gasping for breath, and others held a hand to their side, mouths agape, straining for what little energy remained, my son began pumping his legs, and gaining ground.

With a half-lap to go, Boo passed his first runner. From where I was in the front row of the bleachers, I quietly stood, watching as he rumbled by two more. His arms now churning, driving his legs forward, he brushed through a group of four struggling runners unscathed. With the finish line in sight, he pulled ahead of a fifth grader, and set his gaze on the last remaining pair of runners standing between him and the title.

Finding myself unable to do anything other than hop in place while my wife bellowed encouragement by my side, we watched as Boo managed to close the gap with the leaders, before running out of time down the stretch. His final time...seven minutes, eight seconds. Nearly a half minute better than the week prior.

Hours later, sitting in front of the computer, staring at endless revisions, I remembered the expression on my son's face as he neared the finish line. Confident. Determined. And yet...calm. His breathing like the steady beat of a drum.

I'm sure of it now...there's a lesson in there somewhere.