The Difference Between Winter and Spring

I visited with people. I got answers to perplexing issues. I read The Red Tree again, which is still so damn good, and yet still as perplexing to me as ever as to why. It’s the kind of book I feel like I could read four or five times and every time find it a mystery.

Seeds have been purchased. I planted a jessamine by the bottle tree. I planted a new rosemary where the old rosemary had been. I’m only putting one lavender in. I needed a bunch of stuff from Bates but they’re really late in getting things in. Usually, by this time, they have a ton of roses and now they have almost nothing. But I have a list of things I need, since I am abandoning the back bed, because I just can’t keep that much weeded.

I’ve finished, too, the stripey afghan. I’m just tucking ends, so I hope to finish it up this week. The next afghan on my docket will either be awesome or terrible, but C & M are getting it no matter what!

And I fed the willow and the magnolia. In general, magnolias don’t need feeding, but after the damage from the ice storm, I thought I’d better do something to give it a little push. And it’s time for someone to trim up the willow. I guess that someone is me.

I feel like I had such a nice, full weekend. It felt almost like a vacation.

The Bowen House in Goodlettsville

Big News! Project X Has a Pub Date!

May 22, 2015, which is also my birthday. Mark your calendars. There will be a party and you will be able to buy the book.

(If this ends up not being true, you can still have a good time pitching in to bail me out of jail.)

The Wolf’s Bane.

The cursed book may actually see the light of day.

Finally.

Finished Hill House Again

I think the real genius of Hill House is the way Jackson seems to have such a clear idea what’s going on–and, frankly, I don’t think it matters if Jackson thinks she’s writing a real ghost story or a psychological horror or what–the thing is that she’s got a narrative. She knows what gets us from point a to point b to point c.

And then she sticks us in the narrative car (so to speak) with someone who doesn’t at all know why or how we’re going from a to be to c.

I feel like, every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the scaffolding–we hear Theo tease Luke about having her stocking early on; later, when Eleanor so desperately wants to overhear them talking about her, she seems unable to understand that she’s not on their minds at all; the Doctor has a clear idea what things will mean someone has to leave the house; etc.

It all suggests Jackson has this rather thick narrative thread laid out in her head in a way that satisfies her and then she adeptly decides what all to leave out to give us the strand we’re following.

I think this is going to be the hardest part of me in the haunted house story–being willing to keep back in order to build tension. But also to let the action drive the plot. I tend to let my characters get into messes of their own design and then flounder along getting out of them. But I don’t think you can have a floundering haunted house story. Things have to be getting progressively worse or else why worry about the house at all?

A house where something knocks late at night on the bathroom door is just a house with a knock. If it doesn’t lead to anything, if things don’t get progressively worse, then it’s not scary.

You can acclimate to anything, if it goes on long enough. So, the horror has to grow.

Return to the Haunting of Hill House

As part of my on-going efforts to figure out how to construct a haunted house story that satisfies me, I’m rereading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I’m about halfway through it and I’m really struck by a couple of things. First is how much, this time, I was more sympathetic to Eleanor’s sister and husband. The first time I read it, I felt more sympathy for Eleanor being stuck taking care of her mother while her sister got to get married and have kids. But there’s less, this time, to suggest that her sister somehow stuck Eleanor in that position. The other is just how much making things up there is at the beginning, how often Eleanor is daydreaming or the four people in the house are telling tall tales about their origins.

One thing I think is really brilliant is how Jackson tells you that the trick of the house is that none of the angles are right angles and the dis-ease the house causes is, at some level, because of your brain perceiving as straight, right angles, things that are crooked.

And then she plops you right into the point of view of someone whose corners also don’t meet square, so to speak. But she leaves that to you to decide whether you’re going to keep that fact at the front of your mind as you read.

The Problem with Replacing Us with Machines

Right now, cotton growers get 500-600 pounds of cotton out of an acre (source). At peak production, slave owners claimed to be getting 1,000 pounds of cotton an acre.

Which means we still don’t have a machine that picks cotton as well as a person.

This is at the heart of what Baptist means when he points out that we’re lying to ourselves when we say that slavery would have just gone away in thirty or forty more years. Even assuming that the U.S. wouldn’t have found a million other things to do with an enslaved workforce, some forms of agriculture see John Henry winning against the machine every time. All the time.

Still, if we were willing to do to the cotton pickers what was done to the cotton pickers in the 1000 pound an acre days.

That, to me, is the second most chilling thing about the book (1. being how important liberty was to white men and how, even with that goal and that philosophy in their hearts, it was so very rare for a white man whose goal was liberty to even consider the possibility of anyone not in that category as being a part of the project of this country, as it exists to make men free) is how easily it would have been, how likely it was, for slavery to continue and to spread country-wide.

It is really almost a fluke–just an overstep on the part of the South–that lead us to war and thus to ending slavery.

When you think of how very likely it was that slavery would continue and expand, how, if the scenario played out 100 times, 95 of them probably would have ended with continued enslavement of black people, it feels no wonder that we’re still so fucked up about race and unable to see our way out of it.

People Food

The dog went to the vet on Saturday. He behaved exactly how you would expect him to. He barked at everyone when I left him in the car so that I could get the paperwork sorted. He honked the horn at me. Oh, he was tickled and surprised to pull that off. Then, he peed on the vet’s floor. He acted like a complete wild nincompoop. They had to lift him up so his back legs were off the ground to keep him from squirming away while they vaccinated him. He sniffed some other dog’s junk and tried to lick it. Perhaps even succeeded.

And then he took a huge dump right outside the vet’s door.

And he’s on a diet–2-3 cups of food a day (two in the morning and, if there’s none in the bowl in the evening, he can have a third cup, but, if there is food in the bowl, no adding to it), only one treat a day, and no people food. Strict no people food orders. He has to get down to 100 lbs.

He has worms. He has the “a mosquito bit you” kind and the “you eat poop, don’t you?” kind.

When the Butcher went to pick up the medicine for the worms, they advised him to wrap the pill in cheese.

“Isn’t that a ‘people food’?” my smart-ass brother asked.

A Little More

I also really wish I’d had Baptist’s book assigned to me in a history class in college, because he does such a clear job of laying out pre-Civil War U.S. history not as a series of facts, but as “this happened because of these three things. And because this happened, years later, when this other thing happened, it happened in this way.”

I mean, just at the level of fleshing out “Andrew Jackson didn’t like banks” into “here’s all the crazy shit banks were doing” was really useful. And, though I still think a gold standard is stupid, when you have what we had in the 1830s, with people lending money to other people to lend money to other people who’ve mortgaged crops they haven’t grown yet to buy slaves they’ve already put up as collateral for other loans, you can see the appeal of “you have 300 gold coins in your vault, so you can’t lend out 500000000000 gold coins, because they don’t exist. You don’t have them. If you want more money to lend, you’d better figure out a way to get people to put more money in your bank.” Was Andrew Jackson doing to the banks what he should have been doing to Andrew Jackson Jr.? Probably.

But it’s also hard to look square in the face the fact that we are a white, male supremacist nation. Not just in the way we use those terms now, but in the very real sense of that being exactly who our country was designed for and to benefit. Everything that we have in this country that is different than that is because we have imagined a way to make the dreams those guys had for themselves big enough to cover more of us.

But it is a massive revision. And I was telling the Butcher this morning, when you see what a sweet deal the white guy ruling class had set up for itself and how strongly it depended on other white guys wanting in on that sweet, sweet ruling action, white guys are not wrong to feel like they’ve lost something in the modern era.

Now, I would argue that, it was immoral in the first place, what they were given.

But it doesn’t change the fact that there is a loss of power. And for a lot of them, white power was the only power they really had.

Whoa

I’m just about finished with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. It is just as fantastic as you’ve been told. I only wish I’d read the bad reviews on Goodreads before I’d read the book, because it would have provided me with some levity in a book where there’s very little. (One of the reviewers seems to think that Baptist is black and doing his part of make white people feel bad. A few seemed to think that Baptist’s book had nothing to do with the economics of slavery–even though the whole last half of the book is how Southern speculators managed to tank the American economy in the 1830s and the fall-out from that for the next thirty–and more–years.)

I really highly recommend it. Baptist’s an academic, but his writing is accessible. It’s lengthy and I had to take substantial mental-health breaks between chapters. But I also felt like he walked a really masterful line of showing all the kinds of terrible thing that happened without fixating on a few bad actors, so as to let everyone else off the hook.

I also appreciated how he wrestled with the language we use to talk about slavery to try to really get at what was going on. He calls “plantations” “labor camps,” which is really evocative. But I also ended up feeling like “enslaver” is not entirely satisfactory. On the one hand, it gets at the fact that it was an ongoing, continuous process. You couldn’t just make a person a slave. You had to do things that constantly reinforced to the people you held in captivity that they were slaves. But it also has the effect, to me, of seeming like there was a specific social role or job of “enslaver.” And maybe you could argue that, yes, this is the social role of slave owners. But I kept having to stop and figure out whether we were talking about all slave owners or some subset.

But I don’t think that’s a drawback to the book. I think one of the arguments he’s making is that we’re so familiarized with a certain story about slavery and we have to do things–talk about things we don’t normally talk about, look at things we don’t normally look at, use words we wouldn’t normally use–to jar ourselves out of thinking about slavery in the usual way. That they’re not always going to be satisfactory is to be expected.

Why I’m Not Reading Absalom, Absalom

Faulkner is all “virgins” and “niggers.” And fuck that shit. The one word hardly needs discussion. But the other–I think that Faulkner is fascinated by the idea of a woman’s body that no one has ever been inside of.

And that’s the problem with all his women, isn’t it? A man being inside of one ruins her. But he can’t imagine that there was always already a person in that woman’s body. And that, for that reason, virginity as he understands it, doesn’t exist.

Reincarnation

My Uncle B. is fascinated by stories of reincarnation–where little kids are all “Oh, hey, Mom, remember when I died?” and then it turns out they have all these memories of being World War II fighter pilots.

I’m also fascinated by them, but not for the same reasons. I’m struck by how the memories of a kid’s old life fade. How you might be left with this sense that there was someone you used to be, but you’ve forgotten the specifics.

My dad makes fun of reincarnation, because everyone imagines they were Cleopatra and no one was the guy building the Pyramids who died of, I don’t know, scurvy. But those aren’t the kinds of stories that are compelling to Uncle B. and me. We like, I think, the suggestion that, if you got some kind of raw deal–died of cancer when you were 4 or in a plane crash when you were 20–you can get another shot.

I don’t think Uncle B. and I are waiting around to see if Grandma is going to be reincarnated. It’s hard to imagine she’d want to, after living a whole, long life. But the idea that you can cheat the kinds of death that cheat you? Oh, I like that.

But I also like how that kind of reincarnation turns your old self into a kind of ghost that haunts your current self. Perhaps turns your own body into a haunted house.

Lord Huron

This morning the folks on the radio could not figure out how to say “Huron.” And it struck me so funny. They also used to have problems with the band “Augustana,” which they pronounced as if all the “a”s were the same. But I get how you grow up not knowing how to say Augustana. But “Huron”?! It’s a Great Lake. And they were trying to say it “Huh-ron.” and “Who-run.”

It reminded me of how that dude on Nightvale couldn’t figure out how to say “Michigan.”

I’m really excited about their upcoming album. I was trying to explain to the Butcher that I felt like their first album was somewhat spooky songs for middle aged women and this album is just full on for people who loved heavy metal but can’t stand the noise anymore.

I hope they wouldn’t find that insulting, because I love the fuck out of them.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, listen to this song twice. First time, pay no attention to the lyrics. Just enjoy the peppy old-fashioned-ness of it. Second time, listen to the words. It’s a horror show wrapped in a Twinkie.

Plantation as Panopticon, Kind of

NM and I have talked some about how surprised she was to find that the Hermitage is so small. Rich people in Europe want you to see how rich they are so they put up these huge, sometimes labyrinthine buildings. But the antebellum home in Tennessee? In general, they’re not huge. And the layouts are pretty consistent. There’s the kind you see all over this area–two rooms downstairs separated by a wide hall with a staircase; two rooms upstairs separated by a wide hall. Doors at either ends of both halls, leading to porches.

And considering how many people were living in one room houses or dog trots, you can see that a house even this size was enormous. Literally four times the size of what most people were living in.

But then you had even richer people–Isaac Franklin, the McGavocks, the aforementioned Jacksons, etc.–whose houses are even larger. Four rooms on the downstairs floor, an even larger hall, four sets of chimneys instead of two, and the upper floor has more variety in the number of room. Often there’s an attic.

Still, until you get to houses built in the 1850s, they’re just not that large.

In the first iteration of the Hermitage, before the fire, Jackson could have stood at the top of his stairs and had a pretty good view of what was going on in most of the rooms in his house.

And I had been thinking about something I noticed when I was at Riverwood–the windows are amazing. You literally have this sense, no matter what room you’re in, of the outside being right there. I kept an eye on this at the Hermitage. It’s a little harder, because the tour is set up to encourage you to look at the house and the things in it and not to imagine what the house must have seemed like to the people who knew it so well as to be oblivious to it most of the time. But same thing–huge windows designed to let a person have a huge view of what’s going on outside.

It makes me wonder if one way to view the main house is as the guard house in the panopticon–the place from which the people in power observe their prisoners without being observed. A luxurious guard house, yes, but a guardhouse. From that perspective, the smallness of the house (and the seeming disorganized ways you tend to see the outbuildings arranged on old plantations) makes sense. The house’s first purpose is not to show off the opulence of the owner. The luxury–the thing tour guides ask us to focus on–is just a disguise for the house’s main task–to provide a comfortable way for the “warden” to monitor the inmates while giving the inmates the sense that they could, at any time, be being watched.

Things that Frustrate Me

gray on stripe

1. The stripey afghan is taking so long. And I think it might need another skein of yarn after this one to be a usable size. I really like it. I find the gray part really soothing and I think it’s going to end up being really dramatic. I just wish I were closer to done. But I also want it to be awesome for S., so I need to make peace with it maybe needing another skein after this one.

2. Someone on Twitter said something about the comments on one of my Pith posts and so… yes. I know. I know. But I still did. And they did make me feel bad and weird. The weirdest was the guy who slagged on my writing there and then wished I’d go back to this blog, which he then demonstrated a certain level of familiarity with. Oh, hi, creepster! I actually find that more… not upsetting… that’s probably too strong  a word, but disquieting than most commenters. You don’t like me, so that’s compelled you not to stop reading me, but to find out more about me?

How is this not a sign to someone that they’ve moved into “I’m behaving like a person who should be flipped off by people whenever I go out in public” territory?

3. My arm hurts from the damn dog. Not massively, but enough to make me mad all over again every time I tweak it.

4. I appreciate Eric Crofton’s answer to this question. Why do I continue to do this thing I’m not convinced I’m very good at? That all the folks covered in point 2. up there are happy to tell me I’m not very good at? Basically because it must be done.

5. The Butcher still has bronchitis. I love him, but I’m really used to a lot more alone time.

6. You think the hardest thing about writing a novel is writing it, just physically sitting down and cranking out 80,000+ words. And that is difficult. But there’s something to the difficulty of convincing yourself that it’s worth writing more words when no one gave a shit about the first couple of bunches of tens of thousands of words.

But it must be done. So, I’ll do it. As soon as I get done reading the four books I want to read–Absalom! Absalom!, House of Leaves, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Red Tree. At least three of these I have already read before, but this time, I want to pay closer attention to what I found satisfying and unsatisfying about them.

7. I’m calling my haunted house “Ashland,” because I think that may be one of the loveliest words in the English language. “Ashland City” is especially nice. It’s like licking an ice cream cone and, at the last second, your tongue snags on the waffle part.

Kids

So, there’s a conceit in House of Windows, that the narrator (which is kind of a loaded term in that book) can kind of feel the house around her, and thus feel when it becomes misshapen. It works because I think people do have a sense of the space they’re in. And places can seem happy or sad, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. I mean, the weirdest thing, for me, about the Hermitage is that it’s clearly a loud place. Like, when you’re in it, you just know it should be filled with noise. It’s not surprising to learn that there were always children–adopted, nieces and nephews, etc.–knocking around or that it was filled with slaves (ten in the house). The hush, the reverence–that’s the unnatural thing.

And yesterday, I got to meet the Butcher’s new girlfriend and her kids. I like her. I will write next to nothing about her kids, because that would be weird, except to say that they’re really well-behaved. But man, the whole house was happy with them there. I don’t quite know how to explain it. It was just really pleasant.

Plus, the Butcher cleaned the fuck out of the house before they showed up, which was really, really nice.

Two Things

1. I’m struck by how much “Nashville is about to be ruined” talk assumes that, when the speaker moved into a neighborhood, it was a good thing and that the troubles they faced while moving into said neighborhood were evidence of the benefits the neighborhood saw from them moving into it. But, now that new people are moving into the neighborhood and the speaker is the unwanted, nay, unconsidered person who lives in the neighborhood, that’s an injustice.

Which is not to say that we’re not facing some challenges as a city. Just that I notice how much some gentrification is fine and some is ruinous.

2. A lot of modern haunted house stories assume the house has some hidden dimension, places that aren’t immediately obvious or become revealed over time. –House of Leaves, House of Windows, The Red Tree.

3. I went out to the Hermitage today to look at the house. The main hallway is surprisingly dark.

Chest Hair

Okay, so I have to tell you that there are things you do with people you’re not related to and you think nothing of it. If a hairy, shirtless dude wanted you to rest your head on his chest, of course! But when it’s your brother, because you’re listening for any weird noises that shouldn’t be there…

You guys, I just cannot get the heebie jeebie memory of his chest hair tickling my ear out of my head!

I try to think about the pleasant chest hair tickles of days past, tickles made by hair that shared no parents with me.

I try to think about maybe the dog leaning against me.

But it does no good.

I’ll also say that the decongestant I bought him to try to alleviate the whistle I heard in his chest was not fucking around. The Butcher took it at 7 p.m. and he pretty much slept until 7 a.m. Considering the dose is once every twelve hours, that works out.

But he’s looking much better today. More like a man who’s getting over something.

In unrelated news, I think I’m going to break down and read Absalom, Absalom. As prep for my haunted house.

Briefly

Very productive meeting today.

I’m worried the Butcher might have bronchitis. I put my ear to his back and his lungs sounded normal. I put my ear to his chest, up higher and I heard a whistle. A faint whistle.

I think I need to get down to Carnton.

The Drawback to this Weather

The Butcher’s been sick. I’m feeling a kind of grogginess that makes me wonder if I’m getting sick.

I miss walking in the mornings so much. But who knows how long it will be again until the backyard isn’t utter mush. I wonder if the neighbors would mind/notice if I put in a paved walking path back there?

My Riders in the Sky Pull is Non-Existant

My dad called to ask me to get him backstage at the Riders in the Sky concert my parents are going to, so he can have dinner with the band. I am not able to make that happen. But I guess I’m flattered that he thought I would be?

He also called to tell me all about how they’re getting to take a tour of their local public radio station and how they may even volunteer to take phone calls during their next pledge drive.

The Butcher is so tickled by this he vows to call them both up randomly to make sure their phone-answering game is strong.

I think I’m in the long, boring part of the stripey afghan, but I’m really loving how it looks. I’m just a little sad to be through with the color changes.

Curly Butt

I know it’s not nice to make fun of your dog, but Sonnyboy gets this adorable curl on his butt, like he has a butt cowlick and it just warms my whole heart. This morning I sang him a song about the importance of pooping outside, even if you don’t like sinking into the mud to do it. He seemed unimpressed by the song’s sound reasoning. At least, he didn’t poop when I had him outside.

I did get out yesterday and check the ice damage on the magnolia. We lost three branches. I cut them off completely. It looks to me like the top one broke and took the other two out with it on the way down, but considering how healthy the tree looked otherwise, I imagine the spot will fill in before long.

The dog watched me from the porch and then, I took him off-leash and he jumped around like a bunny.

Still didn’t poop, though.

I just can’t help but wonder who would get rid of a dog that awesome. But, if he really was kind of left to hang out with himself in a pen (which I suspect), I guess they never noticed how cool he is.

Considering the amount of awesome, fun, quirky animals who’ve been overlooked by whoever had them first that I’ve really enjoyed having in my life, I wonder if I should have looked for a spouse that way. But looking back on it, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone just standing in my garage or tied to a tree by their current wife.

Ghost Story Research

Last night I read The Little Stranger and then some of the reviews of it. I thought it was really well-done, though I couldn’t decide if I thought the ending was too ambiguous or too spot on the nose. Which, I guess means that it was just right.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about two things I read in reviews:

One:

Yet, while Waters might have blown the dust off a fusty genre, she can’t escape its limitations. There is an inherent problem with ghost stories: they always boil down to a futile argument between sceptic and believer. Poor Dr Faraday has the thankless task of trying to convince the Ayres that every odd sight and sound and incident has a rational explanation. I eventually grew tired of vacillating between wondering if there was a real ghost and expecting the housemaid to be behind it all; I longed for a credible third way. Waters hints at one, but its supernaturalism disguised with psychology left me dissatisfied.

Two:

Every ghost story needs a Dr Faraday, a blunt literalist with a sturdy sense of self. Such a figure begins as the reader’s surrogate, the voice of scepticism. We’ve been told ghost stories before, and we’re not going to fall for the author’s wiles and tricks; our narrator is determined, on our behalf, to avoid melodrama. Then as the story progresses, our representative comes up with ever more tortured “rational explanations” for bizarre events, explanations that require us to be more imaginative and gullible than we would be if we simply accepted the supernatural. “I see what’s in front of me,” Faraday claims stoutly. For the love of God, the reader cries: wake up man, look behind you! The author has worked a spell. We now see that our guide and mentor is dull-witted, complacent, perhaps self-deceiving; we are turning the pages faster and faster.

On the one hand, I agree with both of these things–that ghost stories do boil down to an argument between believer and rationalist and that, if the author’s done her job, the person in the guide and mentor position does seem eventually dull-witted, complacent, and perhaps self-deceiving. (I should take a moment to note that, if all you know about The Little Stranger comes from the two paragraphs I quoted here, both of them seem to entirely misunderstand Dr. Faraday and what’s going on in the house, so don’t discount the book solely because these paragraphs make Faraday seem dull.)

But I can’t help but think that, unless you move the focus of the argument between the believer and the rationalist, you can’t set a haunted house story in the American South. What Southerner doesn’t love a good ghost story? Even if only as folklore? Who wouldn’t want to hear it? To see for him or herself if it can be experienced? Where would you find a Southern rationalist about ghosts?

The argument isn’t about whether there are ghosts or not. To me, it seems obvious that the argument is about which ghosts are there, why those stories get told, what they mean. In other words, it’s an argument between the history believer and the history rationalist.

The Houses I Looked At