okdunn
Home-Grown Grammar

I was watching television the other day and the character, a man in a suit, described another character as dour. The character pronounced the word like do-er, as in, somebody who gets a lot done. Dewar, like the scotch my father orders when we are out at a nice restaurant. Dooer, like an overly sympathetic person saying, “Oh you poor dear!

All my life I have been saying dour, like sour, like a dowager and her unfortunate hump. Like glower! 

Dour means relentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearance. One of the tricks I learned studying for the GRE was to hazard a guess at an unknown word’s positive or negative connotation. Toady, for example, was a word that definitely sounded negative. When I got home from the test and looked it up, I saw I was right. Toady means a person who behaves obsequiously to someone important. Toady is pronounced exactly how you might imagine.

In the car on the way to the mall yesterday, I asked the other two writers in the car how they would pronounce d-o-u-r.

"Dower," they agreed.

"Wrong!" I shouted.

"Impossible," they scoffed. "Really?" they asked, again. I turned in my seat to watch them digest the difficult information. The same as I had, they seemed agitated by the truth.

We agreed that nobody in the world is worse at pronouncing words than writers, though you might think it would be the opposite. I scored pretty high on my verbal GRE, much higher than most of the law and business school hopefuls that take the test, but for a long time I thought lingerie was a delicate French underwear made of lace and lounge-er-ray was regular bras and underwear from Victoria’s Secret or JC Penney.

Writers are also readers, spending hour after hour immersed in a world of symbols on page or screen. They—we—begin to cultivate our own pronunciations. Home-grown grammar. Backwater, memory-soaked definitions. And so, to discover that somebody else has come before, that any etymology is not simply an extension of your own family tree, well, that is disturbing. And counterintuitive to the writer, who of course is a narcissist at heart. Narcissist: self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, or, perhaps, an inability to separate one’s life from the words used to describe it. 

Take the Long Way Home

Adapted from some text messages

And the Megabus is like

A dream

A twelve-minute walk from my house and then you hop right on

Throw your suitcase to the driver

Climb up the stairs

The bus is like

70% white college students and 30% black Chicago refugees with the thickest accents I’ve ever heard, a practically unintelligible dialect

To me anyway

There is a small community here hoping to escape violence

Also the amazing government benefits

Shuttling back and forth on semi-public transit

Anyway

Never what you’d expect

Iowa I mean

The bus ride is a brief sociological study

Of a new America

A straight highway

No turns

No hills

Only corn 4 hours

It’ll be tall and green by the time you get here

When you get to Chicago the train station is like two minutes away

Maybe get a bottle of wine somewhere and 

Print your ticket at the machine 

Take note of all the Amish gathering at the entrance

Overalls and lace caps and more red-faced babies than you can shake a stick at

Also if you’re lucky some dreamboat hiker dudes with tall backpacks 

But they are probably headed West, to the Coast Starlight line

Or the Empire Builder

The Lakeshore Limited departs at 9:30pm

So bring a book or whatever and pray for an empty seat and stretch out your legs in front of you and

Settle into the night

At the casino

At the casino there is a poster advertising an upcoming Kenny Rogers concert. I consider myself to be far outside the sphere of Kenny Roger’s influence—in terms of age, in terms of location, and in terms of stylistic interest. Nevertheless, the song creeps into my ear as though it had been playing all along, as though the poster had a tiny speaker of its own. The catchiest songs are songs that the would-be listener says to themselves anyway: “It’s getting hot in here,” you might say, accidentally setting up what is just the first half of the entire line: so take off all your clothes. So far I have only managed to lose ten dollars in the penny slots, but the line rings true:

YOU GOTTA KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM, KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM.

The song trumpets in with an accompanying burst of irritation: this song will be stuck in my head all night, my bra will smell like smoke forever, I will never get that ten dollars back, this sticky dribble of cranberry vodka will stain my blouse. Permanence is a mixed blessing. Once the annoyance passed, I was left with a feeling of dread. What if everything you wanted came true? A hit single, coolers full of champagne, ruby necklaces, hearty pats on your back—but in repayment you had to sing that hit song for the rest of your life at every casino across America. Doomed to experience your own success, over and over. I thought I might print out a picture of Kenny Rogers and tape it above my desk. I might look up at him there and remember that once my words leave my mouth they are anyone’s to take away. I might look up at him and think something as obvious as: success is a gamble. But I have had two cranberry vodkas and so I will forget this idea, remembering it only much later when I find an email to myself, blank except for the subject line KENNY ROGERS. 

Now that I am on the verge of receiving a master’s degree, I feel validated enough in my own intelligence to stop the fruitless act of pretending I am ashamed of my own television consumption. I will not go so far as to say that I am proud of it; I will only be frank about the fact that I am steadily and doggedly making my way through season four of Murder, She Wrote. 
I turn to mysteries during times of turmoil in my personal life. When I was applying to graduate school, and did not know whether I would move to Wyoming or Colorado or North Carolina or stay exactly where I was in a pool of my own misery, I watched all eight seasons of Monk. His compulsions made mine pale in comparison. He quintuple-checked his stove before leaving the house—I sat in mine, rarely leaving. When I was adjusting to the bitter cold and silence of winter in Iowa, I watched all twelve seasons of Law and Order SVU. The violence and fear provided a sick yet soothing nostalgia for my former life in Brooklyn. I was glad to have moved to a place where strange men did not growl at me from their car windows, but I also missed the adrenaline rush, the hair on my neck standing up, that bright sense of urgency that fear imparts. 
What does Angela Lansbury do for me now? As Jessica Fletcher, she is always working to meet a deadline for her publisher. Her fingers fly over the typewriter she keeps at her kitchen table. There is always a pie baking in the oven. There is always a friend knocking at the side door. She does not have time for that friend but then, suddenly, there is a murder. Forgetting that every week of her life has been interrupted by murder, she takes the pie out of the oven and puts on a pot of coffee and solves the murder. She goes for a jog on the beach and solves the murder. She puts her hands on her small waist and solves the murder. She tilts her head to the side and tsks silently, widening her already huge eyes. Then she solves the murder. The murder is a frameup, she always discovers. In Jessica Fletcher’s world, there is infinite time and every minute of it is put to good use. This is the opposite of my reality. 
In Jessica Fletcher’s world, justice is executed based on the minutest of details. If the carnation petal had not fallen to the floor, if the window had been closed properly, if the theater director had not quoted the critic, verbatim, then the murder would go unsolved. In fact, if Jessica Fletcher had not flown to New York in the first place, if she had not slid those red glasses on to examine the evidence, we begin to wonder if the murder would have even taken place.
Jessica Fletcher has no memory and therefore will never suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. She enters abandoned houses with gleeful abandon. She opens enormous trunks at antique stores without a moment’s hesitation. She knocks at the door of the hotel room and, when nobody answers, pushes on the door to see if it yields. It always does. Whenever she enters a room, there is always a body on the floor. The body is never a tragedy, it is merely a disgrace. Nothing is truly serious except Mrs. Fletcher’s baking and her long-dead husband.
Mrs. Fletcher wants to be called “Mrs.” because she is old-fashioned, and there is nothing wrong with that. The death of her husband is the only death that will ever make her sad, and anything else that happened afterward is nothing but a distraction from her own writing.  She is a free agent and a best-selling writer and sage and a relic and she wears only outfits that remind me of my own grandmother, who is equally badass. 
As I prepare for yet another uncertain portion of my future it is maybe just good to see that even when I am old as hell I can still tramp around the Eastern seaboard making judgment calls and taking names. Or maybe it is just that Jessica Fletcher writes book after book and none of it takes any time, none at all, which is good because how else would she have time to go undercover in this lavender turban?

Now that I am on the verge of receiving a master’s degree, I feel validated enough in my own intelligence to stop the fruitless act of pretending I am ashamed of my own television consumption. I will not go so far as to say that I am proud of it; I will only be frank about the fact that I am steadily and doggedly making my way through season four of Murder, She Wrote. 

I turn to mysteries during times of turmoil in my personal life. When I was applying to graduate school, and did not know whether I would move to Wyoming or Colorado or North Carolina or stay exactly where I was in a pool of my own misery, I watched all eight seasons of Monk. His compulsions made mine pale in comparison. He quintuple-checked his stove before leaving the house—I sat in mine, rarely leaving. When I was adjusting to the bitter cold and silence of winter in Iowa, I watched all twelve seasons of Law and Order SVU. The violence and fear provided a sick yet soothing nostalgia for my former life in Brooklyn. I was glad to have moved to a place where strange men did not growl at me from their car windows, but I also missed the adrenaline rush, the hair on my neck standing up, that bright sense of urgency that fear imparts. 

What does Angela Lansbury do for me now? As Jessica Fletcher, she is always working to meet a deadline for her publisher. Her fingers fly over the typewriter she keeps at her kitchen table. There is always a pie baking in the oven. There is always a friend knocking at the side door. She does not have time for that friend but then, suddenly, there is a murder. Forgetting that every week of her life has been interrupted by murder, she takes the pie out of the oven and puts on a pot of coffee and solves the murder. She goes for a jog on the beach and solves the murder. She puts her hands on her small waist and solves the murder. She tilts her head to the side and tsks silently, widening her already huge eyes. Then she solves the murder. The murder is a frameup, she always discovers. In Jessica Fletcher’s world, there is infinite time and every minute of it is put to good use. This is the opposite of my reality. 

In Jessica Fletcher’s world, justice is executed based on the minutest of details. If the carnation petal had not fallen to the floor, if the window had been closed properly, if the theater director had not quoted the critic, verbatim, then the murder would go unsolved. In fact, if Jessica Fletcher had not flown to New York in the first place, if she had not slid those red glasses on to examine the evidence, we begin to wonder if the murder would have even taken place.

Jessica Fletcher has no memory and therefore will never suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. She enters abandoned houses with gleeful abandon. She opens enormous trunks at antique stores without a moment’s hesitation. She knocks at the door of the hotel room and, when nobody answers, pushes on the door to see if it yields. It always does. Whenever she enters a room, there is always a body on the floor. The body is never a tragedy, it is merely a disgrace. Nothing is truly serious except Mrs. Fletcher’s baking and her long-dead husband.

Mrs. Fletcher wants to be called “Mrs.” because she is old-fashioned, and there is nothing wrong with that. The death of her husband is the only death that will ever make her sad, and anything else that happened afterward is nothing but a distraction from her own writing.  She is a free agent and a best-selling writer and sage and a relic and she wears only outfits that remind me of my own grandmother, who is equally badass. 

As I prepare for yet another uncertain portion of my future it is maybe just good to see that even when I am old as hell I can still tramp around the Eastern seaboard making judgment calls and taking names. Or maybe it is just that Jessica Fletcher writes book after book and none of it takes any time, none at all, which is good because how else would she have time to go undercover in this lavender turban?

Not only do I feel smarter, but all these dead trees in the long distance of College Street look suddenly as sharp as scientific renderings of neurons, bony black fingers reaching across today’s milky sky.

Not only do I feel smarter, but all these dead trees in the long distance of College Street look suddenly as sharp as scientific renderings of neurons, bony black fingers reaching across today’s milky sky.

Could Be

If we wrote essays like workshop wanted us to all the essays in the world would be 1,000 pages long. They would be hybrid form essays because they would have to contain photocopies of bank statements, glued-in lockets of our hair with corresponding DNA analysis, portraits of the artist as a child AS WELL AS artwork from their kindergarten art class. They would need to include Rorschach results from the last two generations of both sides of the family. For readability, they would need to be written in a choose-your-own-adventure format. Turn to page 12 for a full scene of my mother yelling. Move ahead to page 46 for a lyric response to the challenges of poverty. Page 367 will offer bold statement about identity, fully deconstructed, citations available in the notes section, research made clear in the footnotes, related thoughts readily accessible through use of the forty-page index.

Right now I am using a glue stick to affix an example of my early work, a landscape in Crayola. A stocky unicorn stares off into the flattened horizon. Its stark white environment is dominated from above by a heavy rainbow. A looming sun wears black sunglasses, without which it would blind itself, or scorch the chaos of green grass that anchors the unicorn to this imaginary earth. I can see the confidence of this young artist in the way she filled in all the blank spaces with a measured pressure. I can see my small hand now, holding the crayon and turning it in search of its sharpest side. I can still hear the sticky noise of the crayon releasing from the paper. 

celebrating our thesis drop at the casino

celebrating our thesis drop at the casino

Could Be

If they made women like they made pants, we would be a race of Amazons. A simple equation: the wider the hips, the longer the legs. All across the nation, wide women grow exponentially taller. Cuffed pants and high heels fall out of fashion. Sales of footstools decrease. Sidewalks everywhere buckle under the force of muscled calves and meaty thighs. Workplace productivity skyrockets as lunch breaks grow shorter and shorter: secretaries and CEOs alike return to their desks cool and collected. They have all returned from Old Navy or Bloomingdales where they walked straight up to the table of jeans and paused infinitesimally, scanning the denim wash options. They check out minutes later, paying with credit, signing the gray screen with a careless wave of the plastic pen. They don’t check the receipt because they are all dreaming separate but similar dreams about their weekend plans, which involve a picnic at the park. They are not worried about what wine to bring because in this universe all wine is the same and equally delicious and any kind will taste great with potato salad whether it is mayonnaise based or vinaigrette-y.

Teaser

Today is the day I must title my thesis. In order to think of something, which is difficult, I have gone through my pages at random and selected different lines from the work that appealed to me. This exercise was of literally no use. I still have no title. But now I have this odd list of lines, which I will share with you. It has been a long time. I have missed my short posts. But this big baby needs to be born. Here are some genetic strands from that unpleasant child:

thin drippy pancakes

unbreathable material

off-brand keds

“just my hoarding supplies”

home for wayward girls

describing homelessness in a high-pitched voice

the theft of the old casserole dish

avoiding hypodermic needles during hopscotch

looking for garbage

nailpolish at the neck wound

a humiliating premise

embarrassed of our unconventional landscaping

this woman wanted another peanut butter cup

neck-sweating men everywhere

cheap velour material

we solved that problem with two bungee cords

the mountain people out in Petersburg

“I thought about taking off my pants”

I am dressed for the day in jeans shorts and a straw hat.

fruit rollups in the pantry

I am saving the environment

gym class had always been an exercise in revenge

lovingly wrapped in unbleached wax paper

triangular white hair nets and wooden clogs

Martin Luther King Jr. smiled benevolently over our every day-dream

delicately prepared hairstyles wrapped in plastic bags

extra squad cars cruise along the avenue

“have some lemonade,” suggests my therapist.

his face is not the face of a killer

the crackling coughs of my mother

I am hungry and it is lunch time

gypsy eyeliner

deflated like my empty backpack

“Excuse me, do you drink wine?”

okdunn turned 4 today!

okdunn turned 4 today!

(Source: assets)

Did you guys know

…that rats have a sense of humor? I have never been more upset to find out anything in my life. There I was, minding my own business, up at the crack of dawn to do some writing—when suddenly the vast quantity of data in my brain seemed lacking. Classic diversionary tactic: the writer “researches.” Nothing is more appealing, in the face of a blank document, than the accumulation of more information. Nothing feels more right than discovering the Wikipedia page on “Theories of humor.” 

There are several theories of humor, according to this Wikipedia page. There is relief theory, otherwise known as the nervous giggle. There is the superiority theory, which is basically Aristotle being an asshole: “…we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at feeling superior to them.” Then there is the incongruity theory, which I guess is the guy from the superiority theory falling on a banana peel but instead of just being some regular schmuck in crocs he’s wearing a top hat, so it’s even funnier that he falls down because fancy guys are supposed to stay standing up. So are their hats.

Then there is the Benign Violation Theory, which “threatens one’s sense of how the world ought to be” but does so in such a way that the threat is not perceived as danger. Some people might relief-theory laugh at being mugged, but this one is more about Will Ferrell’s curly chest hair and American Flag underpants. It disturbs my sense of how the world ought to be, but I feel safe, especially because it is on television and not in my actual field of vision or living room. 

What disturbs me in a way that is not funny at all is the idea of rats cackling away in their underground lair. It disturbs me so much that I am distracting myself from my distraction to bring you this news. I guess it is a little funny to think of a bunch of rats in silk top hats and monocles, two images which just floated together in my brain—but the idea of their filthy, furry bodies is just too palpable, especially after living my life in cities with bodies of water in or near them. For example, Albany’s semi-professional hockey team used to be called The River Rats. I guess the idea of adult-sized rats playing hockey is KIND OF funny. 

Ernest Hemingway, from “A Moveable Feast”

The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put away the notebook, or the paper, in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.

It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.

"After Making Love in Winter," Sharon Olds

At first I cannot have even a sheet on me,

anything at all is painful, a plate of 

iron laid down on my nerves, I lie there in the

air as if flying rapidly without moving, and

slowly I cool off—hot,

warm, cool, cold, icy, till the

skin all over my body is ice

except at those points our bodies touch like

blooms of fire. Around the door

loose in its frame, and around the transom, the

light from the hall burns in straight lines and

casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a

figure throwing up its arms for joy.

In the mirror, the angles of the room are calm, it is the 

hour when you can see that the angle itself is blessed,

and the dark globes of the chandelier,

suspended in the mirror, are motionless—I can

feel my ovaries deep in my body, I 

gaze at the silvery bulbs, maybe I am

looking at my ovaries, it is 

clear everything I look at is real

and good. We have come to the end of questions,

you run your palm, warm, large, 

dry, back along my face over and 

over, over and over, like God

putting the finishing touches on, before

sending me down to be born.

Winter

I don’t know how to ski and I don’t like ice skating but when you open the dryer in the middle of the night to get the extra fleece jacket out, when you open it and the whole soft pile of clothes is crackling with static electricity, and in the pitch black of the room you can see it—see how each crackle lights up one infinitesimal glitter at a time throughout that interior metal hemisphere—now that’s something. 

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