To the Tooth

There’s an Italian term of art in cooking, al dente, which means food (usually pasta, but veggies and other things as well) that is slightly under-cooked so it is still firm. Directly translated it means “to the tooth”. There’s another meaning I take from al dente. It not only means “to the tooth,” but to me it also means “in the teeth”, like I just took a kick in the teeth.

Today I’m having an al dente day.

I’ve been recently working on a story in my spare time, and while I like the idea I realized a lot of what I wrote was bad. Well not bad, just boring. The irony is I took a big slug at the story the other day, throwing down well over 3000 words, so naturally I was excited about it.  That was until the next day when I realized much of the work I had done was under cooked. Al dente.

When you’re a creative type being honest with yourself about your work is probably the most demanding part of the gig. You not only have to ignore the rest of the shit going on in your life, and somehow find the energy to get off your ass and do the work, but then when your work is done you have to turn right around and be critical enough about your work to ensure a high standard.

Essentially there are two standards at play here:

  1. Is the work done?
  2. Is it any good?

The first standard is easy, and can be roughly translated as “am I happy”. This is what the creative person aims for internally. This is the first goal in their work, making themselves happy. And it is quite satisfying when you do the work. I always love it when I get a stretch of time to really dig into a story. It is relaxing and exhilarating, much in the same way that a good workout at the gym is relaxing and exhilarating. You get the excitement of the “burn”, you get the very real sense of accomplishing something. Its that feeling you get when doing a project around the house, or working on a hobby or craft. That feeling you get when you complete a project and then turn around to admire your work.

But the second standard, the one that asks, “is it any good?” is the more important. This is this question that separates the amateurs from the pros, the question that elevates a piece of art beyond one’s own horizon to that of the world’s. Of the two, this standard is also, not surprisingly, the more difficult.

When one is a creative type then they will spend a huge amount of their time learning and polishing their craft. Perfecting their ability to do their work, because, after all, doing the work is what its all about. Because of this it is easy and natural to learn from others, to study the great masters, to attempt to learn all that is possible within the craft. Painters learn to paint, writers learn to write, singers learn to sing, etc. But where does one go to learn how to be critical? How does a newbie learn to break down the flaws in their work and make it better? Where does the neophyte artist/writer/singer/etc. learn to develop an expert critical eye or ear?

These are the tough questions, the ones not easy to answer. To be creative means to ignore the other clamoring voices in the world, to lock yourself up in your own head, and to produce the work that only comes after years and years of practice. But to be a professional in your craft means your have to then turn around and listen to those very same voices you just ignored, and also, at the same time, hold your work up to them for comparison. This is a brutal thing to learn, and it is every bit as demanding as mastering the work itself. Only the rewards are not nearly as satisfying. It does not feel good to criticize one’s work. In fact, it feels like shit. Yet, it must be done.

So yeah, my story is both under-cooked, and being honest about it to myself feels like a kick in the teeth. Thus, al dente. What’s a guy to do?

Anyway, it looks like its time to do a bit more cooking. Which means its time to turn up the heat.

Anybody else suffer from learning the right amount of criticalness? What’s your story?

Outtake from Angel of Death

Since I’ve been neglecting my blog of late, I thought I would put up a little something. This scene is an outtake from my first novel, Angel of Death. My goal was to put it in the novel somehow, maybe insert it at the beginning, but I couldn’t seem to make it work.

It’s very short, less than 1400 words, so it should only take you a few minutes to read. It also, I think, gets right at the heart of Father Juan’s dilemma. He’s a priest with a curse. Just what kind of curse you’ll find out here.

Later, I’ll put up another outtake from the same novel. One that requires a bit of a description, but is an equally powerful scene all the same.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Father Juan was tired.

The tall priest was traveling on a bus somewhere in the southwest. The high desert landscape, all dusty dry reds and tan sands, drifted past his window. Each bump in the road jostling his seat, making it difficult to sleep. He was not quite 25 and already heading for his third church. Barely suppressed anger at this injustice clouded his thinking, leaving a lingering aftertaste of guilt and shame.

When he got on the bus that morning still wearing his clerics from the morning mass, a mother had spoken to her husband and teen-aged daughter as he passed them in the aisle. “Look,” she had said in Spanish. “We are lucky to be traveling with a priest. Surely God will protect one of his own.” The way the daughter kept calling her father “Apa” told Father Juan they were from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, but their conversation was spiced with Spanglish; Americanized Spanish. It was the sound of a family born in one country, but living in another.

Father Juan had sat in an open seat near the back of the bus, and watched the miles roll past the window. Sometime in the afternoon he dozed off, only to be woken when a man sat roughly next to him. The man’s face was rugged and dried looking, the skin weathered, his hair cropped short and mostly grey. A scar ran down from his forehead to one cheek, crossing one eye which was cloudy with cataracts. The other eye, the good one under his heavy eyebrows, carried a gleam of malevolence like a hard bright star.

“Don’t think I’m afraid of no priest,” he boasted in Spanish by way of a greeting. Then he laughed as the young priest impulsively shrank back against the window, saying nothing.

Father Juan wanted to tell the man he wasn’t afraid, that the fear he felt growing in his belly was not for for the man, but for something far more grim. Instead he remained silent. There was no way the priest could explain this to him, not without making things worst.

The bus lumbered out of the dusty station and headed out onto the highway. The man next to Father Juan said nothing, looking straight ahead, lost in his own thoughts. Already, Father Juan could feel a sense of dread growing within. A chill settling in his belly as he unconsciously pressed himself against the cool metal side of the bus.

Then things turned worse on their own.

“The first one,” the man said in a low voice, almost a whisper, “was when I was twelve. I took the wallet of some rich man in Monterey. When he tried to grab me, I shot him. I didn’t mean to, but I shot him just the same.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, without looking at the priest, so it was a moment before Father Juan realized the man was talking to him.

“The next one,” the man said almost conversationally, “was a girl from Nachez. She twirled her skirts for me, but wouldn’t spread her legs. I used a knife that time.” His lips curled up as he said this, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile.

The mans voice was slowly rising. Emotion becoming more evident with each word. Father Juan shrank back horrified even further into the bus’ side, as if he could make the man stop by pushing himself into the metal.

The passengers around them started to stare.

“The third one,” the man spoke louder, “was a Federale. He tried to take my money, so I shot him with his own gun. I left Mexico after that.”

For the next half hour, the man confessed to every crime he had done in his long and terrible life. Half way thought he started to cry. Tears streamed down his face, his voice a horse rasp of emotion, yet on and on he spoke. He kept staring straight ahead, never looking to either side, as if he was afraid he would stop if he did. The passengers in the back had first looked on with horror. Later they moved to the front, trying to get as far away as possible from that terrible voice. Some even stood in the aisles rather than sit close enough to hear. Eventually the only two left in the back were Father Juan and the criminal. The driver had yelled at the man to shut up, threatening to drop him off at the next freeway exit, but the man ignored these threats like he did everything else.

When the criminal finally reached the end of his confession his face was pale and drawn, his voice a whispered croak. Only then did he turn to look at the priest for the first time. With unmanly tears streaking down his cheeks he pleaded, “I beg you, Padre. Please pray to God for my soul. Pray for my forgiveness.” And with those words, he slumped into the center aisle, dead.

Father Juan leapt from his seat grabbing the well worn Pastoral Care of the Sick from his backpack along with a small vile of holy water. Awkwardly he leaned over the man to administer his last rites. After he finished the Prayer of Commendation he drew the sign of the cross upon the man’s forehead, and sprinkled the body with holy water. Then he closed his booklet with the ribbon bookmark carefully placed back upon the chapter called Prayers for the Dead. Looking up he saw through the dirty windows the last of the twilight being squeezed out of the cold clear indigo sky. Only then did he notice how dark it was, and that every eye on the bus was upon him.

The driver stopped at the next wide spot in the road, a rest-stop. The other passengers quickly exited the bus, but Father Juan elected to stay with the body until the sherif arrived. One gnarled old woman, her hands bent into claws from arthritis, had stared at him when she left, lowering herself painfully with each step. Her piercing eyes showed no fear, buried as they were in her wrinkled face, when she whispered the words, “Ángel de la Muerte.” Angel of Death. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.

When the bus left again three hours later, Father Juan noticed that half passengers had stayed behind, including the old woman and the family from Sinaloa.

He sat alone in the back of the bus, and thought about the past few years. That was the tenth “special” confession he had heard since he left seminary less than three years ago. It was also the tenth man he had seen die right before his eyes. No wonder the seats around him were empty.

What he felt then was not anger. No longer did he suffer the pride of thinking himself a pawn in some larger man’s game. Death had a way of burning through that particular emotion. Instead what he felt was shame. Almost too late he had remembered he was a priest with a mandate from God. Almost too late he had remembered the wounds Jesus bore were for everyone, the criminal and innocent alike.

That night Father Juan made a vow, sitting alone while the moonlit dessert rushed past his window somewhere between where he was and where he was going. He swore to himself that no matter how undeserving the next person might be, if a man was going to confess to him, then he would treat that man with the respect a child of God deserved. It was not anything he was prepared for, or felt himself capable of doing, but apparently it was his calling. And he would do that job as well as he was able.

It was a long time before the sun came up again. When it did, a very tired priest got off at the next stop, and carried his bags to what he hoped would be his last parish.

Another Saturday Morning

When we woke up the morning, Teri and I sat in the living room and leisurely sipped our coffees while watching the day slowly come alive. A little mini vacation, as it were, after a very hectic week. Trevor had a friend stay over, so he was happily out of our hair.

While we sat I told her the story of Rob Tepper meeting President Clinton (if you know Rob, you need to get the story from him.  I’m sure my retelling doesn’t do the story justice. Its one of those stories that is probably better over a beer). This in turn reminded Teri of the dream she had last night that included a recycling festival on our block (complete with kids throwing candy on the front lawns), and President Obama sticking his head in our kitchen window, and talking with us while I made him pancakes. Because of time constraints, The Leader of the Free World had to suffer through my Bisquick pancakes, and not Teri’s Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes, which irked Teri to no end. He seemed to suffer no ill effects, she reports.

This is quite possibly the best part of being married. Leisurely mornings where you sit with your spouse and catch up on the events that you missed over the previous week. A lovely moment of calm before the storm of breakfast, and dishes, and shopping, and a day full of stuff you need to do NOW because you don’t have the time to get to it over the week.

So how was your morning? Any good dreams you’d like to share?