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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2003.

then the old people started throwing up
march 22, 2003

I haven't written much fiction the past year.

Mary had her stroke last April, and of course that occupied most of my time. In mid-Summer of 2002 I wrote a short story, Pushing Down The Tombstones, but that's about it.

But lately I've been getting back into the mood to create fiction, and you do have to be in a certain mood to focus on people who don't exist, and events that never happened, and get it all down on paper.

Late last year I started a story about two children who break into different homes, but then abandoned it, in part because although I really liked the opening scenes I had written, I had no idea where the story was going. It was one of those tales where I couldn't see how it ended, and I don't like to write a story unless I know before the first word is typed what the last word will be.

Because we go to bed fairly early now, around eight o'clock, I tend to wake up about four o'clock in the morning. I suppose I could just lie in the darkness, but the cats walk over my prone body until I get out of bed and feed them. Since I'm in the kitchen anyway, I get a pot of coffee going.

Initially, while waiting for the coffee to brew, I'd wander upstairs and check my e-mails. After a few such mornings it dawned on me I could be writing in these two hours before Mary woke.

So I opened the file for the story about the two children, reread what I had written so far, was surprised how many good things were in it I had forgotten in the intervening months, and started working on it again.

Although I was most used to writing at night, I discovered there was an enjoyment to writing early in the day, sitting back in my chair after rattling out a paragraph, sipping my coffee, rereading the sentences, figuring out what had to be changed.

The whole time I wrote the story, I didn't have a title for it, which, along with not having an ending, is another factor which makes me less than fully confident about a story.

A lot of writers talk of the ease with which they write, but to me, although I intensely enjoy creating fiction, the writing itself is rarely easy. It takes a lot of willpower for me to open a new Word file, and start dirtying up the blank white screen with letters. For the first few pages, to me everything I write is a mess, way too vague, just flat words incapable of breathing on their own.

Plus I tend to get hung up on small, elbowy problems in the text.

In the story I just finished, which I've now named My First Kiss, and which eventually grew to ten thousand words, the first line of the story talks of the two children, a boy and a girl, dropping down the inside of a stone wall, their sneakers banging on the ground. Sneakers banging down on the ground immediately dissatisfied me, even as I continued to type the phrase to completion, because 'ground' is so general a term I felt the reader couldn't readily visualize the image, there being so many different types of ground (the thing about writing is that it is impossible to translate the images in your head to words on a page. Any story, even a great story, is only the sketchiest approximation of the far richer story in the writer's head). So to make the ground more specific, I changed the phrase to 'banged down on weeds'. But even that seemed vague to me. Were these low-spreading, jagged-leafed weeds their sneakers banged down on, or the spreading, springy-armed weeds with pretty flowers at the end, or tall, grass-like weeds?

So I decided I'd resolve that sentence later, and went on adding more sentences, all of which I was satisfied with, but still it nagged at me, the further and further I got from that opening image, that at some point I'd have to go back and weed.

So what I finally did one early morning, nearing the end of the tale, is decide to simply eliminate the image completely. I tried to create it the way I saw it, it didn't work, so why bother putting it in the story? Taking that commonsense approach immediately freed my mind to come up with the rest of the story, and in a week I had the perfect resolution. I relearned a lesson I had forgotten, from not writing fiction in a while. If something doesn't work, attempt after attempt, throw it out through the swinging doors.

Tuesday, March 18, I dreamed of Joan, Mary's mother.

I think it's the first time I've ever dreamed of her.

As it happens, March 18 would have been her birthday. She died several years ago, of brain cancer. The synchronicity of never dreaming of her, and suddenly having this dream on her birthday might seem supernatural, but in fact, as I woke, I remembered Mary had mentioned the previous evening it was her mother's birthday, and I'm sure that's what caused the dream.

In the dream, Mary and I were selling our home, not the actual home we live in, but instead, in a confusion of time and space not uncommon to dreams, the home I grew up in, in Greenwich, except this home was more lavish, better-decorated, and appeared, by the trees and plants outside, to be located not in Connecticut, but in California, where Mary and I met and fell in love.

We were excited about selling our home, because there was an even better home we were moving to (perhaps the home we actually occupy).

Joe, Mary's dad, who's still alive, was also in the dream, but he and Mary were both out of the house, in town, running errands, after brief guest appearances at the start of the dream. So it was up to Joan and myself to sit around the kitchen table, as we did many times when we would visit her and Joe when they lived in Sacramento, she and I waiting for the Realtor to show up with perspective buyers.

While we sat there, we had a long conversation, and when I woke I remembered absolutely not one word of that conversation, except that it was very pleasant, and it was mostly she and I catching up on all the events that had occurred in my life and Mary's life since Joan's death. (I do remember, talking to her, that she knew she was dead, and I knew she was dead, but that fact was unimportant, in my dream).

There's a new war in the world, smoke rising again off our planet.

Is there such as thing as evil?

Of course there is. Every day we open the newspaper, turn on television, and there's proof everywhere evil exists in our world. Rape, murder, child molestations, ten thousand other acts meant to demean or destroy others.

So how do we, as a people, deal with evil in our lives?

Do we just stand by?

Do we just watch?

And as terrible as each individual act of evil is, how much worse is it when a man is responsible for the destruction of not one life, but hundreds of thousands?

Jeffery Goldberg, in the March 25, 2002 issue of The New Yorker, described the aftermaths of a chemical bombardment by Saddam Hussein's air force on March 16, 1988 on the Iraqi city of Halabja, quoting from the survivors' accounts.

"A helicopter had come back to the town, and the soldiers were throwing white pieces of paper out the side." In retrospect, [Muhammad, a middle-aged resident of the city], understood that they were measuring wind speed and direction. Nearby, a man named Awat Omer, who was twenty at the time, was overwhelmed by a smell of garlic and apples.

[Quoting another resident, looking outside her window]: "At first it smelled bad, like garbage. And then it was a good smell, like sweet apples. Then like eggs….It was very quiet [outside], but the animals were dying. The sheep and goats were dying….I told everybody there was something wrong. There was something wrong with the air."

[Quoting another resident, who fled to the basement with her family, to try to avoid the poison gas after she felt a sharp pain in her eyes, "like stabbing needles"]: "My sister came close to my face and said, 'Your eyes are very red'. Then the children started throwing up. They kept throwing up. They were in so much pain, and crying so much. They were crying all the time. My mother was crying. Then the old people started throwing up."

It is estimated two hundred thousand Kurds died during Saddam Hussein's campaign against them. Nearly four million citizens in northern Iraq were exposed to chemical weapons. Birth defects spiked after the attacks. There are surviving children in northern Iraq today with horrible chemical burns all over their bodies, because of what Saddam Hussein did to them.

Murder, rape and torture go on every day in Iraq.

So what do we do?

Do we let Saddam Hussein continue to bring unbelievable misery to so many people?

If we hear their cries, do we say it would cost too much to save them, or that we shouldn't act unless every other nation approves, or that somehow it's immoral to use force to rescue people who are being murdered and tortured, but moral to allow the pain and suffering to go on?

Or do we do what we're doing now?

There are good people who are opposed to the war. I respect their opinion. But I think future generations will find it extraordinary that there was any question during this time as to what the moral response should be, to Saddam Hussein.