I have measured out my life in sentences: composing, reading, revising and discarding them; talking to students about how to write, interpret, and edit them. I have dreaded the sentence that doesn’t come easily. I have learned at times to play with words that feel like nonsense in order to discover and organize thoughts, teasing words to make clarity appear.

There are sentences with gaps and missing pieces. Redundant sentences. Muscular sentences. Transitional sentences. Sentences that sing. Then: stylistic fragments. Intentional run-ons. Does the reader trust your sentences? If you break the rules, will the reader follow? Sentences that capture complicated feelings or thoughts by uniting verbs with precise subjects and prepositional direction. I’m lost in this sentence. Is this the best place for this sentence? Could these sentences be combined?

The evening of January 8, Tucson marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s tragic shooting with a vigil on the mall at the University of Arizona. Funerals and memorial services for individuals had long passed, and the vigil was mostly a community celebration of healing, remembrance, and resilience in the face of violence and death. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords embodied this spirit, rising to the stage with her radiant, childlike smile and bright red scarf. Her energetic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance drew chants, cheers, and even tears of goodwill from the crowd. Other shooting survivors and family members participated in a candle lighting ceremony. A local symphony and choir performed, and the Band Calexico, reportedly a longtime favorite of Giffords, sang “The Crystal Frontier.” At one point, on cue, the crowd transformed into a swaying ocean of blue glow sticks in the darkness.

When weathermen in Arizona started calling the region’s huge, recent sandstorms haboobs, they got hate mail. People were “insulted,” by the term, demanded that weathermen explain “what gave them the right” to use it, and asked: “how do you think our soldiers feel?”

The fact is, haboob is a perfectly good English word. It’s in your dictionary. It is of Arabic origin however, and therein lies reason for the objections.

Aside from the ridiculous xenophobia this represents, it also indicates complete ignorance about how the English language works.

English is composed largely of words that were borrowed from other languages. Much of our vocabulary is of French or German origin, but English has borrowed words from virtually every language on Earth. A few representative examples:

Finnish (sauna).

Tagalog (boondocks).

Bantu (banjo).

Mandinka (jazz).

Mikmaq (caribou).

Australian Aboriginal (dingo).

Afrikans (trek).

Chinese (tea).

Czech (robot).

Etrucan (arena).

Hawaiian (taboo).

Urdu (bandanna).

Malay (amok).

Tamil (conundrum).

Arawakan (barbecue).

And on and on it goes.

This is part of the genius of English – the reason why it is arguably the most expressive language on Earth. Thanks to many centuries of borrowings, it contains more words than any other language – nearly twice as many as French or German. How many English words are there? Roughly 800,000, counting technical terms; but an exact count is impossible because new words enter the language, both from borrowings and coinings, almost every day.

And. of course, lots and lots of everyday words have been borrowed from Arabic. Off the top of my head, here are a few. Let’s see if the idiots who object to “haboobs” can do without:

Admiral.

Alcohol.

Apricot.

Borax.

Caliber.

Camel.

Candy.

Chemistry.

Cotton.

Elixir.

Garble.

Ghoul.

Guitar.

Jar.

Julep.

Lemon.

Magazine.

Mask.

Massage.

Mattress.

Nadir.

Orange.

Pajama.

Racquet.

Safari.

Scarlet.

Sofa.

Sugar.

Syrup.

Tariff.

Tuna.

And zero.

In fact, the very concept of zero originated with Arabic mathematicians. Perhaps the yahoos would like to ban it from our arithmetic.

 

In October of 2010, I was getting ready to submit my recently finished third novel Badge to agents. This process involves writing a query letter, and it’s important to have a good one. I busied myself writing the best query letter possible, and I took a draft of it to my writing group for critique. The last paragraph of the letter read as follows:

My second novel, Ghost Notes, released on my own imprint in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. My work has appeared in The Writer and Writers’ Journal, and I am also a  contributing writer at The Nervous Breakdown. In the 1990s, I was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments, a band that sold over 400,000 units worldwide, had a hit single (“Banditos”), and wrote and recorded the theme song for the Fox television series King of the Hill. I live with my wife, artist Raquel Edwards, in Portland, Oregon.

If you ever get the chance – and yes, I am aware, chances of this nature are thin on the ground – then take the drive through Utah into Colorado.

There is a lovely Denny’s in Utah.

I really really meant to write something about how sweet it is to be in Spain writing stories and reading all the things I’ve been meaning to, but I went for a coffee, opened the paper and BOOM!

Yesterday’s article in El Pais, Spain’s biggest national paper, had a rundown of the immigration debate in Arizona. Oddly, the article seemed most outraged about Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s strange demand that the prisoners in his system wear pink underwear. That quirky bit of homophobia has never really struck me as central to the debate, though it is troubling, and if not cruel, certainly unusual.

Of course, they also showed photos of the march and rally in support of the law. Signs reading ‘go home illegals’, and ‘for English press 1, for deportation press 2’ and somewhat out of place ‘an armed society is a civilized society’ and even more confusingly ‘Karl Marx was not a founding father.’

These are not things I overheard, but signs waved high for all to see.

The article made the clever choice to introduce Arpaio as ‘of Italian origin’.

The rally was in a football stadium where a majority of the workers were of Latino (which determination, ironically enough is also Italian in a sense) origin. They were the only visible attendants, according to the article, that were not white.

“Can you hear me Mexico? Can you hear me from here? You should be clear that this land is our land, not your land. We paid for it. We worked for it,” said Larry Wachs, a journalist from Atlanta.

Who are we? I don’t mean that in any national existential angst sort of way, but seriously, who is this mythic ‘we’ that ‘paid for’ and ‘worked for’ this land? The bold and industrious English, who sailed over here and set up shop in a way that is not unambiguously heroic? The Germans or Italians or Irish or Norwegians or Danes or Czechs or Poles who came for myriad reasons at different historical moments? The Africans who were dragged here, only to suffer three centuries of slavery before being released into a battle for equality that’s still underway? The Indigenous who wandered here God knows when and have suffered indignity after indignity since the establishment of the colonies? The Chinese who labored in the construction of our nation’s infrastructure and later sat in prisons for the crime of being Japanese? Who are we? And why did only the white ‘we’ show up to this battle (covered/sponsored by Fox News)?

Conservative, I mean here the word itself not the ideology or the people who ascribe to it, refers to the preservation of something, no? It means to limit change. It is tied to an ideal and static moment, an edenic past, an originary place that depends on mythology to make it more pure than the present. To conserve something is to save it as it is, which in a world subject to physical laws and the perpetual movement of time, is impossible. So, I guess my question is, what exactly is it that people are trying to conserve? Was it represented by the homogeneity of that rally’s attendants? At what moment exactly do you locate the United States that is escaping into some threatening new entity, the United States that is and can remain ‘our land’.

That type of thinking, the type that leads people to concrete imaginings of some certain, codified establishment of borders between nations and people, of the investing of nationality with a substantive reality beyond the coincidence of location and time, is to me, well, totally foreign…

And so, I want to establish a nation for people who fear those who believe fervently in nations, and to draw up a long, meandering and in places nonexistent border that can be respected or ignored by the UN and all its constituent nations at their whim. The border will probably loosely trail the equator. Which side of the equator is ‘ours’ will remain undetermined until some future congress, which shall meet at an undetermined time and which shall consist of undetermined members, convenes…

We will have passports drawn in crayon and stamped with lipstick-y kisses. Our origin myth will be that one day from the chaotic ashes of beaurocracy and hate rose a Phoenix who flew drunkenly around the planet with a crayon in its beak dividing the world roughly in two, but not indicating which side was inside of the border and which side was out. We will wander back and forth until we are certain, which may be forever. Also, in honor of the bird (Is a Phoenix a bird? or does it enter into dragon territory?), their shall be regular festivities which will include hefty amounts of drink and failed efforts to draw straight lines. We will seek that bird until we die. One day, we hope, we can all be just as free as that bird. Oh, I’ll leave you to guess as to our national anthem, ahem…

Oh, yeah, and at the suggestion of that duder from the rally’s sign, Karl Marx will be our founding father, or at least one of them, possibly the other Marx Brothers will be asked to sign our Declaration of Complete and Utter Dependence… on What We Are Not Sure.


I was sitting outside of a coffee shop in Phoenix which sold what was advertised as ‘Fair Trade Coffee.’ That seemed like a reasonably decent product to me. Certainly nothing that could inspire ire in anyone. And the price was good. Not skyrocketing like the radio said about the prices of so many other things touched by liberal fingers. These prices were ground low and seemingly wingless.

“God damned liberals have gotten everything around here… Fuck’n coffee too?” said a woman in a green felt sun-visor walking hand in hand with a man in a beard.

The bearded man shook his head as if he could hear the breath leaving the last of his father’s generation.

People were gathering for the Reverend Sharpton’s speech opposing SB 1070. I imagined this couple wasn’t present for that.

Before I moved here, my image of Arizona was filled with cute adobe archways, artists colonies producing annoyingly pastel-only creations that spoke to the soft palate of local souls and a unique intermingling of Southwestern cultures that would surely include, if not a generally open-hearted community, at least some interesting foodlets.

I was wrong. Except about the annoyingly pastel-only creations. Those, thanks be God, are everywhere, alongside a general bigotry, a willful closed-mindedness and some of the shittiest food a major metropolitan area has ever boasted. Come on people. You’re bigger than Philly now. It’s time to come up with a sandwich… or might I suggest… a taco?

A quick list of the complete insanity that has recently ravaged my adopted home thanks largely to the known fascism of sheriff Joe Arpaio and that lesser known fascism of the unelected governor Jan Brewer (she took office when Janet Napolitano went to the White House to head up Homeland Security): There is the famous SB 1070 which requires police to demand papers of anyone they deem ‘reasonably suspicious’ of illegal immigrant status, and simultaneously makes it legal for citizens to sue their government if they think local authorities are not upholding immigration laws stringently enough; then we have the lovely right to carry a concealed weapon without a permit; and the new law BANNING ETHNIC STUDIES in public schools

But, lady and her bearded cohort, I concede, the “God damned liberals have gotten everything around here… Fuck’n coffee too.”

A quick retort: You are mad at what? At the fact that South American farmers are getting a fair price for delivering you a superior product? Retort abandoned. It seems unnecessary.

I have quite sincerely tried to see both sides of most issues for some time, and despite liberal tendencies, I’ve always been careful to attempt to understand conservative ideologies and respect differences of opinion.

But conservatives, you gotta work with me on this. You are looking way too stupid to try to understand.

Stupid things overheard in Phoenix this week:

“I’m just glad we don’t have no unions turning us into D-troit.”

Phoenix… you wish you were Detroit.

“I don’t know why we gotta spend taxes to build public transit just to move illegals around the city.”

Not worthy of response.

“If people can’t carry guns, you’re just gonna have more violence.”

Seriously?

“What don’t people understand about the word ‘illegal'”

This is exactly the question I would like to ask Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer in regards to what strike this legally uneducated citizen as totally outside the confines of legal.

By the way, thank you Al Sharpton for coming out here and assembling such an awesome resistance to what is undoubtedly one of the least American laws imaginable.

And thank you everyone involved in turning what could have been nothing but a shameful moment for all Americans into one of the best organized campaigns against rampant idiocy we’ve seen since W. left office.

And seriously, Phoenix, if you’re going to keep calling yourself a city, embrace the taco.

Two wholly different riverbeds in the United States offer an official rock with a slide.

There are possibly more, and there may soon be less.But we would make sure to dip into these, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona, on our tour around the country.Because we’d been away from American natural spectacles and because an open swimming hole with a rock slide wasn’t actually supposed to exist in this new century, belonging to a rosier, bucolic past since replaced by concrete waterparks and videogame fitness.