The ‘N’ word through the ages: The madness of HP Lovecraft

Just . . . I love this piece.

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By Phenderson Djeli Clark

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Tåh’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

–H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of Niggers (1912)

H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft

I had come to believe that by now the racism of H.P. Lovecraft, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, was a settled matter–like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemedWorld Fantasy Award–whose statuette…

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How to Tell a Friend Who has Experienced a Death in the Family that You Are Sorry for Their Loss – A Step By Step Guide

1. Write “I am sorry for your loss.”

2. Check your spelling

3. Did you accidentally write “I am sorry for your lose?”

4. Did you accidentally write “I am sorry for you loss?”

5. Did you accidentally write “I am sorry for you lose?”

6. Are you sure?

7. Check again.

8. It’s only six words.

9. Once all six words are spelled correctly, you may hit SEND. If they are not, correct the misspelling.

Keep a copy of this guide in your trouser pocket or handbag or fanny pack for handy reference.

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Mitzi’s Rose

Dead_rose_with_fresh_sproutWe have a bouquet of flowers in a vase that is rapidly approaching “done” status, with some flowers reaching “done” sooner than others. The other day, Mitzi received the gift of a rose that had gone a little brown and crispy, but still had the shape and overall appearance of a beautiful long-stemmed rose. She was very happy with it.

After work on Tuesday, I asked Mitzi to take a walk with me to the library. It’s a little shy of a mile, but it’s a walk she has made many times before; no sweat for an energetic three-year-old. Mitzi wanted to bring her new rose and I couldn’t think of any reason not to. If she got tired of carrying it, I could just put it in my library bag. Easy job.

As we walked, Mitzi waved her rose around, running along walls, touching it to other flowers, watching it bob with the wind. We came to a large puddle and as she crossed it, she dipped her rose in the water, probably to see what, if anything, would happen to the petals.

As it happened, they got wet.

“Daddy,” she called to me, “could you dry my petals off?”

“Sorry, little girl,” I said, “It’s wet. You’re going to have to wait for them to dry off by themselves.”

Mitzi seemed a little perturbed by this and experimented with squeezing the rose a bit, wiping it, shking it out. As she shook it, one petal disconnected and drifted to the ground.

“A petal fell off,” she said.

“Yep,” I said. “That’s what happens if you shake an old rose.”

I walked on a bit up the block and, after a few seconds, I heard her little footfalls running up behind me. She took my hand.

“Daddy!” she said, a tinge of excitement in her voice, “I squashed my rose!”

I looked back and indeed the sidewalk was littered with the remains of the rose. The long stem lay amidst the scattered petals.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“I didn’t want it anymore,” she replied.

“Well, alright then,” I said, “I guess it was your rose.”

We walked on to the library, read a few books and headed back towards the house.

A block or so from the library, Mitzi said, “I wonder if we’re going to see my rose!”

“We may,” I said, “I don’t remember which block it was on, but we’ll probably pass it.”

We walked on.

“Do you think we’ll see my rose?” Mitzi asked again, her voice betraying a slight hint of anxiety.

“We’ll find out when we get there,” I said.

We walked some more.

“I don’t think my rose is there anymore,” Mitzi said, “I think a bird took it.”

“Well,” I said, “It was in a lot of pieces. And, again, I don’t remember exactly which block it was on. If it’s still there, we’ll see it.”

“I don’t think it’s there,” she said. And, I couldn’t tell if she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing.

After walking a bit more, I glanced up ahead and announced, “Mitz! Look! I think I see your rose!”

Mitzi followed my gaze across the street. Up ahead, the sidewalk was covered with bright red petals.

“My rose!” she cried out. And, taking my hand, she and I hurried across the road.

When she got to the scene of destruction, she stooped down and picked something up.

“Here’s the stem!” she cried, waving it about.

“There’s the stem!” I agreed.

“Here’s the petals!” she said, gesturing at the petals.

“There they are!” I said, “Okay, we’d better get home; it’s getting late.”

I walked on a bit and turned to glance back. Mitzi hadn’t moved. She was standing, holding the stem and looking about at the petals. She had a look on her face I’d never seen before. She looked confused and hesitant. But, there was something else under it all. A new feeling. I could tell she was having trouble with it.

“Daddy?” she said.

“Yes, little girl?”

“I wish you could put the petals back on the stem.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I can’t. Once the petals come off the stem, they can’t go back on.”

“Oh,” she said. “Daddy?”

“Yes, little girl?”

“I wish you could glue the petals back on. I wish you could do that.”

“I see. Well, I can’t. Petals don’t work that way.”

“Oh,” she said. “Daddy?”

“Yes, little girl?”

“I wish I didn’t squash the rose,” she said. And she dropped the stem. And she walked to me. And her face collapsed. And she sobbed. Hard. Big, sad, scared, confused sobs. I scooped her up and she draped herself on my shoulder as tears flowed onto my shirt.

“I wish I didn’t squash the rose!” she repeated. And I realized what the strange new feeling was that she was struggling with.

“Mitzi?” I said, “I think what you’re feeling is regret. It’s called regret. Do you wish you hadn’t squashed your rose?”

“Yes,” she sobbed.

“Do you feel bad about squashing the rose?”

“Yes!” she sobbed.

“What do you wish you could do?”

“I wish I could not squash the rose!” she said.

“Do you feel bad that you hurt the rose?”

“Yes!” she cried.

“Oh, little girl. You’re feeling ‘regret’ and it’s a big important feeling that you’ve never experienced before. Regret means that you did something and you wish you hadn’t done it but it’s too late. And now you have to live with what you’ve done. It’s a big big feeling and I’m so happy I could be here with you because it’s hard for little kids to feel regret. But, it also means that you’re a good person who cares about what they’ve done.”

“I wish I didn’t squash the rose!” she said.

“I know,” I said, “But, you did. And you regret doing it.”

I carried her the rest of the way home, her tears soaking my shoulder.

Mitzi cried all through dinner, barely touching the food on her plate. She kept saying she wished she hadn’t done what she’d done.

“What would you do if you had another rose?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t squash it!” she said.

“Would you take care of it?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “Do you think Momma will let me have another rose?”

“Well, that’s up to Momma,” I said.

Eventually, the tears tapered off and Mitzi got to bed. But, she kept reminding me that she wished she hadn’t squashed the rose.

As it turned out, the next day there was a new “done” rose available and Mitzi received it with a reminder about what had happened the day before.

Now, Mitzi has a new rose. But, here’s the thing, she still says, “I wish I didn’t squash that rose.” And, she takes care of the new one. She is very gentle with it. She knows now what can happen to a rose and how that makes her feel. She still regrets her actions and she has modified her behavior because of that regret. And, she is a little bit older and little bit wiser for that.

Mitzi has been a bit of a terror recently. A lot of that has to do with these big new feelings that she has no words and no context for. They’re just “big” and confusing. But, she’s learning.

A rose is a beautiful but delicate thing. It can be damaged quite accidentally even by someone who cares for it very much. We’ve all done this. We all do stupid, selfish things that hurt other people. People we love very much. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have regrets. But, having regrets is meaningless if we don’t learn from them. If we don’t accept responsibility for what we did, and vow to never do it again. And that vow is meaningless if we don’t demonstrate that we can do something different this time.

Mitzi can’t undo what she did – that rose is squashed and a rose, once squashed, is always a rose that has been squashed – but she can treat her next rose with gentleness, never forgetting what she did, not dwelling on her mistakes, but learning from them.

I’m very proud of my little girl.

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Some Scattered Thoughts After Playing Sweeney Todd in “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Sweeney-Todd-web“Where did you find the self-loathing and the hatred you brought up there?” “Well, I dug down deep, dredged it up, poured it out on the stage and stuffed what was left deep deep down inside until I needed it again.” “Ha ha ha ha!” “Yeah . . . “

I have literally dreamed of playing Sweeney Todd for over twenty years. By “literally” I mean I have had dreams about being Sweeney Todd on stage in front of people. These were never bad dreams or “actor’s nightmares.” I never felt incompetent or unprepared in those dreams because, if I knew anything, I knew Sweeney Todd.

My first exposure to “Sweeney Todd” the show was a hardback copy of the libretto we had in our high school theater library. I was obsessed with musicals and was already familiar with Sondheim through “Into the Woods” and “Company” so I took the script home and read it all the way through. I was astounded at the complexity of the tale. But, I was also confused about the main character. I couldn’t get a grasp on what he was like, what type of a person he was. His lines were so reactionary and al over the place. So, I got the soundtrack. Len Cariou’s portrayal of Todd was a revelation. On page, he read – to my high school mind – as a monster. Cariou brought grounded warmth to the character. Sweeney Todd stopped being a nightmare creature and started seeming like what I eventually came to see him as – a damaged man. A terribly sad, damaged man.

I couldn’t get a grasp on Sweeney Todd until I admitted that what makes him a living character are qualities I have in myself. It’s hard to look in the mirror every day and not like the person looking back at you. It makes for long mornings and seriously impedes your ability to do your hair. I have the ability, the capacity, to hurt people close to me. So does Sweeney! We’re halfway there!

Sweeney is traditionally portrayed by an older actor who is physically imposing. Someone who commands a room simply by entering it. I am not that actor. I had to command the room by sucking all the energy into me. I had to pull inward with so much force that everyone just got pulled along. It made me very tense. Very tense.

There are two basic approaches to playing a character who has spent 15 years in a hellish prison environment – they either come out toughened or come out beaten. Sweeney was beaten. Prison destroyed him. It sapped him of his personality, his self-esteem and his ability to command his life. Sweeney reacts to the world as if he is about to be hit. So, I played every scene in the first act like I was on the verge of getting punished.

I had three different physicalities for Sweeney. When he first appears, he carries himself like a whipped animal – surrounded by threats, ready to lash out, trying to make himself as small as possible. This is a natural reaction to his imprisonment. His second physicality is The Full Man. After he gets his razors back, Sweeney is able to carry himself with confidence. It’s a facade, but he uses it to function in public. Finally, there is The Cunning Animal. Sweeney adopts this pose when he smells danger to himself or his plans. In the second Pirelli scene, Sweeney vacillated between The Full Man and The Cunning Animal on almost every other line.

A lesser physicality was his attack pose: he used it when he charged Mrs. Lovette in their first scene together and it’s how he carried himself in front of the audience during the ballads. Arms back, chest forward. It’s a prison yard stance, when Sweeney was pushed to his limits.

“I didn’t even recognize you up there!” These are the greatest words an actor can hear. Or, the greatest words I can hear as a character actor.

Sweeney Todd is the story of people who are unable to see what is right in front of them.

Sweeney Todd’s central character is not Sweeney. It is Johanna. The three main characters each sing a song titled “Johanna.” The Judge wants Johanna incestuously and contrives to marry her in order to keep her. Anthony wants Johanna in order to “save” her and plots to steal her in order to have her. Sweeney wants Johanna as a perfect memory and plots to destroy everyone in her life in order to possess this perfect memory. None of these men have Johanna’s best interests in mind. The Judge imprisons her to keep her away from others. Anthony brings her to the most dangerous place in London so blind is he to the danger of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney does not even recognize her when she is in his shop and nearly kills her with his own hand. Johanna only escapes on her own recognizance. Her future at the end of the show is uncertain – certainly the police will want to discuss the murder of a certain Dr. Fogg.

I was terrified of losing my voice. I’ve never not lost my voice in the run of a musical. I’ve also never sung such difficult music in a show or had such a large role. The day I got cast I ordered the full score. The next day I contacted McPhail and signed up for weekly voice lessons. I told my teacher, “I need to learn how to sing a role like Sweeney Todd without losing my voice. I need to learn stamina.” He then proceeded to strip down my voice and build it back from the ground up. I sing completely differently now. It feels better and I don’t hurt my voice!

I had to be completely relaxed with my music before I could begin building a character. Because Sweeney is so tense, I had to be able to hold myself in a locked position without locking my throat. The only way to do this was to have zero worries about my singing. Again, I’ve never done this before.

Oh, and I was so tense that – despite not going to the gym for a month – I actually built muscle mass playing the role. Just through tension.

I had to make myself not listen to “The Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” each night or I’d start crying before my entrance.

I fell off the stage TWICE! In the run of the show. Both times it was my fault; both times I got hurt. My right leg still hurts where I scraped it up. BUT, it was secretly exhilarating!

Sweeney was the first role my twelve-year-old daughter has seen me play in a full-length show. I was proud to have her see it.

I was so freaked out by the role that I don’t think I spoke to any of my fellow cast members for the first month of rehearsal.

I think the length of the run was just right. Maybe in ten years I’ll have something new to bring to the role, but at this age, I’ve done about all I can with it.

I loved seeing the audience for the first time in Epiphany. No one expected me to swing down the stairs and address them directly. Watching them pull back and tense up was a joy each and every night.

I think I did a good job. I rarely say that about anything I do. But I think I did.

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This image represents “retooling.” It’s a tool. A . . . hammer or something.

FYI – Now that the Witching Hour is come and gone, I’ll be retooling this blog. Coming up with new ideas. Maybe going back to the Zen Groans format? Maybe not?

One thing I am doing is going back to some of my short pieces and reworking them. Making them better. Stronger. Faster? I won’t be reposting them to this site just yet; I don’t know what I’ll be doing with them, exactly. What I do know is that the month of October was a blast and really got my creative spirit soaring again.

So, Halloween Interludes are done (until next year?) and the future is  . . . cloudy.

I’ll let all few of you know as soon as I know and then . . . we’ll all know together?



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The Hungry Man


A Zen master was walking a dusty road, contemplating inner peace, when he happened upon a man clearly in the grip of death due to starvation.

“My friend,” the master said, “Tell me of your plight.”

“I am so hungry,” the man said from the ground where he lay, “I . . . want . . . food.”

The Zen master knelt down in the dirt, picked up a long stick and carefully scratched out the words “I. Want. Food.”

“First,” said the Zen master, “Remove the word ‘I’ for ‘I’ is ego and ego is not necessary. Then, remove ‘want’ for ‘want’ is desire and desire leads to dissatisfaction. Now, what are you left with?”

The starving man looked at the ground.

“F-food?” he managed to stammer out.

“Yes!” said the Zen master, “You are left with all the food you need. I’m glad I could help.”

And the Zen master walked away.

“But,” said the dying man, “I can’t eat that food.”

“I’M GLAD I COULD HELP!” the Zen master screamed over his shoulder. Then he reached into his bag and pulled out an incredibly long submarine sandwich which he ate in a series on comically large bites before licking his fingers noisily and burping.

Later, the Zen master realized that what he had done had been kind of a dick move and he returned to the dying man, but all he found was gray bones on the ground.

“I guess he found something to eat after all,” thought the Zen master, “What with all these bones.”

Then he pulled out another sandwich and sat down and ate it. So many sandwiches! Where does he find them?!

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Zen for Life?

A Zen master was nervously awaiting news as to the state of his Zen license. He had recently ticked off the Zen Council (which is a thing) by selling shoddy Zen wares – faulty rugs, clunky chimes, Zen booklets filled with swears – and the future of his zen-hood was in peril.

“What shall I do if I lose my Zen license?” he wondered, “I have no marketable skills, despite what my mother says.  I fear I shall die broken and destitute on a shoddy rug.”

Suddenly, a light appeared in the sky. In the middle of the light was what looked like a lady one minute and a golden dog the next.

“Zen master,” a sweet, barkly voice said from out of the light, “fear not. While you fret and hem and haw and ham, I have taken steps to ensure that your license to Zen remains viable for the next three to six years.”

“What the hell?” thought the Zen master, “What the hell?”

“I expect no thanks,” continued the glowing woman-dog thing in the sky, “just a small contribution to my – my fund.  My charitable fund. It’s a fund.”

The Zen master was so spooked and weirded out by whatever the hell, that he dropped a few dollars in the can that the dog thing was holding out on some sort of tentacle paw appendage.

“Later!” the thing called out. And vanished.

The Zen master was stunned and shaken, but pleased that his Zen license was no longer in danger.

He was soon stunned and saddened when he found out that he had, in fact lost his license as well as his boat which the Zen Council took because YES they can do that (they hold all the cards!).

“But,” said the Zen master, “but, there was this dog -”

“You weren’t taken in by the dog-head-woman-light-thing, were you?” they asked.

“M – maybe.”

“Lulz!” they shouted (which is Zen for “LOL!”), “taken in by that thing! We hope you learned your lesson and enjoy all your NOTHING!” And, they Zenned* away.

The Zen master never saw the dog-floaty-woman thing again. He did, however, start a rather successful lemon-ice stand and drank a lot.

*Zen (v) – to noisily depart with hooting and subtle flatulence sounds

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#Zen Adventure! The Master and the Wine


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Zen in the Stars

While gazing at the night sky, a Zen master began contemplating the possibility of Zen on other planets. Would creatures that developed far from Earth contain within themselves the possibility of enlightenment? Or, would their minds function in such a way as to make enlightenment impossible?

The master decided to find out and built a great ladder that stretched all the way to the heavens with its top resting on Jupiter’s ring.

On his day of ascension, many students and masters from far and wide gathered at the base of the ladder to see him off. On his back, he wore a simple pack with some rice balls, an extra robe and a flint for lighting fires. He climbed one rung and then the other, working his way, hand over hand, into the sky. Every few rungs, he would look back down at the crowd as if to reassure them that all was going well. After many hours of climbing, he disappeared into a cloud bank.

Months passed. The ladder remained standing in the master’s garden. Every so often, a student would sit at its base to meditate and, secretly, hope they would be the first to greet the master on his return.

But, his return seemed unlikely.

Years went by. The ladder became weathered. Its rungs began to rot in the elements. Its rails began to splinter in the heat. One day, a student came by the garden and the bottom few meters had crumbled away. Now, the ladder seemed to hang from the sky, a forlorn reminder of the master’s seemingly hopeless venture.

Decades passed. Many of the people in the village forgot about the master and his folly. The ladder had, by this time, worn away so much that it was impossible to make out above the clouds.

And then, one day, as a group of laborers sat enjoying their drinks at the local inn, the door swung open and the master entered. Looking as young as the day he left, he signaled the innkeeper to bring him a cup of wine and a bowl of rice.

Most of the people in the inn went about their business, not realizing who he was, but one wizened old man in the back stood up and worked his way over to the master’s table.

“Master?” he said in a thin papery voice, “Is that you? I was your student many years ago. I helped you build the ladder. I watched you ascend into the heavens. I waited at the base for you to return. I championed your cause throughout the village. I wept at the thought of your death. I despaired at the years I spent on your dream. I succumbed to the bottle. And now, you are back. You look as if you never left. You have your youth and vitality. Your eyes are clear. Your back is strong. Please tell me you have brought new enlightenment from the stars. Please tell me that the years have not been a waste.”

The master leaned down to the old student. His eyes twinkled. He whispered into his ear, “There in a Neptunian Battle Squadron heading towards Earth. They have been scoping out this miserable mud-ball for centuries. The Emperor Nar’ag’Itl finally succumbed to sendrasit poisoning and his son, the right venerable Emperor Nar’ag’iml, is using his death as a flimsy excuse to wreak havoc across this galactic quadrant. Everything you thought you knew about life is a lie. Reality is warped and this planet and all of its inhabitants are about to be pulled into a nightmare of such mind-bending proportions that your greatest hope is to succumb to insanity before the full reality of the horror that is life settles into your tiny simian cranium.”

The master then paid and left. 

Four days later, the nightmare began … 

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The Wasp

Zen master Haikun left this as his final message to his students:

There is a wasp in my room. I am so afraid I can’t even breathe. Will someone please come in here and kill it? I’m terrified of these things. I’m trying to be all Zen about this, but I’m sorry. It’s – ahh! AHH! Oh, god it just swooped down at me. Okay, it’s bouncing around near the window. I’m going to try and slip out the doo – oh, GOD! AHHH! Ahh! Get away! GET AWAY! OOH! I’m so not Zen with this I’m so not Zen with this! Someone help! Someone come in here and kill this Waaaaa – aaaaah! Oh, NO! Ahhhh! AHHHH!!

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