Just short of being old enough to collect Social Security, Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, had a cast of four and one set.
Of the four cast members, one, the Valet, is used to usher the other three into a small, windowless room which these three come to realize is literally Hell. The remaining three are Garcin, the man; a coward and a bit of a bully. His two roommates, with whom he believes he is destined to spend eternity, are Ines, attractive so far as Garcin is concerned, but unavailable to him for two salient reasons, her sexual orientation and her honesty.
The remaining member of this otherworldly menage is Estelle, the trophy wife of a wealthy man, her overt beauty in constant battle with her own deceitful and shallow nature. We are given a few clues about the Valet, but must decide each for himself, if his job is hereditary, voluntary, or a punishment.
Point-of-view seems to go to Garcin although, on any scale of admirability, Ines is the most willing to see things as they are and get on with them.
By play's end, we have come to know why each of the principals is in Hell; we also get some individualized sense of what each anticipates in the way of cosmic punishment, of karma, if you will.
Garcin loudly demands that the one door to their room be opened, which would allow each of them to move out and beyond to whatever came next. The stunning dramatic irony of the conclusion arrives when Garcin no sooner demands the door be opened than, indeed, it does open. But neither Garcin, Ines, or Estelle opt to leave.
An amalgamated product of Sartre's Existentialism philosophy, the amphetamines he took to allow him longer access to his teeming brain (see last blog about Keats and his memorable sonnet), his tempestuous romantic/intellectual relationship with Simone De Beauvoir, and the then zeitgeist which featured the Bunker Mentality and then the death of the Third Reich, No Exit has become an archetype of circumstance and interpretation.
With this background as subtext, come with me to a fictional setting at a large ballroom, where hundreds of couples are dancing or simply enjoying the music of a live band. In this midst, a nattily dressed master or mistress of ceremonies calmly advances on the podium, signals the band to silence, then calmly indicates the several convenient exits before inviting all present to move calmly but purposefully to one of these exits because there is a fire on the roof of significant enough intensity to pose an immediate danger to all. And suppose a group of young men complain bitterly at the cost of rental tuxedos and the expenses related to this event of pleasure, and insist on another dance. And suppose those in attendance vote for another surge of dancing and screw the effects of the fire.
You can see the emerging metaphor for our time emerging.
No Exit. This is particularly good metaphor because in the past elections, enough of us have loudly but legally, repeat legally, demanded that the door be opened. Indeed the door was opened.
Why are we still inside? Why haven't we packed up our things and begun to leave? Remember, we voted legally (in most places) to undo something we initiated illegally. Why do we to this day persist?
It is the f-word, filibuster. The Republicans, oh so outraged when Doctor Frist was Senate Majority leader, actually spoke of setting forth new rules that would obviate cloture votes, and now shamelessly use it in the same cowardly manner Garcin performed in No Exit.
Sartre has left us with the quintessential archetype of the times. The door had been opened long ago when cooler heads and a fleet of helicopters got us out of Viet Nam, allowing that beleaguered country to get on with its life and, in the bargain, send waves of manicurists and pedicurists to this country, where they have industriously opened salons in every strip mall except those in Utah. The door was opened wider in November of 2006.
Since then, we have had surges, General Petraeus, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani, he of the twenty-three tax cuts while mayor of NYC.
All we want is out.
The roof is on fire and it will cave in and all we want is out.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Just short of being old enough to collect Social Security, Jean-Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, had a cast of four and one set.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Keats had a presentiment.
"WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be," he wrote,
"Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance..."
he was the better part through a sonnet, and if my math was correct, he was only twenty-two. Which meant of course that his presentiment was closing in on him fast.
In 1821, a scant twenty-six, John Keats was toast, having written some of the most remarkably wonderful lines the English language has yet known, and having ventured such risky business as The Mermaid Tavern, which simply doesn't sound like him. My favorites of his are La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and The Eve of St. Agnes if for no other reason than the plangent line "The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass."
Keats could not have been a pleasant person to have been around while he was alive; he had, as someone I know is fond of saying, issues. But he endures, warts and all, illustrating, I think, the two sides of the artistic coin, the desire to get "it" all down, right off the truck, as it were, and the fear, the numbing fear that the last good idea was literally the last idea, that there would be no more, zilch, circus left town.
By no means a bi-polar person, although certainly given to highs of enthusiasm that could, I suppose, be characterized as manic, I have vivid memories of the seemingly endless tingle of an idea and the mad race to trap it, drive it to a tree as my blue-tick hounds did their quarry, then set about capturing it. I also recall the numbing fear that such creativity as I have is like Net-Flix, they say the next movie is in the mail, but you know better; they've lost your address. Of all the customers they've ever had, you're the one they've dumped.
John Keats would likely have traded away what he could to have had the eleven added years of life Mozart had. And our own American version of Mozart, George Gershwin, scarily had only what seems a scant thirty-seven years.
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you, shoulder-high...
That's Houseman, actually celebrating in To an Athlete Dying Young those who were gone before suffering such indignities of age as he himself suffered, scarcely able to mount the stairs of his splendid Cambridge apartment, the acclaimed Latin scholar, the accomplished poet.
I now begin to fear as well that I may have introduced a funerary note into this essay, when what I intended was to celebrate that polar tug of not being able to get done all the projects that seem so attractive and the bug-hitting-the-windshield smack of emptiness, the sense of it all having been used, these two polar opposites being infinitely preferable to the drone and lurch of boredom. If there is a hell, it is boredom.
My great favorite, Mr. Clemens of Hannibal, inspires me by having stayed on, as well as by the things he did and the things he tried while he was with us.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is to be taken from Sally, who just roused from one of her deep, snorry sleeps to essay dragons or possibly raccoons or coyotes outside. It is long past the time when the squirrels are bedded down, and besides, what menace were they in the first place?
Once again I am saved from the menace of a Grendel or worse, and if put in perspective, a dragon or monster is infinitely more scary than not finishing a project or, worse, finishing it but mucking it up.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
For over twenty years, I lived in close proximity to the complete effect of trains as they rushed and snorted by with some frequency. I was aware of them often without conscious thought andon those rare, stormy seasons when the north- and southbound tracks were rendered impassible due to some flooding or landslide or a combination of those, I became aware of the trains by their absence, by the quiet where before there had been the rattle and clack. Circumstances caused me to move from Danielson Road, slightly more than a mile farther up the gentle slope of hillside that informs Santa Barbara. At first I missed the trains, but it was all a matter of relearning or, rather, relistening. I just heard one roar past,its horn blaring. With a little effort, I could hear the clack and shivver, the Doppler of sound as the train sped by.
It is a comfort to hear the train.
I am reminded of this because it took moving to Santa Barbara to hear trains as regularly scheduled events. Los Angeles surely has trains as dogs have fleas, crawling, speeding, traversing, transiting. But Los Angeles also has an on-going whoosh of traffic and the white noise of a city blotting itself out with a succession of muting overlay.
I am aware of all of this thanks to Sally having stormed into my room, making several critical turns of her thirty-pound body on the L.L. Bean cushion I purchased for her, then settling down in a tight croissant shape, whereupon she has begun another notable night music, a low, persistent snore.
There is much to be done, to be thought through, to be read. A cranky computer to be coped with, somehow making occasional noises even though the first thing I customarily do when configuring anew computer is to mute its inner noises, its technical flatulence. A pile of things to be read and commented upon. Things to pursue. All in good time, accompanied by the sound of trains piercing through the night mist and a dog snoring softly through a night of dog dreams.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
I take a simplistic view of the taco, simplistic to the point where a quesedilla, a tortilla wrapped about some shaving of cheese and perhaps embellished with a slice of green Ortega chili pepper, then warmed to the point where the cheese begins to melt, qualifies as a taco.
There are, of course, tacos suaves, the tortilla being warmed but not cooked or crisped. Another taco point of departure is the essential ingredient of the tortilla, the maiz, or corn tortilla (yes!), or the taco de harina, the estimable and nicely chewy flour tortilla. I sit on the side of the aisle where the corn tortilla is the foundation of the taco.
With few exceptions, any filling makes an agreeable taco, so far as I am concerned.
These few exceptions involve things I would not knowingly eat such as ojo, or eye, pulmon, or lung. I don't have troubles with the likes of kidney or brains or heart, and am a known fancier of menudo, which is to say a stew of tripe. The eye and lung objections are purely idiosyncratic and have nothing to do with moral,medical, or ethical considerations. I may have already ingested tacos de ojo or de pulmon, and feel only mild misgiving at that prospect.
Thus for me a taco is anything wrapped in a soft tortilla, and the tortilla is by preference de maiz, of corn, por favor. It is difficult to think of any taco that is not enhanced by a sprinkle of cilantro.
The one taco I cannot abide is The American Taco, which is to say patriotism wrapped in the American flag.
I've put in some time living in and traveling through The South, indeed had traumatic racial experiences in The District, which I nevertheless love and could consider living in were that option to fall to my lot. Florida is yet another matter. To this day, one of my recurrent unpleasing dreams has it that I am hopelessly mired in Miami Beach. Graduate that I am of Central Beach Elementary School, old boy of Ida M. Fisher Junior High, I would not respond well to invitations to reunions. I have been in the South enough to have a personal response to the flag representing the late Confederate States of America, a response somewhere between tacos de ojo and possibly the Gidget movies, a mild distaste leavened by my removed and idiosyncratic sense of what that flag can mean to certain races and faiths. Indeed, I got some taste of that as I delivered my Miami Herald route, artfully coping with signs in front of buildings excluding dogs, certain races, and faiths from trespass.
My least favorite place for American flags are as decals on the rear deck of a car or SUV;
my next least favorite is on the lapel of a business suit or sports jacket, and then on any part of any body as a tattoo. Such displays invariably evoke for me the vision or actuality of an individual who is at heart an hypocrite, espousing on one hand traditional American values and hard-won freedoms, giving up these very values and freedoms by sending to represent them on state and national echelons men and women who literally vote away rights and privileges or who question the effectiveness of these rights and privileges.
There is still something thrilling about the American flag in a court of law or outside a school or museum, or The Hollywood Bowl; there is still something promising about a town meeting or the local newspaper going over the items on a ballot for its readers. But we need to keep a watchful eye on those flag wavers who are at such pains to give it all away.
So far as I can see, these American Tacos are represented in the two major political parties and appear as well in such -isms as Libertarianism, Individualism, and Independent-ism. Most of them would do poorly at high school civics; many of them have conflated notions related to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution with the privilege of bearing automatic weapons and an overall fear of large government. A large portion of their sense of patriotism and service to our country comes from another source of conflation, the belief that all who disagree with them are traitorous, somehow advocating seditious behavior and a complicity with enemies. In this irrational calculus, the enemy is seen as pro-labor, pro-health care, and favoring bizarre, recondite ecological causes.
Fellow citizens who advocate dignity for animals, equal justice, due process, and mediation are considered lunatics. Civil rights for minorities? For gays? For immigrants? Forget it
Friday, July 27, 2007
Today being Friday, things were more casual at Peet's; some of us had jobs to go to, notably Jocelyn and Doc (who doesn't practice dentistry any more); Mike had some interviews he had to file, and although a freelancer, that still counts as work. Jerry has an obligation to get his editor the final fifty pages of a novel, but he didn't seem to mind too much; Paul has done his last class until September; Susan, Diana, and Melinda have chores in mind, but they do not count as work; ditto for me, with things I could be doing, should be doing, but free in a Friday free kind of way, and Jim Alexander wears a blue t-shirt which means he is at leisure, possibly even thinking of sneaking in some literature.
Even Dr. Koper, although suited and dapper, is clearly headed for a day of patients as opposed to a day of surgery, and Gregg Newman is looking as though this will be a chemo-less Friday for him, perhaps consultations, but no preparation of cocktails for his patients.
It is a Friday of ease and mischief, a day where the tease is on, the good-natured, easy-with-only-a-slight-edge tease.
But first another latte, the grind today being the mild, slightly fruity Major Dickinson's.
Soon enough, the tease is on me, with suggestions being offered on the word length of my weekly book review. It is the reverse of an eBay auction, the numbers starting around 700 and quickly heading toward 100 from the usual 1250-1500 words. It is a balmy, sunny morning and although I am somewhat sleep deprived, I'm in good form. Perhaps too good. Blown up by my own torpedo, hoist by my own petard, etc, I venture: If you had any originality at all, you'd limit me to a haiku. Five, seven, five. Syllables.
Somehow, the tease has slipped off me as though it were a spray of water on Sally's back, the focus shifted to Paul, who is challenged to teach an entire class without once using the pronoun I, and then to engage in a critical discussion where he cannot use the word genius for twenty minutes.
But I am frozen back with the notion of haiku book reviews and so I neither join the tease on Paul nor climb on board when the subject switches to house painting and the fact that Jim Alexander's painting arm is more articulately muscled than his TV baton arm.
As Jack Benny was wont to say in reflexive moments, I'm thinking, I'm thinking.
Awake, O great whale
To employ thy splendid tail.
The Catcher in the Rye
Had a great issue of self.
Me, too; kid. Me, too.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
There is no time for such mischief as I have planned.
Student papers to be read.
Lecture to be prepared.
Yet, with all due respect, mischief comes first. Such niceties as time spent bathing, shaving, and the like, all of which are needed, will be cut back to bare essentials.
The subject of the mischief?
I have been thinking about it on one level or another for some days, appending it to my
personal list of comfort foods. Then Lori sent a recipe link along with a comment to an earlier post. Soon, I came to empathy with the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart."
I know what I must do.
The oven is already set to 375 and I think I know where the cast-iron skillet is.
Dylan Thomas could well have cribbed from one of his own poems to extol cornbread: "The force that through the oven drives the cornbread/Drives my cornbread hunger..."
A blasphemy, you say? I say cornbread.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Toward the end of a well-argued blog-cum-essay, Ben Huff touched on a point with relevance to the photographer and the photographed, the taker and, if you will, the taken. It is, as Ben cogently argues, about power.
This same chemistry often takes place on the stage and on the page; effective writers recognize it, wannabe writers had better recognize it. Shooting for quick recognition before moving along, I am tempted to hold forth one of my favorite of all characters from one of my favorite of all authors, Ms. Wife of Bath, from The Canterbury Tales. Reminding me of Zoe Strauss with her ebullient humanism, Ms. Wife stands out in a time when women were happy enough to be seen, but were not heard with too much enthusiasm. One moment particularly comes to mind, when Jankin, her latest in a series of husbands, is reading the then equivalent of a girlie magazine and Ms. Wife tears the page out of the booklet and tells him to get with the program, which happens to be her.
Shakesperean examples of scenes with shifting power bases abound, not the least among them involving Hamlet, his mother, and the ghost of his father/her husband, all together in her bed chamber. Hamlet, about to kill King Claudius, is another. "Now might I do it..." except that Claudius is saying his prayers. Come to think of it, Macbeth is about to pull a Tony Soprano on King Malcolm, but loses his resolve when he sees a servant carrying a dinner tray to Malcolm's suite, causing Macbeth to think Last Supper kinds of thoughts. "Trumpet-tongued angels will sing his praises." And a lovely tidal arrangement of power, starting with Macbeth telling Lady Macbeth that he can't go through with it. She is disgusted with his spinelessness--power shifts to her. But look what happens when Macbeth screws up his courage and goes through with the murder of Malcolm. Returning to their apartment, his clothing spattered with Malcolm's blood, his hands a gory smear, Lady Macbeth greets him with an effusive: "My husband!" Power back to Micky B.
Moving into modern drama and storytelling, say, just for the hell of it, Joe Orton's noirish Entertaining Mr. Sloan, or the splendid Jim Harrison novel, A Return to Earth, we see men and women on the stage and on the page, in varying degrees of vulnerability, in varying circumstances where they have given up power, usurped power from others, or had power wrested from them. Whether we take their image furtively or with their full consent, we are engaged in a dance of power with our subjects, with our characters, with our viewers, with our readers.
Ben Huff, in addition to producing moving, memorable images, has taken one of his recent shots, Red Door Open, which I greatly admire, and opened a door for me which I must enter, getting my own take on the matter of power. I believe the way to interest an audience in a character is to show that character in some vulnerability, being in the debt of a person, place, deadline, or attitude. Possibly also some disability. The story is about that person trying to get some power, either back in possession or, in the case of the buildugsroman, to get power for the first time and to use it for growth and understanding. This is where story begins. Where I believe I fit into the equation--thanks, Ben--is to give that character, that her or him, power. Over me.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Some splendid responses to comfort food:
Digby Wolfe suggests the list include blancmange which, he says, " is always welcome to a Limey. It's like boiled cabbage and warm beer."
Steve Beisner at three w's period Inkbyte dot com, a NOLA man at stomach, reminds us of the on-going need for jambalaya and for beignet, which may or may not be dunked in chicory coffee.
Liz Kuball votes for cheesecake but would not say no to key lime pie.
Lori Witzel wishes to add : migas
home-made (real) mac-and-cheese
Central Texas BBQ
and it would be churlish of me not to add corn bread.
On the other hand, firstname.lastname@example.org a photographer, could well add rudeness when he took on Zoe Strauss for "capatalizing (sic) on peoples (sic)weakness." He also accused Zoe of being exploitative. Why does w robert need to consider a diet of crow? First off, it is cool not to like some one's work; this is one of the underlying conventions of blog posting in the first place. But w robert goes ad hominem from the get go instead of asking questions, making critical points, trying to perhaps find something in the artist's work he might not have caught. Second, when one looks at w robert's images, one sees in short order how he is reaching for many of the same results as Zoe and coming across with an acceptance rating of a piece with the current incumbent President of the U.S. I've followed Zoe for some months now, her words and her images. She needs no one, least of all me, to defend her work. But I can and do admire it, from the heart, not the snark. Start manging, w robert. Cold comfort
Monday, July 23, 2007
1. If the military get to wear campaign and award ribbons on their chest and Republicans get to wear American-flag pins on their lapel, should we civilians be able to wear insignia for poems, photographs, short stories, novels published, votes cast?
2. Is serving on a committee an integral part of being a teacher?
3. What is a good population balance between academics and civilians on a committee?
4. Can any man or woman who is an academic be all bad? (This is a variation on a theme by W.C. Fields in which his point of comparison was any man who hates children and horses.)
5. Is it fair to divide the concept of "an academic" into academics who are theoreticians and academics who are creative? (Remember: Joyce Carol Oates, who can be pretty theoretical, is an academic, who also does a sensitive piano rendition of Chopin.)
6. Is it true that artists (paint, photo, poetry, fiction, nonfiction) who want to teach secretly want to try out the academic regalia?
7. Is it true that academics secretly want to paint, photograph, write poetry/fiction/memoir?
8. Is it the major function of the theorist/academic to explain to the artist what the artist has done?
9. Does the artist want to have explained what he or she has done?
10. If you answered yes to # 9, do you think this has anything to do with getting grant or foundation funding?
11. Shelly spent three hours in a______meeting today.
12. The sandwiches were:
13. There are _____masters of fine arts in the world.
b. too many
c. not enough
d. a frightening lack of
e. an amusing plethora of
f. declines to state
Sunday, July 22, 2007
1. Creamed tuna on toast
2. Banana cake with chocolate icing
3. Cold milk with a long drizzle of Bosco, vigorously mixed
4. Hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad
7. Junior's Cheesecake
8. Rhubarb pie with serious vanilla ice cream
9. Creme brule
10. Green corn tamales
11. Anything with mole sauce
13. French dip lamb sandwich, Philippe's, downtown L.A.
14. Huevos Rancheros,Rincon Alteno, Carpinteria, CA
15. full stack, Du-Pars, Farmer's Market, L.A.
16. Orange Julius
18. Navajo fry bread
Friday, July 20, 2007
1. It is beastly cold in Canberra, Capital Territory, Australia. Like in the low teens. Digby is sorry not to have packed more warm clothing.
2. The fire northeast of Santa Barbara is 35 percent contained, with no homes in immediate danger.
3. Sally is snoring and her front paws are twitching, suggesting a dream of chasing something.
4. The colonoscopy on our President completed, he is back deciding again, and the Vice President is no longer in charge and I do not think we have declared war on anyone new during the interregnum, nor has anyone been shot in a hunting accident.
5. A bird stopped by the Italian Market on De la Guerra Street, hopeful of lunch.
6. 'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. But not any more. No matter what the Republicans say, it is no longer brillig. All bets are off.
7. All the rooms in the Best Western Motel, Soledad, California, are booked through the weekend.
8. Lesley Fagan is glad to be home from Oslo, tending her rescue rabbits.
9. Brian Fagan swears I will have a chapter on the Cro-Magnon by Wednesday.
10. Two men in China were thrown in prison for making and exporting defective Support-our-troops bumper stickers to America.
11. There is no place in Santa Barbara to get a decent hot dog; you'd have to travel to Carpinteria and visit The Surf Dog.
12. The "AND" operator in the Google search engine is unnecessary -- we include all search terms by default. (This is a direct quote.)
1. You were not my first choice.
2. I was not your first choice.
3. I'm content to have finished this work.
4. I am not content to leave it here.
5. What is the sound of one rejection slip?
6. Is it true that I will favor you until you are taken?
7. Will I stop dreaming of you once you are taken?
8. Am I ahead of my time?
9. Is my time ahead of me?
10. Do you begrudge your brothers and sisters who were taken?
11. Have I ever lied to you?
12. Have you ever lied to me?
13. How does this all relate to Zoe Strauss' reaction at not being given a Guggenheim in 2007?
Thursday, July 19, 2007
There have been Ice Ages, Stone Ages, Bronze Ages, Medieval Warm Ages, Little Ice Ages, Gilded Ages, Ages of Innocence.
Our own age, the one we inhabit to the point of being able to hear the neighbors' fights through the walls, is yet to have a significant defining name, even though The Age of Entitlement does come to mind. Nevertheless, our age, regardless of its name, has already left some significant footprints on the carpet of civilization. Among but not There have been Ice Ages, Stone Ages, Bronze Ages, Medieval Warm Ages, Little Ice Ages, Gilded Ages, Ages of Innocence.
Our own age, the one we inhabit to the point of being able to hear the neighbors' fights through the walls, is yet to have a significant defining name, even though The Age of Entitlement does come to mind. Nevertheless, our age, regardless of its name, has already left some significant footprints on the carpet of civilization. Among but not limited to are these:
2. Al Quaida
4. Imperialism (See also, United States, President of; United States, vice-president of)
5. Wing nuts (See Kristol, William; Krauthammer, Charles; Podhoretz, Norman; Robertson, Pat; See also extremism, Fallwell, Jerry, Rev.)
6. Filibuster (See also Use of by Republicans; Refusal to use by Democrats)
9. Potter, Harry
10. NASCAR (See also acronyms, WTF, IED, HMO)
11. Woods, Tiger
13. hedge funds
14. Ivins, Molly
16. Rumsfield, Donald
19. Racism, rampant
22. Presidential pardons
24. Atkins Diet
26. Streep, Meryl
27. Erdrich, Louise
28. Blue States
29. Red States
30. Children (See also Left Behind, Inner)
32. Joint-replacement surgery
33. Digital cameras
35. Whisperers (See horse, dog, child)
36. Denial (See also Evolution, Global Warming, Science)
39. Midas mufflers
40. Habeas Corpus, denial of: loss of
41. Entitlement, feelings of
42. Hilton, Paris
43. Gun violence
44. Shock and awe
45. Schlock and malls
46. Robot-generated phone calls
47. SUVs (See also cell-phoning while driving, keyboarding while driving)
48. Nail salons
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
It is one thing to express opinion, quite another to assert something as either a fact or an hypothesis that has some reasonable chance in the world.
When expressing the former, it is sufficient to use such attributions as I feel, I think, even I believe , not to forget our old pal, It seems to me. An expression of fact or an advancement of hypothesis deserves greater attribution, preferably primary source material or a number of reliable sources in agreement.
Those of us who have had anything to do with responsible journalism or with scholarly pursuit are imprinted with the need to quote sources, even to quote sources that may not entirely support the hypothesis we are advancing.
This is lengthy prologue to the admission that I sometimes cannot remember where I came by a fact or hypothesis that suits my fancy, one I wish to use in building some kind of structure of argument or invention that has some chance of supporting the weight I seek to put on it.
The lengthy prologue--prologaminousness(Try that on your spell checker. Do spell checkers work for shamans?)--continues, by which I admit to reading from so many sources that I sometimes forget if I am citing Harper's Magazine or The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, or, of late, the Virginia Quarterly Review. Or something entirely other.
Added to that dizzying equation are conversations on some weekly basis with the likes of Jerry Freedman, Brian Fagan, Steve Cook, and Barnaby Conrad, rendering my brain much like a pinata, waiting to be struck a good whack so that the goodies will come tumbling forth.
And now, many of the blogs I look at as a way of satisfying political, literary, aesthetic, and musical matters add to the jumble.
There is some comfort in knowing I am not alone in this, in the brother- and sisterhood of storing impressions and bits of information which we will use as our pre-historic forebears did, to help the cause of species survival.
One source I do remember is the editorial page of The New York Times today, an op-ed piece by the elegant and thoughtful Verlyn Klinkenborg, who posits a California of the near future in which somehow, somewhere, there are sixty million of us, scratching about as the Hunters and Gatherer Societies of the past did, coming into spirited contact with the agriculturists.
Where will these arrivestes settle once they have arrived, and what effect will they have on our politics, our art, our science? And where will we get the water to soak their golf courses, gardens, and indeed their bodies?
Ah, you think I have wandered off subject, caught up in the haze of blog euphoria. Not at all. There is a connection between the persons en route to California and those who are not yet aware they will venture forth, linked to the information I already carry around and cannot account for, linked to the facts and opinions I will surely pick up from your blog or his blog or hers. Where do we keep information? How do we use it? How do we conserve it?
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
One of the first things I turn to when inspecting a work of nonfiction for possible intimacy is its index.
Friends tease me about this, suggesting that the practice is of a piece with reading the final paragraphs of a novel before I have made a proper beginning.
Tease away, dear ones. An index is not merely a guide to the what of a book; it is the if of a book, as in if salient features appear in the text at all, and possibly whether the features appear but are as buried as the reason and logic in a Republican's campaign promises.
Over the years, curiosity, financial need, and approaching deadlines have motivated me to undertake the compilation of an index. Friendship, too. I've slipped in a few for Barnaby Conrad, who would not think to index any of his writing, and one for Brian Fagan, in the belief that it would help me retain in active memory even more of the facts and theory of a book I had edited.
In a sense, an index is the literary equivalent of a detailed map through a mine field. Although it has not been done, except to whimsical effect by Paul Theroux, I would like to try my hand at indexing a novel.
Why all this seeming prologue about index? Last night's post addressing among other things what can be learned about a person from examining the interior of that individual's refrigerator could easily be applied to the use or failure to use index labels on our blogs. What is there to be learned about the signposts and connective dots an individual leaves as a trail of crumbs to the witch's house?
Might it not be an effective approach for the writer to review a work in terms of what its index would reveal? Would doing so provide a sense or direction--or reveal a lack of one? Are we working to provide access--our own as the creator or someone else's as reader--to the work?
What are our component parts--beyond, that is, the genome? Ideas, concepts, memories.
I live in a part of the world that is constantly reinventing itself. Saturday evening, driving southward from my workshop near Palo Alto, I passed what was probably the spot in Nipomo where Dorthea Lange took the photo of that woman and child that transformed Lange's memory and probably immortalized that woman. Her child would very well be alive, somewhere, possibly married into migrant labor as were her parents, just as possibly a grandmotherly, matriarchal sort from a Central Valley family. There are traces everywhere of architectural, social, political, and spiritual changes. What was once a splendid Greek-Italian grocery whose mouth-watering scents alone could keep you nourished all day is now a goddamned Verizon store. A famous Chinese restaurant with awful food and great drinks is gone; an Italian restaurant with unrelentingly awful Italian food and an unrelentingly spirited ambiance is now a dress shop. A great pool hall and a Spanish-language theater on lower State Street have become targets of some speculator's opportunity. Even one of the great smash-and-burn speculators has moved on, his eyes peeled for newer targets the way a red-tailed hawk watches for lunch.
We are constantly migrating through relationships, careers, thoughts, projects, our senses assailed, beckoned forth, coaxed. An index would be helpful.
When I was just beginning my career in publishing, the head of a major library system reminded me when I sought to gain her order for a project I'd edited, "An index would have made all the difference."
Who is this individual who has come before you since March 1 of this year? Forget the About Me details. Read the index.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Sometime back, during the editing process on one of Brian Fagan's archaeological adventures, we thought it interesting to make special note, a kind of pre-historic take on Tim O'Brien's fine novel, The Things They Carried. This may turn out to be O'Brien's most iconic work, having as its dramatic spine a laundry list of what some of the American soldiers involved in the Viet Nam War, carried about with them in addition to the military ordinance with which they had been issued.
In the Fagan work, it came to me that we could get a better sense of the life and times of our forbears if we knew something about the things they carried with them, or as Fagan put it, what was in their tool kit. At one point, in the stone age, a major item was called a burrin, a chunk of flinty rock from which chips could be struck for use either in starting fires, as a projectile point, and even as a knife or scraping tool.
The notion came to me that we were discussing the precursor of The Swiss Army knife, a designation that found its way into not only Fagan's text but, over the years, several other studies of what life was like, way back then.
As Brian produces text on his new venture, a comprehensive portrait of the so-called Cro-Magnon people, it came to mne that we were at another comparison point, a garment made from sheep or some other shaggy-coated animal. Voila, the precursor of the Ugg boot, which comparison Fagan's new publisher has already slathered over.
And these paragraphs become prologue to my wonderment and speculation about the things writers carry about with them. For my part, there is one or more fountain pens, selected at whim from a cigar box repository of favorites, including a Mark Twain model from the American penmaker, Conklin; a Sailor from Japan,with one of the most deliciously flexible nibs ever; an Italian Ancora, which is hefty in a reassuring way, enhanced by mother-of-pearl side panels, a gift from ENK; another Italian pen, the Montegrappa; an impulsively given Mount Blanc from Steve Cook; as well as another choice Aurora which also has a nice heft if a bit of a scratchy nib. With these tools is a pocket-sized Moleskine note book and two smaller pocket-sized books purchased in a magazine stand at Heathrow, plus untold piles of plain index cards as well as those with enough information printed on them to qualify as super-large business cards. Not to forget a pocket knife.
This intrigues me to the point where I will start asking writers what they carry with them as a matter of course because it has already come to me to begin pestering people for permission to take photos of the insides of their refrigerators. I know Fagan has an inordinate number of carrots in his 'frige because of his wife's dealings with rescue rabbits, and true Brit that he is, he has confessed to vegemite and Patum Peperium, that somewhat salty anchovy relish,well-known as "The Gentleman's Relish."
What grand mysteries one can learn of one's friends from seeing the insides of their refrigerators.
None of this would, I think, have occurred to me if I had not come by a camera, which in fact produces entirely new levels of curiosity about the world and its denizens.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again," the plain-wrapper protagonist of Rebecca tells us right up front. "It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me." Maybe so, but with those two lines, a few generations of us have pressed to make our way through that gate, along the long drive leading to the main house, and into its secrets. Indeed, the very narrator of the tale did in her dream what we who followed her did. "...then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me."
An archetypal dream and situation to warm the heart of a Jungian. Indeed, I mentioned that very dream to a Jungian psychoanalyst only yesterday when, in my writing group just outside Redwood City, he read of his experiences with dream and memory experienced on the Orinoco River.
The fortunate among us have finite, geographical places in their dreams to which they return on occasion, tourists of past times at that particular place. In one such dream, I know within a matter of months how old I am, six, and with splendid certainty exactly where I am: the northwest wall of the back bedroom of a large, Mediterranean fourplex, located at 6145 1/2 Orange Street, Los Angeles, which would first become Los Angeles 36, then 90036. Both the age and the locale have been bulldozed out of existence, one by the mere inevitability of the passage of time, the other by the inevitability of the advent of the condominium complex. In this dream, I have been reminded that it is my bed time and at that age one is never sleepy at bed time, thus I am six, awake, and acute to the conversational noises of my parents and older sister, sounds that play in my ear like Chopin etudes because I was big on Chopin then and had yet to discover Ravel and Dvorak. They waited until I was off in the rear before the tinkle of their mirth and the nuance of their affection for one another sustained down the long hallway that separated us.
They are dead now, all three of them, and so when I am in this dream I am particularly lifted by these remembered sounds of them.
The Jungian psychiatrist wrote of a dream-like memory from his storehouse of that age, but his memory was one more likely to have been repressed, his discovery of a neighbor who had asphyxiated himself out of some despair, some sense of grief or loss which he could not bear.
I, on the other hand, can happily bear dreams of 6145 1/2 Orange Street.
My other recurrent dream is set in Virginia City, Nevada, best located by imagining an isosceles
triangle with the other two points being Reno and Carson City. Virginia City became a magical place to me when I read Roughing It and became even more attached to its author than I had as a result of reading Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Twain's adventures in Virginia City drew me to books about his exploits and about the remarkable Comstock Lode from which came the silver that among other things helped finance a civil war and the city of San Francisco.
Two college chums, Jerry Williams and Don Pettit, back from a wander-year, came by to regale me with stories of their travels, which left me amused but little else until Jerry handed over a souvenir, a copy of the Virginia City Territorial-Enterprise. It was back in print. Lucius Beebe, the bon vivant, curmudgeon, and historian had purchased the rights to the paper and had begun producing a small town weekly with the editorial attitude of a crooked finger holding the tea cup, a remarkable affinity for Bollinger champagne and a realistic sense that a cocktail canape ought to have something one could sink one's teeth into.
It was not long before I made my first visit to Virginia City, beginning the imagery that would replay in my recurrent dreams of the place.
The Silver Dollar Hotel had a honeymoon suite I liked because it had a private bathroom with a splendid shower as well as a large bathtub with clawed feet. Here, one could shower and soak away the worst hangovers. Alas for the price, however, and so subsequent visits often found me in a room named for Virginia City's legendary prostitute with a heart of gold, Julia Buelette.
In my dreams and in reality, Virginia City is built onto the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas; I rarely dream of it when there is not snow on the ground or when the temperature is not well down into the low teens. Sometimes, in my dreams, I am wrestling with a fifty-pound sack of dog kibble which I am transporting on my shoulders down the snowy declivity of Six-Mile Canyon toward an ashram populated by a group of yogis. I have been drafted into this venture by Florence Ballou Edwards, a Smith College graduate whose story of how she came to own the Silver Dollar Hotel varied with what and how much she had been drinking.
Sometimes in the dream, it is New Year's Eve and I am working on the dregs of a bottle of cognac cadged from Lucius Beebe, and shared with Lee Cake, another frequent VC visitor and school chum.
Joy of joys, sometimes Jim Silverman appears in the dream, invariably wiping snow from his glasses with the tail end of his shirt. Once or twice, Sam, my cat from my early Hollywood Hills days, appears in the dream, using his great body language to demonstrate his complete lack of use for the snow.
Now and again, Bob Edwards, editor of the Territorial-Express, will wonder when he can expect my column, and although I have never seen the Boss man, the guiding spirit of it all, in my dreams, that is to say, Mr. Samuel L. Clemens, I have had dreams in which some of the locals spoke of running him out of town for having gone too far with some one of his many written hoaxes. This was the precursor of a dram link to my awareness that Twain left Virginia City in a hurry, having been challenged to a duel by someone who'd been the butt of one of Twain;s hoaxes.
All of the ones I knew there are surely gone now. I think sometimes of braving the great potential that Virginia City has devolved further into tourism. Perhaps at night, I reason, armed against the Sierra chill with a snifter of brandy, I will run into some glorious ghosts. Jim Silverman. Lee Cake. Pat and Penna Hart, then owners of The Brass Rail. Florence Edwards.
Or, sitting at the entry way of Piper's Opera House, where Twain often held court, I will catch the speculation and bustle of miners, of fortunes made and lost, of dreams, bad food, bawdy humor, and the sense of mischief that has invaded my life and my dreams.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
2. Does memory improve or degrade an event?
3. Does memory improve or degrade a person in an event?
4. How does our version of an individual or event square with a performance of that person and/or event featuring that person?
5. Which is more important in our recollection of an individual or an event involving that individual, ambiguity or agenda?
6. Why is it unseemly to speak ill of the dead?
a-Adolph Hitler, for instance
b-Richard M. Nixon, for instance
c-Henry Kissinger may not be dead, but he is toast.
7. How are we able to impeach a president for lying about sex and not be able to impeach a president for lying about causus belli?
8. At what point do we want to upwardly embellish a pleasant memory?
9. At what point do we want to add more vitriol to an unpleasant memory?
10. At what point does memory of a person or event become a handicap?
Bonus Questions: Even if we are telling events as directly and guileless as possible, does it follow that the reader will believe the narrator?
How can the writer learn to imply that any given character is telling the truth?
Friday, July 13, 2007
What Age is this the age of?
f--your old pal, all the above
How do you want your stories to end?
b--spelled-out in detail
What element do you least want in a story?
The most pernicious modern element
e--the Republican party
Performance most difficult to understand
a--why Republicans continue to support The President
b--why the same Republicans who so vocally opposed the fillibuster are using it so often now
c--why we are still in Iraq
Thursday, July 12, 2007
1. Are the individuals actual persons, talking the way real persons do, or are they characters?
2. Can you tell the difference between the two?
3. Does the reader know the difference?
4. Do your characters:
(a) talk to each other as though the reader were not there?
(b) talk to the audience as though the other characters were not there?
(c) try to explain things to each other that they already know?
(d) say things that are likely to bore the reader?
5. Do your characters speak as characters of their time and social station would speak?
6. Do your characters speak to intimates and strangers in the same tone and with the same attitude?
7. Do your characters tend to sound alike?
8. Do your characters like one another?
9. Do your characters always say what they mean?
10. When you think about writing dialogue, does the word "subtext " make you nervous?
11. Do your characters ever say things that surprise or embarrass you?
12. Do your characters know how to end a conversation?
13. Do you know how to end a conversation?
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
...and the living is easy.
So easy, in fact, that Sally is snoring, just having returned from a kick-ass encounter with a coyote in the upper fields of Hale Park. There is something about a snoring dog...
In the market to pick up some over-priced fruit (because the summers in many places have been inhospitable to fruit), I run into Jim Buckley, publisher of the Montecito Journal, which carries my weekly review. A shrewd business man and a pretty solid copyeditor, he reminded me of the time he and the now departed editor, Guillaume Doane (off to seek his journalistic fortune in Europe) argued whether to allow a sentence of mine that had run seventy-six words, or to ask me to break it up (or down?) into more manageable declarative sentences. Then JB drops the bomb that got me thinking about tonight's entry. Some time in the next few weeks, he will send me the opening chapters of his mystery novel. "Everyone," he calls forth, "is writing a mystery novel."
This, I reflect, is true. With all of the things I should be working on more diligently, I, too, am playing with the idea of a serialized mystery which I will think to inflict on the Montecito Journal, circulation twenty thousand.
The mystery is popular this time of year because we are all trying to guess the identity of the persons who leave packages of zucchini on our doorsteps as we are out leaving packages of our own zucchini on the doorsteps of others. Indeed, in the parking lot of the market, I met a neighbor who asked me if I'd seen her clever solution to being banned by a local ordinance from leading the Fourth of July Parade with her horse. Her second question went right straight to zucchini, as in, was I the one who left so much.
I know it is a digression but I can't help it. The entire Santa Barbara area, largely peopled with conservatives (and grouches), is a hive of bureaucratic building and zoning regulation, to which I think it would be funny to add a restriction on how much anonymous zucchini we can leave on the front entry way of a neighbor.
We do like to solve puzzles, particularly since so many magazine features for the elderly suggest how healthy it is for us to be doing crossword puzzles. My dear chum, Digby Wolfe, developed the notion that one advantage of a failing short-term memory is the potential for organizing our own Easter-egg hunts. Well, why not solve even more intriguing crimes? And so, the better writer can make us identify with the fictional Hawkshaws, allowing us to imagine how we would track and carefully interview suspects, then put the facts together, which allows us to assemble the evidence, which allows us to feel quite superior.
It disturbs me that more readers don't recognize the skills of Thomas Perry, and to my knowledge, the only local who is even aware of Gaylord Dold is J.F. Jerry Freedman, and Jerry is often too busy writing new books to wonder too much about why Dold is not as well read as he ought to be.
It gets worse before it gets better, because Gaylord Dold is one of the favorites of Daniel Woodrell, whom I first found about from Dennis Lynds who, prolific as he was, was also woefully under-read, and don't ask about Daniel Woodrell's figures. I should work Tim Gautreaux into this equation, but even though he is not widely read, he has had things in the New Yorker.
Hi, you've reached Unknown Writers' Press. Because we're so unknown, it's difficult to imagine anyone calling us except for people who are calling to remind us to pick up milk or cat food on the way home. If you're one of these, press one. If you really do know us and are calling to ask a penetrating question, press two. If you stumbled upon us by accident, press three. If you're looking for a short cut to MySpace, press four. If you'd like to be outsourced to India, where there are hundreds of authors you don't know, press five, and remember to speak slowly.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
It begins on a Monday night where, the instructions say, you must consume the contents of one of these containers of barium sulfate.
Not such a bad thing, taste-wise. You have actually consumed worse things at McDonald's or Wendy's, sweet things, taken with full knowledge that there is more potential for fill than for actual nourishment. When you ingest such a thing at McDonald's or Wendy's, you are light years away from your heritage of being desperate for sustenance.
There is, let it be said, nothing to satisfy any sense of nourishment or sustenance when following the instructions, shaking the bottle vigorously, then trying to get its chalky heaviness to descend down your throat into your very bowels. You begin the process at about ten-thirty, rewarding yourself with a page or two of Thomas Perry's latest thriller, Silence.
You have not gotten much beyond the half-way mark and it is already eleven. The instructions call for you to have ingested the first bottle by midnight. You begin to play out a scenario in which you are the cause of the Vice President of the United States being forced to ingest such contents. This is a considerable help--but not for long.
You are supposed to be here:
tomorrow morning at nine, having ingested the second bottle of barium sulfate (ugh!) upon arising. How you manage this becomes some secret between the component parts of your body and psyche. If a male can possibly be said to experience a feeling of being gravid, this is how you now feel. You feel a sense of squishiness as you approach your car, having looked longingly at the coffee-making apparatus on the gas range.
They are accommodating when you arrive, check in, and squish into a seat in the waiting area. At length a pleasant, efficient woman with a round, cheery face approaches, checks to see you are who you represent yourself to be, announces she is your nurse, describing such things that she will inflict on your body. The first of these is a spigot which is inserted in one of the two veins on the inside of your left elbow. The second is to present you with a large paper cup, filled with a fluid you recognize all too well.
"L'chaim," she explains. "Down the hatch."
"I don't know if I can," you explain back.
"Put your mind to it," she explains. "Glug glug."
Somehow, you manage the glug glug, feeling now truly bloated, weighed down with a sense of internal disharmony, as though you're eaten three or four meals at a dreary cafeteria, an intermediate step in a process where, sooner or later, you would be administered a lethal injection.
You are invited to a platform, placed in a supine position, your knees propped up somewhat by a pillow, your head thoughtfully adjusted for comfort. The rest is down hill. You have had a number of these scans in the past few years. You know all about the iodine infusion about to be flushed into the spigot on your arm, the brief delay before the warmth appears at the back of your throat, then spreads pleasingly down your spine, seeming to gather at your genitalia.
"Not to worry about the warmth," the nurse cautions. "It's natural."
"It's like falling in love," you tell her.
"I like that!" she says, then asks the other nurse if she heard what you said.
"Jeez," the other nurse says, "we don't get talk like that in here." She pats your arm. "This is a special day," she tells you. "With an attitude like that, I know you're gunna have nice results."
You have to wait until four o'clock before you find out about the results. "The scans look great," Dr. K. tells you, his face brightening as he looks up from the computer screen where images of your lower regions blink out at you like a Google map. "My experience shows the two-year mark being critical, especially for someone with as pronounced as you were." You are well past the two-year point, well on to four. "Looks like you've got another hundred thousand miles."
You are now free to rise from yet another medical platform:
This is not far off from what Tony, the service rep at the Toyota agency, told you a week or so back when you picked up your Camry.
With your numbers looking good, you are thinking about the coffee you missed earlier this morning, and you are thinking double latte now, and on with the day.
Monday, July 9, 2007
Friday mornings at Peet's Coffee & Tea can become raucous. The regulars cadge chairs from other tables; sometimes another table is co-opted, and regulars who are not "our" regulars are enlisted for their opinions in the debates, screeds, and attempts at serious conversation that impart a great sense of high school cafeteria.
This past Friday, the subject of memoir emerged from the rumblings, then soon found the vagrant atoms of autobiography to merge with, then evolved into a full-blown speculation about any work of fiction, all works of fiction, carrying some hints of autobiography, some events that could very well be the author's revenge on what really happened, recast in a scenario where a character with whom the author strongly identifies is righting an old wrong or winning a prize that had in real life not been won, had in fact been ignominiously lost.
Someone in our midst--it could well have been Jim Alexander--ventured that fiction allows the writer to go back in time in order to erase past flatulence. You can see from this the high order of conversation and speculation on Friday mornings.
As all Friday mornings do, this one devolved into satellite conversations which run at great variance from the topic at hand, but the implication remained with me, or to put it more functionally, I've been endlessly recalling moments of scenes I wrote in novels which at their writing had no autobiographical connection whatsoever.
Which leads me to the conclusion that we not only perpetuate our own myths, we are influenced by the orbit of the myths of other writers, men and women who literally wrote their images if not their souls out long before my arrival on this planet, the analog of an ET, bearing a blank mind and body.
I'm not much on what James Joyce amusingly referred to in Ulysses as met-him-pike-hoses, or any form of reincarnation, past lives, and the like. In a pragmatic kind of way, I think reincarnation was invented by people who were not pleased with their lot in this life and had to develop a complex system of spiritual capitalism, in which retirement meant merging with You-Know-What. But I digress.
We come into the world with a blank Moleskine notebook (mine has the graph paper checks, thank you) into which we record our impressions and feelings, our accrued memories (great interest rate on memory). In a more physical sense, we acquire scars, bruises, trick knees, bad backs, perhaps even weak kidneys. Not a word about benign prostate hyperplasia, please. Such physical and emotional events affect the way we stand, talk, think, walk; they inform our taste for physical and spiritual things to the point where it is difficult not to write about them. If I were writing about a character I identified with, that character would have certain experiences and tastes in common with mine; a character I'd expect to be at some odds with would vote differently, prefer tea, have different tastes in music. Actors have been heard to note that portraying a character close to their own self is more difficult than portraying someone opposite or at least grounded in different interests and experiences.
So there is a page or two from a chapter or two of a project that looms in my mind, a conflation of acting and writing techniques.
1. To create characters like one's self, the writer draws on incidents within memory, and chooses responses from actual event, whether pain-generated or pleasure-generated.
2. To create characters away from one's self, the writer draws on incidents within memory, but selects different modes of response. The writer may actually invent incidents that he thinks would produce desired emotions.
Do you see the difference? Of course you do: in the first case, the response comes from the actual event. You want embarrassment, you go to a place where you felt embarrassed, then burn the CD of that embarrassment into your character's data bank. Now you can interview that character, get it to tell you about an event that produced the desired response.
In the second case, you want the surprise discovery that will allow you to know the character who is away fro and unlike you. When you interview that character, you ask what event would provoke a particular feeling. Then you listen to the character, carefully, oh so carefully.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
One stairwell is tall, stately, alive with the promise of going somewhere, arriving in style. As you would on some occasions be impressed by the sturdiness or stylishness of someone's shoes, you are impressed by the tiles embedded in the risers, their bright colors and geometric designs adding a note of festivity to the journey upward.
You don't see where this stairwell goes, which is part of its mystery, its ascent to unknown wonders.
A scant block away is the second stairwell, its risers and platforms cheery in the evening light, trying, it seems, to make the best of leading to a floor of apartments that window out onto a freeway. These steps have been trod upon by a different sort of person, a person who might not have the same expectations as a person ascending the first stairway. But this stairwell has a mystery of its own, a single paper cup. You see the paper cup and wonder who and what, just as you wonder why--all the ingredients of a good mystery.
In between is a door, a no-nonsense door, not offering frill or window or adornment of any sort, yet not foreboding either, no bars or warning signs, only a small, barely discernible peep hole.
Stairways and doors, platforms and portals, icons of mysteries, of promise, of business, of finding someone or something special at the other end, of finding a place to work, a place to think, a place to feel safe, a place to feel lonely. A place to bring a plant, the first tentative part of making the place reflect you; a place to consider a cat as a companion or a dog, a place to mount photos or reproductions of some other sort on the wall.
There are symbols and objects that reflect our cultural ties to the times in which we were born, the places, the people and clans and moieties and clubs and societies in which we place our love, trust, and faith. We wear some of these symbols, lumps of turquoise, ankhs, crosses, stars of David; we of a particular age wear wristwatches or carry cell phones that tell us the time and where wers trump the importance of these symbols and objects; they lead us to are and possibly even what music we are listening to. We wear name badges, rank insignia, blazer buttons engraved with the seal of a university we attended. Some of us carry social security cards, credit cards, proof of insurance.
Stairs and dooplaces, cause us to have expectations. Symbols and objects define who we are to others and to ourselves. Stairs and doors elevate us, trip us, embarrass us; they break our hearts, they lead us to loved ones, they give us expectations.
The stairwell with the elegant tiles needs nothing; it is like a ballerina arching her pliant body to suggest flight, elevation, and a time of being suspended in the air to the point where we gasp as we watch. The stairwell with the paper cup needs that cup the way a mystery needs a crime and a detective. The doorway needs someone to welcome us.
The stairway without the cup is merely a stairway to a place that overlooks US 101 northbound.
The stairway with the cup is a story.
Saturday, July 7, 2007
The title suggests I've been co-opted by British colloquial use, wanting to make a pointed emphasis, but this is about a crime, a bloody crime, and I come to this entry having just done a review of a book about it.
January, 1947. South central Los Angeles, in the residential section near the massive sports arena constructed for the 1932 Olympic Games, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the discovery of the grizzly remains of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia.
In my weekly review column for the Montecito Journal, I'm alternating a current release with something published in the past, having at one point reached all the way back to Gilgamesh (although in a modern, poetic rendition) and slipped in one of my favorites, Humphrey Clinker, from the eighteenth century.
This week, the subject was what I consider John Gregory Dunne at the top of his form, True Confessions, a fictionalized version of the famed, unsolved Black Dahlia case.
The Black Dahlia case was one of the first cases an LAPD cop by the name of John St. John was assigned to. Turns out nobody did well on that case, but St. John cracked some of the big LA cases, including the notorious Hillside Strangler, and became a legend in law enforcement. I met him when a student of mine tracked him down and persuaded him to collaborate with her on a book about his career. The chemistry between them was incredible: This tough, no-nonsense Irish cop finds a friendship and purpose with the wife of a small-town doctor. I got in on many a ride, including one where St. John gave me a tour of LA "dump sites," places where grotesquely mutilated bodies had been discovered. I developed a fondness for a less grotesque kind of butchery, the steak sandwich at Taylor's Steak House on Eight Street, that and a Molly Salad, which was a quarter of a tightly packed iceberg lettuce, doused with a dressing of cheese, diced onions, and tomatoes.
True Confessions used a fictional version of The Black Dahlia case, setting it against two brothers, a cop who was as gritty (but not as honorable) as St. John, and his brother, the monseigneur, each on the make in his career, tied to the case by a gritty political inevitability. The payoff is a lovely bit of moral irony.
The real Black Dahlia lived in Santa Barbara, apparently honing her game in this small town before trying the big time in L.A.
She lived right here at 321 Montecito Street, and as I slid by this afternoon to take a picture of the place to send along with the review, I tried, oh how I tried, to feel a sense of her presence. No go. A nice, small cottage adrift on a sea of neatly tended grass, considerately walled off and protected from direct contact with a gritty, funky neighborhood. A place I wouldn't mind having for an office or a get-away cottage.
From what I've read of her, The Black Dahlia was warm-hearted and open, eager to make something exciting of her life in the optimistic bustle and overnight possibilities exploding in post-war Los Angeles. Earl Muntz, the Babbit-gone-wild used car dealer was advertising that he wanted to give his cars away but his wife wouldn't let him. You could get a complete paint job on a car for $19.95 at Earl Scheib, and for an extra ten, you could get a deluxe job, meaning in time that any car thief with twenty bucks in his pocket could keep the cops off his trail. Republic Studios was cranking out Western movies, car hop waitresses at drive-in restaurants were being given screen tests and contracts, talent scouts and agents hung out at The Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine and the world must have seemed filled with limitless promise to Elizabeth Short. Living so close to it all, at 321 Montecito Street, must have filled her with the impatience of her throbbing beauty and youth, steering her to LA with the same kind of blind instinct that sends moths crashing into light fixtures.
There was none of this at 321 Montecito Street today, just a neat, quiet cottage on a Saturday afternoon, across the street from a Santa Cruz Market and around the corner from a 7-11 convenience store, neither of which were likely there when she was.
I first read True Confessions when it came out in 1977, and have returned to it at least twice before thinking to take it out again, go through it, and blend it with my memories of St. John.
The last time I saw him was during the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference of 1993, when it was held at the Miramar Hotel, now a relic awaiting the wrecking ball and some considerable cosmetic surgery. Because my workshop runs sometimes into the early ours of the following morning, it was held in the large basement room directly under the main auditorium. It was already growing late and I was in a listening trance, focused on some manuscript being read when I became aware of someone in the front row, waving to get my attention. He pointed just over my left shoulder toward the entryway, where St. John stood, blue suit, brown shoes, a truly offensive necktie, and a broad, bewitching smile. "Hey, kid," he said.
I moved swiftly for a hug and a handshake. "Buy you a drink sometime," he said, then he was gone.
"Who was that man?" someone in the audience asked.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
I couldn't get The Black Dahlia out of where she used to live, but I got St. John all evening, writing that review of True Confessions.