Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Garage

In some fit of pique or other after a persistent,soaking week of rain, I abandoned the garage-as-study, moved the wireless modem to my room, and have proceeded to amass large stacks of books with little regard for space much less order.

As a consequence, the garage has returned to what many garages return to, a place for putting things that won't fit anywhere else, and how about a place where you store things you know you won't be using for some months, not to forget a special place for stuff too good to throw or give away and thus likely subjects for a yard sale.

ENK has observed that holidays are tough on dogs; I believe she is right. In a similar vein, I believe any time of year is tough for garages. There are undoubtedly places where being a garage is not fraught with peril or malaise; I am even willing to concede that the occasional good thing happens in a garage. I found in mine just this past week a volume of Edward S. Curtis photos of native Americans, which was a stunning discovery. There was also a notebook in which I'd essayed some short stories, most of which still intrigued me, many of which had almost entirely survived those soaking rains of some years back.

This garage has undergone some identity surgery. When it came my way, it was intended to store one wide auto or two of the Weight Watchers' width. After some weeks with particle board, nails, a good deal of missed hammer blows, and some misadventures with fluorescent lighting fixtures, the garage became an office, library, and a place where it appeared possible to store things in a neat fashion. The mailman, you know, the one who goes drinking with Jim Harrison, allowed that it was one swell new venue, a place where he wouldn't mind hanging out for a time. The FedEx delivery man, who swims laps at the nearby Y, admitted to a pang of envy. And for the longest time, I was content, but fits of pique have a funny way of changing things. The garage, for all its riches of stuff, has gotten out of hand and needs extreme feng shui.

I know you can't go home again; I wonder if there is any return to the garage.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Here Comes Da Judge

So far as I'm concerned, all talk about judges has a political subset. Word of a forthcoming publication in the first week of October by one of the big nine, the United States Supreme Court associate justice Clarence Thomas enhances my point. Thomas was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Thurgood Marshall, an appointment that undercuts by several degrees the notion that George Herbert Walker Bush was not flipping the bird to moderates and liberals. Given the body of remarkable decisions thought out with such precision by Marshall, Thomas really is a lightweight, way out of his class. Even one of his brethren, Mr. Justice Scalia, when asked what he thought of Thomas, pointedly circumnavigated his ear with an extended index finger, a gesture well understood to mean "a nut case."

But I digress because this is not intended as a rant against the current United States Supreme Court (although it could support a rant or two), rather a rant against he or she who renders judgements of another sort. You might call it IC, the Inner Critic.

The judge who tells you an idea of yours sucks

The judge who asks you what qualifies you to have a horse in this race

The judge who wants to know where you learned to:
d--take photos
e--compose music
h--all of the above

In some courtrooms where the defendant becomes obstreperous, the judge admonishes, then has the defendant removed to a sound-proof room to view the proceedings via closed-circuit television (which doesn't always seem so Draconian because we can visualize said defendant inveighing against the tv set, and what the hey, who among us hasn't done that from time to time without a judge?).

My modest proposal here is that we reverse the process and send the judge packing. Not Judge Thomas, although that is always tempting. Not Lance Ito, because his O.J. performance didn't really do him much good, and definitely not Judge Judy, because I believe she still works the networks during off hours. I mean the inner critic, the one who gets his or her jollies by shooting down our work. There, in Ibsen-onian terms, is the true Enemy of the People.

Turn off the judge. Stop thinking. Get into the project and if it doesn't seem to be working, get farther into it.
I was checking out some links Lori provided for Navajo potters and darned if the stories associated with these splendid craftspersons didn't involve a great deal of trial and error with glazes, clays in general, slip, and firing techniques. I suppose there were occasional sour comments from husbands who were not too happy about what their supper was served on--"You expect me to eat off that! " --but by and large the results were stunning and yet more than one of the potters noted a respect for traditional patterns and ceremonial uses that have no meaning to us but are nevertheless occasions of beauty.

So let's hear it for the Super Ego. Fuera!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Do We Do It?

1. Because it feels good.

2. Because we hope it will feel good.

3. Because it enhances our sense of having continued to survival.

4. Because after it feels good for a while, we begin to want to share it with others.

5. Because it literally and figuratively enhances our feelings of connectedness.

6. Because feeling connected enhances our sense of validation and purpose.

Some regard this concatenation as spiritual.

Some regard it as being creatively inspired.

But hey, not to forget chemical as well.

As in dopamine, that lovely neural transmitter. We may well approach it from the spiritual path or the more secularly oriented creative inspiration, but the results are broadcast about the psyche pretty much at all levels thanks to our pal dopamine.

We may well be connected to the spheres or the universe from time to time, and in the process may produce remarkable results, but remember, this message was brought to you by dopamine.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


1. A prolific shrub outside my study window has come into a blue-ish, lilac -colored bloom. It is probably plumbago. I should ask the squadrons of humming birds who are arriving to partake of it. What is this bush called? What is this thing called, Love?

2. Some while back in this year, the photographer Liz Kuball emailed me to describe the gastro-intestinal malaise occasioned by having ingested a particularly weighty fettuccine Alfredo at an Italian fast-food restaurant. Bad move, she wrote. Not so severely afflicted, I was nevertheless up betimes as Samuel Pepys would have put it, the victim of a fettuccine al pesto at Peabody's Restaurant, and yes, I quite agree, anyone who would order any kind of fettuccine at a restaurant named Peabody's gets a condign punishment. Nevertheless. Up early with rumbling tummy, one has pause to think of existential things. My thoughts were of dark nights of the soul as experienced by such notables as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Martin Buber. I seem to recall Dame Hildegarde of Bingham having had one or two and from the wrenching descriptions of their losses, I suspect Joan Didion and Calvin Trillin had them as well. Theirs were from seriously existential origins; mine was from a platter of limp noodles. Bad move to the contrary notwithstanding, my thoughts were not about survival or other serious matters of craft and conscience but back to the kitchen. Were existential dark nights of the soul set off in the first place by some dreadful meal consumed hours before in the innocence of being involved with a full schedule? Many famed conflicts and voyages of doubt have been reputedly set forth in the bedroom, and no doubt with good cause. But I wonder if we are giving the kitchen a free pass?

3. Which is more infuriating, the hour glass of the PC, advising us that some program is downloading, or the equivalent whirl-a-gig icon on the Mac?

4. Alas, it is now too late to compare thee to a Summer's day. Maybe next year.

5. After reading Father Mapple's sermon in the early pages of Moby-Dick, you were reminded of: (check one)

a. Paul Wolfowitz
b. Billy Graham
c. The Bal Shem Tov
d. Norman Podhoretz
e. Sen. Lindsey Graham
f. Seinfeld

6. Myanmar is going to regret messing with the monks and nuns.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Writer's Tool Kit

Whatever their background, time frame, and point of origin, the people Brian Fagan writes his archaeological thrillers about--and these narratives are indeed a good deal like the mystery/suspense intrigues of the better novelists--are well described by the tools they use.

Tim O'Brien in his estimable The Things They Carried,brings the point home and up to date by detailing some of the items American soldiers carried with them during the Viet Nam campaign.

Clothes may make the person, but tools and implements describe the person.

Accordingly, what should the well-accoutered writer carry beyond the obvious basics of something (a Moleskine notebook, a stack of 3 x 5 index cards, a few folds of manuscript paper, a laptop computer) to write on and some instrument with which to execute the writing (a pencil, a ball-point pen, a fountain pen)?

a knowledge of how language works (and does not work)
enthusiasm for the work
a hunger for more than food
a sense of how story works (and does not work)
an intimate enough acquaintance with one's inner critic to allow one to tell said critic to buzz off (or worse)
a history of voracious reading
a willingness to practice (musicians and dancers practice why shouldn't writers?)
at east one event of having written beyond boundaries
Altoid mints (just for the hell of it)

These are not easy items to come by nor do they store easily in the writer's tool kit. With the possible exception of the Altoid mint tin, these elements would pass airport security because they are not easily seen or accounted for, but you can ever tell.

Writing is not safe nor should it be.

You cannot hate a character and hope to render that individual with any kind of artistry

Any one of the tools on this list is a potential alarm setter-offer. Any tool that teaches the need for abandoning safety is a welcome addition. Terrorists hide bombs; writers hide descriptions of unsafe persons, places, ideas, things. Writers have as much in common with terrorists as police have with criminals.

When we begin writing, our thoughts are set on achieving best-seller lists. As we mature and our craft enhances, our thoughts are more properly focused on achieving banned-books lists, not, mind you, out of perversity but rather from the desire to topple the harsh judges of convention.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

There Are Times When Only Pastrami Will Do

The winds of heritage blew through me earlier this evening, impacting my choice of dinner after class was over. Rumbling north on Figueroa, past the Felix Chevrolet, I purposefully remained in the extreme left lane, just in case I'd felt a last minute twinge for the beef noodle soup at the Japanese restaurant, closed eyes past the Yoshinoya and a creditable if not grand rice bowl topped with shreds of beef and scallions and yam noodles.  

I moved resolutely past the Italian Pasta Roma and another creditable dish, the linguini with clams. Hard to pass up because the white wine sauce isn't all that bad and when I hold up two fingers, the serving lady knows that means two meatballs, no sauce, to go, for Sally.

There is the Panda Express which is as much Chinese food as Burger King is, but at least has the semblance of looking Chinese, held together with recognizable Chinese ingredients such as hoisin sauce. But no, the foot remained firm on the pedal and it quickly became apparent that unless I made some sudden whim of a suggestion somewhere at one of the many fast food sources that provide a miniature replication of Central America, it was going to be northbound on the Harbor Freeway, headed toward its inexorable juncture with the Hollywood Freeway.

And so it went, 110 north, guided along by Garrison Keillor's evening take on The Writer's Corner, with an entertaining profile of Faulkner. It was pretty difficult at this point to avoid the obvious pulls, which were either Du-Par's for world famous hot cakes and perhaps some eggs, the side of sausage being pocketed for Sally or--


And so, at Laurel Canyon, the maneuvering off the Hollywood Freeway, a quick left, then southbound to Ventura Boulevard, the spine if not the conscience of that part of LA known as The Valley.

No question about it any longer. Sally was going to get half a pastrami on rye from Art's Deli. I was going to close my eyes and allow the cold trickle of Dr. Brown's Diet Cream Soda to dribble tummyward in a kind of comfort food reverie.

Pastrami is the cow brisket, cut toward the navel end, which means a bit of fat, which means this is not everyday fare. Try telling Sally that. While still raw, the meat is salt cured, then rubbed with spices and given a long, slow steaming/cooking. 

Unlike its cousin, corned beef, pastrami is traditionally sliced thin, then piled on corn rye, subjected to a squirt of deli mustard, which is to say mustard with some authority. It is often presented with a pickle and a mound of cole slaw which, if you taste critically, contains the merest tang of horseradish.

Art's serves serious pastrami. The Carnegie and Stage Delis in Manhattan are thought by the Eastern establishment to be kings of the pastrami hill, but even The New York Times has to (and does) admit that Langer's deli on Alvarado near Sixth in mid-town LA is the pastrami to beat. Art's is right up there, bringing famous pastrami sandwiches of the past to mind along with all the accouterments that accompany the need for a famous pastrami sandwich.

Clearly this night, this lovely, full-moon night, was a time for the step beyond comfort food, the eating of which implies some need for the comforts of food beyond the ordinary relish of food. That step, the step beyond, is Heritage Food, food from one's own heritage or from a recognizable heritage one eats without feeling like a tourist.

The pastrami need was upon me and as I write this, I begin to dread the inevitable need to floss and brush, removing those lovely strands of pastrami from their temporary abode in my interdental spaces.

Early after demolishing her share, Sally offered an uncharacteristically loud burp into the night before taking refuge in a nap for the hundred-mile trip home.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Missing from the List

One of the assignments I'm fond of inflicting on myself and on students is the one in which we attempt to list as many of the essential ingredients of story as we can. My fondness extends to the point where some students invariably come forth with an element I have either not considered at all ever, or one I'd allowed to slip into the dusty drawers of forgetfulness .

Thus we have such elements as character and lot, voice, dialogue, narrative, point-of-view, suspense, reversal, tension, suspicion, hidden agenda, scene, backstory. All in all, I reckon between twenty and thirty building blocks.

My purpose in embarking on such a list and inflicting it on students is resident in the next portion of the assignment. Now that you have your list, give it a hierarchy, starting with the most important element and trailing down to the least important (to you) or the one you feel most estranged from.

This list, set in an order of importance, provides an intimate portrait of the writing personality; it is at once a clue to how you define story and which elements you find either the least useful or with which you are most uncomfortable. 

 At this point I jump in with the confession that plot is invariably at the bottom of my list, to which I add, perhaps even projecting a certain perverse pride, that this is so because I am not very accomplished with plotting.

How then, someone will ask, do you get stories?

And I reply, Why, through characters, of course. My characters all think they are right. Whenever they enter a scene, they expect this rightness to be validated, observed by other characters, perhaps even characters who are strangers.

It is a lovely kind of conversation/therapy session/confessional/shop talk; it gets them thinking and it keeps me thinking. For some considerable time, I'd had characters at the top of my list. In more recent times I'd leaned toward voice, arguing to myself that the tone or attitude I brought forth would influence the characters. That approach lasted for quite a while. We often wish to hear a particular story or reminiscence repeated because of the tone of the teller. I think I have heard all Barnaby Conrad's stories about the time he spent as a younger man serving as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, but somehow the story of how Conrad, showing off with a bow and arrow, let one fly only to fatally and unintentionally impale a toad sends me into paroxysms of mirth. Ditto the story Lewis told Conrad about the attractive woman on a neighboring deck chair on the Queen Elizabeth, reading a copy of Lewis' latest novel. Thinking he was about to make serious romantic time with the woman once he revealed to her who he was--"Are you enjoying that book?"--he was stunned when she stood, advanced to the deck railing, and dropped the book over the side. I know these stories but they are made more memorable by Conrad's obvious pleasure at telling them.

Which brings me to the deck railing as it were; the moment of truth. Character was a good thing to have considered number one. Voice was an excellent thing to have replaced it with. My current favorite is subtext, which is something I describe as the trough between what a character says and what the character does. Implication, if you will. Actually, I've been quite pleased with myself for having seen that lovely distinction and because I've been on such a nonfiction vector these last several months, I've only had one opportunity to try a story in which subtext was deliberately elevated to the top.

But there is something important I have forgotten, not just for the moment but for all these years of trying to move my craft along some line of progress. It is the thing every successful story has in abundant measure. Indeed, it is the thing the creator must carry about as though it were the most advanced iPod, listening to it, using it, being aware of it.

My bad for having forgotten it or for merely having taken it so much for granted that I may have on occasion obviated it.



Sunday, September 23, 2007


1. Today was the end of a chapter, the final ultimate positively last farewell party for Duane Unkefer, who looks harassed, harried, tired, and a bit concerned. His effects are stashed in some large pod which will be moved to Portland in the next few days, where Unk's new life will begin. Over the twenty years or so of our friendship, there has been much hanging out, much arguing of fine points, much thrusting each upon the other some book, offered with the conviction that it possesses life-changing qualities. This book will change your life. This book will make you want to change your life. This one will make you eternally grateful that you have not changed your life.

Portland is not a bad place to begin a new life. I remember when Fred Karlin gave up on Santa Barbara and went to Portland, staying for the better part of two years before the film studios got him back to Culver City, avid of sound tracks for movies. Fred exhibited that sense of stepping off the edge of the mesa, just as Unk did a few hours back. For several weeks there were cheerful emails from Fred, speaking of the joys of Powell's Books and the fact that a nearby fm station had a pretty good range of jazz, and the fact that one could actually get places by bus.

Friends moving off on new ventures remind you of things left unsaid, of things that were settled by a nod or a hug because the things to be said sounded a bit suspicious.

I only now remembered that somewhere in the garage-turned-into study is a book carefully wrapped in a plastic bag, a book Unk loaned me how many years back, urging me to be careful because he valued the cover art. One of our soaking rains took care of that and I had the damndest time finding a new one on Amazon dot com.

Not exactly looking for or finding a metaphor there, but still, friends are those about whom you discover you still have some possession of their and they of yours. What part of you sits in that pod, awaiting transport to Portland?

2. The discovery of a collection of short stories called Drown by Junot Diaz came about after I'd read a story of his in The New Yorker and yet another in Paris Review. Eleven years later, after beginning to fear that he was swallowed up in the world of teaching, he has returned with a novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which he does what James Joyce threatened to have Stephen Deadalus do at the closure of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "I go forth to encounter reality and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." I go forth to finish my review and get it in before they grow restful.

Joyce, of course, was Irish; Diaz is from Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, welcome aboard, Junot Diaz.

3. Working at my laptop, feet propped o my bed, I am well into wondering what is disturbing me and only now realize how, earlier, I stripped off the bed clothes thinking to wash them and may actually have done so--but have not replaced them.

4. Senor Wences. Easy for you.

5. Many persons confuse arguments with adventures.

6. At Unc's farewell, a number of persons were blaming blogging for interfering with their life. A cocktail waitress ventured that blogging had cost her a boyfriend, whereupon someone in the crowd reminded her that slow service was going to cost her a tip. This is not going to turn out to be a syllogism but nevertheless, blogging only interferes with portions of one's life. Priorities.

7. I'm going to check on sheets and pillow cases.

8. Squirrels fall out of trees more often than one might suspect. They don't take to it kindly.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Comfort Music

1. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

2. Beethoven's Emperor Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

3. Any piano sonata by W. A. Mozart

4. The Waltz by Maurice Ravel

5. Piano Concerto by Maurice Ravel

6. Daphnus and Chloe by Maurice Ravel

7. Mahogany Hall Stomp by Louis Armstrong

8. Rose of the Rio Grande by Sidney Bechet

9. Ask Me Now by Steve Lacey

10. Ask Me Now by Fred Hersch

11. Ask Me Now by Thelonious Monk

12. Ask Me Now by Carmen Macrae

13. Crepuscle for Nellie
by Thelonious Monk

14. Let's Call This by Thelonious Monk

15. Over the Rainbow by Dave Brubeck

16. Had a Dog and Her Name Was Blue by Pete Seeger

17. Giant Steps by John Coltrane

18. Body and Soul by Nat Cole

19. Upper Manhattan Medical Group by Alan Broadbent

20. The Romantic Symphony by Howard Hansen

21. Symphonetta by Laos Janacek

22. Concerto in F by George Gershwin

23. Speak Low by Al Henderson

24. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Bud Powell

25. All the Things You Are by Shorty Rogers and the Lighthouse All-Stars

26. Cinderella Ballet by Sergei Prokofiev

27. Sunset Eyes by Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards and the Ken's Hula Hut All-Stars

28. Oh, Lady Be Good by Charlie Parker

29. Please Send Me Someone to Love by Red Garland

30. On Green Dolphin Street by Miles Davis

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Inner Man, er, Men

We start out in life with the bravado and insouciance of an only child, with no need to share a room with siblings or other pack members. This single-occupancy tenancy is as tenuous as an on-time flight; shortly after getting the metaphorical room to our liking, other tenants are brought in, as though immigrant relatives in an already crowded apartment.

These other roomers in our psyche are thrust upon us by our own growing sense of awareness, the sense I will call the sense of selves, for indeed these roomies we achieve are blood family in the sense that there are emerging aspects of ourself. Moi? you say. Yes, you hypocrite lecteur, mon semblance, mom frere.

By a certain age, we begin fragmenting, way past the RB, which is to say reptilian brain, and into such separate aspects as The Optimist, The Pessimist, The Realist, The Dreamer, Captain Spaulding (of Hooray! fame), possibly a Sir Edmund Hillary, perhaps even a Mother Teresa. Certainly a Hunter-and-Gatherer as well as a stay-at-home Agriculturalist. As we advance through our twenties and into our thirties, our psyche has become the roil and splatter of the famed stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, that splendid preface to the work of Joseph Campbell. We have become a 365-day-a-year enactment of The Family Gathering. 

 Parts of us know the very secrets other parts of us wish to keep hidden. And it is entirely possible that like crashers at a party, some strangers have come to witness the internecine squabble. Oh, how we envy the multiple personality disorder. We who are less fortunate, know that our multiple personalities all exist; the MPD individual sincerely believes each of the roomers in the psyche is the only one, the only child.

We have, in effect, become a splendid metaphor for The Italian Parliament, constantly resigning, reforming, realigning, beginning tenuous coalitions in our desire to get our psyche to tear up all its credit cards and start doing a strict cash-and-carry business.

As we struggle to accomplish this plateau, we awaken one morning to discover that we have reached yet another--dare I use the word benchmark any longer?--plateau. Welcome to the Plateau of Cynicism. It is a place where we question all reports, all information, all interpretations. Robert Burns suggests" O! Wad some giftie/The Giver gie us/To see ourselves/As others see us/T'would from many a blunder free us/And foolsh notion..."

Nice try. We're stuck with the family, the Us; that is until we come to the conclusion that much as we don't trust,say, Fox News (News?) or the WSJ, disappointed as we are that the Congress we elected to get some work done is as they say in polite company work challenged, we've got to think it through and act for ourselves. I have one acquaintance who suggests that such an attitude makes me a Libertarian. No such luck, JL. The first five letters point in the right direction, but the fork in the road gets pretty wide beyond there.

Dylan Thomas approximates it:
"I, in my intricate image, stride on two levels,

Forged in man's minerals, the brassy orator
Laying my ghost in metal,
The scales of this twin world tread on the double,
My half ghost in armour hold hard in death's corridor,
To my man-iron sidle.

Beginning with doom in the bulb, the spring unravels,
Bright as her spinning-wheels, the colic season
Worked on a world of petals;
She threads off the sap and needles, blood and bubble
Casts to the pine roots, raising man like a mountain
Out of the naked entrail..."

Okay, call it enlightened cynicism.

Call it anything but Ishmael who, by the way, was probably bi-polar, and at least had a sense of what I'm essaying here. He survived his inner Ahab, saw around that hulk of a whale, lived to tell about it.

And there's my point. He was created to survive so he could tall about it.

That's what we do, survive to be the credible witness in a world where Ahabs lurk behind the next whale.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What About Comfort Poetry?

Almost everyone I know has squirreled away--an apt verb because even as I write this, I'm watching squirrels squirrel away a stash of peanuts left for that very purpose--some notion of a food that when ingested, even contemplated, will cause the metaphorical soothing hand to caress their brow.

Thus the very thought of the things I could find, even in such unlikely sources of comfort food as gas station minimarts, has the bio-feedback effect of getting my impatience foot off the gas pedal, my finger off the martyr button. Running late once for a series of what promised to be boring, time-consuming meetings, I confess to having purchased a single-serving tub of mashed potatoes (right, like those were really potatoes!) over which were poured a much less considerate white sauce than John Eaton's (from today's post) and wolfed the gelatinous mass down, realizing in the process that I'd had the microwave set way too high. You simply cannot trust gas station microwaves. But you can trust comfort food.

So it comes to me, which poets do I turn to in times of weal and woe? Is there a comfort poetry?

You bet there is, and just as is the case with comfort food, there is often no rational basis for it. F'rinstance, why would I take so much comfort from Ezra Pound's: Winter is icummin in/lhude sing goddamn/skiddeth bus and sloppeth us/what an ague hath my ham?

Not to mention E.P.'s lines: "What thou love'st well/Can never be reft from thee/What thou love's well/Is thy true heritage..."

Mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate ice cream, creamed tuna on toast, and now, in my dotage, Surf Dogs from the stand by the beach in Carpinteria, not to forget the Island burger at the Kahua Grill, nor the occasional can of Wolf Brand chili, nor corn bread with hidden jalepeno peppers (gotta be Ortega canned). Such are the irrational natures of some of my own comfort foods. Oh, right, white asparagus spears (gotta be bottled--canned doesn't do it).

The poets? Emily Dickinson. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yeats, William Butler Crazy Yeats; Neruda, Ramprasad, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Basho, Shall I compare thee to a Summer's Day? Go ahead, feel perfectly free to do so. Gabriella Mistral. The Eve of St. Agnes, ah, bitter chill it was...

I think it works. I am hungry just thinking about it.

Was it John Eaton's white sauce got me thinking this way, or the need for comfort, or perhaps the need for lunch.

Go figure, and while you're figuring, get ready for sunset tomorrow night. The big one's coming. Time to defrag your moral hard drive.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Dots, er, Holes to Connect

For some years, Barnaby Conrad and I lunch on Thursdays at a place variously called Tom's, particularly when Tom was the owner; but also as the Pharmacy Lunch Room, and in its most formal presentation of all, the Montecito Pharmacy Lunch Room, even though it has nothing to do with the Montecito Pharmacy, except in the form of a benign neighbor. With the exception of frequent remarkable culinary additions to the menu--apple pie milkshake, migas, avocados stuffed with shrimp, huevos rancheros, a stunningly effective steak sandwich, and a splendid fish called escolar, very little happens at the Pharmacy Lunch Room. During the summer months, when great gobs of tourists seem to appear, Jonathan Winters literally works the room, pinning the hapless tourists in the rear corner, covering them with a manic barrage of humorous observation that ultimately becomes as oppressive as a George Bush speech. Accordingly, it was big news when Tom sold the lunch room to Debby, who promptly renamed the lunch room The Montecito Coffee Shop. I will not comment on the coffee, which is urn coffee and therefore merits as little consideration as possible.

For all the years Conrad and I meet to dismember French Dip sandwiches or allow Debby to indulge her creativity with unusual types of milkshakes, through the tourist infestations and Jonathan Winters's choleric discontents, this cover has been the witness to the nonhstory of the Upper Village. I have trod upon it, undoubtedly driven over it, and worst of all, ignored it while pursuing the warp and weft of some seemingly vital goal.

It took a walk with Sally in Hale Park along with the conviction that I had dropped a check book there to come to terms with what I now consider at least as much a work of art as Andy Warhol or the mustached insouciance of Salvadore Dali. But it took me walking through a long patch of earth with holes of varying sizes, suggestive of a condominium for the likes of gophers, spiders, and perhaps snakes.

I rushed to the Montecito Coffee Shop to take this shot of this more sophisticated hole covering, for that is at heart what it is. The gophers, spiders, and others want no such elaborations; to them a hole serves as an entry and an exit; quick in--quick out. If need be, sorry, no one home.

Mankind likes to leave its mark on things, nicknames and love interests incised on schoolroom desks, ignoble wads of flavored chewing gum, abandoned on the underside of tables in restaurants and libraries; beta versions of tattoos inscribed on tree trunks, paintings on the walls of caves, and the lovely, almost iconic inscriptions on the huge rock formations of the Southwest, Paso por aqui, passed by here. Man likes to label his holes, his conduits, perhaps to identify, perhaps as a kind of Aristotelian taxonomy.

I am quite taken with these emblems that we have gone to such pains to render as seeming important, and I pledge herewith to capture as many of them as I am fortunate enough to come by, the Edward S. Curtis of the sewer and man hole cover. What a glorious name. Man hole cover. Two unabashed iambic feet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Way We Were

1. In the process of editing a magazine called Borderline with the late astrologer, Sidney Omar, I came in contact
with a medium who channeled writers who had crossed over to the other side, but who still wished to communicate with us. The medium brought me materials supposedly composed on the next plane of existence. Accordingly I saw materials purported to be from George Elliott, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, William Dean Howells, and Arthur Conan Doyle, none of which seemed to have the vibrant qualities possessed by the authors during her or his tenure on this plane of existence. I was somewhat surprised to see that George Elliott spelled grey with the American spelling and that HPB used such Americanisms as color, center, and honor, but the medium took full responsibility for these stylistic anomalies and blamed it on the growing Americanization of the spirit world.

2. The late astrologer, Sidney Omar, was born Sidney Kimmelman in Philadelphia, having told me he changed his name to Omar because it had better numerological integrity, and later admitted that were it not for the relatively small size of his hands, he would have pursued a career as a light heavyweight boxer.

3. While sitting in the eclectically ornate law office of Melvin Belli, the King of Torts, we both looked up from the task at hand in time to witness a man deftly unlock the door to his car (parked right outside the office), hot wire it, then drive it off into the clamorous and streaming San Francisco afternoon.

4. Thinking I had pulled a major coup by signing my favorite speculative fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, to a two book deal, I called an editor friend at another publishing house to crow over my triumph. "How much did you give him?" she asked. "A thousand down against ten for the first book, with escalators to twenty for the second book." "You got off lucky," she said. "His pitches are so beautiful that he usually gets at least five up front."

I read later that he resorted to this stratagem because it paid better than being an after dinner speaker.

5. Although he has published forty books and hundreds of magazine pieces, Barnaby Conrad has never learned to type, has owned only one computer and that with disastrous results.

6. John Sanford, who was notably proud at having signed a three-book contract at age ninety, typed his manuscripts on a Royal upright manual typewriter, and was driven to consult a stationer in Chicago from whom he bought typewriter ribbons.

7. At one point in his life when he was seriously considering the vocation of a monk in a sect of modern Hinduism, (see his novel, A Meeting by the River," Christopher Isherwood bought used jeans at thrift shops, then hand-frayed the cuffs to make them look even more tattered.

8. When suspense writer Jack Kerley received an advance of two hundred fifty thousand dollars for his first novel, The Hundredth Man, he told me he was embarrassed at first because writing the book was so easy and so much fun.

9. When Fran Weaver began her publishing and tv commentary career relatively late in life, she confessed that it felt strange taking so much money simply for being funny.

10. The more successful a mystery writer is, the more he or she nourishes the idea of someday writing something serious--and the more his or her fans wishes he or she wouldn't.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Preferred Seating

1. It used to be characters but then it became voice, but now it has become subtext--what people say as opposed to what they really mean.

2. Voice, their attitude, comes next. This colors the entire narrative. Until you know how they sound, you don't have a strong enough sense of who they are, and through no fault of their own, they may fall flat on their plinth.

3. What used to be number one has become number three. Now comes character.

Now that you know who they are and how they sound, you can plan what they say. Dialogue is thus number four.

5. No question about it, scene is next; the landscape has to reflect something, perhaps from their anticipations, perhaps from your own sense of not wanting them to think they're off on some goddamned vacation.

6. Conflict has to be in there because if there isn't any, there is no story. You see people who go around agreeing all the time, you begin thinking something is wrong, unless of course you discover that they think they're agreeing but aren't.

7. Surprise. Or maybe I should say surprise! Nothing like an unanticipated turn of event to get you feeling humble. Even though you know them--you created them, right?--they should have minds and hearts of their own.

8. Reversal is next. Just when everything is looking hopeful, something comes along and repossesses the rug. Right out from under them.

9. Moral choice. They either think they have to make one or think they are exempt from having to make one.

10. Change or understanding that could lead to change. Look at Huck Finn. Look at Pip. Man, they went after change as though it were the first day of sales for the iPhone. On the other hand, look at Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day. He never got it. Naive narrator to the end.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Kinkiest Places under the Sun

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

--A. E. Houseman

Although he took great pride in his classical scholarship, Houseman was relatively modest about his reach as a poet and although his seemingly instinctive ability to "get" the Latin he was translating advanced our sense of the works he studied, it is safe to say his poetry had every bit as much effect on a larger audience.

Never having been in Clunton or Clunbury, much less Clungford and Clun, I am willing to take Houseman's word for their quietness and even his assessment that if you thought to have troubles there, those troubles were a two or three on the scale of ten, with ten being what you could expect to find in, say, London.

I have been in Fresno and Salinas and Tulare and, yes, Bakersfield. I have been in Soledad and Gonzales, even ventured into Chualar (which is a lovely name for a rather unlovely kind of grass). Not to forget King City or Earliart or Tracy, and hey, what about Merced? Talk about quiet places!

And yet.

And yet these bastions of small-town California are undergoing a kind of revolution which I feel confident in recognizing as having spread over the state lines. almost past the point where it can be observed by a single person. This is epic stuff, and it has to do with the complex irony of a battle against the middle-class in this country, reminiscent of and a cautionary reminder of the one that has been effected below us in Mexico. There is little or no middle class there, and the odds against a sustaining one in this country are becoming more precipitous.

It offers wry amusement to think of so many American jobs already being outsourced to India that the good folk of India must outsource the work they cannot handle to--you guessed it, Mexico.

The quietness of these American cities I've mentioned can be seen in larger cities, in the Wal-Marts ad K-Marts and cookie-cutter malls, where bleak faces shop thriftily, their livelihood and comfort depending on it. In these cities, which are often as much as a two-hour commute from larger employment centers, there are town houses, condos, and ready-mix apartment complexes that, because of their distance from the larger employment centers, are affordable.

Soledad and King City are splendid examples of cities divided in two, old town and more traditional residents; new town and the aliens. The aliens may not be comfortable with some of the statewide franchises but they have a grudging familiarity with the from the big city.

In a real sense these divisions within cities are akin to the divisions back in the Stone Age where weather, not commuting costs, more or less drove Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon into the same quietest places under the sun.

The more things change...

Soon the large stores will be trying to attract our interest in trading goods for the December rituals of gift exchange, a set of ceremonies not unlike the potlatches of Indians of the Northwest. Auto makers will try to attract our interest in maneuverable vehicles with smaller footprints, speaking of which, shoe manufacturers will be after us to try out ergonomic but palpably green models in the wearing of which we leave no toe behind. As we go about the warp and woof of the approaching autumn, take a moment to lock eyes with some stranger who is as bewildered and harried as you.

Paul Portuges likes to throw in a stage management in his screenplays, in which a male character, sexually interested in a particular woman, gives her "the male gaze." He does this on the theory that directors and actors know what this is short hand for. Accordingly, I propose the Hunter-and-Gatherer gaze for the next trip to the Levaithan market places and the cities that have become the new quietest places under the sun.

Using the Hunter-and-Gatherer gaze, we make contact with our inner Neanderthal.

Dare to spank your inner Cro-Magnon.

Take an Ice-Age person home to dinner.

And while you're at it, forget this business of gender equality. Hunting is a man's work; the ladies get to do the butchering and cooking. This isn't the big city, this is the forest primeval.
Or maybe just the forest prime real estate.

Go figure.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Places That Don't Really Exist Anymore

1. The Past.

2. 6145 1/2 Orange Street, Los Angeles, CA 90036.

3. Any of the Van de Kamp's bakeries in Los Angeles.

4. Gino's on Coast Village Road.

5. The Greek-Italian Grocery at State and Ortega Streets, Santa Barbara.

6. Much of Central California, which is being eaten alive by a Stage-IV Van Nuys virus.

7. The Big Orange stand outside Bakersfield on 99.

8. The Carthay Circle Theater (where Snow White and Around the World in Eighty Days were premiered.

9, Innocence.

10. The Fox Rosemary Theater on the Venice Pier.

11. The Fox Theater in Greenfield, California.

12. Gilmore Stadium, adjacent the Farmers' Market at Third and Fairfax, mid-town Los Angeles

What does this mean?

It means there are more places than don't exist than places that do?

Why should we care?

We should care because we are living representatives of the human species and it is hard-wired into us to care unless we are the House Minority Leader.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Half-way There

Many years back, when I lived in the same neighborhood as Michael Connolly's fictional cop, Harry Bosch, there was a group of San Francisco friends who would telephone from time to time with irresistable offers that had me setting forth on 101, heading north as quickly as an old Hudson would take me. Either that or, finances permitting, a quick run over Barham Bouleard to the Burbank Airport and a--are you ready for this?--$29 ticked on Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Though fast, comfortable, and convenient, the PSA flights were merely a prelude to advetures in San Francisco and across the Bay in Sausalito, which we always referred to by its translated name, The Little willow Thicket. The rides in the Hudson were the real adventures, the Plimsol Line of which was a place more or less midway between Salinas and San Luis Obispo. As you drive on 101, King City is about the half-way point, a place to stretch, get coffee, gas, and if terribly hungry and unable to wait for the more sophisticated pleasures of Salinas, an undistinguished hamburger, mitigated by some decent pico de gallo salsa.

King Cty is the place where things wet wrong and you had to wait until they were set right by someone, anyone,who had the means, motive, and opportunity to set things right. King City is where Michael Hurley's Plymouth gave up its radiator, where Jim Silverman's intransegent Dodge decided to play dead, where Jerry Williams's VW Bug lost its fan belt, an event that ultimately led him to enroll in law school, where Lee Cake's Chevy ran afoul of a timing belt, and where I had electric problems with the Hudson.

Altough these events took place seemingly at whim and in various times of the year, our combined impressions of King City was of a throbbing, unrelenting heat, even into the late evening hours. While we waited out the automotive Fates, we discovered where better coffee--not good but better--could be had, where there were creditable pies to be had, and even motels that seemed more or a=less attuned to out status as stranded travelers, lost in limbo, half-way to Los Angeles if we were returning, half-way to San Francisco, if we were going .

We accepted King City as though it were some kind of karmic bargaining chip, a chakra on the spine that connected our lives with one another and with various destinies we foresaw for ourselves or hoped to see for ourselves in San Francisco. Some of us actualy moved there, lived there, died there. From time to time a umber of our san Francisco friends came southward to visit us ad pursue various destinies in Los Angeles. After selling his partnership in The Old Spaghetti House Cafe on Green Street, Jim Silverman was a frequent visitor to my Barbara Court digs in Holywood, Don and Joan Cunningham came through, as did Bobbie Bledsoe. Significantly, they had their down times in King City.

Sometimes now, when I mention King City to Karen Delabarca, who often leaves comments here as Anonymous, she will ask with a brow turned to incredulous, Why would you ever go to such a place? She speaks with the passion of having been raised in nearby Salinas.

Busses in King City seem always to be headed to Salinas; busses in Salinas have minds of their own, opting for Monterey, Pacific Grove, even Carmel.

I write these vagrant sentiments and memories from Keefer's Motel in, you guessed it, King City. It is still half-way there. It is a Friday night and King City is meeting Salinas in a high school football game. The city is alive with the sounds and smells of it, marching bands, biased public address announcers, and a city in transitin from being what it was when it started, a gatway to mountains and fishing and a place of agriculture and a place of speculation. King City, California. Half-way there.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ten Things We Cannot Do Without

1. Australian Cattle Dog

2. Thelonious Monk

3. Blintzes

4. The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle

5. Pinot noir

6. Moleskine notebooks

7. KC barbecue

8. Gerbera daisies

9. The Well-Tempered Clavichord

10. The Big Sur Coastline

lagniape: 11. blogging

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


DEFENSIVENESS--a quality of uncertainty and desire to please manifest in some writers who do not trust the level of enthusiasm they feel for a project; a quality often found in novels and to a lesser extent in short fiction emblematic of the author's need to explain or justify; an often unnecessary footnote-as-text, used to convince the reader of a moral or behavioral position taken by the character or one of the characters.

Defensiveness begins with the writer's response to criticism, and is often rendered as But it really happened that way! and extends to lengthy explanations. Defensiveness is the literary equivalent of a youngster, trapped in a fib or lie, extending the trope with even more justification; it is The Dog Ate My Homework writ large.

Frequently the product of a mountain goat leap of logic in the motivation or behavior ascribed to a character, defensiveness is a good argument for Occam's Razor. The best approach for explaining or inserting behavioral attributions is to let the characters do it. The reader is less likely to question the behavior of Character A if Character B questions that behavior first. Thus the fact of B not trusting A carries more weight than A rendered as trying to convince B of his trustworthiness.

In real life and in fiction, when someone says "Trust me," that person is on the defense for something previously said or about to be said.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Random Notes

1. Americans carry bottles of water, Brits carry bags of crisps.

2. Recast Gawain and the Green Knight: Instead of the Round Table, the knights are members of a biker band. One day, as they knock back beers in Hollister, CA, an ominous rumble is heard, whereupon a menacing-looking dude arrives on a green Harley soft tail, and challenges the assembled host. The youngest member of our band, looking to count some quick coup, takes the challenge...

3. The Rate of Discovery: The pace at which the Reader learns what the story is about and what the salient details are.

4. Dramatic Defensiveness: a condition where the writer argues that the things within a story are so rather than believing them to be so and writing accordingly.

5. Hemingway said all American literature comes from one book, Huckleberry Finn, one of the better observations he had. He might have added that most noir crime-related writing came from America's least recognized major writer, James M. Cain. He didn't, and so I will.

6. The most dopamine is released when uncertainty is the greatest. The trick to keeping readers invested in story is to produce dopamine within the reader. Ergo, you gotta get inside and keep pushing at the uncertainty. Who will do what to whom and why?

7. Overheard in a Santa Barbara, CA Subway (franchise sandwich shop): "I don't like trying tuna in new places. People can really mess up tuna."

8. In the kitschy poem commemorating the midnight ride of Paul Revere is the line "Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day (eighteenth of April )or year ( seventy-five)." The same could be said for those who recall the names Millicent Gunderson, Joel Kupperman, Harve Bennet Fischman, Gerard Darrow, or Claude Brenner. Who remembers The Quiz Kids? Who, indeed, remembers the name of the moderator of The Quiz Kids?

9. Dante is to Beatrice as Ernest Dowson is to Adelaide Folinowicz. Who, you ask, was Ernest Dowson? You don't remember Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regao Cynarae?

10 . You are in the dining room of the Eype's Mouth Hotel at the Dorset Coast. You have just been served a steaming bowl of broccoli and Stilton soup. How wonderful and also how English, right? Now comes the awareness of music, piped in from a sound system with complex nuances (sounds like the description of the wine served with the soup.) But what's this? The music: Cannonball Adderly's solo on Miles Ahead. This is, of course, followed by Miles Davis's solo. And what next in this English countryside? Why, of course: the incredible arpeggio of John Coltrane. After this and the estimable soup have vanished, the chef ventures out of the kitchen. "You like the soup?" "Of course. But the music? How?" He shrugs. "You're American. You tap your foot. Brits don't tap feet." Is there no end to learning?

11. No.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Things We Can Do Without

...or at least, I can:

1. Mosquitoes. Okay, they have a purpose. I mean beyond biting me and propagating. But still, I can stand the notion of passing great lengths of time without even thinking of them, much less being bitten by them.

2. Newspaper features that tell you cutely what you already know.

3. Cranky waitpersons. They have a right to think poorly of humanity and I applaud their right to do so, but not when I am dining at their station--unless I have performed some outrageous gesture.

4. Cranky diners. It is one thing to have to go out because there is not even canned chili in the larder, but get over it. You may already have infected the wait person.

5. The comma splice. Persons who use them--except in poetry-- should be kicked out of graduate school

6. The word "very."

7. State of the Union speeches, regardless of the party of the incumbent.

8. Persons who tell us that it is nice to see us. The substitution of the word good for nice makes all the difference.

9. Telemarketers who, although complete strangers to us, begin their pitch by asking us how we are.

10. Year-old (or worse) news magazines in doctor's offices, hair salons, and automotive repair spas.

I have no idea what F.L means, although I like the notion of this blue paint being a kind of first draft by Bruce Caron, a man who wanted to paint a blue line through Santa Barbara, showing the portions that could be lost when the polar caps melt. The Caron Line was fervently opposed by--you guessed--real estate brokers, who claimed it would have an unduly harsh effect on property values. Go, Bruce!

Sunday, September 9, 2007


Working as a noun, a frame is a structure enclosing or containing some systemic entity, be it a photograph, a painting, a document, a house, even a human body. In its avatar as a verb, frame has various meanings including the enclosing of the structural parts of a building, building a structure of plausible logic of guilt about an innocent individual, or basing an invented narrative around another.

In the literary sense, framing can be seen as wrapping characters and/or events in the structure of another story, thus James Joyce's
Ulysses,framed on or by--your call on the preposition--The Odyssey, Jane Smiley's latest framed on The Decameron.

We have gone through this a number of times, seen it spread through movies such as the famed John Wayne/Claire Trevor Western Stagecoach,framed on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Bouile deSuif, (Ball of Fat), and of course JohnWayne again in Red River, in a real sense Captain Bligh to Montgomery Clift's Fletcher Christian in a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, rendered not at sea but on the open range.

Framing is a way of taking an iconic formula, dare I say myth?,and recasting it. The risk is the same risk for all remakes, but the fault there, I argue (if there is indeed fault) is with the writer not taking enough chances.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


An icon is an important, often enduring image, a definition that can be extended to include persons, places, things, as in nouns. While perhaps not appropriate to mix the genres of icons (lest you appear to be unintentionally demeaning the greater at the expense of the weaker) it is fun to take a personal inventory of one's own icons (Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, John Coltrane, Kansas City barbecue, South Carolina barbecue, Bill Evans, Lorez Hart).

I did not consider windows as icons until late in life, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, at which point I came upon the word defenestration, which began as so many things do with a political/religious vector. The word means "throwing or thrown out a widow." Having learned of that w
ord, I have subsequently defenestrated razors, mushy peaches, a cell phone, and an manual Underwood upright typewriter. Hearing about defenestrations and indulging my own gave me a new respect for the window as a portal, not the portal some writers of fantasy employ to gain access to another world or time dimension, but rather a portal to the imagination.

One of my literary icons, Raymond Chandler, extended the concept of window for me in an observation that has often been misquoted or misinterpreted. Chandler did not suffer simple plots lightly. Writing about his specialty, the murder mystery, he inveighed against the plot-driven notion of getting out of a boring patch of writing by having some new character burst through the window, waving a gun.

As a fledgling mystery writer, I was entranced by the notion, Chandler's admonitions to the contrary notwithstanding, and so many of my early attempts had such duplicitous activity, adding yet another layer of respect to my growing admiration of the window.

Some years later, my connections with a massmarket publishing house led me to be in an editorial meeting when the sales manager announced the results of an experiment conducted on the covers of various Gothic and romance novels. Same book, same author, same moody background, same building featured in the foreground. But in each case, half the edition had a window that was either open or rendered with light emanating from it; the other half of the edition showed the same window either closed or with no backlighting. His moustache twitching,the sales manager went on to report that the copies with the open widow or the backlit window outsold the closed or unlit window by a
factor of three to one.

Years down the river, I recall the sense that I had learned something about literature, readers, and the human psyche that trumped all my undergraduate years in the English Department at UCLA. I could not have told you what precisely it was that I learned as I took this information in. I still may not be able to impart the iconic sense of importance the awareness gave me.

Thus, when I looked up this morning and saw this image before me, this open window, I was once again transformed and transported, simultaneously recalling all the personal background and attachment I bring to the icon of the open window and adding the sense of curiosity I bring as well. Who lives or waits or works or lurks just beyond that open window?

As it happens, I know.

Beyond that window is a splendid office belonging to a sincere, devoted, and talented writer. The fact that I know the writer, have indeed edited his forthcoming novel, and have been a guest in this remarkable George Washington Smith house cuts no ice. The imagination rules with a service faster and surer than Roger Feder; the imagination trumps reality.

The open window is my icon for successful fiction. The open window makes you suspend what you know to be so and what you believe to be so, then gets you to use your frequent-flyer miles to transport yourself to another place, where another, more compelling set of realities obtain.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Sounds inside and outside the study

1. Sally snoring the righteous snore of a dog who has done a day's work (and is thinking of asking for a raise).

2. Domestic squabble between squirrels on tree stump directly beyond the window.

.3. The clatter and rumble of a freight train crashing through on its way north to ?

4. The sound borne on a misty night's air of someone picking out show tunes on an out-of-tune piano.

5. A dog from down the road, barking into the night at some insult real or imagined.

6. A robot call from the Good Will wanting me to press 1 if I have any clothing, books, or useful goods for pick-up by a truck that will be in my neighborhood tomorrow.h

7. The hiss of tire treads reacting to asphalt as a car roars up Hot Springs Road toward Mountain Drive.

8. The sound system on a MacBook, celebrating the night with some solo piano of Fred Hersch playing songs of Thelonious Monk, making them sound anomalously like Maurice Ravel.

9. A scurrying of tiny, clawed feet skittering across the roof. May be rats; squirrels tend to crash early.

10. And now a soggy, squishy quiet, where you realize the quiet actually has a degree of character to it that emerges as a kind of suburban shyness, a stillness without ambition of being anything more. Almost as preternatural as being awakened in the middle of the night by the awareness of a train not passing or a band of coyotes not, for a change, engaged in barbershop quartet.

11. Quiet out there.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

At First Blush

1. Can't say how many times I read Ulysses before figuring out that Leopold Bloom was in his early thirties. Even though that age seemed remarkably old to me the first few times I had at Mr.Joyce's work, LB seemed older, like, say, forties. (Ah, callow youth!)

2. Speaking of Ulysses, I didn't realize what it meant when I broached the reference desk at the Providence, R.I. Public Library, asked for it, and had to wait while the librarian secured it from a locked cabinet. (Ah, callow youth!)

3. The first time I heard the song, Joe Hill, as in, "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you or me..." I didn't know who Joe Hill was.

4. The first time I saw a thick black stripe circumnavigating the interior of busses in Miami Beach, FL, I thought it was a decoration.

5. Because of my unfamiliarity with New Jersey accents, I thought God's name was Harold, as in Harold be Thy Name...This made perfect sense in relationship to the discovery of Harold angels singing.

6. The first time I heard Red Barber "call" a Dodger's game, I decided there were some advantages to being in the East. This sense of advantage did not last long, but at least Red Barber mitigated the condition.

7. The first time I saw a baseball game played in Fenway Park, I knew that baseball would never again be so wonderful, what with my being able to take sight of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Vince Dimaggio in one continuous sweep.

8. The first time my maternal grandmother prepared hot dogs for me, I was imprinted with a vision of her smile that has never faded.

9. The first time I ate a hot dog at Katz Brothers on Hester Street, I understood how the hot dog worked.

10. The first time I ate a hot dog at The Surf Dog, adjacent to the Bailard Avenue turn-off in Carpinteria, I remembered 8 and 9 supra.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Funny Names

American cities:

1. Bodfish, CA
2. Pismo Beach, CA
3. Wytopitlock, ME
4. Lake Okechobee, FL
5. Parumph, NV
6. Jean, NV
7. Walla Walla, WA
8. Snohomish, WA
9. Cleveland, OH

UK cities:

1. Affpiddleton
2. Chipping Sodbury
3. Wooton under Edge
4. Dewlish
5. Piddlinton
6. Bognor Regis
7. Shepton Mallet


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Francisco Connection

My earlier post about animal friends, past and present, had greater consequences than I anticipated.

Sure, I had the time to think in order and detail about the warmth and comfort and sense of connectedness one experiences when riffling through the deck of friends. It also enhanced the muscle memory that goes with being a friend to those animals and humans whose life touches my own. Not to forget the sense of late summer holiday, the pre-Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas celebration that comes from the cyber recollections of others about their splendid friendships. Liz reminds me of her Jack and the connection she has forged with my Sally (whom I', sure considers herself to have initiated the connection with Liz). John Eaton offers up some pals in ways that make me wish I could have known them. Nor do I forget the lovely portrait Pod posted of his antipodean pal, Portia. It is nice to be connected by the tissue of pleasure at friends having good, close friends.

To use the legal parlance seen in some writs and decisions, Comes before us now one Francisco, who wonders if Sam, the splendid short-hair who came to visit me when I lived in the Hollywood Hills, probably in walking distance from where fictional LAPD detective Harry Bosh lives. Francisco straightforwardly asks if Sam=Hipshot?

It took a few moments for the penny to drop (an expression that surely betrays my age): Sam was Sam, I said almost impatiently. Hipshot, ah, Hipshot was a character in a comic strip, Rick O'Shay, set in the indeterminate old West. Tall, tow-headed Rick was the sheriff, Hipshot was a gun fighter, a pretty cool character who had his own, individualized code.

One day, there appeared in my apartment a smallish, gray long-hair, an agreeable, fluffy ball of mischief who enjoyed playing more than eating and whom Sam seemed content to admit. Somehow this young visitor became called Hipshot. At first it was thought that Hipshot was a boy, and as I recall the sequence of events, this assumption held for quite some time before Hipshot grew visibly rounder, disappeared for a time, then appeared one day with a tiny kitten in her mouth, which she deposited on the carpet, disappeared for a time, returned with another wriggly kit, and disappeared again. Before she returned, there was an insistent ringing of the buzzer on my front door, heralding the arrival of a harried-looking woman neighbor, who described a cat who she called Nasturtium, a cat who in all probability was Hipshot.

With the news that Hipshot was Nasturtium and a mother, that splendid acquaintance was gone from my sight line, apparently fated to undergo some surgery that would put an end to her maternal instincts.

I am talking about some serious years having past since the advent and departure of Hipshot, including a move from the Hollywood Hills to the city of my birth, Santa Monica, a momentous shift in career from working with Arnold H. Kegel, M.D., whose last name informed a series of exercises, to running a California-based publisher to running an LA office for a NY-based publisher, and then a migration to Santa Barbara, where the editorial toe was thrust into the waters of academic and scholarly publishing, only to be tempted by another New York venture.

From the mists of those years and my developing connection with The University, an institution even funnier than Book Publishing, emerges Francisco to ask if Sam were Hipshot.

No. As I said earlier, Sam was Sam, and an effectively brilliant Sam at that. And Hipshot was Hipshot until he became Nasturtium.

Perhaps we will see how the Francisco connection plays out. On the other hand, Tolstoy deliberately introduced fascinating characters and events into his novels, notably War and Peace, only to completely abandon further mention of them because, as he put it, "Life is like that."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Discovered under Bed *

1 copy Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, W.S. Merwin translation

1 yellow Montegrappa fountain pen (presumed lost)

1 USB cable

1 active wall outlet supplementary fixture with leads to wi-fi router and printer

1 wall outlet supplementary fixture with two plugs which do not seem to connect anything to anything else

1 copy The Viking Portable Library Portable Ring Lardner

1 black nylon gym bag with American Express logo on side, containing approximately $500 in quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies

1 shriveled grape

1 pair nail clippers presumed lost

1 enormous dust bunny

1 copy Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (whom we all know is John Banville)

2 moderate-sized dust bunnies

1 small pile of either spong or termite leavings

1 copy Harper's Magazine

1 necktie mailing envelope from Ben Silver, Charleston, SC

1 pair collar stays from Charles Tyrwhitt, Jermyn Street, London

*This is a goodly amount to discover under a bed, even for me, and as a consequence I resolve to find suitable places for all these items before the night progresses. I persist in thinking that the interior shelves of a person's refrigerator reveals more about a person than the contents on any given day of what may be found under that person's bed, nevertheless; this is a stunning amount.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


SAM--short-haired domestic, black, white, gray. A gifted editor. Used to belong to interior decorator. Hated snow. Fond of Kitty-Queen chopped kidney.
MAUDE--short-haired domestic, black, white, brown splotch.
ARMAND--short-haired domestic, treasured at first because he looked like Sam. Liked to hang out on roof. Had mood swings. A mean drunk when high on catnip.
MADAM OVARY--his mother.
BLUE-blue-tick hound, black, white, brown. Extraordinary nose, lovely bawl-mouth.
EDWARD BEAR--her son. Had charge account at Brownie's deli on La Cienega. Once bit deputy sheriff. Experienced serious moods. Ringing chop on track. Resounding baritone on tree. Holds some kind of record for having been treated to steak sandwiches by various patrons of Mom's Italian Villa on Cota Street.
JEDEDIAH STRONG SMITH--also her son. Good strong bawl mouth, excited chop on deer scent, deep baritone on tree with raccoon.
MOLLY--four-parter, black with brown trim. Great swimmer. Liked to carry huge logs. Grew increasingly impatient with the five o'clock northbound passenger train. Tended to snore at writers' conferences.
NELL--Aussie Cattle Dog/Aussie Shepherd--tawny brown with black flecks. One of the most consistently happy dogs I have ever known.
SALLY--Aussie Shepherd, Aussie Cattle Dog. A control freak. Likes to bury croissant pieces.
Preternaturally intelligent, good communication skills. Mind of her own.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Chutzpah and Other Traits

My Favorite Pen as Though Photographed by Richard Avedon
(An Ancora--anchor; not again--with a fine, flexible point, mother-of-pearl side panels and an authoritative weight.)

Avedon would have used a white sheet and painstaking lighting. I chose a paper towel from the house brand at Von's Market and shot in pure daylight.

This bit of whimsy has already set me to wondering how Annie Liebowitz would have come at it. Or Pod. I think Zoe would have it under a street grate in downtown Philadelphia.

Playing with such conceits, the mind begins to shift gears and get a journey on the way. The process is a combination of college humor magazine and the pre-blog, almost Talmudic dialogue between artists and generations called framing.

It was Geoffrey Chaucer who, so far as we now know, gave us the word "pander" thanks to his character Pandarus, in Troilus and Cressyde. Shakespeare, who knew a good thing when he saw it, framed the work, giving it another direction and edge, in Troilus and Cressida.

Is Wallace Stevens having fun with Ode on a Grecian Urn with his Jar? Speaking of Chaucer,was he having framing fun with Boccaccio, or is it just an accident that The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales are framed about a group of people telling stories? And was it fun and mischief or an accident that James Joyce's Ulysses so scrupulously and, in some places ironically is framed on The Odyssey?

Speaking of Boccaccio, what should we make of Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley, or indeed, what should we make of Smiley's estimable Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel? No problem if we haven't read Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens.

It is difficult to think that Vance Bourjally had not read The Canterbury Tales, and so we must assume some framing intent in his novel about a group of actors, called Now Playing at the Canterbury.

Writers do not only frame to have fun or carry on a dialogue with another author or work, they frame to make fun, sometimes with malicious intent, as in the splendid Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham, who was having on Horace Walpole, the Tom Clancy of his day. One of the early romans a clef, Cakes and Ale pilloried poor Walpole by presenting a character very much like him, who was carrying on with the widow of an older, respected novelist whom most readers took to be Thomas Hardy. Absolutely no substance to the roman a clef argument, Maugham said. But what's this? Cakes and Ale featured a character who walked with a limp, stuttered, had just taken a medical degree--all traits possessed by Maugham. Oh, yes; the character's name was Ashenden, a name Maugham used as a pseudonym.

Sorry, have to run off now; Pod has borrowed my pen and is making his move to the door.