Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Be There or Be Square

My Dean, the energetic and incisive Susan Kamei, has asked me for the use of the hall to post this invitation. I have a class at the time, but I may slip over during break time to avail myself and Sally of some of the snacks. You're on, Susan:

Please join us for this free event

Presented by the USC Master of Professional Writing Program and the USC Master of Liberal Studies Program:

Truth, Lies, or Scam – Can You Believe Anything You Read?

Where are the boundaries of truth in the post-James Frey world of “fictionalized nonfiction?” Even classical historians took liberties with imagination and memory; has fact now blurred with fiction? In this provocative panel, hear about today’s artistic, legal, and ethical landmines from those involved in writing and producing works based on fact. Writers, publishers, producers—and readers—should take note.

Moderator: Jonathan Kirsch, author, book reviewer, Biblical scholar, attorney


Mark Jonathan Harris, Academy Award winner and Distinguished Professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts
M.G. Lord, Author and Lecturer, USC Master of Professional Writing Program
John Rechy, Author and Lecturer, USC Master of Professional Writing Program
William G. Thalmann, Professor, USC Departments of Classics and Comparative Literature

Thursday, November 1, 2007
USC University Club

6:00 p.m. Admissions Open House for the MPW and MLS Programs
7:30 p.m. Panel discussion with audience Q&A
9:00 p.m. Mingle with the speakers and USC faculty over coffee

Free and open to the public.
To RSVP and for parking information, call (213) 740-3252 or

I've Grow Accustomed to Her Fez

An underlying subtext of the fact of my Lumix FX-30 camera becoming a friend who accompanies me pretty much where ever I go is the increasing sense of need to look and think outside the parameters of the conventions for writing with which I have educated myself.

Looking at a potential subject for photography develops muscles of thought and vision (sorry for the mixed metaphor) that find their way into my written work and the approaches I take to teaching others some of the ways and approaches that will improve their own writing. Even a cursory examination of the photographic images I've taken with my pal, the Lumix, reveals to me my fondness for gadgets such as sewer covers, for assemblages of pipes, of neon signs, of the truly small things in life, an awareness I attempt to drag and drop (apologies again for the metaphor, but what the hell, it is apt) into my sense of awareness when constructing a story.

Point to be taken (lesson to be learned): look to styles and technique in art to enhance the style and technique and approach in one's own process.

Accordingly, note the similarity between the portraiture of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and the line drawn (again metaphorically) in the sands of the modern novel and short story. Huh? What does that obviously cusp novelist between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Thomas Hardy, have to do with formal portraiture? Well for starters, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was more or less the evolved paradigm of the classic novelist, in theme and form. A scant fifteen years after Hardy was born, D.H. Lawrence was born. Fifteen years. Lawrence outlived Hardy by a few years. 1930, I think. And look what Lawrence did to the novel and, for that matter, to poetry. James Joyce, who carried the explosion even further, was born in 1882, twenty-eight years later, lasting until 1941. Thus at one point, while all three men were alive as metaphorical sign posts, fiction had undergone an amazing transformation, not unlike, to use the litotic construction, what happened to the portrait.

Was it Seurat who began rendering the face in dots and shadows? Was it Modigliani, who's chirporactic stretching added a strange-but-lovely exaggeration to the face and neck? Was it Picasso, who applied a kind of feng-sui to the face? Was it the pointillists who rendered what was formerly straightforward into dots, pulling things apart, allowing us to participate in ways we had not thought possible?

Probably the answer is yes to all the above.

The same thing is happening to the short story and the novel, endings are becoming less certain, things are becoming more ambiguous, elliptical.

Midway during the Summer session, in attempting to demonstrate a more or less post-modernistic trend had taken on the short story, I wrote this story:

A Vision Quest

By Shelly Lowenkopf

1. Rae hates her given name but cannot speak openly about her dislike of it because it is also the name of her beloved grandmother, who has emotionally and financially encouraged Rae to leave Kingsport, Tennessee, the better to seek her destiny.

2. She has already explored portions of Europe and New York on her own initiative, supplemented with stipends she and Grandma Rae refer to as research grants, prompting Rae to choose the yet uncharted chaos of Los Angeles.

3. In Los Angeles Rae discovers the locale south of Rose Avenue and west of Lincoln Boulevard known as Venice, where she rents a Japanese-style guest house with hardwood floors and shoji screens from Florence Givertz, who has a fine-browed, Mediterranean appearance, and who mostly does business on the Santa Monica Pier as Madam Karma, Your Guide to the Spirit World; but who also subs as a waitress at The Ivy.

4. Rae’s immediate goal is to find a job that will allow her to devote time to writing poetry, which she has already begun to publish in respected journals.

5. On Craig’s List, Rae sees two promising job opportunities which will allow her to work from the comfort of her own home, “using materials that we will supply at our cost,” both of which turn out to be scams.

6. Attempting to get from Venice to a poetry reading in a Silver Lake bookshop, Rae is intimidated by the immensity of Los Angeles.

7. Returning to Craig’s List, Rae discovers a small used car lot on Lincoln Boulevard, where she buys a 1998 Honda Civic with a rusted tail pipe which John, the used car lot manager, assures her will pass the California Smog Test, or your money back.
8. On a recommendation from Madame Karma, Rae visits the Venice Cat Rescue, finds herself attracted to a short-tailed gray named Rexroth, then brings him home.
9. Rexroth sprays on a lower bookshelf, pretty much putting the finishing touches on a paperback copy of Middlemarch.
10. John, you know, from John’s Used Cars, calls to see is the Honda giving her any problems, using a tone of voice that leads Rae to think he is hitting on her.
11. Rexroth sprays on a pair of Nikes Rae was already thinking of discarding.
12. Madame Karma tells Rae that Rexroth will continue spraying until she gets him some toys, archly suggesting that all males love toys.
13. John, you know, John, calls to recommend a place for Rae to take the Honda for servicing, which just happens to be next to a cool Japanese restaurant which he would be happy to show her.
14. Rae is now positive John is hitting on her.
15. Madame Karma tells Rae she needs plants to brighten up her life.
16. The Sewanee Review, which is a pretty hot journal, accepts one of Rae’s poems, making her feel her life is already pretty bright.
17. John calls, wanting to know if maybe Rae likes Mexican more than Japanese because there is a pretty good Mexican restaurant on Rose Avenue.
18. Rexroth sprays in Rae’s closet, causing Rae to lose her temper and shout “What is it with you?” at him.
19. Madame Karma, who happened to be home when Rae shouted at Rexroth, has overheard the exchange, in response to which, she brings Rae a large basket containing toy mice, a ficus benjamina, and a catnip plant.
20. Rae begins to suspect Madame Karma of hitting on her.
21. Rae names the ficus benjamina Tireseas, agrees to the Mexican restaurant with John in order to send a subtle message to Madam Karma about the vector of her romantic interests.
22. Rexroth brings home an adolescent rat which he consumes in the bedroom, leaving the tail and an organ Rae cannot identify.
23. During the course of a telephone conversation in which he appears to Rae to be breathing heavily, John tells her he cannot get her out of his system.
24. Hearing this makes Rae put into actual words the awareness that she has never wanted to be lodged in anyone’s system.
25. Madam Karma warns Rae that men who are heavy breathers are likely to be snorers.
26. Madam Karma encourages Rae to use this time in her life to welcome new experiences and not be hung-up by preconceived notions.
27. Rae realizes she is more interested in continuing her tenancy in Madam Karma’s guest house than she is in reversing preconceived notions.
28. Madam Karma appears to take this in stride, tells Rae she is a splendid person, emphasizing the word “splendid,” then extracts from Rae a promise to let her know if she ever changes her mind.
29. Rae comes home from an interview for a job involving the sorting and cataloguing of the correspondence of European authors who were forced by the onset of World War II to migrate to the U.S., and who chose Los Angeles for more or less the same reasons she did.
30. The job is so spectacular in nature that Rae cannot even allow herself to hope she is the successful candidate.
31. In her not-daring-to-hope reverie as she walks down the aisle way between Madam Karma’s cottage and her own guest cottage, Rae thinks she has blundered on a potential cat fight.
32. Rae has actually walked past an encounter of some acrobatic intimacy involving Madam Karma and a young woman Rae recognizes as a checker in the neighborhood Albertson’s.
33. Hearing that she has been hired for the job, Rae celebrates by going to an expensive Japanese restaurant.
34. When she returns home, slightly giddy from sake and her good fortune, Rae finds slipped under the door a note from Madam Karma explaining that she was only trying to minimize her earlier disappointment.
35. Rae enrolls in a writing class at Santa Monica College, then wonders if she is being vainglorious with her impression that the instructor and one student were hitting on her.
36. Nonsense, Madam Karma tells her, hitting on young women is something everyone in Los Angeles does, almost reflexively as pinching young women is something everyone does in Italy, or being rude is something everyone in New York does.
37. Rae now has excellent reasons to believe the writing instructor, who seems to know what he is talking about, and the student was indeed hitting on her.
38. The writing instructor makes a statement that will make absolute sense to Rae for a number of months before she finds her own voice, then finds the pronouncement arbitrary: A short story, he intones, should not have more than forty beats.
39. Rae messes up in love, never mind with whom or why, resolves to do better next time, spends a good deal of time strolling through neighborhoods of Los Angeles talking to herself and when a policeman in Echo Park stops her, then asks, “Are you all right, miss?” she smiles brightly, as though it were a windy day in late October or into November, when you could see the peaks of the distant San Gabriel Mountains set against the pellucid sky, and she thinks aquamarine blue, pure aquamarine.

I do not claim to have invented this form. If anything, the form is a satire on post-modernism. Forgetting the matter of whether there is any faint dram of artistic merit in the story, this form, which was exciting to think about all the way through the rendering of the events, does something severe to the conventional form of the short story. I wanted to tell a story, which in this case is a mixture of events suggested me by a student, imagination, and my own standards of which elements should be included in a narrative.

Notice that each of these dramatic beats is one sentence. I am now at work on the second story about Rae in which each beat will be two sentences, one of narrative, the other of dialog. I can see the potential for yet another story, with three sentences to a beat, which will, if nothing else, have shown the author as Humpty-Dumpty, trying to put the conventional form, the form in which I am most used to writing, back together again. Thus I will have completed another (still metaphorical!) lap around the track, taking something apart, seeing how it works, sensing what doesn't work. Thus too, when I say as a reviewer/critic/teacher that I do not much care for the work of a particular writer, Donald Barthelme or Raymond Carver come to mind, the blaaat, Bronx cheer my inner critic renders will be from whence such things should emerge--the heart.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I Have Been Faithful to, uh, Adele

My Moleskine notebook is often a promising last resource when searching, as today, for the equivalent of lecture notes for a class scant hours away.

This is week ten of a fifteen-week semester, at which point I have come to believe that I have already lectured, assigned, conversed, and otherwise consulted away the material I always consider around week one or two to be so abundant.

First things first: there was absolutely no help for a lecture topic in the Moleskine.

Second things second: an intriguing and vital topic came to mind, thus relieving the pressure and in a circuitous but familiar way, preparing the way for the subconscious to begin filling in the interstices as I write this.

Third things all present and accounted for. What I did find in the notebook was the hastily scrawled name, Adele Helen Flotinowicz, which gave me a momentary pang of wondering which student she was and how I had come to lose track of her. Was she a name scribbled down in order to answer a query from that most magisterial of Deans, Susan Kamei?

But stay you, gentle reader. Adele Helen Flotinowicz was no student of mine, she was a tangential relic from yesterday's blog about names. She was the much beloved of a minor Victorian poet, Ernest Dowsen, composer of the quivvery and orotund Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae. Adele Helen was as splendid a reason as Dowsen had for drinking himself to death with absinthe. No other reasons would sound so good for the ages. She, Adele, gave him early encouragement, but then settled for a tailor who occasionally waited tables at her father's restaurant.

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion...

Dowsen transformed Adele Helen Flotinowicz into a queen, having recalled his Latin lessons in Catullis: "The days when Cynara was queen are lost to me." Alas, it was not bad enough that Adele Helen went for the tailor, she also was victim of tuberculosis and the resulting ebbing away of her vitality. Ever the opportunist, Dowsen got the lines:

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing to put thy pale lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion;
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

So there we have it, the lost lilies, Adele's funeral lilies.

If you were to Google Cynara, you'd get the notion that one of the things that was in a name is thistle, which is to say artichoke.

I have been faithful to thee, Artichoke!

Nope. Doesn't get it.

What it comes down to is the individual taking whatever the individual gets in life. I noticed earlier today an infant porcupine being reclassified as a hedgehog, which in no way undercuts the inherent adorableness of the young animal in question, it merely asks us to transcend any negativity we might have about names and classifications.

Come to think of it, I, and a beloved dog once had an issue with a porcupine which meant finding a vet in Farmington, New Mexico, to remove from the nose of a blue-tick hound a number of porcupine quills. Does this make Smiler's porcupine, er, hedgehog any the less wonderful? Not a chance. That is one splendid porcupine, er hedgehog, er whatever.

But you see how even the genus species of the animal causes the language to go judgmental with that one whatever?

Eventually we will find out what Smiler has named her new friend and from that name be able to deduce things.

Oh, and by the way, the name of the dog who had to go to the vet in Farmington? Smith, Jedediah Strong Smith.

I for some time have been urging upon students the notion that the mere naming of a character brings that character to life. Now this observation extends to judgment. This certainly extends to animals. Only the other day I was speaking happily about a group of squirrels squatting in a tree adjacent to my study. "Them's nothing but rodents," one listener observed. And I immediately knew what he thought about squirrels and what I thought about him.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Amazing to spend some time reflecting on the dramatic and emotional weight borne by names, even more amazing when we consider how much time we put into other aspects of the craft.

I got to thinking about this in context with two separate conversations I had with a man who apparently is everybody's favorite writer. Dutch. Elmore Leonard. Conversation Number One came when, as an employee of the same company that published him, I congratulated him on his break-out suspense thriller, then confessed my admiration for some of his Western stories and novels. It was in this context that we came to names and he spoke of a story in which he could not get a particular character to open up and reveal what he was doing in the story--in other words, what he wanted. Checking out some contemporary sources at the Tucson Public Library, Leonard came upon a story involving a prison guard (the same profession as his stubborn character) named Bob Isham, a name he promptly stole and gave to his character with the result that "I couldn't get that garrulous old coot to shut up."

Conversation Number Two came a few years later when I complemented him on a character of his I liked named Ernest Stickney, Jr. To which he replied, "Funny you should mention him. He's begun talking to me again. Wants his own book."

Indeed, Ernest Stickney, Jr. got his book. Stick.

Taking this meditation some distance, I realize there are persons I don't like and accordingly tend to equate them to their name, which influences what I name him or her in a story. To some extent, you can tell a person's approximate age and generation from as minor a thing as her name. Not all that long ago, counting classes and thesis advisement, I had six Jennifers, and now that I think about it, none of them could stand the other and indeed none of them liked her name, preferring some other version such as Jen, J, Jenny, and Fer.

I don't expect the reader to share my like or dislike of the name, but then I don't have to. I know I should work harder to let the characters be whoever they want and I try to let them introduce themselves to me. But Bob will always be a loser because of a particular Bob I grew up with. Not even the fact of my beloved sister having a boyfriend I much admired named Bob could trump my Bob, the Bob I still think about from time to time and picture him as he was at thirteen.

I've had two pretty good friends named Fred, although one of them became a Republican after a while and the other, a gifted musician, more or less drifted away from contact over a minor issue. Before I could track him down and say, damnit Fred, the news came that he had been eaten alive by cancer. Fred became an unh name thanks to James Thurber, who once remarked that Fred was the ideal name for an indecisive dog. Thus, so long Fred.

So here's the exercise. Get out your Excell chart and set off four columns, male names you like and don't like, female names you like and don't.

Keep the list close to had when setting forth.

Keep a pad next to the night stand in case you dream a particularly virulent name, an Estelle, for instance, or a Fahrquar, or a Bruce. Whoa, what about Gretchen? Can you imagine the mischief a Gretchen can cause?

Then there is the sophistication of mixing names and professions. I don't mind Eric, or even Erik. But if I had a plumbing problem and the emergency service sent over an Eric, I believe I'd send him home. Similarly, Lucinda is okay, but not the Lucinda who sometimes waits on me at the bank.

I believe I've hit a kind of emotional lode here. I know enough not to have a character named Bill in the same story as a character named Bob, but the charge of names has had the effect on me of a number of cups of coffee.

This is hot stuff.

This becomes the umpteenth chapter in my ongoing study, How to Write a Story without Being Able to Plot.

You don't need a plot if you have characters whose names give you emotional tweaking. To put it another way, if you've got a Bob or a Fred, why bother with rising action or reversal? Phil will always change his mind at a crucial time. Jack and Jake are reliable beyond belief. No matter what he tells you about his business successes, remember that for years, Harry was a bed wetter, and Phyllis is likely to talk your arm off, and although I've know some remarkable Esthers, they all, on second thought, bear uncomfortable resemblances to their dogs.

I would trust Mario as a mechanic but not a butcher; Art as a musician but not a psychiatrist. And Tony? No! We don't even mention Tony around here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Used Book Store Redux

Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of my review being due on a weekly basis rather than affording the leisure of two weeks to read the work at hand. It was probably a reasonable fear speaking out when, as I sat in the editor's office and agreed to the new, weekly schedule, I suggested, How about if I alternate between new books and golden oldies. Of course, looking at the logic, I realize it takes just as long to read and review an old book as it does a new book, and so my reasonable fear, as in how am I going to fit that in, was speaking quite reasonably.

The cyber ink is still wet on my most recent review, a golden oldie, just spell-checked, copyedited, and sent off. The connect between this act and revisiting used book stores is not so tenuous as it might seem. When first published in 1965 by Viking Press, which among others, published John Steinbeck, Stoner by John Williams sold two thousand copies. Nevertheless, that was then, a different approach to taking on titles, and sure enough, John Williams went on to write another novel, an historical, that won the National Book Award.

The connect to used book stores is still coming, as in, I'd have to haunt one or, worse haunt to have found a copy of the original. Lucky for me, New York Review of Books has reissued Stoner in their splendid classics series. They also have a reissue of Mrs. Wharton's New York short stories which I'm about to dip into. Their Summer 08 catalog looks so hot I may be accused of a sweetheart deal if I ask for and review too many.

Used book stores are splendid venues for the good stuff from the past. Because there are so many flat-out bad books as well as books not to my taste, the search for something worthwhile, exciting even, intensifies the atmosphere of the read to come.

Twenty-six new books and twenty-six golden oldies a year. Nice balance.

There is a new Richard Russo, which I may have a go at for the next newbie, and in the interests of two birds with one stone, it might be fun to reread Mario Vargas Llosa's The Perpetual Orgy, which is a splendid study of Flaubert, which suits me quite well because there's some good stuff on Madam Bovary and said Bovary is a beehive of varying points of view, and on the weekend of the 11-12 of November, I have a longish workshop on, you guessed it, point of view.

I think there's a copy of The Perpetual Orgy in the garage somewhere; if I can't find it there, I can it the used book store on Anapamu and State and if they don't have it, there's Amazon and they're sure used book store, right?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Random Access Mummery

News of an impending feature film based on the Beowulf saga sets me off on the delicious set of fantasy scenarios in which:

1. Hugh Grant will star in a remake of The Battleship Potempkin,

2. Bruce Willis will sing lead role in a remake of Johnny Spielt Auf

Mel Gibson will portray Atticus Finch in a remake of To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Mindful of his forthcoming retirement, George W. Bush has begun taking diction and acting classes and plans a run of Summer Stock, portraying Ronald Reagan in an adaptation of Where's the Rest of Me?

Not to be outdone by Liz Taylor, Hillary Clinton will release her own brand of a cologne. Tentative name: Voter Pheromone.

6. The Vice President of the United States, upon retirement, will host a weekly series on Fox TV in which a panel of pundits will select a new country to bomb.

7. Turkey will formally admit to having gratuitously closed Armenian restaurants.

8. Rupert Murdoch will attempt to buy the U.S. State Department.

9. An American automobile manufacturer will attempt to market a car that runs on low-fat cottage cheese.

10. America will outsource its coyotes to India.

11. The U.S. State Department will give serious consideration to Rupert Murdoch's offer.

12. Rudy Giuliani will become the new manager of the New York Yankees.

13. Mitt Romney will deny ever having been governor of Massachusetts.

14. The Republican House minority will introduce a resolution to condemn Walt Whitman for having been gay.

15. At least one Republican presidential candidate will condemn the Chuck E. Cheese Employee Handbook as being terrorist inspired.

16. Several FEMA trailers will appear on eBay.

It is difficult being funny in times such as these because real events and real persons have taken matters into their hands and consistently outdone our wildest embellishments. Sometimes days pass when in the face of events about me, I forget how the Peter Principle System has rewarded me, consistently rewarding me with promotions to positions beyond my interests, leaving me in situations where I had to delegate the very things I was good at and enjoyed. But I pale in comparison to, say, the President of the United States, a man from whom I have much to learn if I am to give the Peter Principle a credible run.

Humor may be thought of as tragedy, speeded up. Accordingly, Fast George.

Friday, October 26, 2007

384 Before Common Era to 322 BCE

Surely it had been around before then, but he is on record as having categorized it.

I imagine he had a personality not unlike Pod, went around categorizing things to such an extend that they knew they'd been properly categorized. Wouldn't dare step out of line.

Come to think of it, he categorized bloody near everything. Gave us names of genus and species, drew all kinds of lines in the typological sands.

But for those of us who write, tell stories, make the occasional lyric, he holds a special place because he nailed down the things that go into stories.

Aristotle, right?

The Poetics, right?

Sooner or later, you want to write stories, dramas, you check out The Poetics.

Not that he was wrong or anything, but still, a good deal can happen in 23, 2400 years and so you just might want to look in on 1848--1908. Guy writing about the American trickster, Brother Rabbit. A Harris boy. Joel Chandler Harris. Self-educated newspaperman, hit a nerve with his stories of B'rer Rabbit and how he made his way. John Eaton (Country Don't Mean Dumb) gotta like Harris big time.

So you take up the story of B'rer Rabbit and B'rer Fox and the Tar Baby, a kind of prequel to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote stories.

The dialect is a bit heavy for our ears now and there may be some who would go so far as to say it is a bit on the patronizing side, but this, for once, is not about politics and race and culture, it is about story. You want Aristotle on story, you go to B'rer Rabbit and B'rer Fox and the Tar Baby, 'cause that's where it's at.


You'll see.

Of course Pod has been known to tell a story or two in his time.

With a camera.

And, of course, without.

So, pictures or not, story is a magical present of elements, wrapped to hide the contents and, when opened, reveal a secret.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Something Borrowed, Something Little Blue

Although I have put in my time at various pool halls, attempting to master the eye-to-hand skills variously of eight-ball, nine-ball, call-shot rotation, snooker, and three-cushion billiards, it is equally true that I hung out at used book stores. The skills I sought there had less to do with geometry, angles, and physics, more to do with the inner geometry and physics of ideas and drama. Beyond any magical notion of, say, being able to run the table in rotation, which is to say sink all the balls in one turn, my quest, my grail if you wish, was to find the one book that would transform me from novice into professional, from student into teacher, from researcher to informed.

I did better at pool than in the used book shop.

Of course there was no such transformative book, nor with all the titles being published each year, is there one today. But ah, the quest, the single-minded focus, the knitting of the brow, the lure of the unshelved stack of books in the very back of the store, the unsorted box of Reader's Digest Condensed Books in the thrift shop.

Beyond this lure of my potential enlightenment under the Bhodai Tree of the used book store and the occasional treasure that did in some way contribute to reading skills if not to writing abilities, was the inevitable counter-top display near the cash register. Often this display was housed in a shoe box or a relic from the days when bricks of Kraft cheese came in wooden boxes. I speak of one of the major forerunners of the modern massmarket paperback. Whitman sang of the body electric. I sing of the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book. Just a tad larger than a three-by-five index card, these booklets were staple-bound, printed on a pulp paper, covered with a light blue cover. The series began publication in about 1920 and remained alive and well until about 1980, having sold hundreds of millions of copies as new books, untold millions as used books.

Through the Little Blue Books I gained introduction to De Maupassant, Balzac, and Ibsen. Hoping to gain some advantage among my fellow students, I also tried Margaret Sanger, as in What Every Girl Should Know; I also met Ibsen, Omar, Poe, Shelley, and Chekhov, as well as G.B. Shaw and other noted Socialists.

As I'd nourished the dream of a large collection of Big Little Books as a younger person, I thought to have the entire collection of Little Blue Books, the better to pursue the notion of being literate.

While composing this, I essayed a quick look at Amazon dot com to see if any Little Blue Books existed. They do and I can imagine some hours of catch-up.

I didn't realize it at the time one fateful afternoon when I wandered into Thrifty Drug Store at Wilshire and Cochran, midtown Los Angeles, but the handwriting was on the wall for the Little Blue Books. A coin-operated machine next to the tobacco stand beckoned me forth, urging me to part with quarters. Thus did I buy my first massmarket paperback, Microbe Hunters, a series of biographical essays about scientists, by Paul De Kreiuf. The very next day, I contrived to get another quarter, with which I bought a collection of science fiction stories.

I hadn't realized it at the time but this machine and these books were the direct result of a master's thesis written by one Ian Ballentine.

I hadn't realized it at the time but I was already aboard a train rushing out of the station, carrying me away from Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books, clattering toward Dell Paperbacks (where I would one day work), particularly the mysteries with their idiosyncratic maps of the crime scenes on their back cover, plummeting toward Sherbourne Press, where I'd gone to publish and remained to edit and, in the process, receive an intercom message from Helen, the embodiment of the Sherbourne communication system. "A Mister Ballentine is in the outer lobby, here for his appointment."

But that is part of a longer story, one too long to fit in a Little Blue Book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Candidate Debate II

Okay, we'll get right to the James Lipton identity questions: Who are you? What do you want? What are you willing to do to get what you want?

A: You didn't know, did you, that I was James Lipton's daddy's editor? Lawrence Lipton. Pretty fair writer.

Q: Aren't you avoiding the questions?

A: Oh, right. Yeah. I'm um, your Inner Undocumented Alien. I want a green card. I'm willing to do the work you won't do.

Q: How did you, er, get in?

A: Yeah, man. You've got some pretty wild-assed defenses. I climbed fences, scuttled along tunnels, swam way off shore. I also got in once when you had that guest worker program.

Q: And so you think that qualifies you for a permanent visa?

A: I get to thinking, man, that I'm good for you. Irreverence and stuff, like when you get all pompous and Republican.

Q: Explain yourself. I've never once voted Republican.

A: Man, I was there with you when you voted for Arnie in the recall election.

Q: That was different. Davis was acting entitled.

A: So do you, man.

Q: He was getting pompous.

A: So do you, man.

Q: What's your take on The Social Contract?

A: Where do I sign on?

Q: What's your take on gated communities?

A: Man, the whole country's a gated community. You gotta be quick to slip through the cracks.

Q: So, what kind of work are you willing to do?

A: What you got, man?

Q: Well, I see here that on November second, I'm supposed to do an hour-and-a-half gig at the Victoria Theater on Two Ways to Add a Professional Edge to Your Fiction. I can't imagine what I was thinking when I gave that title.

A: So you want me to handle it for you?

Q: Will you?

A: What's the pay, man?

Q: Satisfaction. You get the satisfaction of a job.

A: See what I mean? Republican. Pretty soon you'll be wanting to segregate the writers, get 'em bussed over to camps which you'll call something like Creative Camps.

Q: Do you often take things out of context?

A: Only when dealing with the likes of you, man?

Q: Well, do you want the job at Victoria Theater?

A: Is that anything like that Summer gig you got me at the University for thesis advisement?

Q: More or less.

A: Hey man, I gotta bail you out to stay here, I guess I bail your sorry ass out. Once more unto the breech, dear friends.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


1. Overheard at the Last Supper: "Say, if you're not going to finish that matzoh..."

2. Overheard at the last session of the U.S. Senate: "Anyone got a cell phone I can borrow?"

3. Overheard in the film, Five Easy Pieces: "You want me to hold the chicken."

4. Overheard at the latest debate among the Republican presidential candidates: "My position on creationism is still evolving."

5. Overheard at a kosher butcher in Boston: "Vas sagst du?" "They won, eleven to two."

6. Overheard along the quad at the University of Southern California: "Your ring tone is so antisocial!'

Monday, October 22, 2007

Candidate Debate I

Some weeks ago I took on the various aspects of story in serial gloss, thus sad story, sob story, tall story, cock-and-bull story, et al.

Now, fresh from having written a review on William Trevor's latest collection of short stories,
Cheating at Canasta, and having accomplished my primary goal for all writing--keep reviewing and revising until I have made some connection between two or more previously unconnected dots--I launch forth on what I learned at about nine-thirty, Pacific Daylight Time last night, shortly before a final spell check and sending the review off.

Trevor, I wrote, invariably uses an omniscient point of view. Thus by reduction, he never uses the first person, the I narrator, if you will, the confessional narrator. Ergo (I mercifully did not include that) he does not introduce the potential mischief of the unreliable or naive narrator. Any naivete or lack of reliability that do emerge come directly from the reader's interpretation of the events, which are set in motion by the author's intent.

Previously, I'd thought Trevor's narrative approach was a distinct distancing of himself, a kind of professional detachment from his characters, of a piece with
ENK's observation about why surgeons don't operate on members of their family and my own memory of the old legal bromide, an attorney who represents himself in a matter before a court has a fool for a client. Add to this my notion that an author needs an editor. If the tonsils really need to come out, it is better to have a non-related surgeon do the work.

All of this is prologue.

Aroused by my suspicion that a first-person narrative may be in Talmudic dialog with naivete or reliability, enhanced by my growing boredom and impatience with men and women who would be president of this particular country (and their definition of what this country is) roaming about Iowa and New Hampshire and North Carolina, spending huge sums of money, redefining themselves, bashing Hillary, bashing one another, I have decided to hold a debate of my own. Such candidates as wish to run the Individual will be invited to file application, step forward, present a platform, and respond to at least three major questions: Who are you? What do you want? What are you willing to do in order to achieve what you want?

I imagine the assembled host will want goodly quantities of decent coffee, tea, and water, but in the interests of avoiding any hint of undue influence from lobbyists, I will refuse donations or sponsorships from anyone in the coffee, tea, or water sectors.

We begin with a self who wishes to be known as
Neo Con.

Q: Who are you?
A: Your
Neo Con self.
Q: What do you want?
A: I want you to become financially, socially, and morally conservative.
Q: What are you willing to do to achieve this set of goals?
A: I'll start by bombing Iran because that's what all conservatives seem to want to do. Then I'll get you to start a savings program and convert to a pay-as-you-go plan for any purchases over $100.
Q: What do you mean by social and moral conservatism?
A: No more illegal alien friends, no more ethnic jokes, no more bashing Republicans.
Q: How do I know when you're serious?
A: When I begin bombing Iran.
Q: What's your stand on hedge funds?
A: Those sub-prime borrowers had it coming.
Q: What's your stand on the incumbents?
A: The administration or Congress?
Q: Does it matter?
A: Hey, I'm the
Neo Con around here.
Q: What's your stand on whistle blowing?
A: Hey, I'm the NeoCon around here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Big Red One

It sits on the dining room table like a prop from a minimalist poem by William Carlos Williams, reminding me in many ways of the Poe story, The Purloined Letter, an object in plain sight, lovely in its red promise and crown-like top, but lost among the quiddities, the oranges, grapefruit, bananas, plums, resolute against the sneaky incursion of the fall pears and apples. And now cometh forth the persimmon, which I admire as a color and as a fruity pulp served atop a dollop of serious vanilla ice cream or baked into a brioche for morning coffee.

Much as I dote on them all, they pale in the presence, the mere thought of IT.

The potential dangers of eating it--face, shirt, hands all vulnerable--are nothing in comparison to the joy of the seeds hitting the tongue. The taste of it, a slight sweetness, a slight reminder of a desert wine, is somewhat undercut by the awareness of how healthy it is, how insidious it is to HDLs and free radicals, but not undercut enough to make it less memorable or desirable.

It is, of course, the pomegranate. The one on the dining room table is a shiny red, a pomegranate red. I have also seen varieties where the skin is more of a matte finish.

I have only vague memories of my early pomegranates. They recede into the past like old, impossible loves. There is some memory of being too impatient to follow my mother's exacting method for cutting the fruit into manageable chunks or waiting for her to magically remove all the seeds from the puckery yellow inner pulp. There were times in back yards, hidden behind trees, spitting the inner pulp into a large grocery bag. There were times of eating the pomegranate over the sink, rendering the porcelain a bloody looking mass of drippings that gradually gave me away by staining the porcelain an inky blue.

In early years, I came to believe the pomegranate went out of its way to betray me with stained hands, cheeks, shirts, and of course the sink, and as a consequence swore eternal love and allegiance to the watermelon.

Man of the world that I have become, my worldliness is the acquired Zen of being at one with all fruit, understanding the sound of one banana peeling, wrinkling my nose at the citrus oiliness of the orange, losing myself in the Milky Way of the seeds of a fig, indulging the Talmudic discourse with myself of whether to have one more slice of a casaba or watermelon slice. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I strive for at least one serving of pink grapefruit a day which, all though I love the experience, still does not bring me to the oneness I experience with the pomegranate.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Between is often taken for granted, one of the first signs that it is not getting the respect it deserves. In the parade of prepositions, between is often left behind, almost as though it were an adverb.

And yet.

And yet between is the pole star of attraction joining persons, places, or things. We think of some massive, pulsing place, say Los Angeles, the way we think of a spilled bottle of ink, spreading out over a surface, soaking into it. There are multitudes of things and persons and places in Los Angeles, but there is no between. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was no there there; of Los Angeles, we observe that there is no between there.

And yet.

Los Angeles is distinctive because of its lack of between. Stories become distinctive because on one level they represent interstices between events while on another level, stories represent the tangible something or the tangible nothing filling the between existing among characters. John loves Mary, there is something between then. If Mary reciprocates, there is even more between them, and now a story is under way as we investigate the between that undulates in the interstice separating John from Mary.

If there is something between us is it love, animus, admiration, envy, jealousy? If there is nothing between us, there is still something such as indifference.

If we are constructing a character for a play, a short story, a novel, a memoir, a biography, how many of the separate selves of that character do we include to bring that character to life? And what things are there between the separate selves of a character.

Between you and me. What a lovely set of parameters!

Between the writer me and the reader you, what lovely set of parameters should there be? I should be made to feel concern for the welfare, the outcome of your character. Therefore there is something between that person you created and the reader me that I have created.

Between two worlds.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Between Scylla (monster) and Charybdis (whirlpool).

A popular song from the 1930's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

See Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, in which between is a tangible place of nothingness. Usually, for a dragon to teleport using its rider's directions, they stay in "between" for the time that it takes to cough three times. Fire lizards take eight seconds to teleport anywhere on the planet. "Between" frequently causes cystitis and child-bearing problems in female dragonriders. Going "between" without proper coordinates is a frequent cause of death for inexperienced weyrlings.

Between the lines, as in can't you read? As in subtext. Between what is said and what is meant.

There must have been something between us or the lines for you to have read this far.

The go-between.

There can be no story without between.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Fez Is Familiar

All right; since you asked, I will tell you why a good story is like a basketball game.

Basketball games without fouls are rarities. Less rare but still possible, the danger of a particular player fouling out.

Following on the curve of event is the likelihood of a questionable call and, as a potential for the list, a deliberate foul, particularly against a player whose free-throw percentage is low.

Basketball games without fouls have the potential for being boring. Stories without infractions may be regarded as dramatic foul-outs.

Just as there is often no correlation between degrees of talent on individual teams or between teams, there is no correlation between the calls made by referees and the accuracy or relative consistency of their calls.

It's only a game. Right?

It's only a story. Right?

It's only a personal or technical foul. Yep.

Not if the reader is caught up in the outcome.

Not if the writer is rooting for someone.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Game Face

Why does a chicken cross the road?

Stop right there. I know you are already tempted to say the chicken crosses the road in order to stay the course, but we are not going to settle for that; we are going for the risky business of dissecting the chicken.

In the question, Why does the chicken cross the road, you have the essential DNA of humor.

A chicken--any chicken--wanting to cross a road is a concept. Remember that. A character who wants something, however humble or grandeloquent becomes a concept. A character with a plan. There can be no humor unless there is a character with a plan.

Humor does not exist in a vacuum; it needs a dramatic situation. A character with a plan is a dramatic situation.

Now add an attitude--either to the chicken or to one who views the chicken.

How is the chicken seen?

Depends on the viewer.

Attitude is a powerful force in humor. We laugh at the chicken or the viewer of the chicken because of the attitude of that chicken or that viewer. Accordingly, we manipulate the attitude of that chicken or of the viewer to the point where we know the attitude of the chicken or the viewer is going to cause someone some grief. Humor is a quality or perception that produces recognition and if the recognition is apt and jarring, quite possibly we get laughter as a result.

Humor is a situation that literally explodes, discharges, combusts, thus effectively destroying seriousness.Humor detects a target, strikes the target, and removes it from its position. There is no such thing as victimless humor.

The possibilities with our metaphorical chicken are endless.

The chicken crossed the road to get into the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul book.

Or as the vice president of the United States might put it, "Give me ten minutes with that chicken and by God, I'll find out.

Plato would argue that the chicken crossed the road for the greater good.

Mark Twain would have the news of the chicken crossing the road having been greatly exaggerated.

The President of the United States would allow that the chicken crossed the road to remain relevant.

You would not have had to have seen Five Easy Pieces to wonder what Jack Nicholson would have made of that chicken.Set-up, character, and scene. Humor is now launched at a target to do its mischief.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Frozen Assets

My closest claim to being a hunter and gatherer is knowing where the meat counter is at Von's, and where the duck jerky for Sally is shelved at Gelson's. Although I am fond of flowers--Gerbera daisies, Japanese iris, glads, mums, roses--and enjoy the complexities of begonia rex, amaryllis, azalea, and camellia, it must be noted that Fred, my adolescent avocado plant, is not looking all that healthy. This bodes poorly for my being able to drop the ergo, as in, not being a hunter and gatherer, ergo, he must therefore be an agriculturalist.

In the forty-five or so thousand years since the last serious Ice Age ended and those we regarded as Cro-Magnon peoples emerged, their hair somewhat reddish, their clothing actually panels of leather sewn with ligament or muscle sheath, their legs proportionately longer than the Neanderthal, their language and thought processes markedly superior to the Neanderthal, there has developed a kind of interregnum between hunter-gatherer and farmer. It is a place where I fit with a modicum of comfort and the reasonable-but-not-overwhelming sense of earning my reindeer meat, a place where it is considered worthwhile, even necessary to record certain events and to comment on yet others. I go beyond drawing animals on the walls of caves and well beyond incising depictions of game on bones, rocks, and slabs.

But all this could easily be wiped out with a nice, steady Ice Age, nor would I be any better off if I and the persons about me did to my terrain what, say, the persons living in Chaco Canyon or Easter Island did to their respective terrains, which is to say used it all up.

If I were plunked into a TV-type reality/survival show, or if the Republicans were able to make good on their threat of complete world domination I would be cast as one who was not chosen by any team, someone who would be left to fend for himself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it simply defies easy classification. We Homo sapiens are pretty much now where we were at after that Ice Age and in a real sense derived our technical smarts from our Cro-Magnon forebears. If they'd had a need for it, they had the smarts to have come up with say, iPods, in addition to fluted projectile points or threadable needles. They had flutes, maybe even drum and items filled with pebbles or sand to keep tempo; they had those who could incise, etch, draw. Maybe they didn't quite need writers as such yet, but they, and we, were already trains that had left the station.

It is perhaps fanciful, perhaps not to project that we got some of our names from them: Lefty, Art, Curly, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Hunter, Mr. Fisher, Mrs. Potter, maybe even Mr. Fields and Mrs. Cutter. And some of those lovely young ladies, Rose, Dawn, Heather, Pearl.

We certainly got our ideas from them, as in surviving to tell the tale, then telling it.

Thing is, are we so much better because we have the technology? Am I any better writer than I was with my Olivetti portable manual because I now have a MacBook. We may begin to speculate that some of the cave paintings were early attempts at search engines, or at least attempts to get some of the cultural basics down for those who had not yet left the station.

One way or another, art will and should break your heart. Because it is so damned beautiful. Because it contains the lighting you may fear in a bottle that has yet to be invented. Because you don't quite have the technique or the medium to get your vision down to where you can tweak it. Or because you can, and for a moment or two, you're so damned glad.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In Character

Actors, even those of lesser talent, get a bad rap, almost as bad as lawyers, politicians, and used car salespersons.

Let me explain.

Almost without fail, at least once a semester, during a class break, a student or a deputation of students, will approach, wondering if I would talk a bit more about the differences between genre fiction and literary . After warning them about the inherent dangers of asking me to talk more, even a bit more, about anything, we wander back inside, Sally curls up in a corner, and off we go.

Unless an actor has arrived at the Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, Susan Sarandon, Judy Dench, Roberts Deniro and Duval state in which they can pretty much chose who they will become next, an actor does not have the luxury of saying No, I don't do that. I don't do tragedy. I don't do violence. I don't do gratuitous inanity. Etc. Indeed, all those worthies I just mentioned have done that, which is to say something they were not at first blush crazy about but wanted the work.

One of the two persons I consider a mentor was an actor. When she spoke of exercises put upon her in workshops, she was quite clear about the teacher having seen through her reserves and accordingly crafting assignments to eliminate them. One such exercise was to board a Fifth Avenue bus, wearing a fur coat, at five in the afternoon, having nothing smaller than a twenty in her purse. Yet another was to pick a fight with a saleslady at Bergdorf Goodman, demand to see her superior, then pick a fight with that individual. Pretty well got me to where I could go on stage with Brando, she reported.

I don't do that. Four words that are not in an actor's tool kit.

Unfortunately, my explanation goes, those four words often inhere in the character's fanny pack, and thus the difference between genre fiction, which is essentially plot driven, and literary, which, however rigorous the plot, is essentially character driven .

This observation duly noted, the assembled students send forth another deputation wanting to know if genre fiction can ever be literary. To which I am able to quote one of the two or three speeches from which I have any claim to memory. (The other notable one being JFK's on his Catholic faith and his absolute belief in separation of church and state) "To me," William Faulkner said during his Nobel Prize acceptance, "the best fiction contains the agony of moral choice."

And there you have it. If your characters are not confronted with moral choice, chances are strong that they will remain shadowy, genre types. At the very least, they should be confronted with it in such a way as to make the reader aware of them having no slight clue of its presence, like the porter knocking at the gate in Macbeth.

A character is an actor waiting to happen. There is nothing an actor doesn't do. There should be nothing a character does not do. Accordingly I propose NCLB.

No character left behind.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Time Out

Rebellious with the impatience that comes between enthusiasms or their ranting opposites, I took myself to Peet's Coffee & Tea this morning, much the way Ishmael, of call me fame, took to the Pequod. I was of a mood to stay if anyone I knew seemed available; otherwise I would get my latte to go and return to the world of rebellion. As I opened the door, I was approached by a young mother, festooned with a child who, from her appearance, was every bit as rebellious in feeling as I was. The child wanted nothing less than complete attention from her mother.

I held the door open and nodded sympathetically as mother, her own coffee, and the draped child took the opportunity afforded by the opened door. "Perfect timing," she said by way of thanks, and was gone.

But not forgotten.

Perfect timing for her meant me holding the door open. Perfect timing for me meant a mind-clearing whiff of constructive thought. Perfect timing is the timing we appreciate when events favor us. Miserable timing can include such variables as a missed appointment, unanticipated delays on the 110 (aka The Santa Monica Freeway) eastbound. It can be a dropped forward pass, getting an idea for a story when such inspiration can only create a massive fubar conflict, or encountering an individual who could well be a splendid lover out of synchronousness. Perfect timing can be taking the right course at the right time or getting off the 101 at Castillo Street before the traffic southbound becomes positively sclerotic.

All artistic endeavor involves timing, the awareness of beats, events, techniques.

Not this time, a journal to which I send stories informs me. Maybe next time.

Not at this time, a story I begin tells me, wanting more time to mull over the implications or, better still, wanting a different attitude from me before it can make its way through the keyboard and onto the screen.

I found such a story in that great meeting place for me of things, the garage. I discovered it while searching for notes to a lecture I had some hopes of outlining but which wanted a minor palace rebellion and accordingly reminded me of the garage. Timing, you see, was everything. There was the story, which I had set aside as though it were Butterfly and I Pinkerton. I'll be back. Trust me.

This time I mean business, as though all those other times, I didn't.

Time. The interval between enthusiasms.

Excuse me; suppose one is in a constant state of enthusiasm?

Is blog a metaphor for life or is life a metaphor for blog?

Compare and contrast the uses of time between hunters and gatherers and agriculturalists.

Are women really better hunters and gatherers because they can find things in supermarkets and men can't?

Can a man of modest means and intelligence find his way around time?

What is it that Time knows when persons say, "Time will tell."?

Is the Time that heals all wounds a covert HMO?

Ah, the quidities.

Time to go.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Avalon of the Mind

No, not the Avalon on Catalina Island. Although, you can see that on a clear day, as you stand atop Janss Steps and look out toward the sea.
Last night I dreamed I returned to UCLA.

In the dream, I scattered my sister's ashes, some in the memorial garden off Hilgard Avenue, and a good chunk alongside the Anthropology Department. To that extent, my dream replicated the reality of what I did in reality. Far from not thinking about my sister with some regularity, I was instead drawn back to that campus by another shadow of reminder of time and joys and good fortune--and of connectivity to something I have striven all my life to articulate.

During my undergraduate years, with no anticipation of graduate school, I had the good life of largely taking only the classes whose subjects interested me, refining those to the ones taught by instructors I had some reason to admire. A significant part of this good life was working on the daily newspaper, for which the work was pleasurable and the pay sufficient for the beer, books, and occasional forays on The Village Delicatessen and various jazz joints (notably The Haig at Wilshire and Kenmore, across the street from The Ambassador Hotel) required to keep body and soul functioning.

There was separate pay for desk editing, copy editing, night editing, proofreading, and sports night editing to keep life comfortable. The occasional weekly prize for best feature story, best outrageous pun headline, and best news story added to the amount of time I could hang out at The Haig without having to stiff the cocktail waitress.

One of my guilty pleasures was slipping bogus names into the staff box of The Daily Bruin, some onamatapoetic name or some embedded-pun name, or some double entendre that spoke to the internal battle all of my then age experience when giving up the more overt evidences of youth. T. Hee was one such favorite bogus name. Gunnar Bjorkstrup was another, and I seem to recall a Harry Ohm. That sort of thing--all carefully buried in eight-point type below the contents. Nothing anyone would notice, and certainly nothing that would keep The Daily Bruin from winning the awards it normally won nor, indeed, that would keep the editor-in-chief (can you imagine anything more self-serious than the editor-in-chief of a major college daily?) from running me off.

The guilty pleasure was the mere fact of seeing the bogus name appear in the staff box. By artful contrivance, I even turned in shorts, one- and two-hundred-word news briefs accurate in every way except for the author's name, T. Hee, on days whenI did not work the editorial desks. Accordingly, imagine my mixture of surprise and chagrin on one such day to scan the staff box to see if T. Hee had been "discovered" and discovered that while T. Hee continued, he had been joined by one O. Leo Leahy.

Who? I wondered, had invaded my territory.

Cut to the chase. A fellow staff member, Barry Tunick, was the progenitor of O. Leo Leahy. Tunick went on to a career that included the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in the Los Angeles Times. We were never beyond nodding acquaintances, exchanging a sentence or two at staff meetings, even appearing in the same classes on occasion. But for years, even after I'd moved from LA, the connection was through the puzzle and its lovely, quirky, punning clues, which challenge was the delight of my Sunday morning and which I anticipated all week.

It was not as though I knew him as that once again, through each puzzle, I felt that lovely, prickling awareness I felt when encountering O. Leo Leahy.

Comes now the news from another DB'er who'd gone on to journalistic heights. Tunick is at a stage IV. Chemo was a bust and so it is something called platelet procedure. Not a fun procedure, involving some pain and discomfort. Prognosis: eighteen percent chance of success. Many would say screw it, order the twenty-two ounce Chateaubriand and a Romanee-Conte or a large Tattingers, turn up the music and dance. Not Tunick. Let's go for it, he said. I'm rooting for him, and secured his email to send along a sense of what having that weekly puzzle in my life meant. Signed it O. Leo Leahy. I know where he's coming from, having in effect opted for the steak and burgundy instead of the chemo after my own close encounter of the III kind, just short of four years ago.

That explains, at least to me, why I dreamed of UCLA, which has a building named Kerckhoff Hall, named, no doubt, after some alum/benefactor, in which The Daily Bruin was maintained. My Avalon was not that room, rather that publication and the people who worked on it, persons who were linked by that place to reach out from it. Indeed, I met Swindell there and reviewed books from him during his tenure at the Inquirer in Philadelphia and the Star-Tribune in Fort Worth. Maybe never would have happened otherwise. Or Bob Kirsch at the LA Times. Or the misadventureous friendship with a former editor-in-chief, or--well, there you have it.

The last time I was there, having help scatter literal and figurative ashes of my past, I stood at the threshold of Avalon, which is to say Kerckhoff Hall; said What the hell, and mounted the steps. The new Daily Bruin offices would put the average weekly--even the one I contribute to here in SB--to rout. Sitting in a comfortable-looking office behind the editor-in-chief sign, a young man was seriously engaged in discussion with another equally serious reporter. Looking up, he saw me. "May I help you sir? he said.

Always with that sir, these days.

"Just looking in," I said. "I used to work here before there was this."

He stood and advanced on me. "You used to work here?"

When I nodded, he said, "Make yourself at home."

Avalon, revisited.

P.S. October 14, 12.25 PST--This just in from a DB'er:

Trudi Tunick phoned to say that Barry died in his sleep last night around 9 p.m.

The family was with him. He was a bit agitated while being moved around to change clothes, then quieted down. When Trudi tried to wake him at 9 to do a puzzle she couldn't rouse him.

I didn't think to ask about a service. I'll try to find out later and let you know.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The English language easily accommodates foreign words, bungalow, for instance, from Hindi, calaboose from the Spanish calaboso, and kvetch from the Yiddish kvetch. English incorporates a word such as khaki, which in one part of the world is understood to mean a cotton twill cloth, while in the greater Boston area, it is understood to mean a device used to gain entrance to a Toyota. English also serves as an Ellis Island for phrases that may mean one thing on face value and something else entirely based on intended meaning. Hence swift-boating as a verb, its object the junior senator from Massachusetts.

I'm aware in letters to the editor of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and in commentary on so-called news TV channels, the swift-boating of a recent Nobel Prize Laureate and former Vice-President of the United States has begun. As well, a twelve-year-old boy who was chosen to rebut President Bush's radio-version veto of the bi-partisan measure passed by both houses to provide health insurance for children has been the target of swift-boating.

Only in America, I thought. But of course that was no so; the practice is about as old as Homo erectus, well, maybe as old as Homo habilis; it's been around where ever there have been people.

I became aware of the practice and its implications about twenty years ago, when adherents of Barry Goldwater,the late U.S. Senator from Arizona, began mounting a campaign to build about the American government and social structure a metaphorical version of the fence they have begun to erect across the border between the United States and Mexico. So far, the North American Free Trade Act and problems of illegal immigration have not caused the campaigners of this movement any sense of unease about Canada, but the Canadians better watch out. Already, word has tricked into the heartland that "O Canada" is being sung at some major league baseball games.

The movement to which I refer is the Neo-Conservative Movement, shortened by some of its supporters to Neocon. Somewhat like a tropical storm, the movement gathered some strength during the reign of Ronald Reagan, whose apotheosis included the naming after him of a major airport and the bandying about of inscribing his likeness on some of the unused acreage of Mt. Rushmore. Never mind he swore there was no arms-for-hostages deal. Never mind that he and his ilk supported the very kind of operation in Nicaragua the present administration so vehemently opposes in Iran. Never mind.

Some years back when, at the instigation of neocon philosophers, this country invaded Iraq, an Orwellian tide of language washed upon the land and Bush saw it was good and Bush declared it liberation. That our President sounded like Adolph Hitler after the Nazi venture into the Sudatenland, his cri de coeur being Lebensraum, Room to live, was promptly cast aside as a gross impropriety and an offense against logic and patriotism. That there was similarity between the American incursions into Viet Nam and Iraq were similarly countered with a propaganda campaign that made the fabled Got Milk campaign seem like mere child's play.

Fear, patriotism, and family values became the holy trinity of the neocon faith, the sacraments being not the blood of any savior but rather of Iraqi civilians and tribal grunts along with American grunts and any number of private contractors. The wafer was the magnetized Support Our Troops insignia affixed to the rear of our Hummers, which, it turns out, were better protected than their military cousins, the Humvees.

While this was going on, our Constitution was effectively put through the shredder of the same kind of expediency we have realistically come to associate with the likes of Herr Hitler, Tovarich Stalin, Generalisimo Peron,and some of our pals of democracy in Central America such as Trujilio. To even think that today is considered heresy. The wingnut pundits on the far right such as Norman Podhoretz, Willia Kristol and that renegade psychoanalyst, Charles Krauthammer, are looking for ways to bomb Iran, to teach those guys a lesson, and to argue that democracy in America is best protected by keeping secret the necessary steps the government is taking to insure its lifetime tenure, the better to protect us from them.

Speaking of which, who are They?

Well, the score card changes. Beckwith comes to L.A.; Tommy Franks goes to Arsenal, Petraeus goes to the Red Sox, and the Dixie Chicks get booed by the neocons. Steven Colbert, one of the more brilliant satirists of our times, gets a kind of cold-shoulder patronizing treatment, and Congress buys time shares away from the chambers where they should be working but in which they are too busy learning how to roll over.

It is easy to get a picture of how Germany went for the National Socialist Party, simply by reviewing how we moved from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to those nutcase leaders of the so-called religious right. These are the same individuals who are so convinced of the inherent evil of, heaven forfend, gay marriage that they themselves got into bed with the militant right. We have moved from those same wonderful people who gave us the Inquisition to those same wonderful people who gave us, gulp Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

They are goose-stepping at this very moment over our Constitution and we are watching their latest batch of hopefuls as though we were watching Monday Night Football.

Howard Cosell, where were you when we needed you?

Lincoln, thou shouldst be living at this hour,
The world hath need of thee

ENK has observed that I do not merely observe politics, I rant it. That is likely so and it may be merely the case of my having been such an observer of the political scene that causes events to be heating perilously upward, it may be also that I am of the where's-the-outrage school of politics, but they've started in on Gore already, and they're accusing Hillary of fish-wife responses,
and they're after a twelve-year-old kid for standing up for S-CHIP, and so yeah, I guess I do rant politics.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Side Effects

Blogging began for me as a dialogue between me and myselves, hence the subtitle.

Before I dipped an experimental toe into the cyberwater, my major contact was with political blogs, mostly sections of the choir seated to the left of the conductor. I tried, oh, how I tried, to find blogs about writing that were of interest to me, and even became an occasional contributor to one, Inkbyte (see my list of friends on the right of your screen)but for a number of reasons, found that writing-oriented blogs were not my cup of anything. Because of my interest in a small aspect of photography, I began looking in on the works of men and women whose images intrigued and excited me, showed me the universe from another angle. There, I met the remarkable pod, getting Australia down as though it were going out of style. And the rest was, as they say, history, a lovely history in which my daily routine has shifted from coffee with The New York Times to coffee with my blog chums, persons of quirky and wonderful interests that energize, excite, intrigue and drive me toward reevaluating the universe, both as I know it and as I don't.

In addition to the remarkable photos I find on lettuce's blog, and her perambulations about London and over into France from time to time, I became aware of another blog phenomena, one that extends way beyond mere design and format and, of course, text. One of my favorite things on lettuce's site is a counter that registers cities around the world from which other bloggers have logged in on her site. If I watch long enough, Santa Barbara comes up, and I think, Hey, that's me. And I see a nearby city and I think, wow, we could pass one another on the highway and not recognize, but we could also be reading lettuce's site at the same time. The mind may not boggle, but it chuckles.

Lori's site has a lovely refinement in which her blogging neighbors in Austin are indicated, and in addition to our own personal trackers, the Technorati ad Google analytics, and the like, there are other embellishments, and so we appear in the blogosphere like a general or at least like an officer with out campaign ribbons, and numbers of persons who have checked in, and preference in books, music, favorite flavors of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and the like. Lee's River ran a photo of a coffee house in her small town in France against which I measure Peet's, the splendidly run but woefully inconvenient place where I go for moments of real reality and companionship and in hopes of getting photos of The Milk Thief in action. The Milk Thief is in his mid fifties, drives a late model BMW, and at least twice a week, fills his thermos from the available milk supply. But he is another matter.

I notice some blog sites are admirable in design and organization. Lori takes excellent care with hers and John Eaton has provided side dishes worth a number of minutes beyond his daily content. Smiler makes an intriguing use of space and side effect, and Liz Kuball goes to great pains to let the viewer see the photos that interest her and some of the details she attends in order to get them. Mrs Dean not only posts photos, he/she (for they are a couple) often add exquisite technical detail and opinion. The Individual Voice, a voice of intense insight and reason, has posted highly charged and provocative posts relating to First Amendment Rights and meanspiritedness. Lee's River and Smiler play the intellectual equivalent of cat's cradle. It is all a joyous journey to behold.

In recent weeks I have brought students into the cyberworld, and a number of them have created dizzying effects.

I, on the other hand, have produced an index that rolls over the landscape of my blog like the excavated spine of a dinosaur. I waver in tastes between rococo exuberance and Zen contemplativeness, but the physical appearance of my site, like the appearance of my study is, alas, pure chaos and, also alas, pure me.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lightning in a Bottle

Memory of things told you by others that you have accepted as real and gone so far as to build images on.
Memory of things that began entirely in your own imagination/dreams.
Memory of things actually experienced.

At the northeast corner of Fairfax Avenue and Sixth Street in the western aspect of Los Angeles, California, there was a golf driving range, extending at least a block eastward, which is still an approximation because the entire parcel was undeveloped. From time to time the Goodyear blimp landed there. That was then. Way then. Now there is no golf driving range; there is a segment of a large housing development called Park La Brea. When you pass that intersection now, you feel cheated that it is not the golf driving range of your memory. Even though your Uncle Sam, your Aunt Flo, and your two cousins, Buzz and Barbara, lived in that housing development after the golf driving range ceased to exist, you do not think of them. You could go to the very door you entered when you visited there, but you rarely think of it or them, you think of the damned golf driving range and there is that residual feeling of being cheated of something.

Just above the Pacific Coast Highway, as it runs through Santa Monica, California, is a mile-long escarpment called The Palisades, from which splendid views of the beach, the Santa Monica Pier, the ocean, and on occasion, Santa Catalina Island, are visible. You were told so many times by your parents that as an infant, you were wheeled there in a buggy by a maid named Nellie Foley, that now, as you drive below the Palisades on your way to the university, you have the momentary sense of being wheeled along that park by Nellie, a fact that is made all the more real because you do remember and can visualize Nellie's replacement, Vivian.

After you read biographical materials dealing with Mark Twain's time i Virginia City, Nevada, you sedulously began to read books about the area, including Twain's own Roughing It, and also Dan DeQuille's The Big Bonanza, to the point where you had a sense of what Virginia City was like. Then you began to dream you were there, and when your school chums, Jerry Williams and Don Pettit returned from their army days and toured through there, bringing you a facsimile copy of The Territorial-Enterprise, you understood that dreaming of that place and that newspaper was not enough; you had to go there and work for it.

Somehow you came into possession of a document that was a blank learner's permit for flying a single-engine airplane, which yu artfully converted into fake ID, attesting to you being twenty-one and thus able to produce proof should you be questioned by a bartender or waitperson where liquor was served. With such document in your pocket, you drove to Randini's, a neighborhood bar on Western near Beverly, having been told by someone that he never left it alone, nor would you. The first time you went to Randini's, you were not even asked for your fake ID, but that was not the cause for your memory. Your drink set in front of you, you took a sip then cast a eye about the room for she without whom you would leave alone. You did not see her but you did see a man emerge from the rear, leading another man by the arm. You quickly realized that the man being led was blind. He was being led to the piano, where he sat with a immediate aplomb, plunked one gorgeous chord, nodded in the direction of the man who'd led him, then nodded.

He began with and old Irish song, The Kerry Dancers, but after less than fifteen seconds, you knew you'd blundered into Art Tatum.

There are some iconic musicians of our time. Leadbelly. Johnny Cash. Ella. Bruce Springsteen. Eric Clapton. John Coltrane. Not to forget Louis Armstrong. June Carter.

Then there is Art Tatum, who simply tied the piano into long, elaborate knots, untied them, then retied them with even greater complexity and relevance. He appeared to be playing a game of cat's cradle, beginning runs with his left hand, then sending them off to his right hand like a parent sending a kid off to school. He invented, built, conflated, amused. His melodic rushes cascaded over you, dousing you in the relevance of a song you'd only thought to have heard and remembered from before.

During an interview with a
New York Times economist writer, Terri Gross paused for a time-out, during which came music I first thought of as modern classic, then of bebop, the as the hands of a well-educated stride pianist. But then I knew: the song was Cole Porter's Let's Face the Music and Dance, the pianist was Tatum, modern and unique in voice after all these many years, and although I'd heard Tatum on record many times before, I was back in Randini's with my forged ID.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Captain Spaulding and the Hero's Journey

1. Too many persons who claim to be interested in writing are in fact writing things they have no taste for.

2. Too may persons who claim to be interested in reading are in fact reading things written by persons who have no taste for what they write.

3. This in some measure explains the popularity of break dancing.

4. There is no known case of a person interested in writing having broken a wrist, ankle, or hip.

5. This may be the result of break dancers taking more risks than writers.

6. Persons interested in writing would do well to consider taking risks.

7. There is at least one individual in a writer's life whom the writer is waiting to die before the details of a relevant story may be told.

8. This is anticipating a risk in advance in order not to take it.

9. The person the writer is waiting to die is probably not a reader and if said person whose death the writer awaits is, in fact, a reader, said person would probably fail to recognize the rendition of him/herself were the writer to in fact write it.

10. Experience teaches all of us valuable lessons about the nature of risk taking.

11. Writers and civilians are prone to conflate risk-taking with desperation.

12. Their experience should but does not necessarily teach them that this conflation is the first step toward understanding humor.

13. Step one in understanding humor is the awareness that bullies have low centers of gravity.

14. Step two is understanding that bullies sometimes hit back.

15. Step three is learning to keep laughing.

16. Tradition is a bully.

17. Convention is a bully.

18. Persons who are interested in writing sometimes behave as Arjuna behaved in the Bhagavad-gita, when he saw friends and relatives on both sides in an armed conflict and needed to be reminded by Krishna that it was his duty to fight.

19. In a real sense, persons interested in writing behave like Arjuna. They need to be reminded that it is their duty to write and that there are enemies on all sides trying to prevent them from doing so.

20. One such enemy is fear of offending someone. Anyone.

21. Another fear is not being good enough.

22. Fear that one is good enough is of a piece with one avatar of Vishnu, say Krishna, since we referenced him a moment ago, being fearful that he was not as good an avatar as, say, Rama.

23. The Hero's Journey may begin with a poem, a page, or a bus ride. But they have to have a destination in mind.

24. Annie Lamott says it is okay to write a shitty first draft, and a is considered highly evolved for having said that.

25. In the translation of the Bhagavad-gita from Sanskrit to English where he was so ably aided by Christopher Isherwood, Swami Prabhavananda has Krishna reminding Arjuna, "To the work you are entitled but not the fruits thereof."

26. When he was first given this bit of information, the writer Chris Moore said, "I have never heard anything so patently ridiculous in my whole life."

27. When he was recently reminded of this, he said, "I couldn't agree more."

28. The work is everything.

29. How can the work be everything if the process is supposed to be everything?

30. The process is the work being done.

31. Why do certain types of people, published writers, for instance, and artists tend to speak in parables?

32. They don't. What they say sounds like parables because it is close to the truth of a particular moment, and because published writers, for instance, and writers arrived at what they said for the same reason break dancers sometimes crack ribs.

33. You mean because they took risks?

34. None of your business.

35. Whose business, then?

36. The Process.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Rules of the Road

1. Some are born pompous, others (teachers? rabbis? lawyers??) have pomposity thrust upon them.

2. Humor is in large measure about the toppling of the pompous. (Witness the humor in our toppling of the statue of Sadam Hussein and our subsequent posturing.)

3. Humor is painful truth revealed.

4. There are (and should be) more answers than questions.

5. At least one President of the United States and one presidential wannabe have acting in their job history.

6. Would it have helped Herbert Hoover any to have owned a baseball team?

7. There are more solutions than there are problems.

8. Would Ivanhoe have been better off with Rebecca? (Don't ask.)

9. How is it possible to square a cheeseburger with the dietary restrictions imposed by Leviticus ? (Go ahead, ask.)

10. Did Miles Davis really believe there were Seven Steps to Heaven?

11. Was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky a beta version of Hillary Clinton?

12. Considering the price a cheetah has to pay for being able to run ninety miles an hour, is it a worthwhile trade-off?


13. Is Wagner really as bad as he sounds?

14. Where have all the Burma Shave signs gone?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Reading for Pleasure

There was a time when reading for pleasure had a wonderful, secret innocence about it, where you read away fro and beyond what teachers and parental figures expected from you. It was truly your place of escape and, even more, your place of transportation. In so many words, you knew nothing of deconstructionism or postmodernism or Marxism or feminism, much less historicism, you knew only that there were worlds you could quickly reach wherein you were no longer at the mercy of adults or authority figures. It was by no means an easy world, which was one of the things you so admired about it; it was a world of adventure, of potential dangers, of run-away horses and Sir Reginald Front-de-boeuf, about to come at you lance at the ready, his horse more battle ready than your borrowed nag. Pap Finn would see you hiding in the corner, whereupon he could easily come after you. Don't mention Injun Joe. Forget Simon Legree, and be careful, be very careful of becoming too fond of Lad, a Dog, because there were dangers for dogs--everywhere.

That began to change for you when it rained one day, screwing your chances for recess. Mrs. DeAngelo, in some Plan-B mode, began to read from a book she suspected most of you would relate to.

"Tom?" the book began.

"No answer."

She read all the way to the point where Tom deliberately tells his teacher he was late because he was out talking to Huckleberry Finn, knowing his "punishment" will be having to sit on the girl's side of the class room, in the one empty seat, next to the new girl.

That evening, having mortgaged hours of your life to chores, you took the twenty-nine cents being charged for an edition of Tom Sawyer at a five-and-dime store, read through dinner and pretty well ran through the rest of your alert hours until you finished, then dreamed of those people, asleep and awake until the next day, when you arrived at school early to await Mrs. DeAngelo, there to ask her if it seemed likely that people could make a living from writing such things. "You could," she said, "but you'd have to be as good as Mr. Twain or it might not work for you."

Thus was set in motion a hopeless competition you could never hope to win, but could not help yourself from trying.

For a while, a few years, really, you still read for pleasure, but it began to catch up with you and you were at that time where much of what you read was undertaken in the interests of learning, which is to say memorizing things in order to quote them or refer to them in examinations, the better to sound as though you had indeed learned things.

Some years later still, you were called into Lou's office, where you were told that even though your last six books were doing well enough, Lou would get to be pretty damned old, waiting for you to make good on your boast of being able to write all the titles on the list he'd paid a consultant ten thousand dollars to assemble, a list of books written about subjects that would sell. He even spoke of reprinting a book you'd written about the Marquis de Sade, which subject was high on the list he'd paid ten thousand dollars for. Lou, in his way, was as much a force as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. "You must know some other writers," he said. "The thing is, you'd get them to write some of the titles and go through them and, you know, fix them up, for which I would pay you, not as much as I pay you for writing them, but enough to make a nice weekly salary."

Years later still, you tell students that their days of reading for pleasure are over, and then you tell them the rest, that the pleasures of childhood and escape may be gone, but the joys will increase the same way an artist's pleasure increases when learning to "read" Mary Cassatt's technique, or El Grecco's or Tieppolo's. You will see how they do it and square what it is they do with what you need to do, and from now on there will be no more badly written books, only books whose techniques and ranges of understanding you will have surpassed, the better to see brother and sister writers whose works radiates before you, alluring with the promise of technique you only now begin to appreciate.

It is of a piece with being in a delicatessen. You are from a place and background where delicatessen means one particular style against which you measure all others. To be sure, there are delicatessens of stunning number, and they often provide the same kind of transportation such books as Ivanhoe and Treasure Island and Oliver Twist provided you back then. Papa Christo's on Normandie, across Pico from St. Sophia's Cathedral, all a reek of olive and garlic and lamb and pita. And here in Santa Barbara, Pan e Vino and Villa Maestra, two trattoria whose displays of aging provolone and gouda amid the salami cotto and bottles of olive oil set the mouth to a slather. You can smell the wood-burning pizza oven and lust after the bowls of thick lentil and spinach soup as they are carried past you. But your heritage delicatessens bring more than the sight and smell of the food and ingredients; they bring the Talmudic banter of the waitpersons, wanting to know if something maybe is wrong you don't order knishes; the raucous dialectic of families arguing their way into the meal, the impassioned disquisitions on whether Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray cream soda is in fact the champagne of the Negev. There is comfort and reassurance in a delicatessen. There is peace and surprise and identity all about you there. People talk with their hands, nod or shake their heads to the point where they will soon require the services of a chiropractor. Down on Pico now, between Robertson and Doheny, there are beards and black hats and severity and dark eyes radiating value judgments.

If You really exist and if You hear this, when my time comes, let it come when you are in a delicatssen, reading, a book clutched in one hand, an absurdly thick pastrami in the other, dripping deli mustard. Let there be other books than the one you are reading, books you will then have no time left to read, in symbolic recognition that of the making of books and life and sandwiches, there is no end.

At some historical point, you believe it was The Age of Reason, a good deal was made of the "good death," a cheerful crossing over, an inspirational, calm transition from one state of being to another. Screw that. You want the deli ambiance, the cross-talk, the dialectic, the pilpul, the Now you come for me! Now that a glorious sandwich and a splendid book are given me, now you say, Okay kid, time's up? You, too, if You exist, are an editor, calling shots the way you and Whatzisname called them on Job. You can freaking well wait until I finish this sandwich and this book! Here, try some of this Dr. Brown's. What, you're worried my glass is maybe tref? And this! Don't tell me You don't like pickled tomato. What, Your stomach! Mamser! Next thing, you'll be telling me you don't like Hopkins and that crazy Yeats.

Joe Heller was right about You.