Friday, November 30, 2007

The Vital Lie

A Vital Lie comes right after and is supportive of the Creation Myth; it is the trampoline of logic on which the validity of the Creation Myth is sustained.

1. The surge is working in Iraq.

2. The peace negotiations in Annapolis will produce tangible results.

3. Pervez Musharraf is the West's best hope for peace.

4. There is no really scientific evidence to support evolution.

5. Conspiracy theories are nothing more than liberal sour grapes.

6. There is really little difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

7. Fox News really is news.

8. The Bridge to Nowhere really went somewhere.

9. By holding the line on stem-cell research, George W. Bush saved untold thousands of embryonic lives.

10. They will welcome us with flowers.

11. Yoga is the anti-Christ.

12. America is a Christian nation.

13. Our safety is more important than the Constitution.

14. Waterboarding only hurts for a minute.

15. Information obtained from waterboarding has prevented terrorist attacks.

16. A former Governor of Arkansas may not agree with a liberal agenda but does not question their right to exist.

17. Everything that happened during the regime of a former mayor of New York was good.

18. American newspapers have a left-leaning bias.

19. Ronald Reagan really meant it when he said he believed in States' Rights.

20. Executive privilege means never having to say you're sorry.

21. We are not in a recession.

22. Karl Marx was not a nice man.

Quick, list five of your own vital lies.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Words of a Feather

For some time now, my favorite candidate has been very, as in, very is the word that should be stashed in the garage, put in a drawer and shoved toward the rear, boxed and sent under the bed to ferment among the dust bunnies. Very tells us nothing except that something is shimmering before us in a degree more intense than usual or normal. It was a very hot day. Very nice. Not just hot, not simply nice. Hot hot; nice perhaps squared.

Next case is interesting. Absorbing. Arousing attention.

Let's start with very interesting. The ultimate put-down. Your poem was very interesting. Yeah, right.

So let's say then that your poem was interesting. That's better; at least it has a chance, like maybe the same chance an army ant has in the trail that leads from the drainboard under the sink to the place where you forgot to put the cap back on the strawberry jam.

I am willing to be absorbing and to arouse attention or, should my descriptive and evocative abilities fail me, not absorbing this time or completely lacking in ability to arouse and maintain attention. But puh-leeze, not interesting.

If someone tells me something I have said or written is interesting, my take on the subtext is that I have lost them, either because they did not get my intent or because I had mismanaged the trope and brought it forth ill-formed.

How's that for ambiguity and interdisciplinary warp in the American language? A word that means absorbing or arousing attention is interpreted as meaning the opposite. America and American English are often conflated with irony. This trope is irony squared, which is to say very ironic, freaking ironic, you might say.

In some parts of the country, NASCAR and Gun Lobby parts, you tell someone they are absorbing or arousing and you're looking at some sudden down time while your clock is being cleaned.

Just don't bring your arousal near me.

I find your work highly arousing but find it necessary to decline given the structured society in which our books are distributed and the don't ask-don't tell attitude our polls show existing among our readers.

I am aroused to an extraordinary degree by your latest story but unfortunately we have just taken on something of a similar degree of arousal and accordingly must decline to opportunity to publish it here. I will however hope to be aroused by your next submission.

So out to the cemetery with interesting, which can go right next to that lovely crypt that contains very.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


What is said is up here.

What is meant is down here.

Way down. Like about here.

The writer skateboards on the narrow berm between the two, the cusp between what is actually said and what is actually meant. Anything else is, well, lacking in dimension; it is in a way journalism, an account, a description.

You're just saying all this because you want a short post.

Not really; I'm saying this as a way to get started on a longer post, one that takes me somewhere I have not been before.

Ah, you mean the Bakersfield of the soul?

Nice imagery notwithstanding, how come all you California dudes take off on Bakersfield?

If we were in New Jersey, I'd be taking off on Perth Amboy. There is always a place where we have been or fear we will be; those are the places we pass off as equivalents of Polish jokes. Bakersfield, Perth Amboy, and Polish jokes are the modern equivalent of sex, religion, and politics; you tend to lose jobs, get denied for tenure, suffer being called racist or sexist or bigoted, particularly if you make as much per year as, say, Don Imus.

Humor requires a target, thus Bakersfield, Perth Amboy, and Polish jokes. They are the acupuncture points of humor. Everyone has a reference point to Bakersfield, Perth Amboy, and Polish jokes; even citizens of Bakersfield and Perth Amboy. Even those of Polish descent have the equivalent of Polish jokes. One Polish friend told me that for him, those of Finnish descent were the equivalent of Polish jokes, and a non-Polish man from North Dakota told me that North Dakotans rely heavily on south Dakotans. Similarly, Canadians have Americans and we have--well, now that I think about it, we seem to have taken on everyone. Did you hear about the American who was so dumb that in order to get a job in the film industry,he slept with a writer?

How many Americans does it take to make a bigot? One.

There is no victimless humor. The best humor is the humor wherein we--not they--are the victim.

Okay, now we know what element fills the gap between what is said and what is meant.

Pain. Or vulnerability. Or Pretensions.

Two drunks are weaving down the street, wondering if it is too late to find a saloon for a nightcap. Abruptly, one of them begins to sing in an intense basso. A window opens and a voice calls out, "Hey, what's with you guys? It's one in the goddamned morning."

The singer nods, turns to his friend. "See, we've got plenty of time."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pssst! Ixnay on the Otatoes-pay

Back in my middle school and high school years, the oft suspected and repeated urban myth was that They, whether They were school or other organization related, were secretly slipping salt peter into our food the better to put some kind of reign on our raging hormones. For some time, the middle school staple of mashed potatoes and gravy was suspect and, although greatly admired, rejected. At about this time, we were subject to a barrage of lectures on breaking bad habits and developing positive ones that would see us into adulthood. We all assumed that bad habits was a euphemism for masturbation and in typical response to authority of those years promptly increased our daily output.

Today, being engaged in the intervieing process relative to selecting a new chairperson for our department, I am subject to an urban myth of my own, which came to me as I sat at the lunch table with a number of what the police would call interested parties, and watched as a waiter set a bowl i front of me. My first thought was finger bowl, but there were vegetables floating in the liquid and so my first impression was promptly revised.


Some kind of vegetable soup.

Some kind of vegetable soup and the connection with the faux salt peter of the past, leading directly to the suspicion that after all these years of university meals, snacks, and finger sandwiches, They are infusing the food with a chemical--ah, the wonders of modern science--that adds an overwhelming miasma of boredom to the attending occasion.

My consolation is that this event is secular; if we were in a Salvation Army or other such meal situation, there would be prayer and encomium to a source even higher than the University President or Provost.

I asked tough questions of the candidate and engaged two of the deans in conversation about topics that were interesting and off the subject at hand. I even finished the soup. But a part of me was back in the past, wondering if it were true about the salt peter in the mashed potatoes. I had a flash of memory, an event I'd quite forgotten. Robert A. Thompson, Principal, assembled all the boys and assured us that there were no extraordinary--that was how he put it--elements in the mashed potatoes served in the cafeteria. We could, he said, indulge to our heart's content.

But we were young suspicious boys then and everything with even the slightest connotation of sexual activity seemed a great and impenetrable mystery.

"You can tell he's lying," one of the boys said. "You can see it in the way he walks."

And he did walk kind of funny, so of course, we believed.

The years slipped by and I was back at today, thinking about the boredom that was surreptitiously injected into the soup and sandwich combo. We have come a great distance. None of us yawned.

But I thought of it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Hearse Whisperer

1. Nearly every society has a creation myth, explaining how First Man and First Woman decided to set up housekeeping and make a go of things on their own.

2. Nearly every poet and writer has an awareness of an aha moment, in which the lot was drawn, the die cast, the shoe finally fit, the penny dropped, the realization hit.

3. Writers and poets are walking examples of people who want to get away from one world and into another of their own creation.

4. As is the case with wanderers, hunters and gatherers, poets and writers have some sense of being in or wanting to be in a mystical relationship with some force they perceive as extending beyond them, beyond such limiting concepts as time, space, and causation.

5. So far, there is nothing funny about any of this and there should be.

6. It is well known that there cannot be humor unless there is pretension or disaster or fear of death.

7. Okay. Now we have humor because poets and writers are pretending to get glimpses of truth, which they generously hope to pass on (for a royalty of course); their attempts to pass this information along go, as one poet put it, aft agley, or in more modern terms, FUBAR, and unless one has signed on as a jihadist, there is little enough known about death to set one's mind entirely at rest on the subject.

8. In our culture, there are corporate histories which are the modern equivalent of creation myths because the goal of the corporate history is to get us to invest in the corporation and vote proxies to the present board of directors, while in creation myths the goal is--hey!--the goal is to get us to invest in the corporation and vote proxies to the present board of directors.

9. This is not funny. Right?

10. Poets and writers, when not sticking to their own inner visions, can pick up a occasional Euro or two by writing Creation Myths for real societies and societies that don't exist. I mean, who better than a poet or writer? You're not going to trust some old scribe, are you?

11. Suppose everything that does not represent itself as fiction is really a prospectus for a creation myth?

12. This would make everything funny for about a third of all living persons, leaving a full two-thirds of the world population serious, bewildered, and trying to buy into the corporate history and its financial reports.

13. We know what happens when we get numbers like that: the Republicans order seconds.

14. That isn't as funny as what happens next: The Democrats confess to everything.

15. The Republicans filibuster The Sermon on the Mount, rendering it inoperable.

16. Schadenfreude becomes the new Patriot Act.

17. There is still fiction and poetry to guide us.

18. Thing is, we don't know where it will guide us.

19. All things are flowing, sage Heraclitus says/
And a tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days...

20. Fu I loved the high cloud and the hill.
Li Po died a drunk;
He tried to embrace the moon in the Yellow River

21. During one of his more coherent drunken invectives, Peter Wigham maintained that in order for a poet to achieve greatness, his or her work had to be something that someone knew from memory, precluding Ezra Pound from greatness.

22. "Bullshit, Peter," I said: The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

23. "Son of a bitch," Peter said.

24. Numbers 19 and 20 as well, I said.

25. Double son of a bitch, quoth Peter.

26. Maybe the Prophet was wrong about all being vanity. Maybe all is Creation Myth.

27. Poets and writers don't have solutions when they set forth.

28. Is the quest for a Unified Field Theory an earnest desire for a Creation Myth ?

29. Do you feel any different about Creation Myths now.

30. WTF was Peter Wigham?

31. He professed literature at UC Berkeley and later in life sold flowers at a Riley's stand on Milpas Street, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Muzak

If some improbable necessity--say an interviewer or an administrator of a psychological evaluation--were to ask what my favorite musical instrument was, I would indict the piano with no hesitation and with no need for Johnnie Cochran to play the string card. A piano is a series of hammers striking strings, brought from its earlier avatar as piano forte to its current incarnation by the designs of one Ludwig von Beethoven.

With the piano and nothing but the piano, you could spend your days in the stunned ambiance of the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, the siren call of the transcribed Bach inventions, the lyric inventiveness of Bill Evans, the harmonic bravura of Bud Powell, the intuitive grace of Marian McPartland, and those characteristic sharp ninths of Red Garland.

Close upon the heels of the piano would come the sonorous depth of the cello. I mean Yo-you Ma. Right? Soprano saxophone hadn't entered the picture until I heard Sidney Bechet, which was a trail of crumbs leading to John Coltrane and Steve Lacey.

For all the while he worked as a duo with Calvin Jackson, I was pretty tight with bassist extraordinaire Al McKibbon, and while I followed the rising piano career of Bobby Timmons, became taken by his bassist, Ron Carter.

I am fond of the full symphonic orchestra, particularly if it showcases in concerto form works such as The Emperor or Mozart's soulful # 20, and of course the Ravel and Prokofieff. As a kid I ushered at the Hollywood Bowl to get to the Stan Kenton concerts and the stunning orchestrations of Pete Rugolo. 

Gerald Wilson is no slouch with a big band, and of course there is that plangent memory of the full-bore Duke Ellington big band, bursting at the seams with sideman talent and the Duke's gifted collaborations with Billy Strayhorn. There was the manic enthusiasm and explosive creativity of Woody Herman's First, Second, and Third Herds. 

But smaller held me in a tighter grip. Count Basie, getting a rangy, big sound from small. And Shorty Rogers and the Giants, with a number of classically trained sidemen and arrangers, leading the charge for the so-called West Coast Sound.

You just think this essay is about music.

It is about sound.

One of my cherished hang-out musician buddies was Sonny Criss, the alto man who played as though he's been fired from a slingshot. Another was the gifted reedman Jimmy Giuffre. Each of these got me seriously thinking about the relationship between music and writing: both mediums relate to time, composition, phrasing, invention. Each said he heard the piano while playing his reed. What's that? You play an alto or a clarinet and you hear a piano? Yeah, well some guys hear a guitar.

I asked the most iconoclastic of all musicians, Artie Shaw, before he called me a son of a bitch. I hear strings, he said. An ensemble of strings. Fred Karlin, the composer and trumpet/flugel hornist said piano or organ (bur not the Hammond B-3, which he hated).

Which gets me to thinking how writing should sound. And don't try to cut the argument off with the observation that the individual composition should have its own voice, which is a lovely distraction over a bottle of pinot noir or two, but misses the point of the composer's hearing in the first place.

How does your writing sound to you? Does it have the intrinsic knowledge of which J.S. Bach wrote when he penned his discourse on the emotions produced by each key? Does it have your edge, your traits, your inner person. I can remember vividly being at a session one night and remarking that a particular trumpeter was trying too hard to sound like Roy Eldridge and then Rev. Jerome King, who'd gigged with Eldridge, said, Never in a million years could he be as aggressive as Eldridge was.

What sound does your writing produce when you hear it? What edge? What tempo? Does it sound like your mother, like the sea smashing on rocks below Big Sur, like the interior of Salisbury Cathedral, like the wing flutter of startled doves?

There is a special, memorable moment in Beethoven's Third Symphony, The Eroica, where a bassoon caries on a dialog with the ensemble orchestra, an avuncular chuckle going on Hard Ball against the authority of God, and in the process getting God to admit to a laugh.

I can think of other moments that turn my insides to overly steamed asparagus--the adagio from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto comes quickly to mind, or Brubeck's soaring chords climbing through the roof on Over the Rainbow--but that Beethoven daring dialog remains the standard for me.

Underneath it all is laughter. It may at times be the laughter of derision or the laughter of pure relief or the laughter of discovering one's car in an hopelessly complex parking lot, it may be the awareness of our last option having been spent, or the understanding of how frail we are in the face of nature, but it is the one thing we have that suffices us here and now and allows us not to duck the tsunami but to stand up to it, alone but with some semblance of our own substance.

Laughter asks the unthinkable question, Where do we go from here, when the here has been turned into a real estate venture that has been sold off as a sub-prime loan.

If I sound like laughter, it is because I am. If I do not sound like laughter, it is because I am too busy looking over my shoulder.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Function Determines Structure?

1. If function determines structure in biology, why not in fiction?

2. If you weren't so verbose, could you squeeze a novel into a short story?

3. What about Alice Munro; doesn't she squeeze novels into short stories?

4. What about Annie Proulx?

5. Who is that guy in the catalog sent you by the New York Review of Books, the guy who wrote Novels in Three Lines?

6. You could ask Jen Hederman to send you a review copy, right?

7. Suppose you don't like the book?

8. That's the risk she'd have to take. Still, did she complain about your reviews of two other NYRB Classics?

9. Maybe this is what you're getting at--a short story with numbered sentences? Paragraphs? All questions?

10. You just did something like that, didn't you?

11. I forgot. Sent if off to Southern California Review.

12. But you're not a freaking minimalist!

Do you mean you're not a minimalist because you used an exclamation point?

14. I can't remember the last time I did that.

15. I think it has to do with time available to write as opposed to the time more or less mortgaged on behalf of other ventures. If, for instance, you kept a neater desk and stopped leaving three-by-five index cards all over your bed, you could pick up maybe half an hour a day from time spent looking for things.

16. I enjoy looking for things.

17. If it looks like writing or sounds like writing, it won't make the cut.

18. So does this sound or look like writing?

19. No; it sounds like the notes you leave all over your bed.

20. What is it you're looking for?

21. Arguments people don't even realize they're having.

22. Too late, kiddo. The Talmud's already been written.

23. But it's still being argued, right?

24. Right?

25. Feneon, Felix Feneon. The guy who wrote Novels in Three Lines.

Don't be evasive.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mysteries of the Universe

1. Is there a narrator in our dreams and if so, is it possible to have a dream in multiple point of view or are they all technically in first person ?

2. If there is indeed a narrator and the narrator is first person, does that make the narrator naive? Unreliable?

3. What would you do if you could not trust the reliability of the narrator in your own dreams?

4. Is there some lesson about narrative technique to be learned from the fact that dreams in fiction are more effective if they are not discussed in detail?

5. Come to think about it, is there any reason why you should take it as a done deal that your waking dreams are reliable?

6. You go around basing characters on people you know, assuming this is a perfectly natural state of process, and have frequently made more commercially oriented work interesting by giving schools, buildings, banks, and in one instance a drum and bugle corps the name of a person you know. Not to forget making the former chairman of your department a notorious spy in a Nick Carter novel.

7. Seeing a former student of yours at a recent faculty luncheon, you were reminded that he has on seven different occasions rendered you as a sergeant on the Bronx Police Department, wherein you solved murder mysteries and that indeed your detective self is merged with the Google reality of your accomplishments.

8. Just thinking about it caused you to order the chicken Parmesan instead of the Salisbury steak.

9. Suppose you are a better person in his novels than in your own life?

10. If baseball players have batting and fielding averages and basketball players have field goal and free throw percentages, should you have an average for saying something dumb at an inappropriate moment? An appropriate moment?

11. Did you learn to compare and contrast things as an undergraduate or in your tenure as editor at a scholarly publisher?

12. Compare and contrast saying something dumb at an inappropriate moment and an appropriate one.

13. Is it more likely that one will say something appropriate or inappropriate while making love?

14. What is it about making love that produces the likelihood of saying something inappropriate?

15. List five appropriate things Aristotle might have noticed about making love.

16. Is diet related to the incidence of saying inappropriate things?

17. Should all males over the age of twenty-five be required to learn how to make a roux?

18. What does it mean when you get letters from the Neptune Society, addressing you by your first name?

19. Does knowing how to diagram sentences reduce the likelihood of saying something inappropriate?

20. What should we do with people who use passive voice?

21. What should we do with people who are boring?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


1. Why do the things in someone else's supermarket shopping cart invariably seem more adventurous and sophisticated than yours?

2. Does Progresso Chicken Soup with Escarole count for nothing at all?

3. Why does someone else's prose invariably seem more pellucid than yours?

4. Why are dictionary definitions so unrelentingly serious?

5. Are there any funny definitions in dictionaries?

6. Why does everyone else's prose seem funnier than yours?

7. If George W. Bush lied about Iraq, did William Butler Yeats lie about Byzantium?

8. Is there ever anything in your market basket that truly embarrasses you?

9. What is the one thing you tend to forget every time you go shopping?

10. What is the one item from your past you wonder about trying again every time you pass it in the supermarket aisle?

11. If no one were looking, would you slip in a bag of Camp Fire marshmallows, or would you hold out for Franco-American beef ravioli?

12. What one item do you select that invariably elicits a look from the cashier?

13. What syntactical rule gives you pause every time you use it in a manuscript?

14. Do you really have to use so many metaphors?

15. How often do the wheels stick on the shopping cart you have chosen?

16. Is there a correlation between your prose style and the wheels on shopping carts you have chosen?

17. What is the one major secret you have discovered about shopping in large markets?

18. What is the one major secret you have discovered about writing prose?

19. Do either of these secrets enhance your shopping or writing experiences?

20. Has the supermarket's continuous refusal to charge you for apricots you have eaten in the produce department in any way slowed down your consumption of apricots in the produce department?

21. Did your teen-years job as a box boy in a supermarket traumatize you in later years?

22. What about when Lauren Bacall gave you a fifty-cent tip at McDaniel's Shop'n Save Market in Beverly Hills?

23. Do you consider supermarkets to be decadent?

24. Do you ever miss the pickle barrel at Weiner's Market at Sixth and Fairfax?

25. Do you sometimes interrupt writing chores to eat?

26. Do you sometimes interrupt eating chores to write?

27. Have you ever awakened after a night of fitful dreams to discover that you have turned into an insect?

28. How many times did you say you stood trial for something you had written?

29. Have you ever been truly pissed off at a whale?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lines in the Sand

There are a number of lines drawn of late in the American sand and depending on the viewer's
political philosophy, those lines represent boundaries of tolerance.

One such line is the line of race and how it has cause cleavage planes to fracture in the rock that is
supposed to represent Democracy.

Another is class, and how deepening lines have been describing ghettos and enclaves in the supposedly interwoven society.

Another line yet represents the work force and its ability to secure for its collective self the same rights and privileges other segments of society are able to negotiate.

And yet another line, or perhaps more accurately now, wall: Immigration.

Thus four societal struggles for survival and recognition, all of them subjected to cynical and sophisticated attack.

If we were to draw yet another line, an historical line, beginning with the death and apotheosis of one Ronald Wilson Reagan, we would have for examination the political equivalent of what archaeologists and geologists and soil biologists call a core sampling.

RWR began his political career on another line still, the picket line. Although difficult to imagine at this stage of his apotheosis, he was on the workers' side of the picket line when the CSU, Conference of Studio Unions, struck for enhanced work security and pay against the studio management. His political views and energies shifted as his range of power increased, causing The Great Communicator to envision Welfare Mothers flagrantly abusing the Welfare System, waxing cynical about a so-called Visiting Workers' Program (in which workers visiting from other countries could pay taxes here but not receive benefits), and seizing upon the so-called Southern Strategy of his political party in a blatant attempt to exploit by direct implication racial and labor-related antagonisms dating back to the Reconstruction Era.

I must drawn in yoga-like infusions of breath to keep my focus from shunting forth into a polemic against a man whose first act as President of the United States was to fatally betray the very labor union that had supported him in his candidacy, reminding some of us of that famed FUBAR of logic from Viet Nam, We had to destroy the village i order to save it.

The picket line. Workers demonstrating for recognition as thriving contributors to society, willing to serve as a part of a team that envisioned, produced, sold, and serviced tangible products. Me and women willing to take risk in service of a principal. The working class, flexing its muscle.

I am from a background where a picket line--any picket line--is to be respected, which is to say not crossed until the pickets themselves have signed off the strike and agreed to negotiated terms.

I have been a member of WGAw, Writers' Guild of America, west, thanks to a wobbly, precarious series of ventures in television which spoke more to my own wobbly state of writerly ability than of any deficiency in the medium, itself. However easy it is to make fun of television, it was easier yet to make fun of my attempts. That is another story. The story is that once again writers are thought to be a luxurious nuisance, or perhaps merely a nuisance. I recall my pal Digby, being hauled before the NBC Mafia and literally being told not to be political on his invention, Laugh-In. Be funny some other way, he was told. Don't make waves.

Ah, the delicious irony. When Digby asked how it was possible to be funny without being political, he was told, You're the writer.

Sometimes the picket line gives the workers the chance to make their grievances heard.

Sometimes the enormously expensive fence between Mexico and the United States gives those who wish to work here a chance to be heard; sometimes it gives those who wish not to listen the opportunity to not do so.

What some of those who live along the California/Arizona/Texas border with Mexico do not take into account is the barricade of yet another sort drawn between the US and Canada; it is the barricade of good sense which the Canadians apply in their judgment of their neighbors to the south.

As all workers on strike need to be heeded and negotiated with, writers on strike need to be listened to.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A River in Egypt

I discover, sometimes by happy accident, a number of delightful qualities about my small-but-versatile camera but one thing about it cannot be denied: It is point-and-shoot. By the mere setting of a dial and carefully learned coordination when depressing the shutter release, I can enlist a sophisticated and helpful exposure meter, but nevertheless, the Lumix FX-30, its Leica lens notwithstanding, is point-and-shoot.

When taking a photo I am often reminded of other cameras which required a more active participation from me in securing the sharpness of focus I wished. Thus did the Mamiya and the Petax and the Rollei and the Konica enlist my awareness of the need for focus, and thus the connective tissues in my consciousness relating photography with writing and, in another context, the connective tissues between acting (as an adjunct of focusing on what a character wants) with getting words exposed on the page with some focus.

Which brings me to the balance between what is said and what is actually meant. You know, subtext.

Oh, for a sophisticated device such as the Intelligent ISO on my Lumix to adjust for proper focus and exposure between what is said and what is meant. But neither I, the metaphorical we, or the us-as-a-species am/are wired for that performance; we are in effect point-and-shoot.

Off we go then, tourists in the land of imagination, setting forth stories in which the characters say one thing and mean another. Thus have we invented the adjunct of irony, in which we say something, intending it as literal, only to discover that someone has construed it to mean its exact opposite or something far enough awry as to cause the blur of being misunderstood.

To add delicious complications to the calculus, we often do not require another person to add to the moral high ground of having been unjustly misunderstood. We may tell ourselves one thing and, tee hee, intend it as a red herring. To extend the photographic metaphor, we may put a filter over the lens to change the quality of incoming reality, making us the used car salesman, the tire-kicking customer, and the car, all at once.

O Wad some giftie gie us, Robert Burns sang, to see ourselves as others see us...

But we are point-and-shoot.

The simple solution is to see dialog as the meeting point between what is said and what is meant, neither English nor conversation nor transcript but rather a language unto itself wherein such innocent expressions as So, what were you thinking for dinner? actually means, What do you mean, dinner isn't ready yet? Don't you realize there's a game on TV? And "I have no idea what you're talking about." means "Oh, no; not that again."

The good news is that this wiring makes us well-constructed to recognize and relate stories.

The bad news is that if its presence within ourselves is not recognized, the condition is called denial, which of itself is the title of this blog.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bumper Stickers

1. I support God.

2. I support God more than you do.

3. Compassionate bigot.

4. Careful, Compassionate Bigot on Board!

5. The Crusades Were Republican Talking Points

6. Keep Church and Status Separate.

7. Would Your God Waterboard?

8. I Support Gay Mirage

9. I Support States' Rites

10. Bomb Switzerland. You never can tell.

11. Who Stole My Habeas Corpus?

12. Which Part of Los Angeles Don't You Understand?

13. Don't Blame Me, I'm Agnostic.

14. Honk if You Love Chaos.

15. It Only Hurts When I Vote.

16. Override Your Local Veto.

17. Pardon Darwin.

18. I Still Believe Anita Hill.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Words to That Effect

Two of the finest writers in the English language have been dead for hundreds of years, their work and their reach living on, DWMs to be sure, but remarkable dead white men, each of whom had an eye, an ear, and an empathy. Yet another who reaches out to me has been out of circulation since Halley's Comet orbited by in 1910. All three have had an enormous effect on the way we talk, think, and read. They are respectively Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Clemens.

No slouches either are those who put forth the King James Bible, which, along with Noah Webster's Speller, had a direct influence on the better angels of American English and of the better still angels of a DWM who is not so much celebrated for his writing as his politics, which is to say Abraham Lincoln.

Add to this roster the least known of language mavens, William Tyndale (1494--1536), a man who rendered a English version of the New Testament and was at work on a rendering of the Old when Henry VIII put a stop to his work and his life. But the damage was done and, as was the case with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Webster, and Twain, his words live one.

It is certainly plausible to link Shakespeare to having read Tyndale, not just in passing but repeatedly, influencing him much as Webster's finger prints are visible on Lincoln's words.

Persons who profess a love for words and language should have their visas checked at the border of our indulgence; some of these have love only for their own words, coming from them. We must make them earn their keep, just as we must earn our own keep by understanding the ways in which men and women of words have shaped us and our cultures. Since I have been leaning on DWSs, allow me to even things up a tad with women alive and gone from us who have caused more variations and eloquence in our language than all of The Great Vowel Shift that came after the Norman Invasion. In no particular order or chronology, we have Sarah Orne Jewett, Amy Lowell, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Mrs, Wharton, and Joan Didion, each of whom is worth a blog posting or two. We must keep memorial candles burning for those who use language to unite, to inform, and to ease the transition from one color on the spectrum spread of life to the next, leaving behind the memorial of clarity and insight.

At the end of his remarkable Adam's Diary, Twain gives us a flash of Adam at Eve's tomb, possibly thinking of his own Livvy when he wrote from Adam's point of view of Eve, "Wherever she was, there was Eden." We need language and its use to transport men, women, children, and even Republicans to an Edenic connection with the humanity that links us.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

En Passant

California sees at times embarrassingly large, certainly too large to be pinned down on one dissecting board.

Having within the past half hour completed driving the middle third of it, the three hundred some-odd miles from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara on the occasion of my every-other-month writing workshop in a Woodside, a small enclave between Palo Alto and Redwood City, I am as filled with the sense of the changes going on in an about the topography as I am the steady, stroboscopic flash of approaching headlights on my retinas. Darkness descends at about five thirty and because of the need for some longish exegesis and probing, we were barely able to call it quits and be on the road by five. Just time to see dusk descend on the rolling hills outside Stanford, the encroachment of housing arrangements pricing Palo alto and Menlo Park off the map of affordability, unless one has stumbled on inheritance or some income source that is one step beyond the hedge fund.

San Jose, even in the darkness, looks like a men's hairpiece purchased at Wal-Mart--good enough coverage of the bald spots but wanting more color and naturalness. The small towns southbound along 280 to the intersect with the more serious 101 seem like trailer parks split like feuding families, the smaller trailers on one side, the splenetic RVs and SUVs across the way. Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and the approaches to Salinas remind us of pet cemeteries or large outlet malls for name brand clothing chains. It is not until we get past the stucco insistence of Salinas that we begin to see visions of real California and, thus, real America. Chualar (a Spanish word for a type of bunch grass), Gonzales, King City, and my favorite, Solidad (Isolation). As some of these names imply, the demographic and indeed the future is Latino, but the same fate awaits these places as the fate already eroding the rural, horsiness-prone Gringoness of Paso Robles and Atascadero, where Gringo money is buying property, installing vineyards with winemasters imported from France and the Napa Valley and named for women who sound like the new generation of models in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Small malls and clutches of condos called townhouses are pushing the Mon and Pop stores to the other side of the tracks, even in places where there are no tracks.

Most people who are migrating to California are drawn to and quickly find San Francisco and Los Angeles, Sacramento an San Diego too expensive for start-up costs. Some, having at least found the dream of home ownership in these places back when the price of a home was about the price of a contemporary SUV are cashing out and moving with their nest egg to places along 101 and I-5 in the interior.
Even with the steady rise of oil and gas prices, California at all extremes is being transformed into an analogy of the geese in Strasbourg, force fed with the goal of producing a thick, rich pate.

The handwriting is on the walls, not the Mene Mene Tekle Uparashins handwriting, the one-size-fits all franchise handwriting, wherein one city looks and behaves pretty much like the other, and the other is, well, it is straight out of Disney, and the only good thing to have come out of Disney was Donald Duck, but how long has it been since you've heard him throw a tantrum?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tag; I'm It

I come from a culture where tag was alternately a playground game and the word for day, largely inherent in the name of one or more of the newspapers by which my maternal grandparents were imbued with warm regards for socialist constructs and concepts (without being told that they were indeed socialist in nature) on which they had already arrived as a life style.

The playground game quickly became boring to me and I set my sights on something more goal oriented such as tether ball, dodge ball, an nine-ball.

The blogosphere seems an incredible and wonderful playground bring with possibilities for friendships, dialog, information, and for want of a better set of words, the experiences of art. Accordingly I have been tagged for play by John Eaton(see my list off to the right).

The rules of the game begin with consulting your cupboards against the presence of any, ugh, Ready-Mix Cornbread, evicting any margarine from your 'fridge, and sending your decaf coffee to the RNC. This is for starters. From there:

1. Link to the person’s blog who tagged you. (Which I had already done some time back.)
2. Post these rules on your blog. (Okay, here they are.)3. List seven random and/or weird facts about yourself.a--I most enjoy shaving when the beard is prepped with George Trumper's almond shaving cream, applied with a badger brush.
b--Revenge may well be a dish best served cold but for me, day-old pasta, not reheated and served cold is a lovely snack, ditto Japanese soba noodles.
c--Because of Barnaby Conrad, whom I did not know personally at the time (He has become one of my closest personal friends and I edit all his books) I spent some considerable time in my twenties, learning how to become a bullfighter. Fortunately, my twenties did not last long.
d--While most of my peers took Three Musketeer bars, Mars bars, and Peter Paul's Mounds bars into the Saturday afternoon film experience, I frequently took bottles of olives.
e--As a frequent patron of the now defunct Espresso Roma coffee shop on Coast Village Road, I finally connected the familiar-looking face of another regular with his name, H.R. Haldeman, former chief of staff of Richard Nixon. After a few days of eye contact, Haldeman approached my table, introduced himself (The H. was for Harry but he went by Bob for Robert) and said he'd been noticing my demeanor and decided he liked it.
f--The legendary musician/orchestra leader (and boyhood idol of mine) called me a son of a bitch before an audience of over three hundred people.
g--The creator of Batman and the creator of Peanuts within fifteen minutes of one another, offered to give me blurbs for a collection of short stories I was trying to market.
4. Tag seven random [?] people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
d--Lettuce Elizabeth
The Individual Voice

5. Let each person know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.



Zoe got a 50-large Gund Grant.
Way to go, Big Z!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Grooves of Academe

Sitting in the relative comfort of shade and an actively spurting fountain on an otherwise sunny campus, I am mindful of Lee's battles with a translated version of The War between the Tates, and thinking not improbably about the delicious vectors the novel of academe has taken.

Note that I call it the novel of academe because academic novel invariably means Middlemarch or some other trampoline on which either an author can rail or a Ph.D. write something as a ticket to a tenure track. I have noting, well, relatively nothing against Middlemarch except that it is largely a demonstration of the author's tremendous ability to see things, which is one dimension, but not, I believe, the most important, which is empathy. Yeah,, empathy.

I am also thinking how, although there is often little at risk in a novel of academe, it can be an hilarious indictment of the education we all take so seriously. Take Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim for example. The payoff, in which Jim of lucky fame, delivers a drunken peroration that gains him the sought-after goal, is alone worth the ride. Take even more recently Richard Russo's Straight Man, a romp in which the protagonist is accused of, among other things, strangling a swan.

Michael Malone's uproarious Fools Cap is what we in the biz call genre warp, which is to say that the groves of academe are met head on with the drama department and the production of plays, which has always been a metaphor, and which is extended here to the fine madness of combustion.

John Williams' Stoner has very little humor in it, leaving us with a wrenching vision of a truly good man, caught between his passions.. It is to the novel of academe as Blood Meridian is to the novel of social consciousness. I am still somewhat bleeding from having read it and having been at an academic event--a lunch involving two deans and an Administrative Provost and a candidate for the position of Department Chair--I look to academics with a certain heightened alertness.

All grows better when Jane Smiley takes on the novel of academe with Moo, a novel that takes on the politics and pretensions of an agricultural institution.

One of the first books of any sort I was sent for review, a book that emphasized my desire to write books as well as review them was the timeless Pictures from a Institution, Randall Jarrell's stunning vision of how agenda-driven and silly those of us who set foot on campus to teach are. It has revealed me to me with a kind of Kissingerian surgical coldness. I still have the pin holes to show where I was attached to the dissecting board.

Go ahead, laugh at the novel of academe, but don't ignore it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Your Other Writing Group

We all have at least one source we consult after finishing a project, hopeful of that most useful of editorial tools, the other eye, or the saving grace. This is part of writerly interconnectedness, not simply because writing is often such lonely work, but because our other sources emerge from often surprising places. Diane, the person I am most likely to send my work to, lives some distance over a sinuous highway on which impatient individuals ply their SUVs at maddeningly irresponsible speeds or frustratingly slow speeds, thus 154 from Santa Barbara to Santa Ynez is more often than not an emotional experience. Diane was once a regular in my Saturday group.

Another likely consult is some hundreds of miles north, more or less near his alma mater of Stanford, whence I proceed every other month to moderate and perhaps even to militate.

And there is yet another, who is back now from Canberra and tucked away in a small Canadian town neither of us can pronounce.

I am the choice of a number of writing buddies in addition to editorial clients. Sometimes the lines are blurry, as with Brian Fagan, who began as a client, still is, but is also a friend.

All of which demonstrates the fact that many writers have some ties of support and encouragement, others still seek and get their support from virtual or active or both writers groups; the graduate-level writing program where I have been associated for lo these many years goes out of its way to encourage electronic connections with instructors and student peers; I am encouraged to use the University system for posting lecture notes, editing things on line, and downloading podcasts and other events from audible dot com.

Truth to tell, I feel frequent waves about many such group connections, largely because I see and hear such outrageous suggestions from them, suggestions that waste the writers' time and undercut their originality.

Having just paid $26 American for a hardcover book I thought I wanted and $12.95 for a trade paperback, I am more of a mind to accept the equation that such prices are inevitable and accordingly I will only pay the respective tariff for the real thing and let convention or imitation of a style or concept go hang itself in the closet.

Nonreaders seem to gravitate to writing groups, which should be a warning. How much critique should I take from a nonreader? Indeed, how much from a nonwriter? And how about my discovery yesterday that one of my best students was wasting time doing an exercise that was assigned in one of his workshops? Assigned by a workshop leader who was a former student of mine and with whom I am on cordial terms?


Don't start off on exercises.

The one I like the most is where each member of a writing group picks a word. The words are rendered on a poster or as a group email. Each member then has to write a story containing all the chosen words. Instant Chekhov, right? I can recall interrupting a new member at my Saturday group after that person had read three or four pages during the course of which I grew increasingly impatient for traces of story. That text reads, I said, trying my unsuccessful best to sound neutral if not encouraging, as though it were an assignment from your other writing group. The reader was stunned. How, he wondered, could you tell?

No spontaneity, I said, and no story.

Of course there are writers' groups other than the bizarre assignment sorts. Take the Foundation Garment or Maximum Support Groups, in which everything is wonderful, life is good, and the free-lance writer shall end the New York publisher conspiracy. Life is good to the point of being amazing, but everything is not wonderful. I could deal with that last observation without ever mentioning George W. Bush. I could start with Ronald Reagan. While it is true that some massively wrong things find their way into publication, members of the New York publishing establishment are too busy to have time to conspire. It is not true that all good things will eventually find a home, but that is because of a massive lack of taste, which cannot be argued ito existence as a conspiracy.

Those groups that encourage individual voice and theme are the groups that rock.

The others? They should all be forced to listen to Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss from a slow-speed book on tape. There! That'll teach 'em a thing or two.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ontology Recapitulates Philogony

When Richard Dawkins blew his breath into a paper bag, twisted the top, then clapped it between his hands to create the big bang of the meme, was he thinking, perhaps of how the Internet culture of blogging was predictable and emblematic of what humans will do under any circumstances with any given technology?

Or to put it another way, what rising young anthropologist is even now filling out grant forms, notably Guggenheim, to get money with which to study ways in which the blogosphere recapitulates the social class conditions of any given society at any given time.

The essential nature of us since we began standing upright is to hunt and gather sustenance. In doing so, we need social and political ties in addition to skills. We probably learned to talk in order to communicate communication skills, although some say we learned to talk in order to give Chomsky enough work to keep him busy and to give Studs Terkell something to listen to.

Anthropologists look at clans, moieties, family construction, taboos, obligations, status. We of blog-land define ourselves by what we blog about, who, if anyone, looks at our blogs, who we link to, to whom we link. Just as the early folk in what we like to think of now as North America managed to trade with people who had obsidian, which was a dandy cutting edge for skinning, for projectile points, and for slicing salami, we connect with persons on various continents, trading the projectile points of ideas and opinions.

In one brief session of checking in on blog buddies I can be guided by Lee down the narrow streets of a small town in France, warned off one butcher for a better-looking one, hearing women of Arabic descent arguing, and experiencing bureaucracy in the French manner as opposed to the kinds I am offered right here in 93108. Within moments, I am in rural Georgia (the American Georgia as opposed to the formerly USSR Georgia), where John unerringly points me to the best barbecue and a cutting-edge of heart and wisdom that out cuts obsidian; whereupon I am transported to Canada where Ilana's quest for the grace of understanding and knowledge is so refreshingly unself-conscious that it fails to note the grace that propels it. Then a quick hop to visit Lori in Austin, which to my reckoning is the place to be in Texas, all the other places in Texas being what the late lamented Molly Ivens said were places to wonder how you got there. Not to forget mischievous Pod in beautiful downtown Sydney, NSW, a click of the touch pad to a London suburb where she who is known as Lettuce feels comfortable enough with us to let us know her real middle name. What newspaper or health care provider can offer such splendid inter-connectedness? Depending on the color (or lack thereof) of my mood, I play off my reading order, looking for something I occasionally find in reliable coffee. Then, back home as it were, I check in at Liz's photography blog (to which John has also linked) to see what splendid image has caught her eye, and, time permitting, who among Liz's blog buddies has some stunning visual, say a portrait by Shawn (or the haunting shot he got of a man skinning an elk in his garage. [I hope it was an elk and not some pesky neighbor]) and if I'm really wanting a jolt, I check in to see what Zoe Strauss has found in Philadelphia to resonate through the rest of my day. And what's going on in Alaska as Ben essays the shift to a medium format camera?

Okay, okay; I gotta read student papers, make intelligible commentary, prepare a lecture, and hit the road to what we in 93108 call Down Below when we speak of L.A., but the point stands as one of those cybernotes one writes to one's self for additional commentary. The blog world is the terrain of the twenty-first century hunter and gatherer. Lee in France, coping with the bureaucracy of getting her own Internet hook-up, is driven to the local library and a small room where a single on-line computer serves the needs of the community and without much physical description, I can see the social dynamic between Lee, wanting to connect with blogs, and a teen aged girl, wanting, wanting--ah, what lovely things do teen-aged girls want?

Yes, young fellow, you may borrow one of my large kayaks to go whale hunting, but of course I am your twenty-five-percent partner on your kill, right.

Yes, I know it is only volcanic glass, as you call it, but it is also pretty freaking sharp, much better for preparing osso bucco than that crude stone you're using, and therefore I must stand firm on my offer of this relatively large chunk of obsidian for both those reed baskets of yours.

And the beat goes on.

Lah de dah de dah.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Making a Scene

The scene is the basic dramatic unit. It is possible but unlikely to have story without scene. Some stories cold be related thrugh some combination of narrative, pastiche of newspaper account, pages of memoir or, look at Manuel Puig in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. Go ahead; look. He pastes a story together with the scraps and souvenirs of people's life.

Show the chicken salad sandwich scene from Five Easy Pieces. Deconstruct it. You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
I want you to hold it between your knees

Show Act I, Scene II, Richard III.
The Book scene in The Remains of the Day.

Maybe one more. Terry Molloy in the taxi with his brother in On the Waterfront. I coulda been somebody.

A scene has:

characters have some spine or agenda
emotional overlay
events (or beats)
blocking (staging. Who sits where.
arc (moves the story from X to Y)
Nobody gets into the scene without expectations or agenda. Even the kid who delivers the pizza wants something. Maybe wants to be the best pizza delivery person in town. 

 Maybe came to L.A. from John Eaton's semi-rural Georgia, where folks just knew he had a calling for delivering pizza, but L.A.? You know L.A.; everyone there thinks he has a calling for delivering pizza, and so he has to settle for part-time unless he can get customers to call in, Hello Dominos? I just had a three-cheese and onion pizza delivered by I guess the best delivery person I've ever had pizza delivered by. I mean he was so good I said screw the cholesterol. Name of Fred. Best damn delivery I ever had on a pizza, you know what I mean? What's that you say? You telling me you had to fire Fred cause he was knocking off customers' silverware? You telling me he's bogus?

You may have set tomorrow's lecture in motion.

If that doesn't fill two and a half hours, you can drag in a witness, which is to say a point of view. Which character or characters experience the scene, then filter the events and implications to us? I? You? He/She? Multiple? Omniscient?

Now you can go back to thinking about some painting, a photo, a statue, that informed Westerners would consider art, then expose it to someone from an oher culture altogether and try to find out what that individual makes of it. Then get said individual to show someone from this culture a work his culture considers art, then compare and contrast.

You can perhaps slip in five or ten minutes thinking through the implications of environment being a crucible for culture

"Listen, Earl, how come you always drawing like moose and woolly mammoth on the cave walls? Wherever we go, you draw stuff like that. The guys in the hunting clan, they asked me to you know, talk to you. "

"Listen, yourself. You notice every time I get a little high on grass, draw one of those things, we always get meat."

"Aw c'mon. You think you drawing it makes it happen? Them's heavy duty guys onna hunting clan. They's the ones bringing the meat."

"Okay, how about we put up a little escrow here. I don't do a drawing, those guys come back empty handed and we gotta send out for Chinese."

"Man, you got a way to go before you got shaman powers."

"What a hoot. You never hear of low-residency master's degrees? I've got shaman stuff you wouldn't believe."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Son of a Subtext

1. A keepable page a day is a book a year

2. A list is a menu of impending frustration.

3. Frustration is a diploma awarded to overprogrammers and other type A personalities.

4. A list is the first step to type A personality.

5. Why Bother is a menu of impending frustration.

6. There has to be a middle ground or you're screwed whether you do or don't.

7. How about the occasional scrawled note?

8. Not bad.

9. A scrawled note a day is a messy pocket.

10. Since when are you concerned about your pockets?

11. A messy pocket precludes a messy desk.

12. So you say.

13. There is no know correlation, damnit, between a messy desk and a book a year.

14. Part of the mess on your desk comes from books.

15. Part of the mess in your car comes from books.

16. A messy desk is a recipe for frustration.

17. Is there a reason why you have ants in your car but not on your desk? (No fair blaming Sally.)

18. In spite of what the ads promise, Leopard will not notably improve your life.

19. A neat desk will not notably improve your life.

20. It is difficult to maintain a sense of humor about a messy desk.

21. It is a good thing that the individuals who contrived the Wechsler-Belleview test didn't include questions about messy desks.

22. It is all right not to remember what as many as twenty percent of the notes on your messy desk mean.

23. You really should try to think through what you meant when you wrote "A ticklish samurai" on the back of a checkstand receipt from a supermarket.

24. What is the thing you would be least willing to be allergic to?

25. If you did not make so many lists, would you get more writing done?

26. If you did not make lists or write notes, would you be a neater person?

27. Is it a sign of promiscuity to have as many pads of paper as you do?

28. If you got more writing done, it wouldn't make you a better person, would it?

29. Is being a better person over rated?

30. Would you have more free time if you were a nicer person?

31. What one thing would you have to give up if you were a nicer person?

32. If you had more free time, would you compile more lists?

33. Have you ever plagiarized a list?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Random Excess Memory

1. Individuals in Twelve-step recovery programs find writing first-person narrative threatening.

2. Persons who call you by the honorific Sir or Ma'am are patronizing you.

3. Persons who outrace you to the available loo have a sense of entitlement.

4. A subset of #3 supra is that they think you have live a life style that has diminished the strength of your kidneys.

5. Persons who are intimidated by dogs often have one of both parents who have short tempers.

6. Persons who preface a question to you with, Now I know it's none of my business, really think it is.

7. Individuals who complain about the rudeness of contemporary teenagers are often guilty of rudeness to teenagers.

8. Individuals who praise the music of Wagner tend to enjoy the novels of Ayn Rand.

9. After seeing the film "Five Easy Pieces," it is difficult not to smile whenever a waitress repeats your instruction to hold something, cheese, lettuce, onion, nor to laugh aloud if she asks if you want to hold the chicken.

10. Individuals who have little or no confidence tend to resent persons who have too much.

11. The odds of getting competent directions to a nearby restroom increase in inverse proportion to the amount over the age of fifty is the person you ask.

12. Tourists who ask you directions to an authentic Mexican restaurant have no idea what authentic Mexican food is.

13. What is the first poem you can remember remembering?

14. Does it seem feasible that Georg W. Bush is addicted to video games?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Common Wisdom

1. Each culture has a common wisdom; a set of resident survival axioms.

2. One such aspect of common wisdom is that a writer, actor, artist should have some fall-back occupation with which to secure a living when writing, acting, sculpting, photography (but not wedding, bat- or bar-mitzvah photography) fail to produce.

3. Book keeping, sales, teaching, and law are frequent choices for such occupation-as-sugar-Daddy vectors.

4. Another tenet of common wisdom is that government, if run like business, would be more efficient and honorable because all business is efficient and honorable.

5. Another tenet of common wisdom, at least Better Business Bureau Wisdom is that reform will drive those rascally politicians from the temple, er, from the chambers of House and Senate, the better to accommodate the business persons.

6. Another tenet still: You can indeed fool most of the people all the time.

7. You can certainly fool a working majority of Democrats most of the time.

8. No use worrying about Republicans because they have successfully fooled themselves and will not brook outside interference, even if it is good.

9. When religion doesn't work, people turn to politics.

10. When politics don't work, people turn to religion.

11. When catch-22 doesn't work, people begin to see virtues in writing long, compulsive narratives.

12. "I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. "

13. Who said that?

14. Nick Carraway, who only became the narrator of Gatsby at the last minute, just after Gatsby got to be called Gatsby.

15. Fitzgerald did not run his writing like a business (although after Zelda's sanatorium bills began coming in, he did write a great many short stories ( not the least of which was "Bernice Bobs Her Hair")for a great deal of money.

16. Nor did he run by prayer or majority rule.

17. You can tell I have spent the better part of today in a meeting in which the primary agenda was designing a MFW curriculum.

18. It did not occur to me at the time to consider prayer or business practices.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Hunting of the Snark

At the most unexpected times, the parent I never was emerges with the same reflexive surge as Sally exhibits when, as we stroll across campus, a skateboarder streams past us. Sally is hard wired to notice things that move. If they move suspiciously or if they move with the noise of, say, skateboard wheels whirring over a brick or otherwise textured walk way, even more of her hard wiring kicks in and she wants to herd. I am apparently wired by some form of connective tissue to be concerned for her welfare to the point where I remind myself of the overly protective parent.

Sally is a tad over thirty-two pounds. I am a tad over 175. I have not measured her height--and you call yourself overly protective!--but I do know with some familiarity now all six three of me (particularly where things tend to get stiff). On a gram/molar basis, Sally is tougher, better equipped, more independent than I am. I can quickly make the transition back a few or more thousand years when some if not all my forebears had animal totems, guides as it were against existential loneliness, Post-It Notes on the refrigerator door of being alive. Those worthies took clues as well as companionship and yes, the flesh of sustenance from any number of animals, birds, fish. They painted and incised representations of these companions, the Post Ice Age equivalent of tagging, on cavern walls, rocks, the occasional walrus tusk, the reindeer bone. I have about my living space just enough artifacts--Zuni fetishes, Hopi kachinas, Navajo blankets, pre-Colombian statues--to remind me that I am not nearly so modern and enlightened as I am said to be every time a passing band of politicians is interested in my vote.

It is, however, one thing, a noble thing at that, to conflate my concerns for Sally's welfare, to order an extra hot dog for her when I am at Nathan's, or a plain burger when at In-n-Out Burger, or even to consider sharing my albacore burger when my appetite takes me to The Habit. It is another to have so identified with my MacBook. Not only have I purchased a padded carrying case for it and poured through various downloads and add-ons for its welfare, I have invested it with an enormous power. A long-time user of the PC, I made the switch to Mac in early September and am still on what is euphemistically called a learning curve. In the waning hours of last night, I managed to discover the how's and whys of the persistent appearance of a particular deconstruction of genre fiction I'd assembled for one of my classes. Every time I fired up the Mac, this phantom document would appear. Not only that, this very Mac had suddenly taken a hands-off attitude to any CD, refusing admission with a greater intransigence than an American border guard. Feeling on more unfamiliar ground as the night wore on, I got the sense of some of those early fisherpersons, sailing out beyond the point where they could see the coast line. Completely adrift they were, being inventive at the behest of the parental necessity. Woe is me, six times the heft of Sally, thinking dire thoughts such as, If I have to leave this computer at Mac Mechanic for a few days, I'm screwed because the Mac has materials I need to cope with right now.

I do suppose a whaling or fishing or seal-hunting Aleut would have the same concerns if his kayak had come acropper, needing an application of pine tar, which could easily take a day or two. What does not conflate is the index of survival. That I am so concerned about one small device, however wonderful I think it is (as opposed to my having recently told my PCs to go be fruitful and multiply themselves), I am amazed at what has been lost in the translation of civilization.

True enough, I can see Tintoretto and El Grecco and Mary Cassatt and Cezanne instead of the more stylized drawings that may not even by some definitions be art. But instead of taking navigational chances as the early ones did, or testing differing sail configurations the better to bring in a barracuda or two, I am amidst a group of students on skateboards (not a bad thing, the skateboard)with cell phones, iPods, and designer backpacks. And no, I'm not taking off on them and their tools, I am taking off on me for having lost my way for a time and for that most egregious sin of all, self-pity.

As if to confirm this, Sally was indeed on the job at 3 this morning, protecting me from unseen menaces of an even higher danger.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Peanut Butter Propensity

Revenge, the conventional wisdom has it, is a dish best served cold.

Makes sense when you think it through. Similarly, irony, particularly the sarcasm part of irony, is as difficult to control as a watercolor; it slides, slops, dries; it becomes as dangerous as eating a peanut butter and jam sandwich while wearing a white shirt (which is one reason I don't have any white shirts).

Accordingly, this peanut butter propensity is one of the many reasons I seldom read Maureen Dowd, who began her career as a reporter, then allowed her attitude to run away with her to the point where facts weren't enough; she became a columnist. It is true that a columnist needs opinion and/or attitude in order to reach beyond mere fact. But Maureen Dowd is no better at controlling her sarcasm than I am of controlling peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. I tried marmalade, thinking that would help and because I am fond of the so-called Seville marmalade. I even tried lemon curd, but that was scant help.

The simple truth is that I should--but don't--eat peanut butter sandwiches over the sink. Maureen Dowd should--but doesn't--sign up for anger-management classes. There are some nifty ones on line, some of which have working arrangements with Traffic Schools, allowing you to burn off citations for such offenses as rude gestures, or that particularly L.A. offense, throwing cell phones at other drivers. Maureen Dowd appears to hate everyone, even people she does not know. No sarcasm left behind. More and more, she is becoming a salient reason for calling 1-800-NYTIMES and saying, "Cancel." Reading her allows me to take sides against her and show sympathy for persons I ordinarily would dislike. There were some moments a few weeks back, for instance, when I found myself beginning to feel sorry for Dick Cheney. I'm happy to report that didn't last long.

This has turned out to be more about her than I'd intended, but it is ample demonstration of my point: You can't mess around with sarcasm.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How the Grinch Stole the Election

"I can see by the way you're looking at me, you think you know me."
"You pulled that same routine yesterday."
"Actually, you don't know me."
"Right. As though I'd forget. You're the story I was working on and was too energized to back up, and then that ditsy Zenith, can you believe it, Zenith computer crashed and you were gone."
"Actually, I'm not a story you neglected or dumped."
"Yeah. Yeah."
"Really. I'm doing a friend a favor."
"You're really not an unresolved story?"
"Well, maybe that, but not in the sense you mean. I'm doing a friend a favor, stopping by like this."
"Nope. I'm not buying it. You're a story I never got around to finishing. I knew you looked familiar. Something about the way you talk."
"As I was saying--"
"See, I told you so. You have to be a story. Hardly anyone uses that 'as' construction any more. They're all 'like.' 'Like I was saying.'"
"Actually, I've come to bring you a message from a former lady friend."
"Man, this is perfect. What kind of story are you, anyway? I know this is going to get me into trouble with stuff I should be doing right now, but you've got me curious."
"Perfect. Just the right amount of negation. Of course you're a story."
"Too articulate for a messenger. You can't fool me."
"Wasn't trying. Let's get to the point. My name isn't Story. It's Reproof."
"You're here to bring me the message of reproof?"
"Damn well told."
"Okay. So who's your friend? Who sent you?"
"My friend's name is Politics, and she wants you to know that you can't mess with her. She's vindictive if pushed. You said you'd care. You said you wouldn't take her for granted."
"Lotta back room deals going down right now."
"That's why she sent me. She wants to know if you're going to sit back and let that creep from Wyoming run the show and make everyone think it's the Sock Puppet President doing the running."
"What can I do?"
"She said you'd ask that."
"I sent letters to Feinstein and Boxer about Judge Mukasey."
"Good for starters."
"I sent money to Kennedy and Kerry."
"They don't need money."
"I spoke up for that lady running against an incumbent Democrat lap dog."
"Better. But what about Hillary?"
"Ah, she'll self-destruct."
"You sure about that? Remember that play your old faculty mate, Jerry Lawrence wrote, 'The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail'?"
"And Emerson comes to visit him and says, 'What are you doing in there?'"
"And old Thoreau, he goes, 'And you, Waldo, what are you doing out there?'"
"So you want me to get arrested?"
"Wouldn't think of it, busy as you are."
"Sarcasm is truly difficult to bring off with panache."
"You just ran pretty well with it. Okay, gotta go. I delivered the message. Just one thing she asked me to lay on you."
"And that is--"
"Hillary in a Crate 'n Barrel store. You break it, you own it. See you around, big boy."

Monday, November 5, 2007

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

"I hope you recognize me."
"Well, you do look familiar."
"I should hope so."
"I know we've spent time together."
"Oh, yes, long hours."
"It's beginning to come back to me."
"Ah. Thank goodness you didn't mistake me for a student. I don't know if I could have borne that."
"No, no; I sense it was something more--"
"More intimate."
"Yes. Although--"
"You never really had time for me. Oh, I know how it was at first. You were quite attentive. I felt drawn to you, hoped to spend more time with you until, well, you know."
"How have things been for you lately? I mean, since I last saw you."
"Men. So predictable. You didn't really have time for me and yet you wanted me to be available."
"It was just a sincere interest."
"Heaven protect us from sincere interests. Not at my age, please."
"Listen, I could--we could--Fridays are good days. Maybe even Monday. Yes, for the rest of this month, I have Mondays as well."
"You really don't know who I am, do you? You think I was-- Alright, we'll put it to the test. What's my name?
"It's coming to me. Really."
"I suppose I should be flattered, having you think of me that way. Or maybe I should be insulted. No, neither one. No wonder we didn't work out. You were objectifying me. Ah, what you would have seen if you'd looked a bit deeper."
"Wait, I think I have it! You were the one about the discouraged man. I-I even named you after the first line of a poem. Keats. 'O What can ail thee, knight at arms?' Right?"
"Yes. When we were very close, you called me 'Alone and Palely Loitering.' Said it amused you. Well, it is nice to be seen for one's self."
"Where are you going?"
"Listen, Buster, you gotta work for it. Recognizing me makes points, but--"
"You gotta work for it. See you around, kiddo."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Speech Lite

Last night a man who has hired me at some considerable fee to edit his writings was inaugurated as president of a university and since he has struck me as otherwise being a good fellow and potential friend, I accepted the invitation to attend the inauguration.

I arrived at the appropriate auditorium, accepted a program nicely pimped out with a yellow cord to suggest the mortar board tassel and found, as has become my survival-oriented habit, a aisle seat near the back.

Even though I was prompt, the ebullient lady in academic regalia at the podium was already in mid sentence of what was to become a fifteen-minute salutatory. Thumbing through the program, I learned that she was the chancellor of the university system of which my client was to become president of the Santa Barbara campus. I also learned that she was the first of, get this, twelve speakers, the last of whom was my client.

As well it might, my mind began to reel.

Twelve speakers under any circumstances is bad enough, but twelve speakers wearing academic regalia causes the mind to shift into overdrive from reel to boggle.

In what some writers would call a flashback and what some mental health professionals would call a fugue state, I was transported back five months to the very same room where, as a member of the staff of a writers' conference, I was a part of an even larger cadre of speakers, a cynical trope on the gladiators at the Coliseum to the audience. We who are about to die salute you, they said. Our greeting to the audience of three hundred fifty-odd writers was on the order of, We who are about to teach you first bore you to death. This is particularly ironic because, just previous to being led into the auditorium, we were enjoined, nay, abjured to keep our opening comments to ninety seconds. There were thirty of us. Factor in another fifteen seconds for advancing to the dais, fiddling with the microphone, speaking our ninety-seconds-worth, then fifteen seconds to get back to home chair, you have accounted for an hour. Even without academic regalia, it is unlikely that most writers, given a captive audience, will surrender the floor in the allotted ninety seconds.

My fugal state took me a hundred miles south to a building that greatly resembles the cake at the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy Republican. The building is called Town and Gown, its name aptly suggesting its locale at a university. As if to confirm this suggestion, Town and Gown is next to the alumni center. Every year in the past of my tenure at the University, I gathered with approximately thirty brother and sister faculty members at an event called The Fall Festival of Writers, meant at first blush to give new and incoming students an opportunity to hear their faculty read, each from his own work. At the earlier faculty meeting in which we were primed with University Commons hors d'oerves and wine of uncertain parentage, we were admonished to keep our presentations down to ten minutes. We all knew this would be impossible for Shelley Berman. Once, for some unexplainable reason, when I was put on to read before the estimable Mr. B., I blew the whistle on our ten-minute cynosure and in the manner of congresspersons and senators, yielded a minute of my time to him. He later admitted to roars of laughter that he would have taken it anyway.

The point of my woolgathering is this: The world is divided into two segments of society, those who give speeches and those who listen to them. You would think that anyone on the cusp, which is to say having had to listen to speeches as well as having to give them, would be mindful that there is little difference between waterboarding and being forced to listen to speeches. In the former, the victim fears death by drowning; in the latter the victim becomes resigned to being bored to death. Neither is a pleasant way to go, and to anyone who wants me to confess to something, the mere threat of having to listen to speeches is enough to break my resistance.

The last good speechmaker I'm aware of was Bobby Kennedy, the more so because of the way he seemed to change, to turn human and caring before our very eyes. I have no doubt that had he lived, a few years of making speeches would have had their pernicious effect, and so, in my mind, Bobby Kennedy goes out like Houseman's Athlete Dying Young. At one time, Jesse Jackson had it, but too many sermons and speeches will catch up with you, Reverend, and pull the rug from under you. At one time, Woody Allen was pretty good at what he did, but listening to him now, you get the sense that he's hitting on some underaged chick off in the wings.

It is important for us to recognize the chemistry between the orator and the listener, which is to say that given my own penchant for escape, when we sit to listen, we sit on the aisle at the rear and when we stand to speak, we remember all those who have been trapped by their curiosity, enthusiasm, and faith into the front-row seats.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


It is two or three in the morning and you are awakened with an idea that drives you first to the place where you keep a pile of legal pads. You watch the lines on the page as though waiting for an opening as the vision of the idea streams past you like an express train, bound out of your ken and your ability to get it down. Although you often carry pens with you, it seems to be a cosmic law that none are nearby at such moments or, if there are any at all, their ink has long since dried out. Miraculously now, there seems to be a pen that allows you to get the first few words down on the legal pad.

You have always had good starts, promising, intriguing first lines, literary nudges to the readers' rib. Hey, here it comes. But this time is as innocent of artifice as a martini is of vermouth; it is a chilled, fluid idea and you have no idea where it will take you much less do you have toothbrush or a change for the trip you are on.

You are scarcely a page in before your hand begins to rebel, to tense, to threaten to cramp. This requires the computer, fired up, ready.

Reluctantly, you abandon the legal pad and the ball-point pen, realizing that bad as it is, your typing is faster than handwriting. There is a save key, a save as function, luxuries the pen and legal pad did not have. It is not as though your typing is error free, simply that it is legible, saved, You will be looking at it later, wondering what you were as you wrote it, perhaps wondering who you were as you wrote it. Letters will be missing. Homophones will cause you to make choices later, when you begin to step back to look at what you have done.

For now, you are moving quickly ,running after the vision of it, aware that it is beginning to pull away from you. After a time, you begin to become more aware of surroundings, the time, your own growing sense of despair as it begins to pull so far in front of you that all you're aware of now is its growing distance, its determined motion forward, away, away from you.

You sink back in your chair, thinking perhaps you will pick up sight of it if you begin to look at what you've set down.

This is little help and you are reminded of lost loves, lost opportunities, ideas laughed or ridiculed away in that excessive hubris of youth where there was a new train coming in a few minutes. There were jokes then among your male friends. Man sitting in a bar motions the bartender over, points to a woman sitting toward the curve of bar near the juke box. See that lady over there? The bartender looks, nods. Well, if you see me starting to buy her drinks, I want you to cut me off, don't serve me any more because if I start hitting on her, I'll have to be pretty drunk.

Only that wasn't the joke; the joke was you being perfectly sober, so filled with stories you could barely sleep and so going after one you weren't particularly in love with was the sign of your hubris, your belief that you could make anything work.

You came to know the truth of that, but it took a while to find out, and no one cared.

You're up now with that same feeling that the story has gone home with someone else. Maybe you weren't fast enough. On the other had, maybe it will come back and you'll get more out of it. Maybe not.

And no one cares.

Often you are wrenched out of sleep by some idea, which is not so unusual because you have trained yourself to do that. You watch morning come on and maybe hear the paper being delivered and you think to cancel the subscription because The NewYork Times has given the neocons a free ride and nobody cares.

Maybe it is time for coffee, maybe not. The best you can do is wait it out to see if the story comes back again. There are a number of them out there, waiting. Some have been waiting for some serious time. If they come back, will you recognize them? Will you talk to them?

No one cares until they are completed and sent forth. Even then, many of the people who care want to know how much you were paid for them, and you say it doesn't matter, but somehow it does.

It is not bad out there, waiting to see if and when and how they will come back.

Sometimes is it good to read Cavafy or Neruda while you are waiting, sometimes even Hopkins of Bill Stafford; they all write as though they were Edward Hopper paintings come to life. A fair trade; you write as though you were you, come to life, as though you had a choice