Monday, December 31, 2007

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

I want my place, my own place, my true place in the world, my proper sphere, my thing which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry and which I have vainly sought all my lifetime.

The Intelligence Office, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A savage clamor!
Well may I get abroad! This is my chase!
I am gone forever. Exit, pursued by a bear.

The Winter's Tale Act 3, Scene 3
William Shakespeare.

Chapter One

Neither of us has faith in disguises. For all the good they've done us, we don't have much patience with them, either. People in stress situations see what they want to see, disguise or not. Once, out of curiosity, I grew a beard for a time, being described as clean shaven for my pains. Rae had a flirtation with blondness and short hair. This lasted nearly six months, during which she was described as a redhead and once as a brownette with Pre-Raphaelite curls.

Now I have no beard. My sideburns are trimmed at mid-ear. A number of persons from different cultures and social levels have used the word bony when referring to me. Rae has returned to her natural black, worn at shin-length. Our appearances are essentially the same as they were when we first met.

Another variable over which we have no control is the chance appearance of someone from Rae's former life or from mine who will recognize one of us and try to follow us. Some time ago, we began keeping score of recognitions from the past. I lead by a margin of about two-to-one but while many of these recognitions are passive, Rae's almost invariably aren't.

The most recent event was mine. Rae likes the produce at the Corti Brothers market on Folsom Street. We'd driven over there from our house in Oak Park, done our shopping for the week, and were loading the bags into the back of the Camry when I caught the momentary flash of a face in a passing Land Cruiser.

Rae saw me make an abrupt turn away from the driving lane. "Get in," she said. "I'll finish." By the time the Lad Cruiser shifted into reverse and was moving back toward us, all the groceries were loaded and we were ready to go.

"Howard?" a familiar voice called as the Land Cruiser moved behind us. "Howard Camden?"

With a practiced acceleration, Rae moved ahead, eased into the driving lane, and got us out of the Corti Brothers parking lot. As she turned right on Sixty-fifty Street, I caught a glimpse of the Land Cruiser trying to follow, but Rae had already put enough distance between us and them to convince the other drier of the improbability of catching us.

A few blocks later, heading down toward Alhambra and the freeway, Rae checked the rear view mirror. "The bogey is no longer with us," she assured. "You still interested in a cappuccino or you want me to mess around in traffic some more to be sure?"

Even if he'd bee more persistent, Daniel Binford, the man who'd recognized me,was no threat. At worst, he'd want to pry from me some explanation for why I'd done what I did in the past, giving him something to dine out on for a few weeks until rumor and speculation about me abated once again, and Binford assumed his role as a world-class bore. "Cappuccino sounds good," I said.

Rae avoided the freeway on-ramp, heading east toward a coffee shop she favored in Carmichael. "This guy who saw you?"

I nodded.

"He's a professor of something?"

"You didn't even see him. How could you know that?"

She patted my knee. "Most of the people who recognize you, they're professors." When we pulled into the small lot next to the coffee house, she snickered to herself, but when she saw I'd noticed and cast a questioning glance, she mused aloud. "Most of the people who recognize me, they're either cops or ex-husbands."

Sunday, December 30, 2007


1. One of the often forgotten surprises about life is that its meaning often goes on hiatus while the novel, short story, and poem persist in having meaning. In the midst of life, even a life of comfort, there may well be event but there is not necessarily meaning. The we turn to reading, which has the effect of opening a vigorously shaken bottle of soda; it spews event and meaning all over us.

2. How easy it is, coming from the reading of a story or a novel, to turn to our own writing, enthused to get down the events of our own story but not necessarily the meaning of our life or of our story.

3. It is so easy to read, listen to music, to take in the visual arts of dance, drawing, painting, photography, sculpture because each of these has reminded us of the need for meaning. But unless we are careful, we are leaving half our intent in the cloak room, along with our lunch.

4. Question: Does writing to entertain one's self and readers merely distract the self and the writer from meaning?

5. Question: On the other hand, could providing meaning without entertainment or disturbance provide unrelenting boredom?

6. Is there any entertainment in Dante and the Lobster, one of Beckett's finest short stories? Guy is invited to his aunt's for dinner. She asks him to pick up a lobster on the way. He (Belacqua) watches as auntie prepares to drop the lobster into the pot of boiling water.
It had about thirty seconds to live.
Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.
It is not.

Write this story from the POV of the lobster.

8. Make it funny.

9. Remember what funny is.

10. Funny is one way of giving meaning.

11. Machado de Assisi Epitaph of a Small Winner written in 1881. POV of Bras Cubas, an ironic voice, reminded of it by the lyric Lee posted of the gambler, who died even, which is to say he died in his sleep. Cubas writes from the grave, adding irony and humor and, yes, meaning.

12. Amazon dot com, here I come.

13. I think I see Exit Pursued by a Bear lurking around again amid the clutter I have unloosed while trying to rearrange things in my room.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


1. Just as police are often injured when they respond to domestic violence calls, the writer needs to be careful about jumping in too precipitously when the characters progress beyond the name-calling stage.

2. An anthology composed of family meal and/or wedding scenes. Think about it.

3. A clock in the background, ticking off critical time, if used with care, adds a precious note of tension and vulnerability. Early in your publishing career, this was brought home when your company did the paperback version of James Grady's novel about the moral ambiguity of the CIA, The Six Days of the Condor, in which an operative is through no fault of his own caught between rival government factions. We're pretty sure they both want him killed. The lesson to be learned was that the movie people thought six days was too long to let Robert Redford dodge about; they changed the title to The Three Days of the Condor.

4. I
knew I wasn't going to get Logan's Run even though I'd done a number of books for one of the two writers, and liked the idea, even though they started out with the concept that because of population explosion and ecological disasters, people were not allowed to live past age thirty. By this time I'd learned a few things and suggested they cut the age down to twenty-one. They both looked at me as if what does he know and in many ways they were right. But somewhere along the way, the age was cut back to twenty-one and within a year one of the two writers was driving a Porsche and the other was still a horse's ass, neither factor being relevant to the way the twenty-one-year age limit spoke to readers.

5. I suspect that I could have used Google to track down his name but as a matter of pride, I spent nearly three weeks trying to remember it on my own. I'd after all read a novel and two collections of his poems. Apparently he began talking to me again later this afternoon. Albert Goldbarth. I could have tried poet U of Kansas. I could have even tried Who Whispered Behind Me, because I knew that, but when you play with memory, there are issues on the table you don't even know about not to mention the ones you do, as in how accurate was the thing you remember in the first place?

6. Speaking of which a character I don't know is telling me that his kids are giving him the pitch about moving him to an assisted living facility, and he has assured me that the business with leaving the gas on under the kettle was not his fault. I don't know enough about him to know whether or not to trust him. He says his name is Phil.

7. It is helpful to eavesdrop on conversations--particularly arguments--between characters you are thinking of signing on.

8. Jerry, a classmate and pal of Lew,one of my ongoing characters, showed up this year as the vegan equivalent of the disabled person who does not need to be in a wheel chair. I think there may be a story brewing because I never thought of him as a vegan and he always seemed pretty trustworthy.

9. Lew, who is normally trustworthy, went to great lengths to steal Jerry's dog, concoct an elaborate plan to disguise the dog, and raise her as his own. But conscience got the better of Lew.

10. At one point in real life, I assisted two Hindu nuns in an elaborate plot to kidnap a dog we suspected of being ill-treated by a wealthy Bengali couple living in Pacific Palisades. The dog's name was Lulu.

11. A beat is a dramatic event that sometimes may be a long pause; everyone connected with it knows it has consequences.

12. Consequences are things that are said, felt, or done as a result of something having been said felt, or done earlier.

13. Without consequences, there is no story.

14. Rae has reached the point of being tired of coming home from work to discover her boyfriend, Harmon, curled up asleep on her new futon with his ex, Meredith.

15. Sometimes, particularly with Sally napping away on her pad, it is difficult to maneuver through my study without getting enmeshed in a good deal of behavior I am trying to understand.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Icons Need Not Apply

One of my favorite sources for literary review and general commentary is the Times Literary Supplement of the venerable Times of London. Finding a copy of the TLS in my box elicits a lovely pull, one tug wanting me to drop everything until it is digested, the other tug one of impatient recognition that I'm going to have to find some place from which to rob the time in which to get said digesting underway.

(I could also say the same thing of The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, to a lesser extent The Georgia Review and The Sewanee Review. I could also offer these distracting tugs as reasons why I so frequently seem impatient, but I think there is some French expression for that kind of finger pointing and there is surely a psychological one, so let's leave the matter back where it started, with my so often seeming impatient.)

I was not impatient when I came to a note within the TLS to the effect of the word iconic being sent off to retirement. Iconic was a word that was beginning to add to my impatience because of the frequency with which it had been appearing in my book reviews these past three or four months, leading me to check back through past copy, going after my lazy text as though some resolute Giuliani or Fitzgerald, seeking yet other favorite words as though they were co-conspirators in an adverb-laundering scheme.

It is easy to see certain artists, scientists, and thinkers as being icons, particularly if they are as complex and dimensional as, say, the late Benezair Bhutto. But like all concepts that have repeated their way from freshness to shorthand symbols, there is an inherent danger with any icon however deserved the title. As it stands now, we have a class of individuals who by virtue of good looks, ability, persistence, steroids, and plastic surgery have elevated themselves to the celebrity class, which falls socially somewhere between the working class and the upper middle class. If they are wealthy enough to take trips to Third World Countries, therein adopting children, they achieve dispensation for appearing in two gratuitously bad movies, messing up an opportunity at surpassing some sports plateau, or giving two successive racially charged speeches.

It is of some satisfaction to me that my use of iconic more often than not had to do with a work rather than a person, thus a book or story rather than an image chiseled on Mt. Rushmore; a work so charged with meaning that it describes its type as well as its self. I will try purposefully to avoid taking up company with myth or mythic as a convenient synonym because, for one thing, it isn't, and for another, doing so would be an act of laziness, leading to the same result. I will say that a myth is a narrative that seems simple enough on its surface but which on slight examination reveals itself to be a coded formula for some cultural wisdom.

One of my favorite personal myths is a narrative of a man or woman who sets forth on a goal, search, or mission, the person finds, reaches, completes the mission only to discover it was not as satisfying or illuminating as first thought. But along the way, the individual has been confronted with a surprise, something unanticipated that leads to a satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's a Mystery to Me

Like a well-loved restaurant or the evocation of a particular flow of music, the one story we return to again and again, whether we know it or not, is the mystery.

We do not return to find out who killed whom or why, because in some almost mystical sense we already know those answers; we return for the same reason we return to lake or sea side. We return for the tidal pull at the heart of our being. Had we evolved on a different planet, we should perhaps treasure hunting sagas or epics of armed clashes that would put The Iliad to shame; we should perhaps return to the saga or the romance or the fantasy. But we are humans of this planet. No known surge protector insulates us from the crackle of inner conflict arcing across the electrodes of the primal self. And if we cannot live in accord with our primal self, how then are we to live on this planet as it moves about this sun, orbiting every known dichotomy and, indeed, those not yet discovered? Our creation myths abound in mystery, transubstantiation, and apocalypse. Our secular bibles, left in motel rooms, not by the Gideons but rather by lonely missionaries of another sort, are mysteries with fallen women on their covers, hopelessly yearned for by men who have fallen even farther and deeper, taking such comfort as they can from the belief that for a time they can find a place somewhere in which they can lead an exemplary life if not an Edenic one simply by placing hubris and ambition aside.

Some of the great mysteries of our planet include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which rewards personal integrity in the face of the unknown, and which we see all too rarely in a world embellished with executive inducements; and that splendid tale of redemption, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which Michael Henchard learns in plausible fashion the potential for repairing an heinous crime (also one of the great opening chapters of the English language).

As we have done by adding mayonnaise to so many things, as well we have done in this country to the mystery by adding the very thing mayonnaise has come to represent, the Middle Class. My own favorites among the early generation of mysteries are the nearly forgotten Hammett venture, The Glass Key, all of the Chandler output, and two others who have veered off into the shadowy sidelines, Norbert Davis, and Peter Ruric. Eric Knight, who was known for quite another type of story, wrote a classic in 1938, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, as the title suggests, a hardboiled response to life, and as the text suggests, a
stylized retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

All choice reading, as indeed one of my great favorites and, in its way, the thrust of this entry-cum-challenge. In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published that great existential joy of a mystery, Motherless Brooklyn, featuring Lionel Essrog, a private detective with not only a life-defining mission (to track down the killer of his mentor) but as well a life-affecting martyrdom to Tourette's Syndrome.

Talk about taking on challenges and clients. We need--no, I need, my own Lionel Essrog, a character yanked right out of the gof bag of my psyche, who has a mission and some actually physical or psychical miss-wiring, a character who will be forced to compete with a strong opponent as well as a strong impediment. My characters like to get out and mess about, so no sense making the problem agoraphobia. Drugs have been done to death, Nero Wolfe has more or less retired the bulky detective, thanks to Joe Hansen, David Branstetter has pretty well made gayness in an investigator a non-event; Lew Archer's intelligent musings remove that aspect of things, and maybe, oh, please, there's some ray of hope in the lovely material TIV has posted about OCD. My client, Allen Sidle, a Jungian psychiatrist, has already grabbed the notion of a Jungian "on-call" for a Freudian buddy in a mystery, and at the moment, a PI with a need to handle arson-related cases seems as managed as a Hillary or Mitt campaign event.

The notion of a man or woman having to deal first and foremost with some physical or emotional hang-up, each time he or she heads out the door is warmly enticing. Donald Westlake, writing as Tucker Coe, has it pretty well nailed with Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, in which former cop Mitch Tobin is held in thrall by that great chain of guilt. Tobin got his partner to cover for him while sneaking in a little romance. Trouble was, the partner needed back-up and Mitch wasn't there. And because of that
absence, partner was ambushed and killed. Yep, guilt works, and we can all of us relate to it.

Grief? Nah. Revenge? nope.

What's out there, calling the Siren's song?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is It the Real Turtle Soup or Only the Mock?

However much the notion may appeal to American neo-conservatives in their xenophobic rapture or, for that matter, ardent Fundamentalists in their faith-based logic, cole slaw was not invented in America. Even more certain is the fact that it was not a last-minute invention of some long-forgotten short-order cook named Cole, faced with minions of hungry customers and with nothing to hand except a few head of cabbages and some tired carrots.

It is, however, true--I have the authority of a number of reliable food writers and of chefs--that in America, a chef about to hire an assistant will demand to see the applicant's knives, firm in the belief that the condition of said knives speaks volumes to how the applicant will perform in the kitchen. My authority is also multifarious that one of the first steps in an interview, even before arriving at the applicant's vision of food preparation, is the manner and speed with which the applicant is able to dice, sliver, and otherwise render into small component parts varied raw vegetables.

All of which leads me to one of the great existential American debates, in some ways more existential than the dwindling remains of the reign of Mad King George, the turd in our national punchbowl, the chewing gum under our democratic seat.

To begin, there are three basic approaches to cole slaw in America before we can begin to consider the medium with which the cole slaw is dressed. Approach one favors the precise, square dicing of the cabbage and carrot, producing a sort of mosaic texture in the bowl, in which every piece is of the same approximate size, a kind of democratic reduction as a symbol of the selflessness of cole slaw at this state in its existence. The second approach relies more on a fine uniform shred rather than a diced cut, symbolizing the shaggy freedom from culinary restraint, a kind of salad a la dreadlock. The third approach is indifference: put it on my plate and I'll eat all of it but those miserable carrots, which are well known to cause loss of secondary sex characteristics.

Of the first two approaches, cole slaw purveyors in each camp, the diced and the shredded, are of a whim likely to add purple cabbage, green peppers, pineapple chunks, red peppers, and sun flower seeds, extending the color range from the extroverted pallet resembling the rest rooms of art deco movie theaters of yore to the more restrained single-color look of a private hospital room. You could see this as the quintessential Blue-State/Red-State dichotomy inherent in American political taste.

In a memory I have refreshed earlier this year, the most splendid taste of cole slaw is to be had at The Pantry, an elderly jumble of stucco and shack on South Figueroa in the Baghdad of Los Angeles just before the Green Zone. Said slaw is a rather lumpish, nondescript green, dressed with a light oil and vinegar. Moving northward toward the venerable Union Station, we come to Phillipe's Restaurant, known more for its French-dip sandwiches than its cole slaw, but important in the sense of producing a more robust-looking cole slaw than The Pantry, one certainly of comparable taste.

All of which brings us to the Finnegan's Wake-type ending-in-the-beginning thrust of cole slaw. The cole slaw America invented has mayonnaise in it. America puts mayonnaise in everything, then claims it as its own. This is not to say that mayonnaise in cole slaw is a bad thing. Indeed, I am won over by it, particularly if there is a tad of horse radish or the Spanish equivalent, rais fuerte, folded into its creamy depths. Cole slaw with mayonnaise is, in some parts of this Balkanized country, served not merely with but in the hot dog.

You can fulfill the worthwhile ambition of touring the entire fifty states, starting, say, at Hawaii, jumping west toward Alaska, then swooping south and then east, along signs and symbols of Manifest Destiny and sub prime loans. You will find raw wounds, most of them racial, still festering, the tocsins of the Civil War still sounding, a stunningly inappropriate vision of immigration clanging the cell bars. You will find green Jell-o, red Jell-o, greasy hamburgers, politicians on the take, fire-breathing Fundamentalists, highly evolved Buddhists, football, baseball, and basketball rivalries of stunning proportions and hockey preferences only slightly less perfervid. You will find bad men, devious men, calculating women, and even some misguided women (Laura Bush and Elizabeth Dole come to mind); you will find a younger generation inoculated with a sense of entitlement, and you will find a national cookie that has only in recent months begun to remove its transfat, but you will be hard put to find in Hawaii, Alaska, or throughout the lower forty-eight, a place that serves conspicuously bad coleslaw. You would think to find it lurking, like a Republican in Alabama or Mississippi, in a KFC or a Taco Bell, but even they have been visited by The Good Witch of Cole Slaw, and rough beast that we might otherwise be, we go slouching toward Bethlehem.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Family Gathering # 2

Late evening, the commodious back yard of the Weinstein's. A number of strategically placed fruit and olive trees. A few ornamental shrubs. A few lights from the house. A gibbous moon has begun its rise.

Mrs. Weinstein, 60s, is seen on her knees stage left, engaged in some physical activity. Is it digging?
While she works, Mr. Silver, mid-to-late 30s emerges from the house, stage right, listens for a moment, them moves closer. Is he being surreptitious?

Silver moves closer under the sound of Mrs. Weinstein's digging. He stops now, removes a small item from his jacket pocket. Moves closer.

Ah! Is that you, Mr. Silver?

Didn't mean to give you a start. And why don't we dispense with that Mr. Silver? After all, now I've had one of your meals.

And glad to have you, Bob. We're happy to see Gloria find someone she seems to take to.

May I offer you a hand there?

Thank you, but this is something I'd better do myself. (After a long beat) Is that a new iPhone, Bob?

Looks like one, doesn't it?

There you go again, Bob, answering questions with newer ones.

Like what, Mrs. Weinstein?

That belt buckle ornament of yours. One of the nephews asked you if that bear paw emblem was tribal and you evaded him.

Well, you never know about a person's belief system and you want to tread lightly until you know where you stand.

I can relate to that. Little did I know when Gloria's sister brought home the man she married that he'd be the way he is.

And how is that, Mrs. Weinstein.

Traditional, Bob. Very traditional.

Some tradition need to be protected.

Tell me about it. That's why I'm out there.

Because of Gloria's brother-in-law?

I'm the one who's supposed to be digging, Bob.

Okay then, let's trade. I'll give you one if you give me something in return. My belt buckle emblem looks like one of the North American tribes, but it happens to be from a time when I was employed by Blackwater.

Gloria's brother-in-law is orthodox, so in order to be ready for him when he arrives for dinner tomorrow, I have to have this set of dishes dug up, washed in an acceptably clean tub, and prayed over.

That's it? You're digging up dishes?

That's it? You used to work for Blackwater?

Okay, but with all respect, this is as far as this can go. If--


If it's any comfort to you, I know the prayer--

Monday, December 24, 2007

Family Gathering # 1

Sometimes characters can be duplicitous, but this is the time of year when families and groups of friends get together for meals and gatherings, thus making lovely targets for characters who have a background in sociology or anthropology, or archaeology. They like to move amongst us, taking notes making observations which they will use to broaden their visions of us, just as we watch them to note their behavior for later stories.

Sometimes it is a younger member of the family or group who brings such a person to a gathering. They almost invariably make themselves known by casually admitting to some food aberration.

Imagine the kitchen, about half an hour before serving time. Mom and Aunt are happily checking the array of menu, checking its readiness, its consistency, its essential picture of health. Into the kitchen rushes Junior, who is admonished to be patient, perhaps even given a marshmallow from the yam casserole, but isn't having any.

Hey, that guy Aunt Eadie brought, he wants to know if the cranberry sauce is organic.

Mom and Aunt exchange a nervous glance. The turkey is organic.

He doesn't care about the turkey, he's a vegan and not going to eat any. He wants to know if the cranberries are--?

Well, I don't think so, but couldn't we just tell him--you know?

Wait a minute. Suppose she's serious about him. We'd be starting off with a lie.

Do you really think there's anything between them except, you know, lust?

Hard to tell at this stage. We'd better tell him the cranberries are questionable. Junior, tell him the green bean and almond casserole is entirely organic but the cranberries are questionable.

Doesn't matter, he doesn't like green stuff.

I thought he looked a bit thin.

There are such characters at family gatherings, and even though they do look a bit thin, they have the ability to unhinge the group stability for quite a time, while Aunt Eadie sorts through her emotions and wonders what life with him would be.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Truth vs Fiction, or What

Factual writing of a reportorial or hypothesis-making sort requires a set of rules and regulations that become necessary for the writer and reader to follow. These rules and regulations inform the relative reliability of the writer and the writer's hypothesis. Some writers, as Blake notes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, write as though a firm persuasion that a thing is true renders the thing in fact the truth. There are also writers who appear to put on game faces for a particular cause, and those, to my mind, become more slippery in their unreliability.

A good deal of this sentiment is brought to me by a number of candidates for the major position we have to confer on an individual at this moment in our planet's beleaguered history.

One of the reasons I find problems writing this kind of text is because of my impatience with sticking to those very rules. It makes editing more time consuming because of the need to check fact and to make sure I attribute to a person what I reckon that person intended, whether I agree with it or not. And yet another editorial chore is the one in which I must not assume without review and consideration that I know the intent of the writer.

You would think then that I welcome fiction with open, lazy hands, but alas, the problem is that they, even though they are my inventions, have their ow beliefs and tenets and understandings that sometimes eclipse mine. They have a truth that must be sought before they can set off on their multifarious vectors of story.

There is no cheap or easy way out; it is the obligation we sign onto when that remarkable first line hits us, when someone nudges us and allows us to call him Ishmael or Fred or even Melvin, although if I had a character named Melvin, I think I would want to reason with him, perhaps Mel.

We have to know who these persons are, what they want (as opposed to what they say they want, because characters will lie to us at first to gain a platform, and woe unto us if we take such a character on blind faith) and what they are willing to do to get what they want. By listening carefully to our characters as they step out of the shadows, we are developing the muscle memory of empathy. It is not out job to judge them, it is in fact our job to help them express through actions their heartfelt desires, the better for readers to see how many ways the human condition can go. Then choices can be made.

Everywhere about is are the satellites of contingency, choice, consequence, as large and fair as tonight's rising moon to remind us of the tidal pulls on the events of our life. If we feel to see them in our characters, how can we hope to find them resident in ourselves? And how can our stories be worthy of being retold?

There are some stories we enjoy rehearing only for the love residing in the teller's voice, and indeed, how many of the plots of our favorite stories can we call to mind as opposed to the men and women, young and old, of our favorites? We can recall moments of choice, of moral impact as, say, when Jaivert realizes his entire life has been acted out as a symbol of obedience to a rule that is overdone. Because of the convictions built into Jaivert, we sympathize all the more for the man as we seem him realize he has boxed himself into a bind in which he cannot live, and thus we remember him as an example we sincerely wish to avoid. We see Ahab torn beyond comfort because of the consequences of his goal and we look suspiciously about us for fellow humans who follow his path. (Fortunately, the most obvious candidate has only another year left in office.)

We must make sure to endow all of our characters with the spark of belief and consequence they deserve, lest they remain in the shadows and drag our stories there as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Case Histories

After close-hand association with the common cold and stage III-A cancer, I am drawn to comparisons between a kind of alpha and omega of the individual health spectrum.

There is to my knowledge no classification, no Richter or Beaufort scale for measuring the intensity of the common cold, and so the best I can do by way of describing my viral invaders of the past few days is to say that on a scale of 1-to-10 of all the common colds I can recall, this is a blow-out monster of at least a 7. Perhaps it is the very nature of the common cold that the present one always seems the worst in head-stuffing intensity.

I have only one experience with cancer from which to draw, the aforementioned III-A, which was not my designation and which came from a source used to rating the presence and relative degree of the invasion. The day before the surgery that removed cancerous tissue from me (plus some extra, just-to-be-sure adjuncts such as an appendix), the surgeon predicted that my recovery time would be six weeks, and indeed, six weeks later, somewhat thinner, I was back at the beginning of a new semester. The first month was not pleasant and at times uncomfortable enough to suggest Zen-like attitudes of coping with the reality of recovery.

One of the major points of this comparison is that while I held some concern for my future, I did not fear the eventual outcome, which is the outcome I experience now. There was no fear of death, no urgency to prepare a last will and testament, no compulsion to bid farewell to friends and loved ones, no concern that Sally be looked after as though I were there to look after her. I was gurneyed into the operating theater with a theatrical farewell to those who'd come to see me off, "It's show time!"

The Zen-like attitudes about the reality of recovery were mixed with an enhanced awareness and appreciation for the smaller miracles of my life in specificity, of life in general, and of the growing appreciation for having attained plateaus best seen as time and motion versus statistics. The first major plateau is the two-year mark, at which point extensive tests are made to determine that indeed all the cancerous cells were gone. Earlier this month, yet another statistical plateau was reached in which the surgeon expressed it rather nicely by observing that from now on, we'd be seeing one another more frequently at Peet's Coffee Shop than his office.

Colds are another matter, especially at this, which I call the Gregor Samsa stage, in which I awaken from troubled, un-Zen-like sleep,curious to see what strange animal I had morphed into, wondering if I will ever recover, wondering indeed if I actually saw or merely nightmared a portion of a movie with a computerized cat named Garfield, and looking for perspective.

At this state of evolution, cancer and the common cold are both aspects of life to be coped with, endured really, until a process is developed to put each into the cultural closet and locked away. Depending on the location and extent of cancer, recovery rates can be encouraging. One regular attendee at my Saturday workshop survived pancreatic cancer, diagnosis of which is usually accompanied by adios, another, just this past week, is working on recovery from losing a portion of each lung, and just a few years back, a student was diagnosed with a tumor in one of her adrenals and is safely back among us. Thus do we ride the idiosyncratic waves of statistics, where there are no individuals, only trends. The recovery rate from the common cold is much less a statistical adventure for the individual, where we surf the drink plenty of liquids, get lots of rest, and say adios to two weeks of normal living. And stay away from Garfield movies.

Friday, December 21, 2007


1. The full, vibrattoless roundness of John Coltrane on a tenor saxophone.

2. The mounting passion and conviction of Martin Luther King, building toward the inevitable invocation of grace on all who care.

3. The nasal New England twang of JFK out on the stump.

4. The emerging sound of destiny in the voice of a young naval officer, John Kerry, speaking out against the Viet Nam war one late Spring afternoon on the Boston Common.

6. The clear, effortless timbre of Carmen McRae, effortlessly reaching for a high note, holding it, then going higher.

7. The sound you get of boots crunching through the prairie when you read Annie Proulx aloud.

8. Edward Kennedy's outrage over injustice nudging through bombast to the platform of oratory.

9. The nasal bag pipe skirl of the soprano saxophone when played by Sydney Bechet.

10. The hidden laughter lurking behind every sentence of Jane Austen.

11. Billie Holliday.

12. The pure Missouri drawl working its way through the writing of Daniel Woodrell.

13. Red Barber, calling a Dodger's game.

14. Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River."

15. Emma Thompson.

16. The lush sadness of the Ravel Piano concerto in G.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


1. An adobe wall.
2, A Harris tweed jacket.
3. A piece of rye bread.
4. A gravelly path.
5. A hawk's wing.
6. The back of my hand.
7. An orange peel.
8. Sally's coat.
9. A barn door.
10. A rusted nail.
11. A sycamore leaf.
12. The writing of Joan Didion.
13. And this hope for my own writing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Son-of-a-bitch list

This is the time of year traditionally associated with giving gifts and cynical Republican filibusters. I was reminded of the former while having lunch with one of my long-time friends and his oldest son and daughter. I am reminded of the latter on an almost daily basis and have taken of late to sending emails to one of my senators in which I congratulate her for her unwavering support of President Bush and her equally unwavering avoidance of supporting her base of voters. Sarcasm availeth me not, in reply I get email informing me that Senator Feinstein is vitally interested in my opinions and that she is too busy at the moment, working to prevent legislative mischief to give me a more specific reply.

Although he has written some forty books (and just contracted for yet another) my old pal clearly enjoys painting portraits and executing whimsical and imaginative trompe l'oeil. His son has some talent for painting, his daughter is a remarkable talent, preparing even now for a new showing. Thanks to both Number One Son and Number One Daughter, I have no problems with what to get when gift occasions arise. I know which brushes, and which brand of cobalt blue or alizeran crimson make the final cut in his estimation.

At this very lunch, he called me a son of a bitch with the kind of affection a friend can produce when using this Neo-Homeric cognomen. "This son of a bitch," he explained, "gave me a dictionary that is more readable and intriguing than a Trollope novel. Every time I look up a word, I'm in for solid hour of reading and cross reference."

The dictionary was The American Heritage Unabridged, third edition, which happens to be my own favorite. But the greater point is that the gift goes back at least five years, possibly even longer. The greater point is that I have never been a son of a bitch for, say, a model train set, brushes of mink hair, tubes of stunning color, even a splendid catalogue from an El Grecco exhibit, only for this one dictionary which, I have to admit, it pretty wonderful.

Number One Son nods gravely as he points out that dictionaries are headed toward the cusp of extinction thanks to the growing tendency to look for definitions on line. Although I frequently consult the AH3 I admit to checking the Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate, which I believe to be the standard lexicon used by most American publishers. When I was coming up through the ranks in publishing, it was unthinkable not to have the MWNC and a CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, at your desk.

And at home, there was that other great dictionary, one of the best American dictionaries ever until AH3 came along; that was the Merriam-Webster's Unabridged, second addition. MW2. Ave atque vale.

I have some reasonable chance of becoming a son of a bitch this year because I happened by the merest chance on a catalog from a company in Virginia that purveys Spanish food stuffs and olive oil, the most item being a Serrano ham, which Mr. Conrad waxes rhapsodic about on occasion.

Will I make the son-of-a-bitch plateau this Christmas?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007




Improvised explosive device. (See also booby trap)

With ironic thanks to our misadventure in Iraq, we are all too familiar with the cause and horrific effect of the IED, more so those who have seen their comrades in arms killed or wounded with an unthinkable severity. Nevertheless, the mere sound of those three letters wrenches the heart and conscience of those of us at safe remove before sending us into the familiar pattern of frustration, then rage.

With respect to those who live within the sphere of influence of the IED in Afghanistan and Iraq, I bring forth another kind of IED, explosive and damaging in its own right, sometimes inflicting psychical wounds as disfiguring and debilitating as those buried and planted with haste in the path of approaching armed forces.

I speak of words.

Words can be and have been improvised explosive devices, sometimes causing the explosion of ideation, of long-lasting, world-shaking consequence of a positive nature or at least words that provide the species information about it self that, if understood properly, add to the integrity and longevity of the species.

Words advance, deflate, attack; they inform, provoke, inspire. Words help form bonds of love, hate, and understanding. Words exploding about us numb our senses, words betray, seduce, mislead us. Words enlighten us, not always in the best of ways. As horrific as the IEDs of Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq are now, the explosive force of words on new technologies will make even more virulent IEDs for the future.

It is part of the human wiring to impart a desire to belong to some clan, family, club, organization. Even such activities as sports fandom reflect an interest in belonging to a particular group and, in the process, of detesting , showing hostility or disinterest to other groups.

Another part of the human wiring scheme includes the desire to be off on a mountain top, desert island, or remote dale with little or no other contact except for a carefully chose set of tools and conveniences, a desire so strong that the mere thinking of it produces the delicious fog of pleasure. Thus as a species do we alternately gather and withdraw, challenge and retreat.

Perhaps back when we were attempting to establish ourselves as a species this internal pair of opposites was not so manifest. Perhaps. If so, it is interesting to observe that there was no written language at this time, only some incised nicks and checks on rocks and cave walls, but none of the IED-effect words.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war beyond the empathetic glimpse of our best president, a battle of cultures and betrayals and cronyism abetted by our worst president. This is a time where amazing numbers of this worst president's adherents still chant as their mantra words of racism and bullying, of division and extreme self-interest, of a kind of entitled privilege that turns the planet into a network of gated communities.

Threats, betrayals, corruption, and self-interest are some of the products of the words that advance the philosophy of these neocon Barbarians to the point where such words as discussion, mediation, and negotiation are seen as unpatriotic, unrealistic, and naive. Many of these IEDs spring directly from a belief in a force, a deity if you will, of implacable armor and of a belief that the fruits of living in a democratic harmony cannot possibly be achieved in this world but must be attended in the rapturous world to come, entry by invitation only, and invitation extended only after significant donations.

Some of the most stunning IEDs are directed against such concepts as Let's talk this over, Let's see what we can work out, Plenty for everybody. We will not even pause here to discuss such heresy as I love you.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dear Shelly, and Other Requests for Money

1. When politicians call you by your first name, they want money.

2. I am on a first-name basis with both senators from Massachusetts, although in each case, we have only met once, and not under circumstances where either is likely to recall me. And yet...Dear Shelly, their emails begin. The Republicans are mounting an attack the likes of which has not been seen in modern politics.

3. Yeah, yeah. And yet...

4. I am similarly known to both senators from California although I have not ever met one in person and have frequently asked the other questions the subtext of which became What were you thinking when you voted the way you did on that nominee, bill, measure?

5. I have not sent nasty emails to either senator from Massachusetts.

6. As of today, I'm tempted to send roses to the senior senator from Massachusetts in recognition of the artful way he called the President of the United States a lawbreaker of epic proportion.

7. I will probably not send him roses for fear that he will send me a thank you note that begins Dear Shelly.

8. Before I met the President of the university where I teach, I got frequent letters from him addressing me as Dear Shelly, which prompted me to send him a note addressed to Dear Stan in which I commented favorably on the informal nature of our relationship and openly wondered if he could spare $50 until payday.

9. Shortly after sending this letter I met an executive Dean, the then Chairman of my department, and a vice dean who had studied linguistics with Whorf and Chomsky at MIT, all of whom were at pains to remind me that informality has limits just as formality does.

10. Shortly after, I met the President of the University. He did not advance me $50 until payday although he continues to send me correspondence calling me by my first name, asking me to donate to worthwhile causes.

11. When complete strangers call me on the telephone and ask how I'm doing, they want money.

12. My friends rarely ask me how I am or how I'm doing, although some of them do attempt to remind me about the wrath of the Republicans.

13. As a general rule, I only see Republicans in the hot tub at the Y. So, they say, you voting for Hillary? So, I respond, you voting for Joe Lieberman? They shake their head in ironic negation.

14. Thanks to a special feature on the Huffington Post, I discovered that a some-time attendee at my Saturday writing workshop gave $2300 to Rudy Giuliani.

15. I told her she was always welcomed at the Saturday workshop, but the tuition had gone up. She did not strike me as a wrathful Republican with an historically virulent agenda, but why take chances?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Running on Empty

From time to time my perambulations about the Internet bring me into close association with advertisements challenging me to know my credit score. Knowing my credit score, the ads assure me, will help me determine if someone has stolen my identity, used my credit cards to run up enormous debts, help me to maintain and establish the image of responsibility.

But I have already stolen my identity, cobbling together traits and attitudes from an array of men and women, ranging as far back in time as Hildegard of Bingen and Geoffrey Chaucer to such moderns as George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, Susan Sontag, and a mystery writer who lives in Wichita, Kansas named Gaylord Dold. I have also grabbed snippets from Scott Joplin, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Bix Beiderbecke. Such is my nature that I frequently find some man or woman whose performance inspires me and thus induces me to phish their creative force.

Don't talk to me about using credit cards to run up debts. Credit scores were invented to point fingers of accusation at me. I am a devotee of the splendid trove of The Industrial Age. Cheesecakes from Junior's, fountain pens from The Fountain Pen Hospital, shirts from Ben Silver and Ike Behar, bottles of stunning Central Coast pinot noir, the roe of uncounted Beluga whales, wrapped tidily in buckwheat blinis from the Dean and Delucca catalog, home-made Christmas tamles, all flow as if from cornucopias of mass consumption. Although I have for some time now been on a prudent, almost Buddhistic repair mode, (just ask the folks at Capitol One) I need no help in running up enormous debts. I could, in fact, show a few tricks to the uninitiated.

When it comes to maintaining and establishing an image of responsibility, I take the back seat to every man, woman, and child within the Tri-Counties area in which I live (Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo), and will cheerfully extend that venue to the Tri-Cities in eastern Tennessee (Kingsport-Bristol-Johnson City), an area of which I have some pleasant awareness and in which I feel confident I could quickly establish and maintain my own image of irresponsibility.

I do make serious attempts to keep my word and to give due consideration to the inherent meaning and integrity of the words I wish to keep, extending this intent as well to the words I write and the inherent intent behind them.

All that said, I enjoy running on empty in the performance sense. Although I maintain and revise copious notes for the classes I teach, there is a surge of adrenaline I relish each time I walk into a classroom unprepared, return the eye contact of the bright, expectant faces before me, and reach into the metaphorical closet of information I have dutifully cleaned out the night before, confident that within moments, something relevant will appear as if on order from Amazon dot com or any other mystical source where ideas, concepts, and cosmic connections are lodged, ready for retrieval and distribution. "Last week," I begin, "I asked you to consider (which is always true enough) the concept of--" and here there is a dramatic pause while I try to recall what indeed it was I asked them to consider. One of my oldest and dearest friends is constantly offering back cover blurbs about my memory. "Don't you ever forget anything?" he will ask. There are any number of things I forget, notably Spanish verbs, the difference between Charles' and Boyle's Laws, positions on the Periodic Table of Elements, and the key signatures of my favorite symphonies and concerti. But I digress, which is another way of saying I lose track of if not forget the topic under discussion, and so, you see what I mean about myself?

Running on empty is particularly thrilling where writing is concerned; it is an anodyne to the boredom of knowing what the story is going to be about, of having to come to grips if not detente with that mid-course feeling of "Oh, no; not you again." Running on empty may be seen as irresponsibility writ large, of not caring, of not taking the time to foresee the consequences, but to me it is the very harbinger of the discovery I set forth to make. When on occasion my nature and manner suggest a rebarbative stance, I know in my heart that it is only the impatience for discovery. I know how Columbus must have felt, how Lewis and Clark longed for the discoveries not listed in their journals.

And what precisely is it that I seek to discover with this running on empty?

Why of course, to discover what I know and how to use it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

O Wad some giftie the Giver gie us

The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-between, they do things differently there. What a splendid observation, adding a bridge between the sentiment that history is a account written by the winners and the notion that the present is ours to engage and the future is ours to regret because of what we did not do in the moment. There is some collateral relationship as well to Gertrude Stein's famed observation about Oakland, California, the city of her birth, "There's no there there."

What is the sense of writing memoir, someone asked me recently, if persons reading it don't believe the account? To illustrate this is a letter to the editor of the current edition of Harper's, in which the writer recalls being dressed in an overbearingly hot and scratchy suit for his bar mitzvah, which fell on a warm day, producing in the memoirist the recall of sweating to the point where drops of perspiration actually fell from his forehead to the text of the Torah, much to the outrage of the rabbi. The writer showed the account to his mother who denied her son, her own flesh and blood, had ever the need to cope with such an uncomfortable suit. Much to the writer's relief, he soon encountered a friend from those earlier days to whom that very suit had been handed down for his own bar mitzvah. Relieved at the validation of his memory in peer review, the writer returned to his mother who promptly said of the peer reviewee, "That man is a liar."

Is all memory, all experience, all future forecast doomed to be distrusted? How shall I regard the history I read with such avidity the better to understand what happened before I got here? How indeed shall I regard the discoveries I make while browsing through my copious volumes of notes, accounts, confessions, and opinions, rendered since my late teens? Is this body of work my most imaginative fiction of all? Or is it instead not so much a record of event but of my ability to evoke an atmosphere of emotion, landscape, and the result of striving? Dare I say entertain?

Is story telling a deliberate contrivance to produce such a profound sense of disagreement from the reader that the reader's entertainment comes from supplying his own version of the story?

At this stage I see only the lovely state of detente in which the reader suffers my version barely patient in order to get on with the reader's own, more compelling, more truthful version.

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of the willing suspension of belief, he was speaking of the reader being rendered trusting of the writer to the point where the reader no longer questioned. Some of our early works in English, Pamela, for instance, or Robinson Crusoe, first appeared, they were widely and wildly believed to be absolute truthful accounts in which, in Pamela's case, we rooted for her pre-marital chastity and in Robinson Crusoe's case, in which we were relieved that it was he who was stranded on the island, not us.

For now I believe the only option is to write about everything as though reporting on the truth as I see it, then to hope that this will propel me upward to the next plateau where I can see different horizon of truth and aspire to it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Vicious Circle of Story

There are times when a notion for a new story arrives like a car load of distant relatives or friends who arrive one day early for a party. After much standing about in the living room, asking questions about the fates of even more distant relatives or expressing some platitude about how good it is to see you all, the question of what to do with them arises, just as it arises with the first impulse for a story.

What to do with "them" after the greetings have run down and the inventories of freezer compartments and cupboards are mentally riffled through? And of the signal event for the story, after it has been captured as though some exotic lepidoptera?

We must remind ourselves of a few basics. Although we are at heart herd animals, there are times when we want the sheer luxury of solitude if only to inventory our own inner larders. Although we have no choice in the matter of being writers, there are times when we fear a future with no new ideas or concepts come a knocking.

First things first. So nice of you to visit, we tell the relatives. How long did you say your stay was? Wouldn't want you to have to worry about the place being tented for termite extinction in a couple of days. And for the early friends, Gee, hope this doesn't mean you have to miss tomorrow night's party. And for the story, well, just get it down as it comes out, but them start asking questions such as How do you know you're a story? Whose story are you? Are you big enough to know the difference between a story and a concept?

Second things second, which is to say, the next draft around, you begin looking for the right place, the perfect place to begin. And where would that be? Why of course that would be in a scene or encounter that was so filled with tension and conflict and interaction that you have no time for weather reports or poetic descriptions or genealogical surveys of characters. There is a likelihood of several such places because stories are orbital, they revolve about their characters as earth orbits the sun, sometimes even tilting a degree or two on its axis as the earth did during the Ice Age.

Where we begin informs the tone and texture of the story
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."

Ah, what better description of story!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Candidates Debate

No, not those candidates; that is no real debate. I mean the elemental candidates, the ones who influence narrative and story. I listen to those debates about once a year, particularly after sounding off about them in classes to students who, so far as I can tell, are more amused and taken by my passion than for the cause of the passion.

My favorite candidate for the longest time was character because the choice of characters influences the thrust and personality of the narrative or the drama. Then it became the character-driven story because although I have written plot-driven novels and short stories, they don't come easily and I spend more time thinking about them than I am comfortable doing.

From character-driven story, the tide shifted within me to voice, the overall attitude and tone of the material at hand. Besides admiring the voice of a handful of favorite writers, I was drawn to the voice of favorite musicians. Parker and Davis and Gillespie and particularly Coltrane had developed voices that were at once reaching and assertive, confident in their statements and the things that composed their statements. I wanted to sound like that. I was particularly taken with the fact of Coltrane agonizing over the need to do long solos and wondering how to get out of that mode, and of Davis telling him the best way to address the problem was to take the instrument out of his mouth. That made sense too, and so brevity became a shibboleth, but now my favorite candidate is point of view. Who is relating the narrative and why? What special quality does an unexpected narrator bring to a story? Why always pick the most articulate or, indeed, the most sensible?

There is some morbid and wonderful fascination in watching the presidential candidates of both parties setting forth their talking points because that is a reminder that with one or two exceptions, none has a significant grasp of story principals but instead rather a tendency to think in made-for-media sound bites.

What do you think of the immigration problem?

Bigger fences and don't forget to look for hidden tunnels.

And what about the looming economy crisis?

Americans should be allowed to buy more assault rifles because doing so is good for the economy?

What about a woman's right to choose?

I support free-market boutiques and ethnic cafeterias.

By listening to these individuals who would lead us through the next critical years, we are hearing a retreat from the level-headed application of logic and empathy to problems and we are distancing ourselves from the men and women who in past years have set noble ideas and sentiments before us with clarity and appropriate restraint.

It is no wonder our reading and writing skills are on the ebb, waning from under our standards and perceptions. It is no wonder that our cultural icons are athletes, popular singers, and ecclesiastics, all bent on amassing audiences and using some form or other of human growth hormone to enhance performance.

We have been lured from such moral high-ground as the literary adventures of the past to such rousing questions as wondering if Barry Bonds took/takes steroids and whether God--you know, God--wanted Mike Huckabee to lead the Republican polls. No question that both these issues have collateral implications for those of us who, for instance, have youngsters looking for advantage in their sport of choice or those of us who like the idea of an overriding authority figure who is frequently pissed at the thought of losing adherents to reality television.

A number of my writing chums and clients complain about the number of books being published each year and the declining number of persons who read them. There are some frightening implications, one being that more of us are being put off by the available rant and screed and agenda about us ; like writers the world over an throughout time, we are turning to the one trustworthy source available to us--ourselves.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It Only Hurts When I Laugh

One of the many advantages in using a multiple point of view is the constant access provided to conflict. Along with tension and suspense, conflict is the mother's milk of story, the nutrient, the life force. Characters in agreement are as close to boring as you can get, unless you use multiple point of view to demonstrate to the reader that each character is in fact seeing or thinking something else.

Point of view helps us look in ourself to see the myriad forces at work allows us to eavesdrop on the constant squabble between the conservative self and the spendthrift self. More yet to the point it heps us contact our inner Buddhist in order that we not be judgmental about our characters. They supply the judgment we supply the empathy.

For those such as me who are not skillful plotters, such knowledge is helpful in creating a constant sense of the tensions and suspense that accompany conflict. Tension is the uneasy cloud of atmosphere that overhangs a relationship, threatening some sort of impending explosion, demonstrating with little or no footnote or stag direction how one character is intruding on another character's space. Tension is privacy about to be violated, a confidence about to be traduced. Suspense is wondering how far things will go and where they will lead. Conflict is an event, a place, a thing, a person represented in views that don't agree. Story is trying to forge an agreement of views that don't coincide, an attempt that leads to combustion.

Yeats had it right: the center cannot hold. The Republicans have been getting away with murder on this account for about ten years, and now that they have God working the precincts for them, we may have yet more conflict. As a younger person, not by any means fully hatched, I partook with my peers in attempting to get people to do things that seemed dumb on their face. A Congressperson from Iowa got the Congress of the Unite States to allow on the floor a measure stating that Christmas was good. He got the Speaker of the House, who already has egg on her face over knowing about waterboarding for close to four years and not speaking out against it, to allow the Democratic majority to put a Kick-Me Post-it on its collective derriere with this bit of idiocy. Admittedly I have some tenuous leaps of fancy and have on two or three times been nominated for the Soren Kierkegaard Prize for Leap of faith, but I could not have come up with this idiocy; it took a sitting Democratic majority to allow that measure to come to a vote.

Democracy and story i action.

Democracy is good for story.

Remember that through the tears.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Is This Thing Called, Love?

1. I believe it is anger.

2. But what is the source of the anger?

3. Fear.

4. Let me get this straight, something frightened you and you got mad?

5. You called it.

6. What frightened you?

7. Different stuff at different times. Sometimes, driving the Santa Monica Freeway eastbound into the belly of Los Angeles. Sometimes fear of being bored and not being able to extricate myself from the situation. Sometimes wondering what the Republicans are going to conflate next. Sometimes bureaucracy. Sometimes--

8. Okay; I get the picture. Your biofuel is anger.

9. And my solution is to direct the laser of humor at the target.

10. So you think Republicans are pretty funny?

11. You ought to have heard them in the hot tub at the Y, laundry listing the valuable information "we" got from water boarding.

12. And that was funny?

13. Remember, there is no victimless humor nor humor without pain.

14. This could get serious.

15. Humor often does.

16. Isn't that an irony?

17. Listen, Terri Gross, you're not. But to answer the question, yes, it is an irony. As anyone in an MFA program knows, irony is a major subset of humor. It is among other things saying A while meaning B; it is asseverating and being wildly misunderstood; it is one of the many products of people trying to get along, thinking they are in fact getting along, then discovering they aren't. It is the elephant in the living room that no one notices. It is underwater real estate masquerading as Alpine grandeur.

18. So you're saying that two people, describing the same landscape, note different details.

19. As long as we're at it, Heraclitus, you're not, either. But yes, that's right. We each have our own landscape with its own weather. We see things about us as complex bundles of emotion which, depending on our ability, we try to describe in writing, i sculpting, in poetry, in photography, in dance, in music. All the good description was written in the nineteenth century or before. The entire twentieth century was spent trying to make it seem that we know more because of our technical advances. The twenty-first century saw a number of artists grow tired of--bored, if you will--trying to describe feelings and so they have pointedly tried, each through the individualized landscape, to evoke the feeling so that it might be shared with others.

20. Would George W. Bush threaten to veto this proposition?

21. Without question.

22. So your landscape is--?

23. Personal relationships that appear to defy convention or tradition. Institutions, particularly the university.

24. MBA Programs?

25. Chris Wallace, that's who you remind me of?

26. Is that supposed to be funny?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Perchance to Dream

1. It is one entire thing to become involved with the characters, agendas, and surprises of your own work, but another thing altogether when your contact by a book of another writer seizes you, wrenches you off balance, then leaves you staggering for an equilibrium you are not sure you had in the first place.

2. When you have bought into the characters, agendas, and surprises of someone else's work and they come to an end, as they must, there is a profound sense of sudden loss and loneliness, much like the ending of a love affair.

3. All right, her name was The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett; it got you thinking of Flaubert because of the uses she made of point of view, and the more you thought of that connection the more Barrett's novel, set in 1916 in upstate New York, seemed to pick characters such as those who were witness to Charles and Emma Bovary.

4. Which gets you to thinking...
a) your characters occasionally send you post cards
b) or appear in your dreams
c) or say things to you which you shamelessly repeat in class or at parties as though they had just come to you, playing into the myth that you are fast on your feet.

5. For some considerable time, you have been in contact with a character you supposed was you but who is so unlike you that you wonder how you missed the dissimilarities.

6. You liked him so much that you even used his grandfather as a character in a story about an actual historical oddity of there once having been a U.S. Army Camel Corps.

7. Your characters are members of your family, which works out well enough because there is/was a pretty good balance of relatives you greatly admire and those you seldom think of, giving you leave to be judicious about your dealings with both aspects of the family, character family and family family. It is quite true that your mother's older sister in the later years of her life kept a refrigerator filled with Eskimo Pies and went to her death bed believing that you had stolen a year's worth of her check stubs from her desk and six Eskimo Pies, but it is also true that you never wrote anything about her.

8. This aunt had a son who had dreams in which he was a dentist. Sometimes at lunch at Canter's Delicatessen, he would detail some of these dreams. A friend of his, who was a psychotherapist and often joined us for lunch, asked my cousin if he thought these dreams meant anything relevant.

9. From observing each of these men, I learned the importance of imbuing my characters with dreams and subtexts they did not feel comfortable discussing with many people.

10. Once when having lunch with only the psychotherapist, I asked him if he had dreams about being a psychotherapist. He shook his head. Unlike your cousin who is a dentist and does not want to be a dentist, I am a psychotherapist who wants to be a psychotherapist.

11. I wonder what Gregor Samsa wanted to be.

12. Nevertheless, it is good to know what people dream of being and quite nice to discover their goals without having to hear the entirety of the dream.

13. One night at a family dinner, I caught my father's youngest sister looking intently at me. "I've never really done anything for you," she told me. I was quick to assure her that she had never treated me with anything but respect and affection, but she demurred. "I have thought some terrible things about my sons. I surely thought something terrible about you." Some days later, an envelope with her expansive writing arrived, containing a check for an amount that truly baffled me. I held on to that check for years, regarding it as a token of her affection and a sign of her great eccentricity. She was the only person in my acquaintance who knew the Yiddish word for squirrel. Some years later, my favorite cousin told me the significance of a nineteen-dollar check, which endeared me all the more to my cousin and caused me to see my aunt in an even more sentimental way.

14. At a yard sale held by a convent of Hindu nuns, I bought for twenty-five cents a Yiddish-English Dictionary, confident that it would reveal to me the forgotten Yiddish word for squirrel.

15. It didn't.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Naive Narrator

1. After a night of uneasy dreams, Shelly Lowenkopf awoke to discover he had turned into Donald Duck.

2. At first this disturbed him because he does not fancy the way Donald Duck ordinarily dresses, preferring instead those off-adventure times where he wears dinner jackets or safari gear, where for all purposes he is set forth on some vector of enjoyment that we viewers know will quickly come tumbling down about him.

3. Forgetting the sartorial aspects of Donald Duck, Shelly feels kinship because of the temper element. No one is quite so expressie of temper as Donald Duck, not even Shelly Lowenkopf, try as he might.

4. This will not be the first time Shelly Lowenkopf has found himself transmogrified into the cranky canard. This time the transformation came as a follow-up on yesterday's blog entry, as a kind of validation or ratification of something long present but not properly thought out.

5. Basically, to cut through all the intermediary stuff, it is to keep working at a thing--a story, an essay, a review--until there is that connective moment when an association of some unexpected sort comes through. Without the connection all is boredom and affectation. With it comes the chance of an involvement that pushes toward the unthinkable.

6. You mean risk offered, risk taken?

7. Yes.

8. No risk, no go?

9. Right.

10. Is this why things take longer?

11. Not longer so much as things take their own time. Sometimes it is right now. Sometimes it is months, in some cases years. That goddamned Cro-Magnon story I lost when the Zenith computer died and which has been haunting me for some time is starting to come back. Sonny, the protagonist of the story, encounters Lefty in a remote cave, drawing pictures on the walls. That part has been around for a while but now, thanks to yesterday's blog entry, there are chickens in the cave. Of course the entrance to the cave is blocked, keeping the chickens in. What are you doing with those chickens, Sonny asks. Trying to see, Lefty says, if they'll domesticate. If we're going to stop being hunters and gatherers, we need to domesticate some protein. Who says we're going to stop being hunters and gatherers? Just in case, Lefty says. I don't know, Sonny says. I kind of like moving around. Somebody's got to watch the crops. What crops? The crops that would be planted if we stopped being hunters and gatherers, started making things that lasted. You know, shelf life?

12. It is like ten years on this goddamned story and I've been pushing Fagan for nearly five years to write a book on the Cro-Magnon so that in the editing process I'd become reimmersed in the story.

13. You'd do that just to get a short story?

14. Can't help it.

15. So is this what you mean when you say that for every new story you have to learn how to write all over again?

16. Yes.

17. Ouch.

18. You got something you'd rather do?

19. Excuse me, I gotta go check on the chickens.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Zen and the Art of Donald Duck Maintanance: An Inquiry into Values

1. After a lifetime of reading, first for the sheer pleasure and amazement inherent in the process, then for discovery, then for technique, you still believe you will find on some shelf in some bookstore or, indeed, in your own living quarters, the single book that will transform you, much as pulling the sword out of the stone transformed Arthur. You know, Arthur.

2. Approaching a year of daily blogging, you still believe that in one day's notes to yourself, you will find embedded that transformative energy that will affect your subsequent work. This is your version of The Purloined Letter. This will turn out to be The Blog That Ate the Bronx, Moby-Blog, the credo, the codex. Hidden in plain sight is the answer.

3. Is it weakness of intellect, Oh, Birdie, I cried/
Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?

No, it is something beyond that, something beyond the profound naivete of Gilbert and Sullivan. Perhaps it is the profound optimism of Gilbert and Sullivan (who may have been splendid at collaboration but could not stand one another.)

4. Neither could Laurel and Hardy. And yet--

5. Can you imagine the movies featuring Toshiro Mifune Photo-shopped to substitute Donald Duck for Mifune? Seven Samurai with Donald Duck. Rashomon with Donald Duck. To Kill a Mockingbird with Donald Duck as Atticus Finch.

6. The Zen of Donald Duck.

7. The Song of Solomon
as translated by Donald Duck.

8. Donald Duck's Favorite Poems.

9. The Love Song of Donald Duck.

10. Wordsworth's Lucy Poems as seen by Donald Duck.

11. You really can't remain serious for long, can you?

12. Is that the underlying vector of your work, the inability to remain serious after having begun seriously? Is that or is that not taking aim at a target and shooting yourself in the foot?

13. Even though you know intellectually that blogging is to a writer as practice is to a musician, as rehearsal is to an actor, wouldn't it be funny if this were the blog in which you found satori and were transformed into a writer who had given up attachments to convention?

14. Yes, it would be funny.

15. Well?

16. Does this have anything to do with the final projects turned in by the students in both classes last week?

17. Yes, but I'm not sure what.

18. Keep looking.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Struggle for Self

Many of us are drawn to fiction by the unspoken promise of a layer of tension residing within, just below the surface. In a matter of moments, we are introduced to at least one relatively interesting individual who is faced with a problem involving discovery, moral choice, escape from an intolerable fate, or learning to cope with the consequences of social pressure.

As the work of fiction expands from short form to long form, the complexity of the problem expands in at least a mathematical proportion, with possibilities of extending to exponential.

Readers approach these dramatic existential options according to their idiosyncratic preferences, thus producing the concept of genre promise, the literary equivalent of The Social Contract, in which the reader who prefers a mystery is quickly presented with a puzzle needing to be solved, the reader who prefers romances is engaged in the plight of an interesting protagonist who is forced by her own goals and endocrine system to make a romantic choice among suitors or to chose between a suitor and a profession, and a young reader is presented with a young protagonist who has encountered an existential problem even more intense and complex than a similar problem the reader is now experiencing.

The unspoken part of the tension has to do with the number of filters through which the story is rendered, the point of view of narration, the I or he or she or perhaps even they of narrative voice.

As we trudge forth into this twenty-first century, at some distance now from the Renaissance, we have already unknowingly replaced the standard, bulbous incandescent lighting system of our communal awareness with the florescent lights of me-as-individual focus, taking us from such strictly oral presentations as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf, into a similarly open-ended written narrative such as War and Peace.

In a huge leap forward, landing at a place dictated by my own idiosyncratic senses of memory and association, we come to one of the early switches from multiple to highly personalized and appropriately focused I/me awareness of Franz Kafka, who gave his readers the sense that although he spoke for himself, he spoke for many of us as well. Nor only had he turned into an insect or had been tried, convicted, and sentenced relative to a crime of which he had no knowledge nor was any concrete evidence presented against him, we as well had the focus and vulnerability of these dire consequences impinging on ourselves.

Designed politically as a federation, we are still plagued by the tug of states' rights. Designed politically as an entity in which we were free to pursue such spiritual notions and beliefs as we chose or particularly did not chose, we are still plagued by those who clutch to their bosom a book which they purport to take as the literal paradigm of truth. Nor are they content that those who do not consider this book such a paradigm shall be allowed a voice.

A current novel, The Air We Breathe, by the estimable Andrea Barrett, has set me off thinking about the self and its implications in reading and writing, about the implications of our species' past before we developed written language and our evolution into a society with written language, about the implications of entitlement, such novels of confession as Robinson Crusoe, and about the splendid short story by Beckett in which a character regards with some serious introspection the fate of a lobster dropped into a pot of boiling water. Adios, Lobster. While I who will remain alive, will eat you.

Fail again, Beckett says, but fail better. We are doomed, he says, to failure but we can strive to better our understanding,our performance, our selves, reconciling purpose with who we are and how we function.

Barrett's novel, which I have not finished, and for which I shall soon have to do a review of, begins with a narrative voice and point of view approach that reminds me significantly of Madam Bovary, which is so skillfully set forth that we do not realize how many points of view there are in it. A man who did realize, and who wrote a splendid study of Flaubert, called The Perpetual Orgy, has himself produced a remarkable tour d' force on point of view, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.

Did Mario Vargas Llosa intend this stunning novel as an anti-modernist trope, swimming beneath the surface of an hilarious set of personal circumstances in which Vargas Llosa was, at one time, married to his own aunt?

These are the asteroids and comets of questions flying about me after having devoted some time late last month to an examination of point of view and of the questions and associations coming from The Air We Breathe and from Andrea Barrett's considerable intelligence and imagination. We read fiction to lose self in the story and then, in the process, discover the failed better self, discovered after the exposure. We write fiction to fail better in our imagination after having failed existentially in the reality of life. We are optimists who want to live for ever because we fear the consequences of death, which is to say we fear, among other things, the consequences of learning the relative meaning and importance of I. Some of us wish to attach our sled to Soren Kierkergaard, others in our midst to The King James Bible. Some of us chose The Critique of Pure Reason, while others yet chose the atav, that lovely combination of the alef and the tav, which, the literal translation tells us, was there in the beginning. In the beginning was the atav. The word.

For some of us, there is The Gematria, a system in which the words have numerical values which help us decipher the deeper meanings of received narrative.

And for others of us, there is the sound and intent and cadence of the words as we attempt to translate the feelings we receive as we observe the worlds about us. Such feelings are like the dust on a butterfly's wings, the thrum of a hummingbird, the flash of a salmony pink on the underside of a morning cloud. We fail in our attempts to get those feelings down in convincing form, then have another go at failing better.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Too Many Notes, Mozart

One of my favorite scenes from the splendid film Amadeus arrives when the ditsy emperor criticizes Mozart's music for having too many notes, which, when you consider the implications of Mozart's music, is like criticizing J.S. Bach for having two-part inventions when one would have sufficed.

Another moment came when, shortly after having set my earthly pole star on my aspiration of becoming a writer, the great American publisher, Alfred Knopf, announced with solemnity that too many books were being published. What gigantic hubris, I thought, the length and depth and breadth of his list notwithstanding. 

 Accordingly I rushed into print with reckless tantivy, contributing to the too many books footprint, dooming countless trees, a self-styled competitor to Joyce Carol Oates, thinking at one point in which I had completed and placed two novels within a six-weeks period, that I had made a dent. Indeed, a dent in the tree population.

But that, as Marlowe had a character say in The Jew of Malta, was in another city, and besides, the wench is dead.

Now, 2007, there are approximately three thousand new books being published each week. The aspens shiver, the editor groans, and the reader yawns. Too many books, indeed.

I am the happy discoverer of Barnaby Rich (1514-1617) a retired soldier and a popular writer of books for women. One of the problems attending Caxton's invention of movable type, Rich wrote, produced a sordid condition. "One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world."

There is nothing for it but for us to find ways, modern ways to be sure, in which we learn to cope with the abundance about us.

One such way is to set forth the time to vigorously pursue history. As my esteemed blog buddies The Individual Voice and Ilana (aka Smiler) have pointed out, blogging allows one to investigate one's own history, which is to my mind as good a way to begin as there is in this electronic Talmud we have at our disposal.

A significant function of written language is the platform it provides us with which to initiate this investigation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

1. A politician--any politician you happen to favor--sends you an email explaining how "they," whoever they might happen to be, have really put an effort into unseating this worthwhile incumbent and thus this worthwhile incumbent desperately needs a contribution from you to help fight back. You email a tad more than you can afford, thinking somehow that your fortune will improve in time for the bill from the credit card on which you charged the contribution.

2. It doesn't improve, unless you can count some of the splendid things that happen to you in your day-to-day contacts with friends, students, blog buddies, and not to forget complete strangers.

3. Right after having made the donation, your mailbox is jammed with brochures from the very candidate you just contributed to. Having spent some time as a production manager for various book publishers and magazines, you have some idea how expensive these four-color, printed-on-glossy-paper mailers are.

4. Another day or two passes and you see on the internet or in a newspaper the very same politician vacationing in some surrounding you are currently longing to visit.

5. Another day or two and you discover that the particular legislative body of which "your" politician is a part has voted itself a salary raise. This comes on the day you discover the price of parking at your university has gone up and your HMO is increasing its monthly billing.

6. You have already felt singed--now you feel burned.

7. Someone from a worthwhile charitable venture calls to ask if they can send you the galleys of a new book about them which they hope to profit from and thus increase their charitable outreach. They are hopeful that you will think highly enough of the forthcoming book to provide a blurb. You say yes, of course. The package arrives and you fall to it, think it is rather nice, compose an appropriate blurb and fire it off.

8. The charity sends you a thank-you note that could have been written by Hallmark. Since you were not interested in being thanked, you shrug and figure what the hell.

9. A week later, you get a note from the Executive Committee of the charity, recognizing you as a busy and dedicated Civic Leader, therefore wondering if they could slightly edit your blurb to make it sound more enthusiastic.

10. Since you are not so much a busy person as one who procrastinates a good deal and who last-minutes a number of things, and since the least of what you are is a Civic Leader much less a dedicated Civic Leader, you send an innocently worded response as in, Depends on how your edits would read. Let's see.

11. Dear dedicated Civic Leader, they say, here it is. They show you the blurb which is unlike anything you have ever thought or written, along with the names of a few dedicated Civic Leaders on the national level whom you vastly admire, simultaneously wondering why, if the charity could have secured them, they would even want to mess with you.

12. Then you read the blurb and what was once a sense of nonchalant good will on your part renders you on the spot an Ahab in search of a whale. With the scent of singed flesh in the background, you respectfully withdraw the blurb and wish them well, pleased with yourself for not having--to continue the Ahab metaphor--associated your actions with a harpoon.

13. It is not over. You are brooding. It was, after all, a charity, one you highly approve of even though you are not a dedicated Civic Leader.

14. It is a matter of principal.

15. What moral property of yours has been trespassed?

16. Thus doth conscience make cowards of us all.

17. Besides, who's going to know?

18. That isn't the point.

19. Age may not wither nor custom stale Cleopatra, but it sure makes you cranky.

20. So you are on your way to meet a client and there is one of those interminable, cheery Santa Claus types with the goddamned bell and the pot outside the supermarket adjacent your meeting place, and someone has apparently dropped a crumpled bill from his pocket before entering the market. You pick it up and call after the dropper, who has disappeared into the vaults of organic food. The cheery Santa Claus type with the goddamned bell has witnessed this activity, and also sees you shrug, then opt to plop the wadded bill into his goddamned pot. Ah, Merry Christmas, sir, the bell ringer says. How about adding to that donation with some of your own funds.

21. It suddenly becomes clear to you in a flash.

22. You are indeed a cranky man.

23. You probably have always been cranky.

24. You have the solution to the blurb problem. Yes, if they'll remove the last sentence in the blurb.

25. You have the solution for the goddamned bell ringer. Happy Hanukkah, you intone on your way past him.

26. You have the look of a happy man, your client says.

27. Goddamned right, you asseverate.