Saturday, March 31, 2007

Junk--the Verb and the Noun

My dog, Sally, has outed me.

I am neither neat nor tidy. At some point in the day, I manage to appear neat and tidy, but soon enough--all too soon--cosmic forces collide most notably with my shirt, tie, sweater (if the weather warrants). If my jackets often slip under the radar, the back seat of the Camry makes up for it.

Work areas--the worked-over two-car garage now euphemistically referred to as "the library," and that portion of my room where a desk, computer, printer, and bookshelves seem to present themselves like dogs up for adoption at the animal shelter--become a multiple and mixed metaphor, a Sargasso Sea, a Bermuda Triangle, a mine field, a cemetery.

This is not something I have set forth with deliberation to achieve, nor does it emerge from any desire on my part to rebel against authority or conventions (Writing is my ally in that struggle. The condition has been with me as far back as memory extends; it is best defined by two pleasant but remarkably different forces, an archaeologist and my late father.

Brian Fagan, even though now emeritus from the academy, is a world-class archaeologist. I first met him as editor to client, but by now, at least a dozen books later, that line is seriously blurred. We meet, as friends do, to gossip, drink coffee, and describe the world to one another, only incidentally addressing a particular chapter or two of a particular book in progress. "Archaeologists," Fagan maintains with voluble force, "are glorified junk dealers. They cherish items you would be hard put to charge ten cents for at a garage sale. What is the archaeological wing of a distinguished museum but a well-labeled rubbish heap?"

Somewhere within the clutter of my desk is an empty Altoids Mint box. True enough, I did eat the mints, but having found at one time a web site filled with interesting second uses for Altoids tins, I keep the box, eternally hopeful a second- or third-generation use for it will emerge. Besides, think of the range of social and historical significance were my one Altoids tin to grow into a collection, demonstrating size, flavor, and design.

So there you have an example of the Fagan effect on me: Altoids tin as artifact; junk as definition, trash as cultural evidence. Did the Cro-Magnon not have bad breath or dyspepsia? What they did not have was a tin to carry about their Altoids, and so my wannabe collection assumes the status of a tree ring or core sampling.

Jake, my father, was not an academic, but he was hardwired with neatness and organizational skills of such significance that he drifted into a radical change in occupation. Auctioneers fought for his skills in preparing commercial sites for sale at auction, these skills including an ability to make junk look important. "Make junk look important, and people will pay for it," he told me, shortly before yet another of his demonstrations to me of what worked in life and what did not work. At the same auction, a dustpan filled with the lees of a large floor I'd just swept, sold for seven dollars. The contents of the dustpan included sundry screws, bolts, and a few brass washers. Dumped into a corrugated box with neatly trimmed edges, then labeled as Miscellaneous Machine Parts, the contents of the dustpan brought in more money than the chuck of a lathe, worth at the time at least twenty-five dollars.

I am at heart a collector. Over time I have collected pulp mystery magazines, pulp science fiction magazines,cereal boxes, Coca-Cola bottles, baseball trading cards, miniature Oriental rugs once used as a premium in Murad cigarettes, lithographed drawings of airplanes included in packages of the now-defunct Wings cigarettes, Big-Little Books, playing cards with interesting patterns, kachina dolls emblematic of Hopi and Zuni supernatural figures. I won't talk about National Geographic magazines or toys from boxes of Cracker-Jacks, or those old Dell paperback mysteries with the maps on the back cover because everybody collected those, and not a word about my current passion, fountain pens.

There is something comfortably filling about having such collections, of a piece with having had an enormous steak dinner at Gallagher's or Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan. These collected things are artifacts of a time, a place, a way of life, a culture. True enough, they take space in the garage that could otherwise be used for, say, cars; they occupy space in closets and drawers that could provide splendid homes for first-aid items, clothing, cleaning implements, things bought in large quantity from COSTCO.

As a young man, Brian Fagan worked in Africa, in fact, with Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. At one point, he relates, he found a small, hand-shaped wedge used to split logs, and was told, Well done. He is not likely to go on digs now so his sifting and searching is mostly in libraries or direct interviews with men and women still working the fields. I liken his fascination for wrist watches to something more than the status symbol of owning an expensive time piece. Even though I can and often do wear a Timex, I can relate to the sense of beauty one senses under the crystal and well into the inner workings of a hand-made watch.

With some exceptions, I can lay my hands on most of the stories that appeared in the issues of Black Mask Magazine I collected, mourning with each new addition to the collection the fact of the demise of Black Mask before I could submit stories to it. Somewhere in that garage-cum-study, there is an actual Black Mask cover, announcing that within these flimsy pages, you could see a story by Dashiell Hammett.

Junk, Jake would say, using the Yiddish word tinnif for it, gold for you who wants it and even more for the person who owns it and knows you want it. This was not said with scorn, mind you, but with the vision of a man who kept himself, his home, and one of his kids neat. He, on the other hand, had a virtually photographic memory, obviating his need after a time to keep a collection of The Daily Racing Form, that lovely data base of equine velocity relationships, the sines, cosines, and tangents, as they were, of what Horse A did against Horse B over six furlongs on a fast track.

Junk. What we once used and threw out--and which becomes valued by someone else. The detritus of one society, the artifacts and relics of another. Also the items we thought we wanted and can no longer live with. Items we once thought contained the lightning in a bottle of beauty. Or meaning.

Found art; unrelated cast-offs, put in proximity by a person with "an eye for beauty."

I once saw, hanging on the wall of the church at Acoma Pueblo, a sconce of preternatural loveliness, a candle within it casting mystical light through the textured surface of the glass in which it was embedded. Closer inspection revealed the secrets of the sconce and candle holder.

The metal from which the sconce was cut, bent, teased, and painted was once a tin bearing a Hormel ham. It was later revealed to me that the glass candle holder was originally a container for Welch's grape jelly.

Can anything be found in or made from the clutter in my work area? Hope springs eternal in the breast of man, Alexander Pope has told us. There are ideas and bits of energy in those piles. Like the archaeologist, I sift through them for artifacts, hearing Jake's voice as a reminder that if it is treated with respect, possibly, just possibly, something might come.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Lowenkopf's Uncertainty Principle

A quantum is an invisible entity of energy, say a poem, or short story, or novel. Quantum physics defines the position and momentum of an entity, say a poem, short story or novel.

A vector is an arrow drawn to scale, representing the magnitude and direction of an entity, say a poem, short story, novel, or photograph as it moves from its source somewhere in its creator to its impact point with a section of the viewers kishke.

Conjugate variables is another term from physics that seeks to define such observable dualities as magnitude and direction, time and space, or possibly even time and energy.

Werner Heisenberg, arguably one of the more insightful interpreters of quantum mechanics, noted the increased difficulty in measuring such conjugate variables. Thus the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, reduced to simplistic image with the observation: A watched pot never boils. 

 The more accuracy with which we measure one of the variables, the greater the uncertainty attending our ability to measure, much less define the variables. Indeed, Heisenberg's spectral self seems to be hovering over those physicists who are trying to define the initial state of our universe, thinking this would allow them to be able to predict behavior in the universe infinitely into the future.

Asking what makes a poem, short story, or novel linger in my sensitivities and, accordingly, in any one's sensitivities, brings Heisenberg to mind as a conjugate variable with the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. In the admittedly alternate universe in which I live, I find it necessary to have the quanta defined by poets and scientists. Yeats, one of my great favorites, was nuttier than the proverbial fruitcake. Indeed:


The Ballad of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
I cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream,
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name;
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded in the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and hold her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Heisenberg was able to walk among the long dappled grass of mathematics and the relationship of concepts. I am happy to think of him as My Man in Science.

You have only to know me to recognize that I dote on modern short story writers and novelists, even though I have spoken with affection in these entries of Hawthorne. I also add herewith D. H. Lawrence, whose splendid and diverse stories, "The Blacksmith's Daughter," and "The Rocking-Horse Winner," represent some lovely alpha and omega, respectively a gem from a rural landscape and another from an urban one. For me, these two have clearly lasted, withstood the test of time in the linear accelerator that passes for my mind. I can and will revisit them, speak of them with enthusiasm. Today, on Ben Huff's post, I saw two photos that gave me the most agreeable chills, a decidedly good sign.

As a writer, a reader, a reviewer, and a teacher, I bring four conjugate variables to the dinner table. Poems, short stories, novels, and photographs, since I began by mentioning these separate arts, are quanta, sometimes wave, sometimes particle, sometimes--amazingly--both. Attempting to apply a scientific judgment to them somehow deflects or undercuts the brilliance of the light they emit and my ability to bathe in that light.


This week is Oldie Week for my book review column. I have chosen Glendon Swarthout's remarkable, Bless the Beasts and Children, first published in 1970. You can read the review here.






Thursday, March 29, 2007

POV

Point of view.

Who is:



(a) telling the story


(b) holding the camera


(c) holding the brush


(d) leading the orchestra


(e) directing the drama


(f) choosing whether to rhyme or go on to blank verse

?


You get the concept. A five-three photographer, shooting a pro basketball game is either going to get a lot of shots of knee caps or wake up the next day with a stiff neck.


T. S. Eliot in one mood is wondering about the mechanics of eating a peach and in yet another mood is observing how "The Rum-tum-tugger is a curious cat."


We have first-person point of view, which is to say the "I," of which two splendid examples are Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations. In a splendid example of naive narrator, which I will address in a moment or two, Agatha Christie betrays the first-person POV with her early venture into crime fiction, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

We have the second-person or "you" POV, spectacularly employed in fiction by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. In non-fiction, you could find amazing grace in the prose of any of John Sanford's books; he even managed a three-volume autobiography in second-person!

There are any number of lovely third-person approaches, the "he" or "she" approach, so elegantly deployed by Louise Erdrich.


Not to forget the multiple-point of view, a combination of often competing voices, a number of hes or shes. Before he got off on his iconic Travis McGee series, John D. McDonald ramped this approach up toward perfection in his novels of suspense.


And of course there is the William Trevor point-of-view, which is to say the omniscient, in which any number of characters have the vision, the director's chair, seemingly all at once. Trevor "owns" this point of view because he renders it so seamlessly, giving his characters a sense of a remarkable civility as a denominator to many, many darker motives.


All of which leads the trail of crumbs to the witch's house of the reliability of a given point-of-view. Thus:



Reliable narrator: He of she whom the reader implicitly trusts


Naive narrator: as in Mr. Stevens of The Remains of the Day or the protagonist of D. H. Lawrence's epic short story, "The Rocking Hourse Winner," or any youngster who supposes when Mommie groans so deeply from behind the bedroom door that Daddy is strangling her rather than having found her G-Spot.


Unreliable narrator, as in George W. Bush telling us--well, telling us almost anything, or what about Ann Coulter asking if we can't all find a way to get along together?

To all of this canon, this more-or-less dramatic convention of how and under what circumstances story points are released, I nominate The Alzheimer's Point-of-View, in which it becomes apparent (later, rather than sooner--please) that the narrator has an increasingly tenuous hold on what actually happened and has begun to file dispatches and accounts from a different battlefield, perhaps even from a different war, with a different set of combatants and allies. 


This is not to make fun of those afflicted with Alzheimer's, because that undercuts the purpose, which is to examine and make fun of all those who are so rooted in the certainty of their vision and morality as to be intransigent. Call them Fundamentalists, call them Republicans, call them Conservatives, even call them Ishmael. My goal is to make fun of THEM and their unwavering certainty. Men and women of faith--the real saints in my book--constantly question reality and their own relationship to it. Men and women of politics who have earned their place among our national lares and penates step forth with willingness to listen and to admit the possible wrongness of previously held positions. 

Men and women of the academy and of science are constantly building hypotheses which they hope will work but which, in the meantime, they are attempting to derail with doubt. Men and women of poetry are knowingly or not repeating the mantra from Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" where it is written: All things are flowing, Sage Heraclitus says..."

So how's this for a story: A man named John begins to grow suspicious when his wife of , say, fifty years, begins to call him Ed. His suspicions lead him to the discovery that he is not his wife's first husband, that there was, indeed an Ed in her life at one time, an Ed who has emerged from the shadows of memory. As John uses Google and other virtual and (this is an important nuance) real-time search engines to delve into Ed's background, the reader slowly learns that the narrator has begun to suffer from the delusion that he is now the embodiment of the late, gifted story teller, W. Somerset Maugham.


POV. The teller in the tale. The I/eye in the narrative. The decaf or the leaded in the latte.


In thinking this story through, I find myself once again connected to the late, lamented Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Connections, Hyperlinks, and Neural Pathways in the Forest

After two unsuccessful efforts to plow through what I considered a bog of style and plot, I was able finally to get through Richard Powers' stunning, provocative novel, The Gold Bug Variations, my curiosity driven forward by the outrageous pun in the title, and its protagonist's goal of cracking the most secret of all codes, the genetic code.

I was glad to succeeded because it honed my appetite for Powers' most recent novel, The Echo Maker, a challenge and a pleasure to read, an even greater challenge and pleasure to review. (See the review here, if you're interested.)

Always one to probe deeply into the permutations of what it means and what it feels like to be alive, Powers this time has delved into the very basis of our individual and collective awareness, The Self, arranging a set of circumstances that allow us to, as Robert Burns put it, "see ourselves as others see us." Powers as well exploits that bedrock of individuality, that I-ness of consciousness, starting with a young protagonist who is injured in an accident, placed in an induced coma against the possibility of his brain becoming fevered, then observed. The protagonist exhibits the Capgras Syndrome in which the victim tends to suspect that those closest to him, friends, and family, are impostors. Okay, here we go. What is the self? What are the rules for defining the definition? And after a few chapters, even physician, heal thyself.

My enthusiasm for the novel--which won The National Book Award, led me to overstep lines; I foisted copies of the book on any number of friends, including a man who has spent a few weeks here and there over the years on The New York Times best-seller list, J. A. "Jerry" Freedman.

Cut to the past Saturday when Jerry arrived at break time during my Saturday writers' workshop to leave off a copy of the latest Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in which he has a story, and to return a loaned copy of The Echo Maker. "You win," Jerry said. "Only a writer with chops like his could bring this off and be convincing about it. I don't like to use the word genius, but what else are you going to call him? I'm off to order all his other books."

Jerry goes after writers the way the late jazz great, Roy Eldridge, went around looking for trumpet players, to play with and against. In short, Jerry had been in a cutting contest with Richard Powers and was wanting more.

Okay, so on the window sill directly over my Tempur-Pedic pillow and what passes for a bed below it is--you guessed it, a stack of Powers' other books. When we are not completely self-absorbed into our own work, we're hungry for experiences that take us into the literary equivalent of trading eights, going with and against writers whose craft and reach argue us up to a performance we can live with for a time.

Some years back, I fell under the wheels of another writer, Muriel Spark, a remarkable talent who produced provocative work right up to her recent death. She left wheel marks on my writer's psyche from the get-go, but of her extensive work, Memento Mori stands as the most insightful and daring. Spark is quite a bit more metaphoric than Powers; in The Mandlebaum Gate, for instance, she uses that very gate which divides the city of Jerusalem into two areas as a symbol for the soul, and in arguably her most popular, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she uses an ensemble cast of characters to represent various Jungian archetypes.

This is not to say Powers uses no metaphor or, indeed, irony as Spark does; but when he puts a slide under the microscope, he names the organism.

As The Echo Maker investigates the constituent parts of Self, Memento Mori investigates the responses of Self to the ever-present aspect of death, hovering over the lightning-in-a-bottle we call life. As the novel begins, a group of elderly friends begin receiving phone calls in which the caller admonishes, "Remember, you must die." Some of them have called the police, who join in on attempts to identify the caller. Thus does Spark do what Powers has more recently done, turn the narrative into a classic mystery, which is always a mystery of identity. Each novel, presented as a mystery, draws the reader's attention away from the greater issue at stake. Each writer is skillful enough that the attention cannot help but be led back to uncomfortable questions that splatter like insects on the windshield of awareness. Who are we? What steps have we taken to discover answers? What steps are we taking to avoid inevitabilities?

Spark, recently dead at eighty-eight, and Powers, still as unrelenting in his stalking of our sensitivities as the ghost of Hamlet's father, provide artistic renditions of our condition, guidelines for examination and for those two great dramatic rewards, surprise and discovery.

Very much in the current flickering of the public eye are the realities of Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow. Already the schoolyard bullies have begun to circle around each, wanting not only to get a ringside seat at the fight but to shout opinions, suggestions of strategy. As the wry and insightful political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant, has pointed out, the Final Four have nothing to do with UCLA, Ohio State, Georgetown, and defending champion Florida (Go, Bruins!). His Final Four are Dick Cheney, the kid, Al Gonzalez, and The Iraqi War. My own candidates are Cancer, the Environment, Extremism, and Health Care.

Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow have been handed the challenges of awareness of a more-or-less finite time. Each has some time left to do or not. So far, Elizabeth has spoken forth. For all I disagree with Tony Snow's politics, I suspect his choice will be to engage.

I speak of these public figures from the bleachers, but nevertheless with a valid ticket of entry. I'm just about a week short of my forty-month anniversary from the surgery that removed what was rated a IIIa tumor. From this perspective, the numbers look good, but numbers only reflect trends. You can live on trends, but they don't stop reality from kicking in, if reality were of a mind.

More so than any other species, we humans seem to have been hard wired for the tendency to self-pity. We also have choices. The greatest gift is the choice to engage in the work, whatever that work is. If we are lucky, we will never get all our work done, there will always be too much of it. The other choice is to opt for no work and for self-pity, which is a ticket to another set of bleachers in another stadium, where the game is always rained out and the hot dogs have lost their taste.

Muriel Spark. Richard Powers. Read the instructions.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I Don't Have to Show No Stinkin' Badge

H(2), A, B, P, T1, T (oak-leaf cluster)

I'll get to what these mean in just a moment. For now, what do these have in common:

Members of the military

Republicans

Male politicians

Female politicians


A: They all wear some overt status-identifying device, a kind of walking curriculum vitae.

Members of the military have on their uniforms a designation of their rank and as well a chest full of ribbons identifying campaigns in which they served as well as awards of merit.

Republicans conspicuously wear American flags on some visible portion of their outer dress (and probably have tattoos, but we won't go into that).

Male politicians wear red or light blue neckties, usually with polka dots or some other small figure.

Female politicians wear tailored suits with open-collar blouses (except for Hillary, whose suits may well be tailored but do not appear to be).

These are the outward signals of their profession, unmistakable signs of what they do and what they think of themselves, much of a piece with a female hooker wearing four-inch heels and a male hooker wearing a North Face jacket over a beefy t-shirt.

How are we in the arts to compete? Shall we wear jewelry or ribbons to commemorate .awards, grants, exhibitions, the placement of our work in prestigious publications or galleries? I think not. 

 One of the things that distinguishes US from THEM is our sense that such grants, awards, exhibitions, publications and the like was THEN and we are living in what I like to think of as the artistic now, a kind of creative search/affirmation of Carlyle's The Everlasting Yea.

We may in part be THEM during a portion of our daily life, which is to say we may be military, Republican, male, female, even hooker, but our life inside the artistic now requires no status symbols, no defining labels, only our curiosity and endless drive to render what we see as we see it.

If we were to show any campaign ribbons or other display of having endured within the human condition, I propose a system based on that seemingly odd group of symbols with which I began this rumination. We have gained much during the pursuit of our creative life, and we have lost as well. The H(2) I listed has nothing to do with water; it relates to the fact that I now go about the warp and weft of my life no longer hobbled with the hips I was issued at birth. Pure titanium now. The A represents an appendix which I no longer need. You will surely get the picture about some of the others: adenoids, for instance, or teeth. 

Thanks to a run-in with cancer, I now get to wear a B as in bladder. (My gawd, a nurse exclaimed during one of my check-up exams, how do you pee? Very nicely, I explained, thinking of Alex Koper, MD, who installed a neo-bladder which works, I am here to attest, every bit as well as the bladder of my birth. The list goes on and, indeed, will go on. I could stretch things and include an H for hair, but you would be able to see that on your own without my need of a campaign ribbon.

In my reading of photography blogs I come across with some regularity the question of how best to approach human subjects with one's instrument, be it a 35 mm or a view camera. How do you disarm the subject from that artificial pose we all seem to want to take? How do we render our subjects as transparent and honest as, say Zoe Strauss on any given day of any given blog or, for that matter, any given image she has taken?

In his definitive essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler might well have been speaking of the artist, the creative person rather than the private detective when he wrote, * Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."

Well of course, we now have women as private investigators and women as artists to whom we look for vision.

On the other hand, we still have mean streets. (Have you ever seen the Santa Monica Freeway, eastbound, at three in the afternoon?) And it is, I argue, to our interest to walk them as unobtrusively as possible, the better to see what we see and render to our art and sullen craft(See the poem by Dylan Thomas:"In My Craft or Sullen Art.") the things that are theirs.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Last week was a week for doctors.

It was the kind of week and the kind of doctors that bring puckers of distaste to the faces of most male patients.

Relax, the nurse said drawing the obligatory blood samples. The worst part is--she giggled--already behind you.

I nodded at the joke. Except for the waiting, I ventured.

Now it was her turn to nod. You're in a doctor's office. You should expect to wait.

Right.

The worst part turned out to be over, indeed before I'd even reached the Sansum Clinic and submitted to the rigors of medical investigation. Getting out of there, a few pages describing the procedure I'd undergone, the doctor's findings or, if you will, lack of findings, seemed an excellent prelude to being able to take in food and drink again after a twelve-hour abstinence and some chemically induced cleansing activities. In what culture, you ask, are persons with clean bowels to be trusted?

That was then. Today I saw a doctor on more of an evened-out playing field. He had come to see me. He was my client.

You realize, don't you,he said after we discussed the revised pages he'd emailed me, we both do the same thing. We diagnose and then we prescribe and, he laughed, we may even proscribe.


True enough, I'd used medical terms when giving him the news. Talking heads.

No bodies attached? he asked.

Pure attitude and information, I said. Reader feeder--dramatic information the writer wants the reader to have, but does not dramatize.

Prognosis?

Promising. We've come a long way from the last draft.

Recommendation?

A little weight loss, some conflict, plenty of ambiguity. Try withholding information that seems like propaganda.

Aha, a laxative!

Needless to say, he is a delight to work with. And he has given me something to think about. If your manuscript seems a bit listless, take plenty of liquids, add some conflict, withhold information. Read. You can never read enough.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Post Hock Errant Prompter Hock

I came to editing and teaching by accident.

My early years were filled with the discoveries of myself related to writing; still in my twenties, I had no thought of editing much less any thoughts of what an editor did.

My only association with teaching came late in my undergraduate career when, in pursuit of a stately, ironic woman who hated my neckties, I audited an education class with a professor she greatly admired. Those classroom hours removed any thought of teaching from my agenda. In subsequent years, other professional and commercially oriented possibilities were discarded, leaving me pretty well stuck with the world of writing. By the time a number of my close friends had had their fill of such ephemera as technical writing (Jerry Williams, Guido Montalbano, Len Pruyn, Charles E. Fritch, Lee Cake) or carpentry (Stan Cook) or journalism (Chuck Weisenberg,Jack Matcha) and headed mostly for law school or an M.A. in library science, I lived in the presence of the constant ashes and odor of burned bridges.

Editing and teaching found me, dragged me kicking and screaming away from a series of loud, cranky manual typewriters and one spectacular, fire-engine red Olivetti portable and, incidentally, the best cat I have ever known, and into the world of the office, the suit, the less objectionable necktie.

Editing first. It came when one of my clients, a mail-order purveyor of remaindered books, decided to publish some of his own books, handed me a list of titles he thought to sell, and asked me how many on the list I thought I could write. At first, he seemed content with my response that I could write all of them (and indeed, I could have) but even he knew more about publishing than I did. 

 A publisher doesn't do one book at a time,he insisted. A publisher publishes a list, don't you know? Where do you think books come from? (Solopsist that I was, I thought books came from some hidden place within me that I had found through the yoga of renouncing graduate school.)

I found out, first working alternate weeks as a clerk at Pickwick, a bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, next to the iconic Musso & Frank Grill. While I was finding out, my employer did the math and realized we would both be considerably into the aging process if he were to wait for me to write all the books on his list.

Besides, in addition to those books, there was my own whimsical-but-insistent list of books to be written, and so one of the first things I learned about editing was how to lure writers away from the books they wanted to write and into the books my employer wanted. Or thought he wanted. In time, I was able to offer a quid pro quo, you write one of "mine" and I'll take one of yours.

This really isn't a memoir, it is a kind of moral quandary or investigation, involving the estimable Mrs. Deane. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I became involved in teaching because of the editing and writing. Irwin Blacker, the rare academic who could write producible screenplays, was the chairman of a new program starting at the University of Southern California. He invited me to give two lectures for one of his instructors, an editor who had serious business back in New York. At Charlie's classes--for Charlie was the instructor's name--I gave my standard pitch to the students: Here's what we want. Here's what we want from you.
In two classes, I'd run through my wisdom about publishing and editing and thought never to set foot on the USC campus again.

That was thirty-two years ago. I am still there, running through what I know about publishing and editing and writing. Hundreds of books have passed through my hands, either as a salaried editor or a freelance. During that process, an undergraduate pal had become first the deputy book editor then the head book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, then moved on to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. One of the things he knew about publishing was that editors had to do analytical reports on in-house projects, and so another accident, the accident of reviewing books for newspapers, journals,magazines, and the like.

Can we get back to Mrs. Deane now?

Yes; I think the time has come. The Mrs.Deane blog site has been posting some photos I think are quite remarkable. They are about individuals, themselves idiosyncratic, living and working in idiosyncratic situations that are made even more interesting by Mrs. Deane's tart, ironic comments. I am already seeing a book in this series of photos and comments. While Mrs. Deane nods at the interest, the psychology of the entire process--my enthusiasm with the Mrs. Deane blog site, my being able to see a book project for Mrs. Deane--opens a moral issue. Should the viewer stop at the mere expression of appreciation and, in effect, watch the process as Mrs. Deane continues to post and comment? Does the viewer have any right to suggest, or does that behavior cross a line? I see blogs in which photographers speak of the ethics of photographing people, say, or animals. I see angry exchanges between critics who accuse one another of beating up on biographical subjects or, indeed, beating up on fictional characters. And I see what I consider to be sophomoric speculations about how the creator's obligation is to some inchoate expression of The Truth.

As it stands now, I think yes, I probably crossed a line when I went beyond expressing my admiration for the postings on her site and suggested a book. It was the editor and teacher in me, speaking out; the writer already knows the mild sting of annoyance when someone suggests, You should write about--

I apologize, Mrs. Deane.

And yet.

Those are lovely posts.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Putting on the Ritz

In my mind's eye, in the richest, most iconic memories of such things, it is a lustrous dark mahogany, a pair of forty-fives: forty-five feet long, set at a forty-five-degree angle. It is a banister. It is the banister. It was put there to make an architectural statement, and I suppose it did, but to my Preteen awareness it made a statement of pure adventure.

You did not begin to notice the banister until you moved beyond the candy and soft drink stand at the Ritz Theater, just east of La Brea Avenue on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard Miracle Mile. The Ritz resided, a living presence, on the south side of Wilshire, such a commanding presence with its ingratiating smile of a marquis that you paid no heed to what was across the street.

The Ritz drew us with promises of transportation to the remote,secret places of adventure and romance that required a boy's impatient imagination for a passport. Like the retro grandeur of the El Rey, further north on Wilshire, the Ritz was fortified with the chandeliers, rococo nooks, and lavish carpeting of a world long past. But unlike the El Rey, the Ritz had a balcony--hence the banister--and weekly serials on Saturday. You only went to the El Rey when the double bill at the Ritz was an unthinkable combination of two love stories.

If you were in luck, the Ritz's Saturday feature was a Western followed by either a mystery or an outdoor adventure, sandwiched around an episode of Batman or The Green Hornet. Although most of us thought Batman was cooler, we all tried our hand at the faux-Irish brogue of the rumpled reporter, Axford, with his emblematic, "Sufferin' snakes, the Green Haarnet!"

Of course the angle was not forty-five degrees, but age and retrospect have not dimmed the thought that the banister might easily have been forty-five feet long.

Ten cents to get in. Another five for a Peter Paul Mounds bar (with two almonds). And the ride began.

Ten or fifteen minutes into the main feature, there was usually the perfect opportunity--a love scene. Up to the second floor, and a for-show visit to the men's room which, we all agreed, smelled better than the lavatory at the El Rey. You would have thought the ushers were on to our stratagem. Quickly out of the men's room and over to the banister, a brief check to see if the coast were clear. Some chose the side-saddle approach. Mine was the full-on two-leg mount. Sliding down the polished slope, it was all you could do to keep the whoop of joy internalized. As it was, I'd already signed two promises not to slide down the banister, and I lived in fear that the third offense would sentence me to a lifetime of Saturdays at the El Rey.

With luck and careful planning, you could manage three rides a Saturday, three opportunities to ride out the excitement of the double feature and serial or ameliorate the disappointment of their being duds.

Fate has not been kind to the Ritz. The El Rey has been declared an historical site; it still has regular showings. The Ritz, its bodacious banister still polished, is leased for special performances, waiting, I like to think, for adventurers who relish the steep thrill of the grandest downhill ride in town.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Everything's Jake

I think this all came about because someone at coffee this morning observed that baseball season was hovering over us like a Santa Barbara real estate agent, and someone else wondered aloud how things looked this year for the Indians, and I observed that things had not gone well for the Indians since Ghandi died.

That observation was pure Jake, just as pure Jake was his not-so-sotto-voce observation during the protracted wedding of his granddaughter, Marianne to Nori, who happens to be a native of Japan, "How do you say enough in Japanese?" It was not that Jake had anything against marriage or, indeed, anything but the most loving feelings to Marianne and her husband-to-be. Simply put, Jake was hungry. Lunch trumps ceremony.

The impending baseball season wrenched me from the day-after high of a clean bill of health on a colonoscopy back to the immense acreage in midtown Los Angeles between Third Street and Beverly Blvd, bounded on the west by Fairfax Avenue and on the east by either Rosewood or Martel. CBS TV-City was and still is there; so is The Farmers' Market. So was Gilmore Field, the home of the Hollywood Stars, a Triple-A baseball team in the Pacific Coast League.

Times change. The Hollywood Stars are no more; they have moved to Salt Lake City, where they have unsurprisingly become the Bees, a symbol of dedication and industry rather than the rambunctious and idiosyncratic Hollywood Stars. I can smell it now, the right field bleachers, suffused from the smells of the hot dog stand run by Al and Dora Ames, the amiable anarchy of lunches brought from home, redolent of cabbage, sour pickles, and the occasional slab of salami.

On most Sundays during the season, I sat with Jake, working out the details of the game in progress with him, watching him shrewdly place bets with other bleacher-ites, serenely confident that he could win the price of our tickets and what he called a commodious lunch from the Ames's stand.

Jake was a private man and so my sense of connection to him and my awareness of the love he felt for me was largely of a non-verbal nature. Perhaps it was his persistent cutting to the chase, is lack of verbal fol-de-rol that led me to pursue my course with words. Perhaps not. At any rate, I aspired to his sense of how things would play out, both on the baseball diamond and in the games of life.

At his funeral, a long-time friend of my sister physically shrank back when she first saw me. "My god," she said, "you look so much like him. For a moment, I thought--"

That unfinished thought got me through the tough parts of that day, and even now, I look for traces of him residing within me.

As the Hollywood Stars have gone nova--although, you could look them up, Google them, if you will--so, too has my interest in baseball, to the point where I recognize it as one of America's indisputable gifts to the world: baseball, bourbon, jazz, Mark Twain, and the rat-a-tat pacing of "Laugh-In." Baseball season is remembering Jake season and his way of reaching out to life, deciding if the hit-and-run was on, if a bunt were called for, or perhaps a pitch-out to allow a throw to second against a larcenous base runner.

This story about Jake has nothing to do with baseball and the only connection to it is the connection I sometimes seek when I think of him:

From time to time, Jake owned or worked in emporia where clothing was sold. At onetime when I was in my mid-thirties and feeling comfortable with the way my career in pubishing was going, it fell to my lot to visit a men's clothing store in southeast Los Angeles, owned by my Uncle Sam, where Jake appeared at a huge salary, a revered presence. As I entered the store, I noticed him engaged with a customer, a man of the size and age appropriate to professional basketball. He wore the unhemmed slacks of a suit, the cuffs rolled to accommodate the floor; over his shoulders, Jake was draping the jacket. The suit was a busy, almost surreal blur of pattern and texture. It was Jackson Pollock, run amok. It was--a challenge.

"You wear this," Jake told the prospective buyer, "and it will make a new man of you. Your friends--" he shrugged. "Even your friends won't recognize you when you wear this suit." Then, with an encouraging pat, he directed the man to the front door. "Here," he said, "step outside, into the light. Get the full effect of it."

Bedazzeled, the customer did just that.

At this point, Jake noticed me, winked. We both watched as the prospective buyer preened and strutted in the late afternoon light, no doubt imagining himself in that suit.

A few moments later, he reentered the store, whereupon Jake advanced upon him. "Yes sir?" he said. "Is there something I can help you with?" And then, with perfect timing, smote his forehead with his palm. "Excuse me. I beg your pardon. For a moment, I didn't recognize you."

The customer nodded. "That tears it," he said. "Wrap this mother up! I'm taking this suit."

"Your father," Uncle Sam said.

Exactly.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Inner Man

I've had my picture taken for any number of reasons, sentimental, bureaucratic, crime-related, and medical.

Probably my worst experience being photographed came in October of 03. The photographer had taken some care to see that I was comfortable, but in such cases, comfort is a relative term.

Oh, oh, the photographer said. There's no mistaking this.

The this had the shape, color, and texture of a carnation, a flower that used to be one of my favorites.

Seeing it on the screen was a first for me, a kind of revelation mixed with a stunning awareness. I was looking directly at a malignant growth on my bladder.

So okay, now you know what kind of camera it was and the anatomy of how it was able to photograph my bladder (which, by the way, reminded me of a Portugese Man of War, a variety of jellyfish with stinging tentacles that often invaded the beaches of the Miami Beach of my boyhood.

Today, it was another type of camera, sighting its way through a different orfice. Today, the doctor made no cautionary groans and the worst news he had for me was that I shouldn't expect to drive for a few hours until the mild sedative I'd been given wore off. Lookin' good, the doctor said. And while I'd been able to watch the greater part of his search, I came away with no significant images against which to measure the state of my lower GI tract. The best I could do was relate one quick shot to a plate of seashell pasta dressed with a clam sauce. But while I was there, I did marvel at the occasional network of blood vessels. See you in ten years, the photographer said.

I'm batting five hundred with photos of the inner man.

As a matter of caution, I now see the man who took the first picture and said oh, oh every six months. He is by all accounts a pleasant, gracious man who now has seen visions of my insides I shall never see. I see him outside the office as well, about twice a month, which is not surprising since we both habituate the Peets' coffee shop on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. I have also formed a warm acquaintanceship with the oncologist I was referred to. He took no pictures, but he knows something about me that no picture can show. I said no to chemotherapy, and no, it was not because of the vanity of being fearful of losing my hair. I'm already light in that area. It was no to the thought of curing an illness by having my autoimmune system trampled, a reminder of the mantra from Viet Nam, We had to destroy the village in order to save it.

Today, my Inner Man is doing fine, thank you. I have the pictures to prove it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Loss of Self Steam

Ever since I reviewed Richard Powers' new novel, The Echo Maker, it has in one way or another haunted me, echoed, if you will, in my receptors and shouted across such synapses as I have. The novel is a multifarious examination, a vivisection of Self? What is self?

Yet another aspect of it just collided with me, an asteroid striking Earth as it were. The protagonist of The Echo Maker, Mark, a youngish twenty-seven-year-old, suffers an accident in which his brain/sense of self is severely concussed, leaving him to suspect the authenticity of those closest to him, and having severe effects down the line. For instance, a neurologist who becomes interested in Mark's case begins to suffer his own loss of self and suspicion of things about him due to another type of collision, that being the regard or esteem of those about him.

We Americans in macrocosm and I in microcosmic point as protagonist in the novel in my life have suffered severe damage to self as a result of a collision with the presidency of George W. Bush.

Essentially an individual powered with about 80 MB of enthusiasm, my self has been undercut by an on-going anger, a persistent throbbing of frustration, hands over the ears to block out the siren wail of privileged keening and crowing. My Self has been concussed to the point where I often question the messages so cheerfully recieved in the past from my receptors.

America's self has been accorded the equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers have been driven to the boondocks of our Balkan natures, distrusting one another, cynical and misanthropic, given to rebarbative commentary, trading in our economy cars for Hummers and our Do-Unto-Others psyches for homophobia, and the raw, red meat of anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism. We feed on suspicion, self-interest, privatization, and immigration issues as though they were M & Ms to be savored at a movie.

It is true enough that I, the individual, take pleasure at the growing awareness of others that the Bush presidency has sent America reeling to the canvas, a badly out-fought contender, undoubtedly the leading candidate for the worst regime in our history. It is true that many of us try to be taken for Canadians or effect a chipper G'day, mate demeanor, hoping to be considered an Aussie, but no one is fooled. There is something about the dull light in our eyes, the slight hunch of the shoulder. T.S. Eliot had his Hollow Men, we are the Bush equivalent of Stepford wives.

The results are incalculable.

Will we ever be able to trust again? Will the neocons mount one more campaign, enjoin us one more time to hold the line, stay the course, keep our ducks in a row?

I do not want my ducks in a row. I don't know for certain where I want them, but I certainly do not want them in Iraq, and even though George W. Bush is beginning to be described as lame duck, I don't want my ducks in the White House.

Persons who have been mugged or victimized in an armed robbery have experienced a kind of loss of innocence that lingers, perhaps for the rest of their life. To this point in my life, I have not been mugged or robbed and so I am mercifully free of that post stress trauma, but I have been mugged and burglarized by my president, and a cadre of Republicans with whom I share the Jacuzzi at the Montecito Y, and say what you will about time's healing powers, I flinch at the memory.

Loss of Self Steam

Ever since I reviewed Richard Powers' new novel, The Echo Maker, it has in one way or another haunted me, echoed, if you will, in my receptors and shouted across such synapses as I have. The novel is a multifarious examination, a vivisection of Self? What is self?

Yet another aspect of it just collided with me, an asteroid striking Earth as it were. The protagonist of The Echo Maker, Mark, a youngish twenty-seven-year-old, suffers an accident in which his brain/sense of self is severely concussed, leaving him to suspect the authenticity of those closest to him, and having severe effects down the line. For instance, a neurologist who becomes interested in Mark's case begins to suffer his own loss of self and suspicion of things about him due to another type of collision, that being the regard or esteem of those about him.

We Americans in macrocosm and I in microcosmic point as protagonist in the novel in my life have suffered severe damage to self as a result of a collision with the presidency of George W. Bush.

Essentially an individual powered with about 80 MB of enthusiasm, my self has been undercut by an on-going anger, a persistent throbbing of frustration, hands over the ears to block out the siren wail of privileged keening and crowing. My Self has been concussed to the point where I often question the messages so cheerfully recieved in the past from my receptors.

America's self has been accorded the equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers have been driven to the boondocks of our Balkan natures, distrusting one another, cynical and misanthropic, given to rebarbative commentary, trading in our economy cars for Hummers and our Do-Unto-Others psyches for homophobia, and the raw, red meat of anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism. We feed on suspicion, self-interest, privatization, and immigration issues as though they were M & Ms to be savored at a movie.

It is true enough that I, the individual, take pleasure at the growing awareness of others that the Bush presidency has sent America reeling to the canvas, a badly out-fought contender, undoubtedly the leading candidate for the worst regime in our history. It is true that many of us try to be taken for Canadians or effect a chipper G'day, mate demeanor, hoping to be considered an Aussie, but no one is fooled. There is something about the dull light in our eyes, the slight hunch of the shoulder. T.S. Eliot had his Hollow Men, we are the Bush equivalent of Stepford wives

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Novel of Identity

In her first novel, Man Walks into a Room, Nicole Kraus uses amnesia to investigate one relationship, a marriage. The protagonist is found wandering in the desert outside Las Vegas, with no clue how he got there or why. Turns out he is an atomic scientist whose past has been wiped out. That past includes a marriage to a woman he finds attractive enough and agreeable enough that he is ready to accept the fact that he might love her and that he indeed had wanted to marry her, but these conditionals remain, do not return him to his original state, and finally the wife leaves because she cannot live with the fact that the man she loves has changed, is in essence taking her on appearance rather than remembered history.

Not a bad novel, but piddling in comparison to Kraus' stunning second novel, The History of Love, about as complex and staggering investigation of love as you will want to read.

Then comes Richard Powers, with the disturbing and compelling dramatization of what neurologists have termed The Capgras Syndrome. The twenty-seven-year-old rotagonist sustains brain damage in an auto accident. Comatose for some time, he begins to recover tended to by his one living relative, his sister. Trouble is, thanks to the havoc wreaked by The Capgras Syndrome, he believes his sister is an impostor, a suspicion that gradually extends to his close friends and even his dog. Someone, he says, has gone to a lot of trouble and obvious expense to secure these impostors, and to coach them about the details of is life.

In The Echo Maker, Powers takes on the entire notion of the self, demonstrating how everyone in the novel begins to experience the shift in self that comes when the scenery has shifted.

Digby Wolfe tells the wonderful story of two actors caught on stage in the middle of a performance, effectively stuck. The Prompter, hidden in the wings, whispers the forgotten line from the text of the play. Still the actors appear frozen. The Prompter repeats the next line, with similar results. On the magical, Aristotelian third repetition, one of the actors turns to the Prompter with some considerable irritation. "We know what the line is, you bloody fool. We don't know which of us says it."

I am drawn along on the thermals of fancy to that brilliant stage play and motion picture, more or less inspired by the late actor, Donald Wolfit, The Dresser,in which the principal character, a splendid and hammy actor, Richard Burton, Zero Mostel, Wile E. Coyote, and Bert Lahr, all conflated into one, speaks of the out-of-body-experience he sometimes experiences while acting in which he is projected into the cheap balcony seats from which he can see himself performing his evening;s part. In the same story, we see him costuming and making up to go on as Lear, only to be scolded by his dresser, "No, no, not Lear. Tonight you are Othello!"

All these reflections are reflections on the fragile engine we call The Self.
What is self? Does it have a specific locale in the body? In the brain? Where does the Self go when the host body dies? Where, I might add, does the self go after the body has played in the National Football League for ten or twelve years and detective work, discovers he is a scientist.

The Self is strong enough to survive emotional and physical torture, only to slowly disappear with no apparent trauma or warning.

I sometimes find portions of manuscripts which I suspect have detached themselves from a student's or client's project. I read into the manuscript coming to the belief that someone may have mistaken my portfolio for his or hers and given me this remarkable document. Then it comes to me that the material was not written by a stranger, but rather by me, which translates out to being the most sneaky stranger of all.

What is The Self? What part of the brain does it occupy? Where does it go when we sleep or blog or otherwise make love?

Who was the me who wrote such exquisite or, conversely, such miserable prose, then left it, not merely as unfinished work but as a taunt to the future self, the Self I will come, the enigmatic destination at which I have arrived with no recall of the journey?

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for...


So says Gerard Manley Hopkins, only slightly out of context. Who am I has a lot to answer for, happy or sad, writing or reading. But Who am I is nothing, compared to What, you almost might say WTF is the self?

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Passenger in the Next Seat

Much has been written about the potential dangers of fellow passengers on a trip, dangers of a more personal and insidious nature. Cell phones, for instance. Or loud chewing. Loud talking. A rude curiosity as in, Hey, what are you watching? Or even more intrusive, So, you working on a novel there--or is it a memoir?

So fearful of such potential intrusions is Brian Fagan that directly he finds his seat, he fires up his Mac, plugs in his Bose earphones and is out to everyone but the steward serving dinner.

We all have a morbid fear of the fellow passenger, a sense of repugnance W. Somerset Maugham exploited so deftly in his memorable short story, "Mr. Know-It-All." Neil Simon plays on the psychology of our apparent willingness to confide the most intimate details to strangers we meet while at travel, using this impressive sense of confidence to hook the viewer/reader. The estimable Mr. Simon maintains that having a character say to another, "I've never told anyone this before, but--" is the quintessential narrative grabber.

Writers, and by extension musicians, artists, should not only apply this approach but deliver it. The reader, the viewer, the listener, the audience--whether they snap their chewing gum, burp loudly, ask impertinent or irrelevant questions--is best served when it believes it is receiving information not told before.

There are times, of course, when we want the comfort of hearing the same old thing, told in the same old way, and what better way to get that effect than by listening to a politician?

As we turn to our role models in the arts and crafts of words, images, and performance, we are looking for the confidence not uttered before, the confession of some previous misdeed, some inactivity when activity would have been more appropriate, some control when abandon ran amok in the streets, some inner conscience that bade us stop before we'd stepped over a line.

Often when we travel, when we steal a few moments away to write or study, we sit with a sense of purpose so strong that it borders on entitlement. Thus do we become protective of not only our privacy but our purpose. We are here to write, damnit, or to photograph, or to entertain, and to protect that sense of privilege, we insulate ourselves from our travel mate and, by a simple extension, from our reader.

True enough, some of the things I have been told, either in confidence or the intimacy of someone's guard having been lubricated, are not things that will matter to me. Moby-Dick really does tell me more about whales than I want to know, but hearing or seeing the secrets of another is my first shot at a vision of the persons of my time and place on earth, and if I miss that, I am letting self-importance make me forget about audience, who those people are, and how I am able to reach out to them with an observation.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Here There Be Wrytres!

Some of my best friends are writers, which is to say I have grown up with men and women to whom I was drawn because we shared this passion, a passion we attempted to simultaneously understand and master. Most of us have long since given up trying to understand it; we have come to the awareness that trying to understand a thing often takes time away from doing it and, indeed, trying to master it. Most of us have also discovered that trying to master the process has become of a piece with the advance in computer technology. We no sooner go on the hook for a new computer when we learn of a vastly superior computer to the one we have just purchased on deferred payment. We no sooner feel a sense of familiarity (if not superiority) with a technique when we read a story or novel in which another writer has made us painfully aware that, well, that we were not as far along as we thought.

These friendships with writers are complex and life sustaining. I am reminded of this in more ways that I can enumerate. Having just last night returned from Woodside, the lovely semi-rural fringe between Palo Alto and Redwood City, where I hosted my every-other-month Woodside Writing Workshop, I come, tired-but-buzzing-with-ideas from the readings, the commentary, the interests, and the energy of writers, many of whom I've known for upward of twenty years. Among the group are MDs, shrinks, corporate execs, professors. Andy Grose, an MD, exemplifies the vibe. I am not, Andy insists, a doctor; I am a writer.

I arrive home just in time to fire up my Acer and get in a blog entry before midnight, which is to say I rush home to work off some of the excitement of being a writer. This is not really bragging, I reason, if it is done to one's self and is not meant to make me feel superior to, say, the persons ahead of me as I stand in the check-out line at Vons grocery or the, pun intended, check-in line at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, Upper Village Branch. It is a part of writerly muscle memory.

Just before yesterday's session begins, I am in the sumptuous kitchen of Flip and Jim Caldwell's home, pouring coffee and looking at Jim Caldwell's large painting of a scene at Venice, showing a cluster of buildings, emphasizing the play of light. At the very foreground, two motor boats, in motion, veer toward us. One boat is bathed in light as, indeed, the left side of the canvas is; the other boat, larger, slower than than the boat on the left, is shrouded with shadow.

There are people, artists among them, who could look at that picture, I observe, and immediately be able to tell from the play of the light what time it is. True enough, Jim Caldwell observes, but that would scarcely register because of the ways in which I have tweaked the viewer's visual priorities.

The creator as tweaker.

We all do it, and when we tweak at our best, we tweak not from thought but from muscle memory, from countless trial runs, practice, drafts, torn-up pages, impatient pushing at the delete key. Whoever we are, we tweak until we get as close to the image we have in mind onto a resident place, a screen, a hard drive, a CD, a canvas, a sheet of paper. I have only to watch Liz Kuball, downloading images from her Canon 5D to her laptop, then sizing them on PhotoShop so that they will fit the space allowed by the Blog matrix to have the notion burned into my emotional archive.

I edit many of my friends; many writers I met as an editor have become friends. Diane edits me. Liz edits me. I edit Digby. Digby ignores my edits, throws everything out, recircles the wagons, protecting against Indians I have not even thought about.

I have edited men and women I have never known in real time. In some ghoulish cases, I have edited some authors who were no longer alive to consult with.

Many of the writers I consider friends are not only dead, they have been dead for years before I was born.

Many writers I read and admire are known sons of bitches, Republicans, reprobates, homophobes, anti-Semites and what have you. I would not want to know them in person even if I could.

As I say: it is a complex relationship, being in love with a writer's visions and technique.

A few days ago, Liz Kuball sent me the now iconic Guggenheim blog by Zoe Strauss and directly I read it, I felt the magic click into place wherein I recognized the genie in the bottle I wrote of a few days ago. The irresistible urge was planted and I have since linked Zoe to a set of my intellectual and emotional archives that began with my having read an essay by Leslie Fiedler in which he wrote of Herman Melville writing about Nathaniel Hawthorne that there was a grand truth about him. "He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes." I wrote to Sol Stein, no slouch of a writer, but also at the time publisher of Stein & Day Publishers. I introduced myself to Sol so that I could thank him for publishing Leslie Fiedler.

Sol and I became friends and yes, he even sent me something he'd written, asking me to comment and check it over for soft spots.

I told you it's complicated.

It gets even better. Last night, tired and spaced-out from a day of running a workshop for writers, then driving three hundred miles, then slipping in a blog entry, I check out Zoe, whom I have never met but now "know" because of her Guggenheim blog. Doing so is like deliberately choosing as a picnic site a place that has been recently struck by lightning. You can see the charred tree trunk, smell the ozone and burnt leaves. And there goes any chance of a restful night of sleep. I am thinking as I read Zoe Strauss's latest No!in thunder, "there is a grand truth about her."

She says she is pissed and overwhelmed and going incognito to sort out feelings and once again, for this viewer, this reader, she has captured lightning in a bottle.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Rules of the House

1. My old buddy, Digby Wolfe, once married to a circus performer, brought me the wisdom of the Big Tent: No matter how good a juggler you are, the most you can hope to juggle at one time is eleven items. Okay to try to juggle twelve dishes, but the likelihood is that you'll be up to your ass in broken china.

2. The more serious I try to become, the funnier I appear. This is the number one reason why I am not a good academic.

3. The funnier I try to become, the more ridiculous I appear. Understanding this is the number one reason for my success editing academics.

4. In-house, which is to say salaried book editors tend to be young and although preternaturally bright, often have no awareness of political, sports, scientific, literary, or jazz icons oldet than twenty-five.

5. When a student calls me sir or professor, or holds the door open for me, it is a sign I have not properly engaged that student.

6. Most students and many editors think irony has to do with transferring drawings of rock stars to t-shirts by iron.

7. The restrooms in gas stations along Highway 101 are like settings for plays by Harold Pinter or David Mammet.

8. The field in which Dorothy Lange took her famous photo of the Farm Woman is now occupied by a Vons Supermarket.

9. Wisdom is material often painfully true but nevertheless information I am not able to use in a short story. It is the equivalent of unpercolated coffee. I can't put it to dramatic use until it becomes experience.

10. I can't use someone else's experience in a story until I have gotten over being jealous of it.

11. In a story, every character believes he or she is right.

12. The dark, adversarial characters are more interesting than the charactrs we think we like.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Genie in the Bottle

One of my favorite phrase/concepts is The Genie in the Bottle.

One of my favorite archetypal stories is about the fisherman who unwittingly hauls in a bottle from which a genie emerges, more or less telling the fisherman to say his prayers or whatever because he is about to get a more furious whacking than the 109th Congress got in the last election.

But why, the fisherman complains. After all, didn't I save your sorry ass from the confines of the bottle?

The genie recites his agenda: After I was imprisoned in that bottle, I vowed that I would grant three wishes to the person who freed me. But after a few hundred years in the bottle, I decided I would only grant my rescuer two wishes. After a time, my generosity shrank and I lowered the offer to one wish. Still no rescue. Accordingly, I vowed to kill the person who turned me loose. I mean, someone has to pay for this.

Thinking fast, the fisherman adopted a plan that began with his shaking his head in disbelief. Come on, he said. You're playing tricks with me. I can't believe a genie of your size and power could fit in such a tiny bottle.

Listen, kid, the genie said, I can pretty much do anything I want.

Again the fisherman shook his head. Tickets for the Springsteen concert, I can see, but not you in that bottle.

Oh, is that so? the genie shouts. Well, watch this! And with a poof, the genie is back in the bottle, whereupon the fisherman slams home the stopper, tosses the bottle overboard, and calls out, So long, schmuck.

By my definition then, the expression genie in the bottle refers to a pent-up force with a resident attitude.

I came to see the genie in the bottle as I looked with some care and interest at two remarkable and wildly diverse Web sites, Ben Huff, a photographer in Fairbanks, AK, and Mrs. Deane, a graphic arts site in the Netherlands.

Why would a writer be consulting such sites? For one thing, each site, Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane, had an identifiable voice. Each had a certain radiant inner power that held me with each successive image. And Ben Huff was able to express in writing some of the essence he was trying to capture. Reading Huff, I returned to Mrs. Deane, and sure enough, gears within me were beginning to mesh. I felt I could begin to articulate what the individuals who are Mrs. Deane were looking for.

The crowning touch was Mrs. Deane offering access to download a symbol, something that looked like an exclamation point that had been hit by lightning, that can be used in text when your intention is to convey irony. I will link to that as soon as I wade through the instructions, which are written in Dutch.

Suddenly I am having a vision of the thing I look for and indeed have looked for in my work: the genie in the bottle. As with so many of the things that relate to creativity, my first glimpse is a feeling--or a series of feelings--which I experience with a gulp, digest quickly, then get to work, trying to capture the image. I work--oh, how I work--trying to get the emotions down on the page, trying to get the explanations and footnotes out. It took me years to be able to articulate the concept to myself that description is for the late nineteenth century and perhaps the first three-quarters of the twentieth, but from there onward, evocation is the goal. Anyone can describe. Well, no; Tom Clancy can't describe. Tom Wolfe thinks he can.

Ben Huff doesn't describe; he evokes. Ditto Mrs. Deane.

What about Shelly? Ah, he looks for the genie in the bottle, that trapped force with an attitude, resident in everything. And then he tries to evoke it.

Don't do the reader's work for him, Shelly rails at his students. Make the reader complicit.

So, were I to have to write an essay, "How I Spent My Spring Break," I would write:

I learned from Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane to look for the genie in the bottle.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I Came, I Saw, I Flatulenced

I thought something was funny--as in funny odd; not funny humorous--about last week's edition of The Montecito Journal. Turned out, my eye had noticed a serious omission: no column by Jim Alexander. We exchange columns by email, obviating the need for in-print reading. My own reaction not only to Montecito but The Journal is of great complexity. Last year, I reviewed a book by a noted scholar and emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton. The book went on to become a cause celebre: On Bullshit. When the review appeared in The Journal, the title appeared thus: On Bull@#$t. My first thought was WTF, that immediate flare of anger inherent in overly explained criticism. "This is a family newspaper," one of the editors explained to me. As if, I thought, no member of a family had ever used much less heard the word bullshit before, as though the word bullshit was trucked in from Goleta or, worse yet, Ventura.

Turns out Jim Alexander's column had a farting reference in it. Not even a farting joke, a farting reference, an observation that time spent on the NutraSystem Diet tended to promote flatulence.

Two robins don't make a Spring. Do not think ill of The Montecito Journal or indeed the community it serves over two such instances, nor indeed of the man who stormed into my Saturday morning writers' workshop in the Community Room of the Montecito Library. "I did not spend twelve thousand dollars on new carpeting to have you people spill drinks on it."

It is true that on one stormy Saturday, Diane de Avalle-Arce's late dog, Sisquoc, did cause a cup of coffee to be spilled. Equally true, I have spilled coffee; my dog, Sally, has thrown up her breakfast on it, and someone, it may have even been The Cat Lady, herself; the remarkable Christina Allison, spilled soup.

Carpeting is not originally intended for having things spilled on it, although some carpeting actually advertises itself as spill-resistant or spill-proof. The message here in Montecito or anywhere, for that matter, is that Life Happens. People say bullshit. In fact, just listen to some of the Montecitans in the Von's Market at the Lower Village Shopping Center, when they are told that Von's is temporarily not stocking Special K or Evian water. I have heard the dialectic in each instance. The response to the information was: "Oh, bullshit." Shh, this is a family market.

It is our nature, we are in fact wired to be flatulent. Some years back, well, three and a quarter years back, as I lay in Cottage Hospital, post op after the removal of some tissue I'd been issued at birth which was now regarded to be cancerous, I was told that I could not have any water until I became flatulent, which was regarded as a healthy sign.

I will get you a copy of Alexander's column if you wish; it is too good to be missed, and not just because of the farting reference.

We so often fart and bullshit ourselves into the corner of moral dilemma, just as General Pace, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did when he published his personal beliefs about homosexual activity being immoral at the precise time we are trying to enhance the numbers of our armed services in order to pursue a war we began with a callous disregard for morality. But never mind.

Aren't there times when you would like to stop whatever it is you are doing--or not doing--and tell the entire universe: "Oh, go be fruitful and multiply yourself!"

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Against the Dying of the Light

Yesterday, Liz Kuball sent me a url with an attached urging to see the referenced site. Following the lead of the url, I came upon Zoe Strauss' memorable:

Thanks for nothing, Guggenheim!

I did NOT get the Guggenheim and I was MISERABLE when I received the letter. Right, FUCK YOU! Then I realized that I was out of my mind. As I was cleaning earlier this week, I found the paperwork for the 2004 discontinuation of my welfare benefits. So if I'm not getting the Guggenheim 3 years from getting off the dole, I should be ok with that. Within the time frame of the 95 project, I've done pretty well, I need to simmer down. But then... I just sit and stare straight ahead...why wouldn't I get it this year? What the hell? And then I've moved into, did I think I deserved the Guggenheim based on my recent accolades, or based on my work? Well, of course based on my work, I'm totally full of myself! But did think I had a better chance based on my sudden entrance into the commercial and academic art corridors. Now, that's yes. It's embarrassing but true. And I think that's fairly dangerous, considering that I judge my work to my standards without taking any institutional input into account. Also, I don't take rejection well AT ALL and I feel things deeply, good and bad, which means I've got to pay attention to expectations based on product and not on laurels.

It's now brought me to "what are my expectations?" Guess what? I'm shooting for the motherfucking stars like I'm riding Voyager 1 bareback! I will risk endless disappointment, with great ambition and hope. Unstoppable, baby!


which is simply one of the best blog posts I have ever seen, a bright, furious star burst in the heavens. It wrenched me over to another furious star burst, this one from Dylan Thomas, who on the occasion of his father's impending death wrote the now iconic poem, Do Not Go Gentle. Thomas urged his father--and us--to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Some years back, the informed preoccupation was making a dignified exit, having a "good death." Thomas puts paid to that notion for those of us who chose to light our way along the paths of artistry. And in her remarkable blog, so did Zoe Strauss, for whom, apparently, any dimming of the light of potential for her own art is so unthinkable as to cause rage. I vote for that. I'm for the vision quest, the seeker who will not quit in her search, who is angry at all the Fates and accidents that get in the way of, ta da, The Discovery, mindful that today's Discovery may eventually devolve into a mere discovery. But it may also remain a Discovery.

A few years back, I published a short story in which an academic whose specialty was Nathaniel Hawthorne, had occasion to recall a favored passage of his [and mine] from a short story ("The Intelligence Office") by Hawthorne. A character with the kind of reach I associate with Zoe Strauss (whom I know only through that remarkable blog), says in a state of exasperation:

"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."

To hell with a good death or leaving the impression of understanding. In the class room, I make a point of trying to dehumanize rejection, which is indeed inevitable but not something to ignore. It is surely gratifying to get the letters of acceptance or, indeed, the letters inviting submissions. The sting is somewhat removed with a near-miss rejection, but sting there is, and I am happy to note the flare or outright rage with a generic rejection or a "Sorry." or a "Please try us again."

When we come to the part of class in which I hold up a batch of rejection slips and ask with a kind of professorial feigned innocence, "Does anyone know what these are?" I will have Zoe Strauss' response to rejection, her raging against the dying of the light, because in that rage I recognize my own and the sense of the thing we all of us bring to our work when we put it out there.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," Dylan Thomas also wrote, "Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ Is my destroyer. / And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever."

It is the lovely accident of convenience that Zoe Strauss is a photographer and that the dying of the light is such a powerful metaphor. "It's all about light," Lizzie said after an afternoon of shooting images. To which I add: "The rage doesn't hurt, either, kid."

"You purchase pain," Alexander Pope wrote, "and all the joys it has to give/ And die of nothing but a rage to live."