Friday, September 5, 2008

The M-Word

Such things seem to come as if from nowhere, accidents merely, unplanned, unsought as well because--well, because you hadn't thought to ask. And so when you first picked up a book because it had within it a novella called The Flying Yorkshire Man, which you were only mildly charmed by, you went on to read the next novella, Turnip's Blood, and it was as though you'd grabbed an electric eel. There were no search engines in those days, no Google or Ask Jeeves or Yahoo, there was the library and that brought you little relief. In those days, you were sprawling all over the L.A. Basin to hang out where ever Morty Jacobs had a gig at what in some places passed for a piano bar. On one particular night he mentioned a freebie gig he'd volunteered for, a gift to the West Valley Democratic Club, because it was coming on election time and one of his neighbors was running for a vacant congressional seat, and besides, there was this lady he wanted you to meet.

Turns out this lady, this Rachel, was the one who'd written Turnip's Blood. Turns out she'd wanted to see some of your stuff. Turns out she let you read the handwritten manuscript to what she was now bringing to a close, The Green Kingdom. Turns out you thought her short story, Final Clearance, that no one was willing to touch, would be a natural for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Turns out she even trusted you to dramatize it. Turns out. Turns out she and her husband were incredible sources of support to you and although the M-word was never spoken, there was this on-going exchange of substance and thought between you that you somehow understood was a part now of your literary genome, extending well beyond her death, into your dreams, your sense of self, your sense of what it is to have someone care and to have someone in turn to care for and to cause you to evaluate with regularity what it meant to care for someone.

There was a time in your life, believe it or not, when baseball was on your mind, when you judged people in terms of their knowledge and concern for baseball, when the sweet coordination of a double play, short to second to first, or the Nuriev pivot of second to short (in the face of the oncoming runner) to first seemed so exquisite it brought a spasm to your chest. You knew you could never achieve those jetes and so you practiced instead the reaches and sprawls and one-handed thrusts of the first base position, thinking your height somehow trumped coordination. Not surprisingly then, you took to an admiration of Lou Gehrig and so, also not surprisingly, you suffered some of the silliness of the movie, Pride of the Yankees, to see the baseball scenes. The disturbing sensations that came along at the fraternity dance scene were about, you know, girls and the distraction of girls, a force you recognized as the beginnings of a competition with baseball and with writing. The fraternity dance scene comes in the YouTube Pride of the Yankees, starting at minute 2:50 of segment two, where the Southern-sounding blonde comes on to the Lou Gehrig as portrayed by Gary Cooper. After seeing Pride of the Yankees enough times, you understood that you were watching the film for reasons other than baseball. Years later, never mind how many, you sat in a guest cottage in a semi-rural part of Santa Barbara, watching that scene from a video cassette, being instructed by the very actor who'd portrayed the Southern blonde, coming on to Gary Cooper. "He (Cooper) was, as you know, a man who liked women," she said. "But the key to his success with them, I tell you from experience, was not from his performance, which was certainly adequate, but from the way he conveyed his wanting to be with you." You learned a good deal about un-baseball that evening, particularly her breakdown of the three approaches an actor takes in conveying a scene. "You play it from the head, or the intellect, from the heart, or the emotional/spiritual, or you play it from the crotch, or the place of sexuality." A stage-trained actor, she went over scenes you had written showing you missed opportunities or mixed messages. You tried to absorb the messages as she shared her Strasberg assignments: wearing a fur coat, board the Fifth Avenue bus at rush hour, and hand the driver a twenty-dollar bill. Pick a fight with a department head at Bergdorf. Watch scenes from movies and plays, guessing where the lead or second lead was originating from. Write scenes in which one character feels one emotion while speaking another. You still have Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares with her name and notes in it, and the book of Greek drama with her notes for playing the various roles. When she invited you over to chose books from her library, you started to ask why, knowing she suffered terribly from emphysema, but even then she was teaching you things. She put a finger on your lips. "Subtext," she said. "Look always for the meaning between what is said and what is done." Two days later, a nun from the Vedanta Society called to tell you, "Virginia is out of pain now."

Rachel. Virginia. The M-word.



Anonymous said...

A lovely M-word--memory.

Mentor has often seemed an elusive word. One of those words difficult to recognize until it's not there. I've always felt it belonged to people who also owned the words, muse, good education, following, writing workshops, and publication.

I was thinking of such words today as I sat on the floor at B&N and looked at literary magazines and feeling very much like someone walking into a club they don't belong to. Any minute now someone is going to ask to check my ID...

But here it sounds like for whatever grief you've ever had, you've also had some good fortune.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Shelly, then once I look over my shoulder to make sure they're really talking to me, I shall say thank you. It's nice to be here.

Querulous Squirrel said...

You've carried the positive legacies of the M=word and you've devised a way to do it on the Internet. Other than that, I've had no M's myself. I think I've rejected any who offered as too cloying, but mostly, no one I respected really, a combination of both unworthy and unwilling to be a sycophant, mentorless in every way, in every career, not necessarily a bad thing since it forces me to be original, but lonely as hell.