Tuesday, December 11, 2012


 You are seated at a favored restaurant, your order placed, your expectations tuned to an enthusiastic blue flame of intensity.  Perhaps there is a plate with a small round of Camembert, softening in the evening leisure, surrounded by some wheat crackers or a small flute of rustic bread.  Before you, according to earlier whim, is a bottle of San Pellagrino water,or  a glass of pinot noir, or a pale ale such as a Sierra Nevada.

To have reached this stage of the evening, you'll have decided on one of your preferred restaurants, meaning it will either be an Italian, continental, or sea food cuisine accent.  Depending on the immediate past history of the day, you'll either be alone, thinking an earlier dinner than your seven o'clock norm, or one or more friends.  In any case, you are comfortable, tending toward smug on account of a day well spent writing or reading or both.

This set-up is no mere wistful thinking; evenings such as this have happened as often, even more often that the scenario in which you are more or less "dining" over the kitchen sink, your salad, entree, and amuse bouche elements actual leftovers from previous meals at the kitchen table overlooking the elaborate garden next door.

In fact, this particular set-up is a scenario, because of what happens next, which begins with the waiter approaching your table with a large platter on which resides a generous slab of Chateaubriand or Porterhouse steak, which he sets before you, then begins to slice in convenient   thickness.

"What," you ask, "is this?"

The waiter, finished with his slicing, has begun spooning caramelized onions over the meat.  "Your steak, sir, and a nice one at that."

"Well and good," you say, "except that I ordered the striped bass.  I did not order steak."

The waiter has now begun to spoon pan gravy over the steak, leaving room on the platter for what appears to be an elegant whip-up of garlic mashed potatoes.  "It is a wonderful steak, sir.  You're sure to enjoy it."

"If I'd wanted to 'enjoy' steak, I'd have ordered steak.  I was expecting the striped bass."

The waiter has reached for the pepper mill.  "The steak truly suits you, sir.  Ground pepper?"

You make your first tactical mistake with a small-but-significant infraction relating to word order.  "No, thank you.  I do not wish ground pepper."  Only then do you get back on the path of recovery.  "Do you not have the striped bass?" But the genie is out of the bottle.  The genie is, in fact, you, not the steak.  The genie is you, having acknowledged not only the steak but your choice of having it presented with or without ground pepper.  You are not the sort who, in such situations, would say, "Get that fucking steak out of here and bring me my striped bass or bring me my bill."  You are the sort who, even in a scenario rather than Reality, would say, "No, thank you.  I do not wish ground pepper," and then, almost as an afterthought, "Do you not have the striped bass?"  This strategy, this no-thank-you strategy, serves you well in real life, but in your writing life, it is a chink in your armor that you must constantly be trying to seal with some dramatic super glue.

"Oh, yes, sir.  We certainly have the striped bass, but the steak seemed so appropriate for you."  This is what Drama says to your "Do you not have the striped bass?"  This is story, presenting the unthinkable before you on a handsome serving salver, served by a civil enough waiter, who is also determined that you shall not have the striped bass for any number of reasons, which shall or shall not be revealed later.

This is a scenario repeated in your work area with some regularity, wherein you sit to compose, even if the composition is to be these blog paragraphs instead of an essay or a story or a book or a novel.  Not to forget, you are from a culture where the law of ethical behavior has been kept for generations, in annotated codes that are extensive arguments, from one rabbi to another, from one case to another.  The law is called The Talmud.  Even though it is an honored code, argument and point of view are its common denominators.  Whose ox is being gored is a matter of perspective.  In a sense, we are all oxen.

Not to forget, you are from another culture that encompasses men, women, and children from all strata of society.  This is the culture of storytellers, men, women, and children who know, whether from pure instinct or focused learning, that individuals in story have to be several steps above the you, who politely refuses ground pepper on a steak he did not order but nevertheless was brought to him by a Kafkaesque force that wishes him to have the steak.

With all due respect to The Talmud and as well to the by no means inconsiderable reach of The Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, with whom as well, you were thrown in unusual contact, you are more a follow of the scriptures as written by the likes of Kafka and Twain and Woolf and Faulkner, where, of course a man expecting striped bass for his supper is served a steak, because story has to begin somewhere, doesn't it?  And story does not begin with a man ordering striped bass, then being served it, with annotations from the waiter on what a wise choice it was.

Those things happen in the real world.  We leave the real world on every possible conveyance, hoping for remarkable, unworldly destinations.  The individuals we avoid in real life are the ones who hound us in story to the point where we do things well beyond a polite refusal of pepper on our steak.

Many of us in real life have inherited or grown into or chosen circumstances we believe to be bordering on complete hopelessness or madness, and we persist with those situations often as if by instinct, thinking little or nothing of the abnormality.  This is the beginning of what characters in story need.  This is the same Sisyphus Albert Camus has written of as being a happy man.

The nicer the waiter is, the more menacing and troublesome he becomes, the more suspect his motives, and the closer to the truth of unguarded expression ours become.

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