These past few weeks have become valuable to you in ways you'd never have suspected, all because of the bureaucratic need to plan for courses to be offered in 2014. Because of your areas of interest, most of the courses, by their inherent nature, will involve books you've read many more times than once, including some you refer to for one reason or another with some regularity.
Thinking about which books to assign is of a piece with asking yourself who among your friends are you going to invite to classes as a guest speaker, to open up and lay bare secrets, prejudices, attitudes, and feelings.
After the courses are designed, submitted, chosen, set in the academic equivalent of cement, the first round of concern arrives. To be a proper guide, you must break the trail for the students, but given all you have had to learn and have come to learn because of your students, you realize the effect the need to stay out ahead, asking intriguing and probing questions uppermost in your mind.
Thus your awareness that a dear old pal, someone almost up to the level of your two dearest, Barnaby Conrad, and Digby Wolfe. This of course is your old pal from mythology, the King of Corinth, one Sisyphus.
Depending on where you begin telling his story, he was not a man for whom it was easy to root. But after Zeus rendered an eternal punishment upon him, and you began to see the consequences of that punishment, he began to grow in your list of memorable characters, individuals who transcend ordinary dramatic fate. Because of some early jobs you've had in your lifetime, you found great ease in identifying with the sense of eternal boredom to which Sisyphus was subjected.
However mendacious, greedy, and disrespectful he was, depending on which myth you consulted to delve his background, you couldn't help a growing sense of relationship. This was borne home even more after you'd imagined individuals you for some reason or another disliked in his place, portraying him in the cosmic movies, only to discover this personal revenge fantasy of yours was pulling the rug from under your attitude by causing you to sympathize with the Sisyphus surrogates.
In time, you even began to imagine these individuals learning from their punishment, petitioning Zeus for forgiveness, even to the point of wishing to go forth for eternity, doing things for the benefit of humanity. Under these circumstances, how easy it became to see Zeus' intransigence as the greater cosmic uproar, even applying your own Marxist theories about the oppression of the working classes by those in power.
How easy it was, after a time, to see King Sisyphus at his humiliating task, become a metaphor for your own experiences with learning. The matter struck home this evening during the exchange of a few messages this evening related to how many times you need to write a thing to get it's attention, cause it in some way to fit the container you have fit for it.
Of course that was one of the first things that had to go. You came to understand that you had better experiences with allowing ideas to tell you which form they wished to assume. You could relate to this from even the briefest experiences you'd had with attempting to fit the idea of you as an individual into a doctor or lawyer or engineer container, none of which you were suited for.
Even though accident played an important role in your arrival at the things you do with any measure of ease and effect, there often danced about you the specter of greater accident, where you were promoted beyond what you wished to do, causing you once again to identify with Bad King Sisyphus when you hankered more toward Good King Wenceslaus or even better, a person who spent much of his time writing things, then finding ways to edit the nonsense and boredom out of them.
Sometimes, recasting a project reminded you of Sisyphus. You experienced again the sense of pushing a rock of words up to some summit of expectation. For a few moments, you had the opportunity to remove the puerile, the boring, the nonsensical before sending the rock in a rolling careen of its own momentum. Often enough in such moments, the things you removed caused the rock to disappear, leaving you bewildered, desperate for something to substitute.
You've reread Albert Camus' essay on the myth of Sisyphus often enough to gain a handhold on the argument that Sisyphus had finally found his work, was enjoying the work and the ways he was able to come at it.
Many of your friends are more prolific than you, in turn more serious and funny than you to the point where you have accepted the need to remove even these qualities as something within your control.
At one stage in your coming to terms with who you are, what you do, and how you accomplish it, you were led to believe you would experience degrees of success, whatever that might mean, and satisfaction, whatever that might mean, after you had written a million words.
By any accounts, you have published more than a million words yet you are still alert for signs of success, satisfaction, or ability. Not long ago, you wrote a letter of recommendation for a nineteen-year-old student, seeking permission to transfer to the college within the university where you teach. The letter, addressed to the dean, said of the student that you wished you'd had her handle on craft when you'd been her age. That seemed to require for a time a qualifier. If you'd had her handle on craft at her age, by now, you'd be doing something quite remarkable. What, for instance? You shall never know. What you do know is that having however precarious a handle at age nineteen you had, it got you here.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
These past few weeks have become valuable to you in ways you'd never have suspected, all because of the bureaucratic need to plan for courses to be offered in 2014. Because of your areas of interest, most of the courses, by their inherent nature, will involve books you've read many more times than once, including some you refer to for one reason or another with some regularity.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Because of your interest in writing stories, there are few times when you are in a neutral, I-don-t-care, or It-doesn't-matter mood. Most of those are the immediate moments before sliding over toward sleep or awakening from it.
Neutrality speaks to you of no agenda. Even a decision to accept sleep or reject its presence by awakening in fact speak to the beginnings of agenda.
A student asked you today to speak about writer's block. Your reply was a confrontational "What's that?" You are aware of doing things to avoid writing, but there are more often than not agendas behind that, as in being close to recognizing something about yourself you'd not wished quite yet to deal with. Can't we just do this instead? Such as playing with railroad train aps on your iPhone or listening to music or even the most sneaky of not writing agendas, beginning a new writing project.
The concept of writer's block is your own way of telling yourself you are too neutral to undertake composition. You are not engaged enough, neither curious nor pissed off nor ecstatic about some thing or condition.
In this sense, it is the absolute knowledge you are in bed at five fifty-five in the morning, with an alarm set to go off at six or, better still, six-thirty, which means trying somehow to sleep for five minutes or thirty five minutes, and good luck.
Neutrality is also a cop-out defense against taking sides. Do you wish to be funny or serious, knowing the possible consequences of both? Being funny means, of course, rethinking, then doing, or doing then thinking something you find amusing, and what will you find amusing except something serious that has gone wrong? What will you find serious?
You can start being serious by being contrite, regretting your attitude toward something you believed was funny, something you approved of being funny, but then came to recognize that you were going to pay a price for it. This could also lay you vulnerable to being a moral coward, in your own eyes, if in no others.
Seriousness and funny are of extreme consequential natures. That's not funny, is a judgment rendered on something you said, did, wrote or performed all three in concert. That's not funny could be egotistical, racist, or sexist, thus you need to try to think ahead, looking for downstream consequences. Being funny that has gone wrong invites admonitions for you to grow up, stop screwing around, get serious.
Getting serious does not preclude egotism, racism, or sexism; in fact, the more serious you become, the greater the potential for causing people to think you are funny. This raises the important question of unintended humor and its first cousin, satire. If you are unintentionally funny, is this a serious matter or a funny one?
You've tried for portions of your life to be serious and to be funny. At one point when you were a junior at UCLA, you were writing humorous pieces for daytime television. At another time, when you were living in Mexico City and trying to write a novel, you were writing jokes for the grainy, vaudeville-like short subjects that were shown in movie theaters, essentially brief skits, for ten dollars a piece.
You've spent a good deal of time trying to be serious, and look where that landed you, as the editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house where the publisher would ask you how you were able to rationalize wearing a striped necktie with a houndstooth sports jacket. You tried sometimes to be serious in academic situations, which got you into any number of confrontations with a department chairman who would;t speak to you for over a month because of a conversation you'd got into with the new dean at a reception for the dean, who'd come from the Department of Linguistics at MIT, and with whom you argued about the validity of the Wharf-Sapir hypothesis of linguistic relativity to the point where the dean took you away from the reception and into his office to conclude the conversation.
You don't know if the differences in cultural encoding have an effect on the way people think, but since the dean had studied with Wharf, you thought it would be interesting to know his view.
The Arse Poetica did not think this a good way to welcome the new dean.
As of now, you think it safer to be funny, but that is a funniness that must come without trying, which, as previously noted, has its risks. Also as of now, being serious is a weapon, which can be used to bore people you wish to effect a polite distance from without having to say to them, Hey, I wish to effect an immediate distance from you. If you hit the right serious tone so that they are bored, they will begin looking for excuses to leave your company, allowing you in effect the last laugh.
Last laughs are a kind of gravitas that does not come with ease or with being too serious.
Your father had a number of nicknames for you, most of them affectionate. He also had one that seemed to ride the cusp between affectionate and, shall we say attitudinal. What are you, he'd say, some kind of wise guy? Often he'd say this after an action or comment from you that you'd more or less borrowed from his tool kit.
In real life, there was no answer to this rhetorical question. You were supposed to take note of it and either get serious or stop being so serious, as the occasion warranted. Or to stop being so funny, as the occasion may have warranted.
In the conversations you have at the thought of him now, when in dreams or thought, he asks you if you are some kind of wise guy, you answer yes.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The narrative pull coming from the plight of Sisyphus and his rock was excruciating in the way it evoked a grinding sense of frustration that made you twitchy and wishing for some activity symbolic of escape.
Then you read Albert Camus' essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which Camus argued that Sisyphus was a happy man. You reread the essay a few times, trying to capture the emotional intents well as the power of the argument. How could an activity that seemed so to symbolize boring jobs and hopelessness produce satisfaction?
A significant answer to your own question was already apparent. All you had to do was consider how such activities as reading and writing impacted your life and how bereft you would you feel should you no longer engage in either.
Sisyphus had worked his way into a situation another culture refers to as karma yoga, sometimes expressed as work as worship. Never mind what the work is or who or what the thing being worshipped. Here you are back at the Bhagavad-Gita, yet again, to recount your favorite line from it, wherein Krishna, an appearance of a god-figure or avatar, tells Prince Arjuna, a mighty military figure, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."
Krishna did not say in so many words to Krishna that he'd better like what he was doing and consider it an offering to the supreme godhead, but in context, the meaning was clear. Long ago, you took a sense of guidance from that line, liking the way it influenced your decisions to as often as possible do things that mattered to you.
Back to Sisyphus for a moment or two: Do you think the Sisyphus of Camus counts the number of times he pushes that rock up that hill? Put the matter another way: Do you keep count of the number of revisions you make on a piece, or do you, instead, think along the lines of perhaps you'll get what you were after stated with yet more fluidity and presence the next time through? Perhaps it is possible to see Sisyphus regarding what you have from time to time seen as meaningless work as a way of performing action, of getting something tangible done, of having an eternity of getting a task accomplished, of in the first place having an assigned task.
If you have done a thing a number of times with such an attitude, expecting no rewards except the reward of opportunity to do the thing again, there is a prospect for transcending thought, moving forward into muscle memory, perhaps along the way sensing more things about the task than you'd ever thought possible. The task becomes a ritual of the sort where its performance and the attitude of the performer transcend the purpose for which the ritual is intended.
You have given here your version of the positive side of the dialectic, the side that transcends such temporal qualities as boredom, dread, helplessness, actual slavery, none of which can you imagine being offered as prayerful or even merely reverential behavior.
Throughout history, untold millions have been consigned to forced labor and the degrees of slavery associated with it. Some of these untold millions have in one way or another found a way to turn the odium, the boredom and repressive eradication of self by standing up to and perhaps even up against the oppressive grind of forced repetition. Perhaps in his own way, Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, in his preferring not to accept the task set before him was setting the movement of the universe awry. Perhaps the Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, with his insightful essays, "No, In Thunder," "The Everlasting Yea," and "The Everlasting Nay" were among the Western voices, calling out in the wilderness, emboldening and empowering that new Bartleby emerging from the bureaucratic madness of World War II in the person of Joseph Heller's Yossarian from Catch-22.
If you'd done a thing you cared about a number of times, say five hundred, to the point where those times had become a ritual where the major result was your joy in contemplating the ritual rather than any other status or reward, you would be approaching the five hundred first repetition of that ritual with the muscle memory of a celebrant.
You rather enjoy the concept of the Mass being performed by a celebrant, of the Mass being celebrated, rather than the mystery of transubstantiation itself. The "work" is getting the motivating idea into some form where you attempt to capture the feelings embedded in it, thus the "work" is an act of love without the need to be told it is such. The "work" is an attempt to dramatize the spirit of the act so that some--not all--will see those five hundred times as steps to the transubstantiation of love into words and feelings with tangible resonance, in anticipation of the five hundred first, which is incarnate the pure risk potential of boredom or significant connection with the original notion.
Sisyphus invites the risk of rolling the rock over his foot. You'd think, with all those past pushes up the hill, he'd be safe. Your risks are producing incomplete or inexact renditions of story, with a reader or more saying, "What does this mean?" or "Why should I care?"
Sometimes, particularly when you get off to an early start, or on late Saturday afternoons, when the gardener comes, you look out the window beyond your desk and see busy men, confronting shrubbery, and you think of Sisyphus, confronting his rock, then you return to your note pad or computer screen.
Monday, October 28, 2013
For a non-religious person, you have quite a few symbols about your small living quarters that could lead the observer to think otherwise, starting with the seven-branched menorah candelabrum roosting on the kitchen window adjacent the persimmon tree.
What about the two Hopi kachina, depending from the wall? They represent spirit messengers who perform in rituals necessary to keep the universe running as it ought. And what about the bronze casting of Kali, no less than the Mother of the Universe, right up there in the Hindu panoply before the Reality, which is to say Brahman? There is also a representation of a Navajo woman who is likely Na ashje'ii Asdzaa, or Spider Woman, who counts big time in Navajo creation myths as the one who brought and taught weaving to The People.
You walk into the main room and you are immersed in it: more kachinas, a Haida or Kwakiutl raven, two--count 'em, two--representations of Ganesha,and back to the Navajo again with a carving that may well be one of the Hero Twins.
Tucked away in a drawer of your mother's Queen Anne secretary is a rosary given you as a gift by a nun whose civilian name was Phoebe Nixon, who at one time was the Queen of the Cotillion at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and who made the mistake of attending a lecture by a strikingly handsome Bengali swami whose monastic name was Prabhavananda. The beads of this rosary came, as indeed all Hindu rosary beads come, from a large evergreen tree called a rudrashka. The rosary is used to recite the mantra given the initiate, a portion of the process of meditation by which the initiate's goal is to recognize and identify with his or her Atman, which the Hindu would translate as the true self and which a Christian might recognize as the soul.
All these things have some significance for this non-religious person, many of them pure sentiment or respect for tradition rather than any sense of sacredness or holiness, whatever those qualities may mean.
In a larger sense yet, the rooms of your place are filled with what ancient Romans have called lares and penates, various types of household gods, items which, in early ventures into anthropology, you learned were called fetishes, things that represent things, in recognition of some form or other of cosmology.
Interested as you were in creation myths of numerous cultures from an early age (as in, "Hey, Mom, did you know that nearly every creation myth has a flood in it?"), you have come over the years to recognize you were assembling a collection of sacred and holy objects, some of which might, indeed, have been sacred and holy to others, others of which have about them a sacredness and holiness of a decided secular nature.
For instance. Well, your mother and Mary Conrad, the wife of your oldest and dearest friend, had little in common, although you think they'd have got on well. You have from each of them, in the kitchen, a slotted spoon, which each assured you you could not be without if you had any thought whatsoever to maintain any kind of kitchen. "A slotted spoon," your mother said,"allows you to lift things from a stock or broth without the pesky need to stop and blot or drain."
Mary Conrad, who once said of an acquaintance, "She cannot keep help. Sooner or later, they all quit her." has said of the same person, she not only does not have one, she can't imagine what one would do with such an instrument."
You have photographs, of course; these are proper household gods. Jake, your father, feeding ducks. Enormous power. A pencil sharpener in the shape of a typewriter, given you how many years back, at least twenty-five, by your students? Various Indian lizard and animal pottery, a pre-Colombian woman, oil portraits of your two most recent dogs, a tiny photograph of a bluetick hound named Edward Bear, two paintings of F. Scott Fitzgerald by your pal, Barnaby Conrad, a watercolor given you by Henry Miller, an oil impression of San Francisco by a pal from Virginia City, Nan Fowler, books, of course, and Sally's sleeping pad you cannot yet bear to dispose of. Plus the very library table on which your computer rests as you type this. A wind-up toy that was a party favor at your place for the last birthday celebration of Barnaby Conrad. A small statue of Kali, allegedly made from mud taken from the Ganges River but just as well from some deserted beach in China or Orange County. A Mickey Mouse watch that has long since stopped running. Your father's pocket watch. A splendid letter opener made from any number of exotic woods, the gift of a student whose thesis advisor you were.
A battered old metal tin that once held fifty Lucky Strike cigarettes and which now holds odd, useless parts of fountain pens. A marble with what appears to be a green origami figure embedded within. A portion of a tooth that could have been yours. The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. A number of Big Little Books you used to read before you knew what you wanted to do with your life.
Lares and Penates.
Household gods, all of which are of even more vital importance to you because, when, if, and as they will move on to their new lives, either as trash or household gods for other domiciles, they will have lost the power they have for you and assumed new power and sentimentality for another.
Who would wish the marble or the Esterbrook fountain pens with steel nibs or even the delightful Ancora with the mother-of-pearl panels and the most exquisite nib? Who would care for a small photo of a cranky bluetick hound named Edward Bear, who taught you what it was to love someone impossible? The slotted spoons? Ah, they could go for fifty cents, possibly a dollar, at a sidewalk sale, because their use transcends their hidden powers.
There, you have said it. Where ever possible, you surround yourself with things you have chosen in order to invest them with powers that will protect you from the awful loneliness of being somewhere without the powers of your own memory and associations and love.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Kaddish is one of the more important elements within the liturgy of the culture in which you were born and, to a degree, raised. Its purpose is to offer prayer and respect to the godhead. Many in your culture would not even use that word, godhead, as you have rendered it, but would express it g__head, in the belief that the name itself is powerful enough to gather and focus energy.
With the potentials of mood and purpose of that entity, as described in The Old Testament, you don't want to mess around; you want to be respectful and devoted, the way Job, for instance, was, even when it became evident that the g--head was messing with him.
To the non-orthodox, such as you, in your culture, the most frequent contact with the Kaddish is the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer to be recited in congregation and alone, for the dead. One line from the Hebrew in the Mourner's Kaddish is Yehei shmëh rabba mevarakh lealam ulalmey almaya, which is pretty clear to all concerned. "May His great name be blessed forever and for all eternity." You've come to pay respect for the departed, which you do by, in spite of your grief, giving praise to the g--head.
You have no problem with the psychology of that approach; your moments begin with the probability that you are if not an atheist, at least an agnostic. If there is any difference between the two terms. The "something" you see or experience when you regard such things is a result of all that ever was, all that is now, and all that ever will be. You could just as well call that definition a description of reality. You could, and sometimes do, call "It" Evolution or Awareness.
If you were deeper into your culture, you'd know the day of your father's death on the Hebrew calendar. Even if you recalled the date of his death according to the calendar of the Common Era, you could go online to get an equivalency. Thus you could observe the ritual of Yahrzeit (Hebrew and German for year time) for him. Instead, and being you, his birthday is the time you've assigned to the ritual of Yahrzeit, lighting a candle (of course, the label says Yahrzeit Memorial Candle) at sundown, the night before his birthday.
You scrambled last night to find the Yahrzeith candle, which was stuck in back of a small statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, er g-d of success and in his way the patron saint of writers because of the belief that he broke off one of his tusks to use as a stylus to take down appropriate thoughts from the g-d Shiva.
You knew right where to go for the Hebrew transliteration of the Mourner's Kaddish, which was somehow under a Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book with a chapter of H.G. Welles' The Time Machine. Also a prayer shawl and skull cap, which the nuns at the Vedanta Society like you to wear for vespers on the first day of Hanukkah.
Thus accoutered a tad before the time of sunset last night, you began reading the Mourner's Kaddish, then lighting the Yahrzeit Memorial Candle to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Jake's death on the hundred fourteenth anniversary of his birth.
At one point during his final illness, you visited Jake in the hospital. "As you know," he said, "I am not a religious man. A once-a-year Jew in terms of temple for the holidays. I know you are not what I would call religious, but I have to ask you something."
You patted your pocket. "Yes, I brought cigars."
"Wise guy," he said. "I have to ask you to be my Kaddish."
"You don't have to ask. You should have known."
"Nice," he said. "Nice you can think that way. Father and son and all that."
"All that you went through with me," you said.
"You were a kid," he said. "Being a kid is not easy. Being my age is not so easy. I have begun maybe to see things."
"Possibly a nurse. Possibly a recent hire with, you know, not good English."
"Possibly?" You said.
"Possibly the Malcha Movis. You know. The angel of death. Possibly she speaks Aramaic and is testing the sound of my name."
"Possibly she is a nurse, asking you for your name to make sure what she does for you is on her chart."
"Always the wise guy. Possibly the Malcha Movis has a chart, with names to check off, making sure the right people die and the wrong people live."
"You've come to the right place. I am your Kaddish."
"Let's see now what kinds of cigars my Kaddish has brought me."
"Wouldn't it be funny," you say, "if the Angel of Death can't stand cigar smoke?"
You see in his eyes the twinkle you hope to have reside in yours.
Happy Birthday, Jake.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
There is a moment in every story or poem you remember where the true sense of reversal and loss become profound and resonant enough that part of you is thrown back to some moment of your own reversal and fear of loss. Those two states, the story's and your own, become a shared moment of despair and loneliness.
Then, everything changes, because here you are, at this remarkable low point in the story or poem, and here you are, at this remarkable moment in your life, one of your notebooks filled with things you've lost--everything from animal and human friends to such embellishments as hair, teeth, jobs, and even your way in life--to a day in which you've written what may well be at least one keepable page, had one relatively decent cup of coffee, seen a sun rise or sunset, exchanged a phone call or text message of personal radiance, discovered at least one new book you have to read, noted some hidden miracle in a pavement or parking lot, and noted at least one funny joke.
The story you are following may not allow its protagonist the same measure of contentment you now possess, losses to the contrary notwithstanding. But you remember the story because it has moved you for moments, perhaps hours at a time, back onto yourself and who you are. Thus, here you are, a tad ahead of the story, at the least, even with yourself, more than likely, ahead of yourself with the energy and enthusiasm to consider in what remains of the day the thing you are working on and where it might take you tomorrow and the subsequent days of your relationship with it.
You have been for some time living with the inner duality or, if you will, dialectic, or even argument within you, itself arguing with your attempts to find unity and oneness with story, the narrative you wish to tell, to understand, to teach.
When you hear the neighbors arguing, they are not your physical neighbors. They are your inner neighbors, trying to effect a dialogue from the arguments, from the pairs of opposites within you, struggling to have their say.
Sometimes these neighbors are your waking neighbors: Do you wish more coffee? What music would suit you? Which thing needs to be worked on as opposed to which thing do you need to work on because of some deadline related to commitment?
Other times, these visitors are dream neighbors, sending you on mischievous and wonderful journeys where you are asked to perform mischievous and wonderful things you hadn't dared to let yourself wish to perform in waking hours.
These dialectics lead you, yank you sometimes, to the conclusion that the oneness you seek is filled with unity. The book you most revere has within it things that inspire you and cause you the most dreadful moments of most books. The author you most admire has written one of the most remarkably awful books about a subject he should have been content to deal with in a one- or two-sentence aphorism. The author you most admire even thought this was his most successful work.
Of course. The person who can and should have the greatest access to breaking your heart should be the person who has the presence to cause the throaty rumble of purpose and curiosity to send you always to the unguarded moment in the present where you walk with the greatest sense of balance along the cusp between the conventional and discovery. If you stumble, you will stumble into one or the other, but you would rather have the muddy knees of one who has fallen into discovery.
Let us say you are sitting somewhere, outside, perhaps on a rock, but just as well on a park bench. A complete stranger emerges from the passersby, asks you to extend your hand, which you do. The stranger tells you to close your eyes for a moment. You do. The stranger places an object into your hand, then moves on, into the stream of passersby. You look at the object, which is a marble, with a small green leaf inside.
You rush after the stranger, calling out, "Why me? Why give this to me?"
"Because," the stranger says. "You were ready for it."
Then the stranger, who is your imagination, is gone again.
For all the times you have had a heart broken, you have found sufficient duct tape in your imagination to mend it.
Your imagination enjoys such games, presenting itself to you as strangers, offering you things to argue about.
But not too loud, or you'll wake the neighbors.
Friday, October 25, 2013
In your attempts to understand the reach and potential of story in order to begin telling your own, you spent considerable time reading the creation myths of various cultures. Your first possible opportunity for explosive revelation came with your readings of what has been called the Abrahamic faiths, a segment of which comprises your culture of origin.
You'd already read and taken Tolstoy's opening line from Anna Karenina as literal. "Happy families are all alike..."
Your culture speaks of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Right away, trouble with Christianity, who are seen as descendants of Shem, Noah's oldest boy. In the Islamic faith, Abraham's son, Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab line.
You went for the happy family stuff big time, in large measure because you came from one, although you conveniently didn't take Aunt Augusta into account, even when you'd already reached age fifty and she accused you of breaking into her condominium and stealing her entire collection of Eskimo Pies.
Some pretty heavy stuff obtains in the Indian dharmic faiths, and hey, what about the Taoist beliefs?
All of which is to say, you skipped family and regional battles. In the process, you created a kind of one-size-fits-all equivalent of a block party. You were intrigued, but not sufficiently, when the mother of a friend of yours, told you with firmness that her family was Lutheran, and she knew all about your people and you must promise not to try to lure Donald over to Catholicism.
Even more baffling, the mother of another friend of yours, questioned you with some persistence until she was assured you had no knowledge of what it meant to be an Ashkenazim. You found out soon enough when you went home and asked. "Oh, them," your mother said. "The Jews of the Rhine and Germany. No, we are not them. Who would think that? Have you been going over to the Zimmer's?"
Later, back in California, you asked in all innocence at dinner one night, "Why don't we ever have bollos?" To which there could only be one response, "Since when do you know Sephardim?" This from you material grandfather.
Later still, you are living in the Hollywood Hills, writing pulp novels in which the antagonists are given names of your friends, living with a grouchy cat named Sam, and thinking the most remarkable instrument in the world is a fire engine red Olivetti portable typewriter, of course manual. Your friend, Gary Boren, who later went on to become the dean of a law school, taught you two words in Hebrew that put not only your own culture but much of the human parade into perspective. Tsouris beliden.
Indeed, it does.
In your thirties, long past the time when most are recognizing the value of the story of Antigone and her Uncle, King Creon, you find a familiar pull between a culture so far removed from yours and yet so close. In the play by Sophocles, Antigone comes into the world troubled from birth, her father Oedipus, her mother Jocasta, who has married Oedipus, not knowing she is his mother.
At the time of the Antigone play, the ruling religion was not the monotheistic arrangement of the Abrahamic peoples. There were numerous gods, goddesses, and in-betweens. When one spoke of pleasing the gods or goddesses, even more mischief was possible, and if there is any doubt about that, look how Prince Paris got messed up, agreeing to be the judge in a beauty contest in which three goddesses were playing fast and loose, wanting to win.
King Creon loved his niece, wanted the best for her. She had nothing but fondness for him, that is, until her brothers decided on a political coup against Creon that didn't work out too well for them . Creon was not being so much meanspirited as political when he refused to allow their corpses to be buried. Enter Antigone with a shovel, and so we have a story. Do not do that, dear niece. Do not attempt to bury your brothers.
You were actually great friends with your cousin, the son of Aunt Augusta. He in fact used to tease you about which things you would next be accused of stealing from your Aunt Augusta, who started out in life thinking your father was something else, but when said father say your mother, the matter was settled.
At some point after reading enormous rounds of stories in which happy families were not indeed all alike, you began to suspect that stories were haunted by cultural ghosts, attitudes toward and around diversity, hidden rivalries, a kind of cosmic bureaucracy that proves Gary Boren was right when he proposed the mantra, tsouris beliden, trouble abounds, mischief is everywhere.
You attempt to travel lightly in terms of the cultural luggage you bring along with you, but there is no escaping it. Since about 1976, when you attended a memorial service for a man you'd only met once, you've in a metaphoric sense eaten a few curries in another culture. It, too, is rife with the yeasty dough of diversity and opinion. It is not so much that you have anything against Lord Vishnu, who is seen as the supreme being and fountain from which such better known beings as Krishna, Rama, and Siva emerge. In fact, and for reasons of which you are not completely sure, you have a lovely framed painting of Lord Vishnu, adorning a shelf in the bathroom. It is more that you know individuals who are Shaktas, devotees of the mother goddess aspect of the divinity. There are places in India where Vashnavas and Shaktas do not get along. You have seen a few icy confrontations. For other reasons for which you have no explanation, a statuette of Kali Ma, the Divine Mother, is in your kitchen, waiting, it seems, for you to make some discovery of reason or intent or random whim.
One of the last conversations you ever had with Aunt Augusta was a phone call wherein she apologized profusely for having made such an egregious accusation about the missing Eskimo Pies. "I completely forgot I was having the freezer serviced," she said, "and I gave them all to your sister. You are not a ne'er do well, you are a dear boy, and if you come by, we'll sit on the patio and have Eskimo Pies."
You could not refuse such an invitation, even though during the course of an Eskimo Pie or two, she made you promise you'd look into the possibility that your mother was beginning to exaggerate. And of course, less than an hour after you'd departed, she called your sister, complaining that you'd made off with her check stubs and were, as she put it, probably kiting checks all over Santa Monica.
Story is perception, intent, and cultural bureaucracy, mixed with a dash of dementia, some Angostura bitters, a cube of sugar and tsouris beliden.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Not long ago, you were in a conversation with a person who spoke with some verbal equivalent of italic about having stepped over a line. In context, the speaker meant going beyond a cultural or personal boundary, entering a terrain not often visited under ordinary circumstances, imparting a sense therefore of trespass.
Tresspass in this sense implies a wrongful presence as well as an awareness of property. And see how easy it is to associate property with a personal set of guidelines and limitations, a territory of self, even an acute awareness of self to the point of wishing to protect the self. In yet another context, self is the most precious property one has; it is the terrain of attitude, a sense of integrity and more, an integral awareness of the self's own root values.
Depending on our origins and background, we learn of boundaries and terrain and self in multifarious ways, perhaps a room of one's own or a portion of a shared room, with rigorously observed boundaries. For a time, you shared a room with a sister, then came your own room. Boundaries were the names of specific streets which you were instructed not to exceed. Even when you walked to school, your route was mapped out for you, with specific instructions about using crosswalks and underpasses.
For a portion of your sixth and seventh years, you spent time at the borders of places where boundaries existed, watching the activities of life on the other side of the border. Then came a memorable trip from your home in Los Angeles, across the continent to New York, where you crossed borders of states, entering terrains you'd only read about.
It did not occur to you that in dreams you were crossing borders, variously those of reality and imagination or the conscious to the relative levels of subconscious.
Borders were territory markers rather than barriers, even though you understood the duality of fences as a medium to keep things enclosed as well as to prevent entry.
Some borders were cultural, as the time you were yanked with some severity by the collar, away from a drinking fountain in Washington D.C., where you were told that you were drinking "their" water and that naughty boys such as you were preventing "them" from taking a drink, should "they wish." Shortly thereafter, you saw signs in front of buildings in Miami Beach, Florida, where it was your job to enter as part of your chore of home delivery of the Miami Herald. The signs spoke variously of restricted clientele, and No Dogs, Negroes, or Jews.
In your process of attempting to acquire an education and a personality, two things not necessarily related, you discovered outher boundaries and restrictions. One teacher you remember with the most kind of regards, drew a diagram on a blackboard depicting a border between convention and originality. She urged the trespass. You to this day remember her saying, "Convention, over here, is comfort and agreement, and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you look over here to originality, the comfort begins to vanish and a number of persons are going to think there is something wrong with you."
There are borders between seriousness in the sense of gravitas and humor, which you have begun to see as a sterling candidate for trespass because you seem to yourself to become funnier as you attempt gravitas. You have nothing against gravitas; it does, however, seem more conventional.
With some regularity for much of your life, women for whom you nourished some romantic interest have told you you were funny. With the lovely potentials inherent in the word funny, these wonderful persons could have meant funny, ha-ha, or funny, odd. They could well have meant both. Your impression, to this very day, favors funny, ha-ha because being funny, ha-ha, suggests to you a trespasser, one disregarding the boundaries, and yes, you were grounded more than once for crossing Fairfax Avenue when you were enjoined from doing so.
You became interested in gravitas for a number of reasons which turn out to have, in your judgment, been wrong or at least wrongheaded. Any number of adults have asked you when you were going to get serious, but an equal number have suggested you lighten up, in either case posing the conundrums of boundaries.
In your vision of things, there are no stories without crossing boundaries or at least one boundary. Even such a remarkable thing as love begs for you to cross a boundary or two lest the love be rooted in the comfortable and conventional, both paths in your judgment to boredom, apathy, and atrophy.
Among your favorite stories are those of individuals who are in essential agreement, somehow beginning to argue about the fact. One of the many things you learned on that fateful trip across so many state boundaries, is one you witnessed in a delicatessen you much favored in the lower East Side of Manhattan, where you witnessed a customer attempting to order a noodle pudding, known as kugel. "Kiegel," the waitress said. "You want kiegel."
"No," the customer said, "I want kugel."
The matter is as basic as the changes in European languages, spelling, and pronunciation.
Every time you were returned to that delicatessen, you made it a point to ask the waitress for kugel, simply to witness her response.
Sri Ramakrishna, a nineteenth century Hindu prophet who spoke of the harmony of all religions, said there was a word for water in all languages, but the substance was the same.
In a practical way, your version of story is a meld of the kugel versus kiegel and Ramakrishna's aphoristic vision of the oneness of the godhead. Story is a number of persons insisting they are right about something. The something can be anything. The story is the percieved difference.
Who are you? What do you see? Where is your horizon? That's not a horizon; you call that a horizon? That's a boundary. Stand over here and you will see for yourself.
When you were a boy, you had to ignore the restrictions of some boundaries because, when you crossed the forbidden street, you were in the neighborhood of houses with splendid, detached garages, adjacent patches of deep, spongy grass. Clambering to the roofs of these garages, you could jump to the spongy grass. For moments at a time, you were airborne, free, not bound to anything as you fell, fell, fell to the grass, which seemed to embrace you with a green, welcoming hug.
Later, years later, when you were truly fortunate, you found romantic relationships in which you could do the equivalent of becoming airborne for a moment or two before you fell, fell, fell, often to the sleep of post coital drowse from which you awakened with a sense of having been out of yourself with someone other than yourself, which you knew without being told was part of the process called love.
During those years of falling, you also learned how, from time to time, there would come into your vision a sentence or paragraph or stanza of a poem or idea for a story that lit your heart like a Fourth of July sparkler for the moments before you tried to capture it with words, when it broke your heart by telling you it would not recognize your affection for it in public.
This is the way it works.
With words and leaps from heights, you reach out for words to mend the heart.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
When you were discovered to have somehow missed the state requirement to take ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) classes, issued a uniform and gun, you learned two things that have influenced you in ways you did not expect at the time.
On the advice of a good friend, you were advised never, during target practice, to shoot at your own target. "Always," your friend suggested, "shoot at someone else's target. Never give them the slightest reason to suspect you can shoot well."
The other thing, which came in the one class you enjoyed, map reading, was triangulation, a process of determining your present-but-unknown location by referencing two other points.
Not being known as a sharpshooter is a likely factor in your not having to serve in the armed forces. There is no telling how valuable this lesson has become.
Triangulation, much a part of the geometry that so eluded you for so long, has helped with a process you put into place every time you create a character.
In a recent conversation with a dear friend, you were told a man cannot know how it is to be a woman or how being a woman feels. There is much weight to this friend's argument, even to the more specific point where you cannot in truth know how any other person feels, in a strong sense calling bullshit on whoever says, "I know how you feel" or even, "I know what you mean."
The conversation also took you back to the time, several years ago when the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was still held at its original venue, the Miramar Hotel. You led the late night fiction workshop, which met in a large, comfortable basement under the main auditorium. One reader, an intense woman with an ability to register drama within her facial planes, had just read a segment from a work of fiction built on the famed Selma, Alabama march.
Immediately, a group you'd referred to humorously as the black caucus, stood to protest. How, they asked, could any white presume to write about such an incident? How, indeed, could any white presume to write, however sympathetically, about a protagonist who was herself black and herself a victim of discrimination and patronization from whites.
Your response came pouring our of you. How could Margaret Mitchell dare to have written Gone with the Wind? How could Herman Melville dared write the characters Tashteego and Quequeg? How dared James Fenimore Cooper, a white man, written Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans? How dared Dashiell Hammett, a male, have written Brigid Shaugnessey or, for that matter, Nora Charles, respectively in The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man?
The next year, the same reader was back at the conference with more chapters. This time, a white person asked her how she could presume to write about a black character. The black cacus went delightfully wild in support of the writer. Listen, they said, all of them. Listen. We're writers. Where would story be without our imagination?
Who can know with exactitude what another feels or thinks? We all of us walk about, protagonists of our own story, drawn by the narrative of another, wishing to hear it, wishing to understand it, wishing to forge something in the way of a connection.
We invent stories of invented persons we call characters, setting them loose in landscapes based on places we have known or imagined. On your first visit to London, you took the train from Heathrow to the Paddington Station. The first time the train came out of a tunnel into daylight, you saw rows of houses that were familiar and validating because you'd dreamed them so many times.
You used to rely on formulas and plot designs wherein to force your characters to predetermined behavior that seemed to you consistent with human behavior. Something was missing until you began to see that if you listened closely, these invented characters were trying to tell you something more important than your prefabricated results.
Now you triangulate, you listen, you try not to judge. It is enough that you have brought these characters to a point where they wish to forge their own way in the worlds you have created, then let them triangulate their way to some conclusion or solution or temporary fix.
What will come of this is the history you will have created for yourself of these often disparate aspects of yourself trying to find some equivalent of the true north of the human heart.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Some years back, while you were waiting impatiently for puberty to have its way with you, two distractions forced themselves upon you, then led you along a path of discovery and metaphor that has remained constant ever since.
You were still of an age when you poured through books with titles such as One Hundred Things for Boys to Do. You read these, even though you knew they had nothing to do with a hundred or more things boys who had advanced in puberty would already have discovered, either by watching, asking questions, or experimenting. You discovered something that struck you as a reasonable, momentary substitute for puberty. This something was building non-electric radio receivers, otherwise known as crystal radios.
At the time, the necessities for a crystal radio were a pair of earphones, the cardboard roll from either toilet paper or the wider kitchen towel, and a roll of either varnished or cotton covered copper wire. The key element is called a cat's whisker, a simple non-electric device with a wire "whisker" that can be manipulated to contact a sensitive spot on a lump of galena, from which the name crystal is achieved in crystal radio.
The second distraction was a notice in a neighborhood newspaper, saying in effect that the local radio station, KFAC, known for its 24/7 diet of classical music, had been picked up by a number of ham radio operators and also on crystal sets.
Within a week, you were listening to KFAC on your own crystal radio, picking up its signal as well as you could on an electricity-powered radio. From that point onward, your interest in building radios grew to the point where, by certain configurations with the copper wire would about the cardboard tube to provide a reception coil, you could get other stations than KFAC.
The radio-building experience got you fixated on the matter of realizing stations were sending forth signals which they hoped were picked up, completing the basic cycle of communication.
People send forth signals. Some of the larger sea-faring mammals send signals of communication. Birds chirp territorial songs. Insects broadcast a variety of signals.
Sometimes you pick up mixed messages or signals from people. At one time, when coping with Sam, your first cat, you had the mistaken impression that a cat, wagging its tail, was sending the same signal as a dog, when wagging its tail. Wrong. But you soon learned.
You rely a great deal on your interpretation of signals you pick up from people because the reception and subsequent interpretation influences your behavior and your wish to increase or decrease social differences,
In effect, you look for signals and are aware how your own behavior sends forth waves of communication. Although you like to regard yourself as self-sufficient, able to spend (rather than endure) long periods of time by yourself, you are also aware of your wish for companionship, and other more nuanced relationships, not the least of which is teaching, in which signals are exchanged rather than directed on a one-way basis.
You know some of the many feelings associated with not receiving much in the way of encouraging signals from persons with whom you have some significant wish to communicate. Just this afternoon, someone pointed out to you your notable behavior in the way someone was sending signals your way.
Not long ago, you were at a coffee shop you don't always patronize, waiting for a potential client, Your attention was called by signals from two individuals, speaking in high-pitched, excited voices as they approached you. The cause of their excitement and concern had to do with the dog crouched next to you, while you absently scratched his ear while drinking your coffee. They'd been about to warn you that the dog--their dog--had an unfortunate habit of biting strangers. Their excitement turned out to be amazement that the dog was not behaving aggressively toward you but was in fact at ease.
You'd obviously sent some signals to the dog and the dog was reciprocating with signals that you could invite it close to you, then touch it in ways that were companionable rather than territorial threats.
There is every possibility you will miss signals, misinterpret others, and ignore yet others, this in direct proportion to the numbers of signals you will miss, misinterpret, or ignore.
There are times when exchanged signals are read and interpreted with accuracy, which can lead to friendship, respect, love, a deepening sense of intimacy. On other occasions, signals may cause confusion, bewilderment, frustration, the opposite of what was intended.
You knew KFAC was always going to offer classical music, even had one of your favorite programs, the 8-to-10 program sponsored by the Southern California Gas Company. You respond accordingly.
You think you are always sending out signals that give accurate indications of your intentions, but you also send manuscripts to publishers in the belief that they are complete, accurate representations of your intentions. What a surprise when you see editor's notes.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Although the incident is well over twenty-five years in the past, the memory of it returns to amuse you from time to time and allow you to use it to make a point of some consequence.
You'd been recruited by your pal, Barnaby Conrad, to lead the late night fiction workshop at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference. At one of these sessions, a man in his late thirties or early forties began to read a story about a large man, whose tattooed figures came to life most nights when their host was asleep.
You stopped the man about half way through page two of his reading. "Sorry to pull the plug on you, but the longer you go on, the more embarrassment you'll be."
You went on to inform him that Ray Bradbury had some years earlier published a collection of stories called The Illustrated Man.
"Who?" the reader said.
"Ray Bradbury," you said.
The man grimaced, snapped his fingers in an acknowledgment of defeat, then went on to wonder, perhaps this Bradbury fellow had heard him talking about the idea, then gone on to beat him to the punch.
You went on to explain to the man how, while this Bradbury fellow might not have been your favorite person, he was in fact the only writer on whose account you ever broke a Federal law. It was probable, you went on to suggest, that this reader, even though he did not have direct knowledge of this Bradbury fellow, had in many ways been influenced by him and his work. This, in fact, was how the process worked. We learn from those who have been here before us, seen the human condition in its evolving process, then made note of it.
There were many other suggestions you could have made, but the sight of the man, standing at the lectern, his manuscript in hand, bored into you. "If you wish to write imaginative and speculative fiction," you said, "you would be better off if you knew who Bradbury is."
Among many writers and creators, there is a wish to be new, to be something in format, theme, style, and execution that extends well beyond convention.
Newness must have at least one foot in close proximity to the ground of convention. Say Stravinsky, when writing The Rites of Spring. Say George Eliot, when writing Middlemarch. Say Art Spiegelman, when writing, drawing Maus.
If one wishes--if you wish--to be new, you must be aware of the old. However nice it is to think you have originated something, the fact of you being out in some form of society, reading some kind of material, exposed to some form of civilization will have brought you to some plateau of discovery and, if you are fortunate, an awareness of an enormous hunger and thirst to understand more of your surroundings.
This is not meant in any way to diminish those who have come along after us and for one reason or another, have had occasion to see things that might have slipped past us in our own attempts. There is indeed some overlap, where we might need to demonstrate our experience with patience rather than erudition by the way we allow younger generations to go public with their discoveries of what we have already encountered. This does not and should not preclude these same younger ones from achieving short cuts to discovery and invention.
Quite often, this line of thinking draws you back in time to a discovery of some great interest and meaning to you. Your young mind was already aware of certain abstract concepts playing out in your mind when, one afternoon as you were out and about somewhere, you saw two dogs engaging in a form of activity you'd probably noticed before. But on this day, the time was right.
"Are those dogs--" you began, looking for words beyond "play."
"Making love," your mother said.
At once, you had the glorious combination of information, curiosity, and hypothesis to test. "That can be playful, can't it?"
Your mother's answer delivered a world of future consequence and understanding. "Yes," she said. "It certainly can."
Some years later, you were in a bookstore in what was then a college town adjunct to UCLA called Westwood Village. You were there because Ray Bradbury was signing his latest book, which had been issued in a simultaneous hardcover and massmarket paperback edition. No one yet knew of the Federal law you'd broken. Most of those in attendance were students, with a few adults scattered in. Bradbury was with some emphasis urging those present to be sure to buy hardcover copies of the book because he got a better percent of the sale price. Not, in your judgment, RB at his best.
The book in question at that signing may have been The Golden Apples of the Sun, although it could also have been The Martian Chronicles. No matter, really. Suffice it that The Golden Apples of the Sun had sent you back to a reading of Yeats with greater attention than ever, along with the growing awareness that there were things about Yeats, the person, that would doubtless have curdled your enthusiasms for the man. The Ballad of Wandering Aengus, from which Bradbury took his title for The Golden Apples, in effect lit a fire in your head. And in a sense, Yeat's poem, Leda and the Swan, brought you close again to those same wonderful people who gave us Helen of Troy, and in its way takes you back to your vision of those two dogs, humping with abandon in a vacant lot.
When you were about nineteen or twenty, it was your habit to apply for the job of temporary mail delivery person during the Christmas break. The pay was pretty good, the work tolerable and, given the neighborhood, the potential for such extras as tips, cookies, rum-based egg nogs, and the occasional sandwich, a grand vacation from your studies.
The venues for delivery were in the area between Olympic and Pico Boulevards, with street names such as Patricia, Manning, Prosser, and Federal intersecting them. For two years in a row, the luck of the draw had you delivering thick envelopes filled with what you knew immediately were galley proofs, printed strips of the text of stories, sent to the writer for corrections. You further knew the thick envelopes were treasures because you with some regularity read the magazines named on the return address segment of the thick envelopes.
And of course you knew the name of the addressee, Ray Bradbury. You could have waited until the stories appeared in the magazines. But you were nineteen and were only going to live for another eleven years, because you were nineteen and impatient to publish stories and poems for a time, then become thirty, at which point you would go nova or something of equal dramatic intensity.
You were thirty-two when you were the president of the local branch of the Mystery Writers of America at an awards banquet where it was your duty to present Ray Bradbury an Edgar, a porcelain bust of Edgar Allen Poe, for a story he'd published the previous year. You had not gone nova; you in fact were editor in chief of a publishing house. When you introduced Ray Bradbury at the awards banquet to present him the Edgar he so richly deserved, you told the story of him being the only author you'd commit a crime for, and standing there before the open mike, he said, "You son of a bitch, you read my mail."
But that is another story, well beyond and ancillary to the need we have to read, to listen, to learn from the past and the present and future in order to understand the nature of the new we wish to be so that we can stop thinking about it, then get on with listening to that voice within, telling us, Once upon a time, but not telling it like any way it has been told before.