Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Miles

This is a time of year when many individuals travel, you among them, for a purpose other than vacation.  In your case, you'd venture these miles for a vacation.  You, in fact, have done so.  

These November miles, the 1500 or so experienced, and the thousand or so to come, were for ritual, for education, for sentimentality,and for the delicious sense of messing around that underlies much of your undertakings.

A much favored novel, The Wonder Boys, by a favored author, Michael Chabon, has as its most memorable scene for you, a gathering at a Passover Seder in which the narrator is the lone Caucasian Jew present, listening in stunned wonder as a group of Koreans are performing the ritual in what he at first assumes is Korean, then comes to realize is Hebrew.  Thus Michael Chabon on ways in which culture shapes individuals and, in consequence, story.

You are gathered among family before a Hanukkah candle holder menorah, which is being lit by a Cambodian, who is joined in the chant by another Cambodian and a Japanese as well as two individuals who are by cultural DNA half Jewish, another who is not at all from the Jewish culture, and three who are entirely from it.  The candle-lighting ceremony is accompanied by a chant of blessing.  You are the only one present who does not know the Hebrew words.

You are warmed by the cultural journey traveled by every one of you in the room.  The traditional potato pancake or latke, present on the multicultural table before you is traditionally addressed with sour cream and/or apple sauce.  Both these are in attendance as well as Viet Namese hot sauce, cranberry sauce, turkey gravy, turkey leftovers, turkey stuffing leftovers, cilantro, diced onions, and roasted jalapeño peppers.  You believe you also saw a jar of Trader Joe's chunk style peanut butter.

To the orthodox traditionalist, such a table, its serving bowls, its individual plates, and all the serving implements would represent an aggregate chorus of taboos which reminded you, senior member present, of a time when your mother, great grandmother to four of those present, hosted a drug bust gone as awry as in its own way the one in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men went awry.

Your mother had agreed to let the top floor of her duplex at the mid-city Los Angeles confluence of Crescent Heights Boulevard and Whitworth Avenue be used as a surveillance spot for a suspected crack house on the west side of Crescent Heights.  A high-power viewing scope and a night-viewing scope were installed in a strategic window, to be monitored round the clock by FBI and DEA operatives.

In your culture, cooking and serving implements for meat dishes and dairy dishes must be kept separate, must not appear on the same table, nor must meat and dairy dishes be consumed simultaneously.  For an obvious example, and In-and-Out Cheeseburger is flat out taboo from the get go.

Dishes and implements that have been corrupted--say a spatula that was used to flip a hamburger was inadvertently used to lift a sunny-side-up egg--must be buried and subjected to a chant and interment.

Your mother was in her glory, helping the FBI and DEA, providing coffee and snacks for nearly a week, until one of the spotters saw something suspicious, then called for a team strike.

Thinking they were witnessing a disinterment of a cache of drugs, the agents, clearly not of the culture that spawned you, instead captured a woman of your mother's approximate age, digging up a serving bowl and dishes.

There are things to be learned from cultures and the ways of departure  from them.  Those are the significant trips in life.

You have long eschewed orthodoxy, whether in cultural or process-related themes.  

Each venture into a story or project is a trip away from some choice relative to orthodoxy.  These are the trips you hope to make for the remainder of your time on this planet.  Such trips have the near dizzying sense of falling in love, seeing the characteristic tracks of animals and birds on a crust of snow or the anomaly of a desert flower ignoring the snow and cold, showing its colors in the crisp, lucid air.  Such trips triangulate and merge cultures you never thought could get along so well under the same roof, seated at the same table.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Creation Myths, Dreams, and the Family Coffee Pot

Long before your arrival here in this southern suburb of Santa Fe, there has been a patchy-but-persistent crust of snow, more notable for the gaps in its coverage than for its presence.

From about the second hour of your arrival, there have been gatherings of random orchestration, involving members of the family to which you you belong.  The gatherings take place in the kitchen, somewhere within a radius of the coffee machine, which resides on a counter adjacent the refrigerator.

The inner door of the refrigerator reflects in an unintended way one aspect of the diversity inherent in this patchwork quilt of a family.  There is soy milk, nonfat milk, two-percent milk, whole milk, and almond milk.  What does that say?

A more adept student of dietary preferences and restrictions would find ease in determining there are at least two in residence for whom major sources of protein are proscriptive of animals, limiting themselves to fish, sea food, and eggs.  There are, by your accounting,at least two who, as you've become fond of putting it, have never met a barbecue they did not like.  There are those who would, if asked, classify themselves as omnivorous, although that term has potentials for ambiguity.  You are omnivorous to the cultural limits of your awareness of anything, as in, you eat anything.  Disclosure:  you do not eat blubber.  You do not knowingly eat insects.

The word "knowingly" is fraught with potential for distraction.  When paired with the word "insects," you are thrown back in time to a former job experience, where you are seated at the cook shack for employees at the Kern County Fair, located in Bakersfield, CA.  Your reason for being there was the recommendation of a friend to try the cook shack stew, a bowl of which steamed before you, accompanied by a bowl of oyster crackers.

You'd already had two or three spoonsfull of the stew, which you reckoned to be tasty, thick, loaded with identifiable vegetables, and a generous presence of some meat that had been cubed after being trimmed of excessive fat , when a wraith-like figure appeared before you, a checkered tablecloth wrapped about her as an apron, a long, slotted spoon clutched in her hand.  "Here now,"  she said.  "Can't have  you eatin' no moths."  She stabbed the spoon into the bowl from which you ate, flicking a gobbet of gravy to the sawdust floor.

You'd not seen the moth, but for the balance of the meal, you viewed every chunk of material not readily identifiable as suspicious.

Among these momentary meetings in the kitchen, you were the only representative of your generation, thus by default some patriarchal figure, which in its way prompts another digression:  How does one comport one's self as a patriarch?  Simple solution, refer to the generations present by number.  You, therefore, are Elder Generation, or the less imposing I.  Your nieces and their husbands are II; their children, your grand nieces and nephews, are III.

Offstage characters are your own big sister, in many ways the still dominant force in terms of references to her and to her relationship with a cousin, and with you.  There were a number of outside the family visitors and encounters, some of whom would fall into your generation of I, others, because their relationship is with your nieces and nephews, either a I or a II, including a I.5 who is one of the more gifted harmonica players you have ever encountered.

Your experience in reaching the status of I brings with it a significant reason for you driving 1350 miles to get here.  That is the explication of earlier family events and the first draft equivalent of new ones.  Perfect example.  At yesterday breakfast, your Nephew-in-law presented you and him with a casserole of a dish known as apple crisp, a cheery blend of diced crisp apple, cinnamon, and oatmeal, baked in a ramekin.  The crisp had been prepared by grand niece II, and her aunt, I.  Unbeknown to Nephew-in-law II, and you tucked into the casserole.
Shortly after your joint incursion, grand niece II arrived.  The look on her face was at that moment entered into the family fable.  A sweet, mild-mannered young lady, grand niece will morph into who knows what as the story is retold and of her immediate trip to the market before closing time to secure more apples to once again make the dish for serving as desert in the main Thanksgiving feast to come.

Such simple, basic events provide elements for story, fable, myth.  A relative innocent as a participant in the "Ally and the Apple Crisp" chapter, there is no telling what part or motives may be assigned to you historically.  There are enough present who knew your father, thus the possibility of this story elevating you to the chip off the old block, the apple falling close to the tree.

In its own way, history is driven by story, sometimes at each retelling of it.

With all this as background, there is small wonder the terrain of your dreams this past night was covered with snow, coffee was ever present, your parents were seen, dancing at what you believe was the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration your sister and you hosted for them.  Nieces, cousins, and of course your sister were all seated about the trencher at which you sat last night, tasting the cranberry sauce your eldest niece heaped on your plate, informing you this was the exact recipe your mother used.

Your dreams were a concentration of family history, all of which brought you to the breakfast table this morning, thinking of details you'd not recalled for years.

For some time in your third decade aboard this planet, you'd done considerable research in support of a project to be called In the Beginning:  Creation Myths and Start-up Stories.  Because of who and what you were then, the work would have been serious (because you believed you were so very serious about your craft) and boring (because you were so very serious about your craft).

Creation myths are intriguing stories, not only of one's individual culture, but of the family through which one entered the culture.  At such times as breakfast this morning, lunch and breakfast yesterday, and the exchange of dreams (a grand nephew, for instance, saving for and living in the dream of owning his own home, asap), you become more aware yet of the world you were born and borne into, and the dreams you have for shaping it.  And you.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Writing Is Easy; Teaching Is Hard

You are in a place about eighteen miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the company of persons you've known long enough and well enough to feel comfortable saying such things as, "Although your father and I were not on the best of terms, I came to know and understand the functions of labor unions from him in ways I might not otherwise have experienced."

Comfortable enough for the individual to whom you said that, scrunch up her face in a moue of  discomfort.  "I got some stuff like that, too,"  she said.

The time is just past two; guests will begin to arrive at four, in anticipation of which, the cordiality of beckoning odors already emerge from the kitchen.  Tables are being placed about in a strategy designed to capture and hold conversation.

The resident cat, Annie, who has white paws and a striped body, and who has her own, ceramic drinking bowl, greets you this year, leans against you for a moment in stark contrast to her regard for you last year, when you were here not only reeking of dog but having brought a dog with you.  Cause and effect. To Annie, it is now apparent you are no longer a dog person.  You are now trustworthy.

Preparations for today began last evening.  At about the same time, a different preparation began for a different kind of sharing, over the Internet.  You were on a list of individuals inviting you to a subsection of Facebook, where former faculty and students of what has variously been called The Professional Writing Program, The Masters in Professional Writing Program, and the more direct MPW, all at the University of Southern California, gathered to respond to the news that the Program would cease to exist after 2016, and further that no new students would be admitted.  This was in effect telling us the Program--at USC, programs are faculty populated by working professionals, as opposed to the ladder faculty of Departments--was now being turned over to Hospice.

You were recruited to teach in the Program (remember, always Program, not Department) in 1974, when your day job was running the Los Angeles office of a New York publisher with adjuncts in massmarket, young adult, literary, genre, and mainstream book publishing.  Your local rival had to be in New York for a sales meeting. Would you kindly take his classes?

When you agreed, you had no idea of the implications these years later.  This is a good arrangement.  We should not know outcomes.  We should be in the moment and respond to the moment, devil or whatever else take the hindmost.  

Your rival was the California representative for Bantam Books, where you already had some street cred as an editor for a hardcover publisher that brought Bantam among other things the reprint rights to its first million-copy seller.  Two names from that time, that 1974 time:  Fred Klein, sales manager; Mark Jaffee, editorial director.

As recently as last week, Fred told you he'd just heard from Mark, wondering when he, Fred, and you could meet to discuss and implement further the notion of the three of you starting a publishing company.

After you took your rival's classes for two weeks, Irwin Blacker, the then chair, called you into his office, poured large mugs of coffee into porcelain cups with USC stencilled on them, then apologized for how little he'd be able to pay you.

You explained that you'd not expected any pay; you were doing this as a favor to Charlie.

For the future,  Irwin Blacker, whose middle initial was R., said.  Charlie's students had threatened revolt if you were not brought back to teach.  "I assume,"  he said, "you'll want to use Forster's Aspects of the Novel for your text."

"Of course,"  you said.  Then you said "What class?"

"Why, fiction, of course,"  Blacker, who kept the manuscripts he was working on in a fire-proof refrigerator, said.

That night, you read E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel for the first time.  It has been your companion for years.

Today, on this day for giving thanks, you've been hanging out with family in the kitchen of 11 Old Road, Lamy, New Mexico, and hanging out on line with faculty mates and students, exchanging stories, saying things to one another that are quite appropriate for this time of year.

"We should stay in touch."

"We should have a large, in-person meeting."

"We should write a memoir of the Department."


"Whatever.  We should tell our story, and you can edit it."

"Who besides us would buy it?"

"Always thinking like an editor."

"And you--always thinking like a writer."

"Hey, how come you didn't mention me in your Facebook account?"

The Hospice Nurse approaches you.  "It is good for the patient to have so many visitors."

"Writing is easy,"  you tell the nurse.  "Teaching is hard."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Now, Voyager

The last time you looked at the total miles for your present venture away from home, you'd passed thirteen hundred fifty miles and were pushing toward fourteen.  True enough, you were watching both sides of the highway for triggering devices, things that would engage your interest and perhaps cause connections with past impressions and things you had not thought connectable.  But the road back--from Santa Fe west south west to Santa Barbara--will be filtered through a different set of anticipations.

Here we are with metaphor again because there is a connection for you between any form of composition, but story in particular, with the excitement and anticipation of the onset of the journey and the sense of return to the state you were at before the journey began.

There is a perverse sense within you of the better attractions always seeming to be on the side ofe rothad opposite the one you are currently embarked upon.  You have filed away somewhere in one of the empty rooms of your mind a series of trading posts, restaurants, and coffee shops to check out on the way home, mindful even as you file such places away of the power inherent in the sense of return.

A trip begins with a destination in mind and the distinct possibility of a specific event to attend, a particular locale to visit, and one or more persons with whom to embrace, interact, and exchange philosophies and information.

A story begin with a situation of some emotional chemistry in which a character realizes something, discovers a need for something that had not been so apparent before, or faces an unexpected challenge.  This vision is much like the sight of a person with whom you understand there is a potential for some sort of connection.  You are, at mildest, electrified, a sensation that gives rise to the conspiratorial sense of mischief and a well-defined closure.

This brief glimpse of situation will provide the power to fuel you each day you work on the project, bringing it into focus, evaluating its relative sanity, even causing you to do something not often associated with the tools in your tool kit, factoring the practicality of the undertaking.

The vision you had will not of any necessity be the place where the completed story begins.  Nor will the vision of the characters you were in effect spying on remain as tantalizing in its brevity.  You'll have embarked on an overtime-shift effort to discover more details, feelings, and secrets about the characters.

In the same way you noted things on the other side of the road for your actual trip, there will be events, scenes, revelations on the other side of the dramatic road you'll wish to visit.

In both cases, you'll have done the equivalent of those brave early explorers and fishermen who moved far enough away from being able to see shoreline or any landmark, going on some kind of trust or perhaps dumb luck or, better still, the excitement of discovery.

Because that's what it's all about; isn't it?  Discovery.  You're led farther along on the outward bound leg of the trip, excited by the potential of doing justice and service to that glimmer of an idea that got you going in the first place.

The way back is a jumble of feelings.  You've been away for a time, beyond all your familiar landmarks, buoyed by instincts, memories of interesting sights, and the slow, unfolding understandings that come to you.  You are in some ways a bit homesick for the familiarity you knew before you'd embarked.  Here's where it becomes truly confusing.  Before you left, you might have been a tad bored with the familiar.  Now, on your return trip, you're close to feeling embarrassed with yourself for wishing such a precipitous return, causing you to miss one or two of the things you swore you'd attend to.

And when you're back to the place where you began, even though you've undergone some sort of a vision quest and should be looking for ways to absorb the implications of what you've found, what you've missed, and how you've tied these things together in some semblance of a braid, there it is again.

The urge to travel, to embark, to extend yourself beyond reliable information, have all descended upon you once again.

And you are looking about for a reason to start, once again.

You like the way Walt Whitman put it:  

THE untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,  
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Inner Coconino County, the One with the Cat, Mouse, and Dog

The path from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe is straightforward enough in basic navigational terms, but those terms do little to define the potentials for digression in more existential terms.

The trip from any Point A to any Point B, if long enough, is fraught with potentials for digression, say the search for decent coffee on the road that is neither urn coffee nor Starbuck's.

The trip from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe involves spending several hours in Coconino County in north central Arizona.  For convenient reference, Coconino, in actuality the second largest county in the entire U.S., contains as a notable landmark the city of Flagstaff, a place you could consider living if it were not for its distance from either the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez, or, to make matters untenable, its high density of political extremists.

Congratulations; you have just digressed from your venture into digressions.  Your intent was to tell why Coconino County is a digression from your intended goal of reaching Santa Fe in sound mind and sound body, perhaps a bit road weary, perhaps awed into a reverential silence for the dramatic changes of Nature all about you.

But there you are:  The world about you was beckoning you into memories, impressions, and the time travel we associate with nostalgia.

All because of standard issue Interstate Highway sign conventions.  Entering, the sign said, Coconino County.  Straightforward in its innocence and directness.

But such are the whiles of associations and nostalgia that the Coconino County you entered was no more the Coconino County of actuality than the Albuquerque you will enter tomorrow is the Albuquerque of Walter White and Jessee Pinkman.

The Coconino County of your venture is populated by a cat who by degrees reminds you of Felicite, the protagonist of Flaubert's longish story, "A Simple Heart," and the tojours gai heroine, Mehitabel,  of Don Marquis' comic strip, Archy and Mehitabel; a mouse named Ignatz, and a dog, Offisa Bull Pup, often called Offisa Pup.

These are the principals of Krazy Kat, a comic strip that ran from well before your arrival on this planet until the death of its creator, George Hermann, in 1944.

The cat nurses an unrequited love for the mouse of an operatic intensity.  Ignatz Mouse will have none of Krazy Kat's affections; he is often seen throwing a brick at Krazy, conking her and in the process convincing her of Ignatz's overwhelming passion.  Offisa Pup, the embodiment of law and order, is ever on duty, ready to drag Ignatz mouse off to the "Hoosegow" or Juezgado, where he is given time to consider his deeds.

George Hermann's Coconino was a delight of surreal beauty and wacky whimsicality, a place you have in a sense always sought, a landscape of your own personal Avalon.

You and your dear friend, Barnaby Conrad, often debated the respective merits of Hermann, Harold Foster of Prince Valiant fame, and Milton Caniff, first of Terry and the Pirates, then of the Steve Canyon strip.  You were surely fans of the latter two, but held your ground for Krazy Kat until Conrad proposed we put the matter to Charles M. Schulz, a man we admired as much for himself as for his own comic strip, Peanuts.

Schulz came down with such finality on the side of Krazy Kat that Conrad conceded defeat.  That year, we each, unknown to the other, gave the other a collection of the early strips.

Later, we both fell on Bob Kane, creator of Batman, each of us nursing the belief Kane would rate George Hermann number two to, of course, Bob Kane.  But Kane also had a soft spot in his heart for Krazy, Ignatz, and Offisa Pup.  "George Herman influenced me,"  he said.  "I'd have to rank him as the Numero Uno."

It is not that you are lacking in respect for the real Coconino County, its sweeping vistas, forests, mountains, its eternal scent of Life as Life ought to be.  But the colors, shadows, architecture, and extraordinary landscape of dramatic possibility have drawn you into the Coconino County of George Hermann long before you gave conscious thought to such things.  For a time, you pretended as you wrote that your stories were set in Coconino County--that Coconino County, the Coconino County of a vision you place next to Yoknapatapah County of William Faulkner and the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis, and the Monterey of John Steinbeck.

The poet Lawrence Ferlenghetti has written of The Coney Island of the Mind.  Krazy Kat is the Coconino County of the heart.  There is no wonder being in the real Coconino County takes you to this journey to the interior, every time you pass through it or think of it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Acres of Diamonds

Whenever you drive east from your Central Coast of California base, you are reminded of the incredible changes inherent in the landscape and the architecture.  California has considerable reputations for products and cultures; it deserves considerations for the varieties and incessant natures of the things within it that change.

The closer you come to the Arizona border, especially along Route 40, which often parallels the fabled Route 66, the greater the inevitability some unsuspected sight or name will cause yet another sense of change--the abrupt departure of a portion of your awareness into the person you were when you first made this journey.

A retrospective irony attends the journey, in which you, your mother, and sister shared the rear seat of a Hudson Hornet, a car you would one day yourself own.  This Hudson Hornet was driven by a man named Garth, on occasion by his wife, Hazel.  Your mother, sister, and you were passengers, an arrangement you mother had made after consulting classified advertisements in the Los Angeles Herald-Express.  You were on your way to join your father in the small New Jersey town in which your parents were raised.

The irony was that you were wearing trousers, or "long pants."  Where you were going, boys your age did not wear long pants.  In the summer, they wore short pants.  In the winter, they wore knickerbockers or "knicks," pants that ended in an elastic sleeve just above the knee.  "Knicks" required that you wore a knee-length sock, giving the appearance, you thought, of a baseball player stuffed into a uniform a tad too small.

The irony continued.  After a time in this small New Jersey town, your family moved to New England, where, of course, boys of all ages wore trousers.  No one of your acquaintance in Providence or Fall River referred to them as long pants, which you, not quite yet acclimated to New England, once did, only to be told that you did not appear to be a New York boy, where such things were said.

The end of the irony is that when, four years later, you were again on this road, returning to California, checking off from memory the names of cities you'd memorized in anticipation of your return, Needles, Barstow, Victorville, Apple Valley, you were wearing short pants.  

 You were leaving the familiar, even though it was California familiar, which meant things were fraught with change.  Simon's drive in at the northwest corner of Fairfax and Wilsire wasn't always Simon's, and the car hops at one time were girls with white, booted roller-skates instead of Bob, who was the father of your then best friend, Bobby.
Before your very eyes, Moose's Restaurant, on Wilshire, which allowed you to take one bread stick a day from one of the glasses on one of the outside tables, was becoming something else, a something with the attitude of "Get out of here, kid."

"I can see,"  Bob told you one day while you were waiting for Bobby to finish his chores, thus freeing him to come with you to play, "that you don't take good care of yourself."

He emphasized the word "yourself," telling you in effect that he did not hold you responsible for the fact of the sole of one of your shoes having come free of its parent upper shoe, which meant you tended to flap when you walked.

He was talking about the bandage on your left wrist, covering a gash that required six stitches.  The scar would be visible this very day were it not covered by your wristwatch and a variety of bracelets.

"You got to take care of yourself if you want to make something of yourself in later life.  Let me see your muscles?"

You showed him such as you had.

"You call that a muscle?  See what I mean.  You got to have a plan.  What kind of plan you got?"

At this point in your life, you'd given thought to being an aeronautical engineer or, perhaps, a sound effects man on dramatic radio programs.

"I'd stick with the airplanes,"  Bob said.  He went on to tell you of his own plan, which sounded quite similar to the reason your father was now driving about upper New York State in a borrowed car, filled with the heads and hands of mannequins.  He hefted a book at you.  "Called Acres of Diamonds.  A real eye opener.  Sometimes, there's riches right there in front of you, but you can't see them because you don't have a plan."

Betty, his wife, had just finished ironing the trousers of the uniform he wore as a car hop at Simon's drive-in, where you could get a malt with an egg in it for fifteen cents.  Betty, who smoked Chesterfield cigarettes, which were kept in a flat metal tin on a coffee table, believed Bob got better tips when his pants were pressed.

"I'm making them (she meant Bob and Bobby) a sandwich.  Would you like one?"

"No, thank you,"  you said.

"Your mother taught you to say that, didn't she?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Jesus,"  she said, looking at Bob.  "Who's teaching these kids to say ma'am all the time?"

"School,"  Bob said.  "Bobby, he calls me sir."

"Jesus,"  Betty said.  "It makes you feel so old."  She turned to you.  "It's tuna fish.  You can have white or the brown.  And no more of this ma'am."

"He don't have much of a plan,"  Bob said as Bobby came into the room.

"He's lucky he lives here,"  Betty said.  "If he lived in Germany--"  She lit a Chesterfield.  "You know what happens to you people in Germany?"

For the longest time, going east meant moving closer to Germany.  There were many issues about living in the east and south, some of them related to pants, others to cultural origins, others still related to attitudes.

At one point early in your experience at Public School Number Ten, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, some of your classmates had a welcoming party for you, which meant, once recess, that they held you down, removed your long pants, then handed them to you.

Another time, as you were out in front of your home, idly throwing a ball against a garage door, a group of what you thought of as "big kids," some carrying baseball bats, asked if you'd like to come along.  Thinking their motive was a game of baseball, you accepted, only to discover they were deciding whether to search for Pollacks or Hunkeys.  You'd already been "informed" what Pollacks meant, and having also heard from your paternal grandmother that there were those who had epithets for those of Hungarian lineage, you began to worry what these "big kids" would do if they found out you qualified as having Hungarian heritage and were from the Jewish culture.

When Bob was observing that you did not take care of yourself, you embarked, at least in your mind, on one of your earliest disagreements with an adult.  You'd not got the gash in your wrist because you didn't take care of yourself, rather because you believed in taking risks.  On weekdays, it was easier to take risks by jumping off the garage roofs of selected houses on Blackburn or Maryland Streets, just off Fairfax, on your way home from school.  Weekends, there were still vacant lots on Wilshire, nearly all the way up to Crescent Heights Boulevard.  You and Bobby found numerous possibilities for risk, best known to boys and adventurous girls.

Before you left California, to travel east along Route 66, a lap filled with the free road maps of the states you were driving through, and a notebook your sister gave you to store your memories, Bobby took a risk without you.

"I couldn't wait,"  he told you, apologetically when you went to visit him at home, to see him in a cast that covered the broken leg he'd achieved.  "I had to try this thing I knew of."

"What thing?"  you said.

"Seeing if I could run in front of a car."

Betty came in with a tray.  "You're going to think all we eat is tuna fish,"  she said.  Then asked if you wanted one.

Five years later, Bob had landed a better job.  You never learned what it was, but it enabled the family to rent a small Mediterranean stucco on Hauser Street, south of Pico, to which you walked every Saturday, thence to the afternoon movie at the Del Mar Theater.

Such events play out in your recollections each time you return to this fabled and fabulous landscape of desert, rock, scraggly plants,  and the endless procession of trains and trucks, hauling raw materials and the goods made from them in both directions along this modern equivalent of The Silk Road.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Closure: The Gap between Stories

After you have devoted years to coming to terms with story, approaching it as though it were some unknown dish you were expected to eat before you could have desert and then be excused from the table, you understand that you will never be satisfied.

Some technical things and some thematic things will flicker up before you as you are revising on your own dissatisfaction or trying to cope with notes from an editor.  

The most surprising thing about the way this coming to terms has evolved relates to closure.  Endings had to be emphatic.  Drum rolls.  Beethoven-like finality.

Then came Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

Then came James Joyce (1882--1941).

Endings were never the same again.

How nice it would be to say you were ready for these two forces when they came into your life and that you'd had enough experience away from working at you craft as well as working in it to see the implications for endings.  But you did not always see the signs and implications, or if you did have a sense of the way the future would spool out, you nevertheless stayed on a beat or two too long, in effect committing in reality the kinds of oversights you sweep under the rug of anticlimax.

Reality, in all its multifarious ways, tends to produce individuals who tell story, whether the medium is oral, written, or, now, digital.  The better tellers have discerned ways to end tales, chapters of longer works, and even outcomes of two- and three-volume running narratives.  

Story does not exist without some kind of closure or, in longer works, an edgy sense of a lasting kind of inevitability.  The more a story veers away from propaganda and fable, the more an atmosphere of ambiguity creeps into the ending, reminding many of us that we are not living in the midst of an eighty- or ninety-year parade of episodes but rather in more discreet mini-closures.

Tonight, by merest accident, you were present at a kind of closure for a longtime friend, who is moving from a rather comfortable apartment directly across the street from East Beach, and into a living arrangement with many euphemisms, such as a retirement residence.

At dinner, you unintentionally triggered a kind of moment where Chekhov or Joyce could well have ended a story.  The friend has quite a few credits for stage and screen plays as well as novels and essays.  The last time you'd been in his company, he dropped the type of bomb on gatherings of more than five or six persons that you've come to detest.  "What is your all time favorite motion picture?"

You'd taken some shrewd steps to avoid answering, but when it became clear to you that you had to answer, you'd picked a film you quite liked but which was not your favorite.  You'd picked it as a conversation stopper, which it did.  You chose Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du paradise.  True, it was a framework story of the sort such as The Canterbury Tales, you enjoy.  And, like Gogol's Dead Souls, it gave the director/author a chance to engage numerous types of story, ranging from Shakespeare to mime.

You apologized this evening and gave an opinion more reflective of your favorite, Orson Welles' adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Thus began a round of conversation lasting at least an hour, after which your friend said, "This is the reason I rejected the Motion Picture Home.  This--" He waved his hand to include the conversation and conversers.  "--is all we'd ever talk about.  I love film, but this would lead me to the emphatic sort of ending we most of us attempt to avoid until it is out turn to lead it."

"Chekhov would have stopped right there,"  you said.

"And you see, don't you, why The Motion Picture Home would not."

Well done, you are thinking.  A man observing a dramatic equivalent of a dotted line in Reality .  Writers, in particular playwrights, tend to capture the precise moment for an ending.

Much is made of the so-called sad ending, where a story or narrative reaches a conclusion at a point that is ambiguous and yet has given the audience enough to cause them to see some finality such as death or failure or retirement or evolution or simple change that will occur later, in the reader/viewer's sensitivities as opposed to the stage or the page.

When you stop to think of it, most endings are sad, even if they do not lead to tragedy but instead to nostalgia.  A group of friends, sitting about talking, even in the boozy bonhomie of a cocktail or glass of wine, will range from reserved to full-out funny to reflective, to the drowsy, sated feeling of a good meal.

You provided another Chekhovian potential for an ending return to raucous humor in the form of a knock-knock riddle that led to a cheery George Gershwin song being sung by a chorus of bad voices.

Who's there?

Wild Bill.

Wild Bill who?

Wild Bill a stairway to paradise,
With a new step every day.
I'm going to get there at any price,
Stand aside, I'm on my way. 
I've got the blues,
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes!  Go on and carry me there,
I'll build a stairway to paradise,
With a new step every day...

You have to be alert for the rhythms and psychology of endings, which in some circumstances mean finality or evolution or a switch.  Often endings, by their cyclic nature, keep us on the alert for understandings, new beginnings, new cycles, sometimes to the point where we scarcely notice the momentary breaks in the fabric of Reality.

When that happens, we find surprise that the story has pulled us through and beyond disappointment or a break int he rhythm, deeper into the mischief life has spun about us. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Your embrace of the so-called school of realistic fiction came at about the time you'd discovered writers such as James M. Cain, James T. Farrell, and John O'Hara was a full-frontal.  You were excited by the possibilities of defining a character through details of their personal tastes.

The number of times you'd reread the famous scene in The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby is showing Daisy his custom made shirts had driven you to the point where you'd saved and scrimped until you could yourself own a Turnbull and Asser shirt of your very own.  The fact of having such a short and a bespoke blazer from Cyril Castle in London gave you the exact sort of protective coating a writer ought not have, but at the time you did not understand this and so you affected yet another detail you were positive such as Fitzgerald, if not Gatsby, would appreciate.  You switched from smoking Camels to Benson and Hedges.

At that time, when you were at a party or a dinner guest, you made a point, notebook in hand, of listing the contents of bathroom display cabinets, the sorts where men kept shaving gear and women a myriad of cosmetics such as Maybellene mascara and Tangee lipstick.  You noted colors, hues, preferences for Anacin over aspirin, reliance on such gastrointestinal prompts as Alka-Seltzer and Bromo-Seltzer.  From prescription medications, you were able to guess at physical and psychological conditions.  You were at first surprised then delighted to discover how often persons in your circle of acquaintance had as their physician a dear and treasured friend of yours from high school and college days.

Based on your copious notes, characters of your creation would be certain to have, on closer inspection, the contents of their bathroom cabinets harbor specific products as you believed reflected various character types.  Male characters you disliked--in those days, you were allowed to not like characters--were more apt to use Schick razor products than Gillette.  Male characters you really had it in for used electric shavers.

Women characters you tended to admire use the chemical depilatory, Nair, for keeping five o'clock shadow from their legs, but in a flagrantly poor use of point of view filter, you, intrusive author that you were, ventured that a particular character was no mere slave to convenience or convention; she used a Woman's Personna razor with Personna or Wilkinson blades.

Such fondness for realism would have had some practical application at the time, when writers were often paid by the word, and one editor stipulated that one of your characters was a stutterer, added an omnibus ten dollar addition to what you'd ordinarily have been paid, then warned you this was a one-timer, by which he meant no more stuttering characters, ever.

Somewhere along the way, individuals began to speculate the presence of the Devil in details.  Your own experience with nonfiction books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could also be places where you began to get the notion of the tail wagging the dog.

Details should be every bit as relevant to the story as such matters as plot, motive, setting, historical time, social class.  If a character is to be  assigned a dominant left hand, that detail must not go unchallenged or noticed in some thematic way.  If a twenty-year-veteran New York cop orders fillet of sole almondine at the retirement dinner for a brother or sister officer, at the least, someone should have words--disparaging words--about such fillet of sole.

A medical examiner who favored steak tartare in a police procedural thriller would be a funny detail.  A tuna sandwich is a funny detail.  A Denver omelet sandwich is not funny.  When you were moderating a panel discussion of authors, it was a funny detail when you said of the originator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, "Jack Canfield can never wear a necktie.  The minute he puts one on, he'll get a soup stain on it."

Details ought to be enhancements rather than distractions,which means they ought in one or more ways to support your understanding of a character, a theme, the character's motives, or of a place or historical era.

You try to be generous with details, but not to the point where they seem to point out that you have nothing else in the way of opinions or observations.

If the Devil, whatever that may mean to you, is in the details, you need to reexamine the project so that instead the Imp of the Perverse is in the story, or maybe the Imp of Mischief.  In some of your stories, you try to pick one character whom you secretly imagine to be that great Trickster surrogate brought to us through Groucho Marx, in the play and, later, the film, Animal Crackers, Captain Geoffrey Spaulding.

Devils are too serious and tendentious.  Even for details.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fire in the Sky Now, Fire in the Test, Perhaps

There you are, sitting in the midst of the literature faculty of the college wherein you teach.  The dean has assembled you for a discussion of how to implement directives which in effect have mandated your college interact with other departments.

The atmosphere outside is of dramatic, gravid clouds hat have already dumped some rain over the city, the campus, and the nearby coastal wetlands.

The atmosphere inside is of teachers, many of whom, having come up through recognizable academic channels, seem to go into a peer review mode whenever they find themselves sitting about a long, rectangular table of a conference room.  "Have you at all considered--" some of them say as the Dean reads from an agenda list, then asks for comments.  You are transported to the equivalent of good-cop, bad-cop grilling of suspects.  Only the usual suspects, graduate students, presenting their thesis, are not here.  "You might also consult--" is another trope, heard along with, "When I taught at--" naming another college in this university or perhaps another department within another university.  The unspoken implication is that the speaker knows his or her subject, an important point.

The instructor is familiar with the subject at hand, has taught it elsewhere, the additional implication being that at the "elsewhere," such a subject--Chaucer, perhaps, or Milton, or even Shakespeare--was appreciated as it could only be appreciated at that "elsewhere" and, further, the instructor had notable success teaching it to the point where those "elsewhere" students were bringing in awards and recognition to the extent that the administration left them the fuck alone to teach as teachers should be allowed to teach, at full throttle of inspirational zeal and scholarly preoccupation.

In this curiously fraught atmosphere of intensity, clinging to the very walls of the conference room, good will and fear scrimmaged, the water cooler gurgled.  Story ideas and concepts were like moths on a summer night, batting against the screen doors of enclosed porches.  Each time the meme of creative writing classes was brought forth, you could feel waves of energy, as tangible as cheers at high school pep rallies.

"When I taught creative writing at Elsewhere--"

Rah rah.

"More creative writing courses--"

Rah rah rah.

"Our creative writing courses--"


Once again, you were reminded of the refrain from Ernest Dowsen's famed poem in which the narrator says:

"And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
    Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion."

By your count, you've taught creative writing in one form or another at  five schools, a major writers' conference, three other writers' conferences, and your own, ongoing Saturday morning writing workshop.  You have published widely on the subject of story telling, your own vision of story coming from a vision of a storyteller,rather than an instruction of how to write one,  by an Elizabethan writer, Sir Philip Sidney.

"With a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you; with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner."

You are sitting in the midst of a demographic of what could be called your peers, men and women who teach such courses as you do.  It comes as no surprise to you that a parade of story ides send you greetings.  You smile in return, then begin writing notes to yourself.  Suppose an economist was brought in to your college, a he or she who could suggest selling futures on creative writing courses, or a hedge fund process where you could trade academic outcomes of students in particular departments.

You could also have yourself, wondering at your audacity in teaching creative writing to others when there is patently so much you have yet to teach yourself.  Are you in face a bit intimidated by the academic sound of things, orders on high from the Chancellor of the university?

Look at all the things you have to set aside in order to get at your daily ration of composition; can that be taught?  Or is it better agonized over, suffered through as you did?  Does it need a measure of despair?  When you read some work of resonance for you, whether it is from an old mentor or a new discovery, encountered by accident or some friend telling you this is something you must experience, isn't there in fact  a motif of heartbreak whispering in your ear, telling you of the wisdom of heartbreak that must be present in all work of aching beauty.

You discover a note:  "Fire in the sky now."  You rush outside to look at the heartbreak of a November sunset.

Such things are not to be shared with students any more than they could have been shared with you when you were at the beginning student aspect of your life as opposed to the now student aspect of your life.

Your cat miaows for his supper.  Foolish man, standing there, gaping at a sunset.

You rush inside to feed him, then back to the computer to see if you can find some way to capture "Fire in the sky now."

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Most days, today being no exception, you will be on a freeway.  Much of the time, you will be focusing directly ahead of you.  Even before your recent, vision-enhancing surgery to replace the lenses clouded by cataract, you had sharp, reliable peripheral vision. Now, that aspect of your perception seems even more enhanced.  Thus the awareness of movements and conditions to either side.

Often, you will glance in the rear view mirror, aware of someone behind you, wishing to move faster than you are moving, wishing you'd get over.  At such moments on the freeway, you are aware of how metaphor rules the way you conduct your self.

You,on the freeway, is a metaphor for you at the present state of your life and, for that matter, at the present state of the moment.  The future is before you.  Digressions await at either side.  The past is directly behind you, sometimes tailgating you.

For all its tests, travails, achievements, failures, and losses, the past has been pretty good, by your reckoning.  Not so good that you wish to retreat to it and remain, edit out some of the failed experiments and disappointments, or temper the losses.  Good enough, however, that you continue to profit from it without wishing to return to it or in most ways consider it "the good old days."  

Those days were, on balance, all right.  They were good in the sense of you being able to extract useful information from them with which to cope with this moment on this particular vehicle, with these present reflexes and skills, overseen by these immediate sensitivities.

Now, if the car behind you on the freeway tailgates you or if the past in metaphor tailgates you, the solution is clear before you.  Change lanes.  Stay on course.

Another fertile source of metaphor is the expression "bad blood."  At one time in your youth, persons with anemia were said to have bad blood or perhaps tired blood.  The purveyors of Fleishman's Yeast were eager to have you believe muddling a cube of their yeast in a glass of tomato juice would in effect wake up your tired blood.

Having inflated or diminished red- or white-cell counts could also be spoken of as bad blood; so, too could leukemia.  You've been quite free of these afflictions, your excursions into bad blood having to do in metaphor with a sense of disagreement bordering on intense dislike showing its presence between you and one or more others.

There is increased difficulty in maintaining friendships or at least friendly conversation with individuals of different political orientation.  But you do try.  And you appear to have a grasp on where there is no possibility of conversation, thus your approach to the late Art Hansel, "better we accept we're on differing sides there, Art, and move on to the things where we can discourse."

There was a time when you were more apt to nurse such bad blood conditions, but dramatic writing and, to a degree your exposure to certain Eastern philosophy, brought you to the place where you feel it important to like all your characters, even those you disagree with.  One individual with whom you'd had bad blood for some time has recently died.  As you absorbed the news of his departure, it came to you that you'd gone a long way toward putting your side of the bad blood on hold.  You'd not taken a cube of yeast or even toasted the departure with tomato juice; you'd simply ceased to care.

Running through your list of potential bad blood arrangements, you're aware of three or four potentials, which is way down from your list from earlier in your days.  In one case, you're willing to let some outside agency, say Fate/Kismet, or karma or even poetic justice have the last laugh, with you willing to indulge some measure of schadenfreude, but even in this case, there is no burning fire, certainly no wish for revenge, no desire to be the one who'd orchestrated the payoff.

The others still generate a tinge of rancor from time to time, but you have told yourself enough times that you were over it to accept your own vision that there is no outstanding balance so far as you are concerned.

The last time something similar caught you, the settlement was exacted in a way you like.  Because of your expertise in areas you'll leave opaque, you were called upon to edit an historical essay which, on examination, turned out to have been written by someone with whom you had a severe issue.

Your immediate thought was to recuse yourself, but your curiosity got the better of you.  After you made a photocopy of the manuscript, you went at it, the flame of revenge a bright, fluorescent blue.  But you resolved from the first paragraph to consider the author a client, thus your goal was to make his work in his own voice resonate with clarity and interest.

You saw his response to the final edits.  "I don't know who did this,"  he wrote, "but I accept all the edits.  It made me a better writer."

In many of the things of his you'd previously read, he was not the writer he'd thought himself.  You could not have imagined a better closure.

Certain actors, Buddhists, and psychologists speak of being "in the moment" or mindful, which is to say alert to the events of now, whether on a freeway, in a metaphorical sense, or, indeed, in the midst of meditation.  Although different in some senses, these approaches converge on the notion of the authenticity of the self right here, in present time.

Forget the distractions from the side mirrors.

Screw the individual in the Range Rover behind you, tailgating you.

You are here for the totality of the experience, which is what you strive to achieve every time you set pen to notepad or finger to keyboard or self to the now before you.