Monday, March 31, 2014

Are You Walking Faster to Get Your VivioFit to Like You?

After you got yours, then began to wear and get used it, you began noticing it on others.  At first, you were merely curious, looking for some kind of common denominator.

But in the weeks that have past, your curiosity began to turn toward cynicism. Was the commonality a reflection of the love of gadgetry?  Was there some aspect of personality, simultaneously hidden and obvious?  Were you wearing yours as a form of token membership in a fad?  Is your continued use of your device in any way a betrayal of your sense of outrage at the gathering and holding of personal information by government agencies and various communication-related businesses?

Thus do you tread with some regularity on the narrow cusp between conspiracy theory and the writer's talent for spotting dramatic genomes, then developing them into story.  If it has not already been said, you are willing to be the speaker:  The unspoken strength of a writer resides in the ability to exaggerate the ordinary.  Stephen King has not only become iconic in his ability to cause us to fear elements found in kitchen drawers and garages, he has established himself as the go-to person when we wish to be frightened by yet another ordinary thing.

You first noticed such a device on Mike Takeuchi.  His was the Nike Fuel Band.  Wearing such a device made sense to you on its face; Mike is a sports writer.  He files stories on college and professional sports, is an avid bicycler, seems to seek an active life.  His eyes emitted a constant, merry twinkle as he showed you how the Fuel Band captures, then sends data to his computer.  Steps taken.  Laps swum.  Miles walked and/or bicycled.  Calories burned.  Of course time of day and digital calendar, obviating the need for a wristwatch.  The wearer is thus informed and current.

The next person you noticed was a photographer who has, so long as you've known her, been religious about workouts, many with weights. An active person even without the workouts, her dog is the beneficiary of at least two vigorous walks per day.  Her weapon of choice is called the Fit Bit, which records and transmits to her computer the same data as the Fuel Band.  In addition, it is tethered with a scale, noting increase or decrease in body weight, computing such vital ratios as muscle mass, and monitoring heart/pulse rate.

You were so impressed with the Fit Bit that you gave one particular model of it to your literary agent as a Christmas gift.  Giving such a device as a gift can be a mine field if doing so in any way provides the sense of you being the one suggesting the recipient needs to diet.
Your agent's long-term change in eating habits and her satisfaction at losing weight gave you the green light to chose the Fit Bit as a Christmas gift.

Your own choice, after asking a number of wearers of different types, is the Garmin VivoFit.  Your weight has remained pretty much constant over the years to the point where you do not think of it so much as an issue as an awareness that it hits or dips just below one hundred eighty during times when you are consistently active.  For you, the concern is the sedentary aspects of your daily routine and your wish to make sure you get up, out, and about with regularity.

VivioFit even goes to the extent of showing a red bar across the top of the viewing screen when it thinks you've been sitting for too long a period.  Since you've had and used your VivioFit, you have managed to increase your times out of a chair, and you've been motivated to extend your evening walks to the point where you are now experiencing that borderline muscle sensitivity you so enjoyed back in your running days, prior to hip replacement.

The VivioFit goes out of its way to encourage you by congratulating you with a green bar on your performance chart to signal you taking more steps and burning more calories than the quota it assigned you based on your height, current weight, and age.  You sense it wanting you to succeed, which brings you to your growing issue with the VivioFit and your return to questioning Fit Bit and Fuel Band wearers.

Much as you appreciate the thought, you are not interested in this for congratulation, you are doing this to give you physical opportunities to feel good.  When you are out walking about or standing from time to time, you are perfectly capable of giving yourself mental or interior reasons to feel good, thus tethering with the physicality of the VivioFit.  You are not doing this to feel congratulated.  So far, there have been two days when your schedule caused you to respond with bare, minimal workouts.  You neither expected nor did you get reproof or reproach.  VivioFit did not tell you, Hey, you fucked up, even though it had no way of knowing you were rather pleased with yourself for doing the minimal walk on those two occasions when you broke from routine.

Your VivioFit, shrewd in so many ways, has no way of knowing you've come to resent the congratulations when you exceed the quota it set for you.  VivioFit is not shrewd enough to understand how, most of the time you exceed the quotas it has set for you, that you do so because you were abstracted, thinking things about story or classes or your general existential focus.  You were in a sense, "in" story.  The extra physicality is an appreciated bonus, but it was in real effect brought to you by those same wonderful folks who brought you any connections you might have with creativity.

You do not care if your VivioFit likes you or not.  You bought it and wear it to remind you to stand up from time to time and to get yourself out into the starry night, where sights, sounds, and smells play their part in calling your attention to small things.  You do not seek these small things the way Stephen King's reader might seek them, which is to say in order to inflict fear upon yourself.  There are already enough things to be fearful of. 

 Some of these things to fear are closer to hand than such issues as global warming, fracking, and the insidious attempts being made to keep individuals of certain ethnicity and age from voting in general and local elections.  Some of these things wash over you when you read the commentary on so many Internet sites, even those sites that speak in direct cadence to your own political views.  

This commentary reflects a sense of being brainwashed, lied to, betrayed, and duped.  Even more than the fear you get from reading Stephen King, you live in fear that you will stop questioning, stop learning, and fall into a benign state of wanting your friends, your culture, your university boss, the Dean; and various editors with whom you have dealings to like you.  Much less do you wish your VivioFit to like you.

You want the awareness to stand up from time to time to blunt the effects of sitting.  You want the tingle of being out somewhere, city, beachscape, mountains, desert, to walk about, looking for little things, then, in the process, to connect those little things in your thoughts,braiding them into strands which will become story, once you work beyond your awareness of quotas and suggestions.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Zone Defenses of the Inner Self

When the term "zone defense" is applied to basketball, we imagine the area to be defended as divided into zones, with players assigned to defend a specified area as opposed to a "man -to-man" defense, which has each player, on defense, being assigned to guard against or defend a particular player.

The purpose of each of these defenses is to have an impact on the ability of the opponent to score points with ease.  An effective zone defense could, for example, prevent an opposing team to develop plays in which allow their close-range shooters to gain proximity to the basket, forcing the opposing team to take scoring shots from a greater distance.  

So the argument goes, a zone defense means a greater opportunity for the defending team to gain the rebound, should a distance shot miss its mark.  Depending on the talents of the two opposing teams, both zone defense and man-to-man defense have advantages and disadvantages to be considered.  Potential combinations of each defense are also possible.

With respect to basketball, two paragraphs in this context are enough. There is an interesting counterpart of the zone defense in the narration of story.  The zone to be defended has to do with two vital parties in the storytelling calculus, the writer and the audience.

The zone at issue is the comfort zone, one for the writer, the other for the reader.  In arguments, classrooms, conversations, workshops, and within the context of editorial support, you've frequently heard the equivalent of "I don't want to go there," from writers and from readers.

In some cases, you, too, said the equivalent.

The "there" which you, brother and sister writers, and any number of readers have not wished to go is somewhere beyond the zone of comfort, which is located at some distance from feeling threatened with the need to acknowledge painful truths.  True enough, most memorable literature and story come from this "there," which is more often than not an internal place rather than a geographical one.  By this, you mean the "there" is a sense of being a prisoner of a particular culture, familial, or social constraint.

The primary defense against trespassing into this "there" is the one of having enough sense of being trapped in daily life that one more venture will be too painful to bear.  Adjunct defenses are cultural, social, certainly financial.  To those adherents of this defense, the opening line of the Wordsworth sonnet, "The world is too much with us, late and soon..."is a tocsin, warning us to look away from reminders of our own circumstances and implications of the metaphorical jungle "out there" seeming all too threatening in nature.

Such individuals wish for no reminders of their own plight, even though they may well have enough experience with storytelling and literature to recognize how often storytelling and literature supply us with anodynes if not sophisticated solutions.  You have heard their pleas of near agony.  No more darkness,  No more dark side.  Can't we please have a return to the good old story, where--and this is where the true darkness appears--no one is awful, and only good things happen?

With a few strokes of effort to get all the misery out of literature, they banish the likes of Thomas Hardy, much of Herman Melville, and, moving forward to the times of William Faulkner, most of his work from anything approaching a canon. Much of John Steinbeck is swept away, leaving us with Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flats.  No Lenny, no George.  No rabbits.  Only Steinbeck and a French Poodle named Charlie, driving about in a flatbed truck with a camper top, experiencing the inherent grand humanity of the U.S. of A. Of course George Eliot and Mrs. Woolf are out the window, and Jane Austen, bless her, why, she gave us novels in which more often than not, protagonists were last seen walking down the aisle toward a "good" marriage.

The comfort zone defense has kept many a reader away from experiences that seem closer in keeping to the way the human psyche works than those works whose intent was to proselytize to a good will triumph and love will win out over all kind of ending.  This is not to say that there are no remarkable times when good will triumph or that love does not indeed win out over all.  Rather it is an observation that prolonged happiness, accord, and growth are not always possible.  The  DNA of Reality is filled with skinned knees, cut fingers, broken hearts, and control freaks who get off on doing for the rest of us things they believe are for the good of mankind--their version of mankind.

If Humor and Pathos have taken up as bedfellows--and you believe they have--then darkness, gloom, despair, depression, Depressions, and mean spiritedness have their own committed relationships with companionship, trust, empathy, soaring spirituality, and friendships.  All are actors in the theater of human interaction and the inner landscape of the individual.

Characters are capable of all these qualities, sometimes quite simultaneously.  To deny this is to deny portions of ourselves, sent off as by children disowned by their parents.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Avoidance Mechanisms

You frequently find yourself using the abstraction of one keepable page a day.  The page can be a page of any project, a review, an essay, or, jumping over into fiction, a page of a novel or short story.

The definition of that abstraction makes for even greater abstraction yet.  A keepable page is one for which there would be no edits or emendations.  So, you see, there is trouble from the get-go.  Best to define downward to the point where a keepable page a day is a page of text that will in large measure stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

The most tempting part of the original abstraction is the final reckoning. Three hundred sixty-five keepable pages a year gets you close, say ninety percent close, to a book a year, which at one time might come close to providing you the equivalent of a living wage.  All that from one keepable page a day.  

Your flight of fancy lifts itself aloft above the metaphor with the reckoning that reviews and unanticipated assignments might bring in enough to raise the barrier on the living wage abstraction, say an occasional night out on the town, a play or film, or perhaps if a good musician is passing through, off to a place where you can listen.  In a good year, the possibility of the occasional meal at Sly's on Linden Avenue in Carpinteria.

On any given day within the year, there is no accurate metric by which you can compute how many pages you must write in order to achieve that abstraction, nor does the fact of a day's work allowing you a significant number of pages, say as many as twenty, come with a guarantee that your odds of finding a keepable page within those is enhanced.  You could, in theory, produce one splendid, spotless page, then discover on close examination that the page has achieved status.

There is the equivalent of at least a full, keepable page, handwritten on a notepad at your feet, being the opening scene of a short story, set several thousand years ago in Europe.  You've looked at it several times without feeling the need to tweak a word or sentence.  That page was originally written in one day, as a sort of between-the-acts getting you from chore to chore, but you now reckon from all the marginalia and cross-out words, that the material can no longer qualify as the keepable page of any particular day.  

Nor can you be certain there will be no additional changes of words, sentences, or paragraphs until the entire narrative comes home to stay.  This is not a good example of the simplistic one-page-a-day meme; you have in fact been working on this particular story for at least ten years.  Maybe even more.

You can see this leading you to another abstraction about keepable days.  Much as you'd sometimes wish, there is no delete button for days lacking in positive substance, days which imply productivity, personal growth, the equivalent of a tithe to the human condition, relationships with others, and that even more abstract abstraction, relevancy.

The closest you can come to doing for your life many of the salient things you do for a work in progress is to strive for some sort of balance between being focused on productivity, personal growth, giving of something to the Human Condition, making eye contact with personal relationships, and asking yourself in a brotherly way if you are relevant to the story going on about you.

It has become your observation that one or the other suffers.  Persons who are caught up in the life of being salient in their work are often remiss in personal relationships such as relationships, self-education, and empathy.  Persons who feel too strong a tug away from their work often find ways to lash out at the work they are not doing and the work others are doing.

Can a person tread that narrow cusp between the work and the social contract, or is this, too, an abstraction.

Back in the day of the typewritten or handwritten first draft, there was a congratulatory pile of manuscript, visible before one as a benchmark.  Things have changed in a technical sense.  The keystrokes are now stored on a disc rather than words on pages, but the abstractions remain.

At some point today, in a staged interview you were conducting with a novelist before the Friends of the Camarillo (Ventura County, California) Library, you asked him what his plan or vision was for his future work.  The question seemed to surprise him, then delight, and at length energize him into a resonant vision of who he is in the context of his promising career as a novelist.

Driving home, you continued the questioning to your lone self, comfortable in your Yaris, heading northward toward home and an anticipated dinner at Sly's.  Your answer to yourself was you intent to continue in your attempts to provide as many keepable pages as you can.  But that was not answer enough.  To what end, you asked yourself.  What was your end goal?

Ah, you said, every bit as surprised as Jamie Ford was with the question you'd put to him.  Then delight came to you, at length providing a tingle of energy.  You write to produce the keepable page and in the process avoid becoming an asshole in the perceptions of those with whom you have the most direct dealings.

Friday, March 28, 2014


Ever since you first met her, during the throes of your university years as an undergraduate, you were fond of, but a bit impatient with Jane Austen.  You liked her work well enough, its tone and pacing almost polar to the noir of Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, and Ernest Hemingway.  As you recall the matter at the time, you reasoned that if you could not only put up with but treasure F. Scott Fitzgerald, the least you could do was give Ms. Austen a close reading, thus to see which things you could take away from your reading.

Need you remind yourself your reasoning for attending the university in the first place was to take as many literature courses as you could, hopeful of learning from all those who came before you, so that you could synthesize, arrive at your own identity, then step forth to earn your keep as a storyteller.

There were so many among those you admired, who'd done more or less the same thing, seeming to have had success snatched from the jaws of defeat after enough time in the defeat green room to have had the sorts of writer jobs you were used to seeing on author biographies on the dust jackets of their various books.

We by now know how that scenario played out.  Suffice it to say you had no thoughts of going into publishing on the editorial side of the desk, nor had you thoughts of returning to a university campus for any purpose other than to return books to a library or attend the occasional reunion.

At about the time Brian Fagan was admonishing you, "Mind, you're stepping on Jane Austen," by which he meant you were indeed standing over the spot of her interment, you'd begun to put some useful observations about her into your toolkit.  You'd come to admire her skills in producing characters with tangible goals.  You'd begun to admire to the point of rereading and study her deft uses of subtextual reference in dialogue.  

In the bargain, you'd begun to see how she urged her characters toward a comedic ending, an "and they all lived happily ever after" resolution in which quite often there were happy "up" marriages, where a character from a lower station married into a higher class" and "down" marriages, in which our focus was directed to a character from a more privileged class who saw the values and virtues of an intended mate who happened to be from a lower station.

You saw also how subsequent generations of writers took on this form of dramatic closure.  In a week or so, you will be pursuing this train of evolution in at least one class, noir fiction.  You also saw how adept Ms. Austen was in maintaining close narrative ties to her characters, contributing to the sense of the story being filtered through them rather than from an authorial presence.

Short shrift herein to the you who had to come by this vision for his own work, as though you'd deliberately set out to set a functional path for yourself through your study of your esteemed predecessors, found it, then chose for some years to ignore it.  Such confessions can be detailed later.  The point here is the firmness with which you embrace your vision of effective storytelling, how your favored writers all seem to you willing to allow their characters the equivalent of the keys to the family car without so much as a word of caution.  

You rather expect--and hope--these writers will step aside while their characters get into difficulties, allowing you the chance to see them in action as they try to work themselves free of the complications they do not wish to be burdened with and how they deal with the complications they cannot avoid.

You are in relative states of acceptance with your vision to the point where you compose in it, editing and revising all deviations that appear to undercut the effect of immediacy, unfiltered, with no authorial intrusion.  You teach beginning and intermediate writers with this vision in mind, and you edit professional writers in accordance with the technique-related demands and conventions of this approach.

Tomorrow, in a lovely twist of fate, you are to interview a well-published writer whose vision of story is at least some ninety degrees away from yours, if not polar.  This is before a library group, who will have come out to hear him, billed as "a New York Times bestselling author," the better to feel in contact with reading, writing, libraries, and such idiosyncrasies as the evolution of storytelling techniques.

Your questions and observations should be made with this vision in mind.  You've put considerable time, effort, and that most idiosyncratic of all qualities, concern, into play, discovering some of the steps leading to the path you began to recognize, then began to follow.  Now, it us to you to get him to reveal his.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

If Life Is a Flowing River, Then Story Is a Lobster in a Pot, with the Heat Turned on

The image came to you quite by accident one Saturday morning at about ten, when you were seated in the back yard of Cafe Luna, where you've been deploying your private workshop these past three years.

As part of the Cafe Luna routine, Monster, one of the line chefs, begins to prepare the day's soup on an outdoor propane range, tossing in assorted vegetables and stock to a large stock pot.  You are close enough to the action that, after twenty or so minutes, the characteristic scents of the stock, onions, and greens begin to coalesce, enough most times to trigger the beginnings of your appetite for lunch.

At some point while discussing the work in progress of one of your writing group, you had the image of Monster filling the stock pot about half way with water, dropping in an unsuspecting--but surely suspicious--lobster, then turning on the propane range.

You thought of the water heating and the increasing awareness from the lobster that its suspicions may have had some merit, increasing with time as the water turned from tepid to warm.

You imagined the sound of the lobster, scuttling, trying to work its way out of the stock pot, even to the point of trying to imagine one of its claws, waving beyond the rim of the stock pot.

The image of the theoretical lobster in the theoretical pot, with increasing theoretical heat, and more tangible sounds of it scuttling to free itself, were causing you actual discomfort.

Then you realized what you'd done:  you'd visualized story.  You'd brought a concept to life.  Life is a flowing river, story is a lobster in a pot.  A trapped lobster.  Forgetting your fondness for lobster presented to you on a platter with an array of tools for extracting its succulent meat, protected by a large bib to protect you from the insult of splattering, your agenda in producing this unsettling scenario is to evoke sympathy for the lobster.  In the process, you are conveying the underlying emotional construct of story.

Later, you were commending to one of your Saturday regulars the need to reread Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, then to tell you in as few words as possible, no more than three or, max, four, what the underlying theme of the play is.  

To emphasize your point, you threw in the metaphor of the lobster in the pot, whereupon you realized you were in effect comparing Nora Helmer, the doll of A Doll's House, to a lobster, if not directly, then in parallel.

Thus the lobster of your mind occasioned a second ah-ha moment.  If we see all front-rank characters as having the equivalent of the trapped lobster, trapped within them--and by front-rank characters, you mean protagonists and their most powerful antagonists--what animal is it that is trapped inside?  What steps will that animal take to free itself, should it become frantic enough?

Now you've done it; you've reached the boundary of the comfort zone, and you've done it by calling to your own mind the equivalent of the image of the lobster, struggling to get out of the pot in order to avoid being turned from the greenness of a live lobster to the redness of a cooked one.  You imagine a trapped animal, caught in a spring trap, left by a hunter.  You recall stories of animals thus trapped, chewing off the trapped part of the limb in order to save its life.

In some way or another, story, if it is to achieve that state of being memorable, must trespass beyond the boundary of the comfort zone, must tread within it, at least to the point of leaving footprints.  You are not doing this from meanness of spirit or even of revenge.  You are doing so in order to demonstrate another requirement of the memorable story:  it must take us somewhere beyond our comfort zone, then attempt to get us back to the closest possible approximation of an insight that will lead to comfort.

You've called this a negotiated settlement, by which you mean a settlement negotiated with the seemingly troglodyte expressions of reality.

Thoughts of trapped animals make you uneasy.  Thoughts of imaginary animals, if thought through as you indeed made a disaster for the imaginary lobster, send you into immediate sympathy for the animal.  Some readers may have little or no affection for the lobster, green and alive, or red and splayed across a serving plate, but the sound of it, clawing at the stock pot, is a sure way to get the reader's attention.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

To Whom Do Muses Speak These Prickly, Pestered Days?

Sometime last week, you were applying appropriate Marxist approaches to sources of inspiration.  You posited a scenario in which one of the famed daughters of Zeus known as Muses, whispered inspiration into the ear of a poet.

With Marxist regard for the working classes, you in effect questioned whether a Muse could be bothered to approach a working-class poet.  This, in yet greater effect, left the likes of Robert Burns and Woody Gutherie out in the inspirational cold.  

The more you thought about it, the notion compounded that the poets--there were likely more than one--conveniently lumped together as Homer, of The Iliad and The Odyssey,also had to apply elsewhere for inspiration.  Muses only visited gentlepersons.  In the strict class divisions of England, Muses would only descend to whisper into the ears of nobility, graduates of Cambridge or Oxford.  

Although himself not royalty, Geoffrey Chaucer worked for one, John of Gaunt, who was no less than a duke, and prominent in the House of Lancaster.  More on him and his relationships with Muses in a moment.

Shakespeare, another non-royal, set forth to circulate among those who funded some poetic and dramatic activities, arguably had the kind of education that might have attracted a few stray inspirations from one or more of the Muses.  More, too, of him as these vagrant thoughts converge into a form of closure.

In your case, it is possible to observe with some certainty that you, although you have had ideas and inspirations, have had to apply elsewhere for them than from Muses.  Quite right.  If the Muses spoke only to English royalty and their acolytes, and to graduates of Cambridge and Oxford, they would surely speak only to American graduates of Ivy League schools.

Early this morning, while you took coffee with a writer friend, you were, in fact, whispered to by the exact sort of Muse who would have spoken to a candidate from the working classes.  True enough, there was considerable wealth on your mother's side, but it was by no means old or even moderately aged wealth.  Rather, it was come by through hard work, dedication, and openness of spirit, outlasting the 1929 Stock Market Crash, but dissipating rapidly in the early and mid-1930s.

Thus you are descended from two families in which there were some professionals and, as well, the likes of bootleggers (ah, Grandmother Lizzie), politicians, saloon keepers, a one-time butcher as a result of a gambling win, wine makers, dealers in what was called at the time soft goods, which meant clothing, luggage, auction management, and that most scientific of inquiries, the speculation of the relative speeds of thoroughbred race horses.

How highly appropriate for your Muse this morning to be the bright, beaming face of a uniformed police officer, who politely interrupted your conversation when she asked you what books you were reading, then engaged you for nearly five minutes to discuss the joys of book browsing.  She became a vivid component of an inspiration, which played out nearly six hours later, as you took coffee with yet another writer friend.

You'd already begun to think of this agreeable police officer, who'd detached herself from a larger group of men who seemed to you more appropriate to the appearance of uniformed police officers, neat, military, cynical, evocative of teen age boys deciding where to dine based on their expectations of the size of the meals rather than its inherent quality.  She had you thinking of a modern version of The Canterbury Tales,not verse, mind you, short stories, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

Sometime later, in another venue, a writer you've seen through any number of books became the next component of inspiration begun earlier.  In the interim, you had no idea you'd been given components or in any way inspired.  Then, your friend, emeritus from the Archaeology Department at UCSB, wondered aloud why you had not been delegated to teach the course in Chaucer required by the College in which you teach.

"You seem to know all those characters so well,"  he said.  

We'd been discussing his next book, a departure for him in that it would be best served by a tip-toe dance along the cusp between a novel or dramatic narrative and a segment of a biography related to a major archaeological discovery.

You'd indeed illustrated some scenes in his next book, comparing some of the actual personages to characters in Canterbury.

Your ah-ha moment, a short study of the major characters in Canterbury as illustrative of the concepts you hope to demonstrate in your own forthcoming project, A Character Prepares.  Your second ah-ha moment is a rhetorical question which you will not be able to answer until you set forth to essay the short study from the first ah-ha moment.

Thus do working class writers hear inspirations from working class muses.  No Erato or Calliope or Polyhymnia, whispering in your ears.  Nor do you, by any stated or unstated implication intend to compare yourself with the likes of Robert Burns or the Homer poets or Woody Guthrie except in terms of old-fashioned proletariat functionality.  You make do, not with the lofty potential for boredom of Classical Antiquity, rather with the availability of what's at hand.

Your second ah-ha moment, which sent a chill both ways on your spine, would sell, as Thomas McCormick, a recent publisher at St. Martin's Press would have put it, "dozens and dozens of copies.  If that."

You, on the other hand, feel that urge only Proletarian muses such as uniformed police officers and professors emeritus can experience.  The Daughters of Zeus delivered inspirations.  Your sources present you with urges.  You will need a long life to get to them, but you are on track.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Don't Call Me Ishmael and Please, Don't Call Me Normal

Your associations with the concepts of  "normal" and "normality," have often been shaky.  For long periods, you feared you were not normal, punctuated by attempts to become so.  After a time, as your experience and vocabulary increased, you feared you were normal, prompting behavior to suggest to the world about you that you were not.

In many ways, your early years were a shaky, hesitant dance, which is an apt metaphor.  Although you appreciate many forms of dance, embracing the music and staging of ballet the way many of your friends are opera fans, your own ability to dance cannot be considered a tool in your toolkit.

This makes normality and dancing a well-met pair, a comedy team for you to consider when you find your thoughts slipping off toward seriousness and dignity.  Come to think of it, you are not all that accomplished at those, either.  With too much seriousness comes the same sensations that accompany the need for a nap after a large meal. Dignity is tricky to pin down.  

You may appear dignified if you are caught up in your work to the point of being "in" it, a part of it.  When you are in some transaction with another person, caught up in it to the point of being involved, well then, you are sincere, which is what you'd intended in the first place.

By a slow, tedious production of creating normal characters, striving for what you considered normal goals, and the even slower accumulation of rejection slips, you began to make the connection that none of your favorite characters was on speaking terms with normality.  Lesson learned, to the point where characters wanting things beyond the threshold of normality often brought you those smaller envelopes, the ones saying a story had been taken.

For quite a while, you were trying to approximate normality in your life, at the same time identifying with individuals who did not respond to stimuli or the need for moral choices in the same way you did.  Some of this changed when a then well-known literary agent took you on as a client, suggesting you set your sights on the so-called slick magazines, those printed on a coated stock as opposed to those printed on pulpy paper.  He went so far as to suggest to you that the conflicts were more in line with what normal readers could identify with.

There was that word again, and the reality of your awareness that the persons you were dating, refreshingly nice and accommodating, left you yearning--another good word--for dates whose life seemed to have some unconventional aspect, perhaps even several, such as one person you knew who had a cat with a persistent urinary tract infection, an automobile that seemed to defy the best diagnoses of numerous mechanics, and who was being pressured by two employers to chose between what seemed to you to be two of the most remarkable, unusual jobs you'd ever heard of.

After much reflecting and rejection slips from the slick magazines suggesting you'd perhaps gone too far from convention, you began to realize there was in effect a war between the states going on within you.  At the time, you read a good many novels set during the actual War between the States, as it was called in some of the schools you attended, the Civil War in other of the schools, and when you lived in Florida, you were corrected by the information that "it" was in fact The War of Northern Aggression.

Normal has become a gray, undifferentiated state to you, with boundaries established by the conventions of your early learning, which was eclectic enough, given you'd attended schools in California, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida, but not informed by any of the conversations you were being able to have as you made friends and acquaintances and, also to the point, conversations with the polar aspects of yourself.

Normal is convention, a median, a state more figurative and undifferentiated in its way than individuality is diverse or, as you've heard it expressed, anarchistic or chaotic.  Much as you believe in and subscribe to The Social Contract, you also believe there are just as many crazy persons in the normal range as in the creative or super-cognitive.

We are all of us multi-tasking as we walk about our daily agendas, routines, and dreams.  You walk about with your own dreams and fantasies plus those of friends and associates who are no longer alive.  Thus you are in effect libraries of the ideas and concepts and notions of those individuals, whom you sought out and they you, not because of your similarities but because of the deviations.

If you'd wanted nothing beyond your own visions, you'd never have taken up reading with such a sense of yearning, nor would you have indulged those long nights of argument and drunkenness with kindred spirits, each of whom was passionate beyond normal in her or his beliefs.

There is a conventional wisdom you rather enjoy, even when it sometimes bites you.  This conventional wisdom is to associate yourself with individuals you consider stronger,more advanced, more daring, more idiosyncratic than you.  They will be among the last to notice your socks don't match or that you've in some fit of daydream shaved the same side of your face twice instead of the entire face once.

With this calculus in place, you understand with ardent certainty that many of your close friends think you are crazy, possibly cantankerous, for a certainty notional.  You are comfortable with this wisdom, because it is a wisdom that orbits in ways you are still struggling to learn so that you will not go out into the bright sun without a cap or sunglasses.

At one time, when you were trying to be more normal, you had scant hope you'd be doing the things you're doing now, imagining instead some more conventional way toward what you saw as your destiny.  This included writing books that sold remarkably well, which is in effect quite a normal thing for a beginning writer to wish.

It is not that you are shucking off the potentials of making an adequate living from your chosen craft, rather that you are more interested in the inner living you earn from writing the things you write, then seeing them through the publication process.

You'd have to be crazy to think the way you do about the things you think about.  To the extent that you are crazy, so too are you a healthy, abnormal person, happy much of the time, alert to things he can do when the happy, crazy times are gone and normality comes rushing on in its tsunami intensity.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Have You Ever Noticed

Whenever your imagination prompts you to wonder what historical era other than your own you'd wish to visit for an extended stay, there are surely one or two that come to mind.  If the time travel prompt is motivated by some contemporary political and/or social outrage, perhaps as many as five or six historical eras come to mind.  

But Reality always bounces you off your flight to the past with the awareness that, difficult and untenable as many things are here in the present-day landscape you inhabit, the past was ever so much more fraught with the frustrations and constraints attendant on civil rights and personal freedoms.  

The so-called One Percent we identify as owning most of the prime real estate in the Monopoly game of Reality, onerous and ominous as this figurative One Percent is, emerges as mild in comparison to the robber barons, satraps, royalty, and scalawag miscreants of the past.

This is, of course, your Marxist leanings speaking, wherein working classes, tradespersons, and artists of the past paid more than they should of what they earn to keep the elite afloat, quite often to their own determent.

In the past, education, scientific and technological advancements were available, but only to those of affluence and the status of enlightenment.  Working and serving classes were nice enough sorts, most of them, but they were seen as having little use for such things as art, philosophy, and informed curiosity about the nature of things.

The past was and still is of enormous interest to you, but it must be viewed and experienced as a record of the way things evolved, whether those evolved "things" are the deep canyons etched in the world's surface by millions of years of flowing streams or, to cite a more cultural evolution, the great vowel shift and its effect on the pronunciation of the English language or, for that matter, the manner in which dramatic narrative has evolved over the course of storytelling before language came to be inscribed, then written.

Because there are, increasingly, so many more of us now than ever before, the likelihood seems to grow that, our distaste for armed conflict to the contrary notwithstanding, there will be more of these conflicts, some of them small and localized, others intoxicated by the evangelical sources that drive us.  

At one time and place in the historical past, individuals did not simply go about the warp and weft of their life spawning ideas for the improvement of all.  Mostly men, a few women, and these of an essentially ruling or enlightened class, would find some existential solace in a scene of Nature or a formal garden or a library, at which point one of the Muses would appear for the purpose of triggering an aesthetic or philosophical connection.  In other contexts, the creative-type would be visited by an angel or two, whispering an idea that by implication became a suggestion from the godhead.

Even today, you've heard a wide swath of individuals attributing their ideas and the means to implement them into Reality as a direct gift from the Godhead.

Your own take on such matters boils down to the fact of an idea or inspiration being a gift, all right, but it is neither from Muse nor godhead, rather it is from phenomena and individuals about us, solutions to problems that present themselves when- and wherever individuals gather to live, sleep, play, work, or make war.

A dramatic narrative, whether a play, film, novel, story, or combination of these forms, is a gift of inspiration, presented to an observant craftsperson who is alert to the chaotic swarm of the human condition.  Much of the dramatic material from past times seems to you to focus in one way or another on the consequences of individuals afflicted with some form or other of hubris, trying to accommodate their own ego and their perception of the motives of others about them.

From time to time, this vision has led you to cynical visions of our species, as currently evolved, but even as you pursued these visions, trying to catch them off guard, then render them into some satisfactory story, you were aware of some fundamental color gone lacking.  Thus your results were diatribes and jeremiads rather than story.

From other times to other times, your vision led you to see a landscape littered with obsolete product and dogma, which led to results of satire taken to its extreme of sarcasm.  But still no story.

The better result, from your point of view is not the extremes or that often produced compromise of desperation, the middle ground.  Instead, the better result is a cast of individuals caught up in the flux of landscape and connection, reaching with some desperation for ways to make seemingly impossible social, moral, and ethical matters work while holding on to some measure of dignity.

Some of us wear military designations, American flags, Rolex wristwatches, and polo shirts with a variety of insignias.  Others wear caps and gowns, surgeon's greens, doctor's smocks, and those Sam Browne garrison belts of the crosswalk guards.  Yet others drive trophy automobiles or marry trophy mates.

You get a distinct pleasure of finding the enlightened persons of all ages, races, and genders, undistinguished by class regalia, motivated only by the curiosity of what it is like to be alive and attempting to thrive, to excel at something, and to work toward that goal.

Such individuals are hard come by, nevertheless you look, and hope to capture essences of them in your narratives.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Combinations of happenstance and whim have caused you from time to time to occupy a motel room in which, within easy reach of the beds, a coin-operated device seeks to lure an extra quarter or half dollar from you via a vibrating mattress.

Always curious and alert to such potentials for discovery and adventure, you've parted with quarters, drawn into a transaction in a high desert motel in California where the vibrating mattress produced more of a droning noise than any sense of actual movement.

Results, over the years, have varied from the sublime, a sincere three minutes of tangible, relaxation-inducing vibration to the ridiculous extreme of what some of your experiences have been with riding horses.

Over those same years of being up for adventure, you've come to the conclusion that a vibrating mattress, indeed, pretty much of a vibrating anything is an adult substitution for the toys, rides, and experiences of youth.

The key here is imagination, which is a quality that has child-like and adult aspects.  You are able to approach this topic with multiple points of view.  There is the retrospective of your own youth where a nickel was enough to get you five laps around the shetland pony ring on the west side of La Cienega Boulevard, a scant half block from Beverly Boulevard in midtown Los Angeles, and the closer-to-present time, where you fed dimes into various machine rides in front of supermarkets for your nieces.

Among the more attractive aspects of the child-like imagination for you is the ability to transform seemingly anything into something quite remarkable in its reach and wonder.  The first few times you were given rids on one of the La Cienega Boulevard ponies, your imagination was busy providing you pictures of what it might be like to ride a larger horse, and then a horse in the desert.  You soon graduated to being on that timid Shetland pony a cowboy, herding cattle drives. 

 On your own devices, the mere wearing of the hood portion of your rain coat allowed you to become a pilot, maneuvering classic World War I and then World War II airplanes among the enemy, dodging their bullets, executing the famed evasive trick, The Luffberry Circle, to the frustration and consternation of your pursuers.

The memory of the thrill of those adventures in imagination still causes you the same effect at twenty-five or fifty cents in one of the better of the vibrating mattress experiences, moments of transportation to another level.

Thanks to imagination, much music has the ability to trigger travel to alternate worlds, where excitement, understanding, and lush visuals buoy you on the seas of fantasy.

Imagination is the vehicle by which you are transported inside whatever medium that claims your focus.  For a time, you are in the painting, the photograph, the concerto, or John Coltrane, improvising on "My Favorite Things" with a soprano saxophone.  You are a sponge, absorbing whatever story or novel you are reading, prowling the U.P. or Upper Peninsula of Michigan with Jim Harrison, on the alert for hidden bottles of peppermint schnapps, cached away by his characters against the possibilities of toothache.

With work and focus, you are able to achieve transportation inside your own paragraphs, whether such blog riffs as these or the more nuanced threading of fiction.

Imagination, reading, understanding, and communication are all variations on the theme of meditation, where the writer no longer considers himself the creator of the characters and their agendas and responses.  Rather, the writer becomes one with his dramatis personae and their story, escorted past the security guards of editorial oversight, finding his way by the reflections of inner light.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Relationships and Taboos

For reasons never quite clear to you, your mother, with some regularity, served bacon or ham and eggs for weekend breakfasts but responded to other aspects of pork, say pork and beans, as a vampire would when confronted with a cross.

Your father, who took wry, humorous views of most things, including your report cards, was wont to say of your mother in circumstances where bacon or ham were served, "Perhaps she thinks they are from a zebra."

Within this atmosphere of yes to ham or bacon and eggs but no to pork and beans, you began to notice the tendency of seemingly disparate things to be paired.  Say rice and beans, or cornbread and buttermilk, and of course, lox and eggs, later expanded to include lox, eggs, and onions.

Other pairings, such as hot dogs and sauerkraut, peanut buter and jam, ice cream and chocolate syrup, Coca-Cola and fresh lemon or lime, creamed tuna and toast, and cottage cheese and pineapple were combinations you more or less took for granted, assumed everyone knew of and appreciated them.  One of the major flies in the ointment was your mother's highly individualized taste in all things.  

You did not, for instance, try to combine striped clothing with a checked jacket, nor, after one or two return trips to Weiner's grocery, did you bring home Hellman's mayonnaise for use in making egg or tuna salad, when Best Foods was the known standard, just as French's mustard for hot dogs always trumped Gulden's.  And how could you know that the sprinkling of white or brown sugar on a piece of bread and butter was taboo until you related being served that delicacy as an afternoon snack at the home of a friend?

Thus most of your introduction to relationships and taboos came, as it were, through tummy-related chemistry.  Thus corned beef and cabbage made sense, but you were not certain why, chicken soup and noodles made sense, but chicken soup with rice did not, nor, in fact, did you understand why Jello and whipped cream was acceptable, but Jello with a dab of mayonaise, even Best Foods mayonnaise, was not.

Such whim was an integral part of your own growing awareness of relationships and taboos of your own.  The preference for siphon-bottle seltzer for bottled soda water for such delicacies as egg cream, cast against the anomalous preference for Scotch whisky and water as opposed to Scotch and soda, the vodka martini as opposed to the gin, and yet the growing favoritism for the Ramos Fizz, which was made effective by gin.

For a time, you were a meat and potatoes man until you almost always left your potato untouched in favor of something green, slathered with Hollandaise.

You were well into your third decade before you realized you were on a vector for relationships, not only of a friend and romance nature but of a more existential state of being where uncharted combinations beyond kitchen, cocktail lounge, and bedroom held out a lure you are to this moment unable to resist.

The relations between individuals and between individuals and things are essentials of story.  From the pratfall comedy of Michael Frayn's play, Noises Off, to the more substantial dramas of Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry, from the best laid schemes of John Steinbeck and John O'Hara to the laid-back irony of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, story is all about the attempts of individuals to translate often inchoate yearnings into reality, often with startling results.

You find yourself at times in the midst of writing something, borne along by the energy of a connection you had not seen, blossoming in totally unexpected ways.  This is why you do it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Things Aren't What They Used to Be

Most things are inanimate, tossed about as generalities, lacking in sufficient qualities or dimensions to merit specific names of their own.  A thing is a noun by default, as though no other part of speech, would wish any part of it.  Nouns include persons and places, why not lump things in with them?  

Things, by the ambiguity of their nature, are hard to pin down, difficult to form any in-depth opinion about.  Things hamper attempts at communication, which is already in trouble because of the ease with which individuals and groups of individuals may come to some serious misunderstanding, all the while believing they are striving for accord.

On occasion, you'll hear one person ask another how things are, perhaps even a more emphatic, How are things going?  These types of things are events.  How are the events in your life?  Are they to your satisfaction?  Do they bring you any pleasure?  

In some cases, where two or more individuals who are acquainted gather, and their conversation turns to things, you know, undifferentiated things, an observer can begin to see the specter of irony in budding formation.  

A thing that does not return some dividend of interest, pleasure, or intrigue becomes, by default, a thing with negative attribution, a bad thing, a boring thing, a disaster.  Who ever heard of an undifferentiated thing being interesting, much less intriguing?  

This suggests a notion of a similarity between Capitalism, with its focus on return on investment and an aspect of the human psyche that could well be called Emotional Capitalism.  How easy it is to have dividends of interest and pleasure from the things we encounter rather than the sudden, uncomfortable awareness that our desks, shelves, and closets are filled with things for which we have no affection or, in many cases, use.

Even when things are looking up, when individuals are regarding the bright side of things, such matters emerge as mere make-do conversation, devoid of most attribution except for a tinge of positivism and a departure from the negative.

Things go better with adjectives, which are, in a dramatic sense, the characteristics of things, the defining qualities.  In your opinion, most persons approach mere things with such attitudes as suspicion, wariness, and an apprehension of forthcoming boredom.  Readers want specifics.  

If a reader were to come upon a sentence where, for instance, "She began to throw things at him," the reader would be well advised to skip ahead in hopes of greater specificity.  Did she, for instance, throw a steam iron or a cocktail shaker, or perhaps even a French press at him?  For that matter, who is he that she would throw such things, thus even the attribution of "such" refers back to a list of specifics that you tried, through their variety, to make as intriguing as possible.

You're happy at the thought that there are not many persons in your acquaintance who would dwell too long on mere things in their conversation.  For that matter, the presence of unattributed things in conversations tend to limit their range and potential.

For a certainty, things, unattributed things, should go on the list of words to be regarded with a focused suspicion, ranked along with such empty-emotional-calorie words as almost, very, somewhat, perhaps, and suddenly.

Among the many phrases in law that have Latin origins, one of relevance here is Res ipso loquitur, the thing speaks for itself.  Even this thing requires a significant attribution so that the reader understands what thing it is that does define itself.  You have no problem with such things as these; they should either speak for themselves or hire an adjective or two to inform the reader or listener what they are all about.

The things you care most about, to the point of regarding them as treasures and souvenirs, are well-articulated things, notes written in a handwriting you recognize as originating with a special person; a souvenir from a specific event or series of events; a gift; a picture, a story, a book, a box of strawberries; a memory.

All of which leads you to venture this:  The things you most value are those most agreeable in their task of articulating those two other qualities of the noun.  Things are your investment in persons, places, ideas, and events.

Things are the parts of you, assigned to items you care about, memories and objects transformed from the ambiguous and inconclusive to tangible presences. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Nostalgia is making an unexpected turn off the main road.  This becomes more apparent yet when the main road is in a place unfamiliar to you, a place foreign enough to make a person driving with you ask, "Why did you turn here?"

If you are alone and you turned, you do not even have to ask yourself the question; you know why.  Something out there reminded you of something in the past.  A place.  A thing.  An atmosphere.  A person.  You were back "there," in that place, that thing, that person, that animal.  You were back in that strange vehicle of nostalgia where you are the you of "now," looking down upon the you of then.  

Your favorite classroom in the entire College of Creative Studies is 160B, located across the aisle from the west entry to The Old Little Theater.

 As the whims of scheduling would have it, 160 B is in use until your six o'clock class begins.  Often, when you are early, you step into the darkened mysteries of the theater, sometimes sitting in an audience seat, other times mounting the stage to look out into the rows of empties, seeing yourself, with some irony, as Lear or Alan Arkin, or Christopher Walken, perhaps as the you who happens to be occupying you at the moment.

This small, dark, intimate theater reminds you of at least two of your inner selves, the teacher or the storyteller.  On a good day, there is little difference between the two in that you believe the teacher, if he is to have any chance at all of being effective, has to become his material for the day.  He has to embody the nuances you find in the work under review, even if it is not so much a specific work, such as, say, Madam Bovary, and more an abstraction, such as character or revision or suspense.

 If the storyteller does not, on a good day, embody the story, radiant from the yearnings and subterfuges of the characters, then the good day has been not used well, needs to be brought back in revised form.

Being in a theater, even as you were this past Saturday night, when the story and performances were only mediocre, reminds you of the workplace and milieu you have chosen.  Your vision of your task is to transport the classroom into a theater,to urge your characters away from pages and out onto a stage, which radiates with its inherent possibilities.

Your earliest practical memories of the epic potentials for theater were brought to life in a Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, as white in the afternoon sun as you'd ever seen white.  This was the famed Carthay Circle Theater, 6316 San Vicente Boulevard, mid-town, Los Angeles, where you sat in awed wonder to watch Snow White.  The Carthay Circle extended beyond your scope of imagination; you felt wrapped in story and the unutterable details and effects of it.  

Once, when you were taken to see a film there, called The Rains Came, your father urged you to remember to sit under the protecting lip of the balcony because the persons sitting close to the front, where you liked to sit, were sure to be drenched during the scene where the rains indeed came.

You also saw The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind inside that fabled theater, and then, in an even more memorable context, years later with a group of friends, when Around the World in Eighty Days was offered.  Williams, Pruyn, and Montalbano, all well-employed, thought nothing of the price of a ticket and a beer or two afterwards.  At the time, you'd been reduced to re-percolating coffee and scrounging the wastebasket for cigarette butts.  But that morning, a special delivery letter arrived from your agent, Forrest J. Ackerman.  Not one, but two checks, thanks to a well-known magazine's taste for Western stories.

Much as you regarded The Carthay Circle Theater, there was only one you considered home, the Fox Ritz on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, a scant half block east of La Brea Avenue.  The Ritz endeared itself to you for reasons well beyond the Saturday special, a double feature plus a cartoon and an episode of a serial.
 Extending from the balcony level, which also housed the restrooms, a gleaming, wide banister traversed the distance, an ornate, polished expanse of mahogany, seeming to be designed with young boys in mind.  You were sent home three times from the Ritz, in tears, your refunded money a reproof in your pocket, because of that banister.  In spite of admonitions from the manager and ushers, you were drawn again and again to that banister, inventing excuses to visit the restroom in hopes of one more opportunity.  Your favorite seat, about half way down the commodious amphitheater, aisle seat on the right, facing the screen.

When for some reason The Ritz did not feature a film to your liking, there was, closer to hand on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard at 5515, another theater, also done in the art-deco style, The El Rey.

The El Rey, a single-story edifice, had no banister and, thus, less of a cachet for adventure.  Nor did it matter much that the manager, who reminded you more of a funeral parlor employee, would from time to time pick out certain of his younger clientele to award free boxes of popcorn.  The El Rey was in effect boring, even if the movies were good.  You had stratagems for some adventure, such as spilling a cup of sugar on the cement floor if the movie happened to be a Western or set in a desert.  Amazing what effects a size six foot could get, drawing itself across the gritty sugar.  On two occasions, you were well satisfied with the effects to be had from accidentally spilling a bag of marbles during a tense scene.

Yet one other Wilshire Boulevard theater, then known as the "Fox Wilshire," intrigued and engaged you to the point where, even though it had a banister, you were somehow motivated to greater degrees of respect.

The Fox Wilshire was in the 8400-block of Wilshire, thus just enough to qualify for Beverly Hills.  It, too, had an art-deco appearance, inside and out, to the near point of you, in your youth, pulling the word rococo from your grab bag of vocabulary.

Part of your fondness for this ever-so-much more formal interior was not so much its recipe of feature films as the number of times you attended performances with your sister.  By mutual agreement, you had favored seats, this time adjacent an alcove-like indentation caused by the presence of a pillar, supporting the balcony.  It was here that your sister schooled you on the Three Musketeers candy bar, in essence three pieces of candy as opposed to the two of your preference for the Peter Paul Mounds bar.

There were numerous other Los Angeles theaters you found to your liking, notably a chain called The Hitching Post, which pretty much ran through six or seven Western films a day, and where you and those like you, were advised to check your cap guns at the box office.  

Not to forget the immortal Grumman's Chinese in Hollywood or the other rococo theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, The Pantages and the Egyptian.  Nor indeed the Esquire on Fairfax Avenue, adjacent to Canter's Deli, where you would accompany your grandmother to watch the Yiddish movies and  The Old Time Silent Movies, also on Fairfax, and, back to Wilshire, The Four Star and Regina.

These theaters all call out to you across the bridge of time, reminding you of the moments before the lights dimmed and the trailers and coming attractions ran.  Those were short, brief moments when you felt a lump of expectation stirring around within you that was every bit as precious as the stories you were about to experience.  In many ways, this is the same lump you feel wherever you happen to be when the material you think of as an idea or a dramatic nudge comes over you.