Sunday, July 6, 2014

Are We Serious Yet?

By the time you'd reached age forty, you'd written hundreds, perhaps thousands, of editorial reports, descriptions and commentary on manuscripts submitted to publishers where you were employed.  These reports and numerous ventures into what has been called "shirtsleeve editing," or "line editing," were major plateaus on your journey from editor to senior editor to such lofty heights as editorial director and editor in chief.

Much of your understanding of writing, including your own, came from such activities.  These working associations with accepted and rejected materials as well as things of your own you variously accepted or rejected brought a hard edge to your vision and at the same time, a sinking sense of humility.  

These editorial reports offered you numerous opportunities of relief when you saw prospective writers making mistakes you'd long since thought you'd conquered.  Working with established writers gave you the opportunity to see how these worthies had found a way to bring on stage something that was troubling you.

How easy it was to find yourself at times shifting into the role of a snob rather than an editor.  Your cheeks still flame at the memory of some of the snobbery, in no small measure because you still found yourself making some of the same errors.

How fortunate for you that this bordering-on-patronizing approach didn't last long, its demise hastened by your frequent discoveries of some technique or trope of significant value, found in work from a gifted amateur but otherwise unpublishable.

You were in the midst of what you like to think of as your San Francisco days while in the act of muddling your way from a stay-at-home writer to a writer by night or early morning, with a daytime job as editor.  That was about the time in your life where many of those about you either asked outright when you were going to get serious an write things with gravitas, or took you aside to ask if you did not think it was time for you to "get serious."

True enough, you were making enough money to allow you the luxury of two or three weekends a month in San Francisco, but there was no escape there from the questions of your seriousness.  There was Michael, a former concert pianist turned technical writer and serious drinker after a frightening experience in the air over Korea.  He liked to remind you that Mozart was dead at age thirty-seven.

There was Jim, half-owner of one of your favorite bar/restaurants, fast becoming a close and dear friend.  There was Barnaby, owner of an iconic San Francisco saloon, El Matador, a step or two into becoming the kind of friend one thinks of as extended family.  There was Bobbie, a waitress at The Hotsy Totsy,  a saloon made to look a prohibition era dive.  There was Lee, on his way to becoming an attorney whose clients paid him in wads of cash rolled into Mason Jars.  

You could not be in San Francisco without seeing one or more of these worthies, all of  whom took the most innocent moments in conversation, such as, "Where shall we get dinner tonight?" to remind you how the time was approaching for you to get serious.
Bobbie took matters beyond questions and into action by asking you about your seriousness at the same time she threw a Dewars' rocks at the general direction of your head.  She got your attention, but she also got your heart.  In many, many ways, she still has both.

The problem with seriousness was and still is that you'd worked hard enough at it to be tired of it.  The fault was not in your stars nor seriousness, because you'd made significant attempts to understand both.  Bad reckoning, all around.  

The problem was that you were serious, but your key wouldn't fit the front door lock.  You needed time to see that there is dead earnest seriousness in humor, that sometimes humor and tragedy only have one suit between them, as did your great pal, Digby Wolfe and his one-time roomie, Anthony Newly.  Whoever had an audition got to wear the suit.  The other made do.

Timing is everything, in ways both humorous and vexing in its poignancy.  At one time in your life, you didn't think you'd be around at this age.  At a more recent time in your life, after you'd passed the mythical seven years timeline of being cancer free, you broke out in chills, realizing only then, after the fact, that cancer could have edited you out, taken you off the book of life your culture wishes for you to be inscribed in.  Humor is tragedy, speeded up.  Humor is life in a cocktail shaker.  Humor is the hangover after too much time in a cocktail shaker.

Tragedy was the younger you, mistaking jokes for humor, missing the pathos resident in all of us as we make our way among our friends and, now, their ghosts.  

You were never that much a fan of opera until those nights when you listened to the juke box at La Tosca, corner of Columbus and Broadway, North Beach, San Francisco, sipping cappuccino after cappuccino, waiting for Bobbie to finish her shift at Hotsy Totsy.  The arias from the major operatic composers fill the room, drowning out the click of dominoes from the back room.  Soon, Al Landi, the owner of La Tosca, will begin slipping brandy into your coffee.  Soon the music and coffee and brandy will take you places you have not anticipated, some of them out on that edge between pathos and humor.

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