I can handle bad weather.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
That box of goods sat on the shelf for about six months before I took it down and eased myself back into the habits of a regular smoker. There is NO up-side to smoking. In America people treat smokers like scum. How can I exude self confidence in society when the reek of my clothing gives me away? How can I teach classes and exude authority? The social stigma is bad enough but the health risks are so astronomical that one must be utterly insane to smoke. Yet there I was...again! Smoking.
It was the wheeze in my chest that did it: pushed me to the point where the stash of 'baccy and the fancy rolling machine went into a foul dumpster, never to be seen again.
I wheezed so badly that I kept myself awake. My god! It was as if I had John Philip Sousa and a brass band in my upper chest and they were tuning up before a concert. Tootle tootle whooo whoo!
Shut up, f'god's sake, I'm trying to sleep! Realizing that I couldn't escape, that the wheeze and I were one and the same shook me deeply.
Ending addiction is tough. Addiction isn't about the substance, it's about the emotions that lead to the substance. I'm going through a time in my life in which I am frightened and very sad. My immediate problem will be to survive the onslaught of suppressed emotion. Ending an addiction is like opening a Pandora's Box of hidden feelings.
It is now March and I've been without tobacco since December. I spent most of January in a state of terror and despair. These are visceral emotions, they roil the guts and drain the energy from every day life. I could recognize the intensity of these emotions as the product of release from addiction. They had been stored in my psyche, but my smoking rituals had kept them at bay. Now I had no comforting coffee n' smokes, no drive to work n' smokes, no smokes, period. I had nothing but nicotine patches. There was no avoiding these excruciating feelings. Every day I woke up with a blue wave of terror emanating from my stomach. After four or five weeks of this emotional sledge hammer I felt a slight easing of the weight.
Another month has passed and though I'm still frightened and sad, these feelings exist as bearable phenomena, like bad weather.
I can handle bad weather.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
I love my books. I've spent forty years writing a few books. After I won my short story prize from Playboy, the book industry showed a lot of interest in my books. This was twenty years ago. The books weren't ready to be published. I wasn't ready to be published. I needed to revise all of my books another five or six times. That's how I work. Revisions, endless revisions. Sometimes I'll encounter a structural problem and I won't know how to solve that problem. Then, Eureka!, six months or six years later it comes to me in a flash. I discover how to solve that problem. This happened with my sci fi novel, THE GODS OF THE GIFT (bit.ly/n8ynWp). I had a problem. I hadn't explained a major plot concept. I had instead glossed over the emptiness with some pages of weak writing. It virtually gutted the book's most important aspects. Unless I solved that problem the novel wouldn't be worth reading.
Now the book is right. Of course, popular tastes have shifted, mostly downward, and I can't get an agent to give me the time of day.
I identify, strongly, with Vincent Van Gogh. Do I need to explain the reasons? Of course not. Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot myself in the head and spend two weeks dying of my wound. I am going through a miserable time in my life but I've noticed that things change, moods change, outlooks brighten, then dim. It's a big universe. Ultimately it doesn't make much difference whether or not my books get published. I would like them to be read because each book is a uniquely beautiful experience. I want other people to share that experience. So I will probably self-publish and try my best to market my uniquely beautiful books.
The following excerpt is from my book CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN. It isn't a major plot point, it does little to move the story forward. I just like the writing about music.
1967: The Zoot Prestige Trio At The Esquire Lounge
The Esquire Lounge was an archetypal venue: a pure urban jazz club, on the ‘circuit’, right down on Euclid Avenue between the steel mills to the west and the college to the east. The club’s sign had martini glasses jiggling in neon pink and green. Every time Aaron saw it, he sensed that some day it would be a priceless artifact in a museum. The neon tubes spelling “Esquire Lounge” and its dancing long-stemmed martini glasses would be studied by serious observers of semiotics and folk art.
Zoot and the boys had finished a week’s engagement at the Jazzland Grill in Columbus. The drive to Cleveland was a little over two hours.
Before checking into the hotel, before doing anything, Zoot wanted to see old friends and examine the new soundboard at the Esquire. The gig was going to be recorded for Blue Note Records. Rumors were flying in the jazz world that the new band was something special, that Zoot had found a pair of "monsters", as they were called, to back him up as he played his distinctive bop'n'blues style. For Aaron and Tyrone, it was their debut. Downbeat Magazine was going to review the record, it would be written up by critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff.
It was big. It was important. The album was going to be called “Hot Sax”.
Zoot entered the club majestically, placing his feet on the carpet as if he were dancing, doing his lanky walk, all his joints subtly undulating.
“What’s up, buttercup?,” he inqured of the man sitting on a stool behind the bar. There were five or six people in the club, nursing drinks and chatting quietly. Two women spread white cotton tablecloths below the bandstand.
“Zoot motherfucking Prestige!” said the club’s proprietor, “What is happenin’?” He put out his cigarette and came sailing from behind the bar, a tall fat man with a medium afro. He did a series of finger snaps and arcane handshakes with Zoot, then embraced him with a huge laugh.
Aaron knew these sounds and gestures; they were the greeting rituals of adult black males. They were tunes of loose laughter, arms and hands swinging wide and making noisy contact. The words meant little. The tones of understanding and recognition were everything. He had tried, for a while, to imitate this hip black language. He felt ridiculous. What kind of spectacle must he be? A “white Negro”. What’s that nasty term? A “Wigger”? Did he want to be a slang term? Wait, let’s not forget the Jew. What was he? A Nigyid? A Yidgro? Oh God, he’s a Yigger! No, he would speak the way he spoke, act the way he acted, just as he was.
Zoot did quick introductions. The club’s owner was Hilton Stubbs. When Aaron was introduced, Stubbs looked at him coldly. Then, as if Aaron didn’t exist, Stubbs pointed to him and inquired of Zoot, “What is this?”
Zoot bristled. “What do you mean, ‘what is this?’, motherfucker. This is my drummer.”
“This is a white kid from Shaker Heights, man, this won’t go down.”
“Hilton, you don’t know shit.” Zoot extended a protective arm around Aaron’s shoulders. “You wanna cancel the gig?” Zoot picked up his saxophone case. “I can tell Blue Note to move their gear over to The Loose End and I’ll have another gig. Tonight.”
“Naw, shit man, I won’t do that; but I don’t believe no white kid can play drums with Zoot Prestige and sound like the real deal.”
“Why don’t you talk to him like he’s here in front of you, fool?”
Stubbs looked at Aaron. “Hmmmph.” He lit a cigarette languidly, sizing Aaron up. “I never seen Zoot Prestige with a bad drummer. You can’t be more than fucking twenty years old, kid. What do you know about soul?”
Aaron shrugged. “Gig starts at nine. You’ll find out.”
At that moment, several other people came from the back of the club, saw Zoot and the greeting rituals were repeated. Aaron was ignored or treated to a cold stare, a lingering gaze of contempt and then a dismissive de-focusing of the eyes, as if he had simply vanished. Traveling with Zoot on the circuit, he had gotten a lot of racist attitude. He let it bounce off him. He knew that later things would be different.
The equipment had to be unloaded and set up. There was already a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker on the stage. Tyrone helped Aaron with the drums. At half past five, the recording crew arrived, hauling in a big Ampex eight track recorder in a wheeled case. They placed microphones where needed and a sound check was done. The band and the recording crew ordered a few slabs of the Esquire’s legendary barbecue and drank a few beers.
Zoot led his band to the Hotel Onyx, next door, where they checked in. Zoot had a room. Tyrone and Aaron shared a room. They showered, shaved, lay on their respective beds and relaxed.
Aaron fell asleep. At eight o clock, Tyrone shook him awake. He had a familiar, crazed look on his face, as if he were about to do something naughty.
“Hey man, check this out.” Tyrone held two sugar cubes in his palm. They resembled pistils at the center of the long mocha petals of his fingers. Tyrone’s digits were like the tentacles of a carnivorous plant.
Aaron sat up. Outside the window of the room, a neon sign was going bing! bop! bing! bop! Rooms! Hotel Onyx! Rooms! Hotel Onyx!
“Aw shit, what is that?’’ Aaron rubbed his face, yawned.
“Hee hee. Owsley acid. The purest.” Tyrone was full of mad mischief. His eyes seemed to melt and harden like molten glass. Aaron loved him, loved his playing, loved his daring. He was virtually illiterate, had dropped out of school in the fourth grade, but he was a thinker, a philosopher, a musical intellect.
“Owsley acid. It’s always Owsley acid. How do you know it isn’t bathtub PCP? With all the shit I just went through being white, you want me to take a psychedelic and play a gig?”
“I am Tyrone Terry, man, THE Tyrone Terry. Nobody twacks bullshit dope on me. I would kill them with my lethal B flat. What the fuck, man, it’s not like you aint done it before. Here.” He handed a cube to Aaron, then sucked the remaining cube into his mouth. His cheeks dented inward so that the goatee on his chin went down like a sword blade. Behind his glasses his eyes were like the fires of a kiln. Aaron ate the cube, with a tiny twist of fear. He knew taking a psychedelic was like going for a ride on a tiger’s back. It could connect him to the primal power; or it could turn on him and eat him alive. He would risk it.
Having made this commitment, Aaron now had other preparations to make. He wished he hadn’t eaten the barbecue. It sat in his guts like a greasy snake. No matter, he would sweat it off. He sat in a quiet corner of the room, putting himself into lotus position. There was a terror of annihilation in him, residue from other psychedelic experiences. He had learned to let go of himself, had even learned to function, to play music, to walk around in the ‘ordinary’ world of people. It was the initial phases of the drug rush that were the most difficult. Suddenly, one finds oneself….utterly….without significance, lost in a vastness beyond vastness, so that the personality of Aaron Kantro was some kind of silly joke. It was this silly joke that Aaron had learned to dismiss with a figurative wave of his hand. What does it matter if I matter? Move forward into the risk, take the grotesque with the beautiful, take it all. Inhale and exhale universes with each breath.
Aaron heard Tyrone settle down beside him. Yoga was something Aaron had imparted to his friend, only to discover that Tyrone had a natural ability to settle into a deep silence. He was, perhaps, less intellectually encumbered. Whatever the reason, Tyrone was a natural yogi, he meditated and conjured mind exercises of stunning imagination.
Zoot would come to fetch them at quarter to nine. The young men had to don their tuxedoes. The drug was working, beginning as they meditated, stretching their imagery into an immense hall in which they could hear one another’s thoughts like echoes from walls of a cave.
“We got a gig,” Aaron reminded Tyrone as he uncurled his legs. Tyrone opened his eyes slowly, and they were like search lights being uncovered, a mighty glow emitted from their orbs. Pulling themselves into the mundane world, the musical brothers dressed and looked at their reflections in the mirror, giggling. “Be cool, be cool, “ Tyrone admonished, sinking his head between his shoulders as if to mimic stealth. “The Zoot will be wise to this, and he won’t be happy if we’re melting.”
“Promise I won’t melt,” Aaron confirmed. He was serious, he knew he had a responsibility to his mentor to behave and play like a professional jazz musician.
Zoot entered the room, sat in the one easy chair and let both legs splay over the chair’s arm rest.. He brought out his little pouch and crumpled some weed into the corncob pipe. He examined his compatriots with an air of suspicion, but he had seen this before and had a measure of faith in his sidemen.
“Dudes look good,” he said. “Feelin alright? Tight? Outtasight?”
“Just fine, Zoot. Lookin’ forward to it, “ Tyrone replied. Aaron nodded agreement.
Zoot eyed his sidemen speculatively. “Gonna get cosmological on me? Gonna do Coltrane riffs?” This was one of Zoot’s cautionary admonitions. He loved John Coltrane but knew his bread and butter, knew what the patrons of the Esquire Club came to hear: stompin’ blues shoutin bop-till-you-drop tenor saxophone organ trio music.
“Don’t you trust us, Zoot? We know the gig.” Aaron’s hands were rattling complex drum patterns on his kneecap. Warming up.
“There’s something about you two, tonight. You’re glittering a little bit.” It was impossible to tell whether or not he winked, because when he wanted to, Zoot could wink but not wink. Aaron suspected he had winked. The saxophonist lit the pipe, inhaled. Then he loaded it again and passed it to Aaron. “I would righteously appreciate some discipline from you young monsters. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here. This ain’t speculative fiction. This is the Kingdom of Funktonics. Aaron, you gotta stay inside the groove and let these Black Nationalist motherfuckers know you can play some shit.”
“We will play some shit,” Tyrone affirmed, making it sound like a solemn oath. Aaron repeated it. “We will play some shit.”
Each of them had the requisite two hits of weed, enacted the pre-set ritual that was as much a part of their working life as their instruments and their PA system. They headed down the long stairs with its purple carpeting, into the foyer with its thousands of tiny hexagonal tiles and green trim. Euclid avenue was a parade of horsepower vanity. Caddies,Continentals and Grand Prix convertibles gurgled toward the traffic lights. A bit of rain had fallen and the smell of wet pavement and gasoline fumes mingled in the air. Reflections from neon lights bounced up from the sidewalks. Aaron inhaled and marveled at the wild beauty of the world.
They went around to the kitchen entrance of the club. Zoot gave a signal to Hilton Stubbs. The proprietor nodded and went to the bandstand. It was a good house. The tables were taken. The bar was already two rows deep. The recording engineers were perched at their boards like alchemists over tables of potions and unguents
.“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stubbs said into the microphone. “The Club Esquire is honored to present the reigning Master of Funk, the Prestigious One, The Zoot with the roots and his smokin’ recruits, the one and only…… Zoot….. Pres…..tige!”
They came through the swinging door and made their procession to the bandstand. When the applause and whistles died down, Zoot looked at Tyrone and Aaron, snapped his fingers and counted off a blistering tempo for “All the Things You Are”. They were off. Tyrone’s organ vamped behind Zoot’s solo like butter rolling down a split yam. Aaron was crisp as a new hundred dollar bill. The stick in his right hand came down on the ride cymbal almost lazily; just enough behind the beat to give it tension, to make that indefinable suspense that was the elusive quality of swing. He pop popped with his left hand on the snare, talking to Zoot’s cadences. It was a glory. It was jazz.
They played Monk’s tune, “Well You Needn”t. Then, to slow things down, Zoot called for “Angel Eyes”. That’s when the LSD began working at its full intensity. Tyrone played the dark moody chords of the song. Its story was that of an urban barroom drama, of souls sliding toward damnation but gripping their humanity with ferocious desperation. When Tyrone’s solo came, he landed on one of those blue tones that the organ could sustain forever, while his right hand trilled and trilled pure funkiness. It was musical laughter. Aaron’s smile grew larger than his face, a Cheshire Cat grin where the rest of him disappeared into the curling lips and glowing teeth. Zoot rocked his horn and arched his back. The audience was screaming approval. The walls started to melt. Hilton Stubbs looked like a goat or a devil, behind the bar, smiling so that his gold tooth flashed across the room. Tyrone glanced at Aaron, wicked sly wit oozing from his eyes.
Stay inside, Aaron mentally signalled. Don’t get crazy. Tyrone nodded. Don’t worry; I can get crazy and still stay inside. They were IT. They were tradition. They were milking all the conventions, all the known things of jazz. Tyrone arpeggioed to get to the head of the tune. It was like ocean waves, surf rolling in perfect cylinders toward the shore. Zoot heard the cue and they restated the brooding melodrama of Angel Eyes. The tune ended in a wash of cymbals, organ and saxophone. Perfect.
Zoot knew what was happening, but said nothing. As long as they played well, he would let it slide. He couldn’t sit on these two young horses. He could go with them, out to the boundary. If he felt them slipping off, he would give them the infamous Zoot Stare. If he could keep them right there, right at the boundary but still within the vocabulary, the vocabulary itself would become the realm of exploration.
It worked. It worked all night. At one moment, Aaron took a drum solo and felt his arms multiply, felt as if four right hands and four left hands were striking and bouncing off the drums with incredible speed. He was a Hindu God, he was eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant god, the lord of Jupiter. He rolled and crackled and flamed but kept it together, never got abstract, hit the One, the downbeat, right where he was supposed to.
There wasn’t anyone in the room who was wondering if Aaron could play drums. There wasn’t anyone in the room who was thinking about black or white, soul or without soul, paid dues, ain’t paid dues, hipness or squareness.
There was only the miracle of music.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
If I were just starting out in the world I would want to write for television. Hell, I want to write for television NOW! I think it's the most influential force on the planet. It may not live up to its potential. It may betray its potential every day, betray it so badly as to be a force for heinous criminality. Still, I would love to work in television. There is world-saving potential in the boob-tube, but it can only be used in drips and drabs.
A TV series is like nothing else in the world of writing. It's huge. It provides a set of characters and a plot world that arc across vast swathes of time. How many years does a successful TV series run? Three, five, ten? I've seen enough series to be aware of a quality curve. The pilot episode and the first season are full of birth pangs. The cast and crew don't even know if they'll have a second season. Actors are getting to know their characters, writers are getting to know their actors.
Seasons Three and Four are usually the best. Then there's a slump as writers and actors get bored, switch out, change tacks, whatever. If a series gets to Season Six it puts on a fresh coat of make-up and regains the energy necessary to finish out its requisite nine or ten seasons.
We know that THE NEWSROOM will last three seasons. The HBO execs have told us so. I can barely imagine any drama so powerful needing much longer to tell its story.
I'm a fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing. The Newsroom shows Sorkin's evolution as a writer and maker of TV drama. Some of Season One episodes are so good that they achieve that amazing and rare quality of....of MAJESTY. That's right. Majesty. Goosebumps.
The show's opening titles are a bit long but they convey to us the reverence with which the producers view the tradition of broadcast news. The iconography is there: Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, the faces of American television news in an era when news was on at six o'clock every night and it was THE NEWS. It was not info-tainment. This tension between the exalted past of journalism and the present tawdry state of...whatever-it-is...drives crucial pieces of the plot.
Jeff Daniels plays news icon Will McAvoy, a monolithic newscaster hewn in the Mt. Rushmore style of the Old School. He's young enough to be in the Peter Jennings mold, yet crusty enough to harken back to the days of black and white television. He's a bridge figure: he brings echoes along with him. He brings the times when The News was honest. He's an Institution. He's powerful and widely trusted yet his job hangs from a teeny thread that's held by the Network's owners. Said owner is Leona Lansing, played by a feisty Jane Fonda. Her son, Reese Lansing, is the network CEO. Reese is in bed with Teabaggers, the Koch Brothers, all those crypto-fascists. He hangs over Will McAvoy like the fabled Sword, and there you have just a fraction of the plot. Love interest, check, psychotherapy, check, a staff full of college-fresh Millennials, check. Everything required to build plot tension in a loamy garden of Relevance. That's all right with me! Bring on Season Two! Five Muskrats!
SHAMELESS: Not A Shame At All
The role of Frank Gallagher must have made William H. Macy shout with shameless joy. His character is the ultimate shirker. He's a sociopathic alcoholic single father of six children. They range in age from toddler to twenty-something. He could care less. Frank cares only about booze and cooze. Frank never knows where he will wake up from a night's carouse. As often as not, he regains consciousness in a dumpster. It's a miracle Frank never freezes to death on the streets of Chicago's South Side. He seems to have one of those special angels assigned to feckless drunkards, the angels that see to it that lushes emerge from head-on collisions without a scratch, that they are one step ahead of the piano that crashes onto the sidewalk. That kind of angel. Frank nurses a spark of amoral opportunism; he may sit at the bar, fully addled with booze, but his wits light up when some fool blurts that he's just come into money. Frank slides his stool over. Frank survives.
I hate Frank. This is wonderful because a good villain drives a drama like nothing else. He's a malignant narcissist. Underneath all the sloppy booze behavior he's cunning and articulate. He's left all his motherless children in the care of oldest daughter Fiona. It's Fiona who has dedicated her life to packing school lunches, getting kids to band practice on time, to being a de facto mother of six at twenty two. Fiona is desperately trying to keep the kids out of The System, heroically striving to give them foundations of stability. Fiona is one big sacrifice. Her only indulgence is to have a boyfriend. These boyfriends have been historically abysmal, so when Steve shows up he seems too good to be true. He is, of course, too good to be true but it takes a while to unravel his riddle.
Every character in this drama is finely drawn. Every casting choice is sublime. Oldest son "Lip" (for Philip), is graduating high school with a 4.6 grade point average. He has no plans for college. His counselors, his siblings and his teachers gnash their teeth over Lip's lack of ambition. He's being offered full scholarships to MIT, Harvard and Columbia. His girlfriend secretly filled out college applications because Lip has no ambition and regards personal achievement as a game for suckers. Lip sees a world on the brink of collapse. Why waste all that effort getting degrees when they're going to be useless?
The striking thing about the Gallagher children is their loyalty to one another. Each carries his or her weight. They have one another's backs.
Their feelings about their father are complex. The younger ones tend to adore him. Nine year old Carl is Frank's disciple, taking lessons in larceny. Eleven year old Debbie thinks she's "daddy's girl" until one day she learns the hard way that daddy doesn't give a fuck about her, that "Daddy's Girl" is a bottle of Scotch. Fifteen year old Ian is gay and has relationships with both an older rich man and a thug who pretends to be homophobic. Everything about the Gallagher family is complicated because that's what life is: complicated. Every solved problem begets two new and more serious problems. Most of the problems devolve upon Frank's escapades, cons, thefts and maybe even an inadvertent killing or two. We know that he buried Aunt Edna in the yard so he could keep collecting her Social Security checks. Frank leaves craters with every step he takes.
SHAMELESS is real life writ large. Dysfunction exists in the air, it is a basic component of modern oxygen and there's no escaping it. Frank Gallagher stumbles around and through the maze of existence as if with night vision goggles. He can see in the dark because he's the one who made the dark. He's the perfect role for William Macy. He's filthy, his hair is matted, his clothes are rotting, he hasn't shaved in weeks. He should NOT have such a perfect set of teeth but I think the producers weaseled out of that choice. It would have made Frank unbearable, a visual trial more awful than he would have been worth.
A special award, an EmmyGlobeOscar, toEmmy Rossum as Fiona. She plays this character with strength and vulnerability. Fiona is enduring stress and carrying responsibilities that would break a lesser spirit. Her eyes show a desperate clinging to what's left of her will. She's "this far" from the edge, one more straw on her back will overwhelm her. She's sexy but exhausted. She has the look of a woman who, unless she catches a break, will age with terrifying speed after thirty.
The cast is a brilliant ensemble. The series shows the love and joy with which it is being made by the production company.
This is a great TV series, one of the best I've seen. Five muskrats for SHAMELESS.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
There is no worst show on TV. There are a plethora of disgusting, heinous, exploitive and dishonest shows. Asking me to chose one is like asking me to stick my hand down a fairground Portapotty.
I won't do it. I have neither the courage nor the desire. I've watched some shit, to be sure. I've watched TV shit out of curiosity, morbid humor, a sense of snobbish superiority. I've watched TV shit for a lot of reasons. I wanted to bring a report back from the Front Line, from the cesspool of modern broadcast entertainment.
I can't do it. I descended the circles of Hell until my nerve failed. I watched "Hoarders". I watched the inane chatter of The Kardashians. I watched as America's fixation on puke, pee and poop exploded out of the Big Screen and landed on my defenseless psyche.
I watched Rob Dyrdek's "Ridiculousness", in which teenagers addled their essence by launching themselves into skateboard twirls that crunched their skulls or exploded their scrotums. I watched kids do all the "don't try this at home" stunts purveyed by Jackass Johnny Knoxville (and don't get me wrong, I laugh and wince too).
The veil between television and internet is very thin. Youtube weirdness ends up on Daniel Tosh's often-hilarious show. Uploaded videos are all over the television landscape, pockmarking the Cable Universe with ridiculousness.
It seems as though the Lowest Common Denominator gets lower all the time. As the world's population explodes so do the number of niche market Reality TV shows, most of which are carefully scripted and engineered to stretch fifteen minutes of content across an hour of commercials for smartphones, cars, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
I quailed at watching MY 600 POUND LIFE. I feel for Melissa's situation. I struggle with my own issues regarding weight. But I couldn't watch the show. It was transparently exploitive. So let's just give the "Worst TV" ribbon to HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO and stop there. I'm not sure why this boring insipid show is on television and the fact that it gets renewed for another season makes me sad. Very sad.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
December 31, 2013
There's just enough here to keep us watching. Just enough. Simon Baker as sleuth Patrick Jane exudes enough wit and humility to keep the rusty old plots together long enough to be entertaining. If it's easy to guess the killer and be right most of the time, it's a sign that the writers are being lazy. Where's the suspense? What's the fun if we know who murdered the victim within ten minutes? It seems as though the writers are getting plots from a software program and fleshing them out with a strong leading cast.
Mind you, this is halfway through Season One. I decided to order Season Two on the basis of a good story on Disc Four. Maybe the series will get better. Maybe the producers got the green light on another season and decided to put more effort into the writing. We can always hope. It's a good gimmick, the reformed phony psychic turned cop, or "consultant", in a Special Crimes Unit. Described that way, it reeks of Network TV, but, again, there's the work of Simon Baker. It would be easy to sneer at a dude who looks like Simon Baker. But his character, Patrick Jane, has been broken. His wife and child were murdered by a serial madman named Red John. This is the crisis that changed Patrick Jane from a show-biz psychic to an investigator who uses his skills at reading people to ferret out the criminal. Baker as Patrick Jane carries himself with a large degree of appealing self mockery.
Red John hasn't been caught. The show's producers seemed to be keeping him in a storage closet in case they got renewed. Now they've gotten the budget for a Season Two (and, looky! They're still in production for Season Six). Now they can bring out Red John and start building a story arc that may generate some real suspense. Meanwhile, we will keep watching. So far, The Mentalist is a C/grade series with promise. If it builds itself up, it might become worth three muskrats.*
*Muskrats are my grading curve. The highest accolade for media production would be a grade of five muskrats.
Monday, November 11, 2013
When I go to the library I check out five or six books at a time. I hope that one or two will be worth reading. I know in advance the rest won't grab my interest. I like fiction and non fiction, I'm a reader as omnivorous as The Monster That Devoured Cleveland, except that I'm the Monster That Devoured The Cleveland Library.
I tend to avoid any fiction that features government security acronyms.
CIA, FBI, NSA, etc etc. Those are red flags for potboilers. Those are the books about plots to assassinate the President, the Vice President, blow up the White House or nuke Los Angeles. I'm categorically against nuking anything, even Los Angeles.
In spite of this common sense injunction I picked up a novel that screamed
"rogue operative", a Bourne Conspiracy-style suspense story. I read 140 pages of the stuff before I came to a screeching halt and asked myself the simple question: Is this story worth reading? Was it worth writing? It was probably worth writing because it was making its author a bit of money but I would have been embarrassed to put my name on it, much less a full page picture of myself on the back jacket cover, all dressed up in a suit and tie and looking like a Yale Law School graduate.
The nerve of the guy!
In my mind, this question is at the heart of every writing project: is this story worth telling? If it's not, then don't tell it.
What makes a story worth telling? I look for three elements in narrative. I look for entertainment, information and inspiration. If it isn't entertaining the story will belly flop like a fat clown jumping into a sandbox. The question, then, is what makes a story a page-turner? We have to insert the standard elements of story , i.e. a hero or heroine. We need a villain to obstruct the hero and raise the emotional temperature of a story. And we need a stake. What's at stake? What does the hero want? To save the world? To win someone's love? To prevent the conquest of his country? The annals of story telling are saturated with causes and quests and their corollary threats and jeopardies. A good writer doesn't wait long before getting his hero into trouble. Stories are about trouble, about overcoming long odds, about persisting beyond the normal limits of endurance.
When I say that a story should inform, I don't refer to article-style content about a peculiar subject. The informing is done by establishing a unique world-view. A writer informs the reader by building a consistent milieu. In science fiction or fantasy this Informing goes on all the time. In conventional narrative the information flows from the slice-of-life view that the writer invents. Odd subcultures offer fertile ground for story telling. The writer can be a subculture of one; he/she can be eccentric to the point of madness. THAT information must flow through the story: the protagonist is nuts. Inform the reader of this fact. Achieve the alchemy of suspense by having the hero put his oddness to use in cracking the case, or neutralizing the enemy.
Inspiration is the most difficult thing to achieve in story telling. If I finish reading a story and I'm inspired to write, I consider that a successful story. "Inspire" is defined by one dictionary as "To fill with enlivening or exalting emotion." That works well enough for me. The original Greek word means "to fill with spirit," or even "To Breathe."
It's hard to bring these three crucial elements together to make a compelling story. A writer might get two out of three. The story may be entertaining and informative but lack inspiration. My standards are high, I admit. I want it all. I want to feel lifted by a story. I've loved reading since I was seven years old. I'll love reading for the rest of my life. All I need are writers to provide me with material that gives me pleasure. I want to feel intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual joy in my contact with the written word.
Nothing less will do.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
I don't know what this is but I think it's pretty funny. I could write a novel, but frankly I don't want to.
This is going to have to be enough unless someone wants to front the cash and make a movie.
Superman was awakened by the buzzing of his Iphone. It was still in the utility pocket of his tights. Now it vibrated against his butt cheek, bringing him out of a deep dreamless sleep. The fact that his Iphone was in his tights and his tights still on his body was due to his having fallen asleep after a hundred hour work-day. He had gotten back to the Fortress of Solitude only long enough to have a cup of Ramen noodles and collapse onto his bed, eyelids falling of their own weight like leaded curtains.
“Awww, shit!” He rolled to his left, and the badly fitted contour sheet snapped up in the corner, so that all his bedding started to unravel. He slapped at the buzzing pest in his pocket, hoping to kill it as easily as he would a mosquito. It vibrated insistently.
Superman sat up, dragging blankets and sheets with him. He rocked to one side and fished the smart phone from his pocket. There were only four people who had his phone number. He tapped the face of the device and squinted blearily at the display.
“Where R U?”
The Man of Steel pushed the Clear button. It would notify his Project Manager, Piers Bloch, that he was in the Fortress. That was all Piers needed to know.
“Where the hell would I be?” His voice had the gravel of fatigue and irritation. “Moscow? Alma-Ata? Minsk?” He sat up, kicking his sheets and blankets into a pile on the floor. The place was a wreck. Outside, he could see the mountains of Greenland, rising in range after range, deep in the interior. Wind kicked disdainfully at the peaks, blowing off piles of ice and snow. It was almost possible, here, to make the world stop. Almost.
For Superman the world could never stop.
Sighing deeply, summoning his will power, he got up. He took three steps to the left and
was in his bathroom. Outwardly, to the visible world, the Fortress of Solitude was a wheel-less Winnebago. Superman didn’t need much in the way of personal accommodation. There was more,
much more, underground. Next to the trailer, a twelve foot satellite dish and several other antennae rocked in the gusts.
Superman looked at himself in the mirror. There was a faint sizzling sound, and a blast
of heat from his eyes. His three-day stubble disappeared, leaving behind the odor of burning hair.
His gut hung over the red-speedo atop the blue legs of his tights. He needed a Rejuvenation, he realized suddenly. But who has the time? Wait, he thought…..that’s a joke. A Rejuvenation is about moving so fast that time runs backwards. He could make the time, if he wanted. It was the wanting…..it was the motivation that was missing.
Superman thought, with sudden and unexpected longing, of the key to the Kryptonite Vault. It was hanging just out of his reach, in the towel shelf. He could see it, dangling from a Bugs Bunny key chain. He could go down into the underground world of the Fortress, unlock the vault, walk in….and never walk out again.
He rubbed his now-smooth chin, patted his belly, and reached inside his tights. A discreet little Jockey-style flap enabled him to reach his...um...his Super Junk, as he called it (with a super amount of self-mockery). He made a piss that poured from him like Niagara, on and on. After three minutes it gradually rattled to a halt….squirted one last time…and was done. The super hero replaced himself in his tights and went into the single room of the camper, stepping over empty cans and papers. The lights were on…he had fallen asleep with the lights on….but they were beginning to dim, and his computers had already kicked over to auxiiary power.
Impervious to the cold, Superman went outside, brushed snow off a stationary bicycle,
and pedaled for two minutes with such speed that smoke rose from the bushings that
kept the bike’s cranks and pedals attached to the frame. The lights came back up.
He returned to the trailer’s interior. “I should clean this up,” he mumbled to himself.
He was, after all, Superman. He could have asked one of his clones do the cleaning, but the idea
of watching himself working for himself, that was a little too much….and he could, or would, only clone himself, so there was no cloning some sweet plump girl named Rosita to do his housework.
He heard a sound like distant thunder. This was followed by another sound, like a straw sucking on an empty milkshake. FtooothweeeeeeEEEP!
Superman looked out the window. One of his clones had just landed and was heading towards the silo opening behind the trailer. Briefly, the clone and its maker exchanged a glance. Superman nodded perfunctorily. It was best not to engage them in conversation.
Hunger. He registered hunger as the quiet gurgling at the center of his abdomen and a
slight dizziness due to lowered blood sugar levels. It was ridiculous, this need to eat, defecate,
occasionally masturbate, blow his nose, fart. Ridiculous. But that was where the central problem
was located, wasn’t it? He was Superman. He wasn’t Super Super. He wasn’t Man Man. He was Superman. He was, in fact, a goodly part human being, even if his Kryptonian origins lent him
unusual faculties. No one knew the truth: that his mother was a human being transported from Earth by Jor-el. There was no getting away from it. It was a long and complex story, best left in the dust of the past.
He called himself by his real name, Kal-el. That was his given name. This Superman business was ridiculous. True, he could leap tall buildings in a single bound…..
He waved his hand in front of his face, as if to dispel a mirage. To get to the
half-sized refrigerator, he had to wade through the detritus of his trailer: bedding, old
newspapers, empty CD jewel cases, cans of Calistoga water. He couldn’t even get it open;
there was a box of Ramen jutting from the cabinet, obstructing the door.
Frustrated, he decided to clean the place, now, not later, NOW! He became a blur,
and twenty seconds later the Winnebago was spotless, immaculate.
“Why did I wait so long to do that?”. Kal-el spoke aloud. He was beginning to
worry about himself. The brooding, the mess, the overwork….all classic symptoms of depression.
“That won’t do,” he said bitterly. “We can’t have Superman on Prozac.”
He was going to take this day at a slower pace. He was going to relax, meditate, read
some Dostoevsky and some Philip K. Dick, watch the Lakers take on the Bulls. Almost…almost,
a day off.
“There’s so much to be done,” he thought desperately. “So much to be done.”
Then, as always, aware of his mental processes, he stopped thinking and hurled his psyche a billion light years into space. From that distance, he looked down upon the infinitesimal speck of this person, this unfortunate hero the Earthlings called Superman, Kal-el, son of Jor-el.
This thought, he realized, was his nemesis: There’s so much to be done. In those five
words huddled a universe of misplaced responsibility, guilt, neurotic over-achievement.
He had that insight for a few seconds, then his distance collapsed, his detachment gave way to
a sucking rubber-band sound, thwangggg! and he was pulled back into his personality.
“Who am I kidding?” he asked himself. “I’m the only person who stands between these earthlings and utter self destruction. I can’t afford the luxury of neurosis. I am doomed to be a workaholic because the alternative is to be uncaring, unfeeling, and to let these people fight each other to extinction.”
He had altered the political structure of the planet Earth until its stability depended upon
his intervention. He kept the peace by what he called “The Balance of Astonishment”. Or, sometimes, “Mutually Assured Incompetence.”
Kal-el found a can of chunky pineapples in his kitchen cabinet, and a container of cottage
cheese out back in a tin box. The wind drove particles of stinging ice into his face, but he didn’t
feel it. Pain was, for him, a voluntary experience.
His computer chair was a drummer’s stool, a collapsible Gibraltar Power Throne.
He sat in front of his monitor, moved his wireless mouse with a nudge of his forefinger.
Eating with deliberate slowness, he watched the monitor come to life. Between bites, he brought
up his email program. It was server-automated, and software sifted the messages for code words
and phrases of things he thought might need his immediate attention. At the bottom corner of
his Outlook Express in the left hand box, the program said, “You have 17,596 unread messages.”
About average. Down in the bunker complex, a dozen of his clones answered email,
another hundred thousand messages a day. Automatically sifted out were the “Dear Superman,
can you get my neighbor to drop dead” messages. Emails from civic leaders, volunteer coordinators, educators, local politicians, national politicians, tribal chieftains, individuals who fit the profile of true need, those were the emails he answered and responded to with the appropriate action.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
One day we found out that an autistic man was going to move in next door. I should remind you that we live in an RV. We rent a site with power and plumbing, but sometimes we have to compromise on privacy. Our south side, our lounge-and-relax area under the awning, is the side we would be sharing with the new neighbor.
I was concerned. How autistic is he? I asked the manager. "It'll be fine, he's very quiet," the manager responded. The manager often tells people what he thinks they want to hear, so I discounted this bit of information. Autism can be a vague diagnosis. It contains so many degrees of malfunction that it has stretched beyond its original meaning of a soul completely lost to human interaction. "A little autistic" could mean almost anything.
When Henry moved in he took a look at me and The Fox and literally said"whew" as if he were relieved at what he saw.
"Whew." Where did he live before he came here? His former neighbors, we later learned, were motorcycle people and meth freaks. Whew, indeed.
Henry divulged little about himself. He said he liked cats. That was fortunate, because our site is something like Cat Central at Vine Haven RV Campground. We have two indoor cats and two outdoor cats, plus a wide variety of feral visitors and neighborhood pets. There's something about this space that draws cats. It might be the plum trees and their abundant population of wrens and robins. We do our best to discourage bird hunting.
There are people who claim their pets have super powers. When I first heard this I was disdainful, but my thinking has changed. Our cat Obsidian is a big brown tabby with green eyes. I've seen him tame people in that Little Prince way, literally capture their unruly spirits and put them back in a more harmonious order. That's Obsidian's super power, the power to restore tranquility.
He's getting old, and so are we. He doesn't jump the fence and climb around with the younger cats any more. He has more important work to do.
Our new neighbor Henry is middle-aged. He is a fearful, cranky and withdrawn man, but we barely know he's here. His social interactions are limited but acceptable. He can be easily upset by minor disturbances. He is so averse to noise that he can be pushed into a ferocious sulk by the mere revving of a motorcycle.
|This is Obsidian|
He has been adopted by our two outdoor cats, wise old Obsidian and his sidekick, the comical black and white Cookie. These cats have given structure to Henry's otherwise bleak world. By loving Henry they have tricked him into loving. I looked out the window one day to see the elusive and feral Cookie sitting calmly on Henry's lap. I had never seen her behave this way. It was strangely impressive. Henry is a cat savant, he has some magical affinity that he didn't know he possessed until he moved close to Obsidian and Cookie.
I assume that you, my readers, understand how easily a friendly animal, a pet (if you will) can become a tyrant who turns your life upside down. Henry is such an innocent that he immediately began flirting with disaster. We had to set him straight without setting him off. If he let Obsidian into his home even once, he would become nothing but a door man, opening and closing all day, all night, at the tabby cat's demand. I caught him just on the verge of doing this very thing and rushed to halt the action.
"Don't let him in, Henry! Close your door, quick!" He was frightened and cut Obsidian off just as he was about to slip between his feet.
I explained what had almost happened. I spoke towards Henry's averted eyes and raised defensive shoulders. I spoke to him as I would speak to any intelligent adult. In Henry's heart, the need to trust someone was rising like a powerful burst of magma from a volcano deep beneath the sea. His need to share the cats' companionship was forcing him to emerge from his shell and talk to us. The cats pushed Henry past his fears. I doubt he's had this much social interaction in a long time.
In the next few weeks we learned more about Henry. It wasn't easy but we supported his struggle to communicate. Then something unexpected happened. Henry and Obsidian fell in love. I'm not being flippant. I'm not suggesting an improper liaison. It's just that simple. When Henry left to visit his mother, Obisidian sat on his front step, waiting for his return. He would emit an occasional sob. There's no mistaking Obsidian's sob. He has an amazing gamut of vocalizations, including a perfectly robin-like cheep that must have been useful during his hunting years.
I can't put it any other way. They were in love with a pure emotional connection. Henry's autism perhaps short-circuited his intellectual activity and left his feelings to flourish without interference from the busy mind. I don't really know. I watched this fountain of feeling take shape between Henry and the cats. I could feel its authenticity in my guts.
Henry leaves the campground for treatment four days a week. When he first went away, Obsidian was inconsolable. He went into a paroxysm of grief. He stared into space for long periods. He moped and cried. But Obsidian gradually learned that Henry ALWAYS comes home. Thus our cat friend's tranquility was restored. He knows Henry will be back and that's enough to comfort him. It took him a few weeks to get this; I watched him unwind and relax. I watched his attention return to his world: the falling leaves and the showoff Cookie with her bounding up and down fences and trees. Obsidian resumed his lordship of his domain. The lost baby possum was under his protection. The upstart kitten Stinker was not welcome and he meant business, even if he had to hire Cookie to teach Stinker a lesson.
Now Henry has left for two weeks. He has gone to Connecticut to visit his sister. Three thousand miles! cried Henry in terror before he was picked up by his ride. The enormity of this journey, its scale and distance, were almost paralyzing. I shared with Henry my own fears about travel: the feeling that I'll never get home, I'll be trapped in some alien environment without the solace of my place and my people and animals and the routines that keep me from flying apart. Henry and I aren't so different. This bit of one on one engagement gave Henry something to take with him on this unprecedented trip. He had shared an emotional link with another human being. And he had given his heart to a big brown cat with green eyes.How different is Henry's world today? That's not for me to say, but I suspect that it's just different enough...enough to make a difference.