Archive for March, 2008

Scenes from the novel II

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Emily sat patiently in the booth. Mr Pimm had said he’d be back in just a few minutes, but it seemed like she’d been waiting forever, sitting there by herself. The waitress was really nice, but by now Emily was tired of nice strangers. They had been on the road for two weeks, and Mr. Pimm still had not told her where they were going, or why.

Today she had on her yellow dress, the good one that Mom had bought her, back before – before everything had happened. This morning Emily had insisted on wearing it, on dressing up, before leaving the hotel room, even though she knew they were just going to a stupid diner to eat. Sometimes things just matter, she told herself. Even if some people don’t get it.

She went back to staring at the salt shaker. She tried to put the sounds of the diner out of her mind, all the stupid loud conversations going on at once. Why did people insist on chattering away like that, even when they didn’t have anything really to talk about? Well, that wasn’t her problem. The salt shaker was.

She kept looking at it steadily, keeping her eyes resolutely on the beveled glass edge around the bottom, trying to ignore the pepper shaker right next to it, not even letting herself think about the ketchup bottle. For a long moment she stared. It wasn’t really like concentrating, more like kind of letting her mind go blank. Finally the salt shaker moved just the tiniest bit, maybe a quarter inch, and then it stopped. But that was enough.

She leaned back in the booth, feeling a little tired, but that was ok. She knew it was going to get easier each time, if she just kept on practicing. Mr. Pimm came back a few moments later, and she noticed he was peering at her, frowning. “Is everything all right Emily?” He sounded concerned, like maybe he thought she was coming down with something.

“Everything’s just fine Mr. Pimm,” she said, and gave him her best smile. Everything really was just fine.

Webb sites

Monday, March 10th, 2008

I really love it when an author makes effective use of “the unreliable narrator”. A story’s narrator is not, of course, its author, although the narrator believes himself to be the author. There’s lots of fun, and sometimes beauty, to be had in that distinction.

One of my favorite examples of this is in the song By the Time I Get to Phoenix by the great Jimmy Webb. On the surface the song seems to tell a very simple story: A man is finally leaving his girlfriend – after many times before of saying he would – and he’s thinking that it will take her some time to accept that he’s really gone. Here are the lyrics:

   By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising
   She'll find the note I left hanging on her door
   She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leavin'
   'Cause I've left that girl so many times before

   By the time I make Albuquerque she'll be working
   She'll probably stop at lunch and give a call
   But she'll just hear that phone keep on ringin'
   Off the wall, that's all

   By the time I make Oklahoma she'll be sleeping
   She'll turn softly and call my name out loud
   And she'll cry just to think I'd really leave her
   Though time and time I've tried to tell her so
   She didn't know that I would really go

It all seems pretty clear, right? The narrator is giving us a very unambiguous message. But Webb himself slyly gives us the opposite message. The key is in the opening line:

   By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising

Here we find one of the most potent and compelling of all mythic images: The Phoenix – a great bird that always rises, perpetually reborn, from the ashes of the fire that consumes it.

An author doesn’t just accidentally drop the words “Phoenix” and “rising” into the same sentence. No, the symbol of the Phoenix is only invoked when talking about a cycle of endless rebirth. The narrator himself is unaware of this. He actually believes he’s never returning. But we know better.

And that’s what makes this song so powerfully romantic. A man tells us he’s leaving his woman, and yet something’s not right. He is talking about her in the way we talk about someone we’re in love with – imagining what she is doing each moment of her day, and speaking about her with great tenderness: She’ll cry softly and call my name out loud. The very tone of the language conveys that this man is still very much in love with this woman.

And the kicker is the information that this relationship is a Phoenix: The man who thinks of himself as a loner, a heart-breaking wandering cowboy of American myth, is actually destined to always return to the woman he loves.

Cure for feeling listless

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Well, the readers have spoken. Two separate comments pointing out that my list of things to do was incomplete. I will take Sally’s sage advice, and update this list in the spirit she suggests:


So the right one is out there, and she’s also looking?
In order to find her it’s time to get booking!

There’s no point in searching all over the nation
I likely can walk there from Grand Central Station

She might be on a bus, she might be in a car
Or boarding a train by the old Oyster Bar

Or in Brooklyn, the Bronx, maybe here, maybe there,
In the W Bar – the one off Union Square

The girl that will likely most tickle my fancy
Might now, as I write this, be crossing Delancey

Or maybe she’s taking the last Hampton Jitney
In time for an opening up at the Whitney

She may be at the Vineyard to see some theatrics
Or coming down off of the steps of Saint Patrick’s

Or dancing away at a Russian themed club
After checking out Woody’s gig at Michael’s Pub

She may sing at the Met, she may write for The Times
About style, or film, or state government crimes

I can go for a stroll across town just to seek her
I can start out on A and then walk along Bleecker

To the Blue Note some evening when Gal Costa croons
And then get felafel to go, at Mamoun’s

We might meet before noon, we might meet after dark,
We might meet at a picnic somewhere in the Park

Or we’ll meet on the night of the first snow of winter
At a puppet show version of something by Pinter

No reason to fret, no need to be blue
Somehow, I think she is making lists too


Saturday, March 8th, 2008

Yesterday being a Friday, my blog entry was a poem. It was a reflection of something going on in my life, as poems generally are. When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking about the relationship between poetry and the events in life that inspire it. Coincidentally, several friends, after reading the poem, called me up today to say that they loved it, and also to ask, with some concern, whether I’m ok. Which I guess is also a kind of compliment on my poetry. :-)

The relationship between poetry and reality is funny though, isn’t it? A poem takes some aspect of reality, and then sharpens and polishes it until the underlying emotion is honed to a fine blade, reflecting light while cutting like a knife, clean and bright and able to draw blood.

Prose is quite different: It is best at describing the messiness and complexity of things, and there is a different, rougher kind of beauty in that. All the clash and bother, the sturm und drang of our imperfect selves in constant collision, that’s the stuff of real life.

In truth the woman I was thinking of yesterday is now in a relationship that is clearly right for her. The man she is with has a lovely graciousness, a calmly accepting and open soul, which perfectly complements her madcap headstrong wildness. Watching them together is quite beautiful. You can see how these two people fit together, and how one day their children will have the opportunity to draw from the best of both: Her wild soul and his calm one.

I am self-aware enough to know that she and I together would probably end up as a disaster – two ornery individualists each trying to charge up a different hill at the same time. We’d tear everything apart in no time, like a locomotive with two engine cars, each pulling in the opposite direction.

And yet I think that yesterday’s poem was completely true to the feeling that inspired it. Perhaps the truth is something like this: We dream in poetry, yet we live in prose.

List of things to do

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Forget the time it all made sense
Say nothing in your own defense

Move along, just agree
Do not talk of what might be

Please do not show your confusion
Pretend that it was all illusion

That simple touch, oh do not treasure
Its terrifying pain and pleasure

Try to think each gesture through
Make a list of things to do

Don’t indulge in deep despair
Do not touch her perfect hair

The knife cut inward hurts the most
Remember you should make a toast

Speak in measured tones, and slow
Say of course you’d love to go

Try your best to hide your fear
Rome is warm this time of year

Do not think of that embrace
Was I clawing at my face?

Don’t scream your pain unto the sky
It’s possible you will not die

Revealing thoughts

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Today a friend asked me the following question:

“Blogs are a very public way of revealing thoughts. Did/does it make you uncomfortable at times?”

A very good question. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answer is non-trivial. The best analogy I can think of is with driving a car – a wonderfully efficient way to cause death, dismemberment and general public mayhem. When you drive, you have complete freedom at all times to kill yourself and others. All it takes is a simple turn of the wheel and you are toast.

And yet millions of people drive cars every day, for the most part without mishap. The only thing protecting them from certain death is their own highly developed sense of self-preservation.

Putting your thoughts and emotions out there in a blog is something like that. Theoretically at any moment you could say something that would inappropriately confuse public and private knowledge, betray a friend’s trust, or in some other way be the equivalent of pulling your pants down in public (with or without that second pair of pants underneath). And then of course there is always the danger of being found guilty of BWI (blogging while intoxicated).

So many perils.

And yet the moment you put your hands on that wheel, step on the accelarator and pull out into traffic, a wonderful thing happens. You realize that you really do value your life, a certain circle of privacy, the trust of your friends, the line between sane and insane. It is perfectly ok to discuss thoughts and emotions in public, to look at the ways that powerful encounters with other people, both positive and negative, have pulled upon your heart, transformed you, made you see the world in a new way. People talking about those things together can be an exhilarating, therapeutic, community building experience.

But it is not ok to use any of that as an excuse to go on a destructive tear.

And so I find that I am never tempted to just spin the steering wheel randomly, cause a ten car pile-up, find out what a head-on collision feels like, or what would happen if I just drove this sucker off that bridge.

After all, I’ve got places to go, and these thoughts and emotions are just the vehicle to get me there. So I’m going to put the top down, gun that accelarator, and go for a ride with whatever friends care to go along with me.

Scenes from the novel

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

It had now been a full three weeks since they’d ridden into the low country. Cloud capped mountains ranged over the horizon on all sides, and the sun hung high in the morning air. Blossom was off nibbling on some sage down by the stream, which was fine with him. She’d been going since sunrise, and flecks of dewy sweat still glistened on her flanks. He figured the old girl could use a little rest after the hard riding of the last three hours. Besides, this was as good a spot as any to take the valley’s measure.

He turned the metal cylinder over in his hand. Squinting his eyes against the sun’s glare, he tried once again to read the marks engraved on its side. He couldn’t make head nor tails of it. Some sort of writing, but sure as heck like nothing he’d ever seen. Oh well, it didn’t hardly matter anyways. Carefully he pointed the cylinder toward the cloud above the mountain ridge up ahead. Just like before, the cool metal surface heated up slightly in his hand, and he could hear the faintest click. The cloud over the ridge winked out and was gone, leaving nothing but pure blue sky.

He counted off six, seven seconds before the boom came. He nodded to himself and adjusted the brim of his hat. A little over a mile left to go. He gave a low whistle and Blossom trotted over. With the grace of long practice he swung up and eased his lanky frame into the worn leather saddle. It was time to settle some scores.

Answer, in depth

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

In answer to Sally’s question, a friend of mine got married. It was one of those “let’s sneak off to the Justice of the Peace, just the two of us, and only tell everyone afterward” deals. I was sure they were going to wed at some point, but nobody knew it was going to happen quite so soon. Took a lot of people quite by surprise. But it’s very happy news.

And that’s not all! Today I bought a magical gadget that lets you draw in 3D. In one handy dandy kit you get two colored pencils (one red and one blue), a little adjustable holder thingie that looks like a drawing compass so you can draw your red and blue lines side by side, and a pair of magic red/blue 3D glasses, to make it all jump out into the third dimension. The whole thing set me back all of seven dollars. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me.

And on top of all that, it never runs out of batteries!! Although you do need to sharpen the pencils from time to time.

And I also bought new shoes. So I guess it’s happy news all around.

On South Beach

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

South Beach in Miami is another world, a world that contains mysteries, a tangled mashup of opulence and seediness, of beautiful young people just starting out and old folks barely holding on. Teenage models saunter to their next shoot, oblivious of the crazy old ‘Nam vet staggering along Ocean Drive muttering to himself. Overweight tourists from the midwest gape in confusion as two beautiful young men share a passionate embrace on their way home from the Palace bar. The lovely Casa Casuarina (the former Versace mansion) is only steps away from sad little old boarded up Deco-style hotels awaiting their final doom. Here everything seems to find its opposite.

Looking at the rows of boarded up buildings, I sense an uneasy turmoil lurking just behind the image of happy sun kissed throngs sipping their afternoon drinks by the ocean. The recent real estate crash is turning things upside down, the reality of the approaching recession starting to creep into a place that prides itself on being disconnected from anything as mundane as mere reality.

South Beach has become such a jewel ever since Michael Mann’s TV fantasy of Sonny Crockett’s world caused the real place to become revitalized, transformed into its own fabulous television image. A dream brought to life. I hope South Beach manages to hold on to that dream.


Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

For the first time in years I am speechless. Utterly speechless. Sometimes you hear something, some news, that you cannot even begin to process. And today…

Well, yes. today.

All I can say is congratulations. Perhaps tomorrow I will find my voice again.

Did I say congratulations?