Selections for Sheila

My second cousin once removed, Sheila, recently asked me to send her what I’ve written about my father.   Sheila was always treated to the best of this likable man, his irreverent wit, his intelligence on every subject of consequence, his charm, his idealism.   I told her I’d send her a link to the 1,200 pages I’ve written in my two and a third year wrestling match with this gigantic subject.    

Then I thought better of it, picturing her struggling helplessly in that dense jungle of unorganized prose, and began going through the unwieldy manuscript, making some selections, almost at random, to give her a picture of the whole project.  I saved a 53 page chunk as “Selections for Sheila”– served with the personal touch, don’t you know?

She wrote back to tell me she liked what she’s read so far, though much of it was painful to her.   She’d had only the most generalized idea of the darkness in his early life and no inkling of the dark side he often retreated to in the company of his wife and children, the overarching tragedy of his life.  

I’ll refer you back to that post a few days ago for my thoughts on writing, why, and how and what for.   Bukowski wrote a great poem about real writing that is hard to argue with.   It is not the praise of another reader that makes a piece of writing worth reading, it is the writing itself.  Writing with passion and care is its own reward, sickening as that also is to say in a world where so many empty, ill-considered words are churned out by people well-paid to churn the vomit out, often with the help of ghosts who do the real work of making popular, bankable idiots sound relatively intelligent.   That said, having a reader or two who gets what you’re trying to do, appreciates the work involved– priceless.  

After I sent it off I looked over the Selections for Sheila and immediately wondered where a few important stories were.   At one point the manuscript had a table of contents and an index, to help me locate things.   That was hundreds of pages ago, I couldn’t keep up with the administrative tasks associated with the writing– the pages piled up too fast.   OK, I am… how to say?… I don’t like certain kinds of hard work.   I can work for two hours or more taking rough edges off a few paragraphs, increasing the clarity of what I am saying, adding an illustration where it will help the reader see something I haven’t been able to make clear enough.   To some people this kind of work is unthinkable.  To me, most other kinds of work are unthinkable.  

I am not anti-social, I like people, for the most part, enjoy interacting with people (animals too, for that matter).  I am open to people, let me say that.  I spend most of my time alone.   No single thing is as important to me, or makes me feel more like myself, than the time I spend by myself, focused, concentrating on making something as clear, or elegant, smooth or rough, as I can make it.   Craft has become one of those quaint notions in our fractured tabloid culture, but hold a beautifully finished wooden spoon in your hand once in a while, run your fingers over it, and you will feel what I am talking about.

I’ve always loved that Chekhov story  “The Bet.”   Chekhov wrote it when he was 28 or 29, a young man already two thirds of the way through what would turn out to be a short life (he died at 44).  Read it yourself, (click here) if you haven’t, it’s quite short.   The bones of the story:  a wealthy banker bets an idealistic guy who claims to love life and the pursuit of knowledge above all else two million dollars that he can’t stay locked in a room for fifteen years without any human contact.  The idealist takes the bet, on the condition that he can have musical instruments, books and writing materials brought to him whenever he asks.   He suffers terribly at first, constantly playing the piano, then learns several classical languages, reads the classics in their original languages, he studies a wide range of subjects, including the collected wisdom of the world’s religions.

I’ll save you the spoiler alert, in case you haven’t read that story, but I have always related to that character Chekhov created.   The banker is just the crass way of the material world, the pondering reader is the soul of the human world.  It doesn’t embarrass me to make this simplistic statement.   I am already too far gone.  

I am now collecting pieces for Selections for Sheila Two.  Hopefully one day a literary agent will be moved by an unsolicited packet of pages culled from those selections.  The agent will skillfully introduce my pages to some corporate person I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.  I won’t have to piss on them– they’ll give me money instead.

Now, back to collecting pages for Selections for Sheila part two.

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Note to the writers out there — and a good one from Charles Bukowski

Wouldn’t you know it, five seconds, maybe ten seconds, after I hit “publish” on the previous piece, peevish about the long delay getting back to me by someone who promised to read something I’d sent her, I get a notification beep in my pocket.  I swear to your false gods, it was a few blinks of an eye.  An email from her, with an excellent reason for the delay, and some intelligent comments on the piece.

I appreciate her email, even as I also realized, as soon as I’d read it, that it was just an opinion.  Like mine, like anyone’s who clicks a thumb up or a thumb down on any of the 100,000,000,000 daily posts on the internet or any of its social media tentacles and capillaries.  Hey, Gangnam Style got a billion views at one point, probably has two billion by now (3,140,146,265 views and counting, grazie, Jeevsie).  Does that make it the greatest youtube video of all-time?   

Who gives a fuck?  The audience you write for is your own cultivated taste, served to the most intelligent, subtle-minded reader you can imagine.  It’s easy to forget that, particularly when the winds are stagnant and you’re getting the toxic stink full snout.  A friend sent me this poem by the great Charles Bukowski, which reminds us all of this, and more.  Kind of says it all (I have emphasized the stanza my friend pointed out).  Bon appétit:

so you want to be a writer?

Charles Bukowski1920 – 1994

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.


if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

 

From sifting through the madness for the Word, the line, the way by Charles Bukowski. Copyright © 2003 by the Estate of Charles Bukowski. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

 

source

Note to HarperCollins and the Estate of Charles Bukowski:  please forgive this Fair Use of your copyrighted Charles Bukowski poem (and thanks for keeping the old boy in print for us all).   

If you deem this zero profit use a copyright violation, please have your lawyers contact my literary agent’s attorneys at … what did I do with that damned business card?

Better yet, read some of the recent shit on this site and let me know what kind of contracts you’re offering bitter fucking writers these days.

Slowing Down

Like the drag of age on the muscles, gravity, the wind, an ever more giant hand in the chest, I notice a diminution of my energies lately.   This could be nothing more than a little good natured depression, checking in to keep me honest.   It is the other side of creativity, after all, despondence when the creative impulse wanes.

It is possible, when ideas are flowing and possibilities seem endless, to see the world as a kind of infinite feast.   During such times you are not troubled by the concurrent reality that this world is a truly infinite feast only for connoisseurs of carrion.   Your vultures, rather clever birds, and hyenas, often regarded as cowardly, are the most well-known beneficiaries of this unlimited smorgasbord.  Although these intelligent birds and plucky scavenging wild dogs will soon enough go the way of the Dodo Bird.

It becomes an uphill push to sustain enthusiasm for any long-term project in the complete absence of positive feedback.  It is like anything difficult– if you have one stout supporter, one person deeply interested in what you are doing– that is often enough to get you through a sluggish period.   In the absence of at least one person who truly gets what you are trying to do– the wall you hit periodically will look like the end.  

This is just one more reason that most people prefer the rewards of working hard every day at a job that pays them decent money, and hopefully also provides a sense of satisfaction,  to the day-dreamy reward of playing a perfect guitar part, or drawing something beautiful — for no pay.  “Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer, you gave me nothing for it,” says the Fool to King Lear.

Looking for inspiration, one resorts to superstition.  I was born in The Year of the Monkey.  I once read a blurb about everyone born on this every twelfth year Monkey year.   We are clever, can be very sociable, even charming, we have a million ideas, but we rarely are able to follow through to see any of them to fruition.  My father was a Rat.   Rats have all kinds of complementary traits to the Monkey, but not framing everything as a war is apparently not one of them.   I don’t really remember much else from that paper placemat of the Chinese zodiac I read in the Gran Via on Dyckman Street many years ago.   The Gran Via itself, run by Chinese Spanish speakers from Cuba, is long gone.

I had a long email debate with an old friend, a very clever fellow (also a Monkey, it occurs to me now) over the issue of American torture.   He argues by habit and he’s very, very good at it.  It is sport for him, as well as his vocation.  I grew frustrated by his continual deflection of my points about the so-called Enhanced Interrogation program, by his refusal to accept any point I made, instead making endless deft lawyerly pivots.  In the end, exhausted by this futile exercise with a devilishly clever Devil’s advocate, I wondered aloud if, in order to clinch his debate victory, he was going to start actually torturing me.   “Oh, but I already am!” he wrote back, wry as you please.

I had a long chat with him recently about  a matter that has been torturing me for some time.   It came at a particularly inopportune time for him, I realized immediately after making it the subject of our dinnertime conversation.  I dropped him a line to apologize for belaboring the point at such a bad time for him.  He assured me that he was always pleased to be a sounding board and was glad I feel free to continue discussing such things with him.   I took the opportunity to send him another copy of a piece I wrote about it, something too private, ironically, to post here.

In the thinly fictionalized story I had set up my dilemma from another angle, having a narrator tell the story from her point of view, dismissing mine while revealing all the pertinent facts in the least malignant light to herself that she could provide.  The story is about a ten minute read and I’m unable to tell if it presents a fair sounding story or if the narrator is a hapless puppet with grotesquely visible strings clearly grinding my ax for me.

Everyone I know is somewhat familiar with the outlines of the story and the personalities involved.  In seeking a reader who could read the story objectively, someone who didn’t know any of the players or the events, I asked a good friend of a good friend if she’d be willing to have a look.   She agreed at once, told me she’d be delighted to read it.  I emailed it to her eighteen days ago.  

After about ten days, hearing nothing back, I wrote to tell her I wasn’t looking for literary input, just a general impression on two things: is the narrator credible and is she sympathetic?   I had an immediate apologetic reply about a particularly hectic week, assuring me that she was looking forward to reading it and that it would be her pleasure to give me her take on those two things. 

Since then, and after his assurance that my ruminations on this long standing situation didn’t faze him at all, I sent the piece to my old friend, recounting the story I have told just now about the reader who has been very busy but assured me again she is anxious to read the short piece.

I had his reply immediately:

I would be happy to read it, and offer my feedback!

To which, several days ago, I responded: Hah!

The world is a fucking hoot, to those not too bloody and bruised to wink at its puckishness.   A couple of days of ten hours of sleep ought to bring out a bit more of its wicked humor, I would hope.  Otherwise, I fear, this recent listless, sore kneed limping I’ve been doing may turn out to be the harbinger of something more ominous.

 

 

Nuance, Context and other quaint notions

There are knee jerks that are almost impossible to resist.   Those knee jerks, now amplified and encouraged by our own private on-line and mass media cheering sections,  rule our world today, certainly our politics.  Right is right and evil is evil and if you try to defend evil I will swat that shit away and wag my finger like Dikembe Motumbo under the basket, as your shot winds up in the third row.   Don’t try that shit in my house!

When I hear somebody say that  God told them to do something, and that thing is bombing a water filtration plant and hospital in a far away land (because the dictator of that land is a modern-day Hitler), causing children to die along with their elders, my knee jerks.  That kid in Florida, Trayvon Martin, when the vigilante with the gun stopped him, whatever the guy with the gun may have said to him, why didn’t the black kid just say “yes, sir.  I’m up from Miami, visiting my family, sir” and get to live another day?  Knee jerk.   When the president does what he’s on record as saying his predecessor was an idiot for considering…. boing, there goes the knee.

Flash the cards, there is no shortage of them.  Abortion: murder of a human soul or a hard choice in a situation where an unwanted child will otherwise come into the world to live a life nobody would wish on it     If you believe God said abortion is murder, that’s the end of the story, bub.  It’s murder if the fetus was put in a thirteen year old’s womb by a rapist, or by the coercion of a sleazy, criminal relative.  Murder if they held the girl down and took turns punching her and raping her.  Murder because, every soul was created by God and the soul comes into being at the moment of conception, because God loves every soul.  

True believers are hard to have a conversation with.  There are no facts you can put forth that will allow them to see things from another perspective.  I’m not singling out hypocritical Christians, doggedly defending the rights of fetuses while letting the little unwanted newborn fuckers fend for themselves.   I am just using rigid religiosity to illustrate this larger point about belief that is impervious to discussion, nuance or context.  We all believe what we believe and we justify those beliefs according to our ability to rationalize.    

I am floundering today, as I try to make this vague yet obvious point clear.  If we omit nuance and context in a discussion, we are just talking opinionated shit at each other. Nuance is the first casualty of absolute moral certainty, any sense of a larger context is killed at the same time.  Not to say there aren’t principles worth fighting for– personal integrity is one, it seems to me, but even there, choosing your battles is very important.  This black and white, red and blue, us and them world we live in is the divided, divisive hell it is for many reasons.  High on the list is a massive failure to acknowledge nuance and context, particularly on the other side of our own beliefs, when talking about particular issues. 

I was surprised to learn, as I was writing a long manuscript about my father’s life, trying to draw every lesson I could from his tragic example, that it is possible to identify with the feelings of a desperate, trapped woman who viciously takes it out on her baby.   The feelings, I say, not the actions.  It’s impossible to identify with the actions, I think.  The actions are despicable, whipping a baby in the face, there’s no defending that.   The feelings, odd to realize, are quite readily understandable.   That’s some fucking nuance right there, dear reader.  Let me try to make it as clear as I saw it that day.

A relative I never met, who was portrayed to me only as red-haired, tiny, very religious and with a terrible temper (also a great cook), turns out also to have whipped her infant son in the face, regularly.   It was part of her daily routine, breaking this toddler’s spirit.  I always assumed she was a psycho, which she most likely also was.  But one day it dawned on me, how tortured this woman was when she began taking it out on her first-born son.    It doesn’t excuse what she did in any way, but it sheds light.  Light is the only antidote to darkness.   It shows a path out of what she was trapped in, even if one didn’t exist for her in 1926 when she began her lifelong persecution of the boy she called “Sonny”.

The man she fell in love with was driven away by her brother and her sister-in-law.  It was nothing personal for them, nothing against the young man who loved her.  It was strictly practical.  Her marriage would have meant the loss of their indentured servant and they weren’t ready to give up their live in maid.   Years later she was forced into an arranged marriage with a man who seemed to be brain damaged. He’d been knocked in the head many times by his own angry step-mother and nobody will ever know if this deadpan man who died young was brain damaged or not.   He couldn’t make a living.   They lived in a filthy, teeming slum, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 1922.   Every day the woman woke up to this horror.   Somehow she got pregnant.  The baby girl died shortly after she was born.  

At some point the heartbroken woman got pregnant again.   This time the tiny woman gave birth to a gigantic son.   We can imagine the pain of this childbirth.   The baby looked exactly like the idiotic husband who had knocked her up.   He looked at her with that same dopey expression.   One day the woman snapped, whipped the baby in the face with the thick, heavy, burlap wrapped cord of her iron.   It apparently felt good.  Maybe the only thing in her life that did.

I’m not being a lawyer for this evil mother.   We’d like to think a mother like this today would be in the hands of an excellent psychiatrist.   That her child would be getting help recovering from his trauma.  But what I’m digging for here is Nuance.   Not that she’s in any way right to act in this vicious way, but in order to understand her pathology, on the way to hopefully making life better for all involved, we have to fully know the context of her actions.

I rattle on about this subject tediously often, I’m aware.   We live in a world where every message we get, every bit of news, is curated, structured to support one polarized point of view or another.   It is extremely rare to get the full story about anything, from anyone.  I am always looking for a way to make the point about nuance and context that is not partisan.  I do this animated by the Anne Frank-like faith that most humans, in their hearts, are not haters.   That we are all basically good.

I believe this even as I hate any U.S. president who rains death on people who have no power to do anything but agonize and die, or if they manage to survive, fear and hate.   Few problems have ever been solved by the application of massive deadly force, whether you call it “Freedom on the March” or by any other high-sounding name.  It is of course business as usual,blowing shit up is a driving force of capitalist profit making.  

I felt a surge of hatred when Bill Clinton sent missiles that blew up civilians, destroyed infrastructure they needed to survive.   That same hatred surged through me when George W. Bush ignored millions of us marching in the frigid streets and launched “Shock and Awe”, later declaring victory and lynching Saddam after shooting his two hideous sons in the street like dogs.   As for the massive civilian deaths?  Killing civilians is now blandly called “collateral damage” nothing to get excited about, certainly no war crime, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.   Barack Obama’s extrajudicial murder of the radicalized American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenaged son Abdulrahim a week later– same deal, along with all the other deaths our recent president inflicted on unknown brown people on his secret kill list.

Can we have some fucking nuance, a little context so we can discuss these things intelligently instead of just using force to kill things like Terror, Evil, Haters of our Freedom?  Our previous president told us we were looking forward, not backwards at the architects of  our recent crimes under international law, you know, because we are, uh, taking the high road.   To be totally honest, we tortured some folks, what are you going to do?   Good folks doing some bad shit, with the best of intentions.  

Make American Great Again.   Hope and Change.  Make America Great Again, again.  The slogans change, a few of the proponents of government violence change with each administration, but the song remains the same.  Fuck nuance, fuck context, it feels good when our leader bombs the shit out of some fuckers who might very well be evil.  If nothing else, they really do appear to hate our freedom.  Even pundits who usually seem to have a reasonable grasp of world affairs go momentarily gaga when the president blows some shit up with a huge show of force.   It doesn’t seem possible to me that we are a nation of such stupid motherfuckers.

The evidence is not strong that we are not, but I am always digging for it.

 

 

Lunch with cousins (& the grasshopper and the ant)

My ninety year old cousin Gene introduced me, at his birthday party yesterday, as his only living relative.    His wife, sister and daughter were also there, along with a brother-in-law and a son-in-law,  but his point was taken.   His father, one of eighteen siblings (nine of whom lived, for a while, at least) was the only one who made it out of the caldron that was Hitler and Himmler’s Europe in the 1940s.  His father had survived by sheer luck.   An uncle in the U.S. had sent his future father a ticket for a steamship.  This was around the time of the First World War.  That uncle died shortly after the thirteen year-old arrived in America.  That was it for that side of the family.   No trace was ever found of anybody else, and Gene searched on at least two trips to Europe.

My grandmother and Gene’s mother were first cousins.   They had come over together right before the First World War on a steamship called Korfus die Grosse.  I never met that grandmother, my father’s mother, who died young before I was born, but I remember Gene’s mother very well.   Dintch was a bright woman with mischievous eyes and prominent cheeks that were often raised in a wry smile.   She also lived to be ninety or more, if I recall.   The rest of our family disappeared into that marsh south of the Pina River, across from Pinsk in what was then Poland and is now Belarus.   There is no trace of any of them, or even the muddy hamlet they all lived in, as far as any of us have been able to find out.

Gene explained our exact degree of cousinly relation yesterday.   Since my father and Gene were the sons of first cousins, they are, apparently, second cousins.   This makes Gene and me second cousins once removed.   I believe the same relationship exists with my cousin Azi in Israel.  His mother and my father were first cousins, so their children, Azi and Azrael (Israel), both named for their common ancestor, my father’s grandfather and Azi’s great-grandfather, were second cousins.   Or something– I’m pretty sure my analysis is faulty, now that I reread it.  I have never been good at this cousin business, probably because I have so few of them it never seemed to matter.

Chatting in the restaurant with Gene’s sister, I couldn’t help mentioning the 1,200 page manuscript I’ve drawn up grappling with my father’s life.  Gene’s sister has only fond memories of the witty, well-spoken Irv, and of my mother, another colorful character, an opinionated, earthy woman who loved a good story and a good laugh.   Gene’s much younger sister expressed interest in reading it, as Sekhent put the sales varnish on it, that it’s a story of history, and memory, and forgiveness and blah blah blah (actually, all she mentioned was history, but she strongly suggested the ms. is way more than a cv of an unknown man going on 13 years dead).

As is her way, Sekhnet pointed out to the group at the table that it is much easier for me to keep cranking out new pages than it is for me to figure out how to package and sell the book I’ve already largely written.  That’s the hard work, she pointed out, making the obvious a little easier for all to see.  Hard work, she made plain, is something  I constantly shrink from.    Like the grasshopper I am, think of that parable of the grasshopper who loves to play guitar, and mocks his constantly worried, constantly working ant neighbor (until winter comes and the grasshopper begs in vain for some food), I continue tapping here, instead of reading the whole thing and plucking out a succulent 15-20 page slice to send out to literary agents and get to the next step.

Since I have promised to send Sheila the whole megilla, I figured I’d seize the opportunity to select a strong 15-20 pages and send her those first [I sent her a random 53 page sampling– ed].   It will be much easier for her to deal with an appetizing slice than more than a thousand pages of sometimes rambling prose.  

In my experience, people have a very hard time reading even a five page story, unless it’s published somewhere, in which case they are all pleased to send a good word.  I need to cut out a strong section to get to the next stage.  How I will do this, I have no idea.  I do know I need a cup of strong coffee before I get started.  That is the very least I need.  You hear me, Sekhnet, goddamn it?