Friday, December 30, 2011


A long time ago when I was writing my second book, one the characters I was trying to manipulate into committing a heinous crime said to me, “You can’t make me do that.” This might seem surprising, an invented being rising from the pages to address his creator, but judging from what my writing friends say, it’s a common occurrence. 

This particular character was named Norman. He was a gay gossip columnist for a well-known newspaper and he’d never done anything more violent than sling pointed verbal criticism at the nouveaux riches and the events which they frequented and he had to attend.  What I wanted was for Norman to kill somebody—the plot in my novel required it, and Norman was more than recalcitrant; he flat out refused. His logic was unassailable: I had not constructed him to do this. There was nothing in his make-up that suggested a capability for mayhem. Indeed, Norman was a quiet soul more given to reflections on the state of modern poetry than to ever considering manslaughter and violence.  

What to do… The book had been rolling along with almost 350 pages finished and having Norman not perform as intended would really screw things up. Somebody had to off the bad guy, and quickly.

In the end, I had to rewrite a couple of chapters. Norman stayed the gentle soul he was from the start, and I altered Marylin, the main female character enough so she could bludgeon the bad guy without complaining, so it all worked out and everyone (except the bad guy) ended up living happily ever after.

The way I write often involves having characters that are not sure of where they’re going—because pretty often, I don’t know where I’m going either. Even if I have a general plot idea, details don’t emerge or firm up until I’m actually faced with a situation I have to resolve. Plus, I like characters more than I like plotting, so I’m far more likely to bend plot to fit characters than vice versa.

This may be because I’m one of those people who concur with Samuel Johnson that fiction is limited to a few plots “with very little variation.” In fact, I’m convinced there  are only seven plots available:
  1. (wo)man versus nature
  2. (wo)man versus man
  3. (wo)man versus the environment
  4. (wo)man versus technology
  5. (wo)man versus self
  6. (wo)man versus the supernatural
  7. (wo)man versus god/religion

Christopher Booker, author of Seven Basic Plots—Why We Tell Stories believes these plots deal with:
  1. Overcoming the ‘monster’
  2. The quest
  3. Journey and return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Rags to riches

But even with limited plotting, there are unlimited characters to be created. In fact, the palette of human behavior and emotions allows us to construct an endless series of fascinating and believable characters whose lives evolve within the seven plot lines. That’s the fun of writing.

I try to listen to my characters. When I don’t, the story line gets into trouble and becomes less than readable and short of realistic. And the thing I’ve come to accept is, pretty often my characters know more about my writing than I do.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Closure


Five weeks ago the small post office that has served my community since the 1950s closed. There was no fanfare or good-bye party, just a printed sign on the door telling customers to go to another facility a couple of miles away. The people who had PO boxes were instructed to find another way to get their mail, and just like that a small part of the neighborhood vanished.

As post offices go, this one wasn’t much. It was located between a second-hand computer store and a Korean dry cleaner, just across from a Sunoco so it always smelled of gasoline and motor oil. Two windows, one wrapping table, a rack of mailing supplies that more often than not was found wanting. The round institutional clock had been taken away some years before when an efficiency expert persuaded the postal authorities that it was better for customers not to see how long they’d been waiting for service.

The employees knew just about everyone by name and conversely, we knew that Miss J was quick and efficient while Mrs. T liked to talk and took her time.  We knew whose kid had just graduated from George Mason, had returned from Iraq, had gotten married or divorced. We knew Miss P was a flirt who went on cruises every other year in search of love and romance. Mr. O’s told us his wretched Toyota had once again broken down at the bottom of the hill.

 I’d been going there for years to ship stuff I sold on eBay—guitars, amps, effect boxes and microphone stands—and once showed up with four used Porsche wheels with tires, all enclosed in cardboard and rolls of packing tape. I was sending them to a buyer in California. Miss J clucked and laughed, then told me I really shouldn’t have bothered wrapping them. I could have sent them as is, that is to say buck naked, as long as the address and postage were visible. Live and learn.

The post office closed because the entire enterprise is losing money at a frightening clip. The USPS lost more than $5 billion in 2011, and needs to shed about $20 billion in annual costs by 2015.  There is talk of ending Saturday deliveries, and overnight delivery of first class mail will probably cease as well. We—the customers—are partially to blame. Email, instant messaging, tweeting and all the other ways we have to communicate in an impersonal manner have taken their toll. Add to this the preferential treatment given to mass mailings and advertising, the increased cost of gasoline, salaries and maintenance costs and the demise of post offices throughout the land was inevitable.

On December 13th, the USPS agreed on a five-month moratorium on closures while lawmakers try to figure out a way to overhaul the system. That’s good, I suppose, since some POs tagged for closing were in truly rural areas that could not afford UPS or Fedex. The small space that was my post office is to be rented out to a dollar store. I suppose there might be a need for such a place where I live. 

Mrs. T took the closing as an opportunity to retire. Miss P now works in the giant sorting facility in the town next to mine. Miss J, her talents and efficiency finally recognized, was promoted to an office job within the Services. She works not too far away but told me she misses seeing her customers. Mr. O retired too and was given a bonus. He had his Toyota towed to a junkyard and bought a second-hand Lexus.  Life goes on.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Writing (Again)


I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid—five years old, to be exact—and it has been the mainstay of my life. Every serious job I’ve had has involved putting my thoughts and opinions on paper. I’ve been a reporter and free-lancer for some fairly important newspapers, an editor and contributor to magazines, a ghostwriter, pamphleteer, the voice of a UN radio operation and an addiction counselor whose written diagnosis influenced the care of clients. I had the very good fortune of working in the newsroom of the Washington Post during the Watergate era and years ago spent many afternoons with a late celebrated Senator and poet trying to write a novel. I’ve had a few books published, though not enough, and a few more are either looking for home or still writing around in my head.

The thing with writing is that it’s a feast or famine deal, and while I know a couple of  fiction authors who have made some money—and in one case, a lot of money—the rest of us have at best a tiny chance of scrawling our way to the top. There are fewer fiction writers making a full-time living at their trade than there are professional football players actively in the game, and I remember reading some years ago that if you averaged out the income of all writers, from the lady who edits the church bulletin to the super heavyweights like a King or a Patterson, you’d come up with a very sad figure, something on the order of $400 annually.

Still, there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.  I was trying to explain to a friend recently that I don’t really believe in talent. I fact, I have a really blue collar view of writing: It’s a trade you practice and get better at over time, much like plumbing or carpentry or electrical wiring, but with less of a pay-off . If you do it long enough, you’ll get good and with a bit of luck (this is where the talent part just might lie) the muses might smile and make you better than good. And like in any trade, there are the enfants prodiges, the ones who seem to have it in them, that ability to tell an entrancing tale and weave a fabulous spell without even trying very hard.  The rest of us have to work it.

I don’t know where ideas come from. I know some of them are better than others, they have legs and walk.  I’m in the process of writing my sixth book, but I’ve started writing dozens of others which have had no future at page fifty or a hundred; they splutter  and die like and old car running out of gas. I keep these literary dead-ends handy because you never know, what lacks life one day will be brimming with it the next. 

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once said of music and lyrics that everything is floating out there, and it’s a question of grabbing and hanging on tenaciously. That sort of makes sense, something like Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or perhaps Ambrose Bierce, “There is noting new under the sun but there are a lot of old things we don’t know.” 

So there it is. Writing is magic of the most plebeian kind, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Memory


It has been six days since my doctor declared me cancer-free, and my, how quickly one forgets… Which, I suppose, is a blessing. If we could remember every fear, every scrape and scratch and anguish, we’d most likely never get out of bed. The body does not remember pain—that’s why women are willing to bear more than one child—and the mind, generally in a short while, forgets abuse as well, or for most of us compartmentalizes it in such a clever manner that we overlook memories of pain. We have a vague remembrance of discomfort, we recollect that an event was difficult, but we cannot bring up the actual distress in all its glory.

Nietzsche waxed at length on this concept, albeit tying it to morality rather than pain. “I have done that, says my memory; I cannot have done that says my pride and remains adamant. At last, memory yields.”  Our memory yields constantly to convenience and expediency. It is fully malleable, capable of being influenced long after the fact, opportunistic and amoral.

I’ve always been fascinated by memory. Why can we recall faces but not names? Why and how do we remember certain events and forget others, how can we remember numbers and addresses for only the necessary minutes before writing them down, why are  memories of childhood often more vivid than those of yesterday’s events? When my father was succumbing to the cruelties of Alzheimer’s Disease, he once started sobbing about a baby burning and remained inconsolable for hours. It took me almost a week of gentle probing to understand that he was remembering the death of his younger brother in London, killed in 1944 by a German V 2 rocket that destroyed the family house. That had happened 60 years earlier. But ask my father what he’d had for lunch that day and he would draw a blank. 

Me, I have scars that are barely visible, and the pain of which I can’t recall, other than it was serious—a phosphorus burn on my left foot, the cicatrix left by motorcycle wrecks, a half-moon mark on the middle finger of my right hand, the result of an inadvertent moment while working with a router.

More recently, the pain associated with the healing from two operations is still fresh in my mind, but it’s waning. I remember that it made me stand on tip toes and hold my breath as it rolled over me.  On a few occasions it made me cry. This was barely a week ago. I imagine that in a month or so all that will be left is an intellectual memory. Which I suppose is good, as I wouldn’t want to be lugging all that luggage around. So maybe that’s a good comparison. We only have a carry-on’s worth of physical memories at once, something we can stuff under the seat or overhead when we travel our personal paths.

It could be worse….  
 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solstice


Today is the solstice, the shortest day of the year and my personal favorite 24 hours. I love the pagan implications, the circumference of seasons; it is the beginend. A lovely word.

My friend Kim Peter has for the last decade graced his acquaintances and companions with a collection of his favorite verse. I always look forward to it, and this year crib it shamelessly.

But first, for my francophone pals, my favorite, in French, albeit one season late. From Baudelaire’s Chant d'automne:

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres ;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts !
J'entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Tout l'hiver va rentrer dans mon être: colère,
Haine, frissons, horreur, labeur dur et forcé,
Et, comme le soleil dans son enfer polaire,
Mon coeur ne sera plus qu'un bloc rouge et glacé.

J'écoute en frémissant chaque bûche qui tombe
L'échafaud qu'on bâtit n'a pas d'écho plus sourd.
Mon esprit est pareil à la tour qui succombe
Sous les coups du bélier infatigable et lourd.

II me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone,
Qu'on cloue en grande hâte un cercueil quelque part.
Pour qui? - C'était hier l'été; voici l'automne !
Ce bruit mystérieux sonne comme un départ.

And now Kim Peter’s selection:

From ‘The Prelude’, by US poet Matthew Zapruder
Come to the edge
the edge beckoned softly. Take
this cup full of darkness and stay as long
as you want and maybe a little longer.

From the Chinese poet Wu Wei, translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Deep in the mountain wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far-off voice.
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

From ‘Moment’, by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh (nature as theater and a brook and birds as actors)
Everything’s in its place and in polite agreement.
in the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.
The moment reigns as far as the eye can reach,
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

‘The New Song’, by US poet WS Merwin (would that we all could say so much in so few words and with so little [read: none] punctuation)
For some time I thought there was time
and there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it for the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then
there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song





Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We're Alone. No We're Not. Oh, What the Hell...


My friend David D, an app mogul, computer wunderkind, NASA Ambassador and tireless proponent of science and space exploration, has a theory. We are mechanical beings, he thinks, miraculously though not divinely sentient, and he proposes that future research will prove we are indeed alone in the universe. He does not believe in reincarnation, or that there is more to existence than what we have during our short tenure on earth. His belief in a supreme being is an attenuated one and here we share a certain commonality, though I am at best uncertain of what I think most of the time. If I have a god, it is one of my non-understanding. More often than not, I think there might indeed be something up there, but I’m not sure he/she/it gives much of a damn for what happens here, or, for that matter, elsewhere.

In the past few years, I’ve tended to some of the beliefs propounded by Cathars, the 12th century heretics of the Languedoc region in France who saw the material world as largely nasty. Cathars were hunted down mercilessly by the church for promoting the notion that matter was evil, and that Man (Humanity) was an alien sojourner in an essentially malevolent world.  Therefore, the main aim of Man was to free his spirit, which was in its nature good, and restore it with God. The Cathars allowed women to be perfecti, i.e., priests (an idea I completely endorse). They did not believe in a Last Judgement, accepted reincarnation, and thought souls could take many lifetimes to reach perfection before their final release.

My stand on reincarnation is one based on the assumption that nature recycles—flesh, bones, bark and grass, almost everything but plastic shopping bags from Safeway, so why not souls, if indeed souls exist…

The discussion came up as David and I compared notes on health issues during a recent telephone conversation. David has suffered far worse ills than mine, and done so with amazingly good grace and courage. I have known him almost thirty-five years and seen his life and those of his loved ones go through some truly tough trials and come out victorious, often with a smile—admittedly a wry one—and a degree of acceptance I find hard to emulate. He’s a man worth listening to.

But if he’s right about us being one-of-a-kind in the universe, what a waste! I prefer to believe the place is teeming with life, and I wrote a novel about this theory many years ago. That being said, I’ll add that in spite of all the tales of aliens kidnapping humans, I’m pretty we’ve not been contacted yet, or even discovered. Our tiny galaxy and minutely small solar system is the equivalent of the Marshall Islands—lost in a deep and wide sea and far from everything that might breed life. And then, of course, having seen the terrible mess we’ve made of things in the last two hundred years, who would want to come and visit?  If I’m going on vacation, I have no desire to spend my time and money in the slums and sewers of some ill-begotten, unkind and unfriendly society.

So go or no god, reincarnation or one-shot deal, I’m coming to the conclusion that we’d better make the best of our vertical years. There are only a few of them, and, as I’m noticing more and more, they go by fast. I think someone else said it first but what the hell. Live long and prosper.   

 
    

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cancer, Round 2


Bout Two was worse than Bout One, though I had been told it would be far less intrusive or painful. In fact it was the opposite—more hurt and a wider area affected—and today, after having the catheter removed, I am feeling as close to normal as I could hope for.

This time around the pain rolled through in waves of three, starting with a faint urgency that would build in seconds to an all-pervasive throbbing lasting close to a minute. It felt as if some giant dark flower was forcefully blossoming inside me, taking up all the vacant space that might exist in the middle of my body. Then, after a while, the petals would close to form a tight, round ball of discomfort waiting for its next bloom.

Ha! This is as close to lyrical as I’m allowing myself.

As usual, my friends came through. You know who you are and I love you for caring.

No great epiphanies this time around. Pain hurts. Cancer sucks. Doctors and nurses do their best, I am sure, but their necessarily dispassionate behaviors are not reassuring and don’t allay patients’ fears. Telling a man in pain that he should relax is largely ineffective, which I think would have been realized by now after a couple of millennia of care-giving.
It was fascinating to watch what was nothing short of a medical assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud: booties and hairnet, check; IV, check; anesthesiologist pep talk, check. Then it’s being wheeled to the OR with the attending nurses making jolly about bad driving. When the surgeon asked how I felt, I said, “Scared.” He responded with, “I am here,” a strangely Lafayettish comment, I thought at the time.

I had to explain on seven different occasions (I counted) why I did not want narcotic or opiate pain killers, and I was lectured by one nurse on why I was wrong. I stuck to my guns and relied on Tylenol rather than the oxycodone they wanted to give me.  No courage there—I am terrified of getting re-addicted to pharmaceuticals, and my fear leaves no margin for error.

Today, as I was disrobing, the attending nurse said, “Here, you can cover yourself with this.”  She gave me a paper pillowcase.

More to come.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Yikes!!!


HOLY CRAP!  The cancer surgery I underwent in late September cost $10, 849.62.  OK, I only had to pay $100, but I repeat, holy crap!  We’re not talking an extended stay here, or meds, or special post-op treatments. No private room, no ambulance, no three star meals (fishsticks and Jello were my lot). The TV was stuck on the QVC channel with the sound off, which was probably a blessing…

Not that everyone wasn’t really nice and professional. I had two (2) anesthesiologists, though I don’t know why, and the only thing one did was basically let me know the hospital would not be responsible if his colleague accidentally knocked my teeth out, a statement I found neither reassuring nor endearing. I don’t have a breakdown of the bill, so I don’t know if anesthesiologist number one charged me for his warning. I hope not.  But the fact remains that I was in the hospital for approximately seven hours, and five of these was waiting for the operating room to be free of a person with far greater problems than mine. My surgery actually took about an hour, and I spent another two hours being monitored in the recovery area by a bevy of nurses whom I am pretty sure are on fixed salary.

So how did we get to such a princely sum? Did someone sneak in a Department of Defense hammer ($1200) or a Pentagon toilet seat ($4325)? A Congressional junket to Malaysia?

According to one recent report, Americans spend approximately twice as much as residents of other developed countries on health care and one trained medical billing advocate says that over 90 percent of the medical bills that she has audited contain "gross overcharges". A report published in The American Journal of Medicine states that medical bills are a major factor in more than 60 percent of the personal bankruptcies in the United States, and of those bankruptcies that were caused by medical bills, approximately 75 percent of them involved individuals that actually did have health insurance. One study found that approximately 41 percent of working age Americans either have medical bill problems or are currently paying off medical debt.

Meanwhile, profits at U.S. health insurance companies increased by 56 percent during 2009, and according to a report by Health Care for America Now, America's five biggest for-profit health insurance companies ended 2009 with a combined profit of $12.2 billion.

Here are a few more disconcerting facts…
  • Since 2003, health insurance companies have shelled out more than $42 million in state-level campaign contributions.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, wages in the United States increased by 3.8%, but health care premiums increased by 87%.
  • There were more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies that made over a billion dollars in profits in 2008.
  • The chairman of Aetna, the third largest health insurance company in the United States, brought in a staggering $68.7 million during 2010. Ron Williams exercised stock options that were worth approximately $50.3 million and he raked in an additional $18.4 million in wages and other forms of compensation. The funny thing is that he left the company and didn't even work the whole year.
  • The top executives at the five largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States combined to receive nearly $200 million in total compensation in 2009.

I suppose that in light of such figures, $10, 849.62 is a piddling sum and I suppose I should be grateful. According to one doctor interviewed by Fox News, "a gunshot wound to the head, chest or abdomen" will cost $13,000 at his hospital from the moment the victim comes in the door. Get shot in the head and get shot in the wallet. There’s a crime being committed here, but I’m not sure what it is….

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anthems


Here’s something strange: neither the fans nor the players sing the national anthem at football games anymore. As a matter of fact, they don’t even bother mouthing the words. Instead, a local or national celebrity is brought in to perform an operatic (or rock, or country, or R&B) version of the national hymn while the crowd looks bored, munches hot dogs, and drinks beer. They stand, but not at attention.

This is odd to me.  I’m not overly (or underly) patriotic. I live in the US and often find myself defending incomprehensible French interests, and when I’m in France, I am always cast in the role of supporting perplexing American actions. I know the first stanzas of both the Marseillaise and Star Spangled Banner, and all in all, I really prefer the wording of the former. The imagery is quite vivid—impure enemy blood coursing French furrows and irrigating wheat and such—and the music more stirring. Francis Scott Key’s ballad, it’s widely admitted, is perhaps the most un-singable anthem of them all, even worse than, say, Italy’s  Inno di Mameli (Mameli's Hymn), or Egypt’s Biladi, Biladi, Biladi (Egypt! O mother of all lands, My hope and my ambition, How can one count The blessings of the Nile for mankind?)

When I was a kid in Paris, patriotism was a given, though in both far subtler and more obvious ways than is now current. We did not sing our anthem in school, but we learned all about its author, Rouget de Lisle, who not only wrote La Marseillaise but also served in the American Revolutionary War. We attended the giant veterans’ marches on Bastille Day, the 14th of July on the Champs Elysées and saw firsthand the wounded survivors of World War I and II. The gueules cassées, men with terrifying, war-caused disfigurements paraded down the street or were pushed in their wheelchairs by volunteers. There was no escaping the harvests of war.  The reality of conflicts was never far away—here a plaque to commemorate the execution of a hundred youths by German firing squads, there a monument to the men and women killed in a dozen conflicts. War and its aftermath, I suppose, are closer to the surface in nations that have been conquered and seen the enemies march past their homes.

Perhaps as a nation gets more diverse in its make-up, as it embraces more cultures and mores, the simple things that might originally have symbolized unity, such as a national anthem, have a tendency to become less important. I suppose this is particularly true when a oneness of language is not sought, when the most simple demands made of citizens are made not just in English but in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean or Arabic. Because lets face it, the Marseillaise would lose as much impact in English as The Star Spangled Banner would in French…