Thursday, January 16, 2014

Write



Tuesday evening, I met up with the young fellow I mentor (as part of a structured program run by the Charlotte Street Foundation here, which gives artists studio space and opportunities) to go to hear George Saunders at a book reading event.

Will, who is approximately half my age, had bought the book of Saunders’ latest short stories (required) that for $15 that includes two tickets to the talk. He was sweet enough to court me on FB indirectly / directly to come along. We hadn't seen each other since "last year."

Actually, it had been a genuine while.

Neither of us had read anything from Tenth of December, and Saunders, who teaches at the prestigious Syracuse graduate creative writing program, only chose to read from it for about 10 minutes. The fictional selection was of the thoughts of a man whose co-worker had just died, and the text included the funeral.

It was intended as humor; Saunders approaches the fact that we, in his words, are all walking bags of bones, a uniting factor that should compel us to view each other with compassion.

Will laughed at the terse phraseology, lines omitting verbs to add masculine-sounding candor to thoughts like, “Bob = dead.”

I didn’t find it funny that the narrator was making fun of the way the Ukrainian Orthodox officiant was deadpanning about how odd or audacious it was that we “all” automatically took for granted we’d live another second, day, etc.

No, I think of this all the time.

All.

It doesn’t help that less than a month ago one of my first cousins died in his sleep on Christmas morning. He had gone to bed sitting up in a chair because it felt better. His heart didn’t make it, and he left behind a wife and three children.

He was born four months after me.

Right.

So, among the answers Saunders gave to the typical array of Book Reading Questions, is the only thing I can remember two days later, after a host of brain-scrambling, at-work, in-office meetings occasioned by out-of-town writers’ visiting, a new launch of a project I’m involved in, and an overall “new day” feeling going on at my company, is this:

“Bob walked in and sat down on the brown couch.” Is it significant that he walked in? No, well,

“Bob sat down on the brown couch,” then. Well, of course it’s “down,” so,

“Bob sat on the brown couch.” Does it matter what color the couch is? No.

“Bob sat on the couch.”

Is there any reason we need to know that?

Then, after “getting rid of all the crap,” as Saunders repeatedly characterized the non-essentials of any narrative, we’re left with “Bob.”

Not much, but it’s not crap.

He said.

Bob.

This comes from an author who has stuck to the short-story form after having been an engineer and a technical writer who attempted one, Hemmingway-esque, novel back when he was first married, which was an utter failure (the novel, not the marriage, which produced two, all-enlightening daughters who have since, it seems, have given every necessary other meaning to any apparent gap in his life since, etc. and etc. and on and on).

His breakthrough moment came when he overheard his wife laughing when she had discovered some dirty Dr. Suess-style poems and little drawings Saunders had been composing to keep himself sane during business meetings.

The triumph of the kitchen table. And a contrast to her head-in-hands pose Mr. Saunders demonstrated to us that she had had while reading the novel upon request.

So, humor.

And endless revision.

One story he referred to took him 14 years to get right.

Coming from a more theatrical sense of how narrative works, I find pleasure both in reading and writing narrative that describes movement and setting. I should exercise Saunders’ extraction principle on my one, very old short story about “May in the Crescent City.” What would be left after?

May stops being described as walking in her environment? It was important to me as a writer to use that as a way of showing thoughts during the passage of time. Those moments when ideas come, those moments when whose endings' change the opportunities to change ones course's end.

Willa Cather: without talking about that landscape, where is √Āntonia?

Steinbeck: without the corn pone fried in pork grease, how would we know the direness of the Joads’ situation? What is and what is not essential detail?

I haven’t attempted a short story in approximately two decades.

Where I’d carve that time from to do so . . .

I had hoped that going to the reading would be more inspirational than it was. I do feel a little better overall two days later, but the lack of immediate uplift troubled me.

My companion was contrasting the everyday existence of workdays with a vibrant holiday experience at home just weeks ago. I remember being that age; I did the same things, but I at this point can’t tell whether our action-paths are any different or will be. I have hopes, for both, for all. I guess I will have to keep in touch with him for a while : )

Currently he’s writing 500 words a day, at the challenge of a friend who is doing the same.

Here are about 800.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Abstemious


Nearly 12 hours ago, half a winter's day and nearly half of the daylight hours, it became 2014.

It's an arbitrary marker, when Janus looks forward and back once again and we all share a sense of beginning togetherness. In spring, more holidays that are designed to draw attention to our need to start over will follow. At the winter solstice a few days ago, other rites marked the beginning of the lengthening of daylight.

In about 60 days, the season of Lent starts, its name taken from the Old English word likewise referring to the lengthening of days.

Forty days (not counting Sundays) after Mardi Gras, another opportunity to overindulge, it's Easter — new life, etc. — all over again.

Once summer hits, we're allowed to forget bettering-ness and resolution-making?

This quote from Mark Twain showed up on "his" Facebook page today:

New Year's Day — Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

It's from a letter he sent to a newspaper. He got it right that we humans are adept at trying to start over again all the time while being terrible at self-improvement. My Facebook world is full of people running their mile-a-day from Thanksgiving to Christmas, making personal records at triathalons, dieting, making home repairs and renovations. Having babies.

The bells, always off-tone, of the nearest Catholic church four blocks away are calling the faithful to the daily noon Mass. Though I was compelled to participate in three Communion services this year and found them to be increasingly less intolerable, I'm not about to voluntarily start going to proscribed liturgical events on a regular basis. Indeed, I found the call by the Christmas homily to attend to my relationship with Jesus to be a difficult command to follow, not because of any philosophical opposition to the absurd concept that there is/was a God/man whose miraculous life 20 centuries ago somehow fundamentally changed human existence, but because being like Jesus — giving over your actions and thoughts to the self-effacing, other-centered, service toward fellow humans — is damn difficult.

Very few people I know (and I do have friends who will cite life events in the context of their being gifts from God) express any desire to get better on those terms. People I work with do, but they are a highly specialized group of like-minded peers and the cause of two of those compulsory religious ceremonies I went to. Setting those folks aside, I look out into a very secular place.

Yes, the nurse at the party last Sunday who was on Day One of being a vegan will, if it sticks, experience a healthier cardiovascular system as well as avoid participating in the death of animals, be they lovingly raised before sacrifice or treated as billions of factory products.

Yes, if my friend runs more this year, she too will be happier and able to spread happiness toward others such as her daughter and photography clients.

When you're healthier and happier, you have more resources to share.

But what do we normally share?

On a daily basis, I worry about tuna. Whales. Shrimp. Frogs. Rhinos. Tigers. Birds. The Poor. Water. Refugees. Drones. Politics. Hydraulic fracturing. Pop culture's dominance. My addictions. My health.

What I do with that worry, is another matter.

I'll continue to shuffle the ever-growing piles of paper that represent bills, addresses to transfer into electronic records, cards to write, money owed to a medical institution, a friend, the fired Internet provider, the Internal Revenue Service, state and city. Banks. Three banks.

The path to this current morass is shrouded. My past intentions got me here, and I don't remember making any decisions. I know I did not place service at the forefront. That is clear. I did not focus on accumulating wealth or goods, but I do have a crushing house and a freighter's-worth of possessions.

People who are younger than I am and closer to the (first) beginning of shaping their life's trajectory have been giving me food for thought lately. Last fall, I received the opportunity to be a mentor to a person who is half my age and also a writer. We've only met a few times, for a total of about 10 hours, and I regret the limits of my house, jobs, etc. that mean I can't plunge myself into discussions about books, thought, art, writing, life constantly as I used to back in college. (That's an idealized memory, I admit. Oh, let's not start falling into regret-pits about not having done enough when I was younger, freer and, strangely, so much the same as I am now that I don't know what.)

Within the so-called Millennial generation are subgroups, as with any other. I stumbled on a Catholic one somehow recently. After I got over their "no, you can't write here unless you were 'born during the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II'" rule that excludes me by four years, I did find an article that helps express what I've been trying to say here.

In it, Jonathan Lewis talks about why the new pope is dangerous. His slant is not about how Francis is scaring the conservatives, but that the pope's most ardent followers might sit back and do nothing — not challenge themselves, not grow — because they already agree with his message about charity, poverty and humility. Kind of like what happened to Obama supporters . . . former community organizer hasn't really gotten us to do that kind of real work . . . .

Lewis challenges himself to look at what he calls uncomfortable moments. He says that's a way to grow.

It isn’t as though Pope Francis hasn’t been trying, it’s that we haven’t been trying. He has said plenty of things that should make us uncomfortable no matter our ideological leaning or pet issues:
(Pick one and talk to God about why it makes you uncomfortable and invites you to grow.)
  • He embraces disfigured people who we would walk past every day.
  • He intentionally chooses to not talk about abortion regularly.
  • He reaffirms Pope John Paul II’s definitive statement against a female clergy.
  • He encourages us to go to confession regularly.
  • He holds the fire to an unbridled capitalism that robs from the poor, challenging even the abundance that can be found in the closets of priests or middle-class millennials!
The danger that Francis poses to each of us is the same danger that our interpretation of Pope Benedict posed as well; it is simply a different audience lulled into the complacency of a life lived as a consumer Catholic. We create memes of what we like, skim through the rest and call it the New Evangelization.

I'm leaving this post open-ended / no further analysis.

It's already "too-long-didn't-read."

Cheers.