This May Take a While

Do you miss your college years, just a little bit?

I don’t mean the sloppy mess you may have made of yourself at frat parties, or the ease with which you accepted, without question, that by merely doing the work and getting decent grades the world would welcome you as the divine gift you were destined to be, compensate your talent with wealth and so thoroughly love you that you’d never feel pain again.

What I’m talking about is showing up for a lecture even though you didn’t do the assigned reading, and, without expecting anything, you hear of an idea, a concept, a way of explaining or understanding the world that resonates deep inside. You feel things that you were disparate, disjointed, isolated and uninteresting suddenly line up, organize themselves around a defining principle and make sense! You relate other things to this idea–things that didn’t seem to fit before–and they make sense, too!

The light bulb goes off in your brain and you realize that an education isn’t a studied delusion that you’re better than everyone else, or a tool to take you to your dream job. You’ve had an epiphany, a revelation, a peak experience. You realize that education is a gift that has improved your life, and you haven’t even eaten lunch!

Such epiphanies were, for me, a feature of a college sojourn that helped me through the loneliness, social washouts, the rejections from my peers, my shoddy schoolwork, the professors who didn’t “get” me, and far too many situations in which, sober or not, I behaved like a total jerk. I lived for those moments when I was born to hear this idea, learn this truth, understand what artists went through so I could benefit from their work.

After four and a half years I graduated, went on an archaeological dig, became terribly ill, came back to the United States and discovered that no one cared about my revelations, or that I knew what had happened at the New York Armory Show in 1913 to bring the United States into the modern era. Few listened when I quoted Shakespeare, Sophocles, T.S. Eliot, A.E. Houseman, Samuel Beckett or Emily Dickenson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”).

I got a job making sandwiches at a supermarket deli counter in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Around the block some guy named Larry McMurtry had a rare book store. He came in to the supermarket occasionally for take-out coffee. I found out he was a published writer. I visited his shop on my break and saw him pecking at his typewriter in the back. I asked him how you become a published writer.

He said he didn’t know. “You just keep writing.” He returned to his typewriter.

I went back to the deli counter. I was so tired from making sandwiches I could barely stand up. How was I ever going to write a word when so much of the “real” world outside of college was about pouring your soul into a job so you’d be paid and, when you got paid, you’d be lucky if you were too tired to spend your money.

Unlucky was trying to spend your money and being reminded, wherever you went, that you didn’t make enough,  no matter how many hours you worked making sandwiches.

But you could still dream. You could go home to a dump of an apartment and try to write, as I did. Or, like another guy who worked behind the counter, you could practice your guitar and try to put a band together that would play the music of your heroes.

A month later I asked the editor of a local newspaper if I could write for him. My work began to appear regularly there. I wrote a profile about one of the guys who worked at the deli counter. In the article I mentioned his guitar playing and listed a few of his heroes. He was embarrassed when the article appeared but, when people began to ask for sandwiches from him by name, and talk to him about music and musicians, he tasted the sweet spice of celebrity. His life didn’t change.

Mine did. The manager of a lamp store came in for coffee. He said he was hiring. He hired me and, instead of slicing and toasting and wrapping and unwrapping because I forgot to add the pickle, I moved among bright, sparkling, warm things. I wasn’t so tired when I came home. I wrote more.

Though I lived a few blocks from the Georgetown University campus, I did not attend classes there. I got no more epiphanies from professors.

I got them from people I met, like the guitarist who believed that practicing music made him a better sandwich maker. How could such different things be related, I had asked him. “They’re related because you’re the one doing them,” he replied.

Up to then, I had divided myself in half: at night, when I wrote, I was this person who was going to be a published writer one day. During the day, I was this other person doing stuff to pay for the roof over my head. What I did in the evening was a sacred task. Everything else was trivial.

What if that stuff you do while you’re not achieving your dream, is just as important?

I remembered what I learned about the Japanese tea ceremony in a religion class. In the ritual, every gesture, every movement can be infused with a profound spiritual meaning. Or the ceremony is about an activity as simple and mundane as making and drinking tea. When the right person is involved, it’s both, and that can be quite wonderful.

I never took a journalism course, and never wanted to be a journalist.  In college I learned that being curious is a very, very good thing, and that asking the right question can open you to a new world. When you write, you share that world with others. I had no idea then that I would eventually practice my curiosity, and my questioning, for the New York Times.

You get gifts in life that you don’t appreciate, or use, until later. You hear things, you absorb things, whether or not you did the assigned reading.

What does your computer tell you when it is installing an update?

This may take a while.

 

 

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While Bread Rises

 

When I had the rare visitor to the house I inhabited for a cold, lonely winter on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay,  I’d have us make bread. Not only did it fill the house with delicious aromas and create a centerpiece for the evening meal, it gave structure to the day.

You can’t make bread quickly. Even fast rising and so-called quick breads require you to measure , mix and wait for a half hour to 45 minutes. The bread I make takes a few hours.

After the dough has absorbed most of the water, it must be kneaded, which, in addition to inspiring the inevitable pun about how great it is to be needed, gives your hands and arms a mild workout. Kneading dough is so easy that previous skill sets, or their lack, don’t matter. The great majority who don’t work with their hands discover how pleasant it is to fall into a gentle rhythm: push, turn, fold, push and, if the dough is a little sticky, sprinkle on more flour.

Kneading, like making bread itself, is also a process. The sticky, gooey lump with which you start changes into a tight, warm ball at the end. Like watching water come to a boil, you can’t always point to the moment when congealed flour becomes a tight ball of bread dough.

Enthusiastic effort may scatter flour about the table, sometimes on the floor and the clothing of the baker and his visitor. Flour should be cleaned from the floor, but a white spray on a flannel shirt or blue jeans personalizes the garment. You suddenly resemble a person whose attire, however faded, washed, ripped or worn, hints of an occupation, or, for my visitor, a preoccupation.

Then the bread has to rise. I’d put it a mixing bowl with a wet cotton dishcloth over the top, and place the bowl near the heater.

“What happens now?”

I had a single bicycle, but no car. I’d suggest we go for a walk down the long driveway to the street that wound around the enormous vacation homes owned by those the locals called “weekend people.” Walk past those, to a collection of shacks and double-wide trailers where the locals lived, and we came to a house with a sign in front, fringed by Christmas lights. Half of that house was a bar, with a few chairs, a pool table, one or two guys in old survival suits who never seemed to leave, and cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The place was really warm inside, possibly to make it easier to drink the beer.

Conversations happen when you walk where cars don’t go too fast, where people aren’t busy running errands. You see movement behind windows exuding warm glows.

Walk further, down to the docks where trucks load up with whatever the watermen managed to pull out of the bay,  you could buy a rockfish, have it cleaned and cut so it can be tonight’s dinner.

When we returned to the house the dough in the bowl had grown huge, enormous, amazing.  I punch it down and, maybe, knead it a little bit more, then put it in pans that go back to the warmth of the heater.

We have coffee or tea, and then, if the visitor had a car, and the roads weren’t too icy, we go for a ride. A wildlife sanctuary was about two miles away, with boardwalks, observation platforms, a pine forest and the ruin of a house. When the winter sun was a pale blur behind silver clouds, we drove back.

The loaves had risen almost to lip of the pans. I fired up the oven, sliced an onion, carrot and celery stalk. I put the vegetables in my iron skillet, added water, a dash of salt and pepper and some leftover white wine, brought it to a simmer.

Visitors who don’t cook gaze at the picture window at the bay, at the birds that never leave it, and the distant lights that come on as the sun goes down. Visitors who do cook have theories about the best temperature for cooking bread.

A theory is tested and the house is gradually overwhelmed with the most beautiful scent. I open a bottle of wine and put a stick of butter on the table, a jar of jam, a bottle of honey. The loaves come out, brown, fragrant and delicious. I serve the fish. One loaf is eaten almost instantly, without conversation. Good food will do that. It demands all your attention, and you give yourself to it willingly.

The next morning, I make toast with the second loaf. The visitor takes the third and, after a review of the series of numbered roads that will take him back to his productive, overly connected life, I go out with him and watch him drive back down the driveway.

Only a few things I wrote that winter were published. When I think back on what I accomplished that winter, I remember scary rides on the bicycle with my clothes stuffed into a backpack, to the distant coin-operated laundromat with the dryers that never seemed to dry anything, and the gentle things that happened while waiting for bread to rise.

 

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A Place to Write

Where would you like to write? I’m not asking where it is that you actually write, or are forced to, if it’s your job. What if you could find, or create a place to make all those words flow even easier?

I asked my writers group about this. One guy liked beaches and wished he could go to the beach every day, sit down on a towel, and let the words flow.

I spent a few years living at the New Jersey shore, within a short walk of the beach. I tried writing there only once, on a warm day with the ocean rolling up to tickle my toes. It was so pleasant that I spent more time staring at the water than what was on the page. Bathroom breaks were…problematic. Then, as shadows lengthened, sand fleas and greenhead flies targeted me for their afternoon snack.

Did I get anything done? Some, but not as much as I wanted. I wrote more, and faster, back in that little room with paper all over the floor, books I hadn’t read, and a window with a view of the neighbor’s house.

Another person in the writers group likes to find a table in the back of a swanky local restaurant, order a drink, and tap away at his laptop until closing time. I would have done that much earlier in my career, had I not been nearly broke most of the time. I would go to restaurants when I got paid. When you write for a living, getting paid is a cause for celebration, and what better place to celebrate, and not write, than a restaurant?

I was reminded of the playwright David Mamet’s collection of essays,  Writing in Restaurants. I wonder if Mamet saved his restaurant receipts and deducted them from his New York city, state and federal taxes as business expenses. Would the words flow just as easily if he got take-out coffee and found a bench on a sunny day in the beautiful park behind the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library?

How about a cafe in Paris? You perch beside a tiny table, with a coffee in a diminutive porcelain cup, or a ruby-hued, far-too-small portion of wine in a long stemmed glass, and you attack paper with a pen, pausing occasionally to glare at the passing boulevardiers, and to savor the fact that, even if your masterpiece is not published, you will always have Paris!

I lived for a month in Paris in a pension on Rue Mouffetard, close to one of the rooming houses where Ernest Hemingway lived with Hadley, his first wife. I wandered down the narrow street as it sloped downward toward the Seine and put myself in a chair in one of the cafes in the Place Contrescarpe. The waiter gave me a look– not another Hemingway!  My coffee was only warm when it arrived. I opened my notebook and I couldn’t write a thing. It was too much fun to watch the tourists, Sorbonne students and the elegant older people moving slow with their dogs pulling at leashes,  sniffing everywhere.

In a biography I learned that the reason Hemingway wrote in cafes was that he could not stand the meanly furnished, unheated hovels he inhabited, he wanted to get away from his wife and his baby, and, he, too, was nearly broke much of the time. He was also a little bit proud of turning writing, which he romanticized as a soul-sapping quest for a “true sentence,” into what appeared to be a leisure activity.

That’s one of the great things about writing: whether you wrestle with each word, or let them gush like blood from a stone, it is that rare endeavor where something really can come from nothing.

Or what seems like nothing. In truth, what comes out is the result of everything that has happened to you (and a lot more that hasn’t!) up to that point. But, to the people who don’t write, and don’t know what you go through in order to write, you’re a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Did Hemingway accomplish much during his Paris sojourn? Absolutely. Did I? Nahhh. About the best I could do was write a letter. I became good at writing long letters. Few answered them.

Now, when I see people slumped on mismatched furniture in American coffee shops, so focused on their phones, laptops, Moleskin notebooks and fancy fountain pens, I can say, “Been there. Done that.”

How about writing on a cruise?  The mystery writer John D. MacDonald and the science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein liked to write on cruise ships, adopting a monastic seclusion in their cabins until it was time for lunch.

Mystery writer Lawrence Block liked to write while traveling, and some of his stories set outside Manhattan make use of wonderfully banal locations in motels and roadside restaurants. For Block, traveling was also a way of disciplining himself–he gave himself a fixed number of days to be away, and with the promise that he would finish writing the book before he returned.

I have, at times, aspired to become a portable writing machine: take an experience, mix with research, spice with humor, sentiment or cynicism, fuel with strong coffee, tap the keys or push the pencil until it all flows seamlessly to a specified length and–it’s done!

If only it ever was that easy. In order for me to produce anything that matters, I have to put myself in a place that is not the one in which I typically live, in which the distractions of the day, the Internet and a zillion other things you can do that are worth doing but don’t involve writing, are at arm’s length.

And that place can be anywhere.

I write now in a cluttered space with a closet stuffed with old clothes, a stack of books I still haven’t read and no art on the walls. Both windows have views that I can’t see from where I sit, in a swivel chair that rocks back a little.

I have an ancient desktop whose hard drive whirs contentedly inside its dark tower. Outside the tower is an external hard drive that groans when it rouses itself. On the hard drive is a big file of music from my wall-high CD collection, supplemented by a few on-line purchases.

I’m finishing a novel in which music can take you to another world. It’s going slowly, which is okay, because I’m not a writing machine. Every creative act takes its own time and makes its own place.

May we love them all.

 

 

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Almost Dog

The dog and I made our way briskly through a crisp autumn morning. We paused before a grassy field. I took a step and did not feel the tingle of wet grass and dew on my feet. Alas, this was the first day of “serious” shoes.

I wore sandals most days for the last four warm months. I especially enjoyed them when it rained. While the rest of me enjoyed protection from numerous waterproof synthetic fibers, my feet enjoyed the refreshing chill of fresh rainwater.

This wasn’t quite so pleasant after the rain, when I stepped in dark puddles and muddy patches. I’d like to tell myself that this was one more natural element in my environment, but our Home Owners Association’s frequent dousing of common lands with herbicides inspired me to rinse my feet and sandals, as well as the dog’s paws, when we encountered these things.

When I took them off, I saw tan lines crossing my feet. I wore the sandals so often that when I had to put on “real” shoes for ventures to restaurants or a hiking trip, my feet came down with cabin fever. What are these sock things, they complained. Why can’t we feel the air.

Like hiking boots, sandals tend to make you think of your feet, until you reach that moment when you stop thinking of your feet. You look around and, if you’re not distracted, and your phone isn’t in your hand, you begin to notice where you are and, maybe, feel grateful for the dog, and the day, that brought you here.

Now that I’ve put my summer shoes away, my feet notice where they’re not.

And the dog, barefoot all the time, looks at me and wonders why I don’t give it all up and just be a dog. In sandals, I was almost there.

 

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What Happened to the Golden Rule?

I haven’t added a post in a while, though not for an inability to write. I have a file of posts that I began and stopped because I wasn’t sure if sending out that stream of words would be a good thing for me and those who may read them.

Every other day I read (in newspapers printed on real paper!) of some well known, productive, basically decent individual done in by a few sentences added to Facebook, Twitter or some other social media account. Some of what is quoted seems to me careless speech, the kind of burble that happens at parties among friends, at bars whose drinkers have had more than a few too many.

Friends may react to such burble with a roll of their eyes–that’s just ___________ making a fool of himself. Drunks at the bar could grumble and–at bars I definitely do not visit regularly–throw a punch.

In most situations, the damage from careless speech is contained. Injured parties may demand–and, unlike our current era, get–an apology. The owner of the loose lips may be told not to come back to the bar, and, if that punch connected with anyone, legal remedies may work their dreary purpose.

But now, employers review an prospective’s Internet activity, to make sure that anything burbled out of the office, no matter how long ago, won’t embarrass the business. Though I’ve been self-employed for most of my life, I remain grateful that I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. I’m not afraid that I’d say anything to cause the flurry of outrage, or “viral” activity that passes for celebrity news. It’s that what little anyone may offer on these platforms cannot be taken back. Even deleted remarks can be resurrected. And an apology isn’t good enough. What you say identifies you as pawn, a player or standard bearer in the endless tribal conflicts that consume our lives. It is truly regrettable that the culmination of so much technology, art, culture and civilization is self-expression in an arena that has no physical existence, but creates life changing consequences, most of which are far from good.

An offensive Tweet (remember when that was a pleasant, harmless sound made by birds?) can end a career, even if the burbler embarks on a rehabilitation quest. A few decades ago, celebrities who embarrassed themselves in public could go on talk shows, chat about their families, cry about their mistakes and expect some public compassion.

As one who has always valued the necessity of self-expression, and has made a fool of himself too many times with careless speech, I am inspired to withdraw, in search of some deeper solace between myself and the greater spiritual universe that, I have come to believe, matters much more. Escapist activities like exercise, listening to music, a walk in the woods, cooking a complicated dinner, or writing pages of a novel that I hope everyone will read and love–seem a better investment of my living energy.

I can’t help but wish for some kind of justice for those who use the Internet to shame, belittle and bully. I’m aware that this behavior is consistent with the human nature most of us find perfectly natural.

But I was raised to keep that vicious antagonism in check. I was raised to respect and honor most people I met, not as potential enemies deserving of shame and ridicule, but as people who with whom I shared things in common. Such an ideal goes back to the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you.

What’s happened to that?

From what I’ve heard, on the Internet, status and money can be acquired by saying and doing things that consistently capture attention. Glance at the history of show business, entertainment and the expressive arts, and you find for every great movie, play, poem or painting, there are plenty of cheap shots that draw our gaze, whether or not we want to give it. After a while, if your attention is yanked about too much, you get tired. You shut down. You cease to feel.

I overheard a “communications professional” interviewed about the preponderance of insulting, misleading and frequently false claims in political “attack” ads. She excused the advertising as the result of the “fact” that human beings are “hard-wired” to pay more attention to negativity–things we don’t like, incite our anger, fill us with fear and dread–than the opposite.

Are we? I’d like to see the research that established this fact. And then I’d like to propose a moral question. What do we “get” from so much attention to negativity? Do we sleep soundly at the end of the day, content that the bad, the culpable or those we are told to assume are inferior to us, have been received what they deserved?

What has come around is that ugly, dangerous, destructive theory of action: the end justifies the means.

What is the end to which so much Internet abuse aspires? I don’t know, but I am aware that, if the public outrage machine has an immediate result. When we are made angry so frequently, when we are given so many numerous and changing targets for our hatred and resentment, when we join mobs that laugh, taunt, demean and ridicule, we lose our sense of ourselves, and get, in exchange, someone else’s idea of what we should be.

I’ve had moments in my life when I failed, or did foolish things, inadvertently hurt someone, or made a sorry mess, and wished I could be anyone but who I am.  My wish wasn’t granted. I returned to the truth that, wish as I might, I’m stuck with this person, this “me,” that maybe, when I look past the stuff that didn’t work out, could be okay, and even a little bit lucky.

Are we that different, you and me, that we can give our attention to better things?

 

 

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The Next Wish

I had a moment in the middle of a dream when I understood that most of my wishes have been granted.

Most, but not all. Mostly.

And the majority just happened. Yes, there was some degree of effort involved, some nervousness, too many false starts, an occasional appeal to a higher power that, as far as I know, paused in the management of the universe to find me a parking space, send me a sign that my writing (and my life) still mattered, help me pass my second black belt exam, and, most important of all, reunite me with my one true love. The parking space wish was granted in seconds. My first published novel required about four years, with some unbelievably frustrating moments. The reunification with my love happened after  40 years.

Along the way, all these great things happened that I didn’t ask for, didn’t plan, didn’t anticipate and couldn’t avoid (I wasn’t sure they’d be great, so I tried to make them not happen, but they did anyway).

I look around and see (and hear about) so many people who could use a few wishes coming true. I know of too much suffering in this world. People have terrible illnesses, horrible predicaments, long runs of bad luck that should have stopped short.

Why were my wishes granted?

I’d like to claim that it was all due to my hard work, righteous lifestyle and the eating of vegetables, but, no. I’d like to point toward a book whose words of wisdom and inspiration lighted the way, but there were too many books and, to be honest, what worked for the author of that book almost never worked for me. I had to be banged around by life. I had to have moments when I was scared out of my mind and nothing worked.

Then…something worked. A higher power? Perhaps, but I can’t be certain. I have hints but never enough to be absolutely sure.

Can I praise my stubborn, determined certainty?  Nahhh. I have fretted and doubted my way up and down mountains. I don’t merely second guess myself. I third, fourth and tenth guess (I still wonder if the first paragraph of my first published novel could have been improved with a little more of this and a little less of that).

For me, achievement tended to happen most frequently when I forced myself to forget about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing, and merely did my best.

This method has not been as successful as I’d liked, and I’ve spent too much time moping over might-have-beens. I know that I’ve failed people, and people have failed me, and that it doesn’t even out.

I have not been careful of what I wish for. Yes, some answered prayers did not improve my situation. They didn’t give me what I thought I wanted.

But too many of them did.

Some of those granted wishes could have been granted further. I’ve been published, but nothing I published made me more confident about what I wrote. Nothing I published made it easier to write, or to have my great ideas for books see print. I found that when you publish a lot of one thing, some publishers will consider you publishing more of that thing.  Most will just say no, no matter who you are, and who you think you are.

Today, anyone can publish just about anything on the Internet. Will anyone see it?

It’s time to make a new wish. I’ll call on that higher power.

And listen.

 

 

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Uh-Huh, Bummer, Wow

A spiritual leader once confided that you can handle just about any conversation–with anyone–by using these three responses. I found this disturbing, at first, because one of the most difficult tasks spiritual leaders must perform is listening to those who are confused, in pain, in trouble, afraid, dying or uncertain if they will help pay the spiritual leader’s salary.

Then I tried this and discovered how well it works.

I’m one of those shy people who deals with his fear of social situations by talking. After thirty years in journalism I have developed some techniques that gently control conversations.  When I’m in a conversation I tend to want to share experiences or information, so when someone says this happened, I come back with what happened to me. This tendency is often misjudged. People tell me later that I shouldn’t have “topped” the other’s experience. “It’s not supposed to be about you,” I hear. If I mention a fact or bit of knowledge I find interesting and relevant, I’m told I’m too much of a “know it all.”

The art of conversation is now taking place mostly in cyberspace, which has its own rules, morals and manners. Many people find “face time” conversations that don’t involve an aim (a journalistic interview) or an anticipated outcome (“Excuse me, but can you show me where I can find frozen peas?”) difficult. I’m one of them.

Now that I am old enough to be never mistaken for young I’ve discovered that, on the whole, older types are not that important to our youth-oriented consumer society. We are not that interesting and are too eager to offer advice about things we couldn’t possibly know, or that, because of our age, are buried in our past and obviously irrelevant.

But every so often younger people occasionally need, or want, our approval, permission, resources (typically money but also emotional support, or a vote of confidence) and, when they realize how scary the world can be, comfort.

If we older types just say “uh huh” more often, we appear to understand everything. We are suddenly up-to-date and relevant. We get it. We are woke.

Too much human interaction involves being manipulated by social media protocols, phone trees, machined responses, unanswered e-mails, voice mail boxes that become catacombs for our hopes and fears.

So, when people talk about themselves, more often than not, they want is to feel as if someone is listening in a manner that connotes less comprehension than respectful attention. When you say uh-huh repeatedly, you’re not merely showing the talker that you agree. You’re also encourage people to keep talking until they run out of energy or they begin to repeat themselves and then run out of energy. You may not understand everything they’re saying, but, having sat through a foreign movie with hard-to-read subtitles, you get the gist eventually.

Use “wow” and “bummer,” or some similar colloquialism, to show sympathy. “Wow” is not just surprise at what this person is telling you. It shows that you feel the delight, shock, indignation or amazement that your speaker experienced. You may have done something similar. You may have climbed the same mountain and want to show that you share the experience in common.

But your speaker doesn’t want to feel a shared bond. Your job is to not to speak and, thereby, validate that person’s need to speak.

“Bummer” says, yes, that wasn’t good, or it should have been better, and–necessary for spiritual leaders–indicating little about fault, blame or responsibility. A bummer is a cloud without a silver lining, a bad thing that crosses our path, the yucky stuff that hits the fan. Some bummers make us turn to God and ask why. We don’t always get an explanation and some explanations only make a bad situation worse.

So the fact that another human being is listening, without judging (or appearing to judge) the speaker’s life, can take that speaker away from the bad feelings that accompany bummers. Psychologists call this release of buried, suppressed or overwhelming emotion through conversation, abreaction. It isn’t the only benefit of therapy, but it can be the moment when healing begins.

I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten what it is like to need a parent to hug you and say let you cry, or laugh, or merely feel safe. Words can do that.

Words like words uh-huh, bummer, wow.

 

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