When Machines Cry

You can hear them on a hot summer night, when you’ve opened the window with the mistaken assumption that all you’ll get will be a gentle breeze.

You get your breeze, but if you live anywhere in, or near American-style civilization, car alarms wailing and keening and beeping and crying because a car passed too close or someone who owns the damned car didn’t cut the alarm off before he put the key in the door lock.

We all know that, in most situations, nothing is wrong with the car. I don’t need to see a stack of statistics that “prove conclusively” that car alarms stop auto thieves. As far as I know, when anyone hears an alarm, they cringe, grit their teeth, try to ignore it and hope it goes away.  They don’t ring the village bell, call the cops or rush toward the distressed vehicle with the intention of defending local property values.

A little more than ten years ago, Tim Robbins starred in an obscure movie called Noise, about a Manhattan lawyer who has a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment and decides to disable car alarms on the New York streets whenever he hears them. He does this by popping the hood and cutting the battery cables. Another word for this activity is vandalism, and our hero is duly arrested. At the trial he makes a grand statement that is supposed to be the equivalent of other cinematic courtroom oratorios–one thinks of those in Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Judgement at Nuremberg or even The Fountainhead–but it doesn’t quite come off, which is probably why the film remains obscure.

Because we live in an era when machines not only cry, inform us when they’re hungry (the intentionally annoying microshriek of a smoke alarm that wants a battery change), tell us where to go (GPS navigators, in a variety of dialects) and conduct humorlessly polite conversations as they provide us with music, turn our lights on and off, make a telephone call, order a pizza, tell us that someone is at the door and remind us of pending family birthdays and doctor appointments(Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and their clones), all the while reporting back to some algorithmic overlord everything we have said and have had them do.

These advances haven’t quite happened in the way that science fiction writers predicted. About a century ago, when magazine editor Hugo Gernsback coined the term “scientifiction” to describe imaginative tales of the future based on current scientific or technological ideas, the presumption was that the industrial revolution would continue to change our private lives by creating robots (named by Czech social critic Karel Capek in his play R.U.R.) that were mechanical versions of displaced working class people who were beginning to flood the urban centers in Europe, the United States and Canada searching for factory employment. No one ever forgot the lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, even if the Boris Karloff filmed version replaced the complexities of the book: it’s okay for God to make man in God’s image, but man risks unintended consequences when he imitates God.

Back then, everybody thought robots, and, by extension, labor-saving machines, would resemble human beings, with arms, legs and brains that could do things that humans couldn’t (or wouldn’t). Their flaws made them interesting. The Tin Woodman in the filmed version of the Wizard of Oz could sing, dance, chop wood and click his heels together, but nurtured an inferiority complex because he didn’t have a heart.

What about the fussy, bronzed British “droid” C3P0 in the Star Wars films? George Lucas modeled this manservant manque on the creepy mechanical goddess in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and gave him the prissy personality of the white faced clown that, in circuses and the Comedia del Arte, is always getting mad at the plucky, tricky, sloppy, earthy red-faced clown, represented by the lovable mobile garbage can R2D2.

One of the charms of the evolving Star Wars movies is that there is a robot for everyone and everything, from barely functional appliances to soldiers that move like a chorus line. In the prequels he tried to answer the troublesome question: if machines are so good at so much, why don’t they fight our wars for us? Answer: machines only do what they’re told, they can’t take the risks, endure humiliation and enigmatic slogans from cantankerous puppets so that they may ultimately master “the Force,” the universal energy that ripples through everything BUT machines.

What no one predicted was how that gradual takeover of autonomous Americans by intelligent machines would be so decentralized. Forget about the vast central computer that starts experimenting with cocktail recipes and decides to rule the world. The potential for Frankensteinian unintended consequence has already happened, in the form of adroitly user-friendly devices that mostly resemble appliances (or, in the case of our cell phones, a playing card) that link up to these not necessarily benevolent technology companies that want to learn everything about us so that they can 1) serve us better (or so they say) without charging us for the service 2) sell us stuff that pays for the services rendered and 3) sell what they know about us to people who would exploit that immeasurable mountain of trivial detail for their evil ends.

You can understand how I felt when, not long ago, I entered our small kitchen and heard an unusual tone. It was unlike any plaintive machine bleat I’d heard in that it wasn’t immediately irritating. It did not demand action, but, rather, attention. Hear me, it seemed to say. Find me and do what you’re supposed to do so can forget about me and I can continue to leech details of your life to an unnamed corporate entity!

It wasn’t like other sounds I’d heard in the house. One of our toilets sings as it fills–don’t ask me how, or why. (Air in the pipes? Maybe.) The tune is oddly satisfying: it starts low and ends high, as if to say, just a friendly reminder of how grateful you should be that I’m ridding you of that which you want to disappear, and readying myself so that the next time you need me, I’ll be here!

How commodious!

Add to this sounds that originate outside the house. I hear the unearthly snarl of the motorized garage door opener, righteous, early-morning grumble of pick-up trucks (in our neighborhood, having a big pick-up truck earns you more curbside status than a luxury sedan or fancy sports car), the scrape of garbage cans dragged into position for the clunking, banging, devouring whine of the garbage truck, the patter of squirrels across the roof, the thunk of playing children colliding with the sides of unalarmed cars parked outside, the distant yowl of emergency sirens rushing to that one intersection that is so dangerous that you’d think something would have been done by now but no, and the glowing ambient chords from the wind chime we hung in the garden so long ago that we forget about it until the wind picks up.

But in the ten years this house has sheltered me, I have heard nothing like this sound. Like most people confronted with the inexplicable, I assumed that if I ignored it, it would go away.

Until my wife heard it.

We considered all the machines in the house that could make that sound. The nearest was the smoke detector. We touched the TEST button and it immediately yelled at us–how dare we disturb its sleep but, now that we did, the battery was low and it was going to yell at us until we changed it.

We fumbled through the Strange Small Stuff drawer for a 9 volt battery. We found two. Both, according to our smoke detector, were insufficiently charged to meet its needs.

I was so annoyed at the damned thing that I disconnected it from the ceiling. It still beeped at me and it wouldn’t stop. Worse than that, the beeps roused others from their beauty rest. Smoke detectors on the first and third floors smoke detectors began to beep in sympathy. The machines scolded us: WE ARE NO LONGER SATISFIED WITH YOUR BATTERIES AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.

My wife and I have raised demanding children. We did not yell at the smoke detectors to shut up. We did not permit the slightest physical abuse. I went to the supermarket and spent too much money on post-Christmas season batteries which, as everyone knows, are sold for full retail in January because in December every kid in the country has torn the wrapper off some made-in-Asia toy that runs on batteries and, by the time the dreariest month comes around, he has drained the first, strangely marked (“Is that Chinese? Korean?”) batteries that came with the toy–dry.  Those battery makers know they have millions of perpetually panicking parents in their pocket, and they put on the squeeze.

I dutifully fed all my complaining smoke detectors and–the sound happened again. My wife went to the fireplace and adjusted the flue. We heard the sound again. We searched the kitchen for whatever device might have caused it, and found nothing. Could the sound have come from another room? A quick check of the room near the heater revealed that a carbon-monoxide detector was on the brink. We replaced the batteries and we still heard the sound. What did this mean? My wife went out and bought a new carbon-monoxide detector while I awaited the one heater repair guy with a carbon monoxide sniffer who was willing to make a same-day emergency visit.

The repair guy did not find any carbon monoxide, but a pipe leading to the hot water heater was letting a little bit of gas into the room. He tightened it. We thanked him and felt relieved. What if that leak had become leakier? One static electric spark from an acrylic sweater or a our polyester blend fleece jacket and KER-BOOM!

The heater guy left and I did the addition: $16 for new smoke alarm batteries, $40 for a new carbon monoxide detector, $199 for the emergency furnace inspection and…

We heard the sound again.

I turned to my wife with a where-have-we-failed expression that I never thought I’d wear again, considering that both children have graduated college without student loan debt and have decent jobs. Eldest is married. Youngest is engaged.  We searched the house, overspent on batteries and detectors, and even sought the assistance of a professional!

And,  still we heard the sound, especially when we were in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up.

Now I have studied folk superstitions, tend to anthropomorphize too much,  and even harbor a few irrational beliefs regarding the future, Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to People Who Deserve Them, not to mention The Meaning of It All. Though we live about thirty-three miles from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood where novelist, screenwriter and Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty set one of the most infamous horror novels (later made into five feature films and a TV series) of all time–I was not about to call the exorcist!

I resolved to endure the sound, live with it and ultimately ignore it until–

We were in the kitchen making dinner and I put my foot on a the lever that opened the lid of the stainless-steel-and-black-plastic euro style garbage can. I tossed in the skins from peeled onions (having learned NEVER to put onion skins down a garbage disposal) and took my foot off the lever. As the lid slowly closed it made a–

Sound.

I opened the lid again, removed my foot, and heard the sound again.

I brought my wife over. She’s a scientist who teaches. She believes in the scientific method and, like me, is impatient for the Twenty-First Century space-age awe and wonder promised by science fiction writers that NASA is no longer delivering.

I opened the lid and let it close. She told me to do it again. I did it again.

“Must be the hinge,” she decided.

I agreed. I opened the lid one more time and realized that this was more than two under lubricated surfaces creating a sympathetic vibration as they moved against each other.

This was not a crying machine demanding attention. It was something different, deeper, a cry from that very essence of the thing’s being.

Our garbage can, having heard the clarion call from the singing toilet, was talking to us, saying, you may not know me personally but I just want to remind you how appreciative you should be that I take in just about anything you put in me and keep your kitchen stink-free so you can savor all those fragrant fumes from that roasting chicken or the Bolonaise sauce whose onions you just peeled, and I will continue to do so, whether you listen to me or not, whether you consider the existential angst inherent in being a willing receptacle for the smelly, unwanted organic material that you so blithely discard, of your as long as you carry the trash down into the garage at regular intervals, replace my liner and rinse me out with soapy water when the liner breaks.

All in one heroic toot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Robot for Christmas

First we bought one for my son. He unpacked it and set it up, with one concern: would the cat permit it to exist?

The cat watched from a distance as the black plastic disc beeped and wooshed across the floor, its sweeping wings fluttering like a drone that should be buzzing through the heavens, but, like a wiser Icarus, has crashed to earth and is content to crawl, picking up dust, dirt, food crumbs and cat hairs in its way.

The cat’s head dropped, his attention focused as the robot bumped into its first chair leg. It spun thisaway and thataway until it entered the privileged space bounded the by the four legs. It bumped about and I believed that cat and I had a similar thought: was the robot some mere feckless thing that goes with the flow, plans its life around a morning horoscope, assumes a relentlessly positive attitude as it bashes itself against obstacles, or was it learning?

When the robot found its way out of the chair, the cat moved forward, nostrils flaring, whiskers whisking. He came up behind the robot. Would the machine be aware of him and turn around?

The robot proceeded with its first traverse of my son’s floor, oblivious of the potential danger. I thought of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the gray soil of the Moon. Then I corrected my metaphor: the robot’s job was to remove footprints, not make them.

My son is an IT executive for an internet company that has enough employees and has foos-ball and ping pong tables but has been around too long to be a start-up. He understands how these machines work, but he also likes to go on wilderness hikes, which suggests a healthy dislike of machines and people who wish they could be them.

He loved the robot. The cat noticed this and, presuming that anything that his food source permitted into the home was not a threat to the food source, returned to its perch atop a black high fidelity speaker amplifier, and dozed.

As the robot continued its journey I remembered reading “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This,” a short story by science fiction satirist Robert Sheckley.  In that tale, a bored wife (this was written in the days when married women who didn’t have children where supposed to stay home while their husbands commuted to urban office jobs where they sat at desks, talked on the phone, went to meetings and had three martini lunches of steak and a baked potato) buys herself a domestic robot that cleans the floor well enough but, sensing her boredom, adapts itself so it can attend to her other, sensual needs.

Yes, the story was misogynistic, as much science fiction was back then, but it made its point: to what extent are prepared for the unintended consequences of labor-saving technology that can learn?

At this point, with the robot navigating the complexities of my son’s floor, the only consequence of interest was functional. Was the machine picking up all the stuff it was supposed to? Was it doing any good beyond the marginal entertainment in watching an electronic rat run a random maze?

The floor didn’t appear to be much different when my son stopped the robot, popped open the black plastic dirt compartment and, wow, was it stuffed with stuff! Cat hairs, food crumbs and–fulfilling the promise that in any new technology must before it becomes a necessity in your life–crud we didn’t even know was on the floor in the first place!

So my wife bought one for our home, hoping that the Daisy, our bossy West Highland Terrier, would also permit it to live.

Again, we sat in awe as the device went under and around chair legs, end tables, sofa skirts, floor lamps, shoes we had tossed off and a pile of books I still hadn’t read–a journeyman out on its first great adventure that, we hoped, would become a royal progress.

Daisy not only watched its every move, but pursued it intently, learning as much about it as it was learning about our living room.

Then, with a genuine sense of wonder, we beheld a fundamental difference between cats and dogs.

Where Izzy, my son’s cat, lost interest in the robot after it proved not to be a competitor, Daisy, a herding beast, maintained her concern, especially when the robot blundered into a dining room thicket of chair legs that did not give it enough room to come out. She drew close to it, made a gentle woof, and moved her paw in the direction the robot should follow. When the robot failed to find the way out, Daisy nudged it toward freedom.

Does a dog have Buddha nature? Daisy does.

 

 

 

 

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Aloud

Something wonderful happens when you read your writing aloud.

I thought the passage was as close to perfection as I could make it. I had spent almost a month on it, revising relentlessly until it gleamed. I thought I fixed all the spelling and punctuation errors, too.

Then I read it aloud to my writers group, in the first line, I found something that wasn’t quite right. I noticed other errors and wobbly passages that were hard to say.

At the end of my reading, I heard a few seconds of silence. The group liked what they heard. I found that what they heard wasn’t completely what I wrote, but me correcting myself as I went along.

I ended up with was a piece that flowed better. I not only caught errors. I found a hidden musicality in the prose.

John Steinbeck used to read all his works aloud before he sent them to his publisher. Before he became famous he’d have parties and invite friends. Later, he’d read to himself.

Try it.

 

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Fifty Good Pages

My wife finished proofreading this morning. She found some typos. As is my nature, I came up with a few lines that I thought might make the manuscript even better.

I now have fifty good pages. Good pages are reasonably free of grammatical and spelling errors. They introduce the hero, establish the setting and describe the thing or event that starts the plot.

For me, these pages constitute a reliable beginning for a novel that was already finished several years ago. My wife and I agree that this version is better.

And yet, I fret.

I no longer remember when I started writing the book. I finished a draft and, because my existing agent hated science fiction and fantasy (and didn’t respect me because I wanted to write it), I sent it to another agent, who called me and said “you want to write a real novel.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I replied. I had read enough within the genre to know that readers could handle more than strange quests, rites-of-passage stories, rebellions in dystopian societies, engineer-with-a-problem epics and space opera.

Way back in college I thought that the basic idea in Twain’s wonderful Huckleberry Finn could be adapted to a fantasy. Philip Jose Farmer had created a metaphor for the Mississippi in his Riverworld series. I was more interested in a device I’d glimpsed that Heinlein may have lifted from Twain in Stranger in a Strange Land: that of an innocent forced into the adult world, surviving on his wits, a few special talents, the unexpected benevolence of others. He sees and feels the flaws of this new world, has no idea what to do about it and, after a series of adventures, decides the only thing he can do is to leave. Heinlein had Michael Smith perceive his own end and, in a Christlike manner, understand that by permitting himself to die, he would benefit others. Twain had Huckleberry Finn recoil at the hypocrisy and moral rot of mid-western American slave-holding society and decide to “light out for the territories”–lawless places along the expanding western frontier.

As a youngster I had seen plenty of unfairness, indecency, hypocrisy and outright exploitation in the ways human beings work and live together. As an oldster, I see even more, and worse: well-meaning, well-educated adults who have eminently reasonable explanations that excuse, condone and even praise this vileness as an onerous but necessary way for good things to happen.

I disagree. It doesn’t matter where you were born or what circumstances you were born into–the evil that we choose to do to each other hurts, maims and kills. You don’t need an expensive education to understand that choosing not to be evil and acting to further the good may make things better. Isn’t this message found in our religious texts (usually buried beneath accounts of brutal, divinely inspired battles, hideous punishments and miracles that benefit one person, family or tribe, at the expense of others)?

Having studied moral philosophy I know that merely doing good brings on piles of complexities and contradictions. What if the good you want to do is not the good that the social situation wants? What if, in doing good, you inadvertently hurts someone, or you must choose between saving one life at the expense of another? What if the good you do makes things worse? Let’s say your goodness comes at great hardship to you: should you compensate for this hardship by paying yourself a nice salary, or taking a larger share of the community’s resources? Who and what gives you the right, privilege or power to do anything–good, evil or indifferent? What if, in doing good, you must risk or sacrifice the money, food, shelter, material items or social status necessary to survive comfortably, thereby bringing suffering down on yourself?

Finally, how do you know what’s good, especially if you are an outsider at the edge of an existing culture?

I don’t pretend to solve any of those problems in the novel. I deal with them in one way: our hero learns to trust himself enough to go where he is needed, even if he is not sure when he arrives what that need may be, and if he is competent to fulfill it.

That’s more than enough to sustain a hero on a quest to find his beloved. But it isn’t enough for me, to stop fretting, judging myself, revising too many times and loading myself up at the end of every writing session with those familiar depressive thoughts: this won’t be published, no one will read this, no one will care about it or someone famous will do an inferior version and blow you out of the water because that person is famous and you’re not.

That last condition happened to a writer I knew.

So now I have fifty good pages of a book I’d really like to make even better, that, I believe, will be a “real novel” that fantasy readers will love.

How do I hold on to that, and keep the downer feelings at bay?

 

 

 

 

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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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