Short Fiction

I am reading a short story in a magazine I admire. The story, like this post, is in the journalistic present, as if everything is happening all at once. I, too, have written in the journalistic present, and I’ve come to distrust it.

I don’t like the journalistic present tense because we experience our lives as a narrative, with beginnings, middles and ends. Narrative is a contrast that blissful childhood state when we assume that things will go on more or less as they are: our parents will be with us, our house will remain and the only thing we’ll have to learn is how to please ourselves and others, without making a mess.

Sooner or later we discover that we really can’t understand anything unless it is in the past–a thing that happened, a beginning that ended, an event whose importance may change as we grow older, but remain back there, in that house, with our parents, in that mess.

We acquire what happens to us through our five senses, which means that there is likely a great big pile of stuff that we miss because we don’t see it, it doesn’t fit into our ears, it wasn’t the kind of thing we’d put into our mouths, it had no recognizable odor and wasn’t anywhere near our skin. This stuff that we miss is a great source of the short fiction that I read in college, where, certain that my literary efforts would eventually preoccupy a professorial lecture, I wrote stories about young people who visit friends, wander into a familiar wilderness or go to what they believed was home, and notice more of what they previously ignored, or had been incapable of noticing.  It wasn’t that my characters couldn’t go home again–I retained obsessions with my parents’ divorce, my high school girlfriend (who is now my wife) and the science fiction and fantasy writers I felt were as important a literary force as the naturalists and realists I met in college. My characters went home, sometimes relentlessly. Every time they did, they were forced to admit that what was home was a narrative that had ended.

I sent those short stories to the magazines I admired. The stories came back, rejected. I read the short stories those magazines published and tried to figure out why those stories were published and mine weren’t. When I began to write for newspapers and magazines, I saw that those who were published had won an important award, written a best seller or attained a national reputation, and, therefore, helped sell the magazine. Was that the only reason?

I return to the short story. It’s set in a strange, slightly menacing wilderness area that reminds me, not of strange, slightly menacing wilderness, but of a person who is not comfortable where he lives, and is projecting that discomfort on to the setting. This could be the author’s intention, or an insight to the author that, like a flash of skin at the edges of a mask, is a part of an illusion I’m not supposed to see.

The short story ruled the American literary scene in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Popular authors, most of whom did not find immortality in college literary classes, were paid as much as $40,000 (yes, Forty Grand, as the great short story writer Damon Runyon would say), for a few typewritten pages. This sum could be doubled or even tripled if the story was turned into a play or movie.

Whether these writers thought what they were writing was junk, or art, did not matter to them as much as their need to make a living until they made their living and discovered that those people they based their stories on–the blithely affluent Gerald Murphys who inspired Fitzgerald, or Hemingway’s lasting infatuation Slim Keith–did not appreciate their fictional portraits. So great, however, was the art of these and other writers of that era, that it is largely through the fiction that these people are remembered today.

Far more magazines existed in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Few survived into the second half, when I was born and began reading science fiction and fantasy published by authors who were dismissed by my English teachers as hacks. The major difference between the hacks of yesteryear and those of my youth was their prodigality. Instead of few typed pages, they had to grind out 75,000 word paperback novels. Some of these authors (I met a few) had literary pretensions, but their efforts were treated as disposable by just about everyone but their fans. A very few hacks experienced the thrill of “breaking out” of their genre and selling science fiction to mainstream magazines that paid as much for their story as they got for a novel. How you did this wasn’t easy.  I heard of one science fiction writer whose friends staged seemingly accidental, but ultimately successful run-ins with the short story editor of one prestigious publication.

But, at writers conferences, where I shared a dais, or a panel discussion (I was moderately well known as a regional journalist and mystery author), with some of these editors, they all said, “you just have to write a great story.

And yet, when you look back to Dickens and other literary giants who were popular in their lifetimes, you can find the same stuff that animates the comic book adventures of today. The entertainments that make the most money today spring from comic books, video games, toys, theme park rides, literary fantasy (“Game of Thrones”), and space opera (“Star Wars”).

None of which you’ll ever see as short fiction in the magazines I still admire. I want to feel grateful that in the same metaphorical movie multiplex where supervillains and superheroes throw things at each other, is a smaller, quieter theater where kids who go home again discover the end of one narrative and the beginning of another.

Or something like that. Not only do these films exist, but there are so many on the streaming channels that you may not live long enough to see them all. If you tire of the films, you can read books, some of which are reviewed in the magazines I admire. A major difference in the rites-of-passage, coming-of-age stories I read in college, and those being published now, is that the settings are in cultures as exotic as anything we can imagine on an alien world. Characters are mixtures of this and that, not so much flawed as uncertain of who they are. Their search for understanding yields new narratives that temporarily confirm notions of identity, but the endings remain disquieting and unfulfilling.

I grew up believing that art was necessary, that great art would change us for the better, that delight in the sense of wonder might unite us and save us from our vain pursuits, and that persistent, sincere effort of the highest quality possible would bring success, if not a livelihood, and that awards, national reputations or best-selling products would happen in time. I did fewer wrong things than right ones. I find myself in a world with too much art in it, and stories whose presence in magazines remains inexplicable.

After the first few paragraphs I want to give up on the story. The characters don’t interest me. The description of the setting does not provide that “ludic” moment when I leave my world and enter the author’s fictional domain. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as it wallows around, with a flashback that is supposed to show me how things have changed.

But I persist because this is a magazine that has published some of the best short stories ever written. I want to honor the choices made by the editor who, I presume, waded through mountains of submissions, most unsolicited, to bring this to print.

That might not be the best way to appreciate art. You can miss things if you go into a museum, or attend a concert, and quietly demand an understanding of why this work is offered and that another, perhaps your own, is not.  You want first impressions to confirm your best hope–that great art is deserving of its medium–and your worst fear–that your efforts are insufficient, unworthy, second rate, inept.

The importance of the magazine short story died in toward the end of the Twentieth Century when it became the laboratory rat of creative writing classes. Suddenly more people wanted to write short stories than read them. The Internet resurrected the short story, and every other form of art that can be converted into electronic pulses. There are so many short stories on the Internet that you won’t live long enough to read them all. An unknowable quantity are available without charge. You don’t have that you-paid-for-this, might-as-well-get-your-money’s-worth goad to finish the story. The only things will know that you’ve stopped reading the story are the machines owned by the Internet warlords that record everything we do in front of a screen, forever.

The history of art can be explained by money and what we now call technology.  Artists have meager needs, but they must be met or the pen doesn’t move. Some of history’s wealthiest people–the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Fricks, the Gettys- live on just because they bought stuff, or supported artists. That some of these wealthy people may have done nefarious things tends to be overlooked. Great artists have been great sinners, or have been pointlessly cruel to those who loved them, but the art remains.

Many kinds of art would not exist without the technology, which now is a part of nearly everything we say and do. Science fiction used to be about the effect technological changes may have on current social norms. Though we can find accounts of trips to the moon as far back as the Second Century AD, we wouldn’t have movies about space ships if we didn’t have a way of seeing moving images which, before the invention of the motion picture, was done with words. We wouldn’t have those words if they weren’t written down and reproduced inexpensively on paper in books and magazines.

But we’d still have stories, told wherever human beings gather. You’d think, with all the possible motifs, tropes, cliches, myths and metaphors, we’d reach a point where every story was told. Some would say that we have. You see these people waving a single book, typically a sacred text. You hear them insisting that everything you need to know is inside, and that to look elsewhere is a sin. Alas, you can read a text again and find new meanings. You can go home again, and find new meaning. The best narrative endings are meaningful. We feel that whatever brought us to this point has been worthwhile.

I continue to read and, about eight paragraphs in, I find a description of a sexual act. The act, and the words that describe it,  would not appear in this magazine some years ago.  Famous battles against government and cultural censorship are part of the folklore of the Twentieth Century.  Some artists suffered when their work was branded indecent or obscene. Others profited. William Faulkner attained a national reputation with the publication of Sanctuary, a novel with a brutal rape scene. I read Sanctuary in college. I didn’t think it was Faulkner’s best, and the rape scene seemed gratuitous–something Faulkner tossed in just to shock people. I found Henry Miller’s ravings about his paltry sex life monotonous. James Joyce was definitely writing about sex in Ulysses, but did he have to? Hemingway’s sex scenes were silly.

The long battle to write freely about what people do with their privates, in private or in public, was not altogether won. Nowadays there is such an art to finding and proclaiming offense, on the Internet and off, that I wonder how many great things may have been accomplished if people hadn’t burned up so much energy and bile. I’m not doubting that the offenses were real–the art of making enemies goes way, way back. The art of living with enemies, regardless of our responsibility in creating them, remains a work in progress.

I read this story and ask if it was necessary to include a vulgarity. Almost immediately, I qualify vulgarity, a word that descends from the Latin for “common” and “ordinary” that unfairly implies that such detailed depictions are common and ordinary. They are not. What is most common is the description of sex through taboo language. What is better is the use of metaphor, simile, implication and wit. Like many human endeavors, human sexuality is ultimately beyond description. When it is contained in a written narrative, the reader gains inadvertent insights into the narrator by what is left out.

I continue reading and the first-person narrator suggests a way the story may turn out, and then immediately discredits that ending as the kind that would be typical if this story were fiction, which is isn’t. But it is.

I’ve encountered similar tropes in thrillers in which the naive, fresh-faced hero is told by the grizzled veteran that what they have experienced isn’t what happens on TV, or in movies, that this is real life.

But it isn’t. I quote the title of David Slavitt’s short story collection: Short Stories Are Not Real Life. Real life is ultimately beyond containment or summation in any art form. Real life is too frequently messy, meaningless, pointlessly cruel, surfeit with failed climaxes and unresolved tension. We turn to art because of what the author leaves out.

Why did the author leave in that pointless aside about this story not being fiction? Was this an attempt at the irony that leads to the alienation inherent in Brechtian drama? Or did the author assume that I was so far into the story that I would trust his character to be capable of trite observation?

A few pages later the narrator is about to make a decision that, if made, will confirm the desperation, pointlessness and hopelessness of all that has happened so far. The position of this decision suggests that I am nearing the climax of the story. The decision is made and–surprise!–the preceding action wasn’t desperate, pointless and hopeless after all. A story in which characters spend most of their time reacting, with few attempts at action make things worse, leads to an ending that does not resolve tension or conflict, but isn’t so bad, as endings go.

If a story becomes a quest for the reader, must it end in banality?

Reading this story has not made a qualitative change in my life. It has not lit up the sky, as I had wanted to do with my work. It has not delivered to me a sense of wonder.  It has not challenged received values and then comfortably restored them, as is the custom with most television comedy and drama. Super people haven’t thrown things at each other. I have not seen the inside of a space ship.

I have seen the inside of a simple, somewhat uninteresting human situation, in a magazine that, despite short stories that I’d rather not read, every once in a while, publishes one that tells me, writing stories is a worthwhile thing to do.

Maybe next time.









Redemption Song

I was feeling especially grumpy. In the words of Jean Shepherd, I was dejected, disgusted and despondent. Then I got an e-mail from a program director for a senior adult community. Was I still teaching and would I like to do a lecture for the group?

For a while I did not reply. I never thought I would ever teach again because teaching high school English had been so was emotionally shattering.

It had nothing to do with the kids, or the stuff I taught. I gave three years of my life to teaching tenth grade English for kids who aren’t good at reading and writing and, for too many reasons, may never be.

Before I stood in front of these kids, I had taught undergraduates and graduates.I had lectured to senior adults about history and biography. I taught karate. I helped kids at a community college find some reason to practice writing until the nonsensical matrices of English grammar began to make sense. I went to the best graduate school in the area to take education classes and I passed all the examinations necessary to get a teaching license.

I did this because my wife teaches high school. We met in high school. I was well aware that things happen in high school that can make the future happen a little bit faster. In high school I became an autodidact: a person who teaches himself.  Later, as a journalist, I proved to myself repeatedly that I could learn just about anything, if I gave myself enough time, and that if I found the sense of wonder in what I learned and shared it with readers and students–then everyone benefited.

Or almost everyone. I was also aware that education creates paradoxes, and the biggest is that some students are not ready for what is being taught, or they don’t want it and they try to fight it as hard as they can. I knew this because I was not ready for much of what my teachers put before me, and I did fight some of it until I stopped fighting and just let it in.


What shattered me about high school teaching was my relationship with administrators. For all its many rewards, teaching is relentlessly demanding and difficult, and when your supervisors are trying as hard as they can to demean you and denigrate your efforts, leaving it all behind seems to be the best choice.

My wife said the school was just a bad fit for me, and that I would probably find another school whose administrators understood me better. It can take a while before any teacher finds a school where she feels he belongs.

In my long life I have never become good at failing. I typically blame myself when things don’t work out the way I’d like, even if much of what occurs isn’t my fault. I fall into dark moods. Worst of all, I reject things that I once valued, as if the act of having faith in those things betrayed me, or was somehow false.

When I left that school, my indomitable urge to learn, died. I could no longer focus on the books I used to read voraciously. Unresolved stress led to two heart attacks.

I lost my faith in myself as a person who loved finding out cool things about the world, who truly enjoyed sharing those things–not to show people how much he knew, but because, as the I Ching says, pleasure shared is pleasure doubled. There’s more than enough misery and misfortune clouding our skies. When you find something wonderful about life, or when somebody shows it to you, you reconnect with hope and joy. Like the kid who fights all that good stuff in front of him, you find the little bit of delight that moves you forward.

I lost faith in the sense of wonder. What was it, if not a momentary emotional response that so quickly dissolves into irony, paradox and bitterness?

This request that I teach again surprised me. The senior group was in New Jersey. I had been one of their favorite guest lecturers over the years. I specialized in historical and biographical subjects: kings, queens, Hollywood stars, disasters, triumphs, entertainers, artists, history’s hidden villains and unsung heroes, and some of other fascinating people whose lives helped create the world in which we currently live.

But I gave it up after moving to Virginia, because the last time I made the long drive north, the car broke down and, though I rented a replacement and delivered the lecture (on the life and accomplishments of Emily Post), the car trouble had left me addled. On top of this, I had tried to use some of the techniques I had been taught in grad school and none of them worked. The people liked what I did, but I felt I had let them down.

And now I was being asked to do it again. I thought about it. The fee was the same–but I had never, ever done these lectures for the money. For me, this was a chance to find out fascinating things about a person, place or thing, and share them.

I had been reading about the Roman statesman Cicero but thought that his writings on growing old were a bit shallow. I had also read recently about the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius as his successors. Of the two, Aurelius was intriguing because he left behind the Meditations, a manuscript of aphorisms, bromides, Stoical thoughts, observations, dour thoughts on death and reflections on power and leadership that he never intended to have published. Somehow they were and they have inspired theologians, philosophers and world leaders to this day. Aurelius is occasionally sour and sometimes puzzling, but some of his writings have an uncanny way of speaking directly to his readers.

Then there’s the irony of an emperor who could have and do just about anything, who maintained an almost humorlessly austere and honorably responsible lifestyle. His son, Commodus, would go on to be the exact opposite of his father. One of the worst emperors ever, he would send the Roman Empire into its slow decline.

I hit the books and, because we had a different car, had an uneventful ride north. I recognized a few faces in the audience. I gave the talk, doing what I did for so many years.

And it worked beautifully. It felt good to be in front of people. I could tell from their faces, and their responses, that they enjoyed listening to me.

Everybody benefited.

On the way back home, I had that confident glow when you know in the deepest part of your being that you’ve done the right thing.












Help on One Foot

A man who wasn’t born with this language asked me if I could help him with his reading and writing. I immediately stood on one foot.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel was once asked if he could explain all of Judaism while standing on one foot.  His reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

While some might say that there’s a bit more to the religious tradition than that, none would accuse Hillel of being wrong. Flip Hillel’s explanation and you get the golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Is life that simple? No, but it should be.

I stood on one foot because I have taught writing at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels and I did not want to go on and on about what to do, or not to do. I didn’t want to dwell on my grudges, my quarrels with editors, my objection to what is and isn’t published and how the level of acceptable public discourse, thanks mostly to what people “write” on social media, is identical to what was once reserved for lavatory walls.

When you stand on one foot–even if you practice Tree Pose and other yoga balancing techniques–your attention is split between what you want to do, and the shame of falling over. Who wants to fall over?

So I gave three quick recommendations:

1. Read and write what you enjoy. Yes, you are forced to read stuff for work, or for the approval of others. That can be a chore. But on your own time, read what is delightful to you, and, when you write, bring forth that delight.

2. Go to the library, find an anthology of modern poetry, and discover what speaks to you. Poetry is language at its most beautiful, concentrated and, despite challenging forms, hidden rhythms and pesky rhyme schemes, is also language free to be what it must. If you are certain that a car can’t move if it doesn’t have wheels, you may find a poem in which a wheel-less vehicle merrily rolls along.  If you can’t find that poem, then you must write it.

3. Find a writers group whose members freely share their stuff, , and who will look at your stuff and let you know if what you’re doing is working for them.  Writing can be a thing to do for yourself, but it is also a form of communication that does wonders when it finds the right audience.

And then I put my foot down.



Let Me Eat Cake

Most historians agree that Queen Marie Antoinette, who had the bad luck to marry King Louis XVI, did not say, when asked about the plight of France’s starving underclass, “Let them eat cake.”

It was one more canard, a blob of mud lobbed at a royal family that, like all families, as Queen Eleanor says in the play The Lion in Winter, had its “ups and downs.” But some great lies stay in our collective imagination far longer than complicated truths. Unlike his louche grandfather, Louis XV, this King was interested in science and mechanical engineering. He was a proud disciple of Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that the scientific method, and not religious interpretation, was the ultimate arbitrator of reality. He also wanted to be a fair, responsive king to his subjects.

Plump and somewhat socially awkward, he married a knock-out of a queen who became an aristocratic style setter–until she and her family became a target of anti-monarchist rage that, ironically, owed some of its sensibility to Enlightenment ideals, as translated and transplanted by America’s most famous propagandist, Thomas Paine. Louis and his queen were not the first royals to lose their heads (Britain did it first to Charles I, though they spared his queen, Henrietta Maria). But their reputation as callous swells who lived high while their subjects starved, has lived on. When we imagine a person carelessly indulging in luxury, Marie Antoinette’s name comes up.

What is it about refined pleasure that riles us up so? As much as we adore the luxe life, and watch helplessly as so many of our leaders–elected, appointed or merely powerful–flaunt their wealth–we also condemn it as being somehow not quite what God, justice or fairness, would permit. It does us no good to know that the famous line from the Declaration of Independence that ensures our God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was originally written “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” A last-minute edit changed so much then, as now.

It is possible to trace some of our conflicting attitudes about pleasure back to a philosophical tug-of-war between two great ancient schools of thought: Stoicism and Epicureanism. The first is named for the Athenian Stoa, a long porch that covered a marketplace, where Zeno and other founding philosophers preached (you can visit a reconstructed version that is located close to the original). The second derives from a Fourth Century Greek who was called Epicurus (the name means good friend), who offered his take on the life-well-lived in an Athenian school he called The Garden.

Both philosophies tried to tackle the fear of death. Both philosophies agreed that our physical bodies stop, grow cold and, like any other living thing, begin to turn into something else. While it may be nice to believe in an afterlife as described in the ancient texts, we really can’t be sure what awaits us.

It may be nicer, still, to hope that prayer and sacrifice  to a god will quiet a storm, banish your illness and make good things happen. But, if you read Homer (and the ancient Greeks did, to the point of memorizing him, as some of us have memorized parts of the Bible), you know that the gods quarrel among themselves, act capriciously with mortals and frequently do things that make people miserable.

So it makes sense to make the best of the life we have, right now. How would we do that? Both philosophies suggested a goal of a peaceful, respectful existence with friends and family. We should face danger and uncertainty with a calm composure when we fight an enemy, comfort a sick child, or find our home destroyed by an earthquake.

They divide on the answer of how you achieve that calm. The Stoics say you should interrogate your emotions, your opinions and your passions. The rational result of his examination is that you may not determine when you die, you cannot influence the stock market, you’ll have to let a disease may have to run its course, you can’t force your neighbor’s dog to stop yapping, you’ll be overwhelmed momentarily from the pain from an injury or a loss, but, in theory and in practice, you can control yourself. It may not be easy, and you may fly off the handle every once in a while, but we can agree that self-discipline brings an understanding of what tends to push your buttons. This understanding can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs, and when death pays a visit.

The Epicureans want a similar calm, but they find the path is in a kind of stillness that derives from the absence of pain. This may have some similarity to forms of mystical meditation. It may also derive from the satisfaction of having your immediate desires met in a way that is fair, ethical and moral.

If life is an uncertain, frequently chaotic series of events beyond your control, the astute Epicureans may put themselves in situations where they are at peace. Not only is it permissible to pursue pleasure, but, when done in moderation (in a manner that, in theory and in practice, does not harm or diminish the pleasure of those you are with), the happiness that derives from pleasure can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs or death pays a visit.

To put it bluntly, if you don’t enjoy your life, who will?

These philosophies are much more complicated than this, and, like any system of thought, they are riddled with paradoxes and ethical problems. Among the greatest difficulties with Stoicism is the Freudian concern about repression: are so many of our psychological obstacles due to the beast in all of us trying to work its way out? Many social situations presume a loosening of control: we are expected to grieve at funerals, laugh at a funny joke and savor the passion of love, even if, like so many characters in Shakespearean comedies, passion turns us into a fool. Better to be a fool for love than to let love’s gifts go to someone else.

And let us not forget that some of our greatest artistic and creative moments happen when we suspend our sense of control, forget about who we think we are, and return to a child-like state of play. This would not have troubled the Romans, who put most of their creative, imaginative work in the hands of freedmen and slaves. The Emperor Nero thought he was an artist, and was roundly ridiculed for it.

Like Marie Antoinette, Epicureans have been tarred by history. The word is frequently used as a synonym for overindulgence, sensuality, gluttony and–most significantly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a turning away from God to embrace the “idolatry” of the sensual quick fix. The God of the New and Old Testaments has left us with a stack of laws, commandments and restrictions, and, though one of my college religion professors pointed out that there are far more positive references in the Bible to the consumption of alcohol than negative, the Western world’s predominant faith holds that a kind of stoicism is better when around the fermented grape, than the ecstatic hedonism of the Dionysian cults that were popular among educated, aristocratic female Greeks and Romans.

Islam bans alcohol completely. You just can’t have it. Not once. Not ever.

We all know those who indulge themselves so regularly that they consider it not just a privilege, but a right. The Emperor Domitian expelled the Stoics from Rome (especially those senators who criticized him) in the early Second Century AD. Another historical irony is that among the most important advocates of Stoicism is one of Domitian’s predecessors, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations–a book he wrote for himself with no intention of publication–remains among the “best sellers” of classical literature.

Marcus Aurelius tried to live as simply as possible. He married one woman, had children (who died before they could succeed him, alas) and didn’t indulge in any of the orgiastic excesses that some Roman Emperors–Caligula, Nero and Marcus Aurelius’s son and successor Commodus–are famous for. He practiced tolerance of others but either ignored, or condoned the early imperial custom of persecuting Christians.

Another great exemplar of Stoicism was the Roman slave Epictetus. He lived a little earlier than Marcus Aurelius. Philosophy teachers love to point out the coincidence that the two greatest Stoics of late antiquity were at the opposite ends of the economic scale. Epictetus was born with nothing, may have been maimed by his owner, and died with nothing but his thought and the fame it brought him. Marcus Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family, singled out for greatness by the Emperor Hadrian and adopted into a into the imperial line of succession. When he assumed the purple at a time when Rome was at the peak of its imperial power. He could have anything he wanted and do just about anything he wanted, but he chose to live simply, practice self control, and jot down his thoughts about the life-well-lived in a notebook.

It is Epictetus who motivates this writing. Among what little of his thought survives is a quotation: “If I must die today, then I will die. If I am not to die immediately, let me have lunch.”

There is more to this than the sudden, comical plunge from the solemn to the mundane.  This is one more example of a reasonable attitude toward the fear of death: as long as my end is not imminent, I might as well go on with the necessities of living. The Romans ate one big meal of the day, at noon (with plenty of opportunities for snacks and special feast meals), so it is possible that Epictetus’s lunch was the only food he would have. It is likely that the fare was plain.

And yet, I couldn’t help but think about the leftover birthday cake sitting in the refrigerator. My wife and I have birthdays four days apart, and, after all the boxes, gift wrap and packing material had been taken to the curb for the garbage collectors, the cake remained in the cool darkness, waiting.

The cake had come from a baker known for the purity of ingredients and the beauty of display. It would have been eaten sooner if my sister-in-law had not baked a cake for us.

My wife had some of the bakery cake last night, and dismissed it with an almost Stoical chill: It was mostly buttercream, she said, in a tone that implied such things were not to be taken seriously. When she asked later if I wanted a slice, I invoked my self-control and replied that it might be better to leave the cake where it was.

But, this morning, when delving through the refrigerator to make breakfast, I saw the cake box. I made a very healthy oatmeal and banana porridge (no sugar, cream or butter added–just oats, water and two ripe bananas). We had low-fat milk in our coffee.

I had no fear of death when lunch time came around. I opened the refrigerator, imagining a salad when, lo and behold…

It wasn’t just buttercream. It was a smooth, coffee-scented celebration of…

I used to be a restaurant critic and, though I know the lingo, I’d rather not use it now. Suffice to say,

If I am not to die immediately, let me have a lunch of cake, every once in a while, for no other reason than how good cake tastes.







When the Machine Eats Your Stuff

I first learned about word processing at a local newspaper, where, every day or so, some overcaffeinated future Pulitzer winner would push his or her chair back, pound the innocuous beige plastic of a terminal (this was before slim, flat-screen single computers could do it all) and yell, “NO! NO!”

What had previously lived on a green screen with yellow letters had vanished forever, and the response from human beings was not good. Representatives of the species howled, cursed, kicked inanimate objects (metal trash cans were a favorite of the assistant editorial page editor) and swore that no amount of new technology could replace the typewriter. After about two minutes, one of the people would saunter in from their severely air conditioned lair–casually, blissfully, as if he just came out of a yoga class and wait strategically until the profanity ebbed and say, “Next time, hit the save button.”

Contemporary word processors are supposed to save what you do automatically. You find the latest version, pull it up and see that it’s all there EXCEPT for the great string of prose that you had labored upon for the last hour because, last night, before going to bed, you had just read a schpritz from one of those fancy prose stylists and you wanted to show the world that you can swim with the big fishes. That’s gone. Forever.

I’ve been through this so many times now and I no longer go quite so crazy. Yesterday when a post for this blog vanished a few seconds after I had finished it (and was not saved, for reasons I’ll never know), I sighed wistfully, remembering so many piles of text that had similarly vaporized, and how the only practical response is “it wasn’t meant to be.”

From a philosophical point of view, that’s a rather weak rationalization. It presumes that things happen for reasons, that some outside, presumably supernatural force is in charge, this force only wants good things for everybody (despite the observance that what happens you may not be so good for me, and vice versa) and that what could have been a mere goof, or a mistakenly tapped key, or, a causally causal connection that Charles Dickens’ Scrooge would explain as “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” was, in truth, a divinely sanctioned act whose ultimate benefit may not be immediately apparent but would, in time, present itself as a greater good.

Until then, it’s best to do something different and, maybe, when emotions return to the midpoint, you can attempt to repeat what you know you cannot duplicate fully. Or not.

I think life is more about chances than choices. A chance for a writer starts with that scary thing: a blank page–digital or actual. You also need something that will make a mark on that page that, you hope, will remain consistent for a while. I say this because I have had too many broken pencil points (and no sharpener anywhere), dry pens, and typewriters that break in ways that can’t be fixed with a ribbon change or a bent paperclip.

Finally, you must recognize the time you have to fill the page. That usually means you must endure distraction, an inspiration that isn’t fully understood, an urge to do research that you must stifle or you’ll find out all these cool facts about delft china or plant-based toxins common to Central America without writing the scene that uses them, and forget about checking e-mail, letting your social media pals know you’re about to craft the greatest work of art the world will ever know, or going to the kitchen and opening the fridge.

You just have to start, knowing that you’re not ready, the writing conditions could be better, you may not be feeling as healthy as you should be, at any moment the phone could summon you to the shop where what you thought was basic maintenance is now a major auto repair, or you just had a publishing industry gatekeeper reject your last work with one of those blandly cordial notes that indicate to you that the person in whom you had put all your hopes didn’t bother to look at what you’ve sent.

You have to start.







The View

Orange paint like bad graffiti marks the thick trunk of tree that has grown for many years on public land outside my house. Soon the home-owners’-association landscapers will fill the day with the noise of saws and cut the tree down.

The tree commands the center of the view I have of our breakfast table. Its fading needles and graying bark mask some of the cars parked along the development’s main road. The large houses across the road seem farther away. I see other trees as I drink my morning coffee, but this one defines the space.

Though the tree was planted intentionally, only two acceptable explanations account for its role in shaping how I see the world each morning: its branching shape is either an act of God–evidence that, despite what I see on the front pages of the newspapers that are two big for the breakfast table, all is going according to divine plan–or that it is one more example of the unpredictable, indeterminable interaction of force and happenstance on a living thing that, by surviving, has attained a state of sublime beauty.

Thinking about such beauty saves me from the shrill voices and genuinely bad news I read and, for a few minutes before my wife leaves for work, see on television. Even the cheery network morning shows can’t help but report of ghastly weather, government venality, famous people misbehaving in public and the occasional academic study that tells us that eating this, or buying that will change everything, or help us avoid the danger of this, the risk of that, the inherent idea that we are little more than living things interacting with force and happenstance and have yet to achieve the steadfast dignity of the tree outside my window.

Are the brown needles (which are fewer than the green ones) and graying bark due to a painful, embarrassing, lifestyle-diminishing ailment that, like those mentioned in so many, many television commercials can be fought with a drug whose side effects–mentioned hurriedly we see people frolicking happily in places with views–may be worse than the cure? Or, as is the case with so many things we acquire, has it merely grown old and ugly in a place in which youth and beauty are a major selling point? I can only guess why the tree is marked for extinction.

The ancient Greeks explained beauty as a form of truth, a glimpse at proportion, balance, ratios of width to height. They discovered that ratios of three to two, are especially pleasing, and have an architectural function. The so-called “Golden Mean” of similar ratios was used in the construction of buildings. Renaissance landscape painters used the same ratios in arranging details in paintings that were so beautiful that they were used models by the first landscape architects, especially in Britain, where country house owners, fresh from the Grand Tour, would point to a painting of the Italian countryside with skinny trees and artfully positioned grottoes and clumps of ruined buildings, and insist that the sight of such a thing should greet them from their bedroom window.

How often what appears to be natural to us, is the opposite. You can see this in Japanese bonsai, where little plants are tortured meticulously until they resemble miniature trees. You also find it in attempts to preserve “view sheds,” that is, protect by law what people in a certain place may see at certain times. In addition to cutting down the tree (and, most likely, replacing it with a younger one), my home-owners’-association also enforces the appearance of every house in the development. Those Williamsburg, VA colors of beige, brown, gray and dark green are supposed to maintain the values of our property and the overall appeal of our homestead. What they really do is freeze the developer’s original vision, as if it were an historical event on par with the founding of our nation.

Go to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and you’ll understand how two of our Founding Fathers were careful to plan how their great houses should be seen. Mount Vernon appears usually modest as you approach it. The interior rooms are small and the sleeping areas are unadorned. Then, you go out on to the back porch and feel like the king of the world as you take in a spectacular view of the Potomac River.

Monticello, like Hadrian’s Villa, is a temple to a man’s idea of himself, with numerous areas to look down on the landscape, with one special place for the telescope that Jefferson used to monitor the construction of the University of Virginia. This view has now been obscured by trees.

Both houses have underground passages that hide the movement of slaves. The places where slaves lived are also hidden from the views of the main houses, and it is to the credit of those who maintain these great landmarks that this fact is pointed out to visitors.

Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home no longer exists. The place in which it stood is marked by a full-size steel outline. What has a densely crowded street on a bluff above Philadelphia’s harbor is now an open plaza. Whatever view Franklin may have had is unknown. What is known is that he was fascinated with nature, as a scientist, inventor, philosopher and politician.

The whole idea of “nature” as a mystical presence distinct from ourselves, but necessary for health and happiness, is a fantasy that we indulge in an effort not to think about death, decay, ignoble rot, incurable disease, terrible storms and the bad stuff that our newspapers tell us keeps happening and won’t go away.

Every morning, after making breakfast and feeding the dog, I sit with my wife and my eyes go from the newspaper, to the tree, and back. Having written for several newspapers, I can imagine the reporters and editors working so very hard on these few inches of text, believing with utmost certainty of the importance of providing me with information that is, by definition, “new.” They know they live in a world of short attention spans, so they must struggle to “hook” the reader with the headline, photo, and the who-what-when-how-where-why of the classic newspaper lede.

And yet, on just about every morning, my eyes grow tired of the anger, urgency, violence, injustice and violation that is so unnaturally new. I look, instead, on this view, and the old tree in its center, and the morning light streaming down on a scene that is also new. The sky, the tree, the parked cars behind it, the school buses and the kids who ride them, reveal changes subtle and dramatic.

I’ll miss that tree when its gone.




Eating the Blues

Can you eat your way out of depression? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites research that says…maybe. Here’s a link to the article:

The article suggests that gobbling the good old Mediterranean diet of fresh fruit, raw or minimally cooked vegetables, beans and legumes, olive oil, fish and lean sources of protein will not merely blow the blues away, but act as a corrective and make it less likely for depression to bring you down.

On the whole, I like the Med Diet when it was first flogged as a heart disease cure in the 1980s. Back then, a glass of wine was added to the daily repast as a sure-fire health enhancer, and, like most eager dieters, I found that what some people consider to be a glass of wine was not what I preferred. By the time I decided I had quaffed a merely adequate serving, I found myself in a sunny, if slightly soggy, mood that ended in a snooze.

That, and I discovered that cheap wines taste REALLY great with pizza and pasta (or is it the other way around?) and pizza and pasta are about as Med as you can get, even when you make sauces and use cheese with a lower-than-typical fat content. Low-fat sauces and cheeses not only have low-taste, but they make you eat more, bringing on that characteristically Mediterranean gut.

You can’t help but notice it when you visit any Med nation. The swanky Med types may look good on bicycles and scooters, or hiking up the Alps, but, after they reach an uncertain age, they develop the round faces, rounder guts and bigger bums and who didn’t appear to be any healthier than the we calorie-clogged Americans. And, though healthcare maybe theoretically “free” in some Med countries, American healthcare is much better in terms of delivery, technology, physician competence, wait times, outpatient therapies and access to prescription medicine. Last I checked, Med people had just as many problems with heart disease and diabetes as we did.

Add to that the fact that, in the late 1990s, the major study that identified dietary fat as the primary cause of arteriosclerosis was proved to have been based on spurious data. We now know that there is good fat (that shuts off our hunger when we feel “full”), not-so-good fat and really bad fat that contributes to arteriosclerosis, and that our bodies make that really bad fat all by themselves. Statins, which are supposed to interfere with really bad fat production, are now the world’s most common prescription drugs.

Our love of the Med diet coincided with two other major dining trends, the return of Big Meat (prime grade steak houses, fancy burgers) and the reinvention of comfort food: fatty, salty, cheesy, saucy, gooey, greasy, starchy intensely delicious meals that “feel good” going down, before they put you to sleep.

I have often wandered into places reeking of sizzling meet, and, after consuming a pile of artfully cooked protein, and the requisite spuds, I behold my mood…elevated. There really is something to comfort food that the Med diet does not deliver.

Finally, a few days after my wife and I viewed a documentary devoted to regional American pie shops, we found ourselves returning from a funeral and, in a fit of life-affirming consumerism, we enriched the local economy by purchasing a strawberry rhubarb pie, the first taste of which set off in my mouth a spectacular, sugary, butter-crust-crumbling fruit explosion also elevated my mood.

And, no, I did not experience the deflating let-down a few hours later. This pie delivered no mere “sugar high.”  Eating it was a peak experience, a life-affirming feat to counter the all thoughts of diets and deprivation which, far too often, amount to the same thing: you do this because you believe, against all lust and logic, that somehow it will be good for you.

With such memories I returned to the Wall Street Journal article and the study on which it was based. That foods influence our moods is obvious. That some kinds of influence may be better than others is worth exploring.

But, if given a choice between a lean, colorful, oil-and-vinegary Med salad (with slivers of grilled chicken on top), and strawberry rhubarb pie, I would not hesitate to send that study back to the kitchen.