Remote Listening

And so I heard from two people in my past, a friend in high school, and the husband of a teacher I may have passed in the hallway of that high school.

Before the Internet, I wondered if thinking about someone was more than just an idle notion. Was it possible that we are not alone with out thoughts and that, in the same way that subatomic particles could interact with each other by winking in and out of existence across impossibly far distances, so might our thoughts be interactions, ways of touching, communicating, being with people, living and dead.

Have you done that thing, in private, when no one is looking, or asking you to be a serious, grown-up type person who doesn’t believe in things that cannot be proven–when you think of a person who has since died, or another you do not even know is still living, or just someone you knew too briefly, and hoped that you can say something to that person, if only for an imaginary moment?

We’re not allowed to do such things in public (unless you’re doing it on a cell phone). We can’t admit that we wish we weren’t so much alone–especially when we’re surrounded by people we work whom we’d rather NOT know so well. For me, loneliness has always been a specific passion ironically triggered by the presence of other people. I never want to speak to, or hear from, anyone person. It’s always someone specific.

Over the many years that I was isolated from the person who was to become my wife, I thought of her just about every day. We can go back now to days, weeks, minutes and find that, yes, when I was wallowing in the blues about her being somewhere else, she was also thinking of me.

This isn’t so wonderful as we wish it would be: our brains think a great deal (I was told recently that about 60,000 thoughts run through our consciousness every day–I found this disappointing and confusing. How do we count these things? How do we distinguish one thought from another? When is a thought over and one with? And why 65,000? Why not 62? Are these thoughts profoundly unique or squeaky repeats? Is this a good thing that so many thoughts gurgle along our synapses? Or should we slow down a little, pick a few choice notions from the gushing torrrent, sip them gently, swish them around in our mental mouth, contemplate the terrior that nurtured the vintage and, at some lofty point, swallow?) and, with so much thinking going on, patterns emerge. Our neurons tend to rewire when we repeat activities, or mull over a problem. Daydreaming isn’t the wasted time: it’s actually a way we process information.

And these processes can become habitual. As Tom Jones must sing at every performance, “It’s not unusual…” to think of someone who has had an effect on you, so that repeated thoughts become customary, familiar, welcome. The people I tend to think about are (or were) living in an American society that, despite who voted for whom in the last presidential election, experience similar things in a day. Run the statistics and two people who may have known each other for a limited period may eventually think of each other at one point or

Another.

Ahh, but why would they think of each other and not…someone or something else? Here we have so many possible variables that could trigger the imagination, or maybe turn some screws that were already rather loose, and…we get this idea, feeling, sense of character, identity, familiarity.

Arthur C. Clarke has been quoted famously for stating that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to the uninitiated. What about the reverse? Are there times when technology is so specialized, complicated or just tedious, that we must step back and see it as magical in order to appreciate it?

This happens in cooking when you eat the food. So much goes into bringing that food to you, and, if you think about it while eating, it just doesn’t taste as good as when you bring it to your lips and let the flavors, textures, heat (or chill) fill your mouth.

So why not believe, occasionally, when no one is looking and you don’t have to be that rational, sensible person you were when you voted in the last presidential election,  that thoughts are more than the sum of their parts, that we are not completely isolated in our heads, and that thinking of someone here can somehow connect you to that person, wherever that person may be?

Because it can get scary. Suddenly the private opinions we may keep to ourselves become something…public. It’s not just God above (or some angel when, as Tom Waits sings, “God’s away on business”) hearing (and certainly disapproving most of) your inner monologue, it’s…someone else!

It’s astonishing but true: for about a decade the U.S. Army spent money trying to see if “psychic” powers could be used as a way of spying on an enemy at a distance without using any mechanical or technological devices (read all about it: The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, non-fiction basis for the film comedy that starred George Clooney).

Just close your eyes, think of that person place or thing and…you’re there!

If only we could be sure that this wasn’t just wish-fulfillment and imagination. It turns out that imagination is also a pattern-filled thing. The few successes in this program may be just as easily explained away by coincidental, and entirely unrelated, similarities in what we imagine, and what may actually exist, in that person, place or thing.

But what if there was more to our imagination than just what was in our brain? What if our mind was as much a receiver as a transmitter?

Thus we get the idea of remote listening. In a quiet place where you won’t have to check your cell phone, answer the door, or take orders from a person who really shouldn’t be your boss but is, open yourself, without judgement, without fear of failure, not just to a single person, place or thing, but to…

Watch what happens.

 

 

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Savoring Every Bite

After my father left us, my mother changed her eating habits. She still set a table for my brother and me, and cooked most meals. But after the dishwasher happily gurgled and my brother began his evening of television and I sauntered back to my room to read a science fiction novel, she would make little things for herself and eat them somewhere in a house that was suddenly too big.

Sometimes it was a bowl of cereal, or a glass of chocolate milk. Occasionally she’d dig a leftover out from the back of refrigerator, unwrap the plastic film and eat it over the sink because, to put the food on a plate from the cabinet would make a newly dirty dish, and the dishwasher was already full.

You do this when you eat alone. Though my brother and I were full-time, pre-college residents of our house, my mother developed the habits of a person who lived alone.

When I learned to cook, from my grandmother, ny girlfriend (now my wife), a college cooking course and haphazard experimentation that too often filled the kitchen with angry gray clouds,  I scorned some of the my mother made: meat sauce and elbow macaroni, fish baked in condensed vegetable soup, baked hamburger and the occasional broiled steak with baked potato (with sour cream and chives, just the way you got it at a restaurant we no longer visited, because my mother did not want to be seen in public as a woman dining alone).

What took me so many years to notice, and understand, was that, unlike her apprentice gourmand of a son, she ate slowly.  She did not warm up the leftover pizza slice because, in the days before microwave ovens, reheating pizza required the electric oven to awaken, followed by careful scrutiny–too much heat and you had burnt cardboard, too little heat and you had cold, cheesy cardboard.

How can cold pizza be delicious?

Nowadays, my wife and I make our own, using a gas-fired pizza oven identical to one used by a professional pizza restaurant that does on-site catering. A few nights ago we made two pies, with fresh dough. Her pie came out better than mine and, like scrupulous people cautious about eating, we ate only half of what we cooked and put the rest in the refrigerator.

On this unusually gloomy day, I missed my wife. She is at work. I’m here, putting words together with the hope that the experience, as well as the reading, will be meaningful. The summer we spent every day together ended in fact two months ago, but, in spirit, it lingered for me until today. Though the dog was eager to provide company (in the hope of a mid-day walk), I could not help but feel alone.

I found our cold pizza in the back of the refrigerator, and, though we do have a microwave oven that can make cheese go from sub-zero to sizzle in seconds, I decided not to heat the slice.

I ate slowly, without a plate, savoring every bite.

 

 

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The Pencil Intrudes

My dog, an ineffably cute West Highland Terrier, brought the pencil to me in her mouth. I took it from her mouth and wondered, Just how smart are you?

The previous night I had watched the somewhat slow, but lovingly photographed retrotech documentary, No.2: Story of the Pencil. I discussed with my wife a difficulty with writing long, extended passages that I did not have during my youthful make-the-deadline days.

I was too indecisive. Instead of letting the words flow (with or without caffeinated inspiration) and then cleaning up whatever seemed yucky later, I agonized over far too much for far too long. This agony drove me to do too much research on the Internet, or to cool my anxiety by rounds of solitaire. The result was predictable: not much was written, less was finished.

I recalled from biographies that many of those whose work I admired began their creative day with a pen or pencil. Though some writers graduated to fancy pens or snazzy typewriters (I, too, owned an Olivetti electric portable and tried for a brief time to write with a Mont Blanc fountain pen), John Steinbeck preferred pencils. He would sit down most mornings and start writing something, a letter to a friend, or a passage of description. This may, or may not have lead to useful work: he burned almost all his early drafts. But it coalesced, sooner and later, into finished work that he then sent to a agents and publishers who stood by him when his work was incredibly controversial (California farmers vigorously denigrated him for The Grapes of Wrath),  turned into a play (he refused to have anything to do with Of Mice and Men‘s theatrical adaptation and even bragged of not having seen it) and, finally, won the Nobel prize–a distinction so overwhelming that it turned him into an indecisive writer who had difficulty finishing anything.

Throughout his life, his writing began with pencil and paper.

The next day I was on my word processor, preparing a piece for this blog, when my dog, or rather, the pencil intruded.

As I held the pencil in my hand, I wondered if my dog could understand English. Could she sense my emotional turmoil?

Pets, like children, will do things that we can’t explain. Some of what we can explain (or, at best, we believe we can explain) are so astonishing.

I turned off my word processor, went downstairs, sat in a comfy chair, pulled out a pad I used to bring to places that served coffee so, among the intense lap toppers, parents chatting about children, business folk who can’t or won’t spring for a meal and teenagers on a tentative first date, I could build worlds, move stories forward, invent marvelous characters and polish a gleaming turn of phrase.

I began writing. I didn’t finish anything but I liked immediately how easy it was. I didn’t have a keyboard in an awkward position on my lap. My wabi sloppy handwriting was easy to read, without perfectly legible letters appearing on a screen. I had no urge to switch screens and check the news, check e-mail or run down a fact. Having lost my deck of cards, I could not resort to solitaire.

If I didn’t like a passage, I drew a line through it, or I flipped the pencil and rubbed it away. As one of the talking heads in the pencil documentary observed: you hold creation and negation in one object, two opposing characteristics at opposite ends.

The limitation of choices, the inflexibility of narrative flow, the feeling that what you’re doing must go somewhere because a pencil is a thing with a point and a point does not merely indication direction: a point creates it.

So I’m off and scrawling. The current strategy is to let things happen with pencil and a pad (NOT a yellow legal pad–I associate that with my father’s law office) and then revise as transfer text to digital form.

Then?

Maybe I’ll find editors, publishers and more readers who just may stay with me for a while.

 

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New York Times Correspondent Makes News! Read All About It!

For about ten years I covered Atlantic City and New Jersey for the New York Times. The gig didn’t pay well, and it frequently drove me crazy, as when, hours after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center Towers and the Washington, D.C. Pentagon building, an editor wanted me to go to a quiet predominantly Muslim community in South Jersey, bang on doors and ask for comments.

I turned that assignment down.

My editors said working for the Times would lead to something. When the New Jersey section was eliminated, and I was not offered any similar or subsequent place for my reporting within the newspaper, I felt let down. The only thing the gig led to was the privilege of saying I used to do something.
Of course, the essence of experience is that it is not fixed: the more we think about what we’ve done, the more we savor (or wallow) in memory, the more notional truths await our discovery.

As many writers have learned, even if you feel you don’t “know” anything, writing about what you know (that is, what you have experienced, or something so fixed in your soul that revealing it is an act of honesty) feels stronger, more reliable, more powerful and (we hope) less likely to be contradicted, than the stuff we wish we knew.

Journalism was valuable for me because I had to gather enough information, understand it and structure it in a way that made sense, before I could write about it. For me, research was like eating: I had to keep doing it until I felt “full.” That’s one reason my fictional output is slow: you’re never sure how much you need to know about a story whose major truth is that you invented it.

Writing for the Times opened doors (temporarily), inspired sources to return phone calls, made fellow journalists who previously ignored me ask me how they could get jobs, and transformed the little mistakes that slipped by me that, at any other newspaper, would die quietly (not in the dark crypt the Washington Post recently reserved for democracy, but in the pale gray of insignificant neglect), into news.
A major philosophical ideal at the Times is that the newspaper reports the news, it does not make it. Of course, the Times makes news all the time, be it an article from confidential sources revealing some inner nastiness in Washington, to the kind of critical theater reviews that can close a Broadway show.
At one, and only one time in my tenure with the Times did I use my power to make the news.

Every time I go to the Atlantic City Boardwalk I walk past the flamboyant facade of the Warner Theater. The theater itself used to be a wonderfully gaudy showplace, one of several in the city, but it was torn down and replaced by a parking garage. The facade remained as a retail store for a while. At one time, hot dogs and pork roll sandwiches were sold out of so much sadly decaying Spanish Mediterranean glitz.

For me, the Warner Theater was a truth that had not yet become ironic: a piece of the “old” Atlantic City whose decor achieved what Boardwalk architecture had always done: make people want to spend money. And yet, it was charming reminder of an earlier era, at a time when the rapacious, new-but-not-much-improved, rapacious, cynical and outrageously ugly casino-fueled city was demanding attention.

Then ITT, which owned Caesars back then, bought the entire block of Boardwalk frontage that included the Warner Theater. They were going to tear everything down, and build new casino frontage that would connect their Roman-style gambling complex with the adjacent Bally’s “Wild West” casino, which they also owned.

I dug up Florence Miller, whom we journos used to call “feisty.” Ms. Miller was the head of the Atlantic City Arts Commission, which built a small museum devoted to New Jersey artists and Atlantic City artifacts at Garden Pier. Miller’s real clout was in approving works of art that, by zoning decree, the casinos had to pay for and install before they could complete expansions. When Miller decided that the decoration inside one casino did not qualify as art, the casino mogul in charge exploded that the “entire damned building is art.” Miller held her ground and a statue was erected near the entrance of the gambling pit.
Ms. Miller told me that she could do nothing about the Warner Theater. She said she’d asked Al Cade to save it–no, she pleaded with him, but the facade wasn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, and, even if it was, a property owner can modify and tear down a registered site. I replied that this wasn’t what I expected from a person who had fought so hard for art and artifacts that represented the city’s heritage. She said you had to pick your battles and the Warner Theater wasn’t worth fighting for.
I disagreed. I liked looking at the thing. Other casinos had “preserved” bits of the city’s past and the results had been hideous (Resorts International’s awful orange, red and brass lobby) to pitiful (before tearing down the Blenheim Hotel, Bally’s Park Place preserved one of the gargoyles that once adorned it near the casino’s convention ballroom). I dug up the city’s official historian, a Philadelphia architect specializing in incorporating existing structures into new ones, and one of the theater’s former owner’s, George Hamid, a marvelously colorful character who also owned Steel Pier.

Then I called up Caesars and found out that they didn’t care about the facade one way or another, and that if Florence Miller and the city wanted it so badly, Caesars would let them peel the facade away and take it to Garden Pier–if the City Arts Commission would pay for the removal. I was told, off the record, that the Commission either didn’t have the funds, or the desire, to save the facade, but that I shouldn’t go to the Commission to get confirmation about that because that might make the Commission want to hold up the expansion project in some other way.

I wrote an article about the theater.

The president of ITT lived in New Jersey then, and nobody at Caesars told him about the theater when he had gone over the expansion plans. He read my article in the Sunday Times. The next week Caesars made some public noises about being good neighbors, and the facade was incorporated into the expansion, where it remains to this day.

My original New York Times article is here:

ATLANTIC CITY: Fighting Off the Final Curtain

By Bill Kent

THE Warner Theater may be most famous for the singer who didn’t play there.

“I got a call from the William Morris Agency around February of 1957,” recalled George Hamid, who owned the Steel Pier and several theaters in Atlantic City. “They said, ‘We have an act so big we can’t put it on Steel Pier.’ I laughed and said, ‘There’s no such act.’ “

Mr. Hamid refused the offer. “I said, ‘We’d go for a Perry, a Pat or a Frank, but who’s going to go for a guy with a crazy name like Elvis?’ “

And so Elvis Presley never played Atlantic City.

“But next year,” Mr. Hamid added, “when they called me about Ricky Nelson, I said yes.”

It’s been a long time since Ricky Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme performed at the Warner Theater. Today the Warner is a forlorn reminder of better times. Its last tenants, who moved out last month, were a Boardwalk fast-food restaurant and karaoke bar.

And now Caesars Atlantic City, a subsidiary of the ITT Corporation, wants to remove what is left and build a 620-room hotel tower, with restaurants and a 20,000-square-foot convention ballroom. Whether the once-splendid Spanish Mediterranean facade can be salvaged will depend on the efforts of preservationists and the willingness of Caesars to help.

Built in 1929 at the then-extravagant cost of $2.7 million, the 4,300-seat Warner was Atlantic City’s grandest movie palace and most romantic showroom. In 1958 it was sold to Mr. Hamid, who had been booking concerts and stage shows there. As a condition of the sale, he had to drop the Warner name, and he called the theater the Warren because that was the least expensive way of changing the marquee.

Mr. Hamid later transformed the theater into the Boardwalk Bowl. “Snooks Pearlstein and all the old-time pros used to play pool there,” recalled a local historian, Sidney Trusty, who staged bowling competitions there.

Mr. Hamid sold the Boardwalk Bowl to the Howard Johnson’s Boardwalk Regency Hotel, a block away, in 1970. The property was later acquired by Caesars when the casino company bought the hotel in 1977. Now Caesars has received preliminary approval to build the tower, and no provisions have been made for what is left of the theater.

“Nobody expected it to go away, so nobody did anything about it,” said Anthony Kutschera, a founder of the Atlantic City Historical Society. “This is all that’s left from the time when going to a theater was an experience.”

When Florence Miller, the feisty executive director of the Atlantic City Art Center, heard that the Warner might be demolished, she called Caesars executives and pleaded for a stay of execution. On Jan. 8, which happened to be her 79th birthday, Al Cade, a Caesars vice president, told her, in her words, that “whatever could be done to save it will be done.”

Mrs. Miller took this to mean that Caesars would either incorporate the Warner into its expansion plans or donate the facade to the Atlantic City Historical Museum. But through Valarie McGonigal, the Caesars spokeswoman, Mr. Cade said the company had not determined the facade’s fate and would not for several weeks.

Because the theater is not on the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore not subject to Federal restrictions that protect structures of historic value, no plans were made to save its auditorium, which Caesars demolished to build a parking garage.

Another friend of the Warner, Steven Izenour, an partner in the Philadelphia architectural firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, says Caesars should be thanked for saving the facade as long as it did. A co-author of “Learning From Las Vegas” (M.I.T. Press, 1972), Mr. Izenour researched Boardwalk architecture.

“Everything on the Boardwalk was considered disposable and replaceable when it was originally constructed,” he said in an interview. “Survival is worth something. Something is gained by the fact that these few pieces are all that’s left. The Warner Theater’s is such a beautiful, handsome facade that even as run-down as it is, you can’t help thinking that famous people played there.”

(end)

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A Street Corner Miracle

I agreed to meet my brother Neal in Baltimore sometime before 4:30. But it didn’t turn out that way.

For those who don’t know it, the Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum is a collection of mostly 18th and 19th century art amassed by two brothers and then left to the city. Having spent some time in and around other private collections in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., I decided to leave home earlier, so I could visit the Walters, which was a few blocks from Neal’s hotel.

To give myself an hour or so at the Walters, I parked my car at around 1:45 near his hotel, walked out to the street to begin the walk to the Walters and–

There Neal was, across the street. We were astonished to see each other, more so that, given all the places we each could be, we would be so close at that instant.

Sitting at home on a shelf is a book entitled Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, by Marlboro College Emeritus Professor Joseph Mazur. In the book Mazur provides the math that shows that coincidences are not as rare or nearly impossible as we would believe.  After my brother and I embraced, I began thinking of the Mazur’s math to dissuade myself of the notion that fate, or a nod from God, as we wandered into a nearby drug store to purchase some toiletries he forgot to pack.

I imagined Mazur telling me that a Casablanca response (from the famous Humphrey Bogart film, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”) isn’t quite correct. Neal came to Baltimore to attend a convention at a hall about five blocks away from his hotel, so it is very likely that he’d spend most of his time within those five blocks, especially on streets that connected him to his hotel. I had parked on the same block as his hotel. It is immediately likely that we would find each other on that corner than if we had been anywhere within the city limits.

Apparent coincidences are explicable, understandable and more to do with our brain’s tendency to “connect the dots,” that is, find patterns in discrete phenomena. When we don’t see a pattern, or don’t understand how likely events may be, we presume that fate or luck or some supernatural force has determined the outcome.

Especially when the outcome is positive.

We spent much of the afternoon catching up. Having just turned 60 (I’m older by 2 and 1/2 years), he told me how disturbed he from recently visiting one of his best friends from college. His friend was the same age: 60, but now permanently confined to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s Disease.

I agreed with him that 60 was too young to be incapacitated by this terrible, irreversible mental decline, especially because this friend had suffered for much of his life but had always remained cheerful and upbeat, even now, as his memory of current and distant experiences became no more lasting than a wisp of steam.

We ended at that uneasy question: why do bad things happen to good people who did nothing to bring them about?

The Zen people say we suffer when we become “attached” to ideas of good and bad. Give up attachments, give up the sense of identify that isolates you and life is…what it is.

An infamous answer is in the Book of Job, in which Job, a good man in all respects, is tortured by God to prove a point. After God restores Job to good health and fortune, Job demands why? God’s response is “where were you when I made the world?”

Or, as a rabbi I know put it, “this is above your pay grade.” That is, you’re part of a larger plan that you have no right, or reason to understand.

Science would find genetic causes, or, as some research as indicated, dietary indulgences. How could so many of those who died of the medieval plagues know that their suffering had nothing to do with good deeds, or bad, but proximity to contaminated water, fleas and rats?

And yet, scientific explanations are not final. As soon as an apparent cause is revealed, new complexities challenge that finding. Also, science is not always done well. Breathing radioactive air was once thought to be a cure for respiratory ailments. If a portion of your brain wasn’t functioning properly, a lobotomist would eagerly open your skull and scoop the bad stuff out. Inept research in the 1950s led to a “fear of fat” in the American diet. One generation’s miracle drug–thalidomide, opiod painkillers, etc.–can have horrendous consequences that initial tests did not identify.

Alas, the explanations, for both the seeming miracle of finding Neal across a street at a time when neither of us expected to see the other, and the undeserved suffering of his friend, did not satisfy. Why is it in life that we feel blessed one day, cursed the next, especially when we “know” better?

If the answer is above my pay grade, how do I get a raise?

 

 

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Wrestling With Angels

I never liked doubt. When I learned about medieval Japanese culture, I imagined myself becoming a super samurai, who could solve problems, write novels and, possibly, impress females, with a single, direct and unhesitatingly lethal sword cut.

Alas, when a problem arises, I’m like that clueless klutz wandering about Home Depot searching for the part, the piece, the tube of goo, the great grand and all-powerful tool. And I never seem to find it. Or, if I do, I fumble around so much, banging this, scraping that and making a mess that it’s only when I’m just about finished that I finally remember what direction to turn the screwdriver. I have the greatest admiration for those who can fix things, but also I disagree with those who preach goal-oriented behavior, or who equate intellect with problem-solving, because the only thing worse than finding yourself incapable of solving a problem (world peace, anyone?) is dealing with the cosmic let-down that descends just have your turn on the water and discovery that, yes, you’ve replaced the stopper in the toilet and it works okay but…the sink is still clogged up.

Or, as I like to put it, you pray to heaven for a sandwich with hot corned beef, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and a slice of Swiss cheese, and it’s delivered on white bread.

As for impressing females, I confess that I will never figure that out. I blame this on  myself. I remember that scary time in middle school when girls transformed themselves from pesky annoyances to the most important beings on the planet whose approval of me was a matter of even greater importance than life and death. Between my heart-thumping, face-burning, swoons and pratfalls, I noticed that I really couldn’t expect myself to appeal to every female because not every female appealed to me. Whenever I tried to drag myself up from despair and systematize and catalog exactly what would be the ideal object of affection, I was surprised by how this person (to whom I am now married) was, to put it honestly, beyond category. Love really is the most important thing that happens to us, and, even if we try to explain it away as an evolutionary evolved practice by which we further the species, nurture the weak and keep florists in business, we’re not supposed to understand it as much as be grateful for what love helps us become.

Writing novels has never been a single sword cut. Not once. I start with an idea of a scene or situation, or a character with a challenge, and then I go backward and discover how this scene arose. Then I go forward to find out what happens next, only to skid to a halt and spin my wheels for a while because I have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Then I become frustrated and depressed because, even though I once gave some simple, easy plot-boiling strategies when I taught novel writing, I am incapable of following my own advice. So a rapidly sink into despair because I can’t just sit down and POUND IT OUT. I need a flickering beam to light the way ahead and, when I’m in the dark, I become dark.

I don’t turn to drink, or coffee, because I tried those during my misspent youth and they don’t work and they make you feel even worse. I’ll turn the computer on and play entirely too much solitaire. Just when I’m certain that my mood will never change, I get some kind of great idea. The way ahead is as bright as an airport runway! Pull back on the throttle and up we go!

This emotional power glide fades as soon as I admit that what I really want to happen next in my story is impossible, or, at best, highly unlikely. Now, this, in itself, is not a bad thing: readers turn to fiction because they don’t want it to be like real life. They want to experience vicariously situations that would normally send them running for Mama. They want to meet people who might typically scare them, intimidate them, or send them into a tailspin of envy. They want to fix the toilet and unclog the sink!

So I have to go back and figure out how I can either endow my character with the ability to pull off this unlikely thing, or play a card that I call “H.G. Wells’ Rule.” Wells, one of the grandfathers of science fiction, held that a reader will accept one miracle in a story, but not two or three. In practice, a reader will accept just about anything that is impossible if the reader wants to believe that the impossible can happen, should happen, must happen, will happen in the world you’ve created.

A technique that can be employed is similar to a that of a live magic show: you set up the illusion (the magician explains what will happen with “patter” or build up to it with a series of more intricate, interesting and beautiful illusions) ” employ misdirection (that is, involve the reader in an exciting, emotional moment with your hero, or an important character, so the reader doesn’t have the chance to question what you’re up to) and then unveil the illusion with a bit of dazzle. The impossible happens, dreams come true, your hero beats the bad guy at his own game, not because these are the conventions of story-telling, but because these things make “sense” in the world you’ve created.

Again, it’s hard for me to follow my own advice. I muddle through. I try all kinds of things. I wrestle and…if you believe there is a muse with sacred powers, or a God that watches over the tormented souls of struggling writers, you cast your imagination forward to that wonderful moment when you hold your finished book (printed and bound is FAR better than some digital blur on a reader) and…nobody can see the parts where you were paused, faltered, doubted yourself because you had absolutely no idea what to do.

Your book is almost like life itself: one thing happens after another.

But it is better than life because the right things happen, for the right reasons.

 

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Labor Day

My cousin, a retired labor law professor, never tires of reminding me of the importance of Labor Day. I did not need a reminder, because I’ve learned some of the unbelievably violent and bloody history of the movement. I let him tell me anyway.

I live in a “right to work” state, which limits union activities. I call it a “right to be fired” state. One of the many things a union is supposed to do is protect you, or help you survive, middle managers who impose layoffs to create numbers that might please analysts, stockholders and executives whose pay is tied to such numbers, but weaken the company, reduce the quality and reliability of the products the company makes or services it provides, and, most specifically, leave the human beings who have given their lives, their health and the future of their families to the company, with little or nothing for their contribution.

I support unions even though every time I needed one to back me up, it failed me.

The first time I agreed to teach a semester in the English Department at a community college with a very powerful teachers union.  What made the gig appealing was not the union, but the fact that the college was so close to where I lived at the time that I could walk to it.

That, and, from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers and Temple universities, I knew that community college students really needed help with basic skills that they did not develop adequately in high school. I imagined that I could provide that, as an entirely self-taught novelist and journalist, I could provide that help.

Though I only had a bachelors degree, I offered a copy of my first published novel as proof that I knew something about my subject matter. That my work regularly appealed in Philadelphia newspapers also spoke in my favor.

I was given remedial English classes. I asked to share a faculty office so I could meet privately with students. I wasn’t given that, so I met my students before and after classes in the dining hall.

Teaching is always a two-way street: you learn as much, if not more, from your students as you hope they are learning from you. I’ll never forget the guy who couldn’t stop himself from sleeping in my class. When I asked him why, he told me that he used to be a drug dealer but gave it up after one of his friends was killed. Now, on top of the education he was trying to acquire, he had joined a church, married and was holding down two jobs to make less than half of what he took in illegally.

I told him I was so proud of him for turning his life around, I wouldn’t bother him any more about it. He made a renewed effort to pay attention and ended the class with one of the top grades.

Before that could happen, I was called into the office of an associate dean and accused of teaching without a masters degree. I told the dean I never claimed to have a masters degree and that the English Department had hired me because of my skills. The Dean further accused me of fraud and demanded that I provide a transcript from my Oberlin B.A.

I went to the union and was told of a war going on between administration and the English department that had nothing to do with me. I asked the union rep to intercede between the dean and me. The rep told me she wouldn’t do that and, “just to be on the safe side,” I should get a copy of my transcript.

Thank you very much not doing what a union should do: solve difficulties between labor and management so labor (me) can continue to labor in a way that best meets the needs of the company (the college) and its customers (the students).

I got the transcript and submitted it but the dean still accused me of misrepresenting myself. I decided to end my association with the community college at the end of the semester. Later I heard that the dean had been fired.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer was experiencing one of its periodic strikes, I was approached by a reporter I knew and asked about joining the Newspaper Guild. Up until then, the Guild would not admit freelancers. In truth, freelancers were considered the enemies of staff reporters (all of whom had to be Guild members) because freelancers tended to produce more copy, be more agreeable during editing sessions and more grateful for assignments.

At least, I was.

The idea of being part of the Guild appealed to me, because it would settle the inevitable rivalry between staffers and freelancers. Though rules had been established about how choice assignments were given, the rules were not enforced reliably and equitably.

So I joined the union. I wasn’t charged dues. I was just told not to write for the Inquirer or Daily News while the strike was on. Because I didn’t have any outstanding assignments, and plenty of work from other publications, I had no difficulty complying.

Within a few weeks the strike was settled and I discovered I wasn’t a member of the union. Instead, the union played me, and other freelancers, correspondents and contract contributors, to increased the pressure on the newspaper’s parent company to settle the strike

My third and, I hope, last union disappointment happened when I again thought I would be able to help students with their writing. I went into a high school and, as those who have read this blog know, I did not get along well with the administrators. They forced me to attend humiliating “remedial” teaching meetings, delivered insultingly negative evaluations, and accused me of saying and doing things I did not say or do.

This time I had paid my dues to join the union and I managed to meet with a union advisor outside of the union offices, who told me to “brown nose.”

I didn’t understand.

“Kiss ass. Tell them how much you love working for them and teaching in their school.”

But they’re trying to make me so annoyed that I quit.

“They’re trying to get rid of you. They’re creating a paper trail that will justify whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it.”

I insisted that I had good relations with students and parents, my classes were doing well and–

“They don’t care. They want you out.”

What could the union do to get them to lay off?

Nothing, I was told.

I heard later that the union may have made a case for me, if I was someone they “knew,” or valued in some way. As is typical with human organizations, the group’s resources, which can mean everything from funding or battles worth fighting, are apportioned for reasons other than the mere fact of membership.

It’s possible that some may read this and judge me precisely the kind of person who shouldn’t be anyone’s employee. I like to do things my own way. Instead of following instructions, I improvise to find out what works and what doesn’t in a given setting, then I build on that, learn from that, refine that.

And, from being a journalist, I’m skeptical of those in power. Just because they’re above me in status, influence, salary, duties or perks, does not mean that I will dedicate myself to pleasing them. I’ll try to get along, because it’s the right thing to do in a group setting. I’ll do my best to resolve conflicts and restore harmony.

But the job is more important to me than how it reflects on their opinions of themselves, or their careers.  When teaching, the job is much more than the acquisition of knowledge or skills. It’s about helping students discover how they learn, and then giving them every opportunity to learn as much as they can.

So, after so much lousy treatment by unions (as well as a time spent covering a violent Atlantic City strike by the hotel and restaurant workers), you’d think I’d turn my back on organized labor, and join the mob of anti-unionists who believe that workers should be eternally grateful for the management/ownership class for providing work, at whatever pay and conditions management/owners see fit.

I don’t. Labor and management have had plenty of opportunities historically to get along, to create positive environments where everyone prospers. Most of the time, that hasn’t happened. Management has broken strikes for better wages and better working conditions by hiding the forces of legitimate law and order, in the form of police, and state and federal militias, or by hiring armed guards, the infamous Pinkerton detectives among them. Invariably, those weapons go off and workers have died.

Nowadays the managers or owners are trying even harder to eliminate human labor from their companies. They have many reasons, and some of them are worth considering. Some that are not are so-called efficiencies that transfer labor from the company to me, the consumer. When I call up a company, I have to navigate a phone tree, then wait for the “first available” person. When I fly on a commercial carrier, I have to print my own boarding pass or pay a fine.

When I see someone who is employed having a dispute with management, I am grateful that unions exist, because, even if the union ultimately doesn’t do its job, at least the employee has someone to turn to and, when those employees come together to strike, they can make a difference, not just for their jobs, but for many others.

 

 

 

 

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