Friday, March 16, 2018

Jack the dog, RIP

He was a small Italian-greyhound-like dog, who pranced when he walked and was scared of just about everything.  He spent half his life cowering.  He was one of those dogs, not quite as small as a chihuahua, but close, who had a sharp, loud, penetrating bark. Like those small dogs, you could see his rib cage moving like a bellows.  You couldn’t roughhouse with him.  He was a dog in miniature, too delicate and insubstantial to do medium or big dog things with. His slim legs were all tendon.  He was fast as the wind, and zipped about the house in excitement when you arrived home. He had a Linus-like old blanket he would crawl under and surround himself with in elaborate turns and twists.  When we would go out, he was put into a pen, which he did not like. Had to do this, or the house would be a wreck.  He knew when you were going out, and he would slink to the corner and try to flatten himself against the floor so as to make it as difficult as possible to pick him up.  But we always did.  In the cage he went.  He didn’t like it, but he had his blanket and would dig himself under that and disappear.  I wrote ANGOLA on a piece of paper and put it on top of his cage, which was appropriate since he was from Louisiana.  I made up a blues song that “he” would sing.  One of the lyrics went something like, “I been in prison for three long years….”  That would be twenty-one years in human years.  I thought that was an appropriate blues song for a dog.  Sometimes I would add, “And the warden done give me two more.” 

Like a lot of small dogs, he would bark ferociously at bigger dogs who could pop him in their mouth in one gulp if they chose.  When I would give him a bone, usually a lamb chop bone, he loved to tease and probe as if he were a surgeon, gnaw and chew with great serene, delight forever until it was a shadow of itself.  He was scared beyond reckoning of thunder, and he would howl pitifully until it stopped, shivering like he’s just emerged from an Arctic lake.   He had a personality, Jack did.  He was neurotic and slightly crazy and vulnerable.  He was so happy when you came home.  It’s funny how much you can miss a dog.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Orange Couch

I'm sitting in a cafe in New Orleans called The Orange Couch. It's 8:28 in the morning. I have one of my favorite tables. I'm working hard. I will until I'm too tired.  The coffee machine hisses agreeably, infusing steam into jolts of espresso. The light pours into this small welcoming place. It isn't crowded yet. Many of the people of this neighborhood, called the Marigny, are not early risers. They're nocturnal. They start staggering in around 10am. There are only three of us here now. Other customers, smartly dressed, who have traditional jobs, come in, get their take-out concoctions, and briskly leave.

The cafe opens at seven in the morning. Sometimes, especially in the summer, when the New Orleans heat stalks you like a panther, I'm here just as the two narrow French doors swing open. Then, when I walk in, the place pristine and quiet, I feel like I'm the first one to dive into a David Hockney swimming pool. I have the whole morning ahead of me. The prospect is beautiful. On weekends, there's hardly a space to be found after 11am. The eight small white tables, two 1950s chairs and two couchesyes, one of them is orangeare filled to capacity. There are tables outside as well, six iron ones, and if this weather is good (and sometimes if it isn't), they're full, too. Royal Street passes right by the door. The neighborhood, except when parade season descends, is usually peaceful. Everything you could want.  In the winter, it's warm, comforting inside.

Fred, the owner, is here this morning. I've never seen him in a bad mood. He gives employment to many of those neighborhood artists, musicians and writers. Unlike the French Quarter, there aren't many places in the Marigny where a twenty-something can find steady work in such an agreeable place. There is warmth in his face. I look at him, and I think of Emerson's words, "A cheerful, intelligent face is the end of culture, and success enough." The dark-haired guy behind the bar who serves me my coffee exudes youth and promise. I see myself as a young guy in New York forty years ago. It's familiar. The way it should be. 

It's a place where I feel welcome, where I can stay at my table alone and never feel pressured to finish. I feel good here. I work well here. Finding a good place to work is always a gift, and I'm grateful. The Orange Couch is my Clean, Well-lighted Place. Thanks, Fred, as ever.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A Summer Writing Workshop in Maine

If you've enjoyed some of these posts of mine, and are interested in writing yourself, consider joining me this July in Rockport, Maine for a week-long workshop in crafting memoir.  It's through the admirable Maine Media Workshops.

I taught the workshop last summer, and it was terrific.  It's in a splendid part of the world.  Here, for example, is a photo of Rockport harbor.

Photo by R. Remsen

So, it's a beautiful place to be.  And a great place to seek, and find, inspiration.

Here's a photo of the great students I worked with last July.

Photo by Gussan Jalil (the tall, handsome guy in back)

We worked on many aspects of technique, did a lot of writing and critiquing and even, at one point, had a heated conversation about punctuation.  Now, when that happens, you know you're really in it.

If you're interestedand I hope you arecheck out all the particulars here.  The workshop will take place July 15-21.  You can call the folks at Maine Media toll-free if you have any questions: 877-577-7700.

I'm looking forward to see you in Maine this summer.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

The thing with feathers

The term "bird watcher" seems to imply someone overdressed in khaki fatigues, wearing a floppy hat, with an enormous pair of binoculars drooping around his or her neck, a notepad in hand, in which she or he, in ecstasy, scribbles down the latest sighting of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Profession: librarian or accountant. I mean, really, who would spend a day squinting up into trees for a possible furtive glimpse of a bird when they might be off mountain climbing, running rapids or just walking on the beach?
Scarlet Tanager

I would. When I lived in New York City, I loved the ten or so days when birds were migrating north (spring) and south (fall). You could go to Central Park and see up to thirty or even forty species of birds in a single daytwenty or so species of warblers alone. Birds, and most especially the songs of birds, make me feel optimistic. (Emily Dickinson used birds as a metaphor. The title of this post is hers.) These days, like all of us, I sorely need a strong dose of optimism.  At 72, even more so.  With birds, I get that.  When I was a boy growing up in in southeastern Virginia, I would wake up to the sweet cadences of the song sparrow. Take a second to give yourself a jolt of beauty by listening to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of that bird's song. (Click on the second recording for the prettiest melody.)                              

You can ask the question, why do birds sing? I'm sure there's an answer. But how do you answer the question, why do birds sing beautifully?
Prothonotary Warbler

I'm like any person who has ever watched a bird defy gravity. Not only that, but make a mockery of gravity, with sharp dips, pivots, swoops and dives.  It's no wonder that when in a dream you're flying, it always feels exhilarating and, in therapy, is always a positive sign.

For me, though, it's the hues of these birds that make me crane my neck, searching high in the branches, for hours. To see, even for a few seconds, the deep oceanic blue of an Indigo Bunting or the fierce black and yellow of a Magnolia Warblergo ahead, make my day. These photographs go some way to explaining the thrill, but you have to catch the glimpse in the wild, catch the appearance of the bird perched high in the treeso much color in so small a form!to get the full charge.

Sidebar:  Sometimes, there is an advantage in going to the dentist.  In the waiting room today, I found a copy of the new National Geographic.  In it, there is a elegiac, concerned essay by Jonathan Franzen, "Why Birds Matter."  I urge you to read it. I actually think he answers the question, in prose that soars like the creatures he describes.  
Indigo Bunting
Magnolia Warbler

I live in New Orleans now.  When I talk to people about Hurricane Katrina, time and time again I hear the same thing, "It was so quiet after the storm. You didn't hear a single bird singing." How, then, could you feel even the slightest bit of optimism? I can't imagine.  Because, in Emily Dickinson's words, the thing with feathers ishope.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My insane Iran connection

I received an e-mail via my website today.  It was from Iran.  Here is the first line:

"It's so hard to find the best opening sentence when someone wants to write a letter for a great writer."

They think I'm a great writer in Iran!  Well, someone thinks I'm a great writer in Iran!  Unbelievable.  I've never had an Iranian fan, as far as I know.  I wonder how they got my books?  Or what book of mine they read?  I settled back, ready for Persian adulation.  The e-mail continued:

"It's a long time I'm trying to buy or a book of yours ; "how to hide your insanity", i live in Iran and my country is banned by the laws of US government. I can't buy it from amazon or anywhere else or even download it from some ebook websites can you help me by that? from your loyal fan Saj"

For just the briefest second, I thought: Did I write How to Hide Your Insanity?  The thing is, I want to hide my insanity.  I need to hide my insanity.  If I didn't write that book, I should have.  Thinking carefully, though, I realized I probably hadn't written it.  I'm pretty sure, anyway.  Great title, by the way.

So what Richard Goodman did write this book?  And how could I order it?

Google turned up the book on Goodreads, but the author is Richard Goodmoon.  Not me, Richard Goodman.  It's not listed on amazon. You can't buy it anywhere.  A little more poking around, and I conclude that it seems to be a fake book--i.e., ha ha.  There appears to be no person named Richard Goodmoon, either.  At least neither Google nor facebook brings up anything.  But some people really want the book!

On Reddit, somehow they link Goodmoon to me (why?) and to my website, and so I figure this is how Saj found me.

Sorry, Saj!

Then I started thinking about Saj.  (Is Saj a male name? Female?  No idea.)  I wonder if Saj is being observed writing to me, somehow.  Will this mean consequences?  I hope not.  Then I thought, how in heaven's name did Saj find the fake book, How to Hide Your Insanity?  Did Saj do a search for books that help you conceal your insanity?  Is Saj insane? 

Or, like me, does he/she just feel that way a lot of the time, especially these days? 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Growing old is like...

I don't know what it's like.

What I do know is that at 72, my feeling about aging changes almost every day, if not every hour.

Some days I feel just fine about it.  After all, I'm healthy.  My eyesight is good.  I have energy (until about 8pm).  The brain seems in decent shape. (Did I mention energy?)  My body is holding up.  What else can I ask for?  So many people younger than I am have less.

Other days, I'm terrified.  I'm terrified I'll have a stroke and end up with half my face dragging and move around like Quasimodo.  Or that I'll end up with no money, a disgrace to my daughter, living in some godforsaken Medicare facility sitting in a wheelchair all day in some dimly-lit hallway. Which, don't kid yourself, is possible.  Think of all the sad endings we know.  We read about them every day.

In all cases, whatever I feel, I can't change what's happening. 

The thing is, I think it would take a lot for me not to want to stick around.  I understand people get to that place.  I don't judge them.  How can I?  Those people in unbearable pain?  Who has the effrontery to tell them what to do?

But now more than everand this is clearly a result of being aware of agingI find myself noticing the most peculiar manifestations of being alive.  Opening a jar, for example.  Putting a key into a lock.  Turning on a faucet.  Tying my shoe.  Simple, inconsequential things.  But all things I could not do if I were dead.  And, that at one point, I will not do, ever again.

Aging, with the emphasis on "ing", as in living.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Thread count

I got an e-mail from a friend telling me about an emerging literary dust-up.  Seems a writer just published a short story in The New Yorker that some people are calling out as being a ripoff of a story by Mavis Gallant.  The writer Francine Prose is probably the most vocal of those in the hue-and-cry camp.

Prose writes, "I find it painful that Mavis Gallant is now so unread that one can claim to have written what's essentially her story and publish it in The New Yorker (where in fact her story first appeared) and it’s okay...It's just wrong."

Prose then goes on to enumerate on her facebook page, with examples, the ways in which the writer, Sadia Shepard, "borrowed" from the Gallant story.

But what really is the most important aspect of this story is the enormous, multi-headed thread Prose has going for her on her page about this.  I did a rough measurement, and it's at least fifteen feet long.  I'm sure I missed some of it, too, passing by a few "more replies" without clicking on them.

I'm so jealous.  I would do anything to have a thread like that.  A thread that went on and on, with all sorts of angry rebuttals and hearty affirmations and sidetrackings and bitter renunciations.  The importance of this person and what they have to say cannot be denied with a thread like that.

Where is my long thread?  Where are my bitter renunciations?

I have none.  Not one soilitary bitter renunciation.  Not to mention my threads in general are threadbare.  They can hardly be called threads.  Maybe threadettes would be more accurate.  Or quasi-threads.  

I want a bigger thread.  I know.  I know.  I can hear you: "Well, say something interesting or provocative.  Then your thread will improve."

That's why I'm seeking your help.  Can anyone provide me with something I can post on facebook that will get me into the big leagues of threads?  I don't mean anything sensational just for the purpose of being sensational.  Sure, I could post something like that.  But that would be cheating.

Is it too much to ask that before I die that I get just one awe-inspiring, jealousy-provoking thread that goes on and on and on as far as the eye can see?

I don't think so.