Monday, April 30, 2018

Phil Deaver 1946-2018


Phil Deaver died April 29th.  A mutual friend called me with the news.  I saw him for the last time two years ago, in the spring of 2016, when I went to visit him in Florida.    
Thinking about him, I summon up one of the sweetest men I have even known, full of good intentions and humor.  Fiction was everything to him, a religion.  He worshipped great fiction writers, especially living ones.  Ann Beattie was a good friend.  He loved Robert Stone and Richard Ford.  He was a fiction writer, to his very core.   His first book, Silent Retreats, a book of short stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in the late 1980s.  He had published a book of poems, How Men Pray, and an anthology about baseball.  I always thought he was a better poet than maybe he thought he was or wanted people to think he was.  I liked his poetry very much, and I remember how proud he was when Garrison Keillor chose one of his poems to read on The Writer’s Almanac.

He was a great friend, loyal and caring.  He was a complex man, and he wore his worries and insecurities on his sleeve.  I remember him at Spalding University, in Louisville, where we both taught, how nervous he was among people there, how insecure, wanting to be with people he knew and trusted.  He would insist on eating with just three or four people. You couldn’t help but love him and feel protective of him, he was so human. 

His father and grandfather had been killed in an automobile accident when he was 18, and that changed him forever and haunted him forever.  He told me the story of that day many times, with a matter-of-fact solemnity to it, and I often felt I was there with him when he returned home that day to hear the news from his sister.  This was the defining moment of his life, and it never was far from his mind or heart. He worshiped his father, who was a doctor in a small town in Illinois, until his life was cut short.

Phil was raised Catholic, and I don’t think he ever left his faith, despite what he might have claimed.  It was deeply there. He had a sense of Catholic guilt about him.  He told me that after his father died a group of Catholic elders from his town took him on a silent retreat.  It meant a great deal to him.  It’s not a coincidence that his first book is titled Silent Retreats.  He had a distinct way of talking, a Midwestern drawl with a slow cadence often leading to a bright punctuation of emphasis. He was rooted in the Midwest. 
I visited him twice in Florida before he became ill.  He arranged a reading for me at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he taught, and also at a local bookstore.  The bookstore reading was lightly attended, and he was mortified.  It didn’t bother me that much, having read at quite a few lightly-attended events in my time, but I know how he must have felt.  I’ve arranged readings that were sparsely attended.  You feel like you’ve let the reader down.  He hadn’t, of course.  Phil helped other writers, too.  He did everything he could through Rollins to aid writers he admired or who he felt were deserving.  I remember he brought in a young writer from New Orleans, who had been our student at Spalding, so she could meet with one of her literary heroes, Jamaica Kincaid.  This to me is what separates many writers from others.  Those who, like Phil, use whatever influence and funds they have, no to mention encouragement, to help emerging writers flourish and those who claim they will help, and don’t. When Phil pledged his help, he kept that pledge.  He was always enthusiastic about of my work, in more ways than one.
Phil (r) and me

He and I use to play a ridiculous sort of game where we posed as 1950’s TV cowboy heroes. I was the Cisco Kid, and he was Lash LaRue.  Which became simply, Cisco and Lash.  We had great fun with that.  We'd begin our letters to each other "Dear Lash" or "Dear Cisco." It meant something to us—that 1950s TV culture that helped raise us in a dull dry era.  It was some of the little romance America had back then.  We still had the Wild West.  We were intrigued by Lash.  He used a bullwhip to subdue the bad guys.  Think about it. 

He loved his children immensely and was immensely proud of them.  He went through hard times after he and his first wife divorced.  I loved to hear him tell the story of when he was absolutely broke.  I mean NO money.  He had his children for Christmas or Thanksgiving—forget which—and he didn’t have enough money to buy them a proper dinner.  He went to a gas station where they also sold fried chicken in a store run by the station.  The man who pumped the gas wouldn’t let him use his gas card to buy the chicken, so he had to return home with no food.  Imagine. And he told me the story of being arrested and going to jail for a night or two. I was jealous of that.  Phil was not a coarse man in any way.  He never talked about sex.  He rarely swore.  Baseball—he loved baseball.  A St. Louis Cardinals fan.  He would go to spring training games in Florida.  

When I heard from Susan Lilley, his wife at the time, that Phil had suffered a brain disorder, and that, as she put it, the old Phil was slipping away, I wanted to visit him before he slipped away altogether.  So, I went to Florida in the spring of 2016 to see him for a few days.  It was a sad trip.  Part of him was indeed gone, and I think that may be one of the saddest things that can happen to someone we love, to have their corporal selves there, right before you, unchanged, but to have the soul, the self, or much of the self, missing.  It didn’t make sense to me—there we were in his house where we had once laughed and bantered for hours—and I kept looking for Phil, the man with who I liked and admired so much and who was a wonderful friend, to appear, but he was not to be found. 

Fiction was sacred to him.  He was haunted by his Flannery O’Connor Award, weighed down by the burden of promise that honor bestowed on him and not producing another book.  So, when he published a new book of short stories, Forty Martyrs, in 2016, a fine book, just a month or so before I visited him, he, and all his friends and admirers, were relieved and happy.  His good friend Ann Beattie loved the stories.  Phil showed me a letter from her praising the book unreservedly, and he was immensely proud of that praise, which was so clearly sincere, as he should have been.  I have an autographed copy.  The dedication to his book reads,

                                                In memory of my father,

                                                 Philip F. Deaver, M.D.

                                                        1920-1964

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.

Richard


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? 

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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The last face


There comes that moment. It may be sudden, or it may take a week or a month. Nevertheless, it eventually arrives, if you live long enough.

It's the revealing of the last face. The face you have before you die. You can be old and still not have this faceyet.  It comes when the end is near. Gaunt, big-eared, nearly skeletal, the neck narrowed, there is no hope in this face. You have left you behind. This is the you at the close of day, with just hints of who you were. Sometimes the change is so marked, others don't even recognize you.

Do you know who this is?
                                                                                                                                     

Let me help:
                                                                                

I wonder what my last face will look like.

                                                           
Watch this space.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The 2nd Ave Deli


I am half Jewish (father), but I was raised Christian.  I always identified with Christianity. Until I stopped identifying with anything.

That changed when I came to New York City to live in 1975.

I was lucky. I arrived in New York at a time when the old Jewish culture was still alive in Manhattan, especially on the Lower East Side. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as it was years earlier, but it was still there. I moved to 10th Street, in the East Village, between Second and Third Avenues. On 12th Street and Second Avenue there was a Yiddish Theater. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was the incredible Second Avenue Deli. A mere three minutes from my apartment, this was my grammar school, my high school and my college for all things Jewish in New York City. It was probably the most famous Jewish deli in New Yorkneck and neck with Katz'sand was acknowledged to serve the best food.

On the sidewalk in front, were embedded the names of the stars of the Yiddish theater along with other names I did not know.  In the evenings, old people would have dinner at the Deli and slowly walk the two blocks to that last Yiddish theater to laugh or cry or both listening to a language that was slowly dying butnot yet.


The Second Avenue Deli was the perfect place for a sheltered, Christian-raised Virginia boy to get an education. It was raucous, it was noisy, it was crowded. The waiters were old, distracted and determinedly not polite. I did not know what 95% of the food they served was.

But if your first taste of pastrami was at the Second Avenue Deli between two pieces of rye bread, then God favored you. I don't even think I knew what pastrami was or corned beef, for that matter. A waiter must have told me to try it.

Holy Mother of God. As Mel Brooks once put it, "My tongue just gave a party for my mouth." I feel fortunate to have discovered and relished this food before I became burdened by the knowledge of its unhealthiness.  I only experienced the joy of it.  

Heaven, I'm in heaven...

And the people! The owner was Abe Lebewohl. He was everywhere, cajoling, ordering, inspecting, admonishing, greeting. Pudgy, with decreasing hair and unlimited energy, he really did seem to be three places at once. I heard him say to someone once: "I'm gonna be on Channel Five tonight! I made a huge Empire State Building entirely out of chopped liver!" R.I.P., Abe. 

Abe

What Fyvush Finkel, a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, said about eating in another Jewish restaurant two blocks away could well apply at the Deli, "I ate there for 30 years and never got what I wanted. The waiter always talked me out of it." Indeed, they did. That world! So liberating from my tight-sphinctered Virginia Episcopalian origins. People raised their voices! People gestured!  People disputed! People were alive! I felt like I'd been given a purge of chicken fat and matzo ball soup.  Ahhhhhh. Slowly but surely, simply by living in New York City, part of me became distinctly Jewish.  It still is.  

The deli is closed now, has been for years.  A bank occupies the space. (The Deli relocated in Midtown, but I haven't had the heart to go. I only want the original.)  But it will always be there, in my heart.  A cholesterol-laden heart, I'm sure, after eating so much of that calorific, delicious food.  But not so laden as to not always to have a place for the Second Avenue Deli.

I remember one day, after a typical heavenly meal, stepping up to the man behind the cash register to pay my bill. He looked to be in his sixties, was dressed in a faded shirt and tie. I recognized that tie!  

"Hey!" I said. "I have a tie exactly like yours!"

"If I were you," he said wearily, "I wouldn't be so proud."

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Becoming Jewish in New York


I am half Jewish (father), but I was raised Christian.  I always identified with Christianity. Until I stopped identifying with anything.

That changed when I came to New York City to live in 1975.

I was lucky. I arrived in New York at a time when the old Jewish culture was still alive in Manhattan, especially on the Lower East Side. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as it was years earlier, but it was still there. I moved to 10th Street, in the East Village, between Second and Third Avenues. On 12th Street and Second Avenue there was a Yiddish Theater. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was the incredible Second Avenue Deli. A mere three minutes from my apartment, this was my grammar school, my high school and my college for all things Jewish in New York City. It was probably the most famous Jewish deli in New Yorkneck and neck with Katz'sand was acknowledged to serve the best food.

On the sidewalk in front, were embedded the names of the stars of the Yiddish theater along with other names I did not know.  In the evenings, old people would have dinner at the Deli and slowly walk the two blocks to that last Yiddish theater to laugh or cry or both listening to a language that was slowly dying butnot yet.


The Second Avenue Deli was the perfect place for a sheltered, Christian-raised Virginia boy to get an education. It was raucous, it was noisy, it was crowded. The waiters were old, distracted and determinedly not polite. I did not know what 95% of the food they served was.

But if your first taste of pastrami was at the Second Avenue Deli between two pieces of rye bread, then God favored you. I don't even think I knew what pastrami was or corned beef, for that matter. A waiter must have told me to try it.

Holy Mother of God. As Mel Brooks once put it, "My tongue just gave a party for my mouth." I feel fortunate to have discovered and relished this food before I became burdened by the knowledge of its unhealthiness.  I only experienced the joy of it.  

Heaven, I'm in heaven...

And the people! The owner was Abe Lebewohl. He was everywhere, cajoling, ordering, inspecting, admonishing, greeting. Pudgy, with decreasing hair and unlimited energy, he really did seem to be three places at once. I heard him say to someone once: "I'm gonna be on Channel Five tonight! I made a huge Empire State Building entirely out of chopped liver!" R.I.P., Abe. 

Abe

What Fyvush Finkel, a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, said about eating in another Jewish restaurant two blocks away could well apply at the Deli, "I ate there for 30 years and never got what I wanted. The waiter always talked me out of it." Indeed, they did. That world! So liberating from my tight-sphinctered Virginia Episcopalian origins. People raised their voices! People gestured!  People disputed! People were alive! I felt like I'd been given a purge of chicken fat and matzo ball soup.  Ahhhhhh. Slowly but surely, simply by living in New York City, part of me became distinctly Jewish.  It still is.  

The deli is closed now, has been for years.  A bank occupies the space. (The Deli relocated in Midtown, but I haven't had the heart to go. I only want the original.)  But it will always be there, in my heart.  A cholesterol-laden heart, I'm sure, after eating so much of that calorific, delicious food.  But not so laden as to not always to have a place for the Second Avenue Deli.

I remember one day, after a typical heavenly meal, stepping up to the man behind the cash register to pay my bill. He looked to be in his sixties, was dressed in a faded shirt and tie. I recognized that tie!  

"Hey!" I said. "I have a tie exactly like yours!"

"If I were you," he said wearily, "I wouldn't be so proud."