Tag Archives: writing

A Lie of the Mind – ‘Trauma, Mystery, Grief’. Samuel Shepard Rogers III

Although I certainly cannot say I knew him, I ran into Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017) more frequently than almost any other famous person I have ever ‘known’. And, some of those times I would only realize it was him after he had moved on.

On a blustery early evening in March or April about eight years ago, I was leaving the Asian Tribal Art Show on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in NYC, head down to counter the cold, when he breezed by me in a stride as brisk as the wind, cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead and the collar of his shearling coat cinched up high; I only realized it was him after he had passed by. But where I saw him most often was in Santa Fe at the great bookstore Op Cit. He was an avid reader (or an avid book buyer) and he would bend his tall frame over, pick up a paperback and check it out much like any lover of the printed word.

And word lover he was in both consumption and production: 55 plays, 50 films, a dozen plus TV roles and at least 7 books that were not plays. Among his additional talents were banjo picker, song writer, Obie Award collector (I believe he holds the record at 10 wins) and voice actor for the audio book of Spaulding Gray’s last monologue. He avidly avoided aviation travel but was sometimes guilty of driving under the influence.

Mr. Shepard turned the final page last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S. and motor neurone disease (MND) in Britain.

He and his writing will be much missed.

_____
“Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.” – playwright Christopher Shinn, The NY Times, July 31, 2017.

I’m Back!

Open Sesame! Door on the Rooftop Cupola at Hotel Raquel, Havana.
Open Sesame! Door on the Rooftop Cupola at Hotel Raquel, Havana.

For some reason that no one at Word Press or its User Group could explain, I have been unable to access my own blog here since September 2014.

Now, through some weird adjustment I cannot really explain or figure out, I am back in the saddle!

But, having not made any entries in 10 months, I am out of the habit and do not foresee blogging with any regularity. And, who knows, maybe I will be blocked from entering my own blog again after I write this and will finally have to give it up totally!

Anyway…. check out my writings and photography pages – that’s where I am spending most all my time.

Montaigne’s Tower

It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate… no use of service, of riches or of povertie… no apparell but naturall… no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulations, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?
– Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) Of the Caniballes, translated by John Florio, 1603.

 

The original Château de Montaigne is no longer in existence – except for the Tower where Michel Eyquem had his library and study. It was on this day in 1571, in this “citadel” looking out upon the vineyards, that he began his nearly decade-long self-imposed refuge of reading, thinking and writing. During the next nine years he wrote the first two of his books of essais, a form he did not invent, per se, but for which he is justly famous, developing and refining the personal, discursive eloquence and rich flexibility we associate with the essay form.

His mother’s family were conversos, Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Pierre, his father, possessed definite ideas about his son’s education, and had a family fortune inherited from trade in wine and salted fish, to carry it out. Michel was given to peasants to rear for the first three years of his life, so as to know the life of the commoner, and then tutored and addressed only in Latin to learn what would become his first language in both speaking and writing.

Although Montaigne wrote that he preferred conversation to any other form of communication*, it is difficult to imagine, outside pre-literary cultures, a single individual’s ability to pass onto future generations, orally, the insights to be gained by sustained reading of his work; conversation, outside the therapist’s couch, seems to me to have its limits with regard to the revelation of our deepest selves.

It is odd, I think, that, throughout much of history, his essays have been thought of as works of literature rather than works of philosophy. “He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009) using the device of solid and numerous references to past thinkers to illuminate the study of his own existence. And all, initially, to exorcise the demon of melancholy to which he became subject at the beginning of those ten years of study looking out over the vineyards.

There is a school of thought that Shakespeare read Montaigne in John Florio’s 1603 translation and used portions of it for his own plays. Here, a selection from The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, correlating with the quote at the head of the page:

Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none…
No use of metal, corn, or wine…
… treason, felony, …
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind,…all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.…
….
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

 

* Montaigne’s belief is in direct opposition to his later countryman, Marcel Proust’s idea that, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for… a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.” (A. De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997, pages 118-119.)

 

For Him The Bell Tolls

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.
– Ernest Miller Hemingway (21 July 1899 – 2 July 1961), Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Ernest Hemingway is one of those writers we associate with machismo, cocktails and rum. But he liked a good bottle of wine as well as any wine fan and wrote of it eloquently.

“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” – A Moveable Feast, 1964

I like that. It speaks to the fundamental nature of wine and its place alongside any, or every, meal. It is not for nothing that those who consume a glass or two each day live longer than the non-drinker. Of course, quality of life is also important, for living long is no boon if one is not healthy enough to enjoy a life extended. In The Sun Also Rises, published during U.S. Prohibition, Hemingway included wine (along with a variety of other alcohols) almost as if it were a character:

“I drank a bottle of wine for company. It was Chateau Margaux. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine was good company.”
The Sun Also Rises, 1926.

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” – Count Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises.

In a scene where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, and his buddy, Bill Gorton, are fishing the Irati River in the Pyrenees (an area locals call Auniak which, I believe, means ‘barrier’) they cool their wine by putting it in the water. I tried this once by jamming my bottle amid ‘stable’ flotsam by the bank and falling asleep for an hour at my campsite. In my homage I lost a 1978 Bordeaux for not tethering the bottle at the neck with a knot.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Hemingway’s self-inflicted death is that it sprang from a major crisis, an inability to write a tribute to President Kennedy just after the 1961 inauguration. He had returned to Idaho from electroconvulsive therapy at the Mayo Clinic and found that the treatment pretty much wiped his memory. Now, medicine has found and implicated a new culprit, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), such as we are seeing in retired pro-footballers where an accumulation of tau protein associated with dementia and degeneration of brain tissue has led, it is alleged, to numerous self-inflicted deaths.

It appears that Hemingway’s self-inflicted death may have been assisted, or even put in motion, by the many concussions he sustained over the years: mortar fire (Italy, 1918); skylight accident (Paris, 1928); auto accident with John Dos Passos (Billings, Montana, 1930); auto accident (London, 1944); thrown from motorcycle while evading Nazis (Normandy, 1944); auto crash (Cuba, 1945); slipping on the deck of his boat, Pilar, (Cuba, 1950); Cessna plane crash (Uganda, 1954, minimal injuries); head-butt to break escape window in the crash of a de Haviland Rapide – the rescue plane sent for him after the Cessna crash! (Uganda, 1954); auto crash (1958) and assorted other physical knocks. Then there was, of course, the major league drinking he courted much of his life.

As if the above litany were not enough we now know he also had, as probably did his father, the blood disorder hemochromatosis, an inability to metabolize iron leading to physical and mental deterioration. This genetic fact might account for three (perhaps four) of his five siblings committing suicide as well as the self-inflicted death of his grandaughter Margaux. He once told Ava Gardner that he spent “a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself” (Hotchner, 1966.)

Wine was a part of Hemingway’s life to the very end: the day before he shot himself he went on a picnic lunch where he enjoyed wine and, in the evening, even went out to dinner with his wife Mary.

I, like most I believe, prefer to remember him in the early dawn, sitting down to write, freshly sharpened pencils lined up, changing the face of American literature.

“In wine most people at the start prefer sweet vintages, Sauternes, Graves, Barsac, and sparkling wines, such as not too dry champagne and sparkling Burgundy because of their picturesque quality while later they would trade all these for a light but full and fine example of the Grand crus of Medoc though it may be in a plain bottle without label, dust, or cobwebs, with nothing picturesque, but only its honesty and delicacy and the light body of it on your tongue, cool in your mouth and warm when you have drunk it.” – Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Mockingbird Finally Sings in Zeros & Ones (Digitally)

Today is the 88th birthday of Harper Lee, the author of the July 1960  novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To coincide with her birthday her publisher, HarperCollins, announced  six hours ago that she has finally agreed to let the book be published as an e-Book, thereby knocking down another in the dwindling list of classics that have been withheld from digital distribution.

“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries,” said Lee  in a statement released by HarperCollins (whose still sell a million copies of the book each year!) “I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

It is to be noted that this leaves the seminal novel of another reclusive author still out in the digital cold: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye.

Scout and Atticus enter the realm of the digital on July 8.

 

Writers Lifeguard

Pay the Writer!
 

I was reading Querencia, Steve Bodio’s Blog (altho he also published a great book by that name, too), and found a video entry with a Harlan Ellison (justified) rant about paying the writer for his or her work. The original diatribe comes from the documentary about Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I followed the link on Bodio’s page to a blog titled Writers Lifeguard. A reader wrote to the blog asking about the origin of the site’s name. The response, below, struck a chord as I hail from an Appalachian mining region; 80% of the land in my home county is owned by coal interests.

Jules Older, the blogger for Writers Lifeguard says its name is a tribute to his favorite union-organizing song,

Miner’s Lifeguard

Miner’s life is like a sailor’s.
‘Board a ship to cross the waves.
Ev’ry day his life’s in danger,
Still he ventures being brave.
Watch the rocks, they’re falling daily.
Careless miners always fail.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

CHORUS:
Union miners stand together,
Heed no operator’s tale,
Keep your hand upon the dollar,
And your eye upon the scale.

You’ve been docked and docked, my boys,
You’ve been loading two to one;
What have you to show for working
Since this mining has begun?
Overalls and cans for rockers,
In your shanties, sleep on rails.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

CHORUS

In conclusion, bear in memory,
Keep the password in your mind:
God provides for every nation
When in union they combine.
Stand like men and linked together,
Victory for you’ll prevail,
Keep your hand upon the dollar
And your eye upon the scale.

“Blessed are the pacemakers”

RIP: Seamus Heaney
(13 April 1939 − 30 August 2013)

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, born Castledàwson, County Londonderry, was that rare writer, even rarer poet, who produced work with political content that was actually readable. It lacked the shrill, pedantic, humorless tone that so often gives such work a justifiably bad name. He was, simply, gifted in a way that made the reader nod in agreement when running across a marvelous passage that evoked truth in graceful, pleasingly patterned, numinous language (his later work) or wrested great emotion in lines of earth and torment (his earlier.) And, he had a well-developed sense of humour. A few years ago he received a pacemaker for his ailing heart. He loved saying, “blessed are the pacemakers,” and you might have had to think for a second trying to figure out whether that Irish voice had said pace or peace.

“Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.”
— “Requiem for the Croppies”, 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Printed in Door into The Dark, 1969.

 

“Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.”
Untitled, written in 1982 as an objection to being included in an anthology of British poetry.

 

From The Frontier Of Writing

The tightness and the nilness round
that space 
when the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
its make and number and, as one bends his face

towards your window, you catch sight of more
on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
down cradled guns that hold you under cover

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration—

a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
the sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

data about you, waiting for the squawk
of clearance; the marksman training down
out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you’re through, arraigned yet freed,
as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall
on the black current of a tarmac road

past armor-plated vehicles, out between
the posted soldiers flowing and receding
like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

Goethe: It Depends On the Vintage

Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

 

On a clear and beautiful day in late December 1999, wandering around the town of Malcésine on the north-east shore of Lago di Garda (Lake Garda, Italy) we happened to see a bronze plaque on a building and, as I always do, walked closer to investigate. It was one of those “a famous person slept here” signs. In this case it was for Goethe and I was delighted because the stop became a featured episode in his escape-from-official duties-journey that had been spawned by a period of mental turmoil.

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Goethe’s visit to the city on September 13, 1786 was unplanned. Intending to travel by oared boat from the north end of the lake, at Torbole, to the south near Sirmione and thence to Italy’s archaeological wonders, he encountered a storm with contrary winds. Lacking sufficient manpower, the boat pulled into port at the city of Malcésine to wait it out. Always a man of industry, Goethe assembled his drawing instruments at a quiet spot on Via Castello to sketch Scaliger Castle. The plaque above commemorates the location.

Finding a man with a German accent engaged in detailed drawing of the fortress, local citizens thought he might be an Austrian spy and reported his sketching activity to authorities. Goethe recounts the story in Italian Journey, his book published many years (1816-1817) after the incident:

This evening I could have already been in Verona, but here nearby there was this majestic wonder of nature, this delightful picture called Lake of Garda, and I did not want to miss it. I was profusely rewarded for having taken the longer way.

Rowing was impossible against the strong wind, so we were forced to land at Malcesine. This is the first Venetian village on the eastern shore of the lake Garda… I want to take full advantage of this stop, especially to draw the castle beside the lake, which is a good subject…I made a sketch today when I passed in front of it.— September 12th, 1786, Malcesine, Italy.

Next day: As usual, I spent some time at the old castle which is open to all because it lacks windows and doors and has no custodian or guards. In the castle courtyard I sat in front of the tower built upon a rock. I found a cozy place to draw, sitting near a closed door three or four steps above the ground…

Goethe was brought before the local magistrate based on the suspicion he was an Austrian spy. He was saved from imprisonment, or worse, by a man familiar with Frankfurt, Goethe’s hometown. The man testified that Goethe was, indeed, German and and not Austrian. (The Habsburgs ruled much of northern Italy and there were always tensions with the independent bordering states such as Venice that controlled eastern shore areas of the lake.)

Scaliger Castle has a small museum about Lago di Garda, Goethe and Monte Baldo, the peak that towers over the town. The museum has a room dedicated to Goethe and his visit with copies of the sketches that caused all the trouble. Goethe said that it was in Malcésine that he began to write Iphigenia.

The internet has many instances of a story about Goethe that I have been unable to ferret out in an original source. All the instances of the story must have been originally copied from one source as they all read alike, word for word:

Goethe, a famous German poet, once was asked, which three things he would take to an island. He stated: Poetry, a beautiful woman and enough bottles of the world’s finest wines to survive this dry period! Then he was asked what he would leave back first, if it was allowed to take only two things to the island. And he briefly replied: The poetry! Slightly surprised, the man asked the next question: And Sir, what would you leave back if only one was allowed? And Goethe thought for a couple of minutes and answered: It depends on the vintage!

As a side note about the area, three kilometers south of the town is the village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the world’s shortest at 175 meters long!

Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.

A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

— Goethe, “Auerbach’s Cellar”, Faust, Part 1 (1808)

R.I.P. Elmore “Dutch” Leonard

To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters. – Anthony Burgess

 

I met Elmore Leonard (11 October 1925 − 20 August 2013) around 1999 and, knowing I was going to meet him, pocketed a small paperback bibliography of his works for him to sign. When I pulled it out and asked him if he would autograph it he looked at the cover, frowned and quipped, “Am I getting royalties on this?” After both of us took a close inspection of the sixty page book we determined that, no, he was not. He signed it anyway. As a reward for bringing the unknown book to his attention he also signed and gave me a sheet of his 10 Rules of Writing that he later expanded and published in 2007.

Leonard’s humorously delivered money question never bothered me, unlike that of two other writers whose books I mildly collected. Not long after meeting Leonard I went to a reading and signing of Robert Parker’s and then one with, well, a living writer best unnamed. Parker was forthright in mentioning his writing as his means of income and urged us all to buy his books. The other gent was even more forward and candid on this issue saying he could use the money and stressing that we ought to purchase his books early and often. His prominent and repeated emphasis on this aspect of the evening left a distinctly distasteful memory. It was not that I believed all writers toiled at their craft for the exalted (or unsung) glory of presenting literature before the masses, it was, rather, my perception that these authors seemed to imply they were simply slinging words that we should consume so that they might go on living in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

Fair enough, I suppose, as some folks choose to make their living as bankers, some as cowboys and some as writers. Some because they feel drawn to the work and love it, others because it’s their day job and pays the bills. Years ago I read Anthony Burgess’ You’ve Had Your Time, the second volume of his autobiography. He wrote a lot about his writing from the pressures of (forever) needing money. He churned out book after book to keep his finances afloat, not always successfully. I used to look forward, myself, to royalty checks and a good one would elevate my day while a bad one was a cause for self-criticism: why didn’t I work harder, do more, etc.?

Nowadays, I just deposit the check and move on.

Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: A Novel Approach

From “Spotted Dick” to a Toasted One

Anyone familiar with the ‘cuisine’ of England has heard of the dried fruit and steamed suet pudding “Spotted Dick”. Well, London firefighters have found another, more interesting, variation.

In an Associated Press report from London this morning “firefighters say they have freed hundreds of people with body parts trapped in household objects in the last three years, including … 79 people trapped in handcuffs… speculat[ing] that the popularity of erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey may account for a rise in handcuffs-related emergencies.”

“Since 2010, London firefighters have treated … nine with rings stuck on their penises, and one man with his penis stuck in a toaster.”

The AP article ends with the fire brigade’s advice, “to keep the keys nearby when using handcuffs.”

It is hard to argue with common sense advice in the face of really idiotic human behaviour. Clearly, the old saw, “Don’t believe everything you read,” ought to have been expanded to include, “Oh, and don’t try everything you read, either.”

Shattered by Dick Francis

Encounters with the Famous: Authorship as Collaboration

In 2000 I went to hear the mystery author Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis (1920-2010) read a selection from his just released book, Shattered. All of us in attendance were fortunate in that he was accompanied by one of his sons, Felix, and his wife Mary Margaret.

Francis, born in Wales, was a one-time jockey, including for horses of the Royal Family. Like most jockeys who ride for any length of time (it’s the most dangerous sporting profession), he suffered through many accidents and so turned to covering the horse racing circuit for a newspaper. After completing his autobiography he became a professional writer and published a book every year between 1962 and 2000, the year we met him for the first time.

(Dick Francis’ whole life was wrapped up in horses. His first horse related injury came when a pony fell on him when he was 12 years old. He volunteered for the English calvary in WWII, but instead ended as a sky jockey piloting bombers and fighters. Mary became a pilot, as well.)

When we met in 2000 Dick Francis said he thought he might retire. There was an audible groan in the room. Fortunately, he did published five more books after Shattered, four of them with his son Felix. I was surprised – but not. It is difficult to retire from something you, if not exactly love, do not loathe. What no one foresaw was that Mary would die shortly thereafter. And she was essential in his work.

Mary Margaret Francis was as important in the writing of Dick Francis’ novels, a co-equal, if you will, as Mr. Francis himself:

“Mary and I worked as a team. … I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary’s family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”*

So why was Mary important in his writing? Along with editing the manuscripts she did all of the research for those interesting jobs in the books. Shattered features a glass blower, Reflex features a photographer, Rat Race revolved around an air-taxi service, Straight has a jewelry business theme. Mary investigated all these fields in-depth to lend veracity to the books. (Elmore Leonard, for instance, uses the same technique but has an employee do the research for his dialects, vocations, etc.)

Unusual, for me, in thinking ahead, in 2000 I thought to take along a wood horse, cut out of a board with a jigsaw, to the book reading. I planned to insert it into the lintel of a built-in book case where my signed Francis titles were kept. (I have since moved and took the horse and its mate with me!)

Dick Francis signature on my wood horse
Dick Francis signature on my wood horse

When the reading ended and people lined up to get their books signed I began talking to Mary about the world of art glass. She said she had found the research fascinating. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask her if she would sign my copy of Shattered. She was, after all, an enormous part of this, and many other Francis titles. She reddened in the face and tittered like a young schoolgirl, saying no one had ever asked her to sign one of the books. She then wondered aloud if she really should as she was not the author. I pointed out that she was responsible for the verisimilitude in the work and so she agreed.

All we had at hand was one of the short, stubby pencils the bookstore used for people to write their names on a pre-made form so Dick Francis would not have to ask whose name to sign the books to. (A great system for the hard-of-hearing and for those with names that are difficult to spell!) We used this nubbin of a scribe and Mary, in a shaky hand, added her name after her husband’s. She then made a joke about this copy being worth more now that it had a unique combination of autographs. Six months later she had a heart attack and passed away.

I cherish my unique copy still.

* Swanson, Jean; Dean James (2003). “An Interview with Dick Francis”. The Dick Francis Companion. New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. pp. 1–10.