Monday, December 21, 2009

The Generic Year-End Book Review And A Christmas Note


Because everyone else does this and I’m as much a conformist as anyone—put a single malt in my hand, point me to the nearest cliff and I’ll run faster than any lemming in town—I’ll share my literary cultural highlights of this typically distressing year in this fantastically weird decade where "I Like IKE” somehow passed for useful wisdom.

As I reached the end of 2009, my judgment that Shoot the Piano Player, David Goodis’s emotional and bleak tale of a hard-luck piano player, finely and sincerely told, was the best book I’d read all year.

But wouldn’t you know it? The great Russian magician himself Vladimir Nabokov (Na-BOE-kof) slipped a last card into the TBR deck at the last moment with his great and magical tragicomedy Laughter in the Dark.

Told like a classic fairytale in a deceptively light-footed cadences, this stunning light-footed 1939 novel (Nabokov translated himself) relates the downward spiral of a stuffy bourgeois art critic whose obsession with a lovely (but untalented, callow and cruel) nineteen-year-old actress unravels his tidy consciousness and dull, but happy life. Nabokov would revisit this plot again in Lolita, but readers who may find that novel too dense an experience (not me) will find a fast moving, ecstatically written and suspenseful tale where never a word is put wrong (and wait ‘til you meet arch-villain Rex). I find the idea of novels centered around matrimonial cheating to be dull, but this is one novel I want to throw into everybody’s lap. Take my word: you will be entertained.

Another book that made me smile during the year was another early Nabokov work, his novella The Eye which first appeared in English in Playboy magazine in 1966. This wry spin of gamesmanship featuring another of Nabokov’s toxified romantics who thinks he’s committed suicide and become a ghost (Nothing to say on The Invention of Laura, which quietly awaits my eyes, but I sense it’s of more value to Nabokov scholars and bibliophiles than general readers).

Moving on: Peter Straub and Borderlands Press dished up a disturbing appetizer to Straub’s upcoming novel A Dark Matter in the form of the novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter. As with many books I read, this is one of these things not for the sensitive among you,. Straub has taken a more stringent, spare approach to his prose in his recent novels and its works extremely well. The spareness makes this tale of young serial killer’s tutelage by a peripatetic uncle all the more upsetting and appalling, as it should be.

In a more historic-realist vein, Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer thrillingly dispensed with the notion that the Polish people failed to put up much of a resistance to the Nazi invasion of their country. It also made me wish I’d been hip to Furst’s work when it started appearing the late 1980s.

Loren D. Estleman pleased me for the fourth time in a row with another of his western tales The Wolfer. Published in 1978, it tells the story of a professional wolf hunter set against one of the great environmental disasters of the wild west—the near extinction of the timber wolf. With the passing in 2008 of Donald Westlake and the emptying out of the mid-list writers market (leaving nothing but God damned fucking juvenile YA zombie-vampire mashups--[Hey! Save it for the Ramsay Campbell discussion board!—Ed.]), Estleman seems to be one of the last practitioners of serious, finely-honed genre writing, a population I fear is fast-dwindling. I hope I'm wrong.

My favorite “new” writer of 2009 was David Corbett. The former private investigator published his first novel The Devil’s Redhead in 2002 and, I’m embarrassed to say, I only read it a few months ago. I promise to try to be timely when his Do They Know I’m Running? Comes out next year.

Another new old writer discovery was British author Nicolas Freeling whose entertaining, observant and nicely-titled 1966 mystery Because of the Cats this ailurophile came across in an obscure Berkeley used bookstore. Set in 1960s Amsterdam, it features a wry and world-weary Dutch detective and a nasty twist on Oliver Twist.

The Unique Novel of the Year award must go, however, to Motels of Burning Madness by a stage hypnotist named John-Ivan Palmer, who, if jacket copy veracity is to be trusted, personally researched this raunchy, wacky tale of a hapless, bone-headed, professional male stripper and his cross-country, cross-dressing journey through the grimy fringes of American show-biz society (I’ll undress—address--this entertaining, raunchy but good-hearted work at greater length in an upcoming piece.)

A CHRISTMAS NOTE:

I like Christmas. Like Faith and Unbelief in their purest, most demanding forms, there’s no defense for this position in either science or law.

The reasons why I love Christmas I won’t discuss now, but I’ll note that for most Americans the holiday has devolved far away from the original intent of both church and Charles Dickens into the deepest gutter of human greed to become a spectacle of sterile glitter, every moment flavored with anxiety, desperation, despair and debt. No wonder so many hate it. So, what’s the use of a hated holiday?

But recently, the stone cockles of my icy heart were warmed to read in a Slate magazine article (elaborated on in Time magazine) that a new War on Christmas has begun--a war waged by . . .

. . . Christians . . . .

Apparently, a large segment of Christians everywhere has had it up to their mistletoe with Christmas as defined by WalMart, Glenn O’Breilly, James Donahue, et al. (Something about Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple, instead of giving them the run of the joint while piteously demanding that they greet customer with “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” . . . sheesh!)

Calling themselves the Advent Conspiracy, this Plot Against WalMart-mas was hatched by an Oregon pastor named Rick McKinley, who, while sitting around with some of his colleagues four years ago, suddenly realized they were all dreading the upcoming holiday. “None of us,” he admitted, “like Christmas.” (“A Time to Worry,” as wise Mr. Boffo might say).

And so the conspiracy was hatched: to take Christmas back from the Capitalists and their scolding Satanic reactionary collaborators to its Gospel roots of love, charity, patience, forbearance, hope . . . all the values that you just know Bill O’Reilly hates.

The Advent Conspiracy's concepts are these: Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Which leads me to ask a question for all of you: of all those concepts, which one would you find the most challenging to live by?

I'll answer first: number four.

And so, a True Merry Christmas to you Christians who happen to be surfing by and to the rest, Happy Holidays!

There'll be no going to Hell for that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Take the Long Way Home


I should have stayed off Baker Street that night and walked the long way home instead.

My assailant stormed out of the San Francisco Saturday darkness, bellowing something along the lines of “Fuck you, motherfucker!” as his fists bounded across my surprised face.

In a certain world, one fantasized in Charles Bronson movies and by certain ideologies, I would’ve promptly battled back, finally sending my assailant crumpling to the sidewalk, bleeding and begging for mercy as I blew smoke from my gun barrel, twirled my pistol and dropped it into my holster.

(And then I would’ve performed my Lee Van Cleef laugh, always a winner at parties.)

I did attempt to fight back. I even cleverly retorted with as couple of “fuck you”s of my own. But neither clever riposte nor small soft fists were any match for strong, swift ruthlessness; in fact, my knuckles were nearly the only part of me left uninjured as I danced backward on my heels. “Fire! Fire!” was the next deathless line out of my mouth. (I’d read somewhere yelling “Fire” is more apt to bring help than “Assault!” Maybe the neighborhood didn’t want to get involved with the fire department that night either).

I sprawled to the sidewalk on my back and quickly surrendered the battle. Something sharp, like a box cutter, sliced smoothly down the outside left leg of my slacks, cut open my front pants pocket; and off my attacker vanished into the night with the treasure I kept there.

Despite his brute efficiency, this must have been my attacker’s initiation into the world of violent crime. All he got for my trouble was my handwritten pocket calendar while he completely missed the inside right pocket of my stylish camel hair black sport coat where I kept my wallet. (Unless of course my meager, illegibly noted social life possessed more economic value than I realized).

I rose carefully but quickly. One punch had connected solidly with my mouth, but my smile would remain intact. Despite the hammering, it still felt like my glasses had stayed on my face but when I tried to adjust them, I realize it was oozing flesh swelling around my eyes that I felt under my fingers. My right eye seemed swollen shut, but I could see out my left. My glasses lay undamaged nearby.

It was August 13, 1999. I’d been walking home from Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe on Divasadero and Pine to my apartment on Post Street in an area between the Fillmore and Laurel Heights neighborhoods. (The last similar incident took place in 1988: another thug—an aging one I think--pulled a knife as I waited for a bus at Geary at Fillmore. His prize: $15.)

Jazzed on adrenaline, I crossed Baker to a grimy pink adobe corner market on Sutter, across from the low income projects stacked across the street.

It was a dangerous area. A year or so before, a woman in the projects had been shot dead in her kitchen by her estranged husband. And not long before my Encounter of the Flying Fists, I nearly strolled into a failed ambush by one young gangsta on another (I actually witnessed the shooter blasting away before he slunk off). If I’d arrived just a minute or so earlier, I would have been greeted by three .45-caliber slugs flying by—or through—my head.

The latest victim of neighborhood violence walked into the little market. From the look on the proprietors’ faces, I was the evening’s surprise customer (but there was no door prize).

In a certain world, one fantasized in spaghetti westerns and by certain ideologies, I would’ve grunted, “Gimme a quart of Jim Beam” through my smashed and bloody lips. Then, with swinging arms, strode manfully home along streets I’d paved with my own hands, into the 4-unit apartment building I’d built by myself with cheaply paid labor. There in my one-bedroom apartment, I would’ve downed the whisky, broke out needle and thread, iodine and bandages and, with instructions downloaded from the Internet on my AOL dial-up, bent over the bathroom sink in front of the mirror and sewn up my own goddam lacerations.

“You should’ve seen the other guy, baby,” I’d wink as I spat another tooth into the sink.

But, being a card-carrying weakling, I surrendered to reality. The market man and his wife took one fast look and said they would call in Government Officials. Local Government Officials, but Government Officials none the less.

I agreed as I watched drops of my blood plash on the grimy floormat. I promised myself when I got home to spit at myself in the mirror and growl, “Davy Crockett didn’t whine for an ambulance at the Alamo!”

The government workers, two men and a woman, dressed in blue uniforms with shiny aluminum badges, arrived fairly quickly. Fearing I'd suffered possible brain injury, they advised me to take a seat on the sidewalk. I obeyed, instead of taking the opportunity to grumble about fascism and free men in a police state. Something about wanting to come out of this alive and cognitively intact.

The three civil servants interviewed me. (Yes, mere civil servants! Next time, I’m calling the mailman!) I had little to say. Young black male, maybe about my height, clearly stronger. We shook our heads resigned to this violent magician’s escape. Without a better description, another bad guy had escaped. Again the world had worked its violent way as it has since I can remember.

A battered black and white police ambulance van arrived. The Government Officials helped me into back and strapped my freedom-loving body onto a very simple gurney. They’d deemed, probably correctly by then, that my injuries were not serious enough to require a fully equipped ambulance, so thanks to taxpayer vigilance, the ambulance was bare of medical equipment.

On the short drive over to UCSF-Zion, three blocks away, my mood blossomed into shining hilarity. I bantered with the officers and felt a pang of sorry when our quip party quickly abruptly ended. They seemed like nice people--especially for freedom-hating Government Officials. For one, they did not give me forms to fill out in triplicate or force another tax hike on me.

My memories of what happened after I was wheeled into the UCSF-Zion emergency room, though vivid, are like shards of over-exposed film forgotten on the cutting room floor. I lay around a lot (From my medical file: “Difficulty concentrating.”) Out of my whirling mind spun the trivial realization that it was Alfred Hitchcock’s 100th birthday, a feebly poetic insight as I felt nothing like Richard Hannay and I hardly think that Hitch, bless his impish soul, would consider sneaking to me this kind of Gift from the Beyond.

It was also a full moon night. The ER doc told me they’d been extra busy and made note of the cycle that many statisticians claim does not exist. I recall another patient was there, an older Asian gent who’d suffered similar thuggery elsewhere in the City. The doc told me my blood was a little thin—I’d spilled enough to supply a high school production of Night of the Living Dead.

Later, they decided to give me a CAT scan. I was permitted to go into the bathroom on my own feet. “Wow,” I murmured at the monstrous portrait painted by the mirror: both eyes swollen and purple, the right a pulpy oozing slit; a large bruise, split and ballooning on my upper right forehead; and the fattest pair of lips since Pia Zadora, but nothing even she would want to kiss.

At this point, I believe, pain’s fire at last touched my nerve endings. I tenderly washed my face as watery blood whirled down the drain.

They slid me inside the CAT donut. Whirrs and clicks, nothing remarkable. I was damned lucky. No concussion, though my nose was mildly broken. Ten stitches on my forehead. I was driven home in a hospital van at 2:50
A.M., according to my file.

(Not long after, UCSF-Mt. Zion was closed down, I don’t know exactly why, but three reasons occur to me: 1) to save money; 2) to save money and 3), to save money. The hearts of oppressed taxpayers and supply-siders fluttered like butterfly wings throughout the state. Why, if it wasn’t for that hospital, I might’ve spent more time cracking wise with Government Officials in that sorry ambulance on the way to another hospital. Poor all of us.)

The next morning, sore, half-blind, my face a stiff puffy mask, I made phone calls. I explained to my boss, Susan MacTavish Best, at Posthoc.com why I’d be late with my work for the Film Page that week. Not long after, a bouquet of flowers burst through my door stirring the soup of emotion as it sunk in how close (again) I’d come to something much worse and how glad I was there was a rest of the world outside my door.

Later, two other friends, Max and Janet Bran, brought me one of Frankie’s famous and no-longer available, cut-glasses brimming with Frankie’s beer (I still treasure that glass). Max asked me what I thought I had done wrong and I gave the answer you saw at the top of this article.

Later, they drove me down to Frankie’s where, bloodied and unbowed, I showed off my wounds (Ohhhh, I was a sight indeed!). I am told that some women lovingly throw themselves at such bloodied men and nurse them back to health with hot sex, marriage, et cetera, but in my case at least, I remained a bachelor in a half-empty bed. And as for the free beer, I was already mostly drinking gratis anyway.

I only had one that Sunday and went home before dark and by another roundabout route (one I walked ever after). I spent the next three days out of work and at doctor’s offices. The only remaining scar is a small stitching that remained invisible until the surrounding hairs left for good. The dry cleaner declared my beloved, but bloodied, camel hair coat to be beyond saving. At least the trash bin got to look sporty for once.

The expected emotional wounds opened quickly. The feeling of violation, of hatred for the thug, the continuous Dirty Harry/Death Wish Channel that broadcast twenty-four-hours inside my skull, all normal, even desirable, but not acted on. Yet, the failure to catch the criminal, while solidifying my already conservative stance on violent crime, has not turned me into a rigid rightist. If anything, walking our streets safely is also a civil right alongside all the others.

As for what I think now of my assailant, his life, if he’s even living it, is likely much worse than mine. That will be all the vengeance I can hope for.

How much money did this all cost me? It took nearly a year-and-half of dealing and appealing to both public and private bureaucracy but in the end, not a penny. (Of the two groups, the private proved itself no more efficient than the public.)

The state government (whose chains we are last throwing off, if the increasing number of pot holes, closed state parks and general air of glum chaos are any sign), has one of those nefarious welfare programs called the Victim Compensation Board, which only encourages lazy people to become crime victims so they can live off the dollars of hard-working taxpayers (a group that I could not possibly be a member of.)

Ten years have passed without another encounter like that one. The neighborhood I now live in—southeast Emeryville, glued against West Oakland--is no safer and much less charming. Except for a cozy nearby beer cafe, a friendly place for a decent drink is a mile away on Piedmont Avenue, a dreary bus ride through a dicey dour neighborhood. I avoid all dark corners and sometimes call for patient Elizabeth to come bring me home.

What set this reminiscence off, I guess, was the return of the shade of a favorite of the Bathrobe Warrior crowd, Ayn Rand, in two new autobiographies. Her beetling brow glower everywhere again. (I’d been reading The Fountainhead around that time; I hadn’t laughed so hard since I read Catch-22). I gather she may have regarded my assailant as something of a hero, a man who made his own world as though he lived in it alone. In a world run along her always straight, clean, transcendent lines, I
might very well not have survived that night, when, in the face of a relatively petty evil, the real mediocre world she and her fellow ideologues hold in contempt, reached back out to me when I needed it to.

(Photo by Author)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In Which We are Introduced to a Certain Bear and A Dubious Notion




Where the Wild Things Are seems sure to appeal to the sensibilities of a certain cohort of urban young adults — the type who read comic-book novels and wear skateboard sneakers; who might concur with a note I saw one day scrawled on a legal pad in [Spike] Jonze’s office: ‘There is no difference between childhood and adulthood.’” – The New York Times Magazine.

Here I come now: BAM, BAM, BAM; BASH, BASH, BASH down the stairs on the back of my head behind the kid. With each riser, the inside of my skull explodes like Guy Fawkes Day.

The kid always drags me down the stairs, sometimes by the arm, sometimes by the leg, but never the right way. Never the way I want to be held. Ever give a thought to what all that crack-smash-crunch does to a chap? Think Eventual Brain Damage. Major Motor Neuron destruction. I’m no better off than a punch-drunk boxer.

The suffering doesn’t stop there. It’s the same every night: Me on the dirty floor, the kid listening with his marbles out his head while his rich old Da’ tells him the same stories over and over while glamming his eyes me like he’s Warren Buffet and I’m a bloody bottomless ATM. He squeezes my bum and laughs as the millions pour out. Typical imperialist toff! I should've know he'd sell me for a pair of mouse ears.

His little git’s no help to me at all: It’s always about him. That’s how life is when you’re a stuffed animal. They stuff us with their dreams. As if we had none of our own. But it’s not just stuffing and little rugrat dreams in here, behind these big round button eyes. It really isn’t.

As the old duffer starts, I groan: Not this codswollop again. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard this one. You know it too, the one about the worst moment of my life—the bloody awful honey tree.

Let me say this first: Not one of you muttonheads has the foggiest idea of what those stories were really about; the real theme that runs like a sewer through all of them. Not a one of ‘em tells the truth of what really happened, out there; the real story behind the bloody hell hidden behind the rustic gates of Cotchford Farm.

But I’m going to tell you. Whether you like it or not. Go ahead. Tell me I’m “destroying the magic.” But how can you destroy a magic that never existed?

The truth is this: of all the stories about all the animals in the forest, there was one animal whose story was never told, whose existence was known only to those of us who lived in the forest and to no one else.

That animal was the monkey who lived on my back--the monkey of honey addiction.

I became a honey addict with my first gulp of that sweet goo. As it melted in my tummy like a soft gold ball and the sugar molecules streamed through my veins, I became hooked. I completely abandoned my usual diet of nuts and berries. My life of rustic English country ease sank into a miserable bog. As my fur quickly encrusted with sugar, I became home to a zillion ants. The others could always tell when I was around by the cloud of flies that followed me everywhere.

No price was too high to get my paws on the sticky stuff. Obsessed with my next fix, I feverishly hustled the others for their honey stash. I pawned every scrap I owned to that cheap crook Rabbit, right down to the bell on my front door. After I sold off everything, I stole Roo’s toys. There wasn't anything I wouldn't do.

Oh, the kid tried to keep me away from the honey jar, even brought the whole forest in for an intervention. But after I mistook Piglet for a beehive in that little striped shirt of his, they all knew they’d lost me. There was nothing to do but wait for me to hit bottom with a bigger thump than the one I made that time I fell into the Heffalump trap.

One morning, I dreamed I was lying under a giant beehive teeming with billions of little honey makers. Just when long yellow strands of honey were dripping within reach of my straining tongue, I woke up screaming, the walls closing in on me, my every nerve end shrieking with agony.

I crawled on my paws and knees across the splintery floor and staggered outside, my fur soaked in acrid sweat. The honey-yellow sunlight only sharpened my hunger into a blunt stabbing knife. (You can see the craving in my eyes in Shepard’s sketch of me sitting outside my front door. It may look like I’m gazing at the sun. I’m actually screaming from withdrawal.)

I couldn’t take it anymore. “Honey . . . honey . . . honey,” I grunted as I crashed desperately through the gorse and bramble until I found what I was looking for—the buzzing of bees. The sound of honey from high above. My desperation was at its pain-filled peak. I would have climbed to the moon at that point.

You know what happened next. Any clod who thinks falling ten meters, spinning around three times and flying into a gorse bush is funny should try it sometime. Let’s see how hard you laugh with thousands of gorse prickers spiking you like porcupine quills!

Afterward, I lay face down in the English country mud, my whole body on fire, and bitterly reviewed my options, none of them good.

Piglet would just go all freaky-squeaky on me; Rabbit would raise an army to invade Iraq; Owl would start pontificating about the National Health Service while I lay groaning and shivering on his doorstep; if Tigger had been around then, it would’ve been a Million Pieces of Pooh all over the forest; Kanga and Roo’s Extract of Malt worked no better than watered-down methadone.

And don’t get me started on Eeyore. The truth is, he was actually only in the story where he lost his tail. Two days later, still racked with pain from where the kid had nailed the new one into his donkey’s bottom, he tied a rock to his hoof and jumped off Poohsticks bridge. (Glug, glug, the lucky sod. Maybe you get now why some of us Cop a Bad Attitude.)

I finally had to face facts: There was only place where I could go, where they had to take me in. To my enabler’s.

I was half-conscious as I crawled to the door of the kid’s tree house. As he plucked the prickers one by one out of my flesh, each pluck like a strummed harp string, he cooked up another one of his great ideas. Anything to keep me dependant on him.

Yeah, you guessed it. The balloon. A typical addict, I’ll jump at any scheme to satisfy my craving, no matter how harebrained. I swam like Michael Phelps from one end of that mud puddle to the other until I looked more a like two-legged fudgsicle than a little floating cloud. But what do bees know?

I’ll never know how the kid trained himself to breathe helium, but before you could say “Where the Woozle Wasn’t” there I was again, my duff dangling ten meters in the air. My rotten luck continued when I floated close enough to see they were really quite the wrong bloody sort of bees—Megachile rotundata. Alfalfa leaf-cutter bees. Not the honey-making sort.

Humiliation hit me like a bricklayer’s punch. I came face to face with the cruel reality of my existence; with how far I’d fallen in the world; how disgusting to myself I’d become. Quivering with self-loathing, I begged the kid to finish it with his cork gun.

But, as usual, reality fell short of the dream. His first shot fixed it so there’d be no Pooh Juniors. The second shot only broke the balloon and down I floated, the hope hissing out me with the helium. I spent the next week with my arms stuck up in the air like I’d been bagged by Scotland Yard.

(You’d think a bloke would learn his lesson, but no, not this sort of bear. Days later, while hustling Rabbit for a fix, I got my biffer’s bottom stuck in his door. Some blokes are just asking to be turned into towel bars. Seems I’m one of ‘em.)

End of story. A bullet of pain shoots through my hip--arthritic from decades of being yanked about by the leg—and it’s WHAP, BONK, THUMP on the back of my noggin up the stairs once again. The kid yells for the old man to watch him take his bath and I think Yeah, that’s it. I’ll drown myself in the bloody bathwater.

I better come up with something, fast. No way am I going to live through another round of stories about the old forest. The other day, Kanga said something about some wealthy Yank named Oprah and how she’s a sucker for stories like mine. Maybe she won’t help me get this monkey off my back, but maybe there’ll be enough quid in the deal to keep the bloody animal fed until I do.

(Photo by Author; bear by Gund, from original E.H. Shepard design).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Dragon's Ark" Prologue to a Novel (Recommended for mature audiences only!)


Greetings: For those of you who stop by this spot instead of the Red Room site, I have elected to post there the prologue to my Dracula novel Dragon's Ark. An explanation for it is here and the actual prologue is here.

I look forward to your reactions and thanks for coming by!

(Photo by Author)

Monday, September 21, 2009

THE USS HORNET: BLOODY BATTLES AND BLUE SEAS


I was a World War II buff when I was a boy. To my boy eyes, war seemed an ennobling, romance of bright, loud explosions and wildly dancing bodies (usually glimpsed through the lens of Combat, still a surprisingly good TV show or via the impudent grin of Errol Flynn).

This past Labor Day, boy memories simmered again when my sister-in-law Margaret suggested that we (along with her husband Charles) visit the USS Hornet Museum.

The museum floats on the old Alameda Naval Air Station in Alameda, an island city in San Francisco Bay, a lifesaver’s toss west of Oakland. The USS Hornet is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that sailed into war in various incarnations since the country was founded until the ship was decommissioned in 1970.

Its two most famous manifestations appeared during World War II. The first WW-II Hornet (Model # CV-8) was the vessel that carried Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, 80 crew members and 16 B-25 bombers to the spot from where they launched the first bombing raid by U.S. air forces on Japan on April 18, 1942. The carrier later participated in crucial air and sea battles at both Midway and the Solomon Islands where it was sunk that October at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands near Guadalcanal. (How speedy is history!)

USS Hornet CV-12 (aka “The Grey Ghost”) sailed from Pearl Harbor in March 1944 and, as a Navy flag ship, was the command vessel and made it through repeated battles structurally unscathed (but at the human cost of 250 fighter pilots and crewman), from the Philippines to Iwo Jima. It suffered its only actual damage on its way home when 60-foot waves from a typhoon crumpled a 24-foot section
of the forward flight deck like a tin can.

After the war, The Hornet dozed in mothballs until 1951 when it was renovated for modern jet fighters and recommissioned. It did two tours in the misbegotten Vietnam War, but finished on a high note as the recovery ship for Apollo Flights 11 and 12 on their return from their pioneering Moon voyages. On June 26, 1970, USS Hornet, rendered obsolete by bigger, faster nuclear-powered ships, was retired for good.

While the Hornet Museum is a national treasure for military veterans and history buffs, strict pacifists, Luddites and other sensitive souls may find it disturbing, its massive scale overwhelming (as any extraordinarily large, but agile-looking structure might). As you approach its prow, the way it poises narrowly on its keel before widening to width of 191 feet, 11 inches makes it seem larger, more menacing, than your conventional 20-story skyscraper.

And there is the primary purpose it was designed for: for war, the ugly business of mass killing (I like to think that when it was sent on any of its several rescue missions, including the Apollo flights, many Hornet crewmen heaved some sort of relieved sigh into the sea air).

You enter the Hornet up through a caged gangway to the hanger deck where the fighter planes were stored. You’ll feel no sense of floating. The ship is so huge, its interior seems like just another extremely large but open building, but for the giant hangar bays through which you see other Navy ships floating nearby.

Today, the USS Hornet Museum is crewed by a crusty collection of retired salts from several of the services who serve as docents. Charles, a mechanical engineer (U.C.-Berkeley 1972), wanted to tour the engine room and I immediately acceded. (Thanks in part to him, my former intimidation and ennui when encountering complex technology has eased).

Our growly docent Victor led us down four long steep ladders. For the physically challenged among you, please note: no elevators).We eventually entered the hot blasting heart of the ship, the engine room. Despite his gruffness, Victor earned admiration with his knowledge of every darn pipe and wire, screw and plate that kept this gigantic tub plowing through the world’s oceans for nearly 30 years.




What struck us most, beyond the extraordinary power and complexity involved in running this vessel, was the extreme nature of engine room duty itself. Of the Hornet’s crew of 3,400, around 500 of them worked as engineers and mechanics in conditions that would inspire insurrection anywhere else. During both war and peace, keeping The Hornet under sail was about the hardest, grimmest duty imaginable—the men spent eight-hour shifts in a cramped, dangerous environment where temperatures rose to 140°F (and never sank beneath 100°F; it’s been said the men always worked nude); where an invisible steam leak from high pressure pipes could sever limbs as suddenly and easily as a knife slicing soft butter (I didn’t think to ask what the rates of injury, illness and collapse were, but I doubt I would have lasted half-a-day.)

Suitably humbled by the sacrifices involved (and the stamina of those who made them), we returned above decks where, alone, I explored the second deck where most of the crew lived. These anthropological wanderings constituted my favorite part. “How did people live?” I like to ask. “Very closely” whispered ghosts from silent, empty quarters.

If you’re the modest type who fanatically cherishes your privacy, military life is not for you. The USS Hornet, big as it is, is a crowded space for 3,400 with privacy at a—no, it’s not even that good, unless you’re an officer and even then, you had what amounted to a closet. The largest quarters I saw could best be described as cozy, its most potent luxury a record player that only played old 78 rpm vinyls. Even the ship captain’s at-sea cabin on the navigation bridge looked crushingly cramped and barren.



The mess (kitchen and dining) felt more expansive, though even there the crew was fed in a constantly moving assembly line. As a Navy ship, an exclusive area was set aside for a small armed contingent of US Marines, who even used the “head” (which you know as the “facilities”) as a hangout spot. Special quarters existed for those rare occasions when women came on board at that heavily sex-biased time.



We wandered the flight deck for awhile, gaping at the various fighter jets and one WW II prop fighter that were on display. Another docent (whose name I failed to note) took us onto the carrier’s island, the command structure that towers over the flight deck, the main base of the Hornet’s human power. We passed through many rooms, among them the Flag Bridge, from where many of the Navy’s finest admirals supervised Navy Task Forces, a parade of power and influence that finally culminated in the gloomy presence of President Richard Nixon who came to watch the Apollo
11 rescue.

There’s some nostalgia (memorials to departed Hornet crew members) but not a lot of gung-ho flag-waving on display (except for the Apollo exhibit). There is little reflection on the costs of war, unlike the war museum at West Point, New York, (as well-related by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll). We went off-ship at around 4:30 and while I completely enjoyed this peek into the lives and sacrifices of the previous generation but I felt almost no nostalgia. Just as well.

Thanks for your service. Glad I missed the war.

************************************************************************


THIS ONE’S FOR JACOB ALEXANDER
(1931-2007)

U.S. Air Force serviceman (“20 years, 3 months and 19 days”), textile artist, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, neighbor, friend, The Mayor of Masonic Avenue, The King of Golden Gate Park . . . I’ll still look out the bus window for you every time I ride by.





“Don’t be a motherfucker! Don’t fuck with anybody!”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Monterey Bay Aquarium: Fish Far Out of Water


When in Monterey/Pacific Grove, California, my wife and I always make time-space for a real monument to hope in these environmentally perilous times: the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in Monterey’s Cannery Row.

Monterey Bay was once home to one of the world’s sardine fishing capitals but now, thanks to overfishing (and why enough people aren’t worried and pissed-off about this beats me), it retains only the shells of its former glory. John Steinbeck, who gave Monterey’s Cannery Row neighborhood its name in his titular 1945 novel, would recognize only the tin-roofed exteriors of the many old canneries; like abandoned seashells, their interiors have been take over by another species, namely Touristus garishus who may, at first glance, look as colorful as deep sea monsters, but lack a
certain exotic exquisite aquatic grace, wonder and mystery (except for an excellent antique store on Wave Street, we mostly skirt the rest).

But the one thing that would please Steinbeck, (and one of the legacies of his friend, the pioneering marine biologist Edward “Doc” Ricketts), is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an example of what people can do when they’re given the opportunity to really care about something. Even the most shark-eyed observer would experience it as a genuine miracle in an era where we seem about all fished out of them. Here, hope for our stained, poisoned and battered planet remains stubbornly, bright and alive.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened 25 years ago on October 20, 1984. As the docent on our recent trip, Nancy Larkin, tells it in 1977, a group of marine biologists at Stanford University’s Marine Station (also called Hopkins), located in Pacific Grove, were engaged in some beachside brainstorming in the shadow of the old Hovden cannery, (the last one to close in 1973). Just like in one those old 1930s Hollywood
musicals, someone pointed at the old cannery and piped up: “Hey guys! What d’ya say we turn that old cannery into an aquarium and invite every fish in and around Monterey Bay!” (OK, I made that part up).


Take the Tour, Feed the Fish

Among the marine biology students joining the brainstorm on the beach that day was Nancy Burnett, a daughter of Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard and his wife Lucile. Shortly afterward, along swam Nancy’s sister, Julie Packard, a U.C. Santa Cruz student majoring in marine algae studies.

Nancy and Julie went to their parents and told them what they wanted to (Try imagining Paris Hilton doing anything useful like this. Yeah, hurts the brain, doesn’t it?). With the money and power of the Packard name behind it, the project became a slow-rolling unstoppable wave.David and Lucile Packard not only said yes, but, as Nancy Larkin told us, they provided full start-up funding and personally dived into the project’s development. Packard mere and pere sailed to other aquariums around the world to study both the right and the wrong ways of building and maintaining aquariums. (Big issue: working conditions for the non-aquatic land-living staff). In a
sense, they reeled in the fantastic colorful world of the ocean wilderness up safely onto dry land, benefiting both humans and the splendid life forms that live in the briny deep.

The aquarium, which covers three acres and 300,000 square feet, provides a tidal wave of sensations, especially for new visitors. A backstage room tours provide an excellent calming perspective for the overstimulated visitor. Even after a half-dozen visits, even my largish brain has a hard time wrapping itself around the aquarium's ambitious epic scale.

Inspired by the work of Ed Ricketts, the aquarium is organized along specific undersea environments (or biomes), instead of individual species. One thing this
teaches is how interconnected all undersea life (and, by implication, life on land) is.

With so much to see, this humble space can only touch on a few favorite things. One of the aquarium’s permanent exhibits is the 28-foot deep Kelp Forest. One of the largest aquarium exhibits in the world, this underwater forest cycles through 4,000 gallons of water per minute and teems with sinister sinuous leopard sharks, dozens of other fish species, including hypnotic, shape-shifting schools of sardines, abruptly changing direction with every disturbance like flocks of birds as they swim among the towering trees of kelp (Fun fact: Kelp, despite its giant size and beanstalk shape, is not a plant, but an algae, due to its lack of many of the structures found in plants).


The Kelp Forest

Another favorite sea environment is the Outer Bay, a series of galleries that offers an eerie, powerful and meditative glimpse of life 60 miles offshore, starting with a donut set into a ceiling where an estimated 3,000 anchovies swim in a hypnotic circle. It climaxes in an awesome lovely blue million-gallon aquarium displaying the animals found in the outer bay during a warm El Nino pattern. (For us seafood lovers who find this all a little mouthwatering, the museum also provides a handy “Sustainable Seafood Guide.”)

Even in the midst of this current extinction, our Earth still teems with odd creatures, (some seem spun from the oceanic imagination of H.P. Lovecraft). The weirdest ones of all inhabit our oceans at its greatest, darkest depths. The aquarium does a terrific job of introducing these unique animals in their special exhibits. The current centerpiece exhibit of strange life is “The Secret Lives of Sea Horses” featuring the sea dragon, one of the most delightfully hallucinatory animals on the planet.


No, Not Seaweed

A final tribute must be paid to the museum staff. Of the 1,300 souls who work here, 900 of them are volunteers and you couldn’t find a more friendly and committed team. (Fun Fact: A number of the volunteer divers, charged with entering the tanks for maintenance and animal care, are paraplegics). Everyone here is deeply, but cheerfully, committed to the aquarium’s mission “to inspire conservation of the oceans.”

Volunteer. Donate. Go. Because I said so. Because Nature is always good for your soul. Because your planet, the only one you have, will thank you.

(All photos by Author)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

LOCAL COLOR: BIG BEER FROM A SMALL ROOM




A few doors down from the almost barren corner of Adeline and 40th in Emeryville, California, stands the Café Biere, a friendly gleam of Europe that livens up the neighborhood and may be the next mecca for the Bay Area’s large swarm of serious beer connoisseurs. Its cozy room serves up one of the largest and most eccentric beer menus I’ve seen.

Ivan Hernandez, the café’s owner-operator, wasn’t even a beer lover when he arrived in the Bay Area in 2000. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico (where his mother, Rosa, sagely advised him, “If you want to meet nice girls, learn how to cook.”) Ivan immigrated to Toronto, Canada, in the 1990s. There he started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant and joined a group of friends who made regular tours of Toronto’s restaurant scene.

Over time, Ivan evolved into a restaurant manager and troubleshooter. Upon his arrival in the Bay Area, he became a restaurant consultant and eventually took over his first restaurant, Café Cacao, in December 2007, a breakfast-lunch spot in Berkeley (on Heinz Street, right around the corner from the newly opened Berkeley Bowl West grocery store).

“I started out not liking beer at all,” Ivan confesses. But then a friend poured him a light, sweet brew called Duchesse de Bourgogne--it was love at first taste. By the time he downed the last cool drop of the Duchesse, he’d become a convert equal in passion to readers of the Wine Enthusiast.

He next toured the Bay Area’s numerous beer bars. From conversion to café took him only three to four weeks. He opened his new place in 2008 at the former site of a Pacific-Asian tapas place that had previously been an Emeryville institution, Moon’s Chinese, for almost 60 years.

The café’s interior is European in atmosphere, with illustrated yellow-gold and copper-plated walls intended, according to Ivan “to turn non-beer drinkers into beer drinkers.” It doesn’t look big enough to hold everything on its menu, but somehow it manages quite well.

The Café Biere’s menu (“Our Little Beer List”) reads like the wine list at a four-star restaurant. All the beers are artisanal and each is described with the kind of loving caressive detail that might cause snobby swill-loving egalitarians to take offense. If it reminds you of the fanatical obsession you encounter with wine connoisseurs, you’re right. (A New Yorker article from November 2008 describes brewing good beer--not the modern industrial product--as a bigger challenge than wine-making.) Indeed, quite a few of the brews on the café menu rise to the high side, a glass costing as much as $40.



But the cafe more than makes up the high prices on some of its brew with many moderately priced varieties and a happy hour featuring a selection of tap beers from 3—7 PM, Monday thru Friday. Free beer tastings are held every Wednesday night around 8:30.



Ivan originally planned to feature only around 50 beers, but the list is now foaming up toward 150. The café stocks beers from Eastern and Western Europe, a large number of U.S. microbrews, plus a number from Canada, Mexico, and Japan. While the Czech selection is small, the Belgium selection dominates (including the crisp, addictive Duchesse de Bourgogne).

Smaller, but equally impressive, are the Trappist ales. These beers are all brewed by, or under the direct control, of Trappist monasteries. European monasteries have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. Today, only seven Trappist breweries remain. All five of the Trappist ales served by Cafe Biere originate from Belgium.

In the future, Ivan plans to expand Café Cacao’s hours into the evening as a Latin lounge and is mulling over expanding Café Biere’s space into the building’s second floor. “Maybe I’ll start a brewery, or open the kind of place where local brewers can bring their own beers.” An impish look enters his soft brown eyes: “When I get good at brewing, maybe I’ll brew something with chipotle and balsamic vinegar. It sounds weird, but it could turn out tasty.”

The café also serves a light dinner menu designed to compliment the beer menu. The joint fills up quickly, especially on Friday and Saturday, so you’d better call ahead or arrive early. I’ve found it SRO more than once. Not surprising The café gives a genuine lift to a neighborhood in bad need of one.




Monday, August 17, 2009

Friends? We Got Friends . . . .



“Is George Clooney the Hottest Guy in Hollywood? Seems Everyone Wants to Be his Bud.”--Headline on Yahoo! News.

“I’m really white trash.”—George Clooney

E-Mail from: The Lipinskis
To: George Clooney

Dear George Clooney:

Trudi and I wish to thank you very much for the free dinner and drinks the other night at your new Las Vegas resort. It’s not every day an everyday Nebraska couple like us gets yanked off the street by a big restaurant owner for free eats! Trudi
really loved telling you all about her collection of your Aunt Rosemary’s records and had no idea she had such a smart and handsome nephew. And such a good cook!

We apologize for not knowing who you (or Brad Pitz) are, but we don’t go to the movies at all because they’re too expensive, and Trudi can’t drive, and I don’t drive too well myself because of night vision. Maybe they will show one of your movies on
the Hallmark or Western channels or the Turner movie station (as soon as we can afford the satellite adjuster box) and we can catch up then!

My wife and I were happy to add a touch of everyday normal America to the grand opening of your new resort. It made us feel very special—especially since we were the only ones there! (Maybe if you add White Castle to the menu, you’d get more customers hint hint!)

We wish you the best of luck with your new restaurant.

Sincerely Yours

Fred and Trudi

PS: Trudi knows of an excellent hand cream you can use if washing all those dishes turns out to be too hard on your hands!


Dear George:

Thank you very much for all those movie disks. As soon as we can afford one of those players, we’ll be sure to watch them, but our trusty Betamax still has plenty of mileage on it so we’ll stick with it for now. Until then, those disks will make great beer coasters!

From all those movies, we can see you’re a real busy guy! Could you really afford all that postage? We can hardly afford Christmas cards and have to send e-mail greetings from the computer at the meatpacking plant. We’re down to one gift a year
for each of us. Last year my wife gave me that yellow-purple Hawaiian-plaid shirt I wore that time we ate at your restaurant. Who knows? This Christmas I might get a new one! We’ll see what Santa has in store for this year!

Trudi wants to know, when you guys are short-staffed at your restaurant, do you have to fill in yourself? It’s a BIG problem where Trudi works. Some days she has to work a double and then her boss has to fill in and boy, I tell you, some guys should just stay the heck out of the kitchen!

Bon appetite!

Dear George:

Thanks a million for the clothes. Unfortunately, I guess you forgot I’m on the short and heavy side, so the pants are a little tight around the waist. I can have the legs shortened, but I don’t know if I can lose all that weight. I can have the shirtsleeves shortened too (as soon as we can afford it). I wore the tuxedo jacket to bowling the other night and all the guys got real excited, especially when they saw the “Ocean’s Eleven” label.

By that way, is that “Ocean’s Eleven” on one of those movie disks you sent us? It’s funny, because Trudi and I saw it the other night on that Turner channel and while we saw Frank and we saw Dino and we saw Sammy, we’re darned if we could see you!

You’ll have to tell us which scenes you are in, so we can see them and tell our friends how we know somebody who knew Frank and Dino and Sammy!

One other thing: the dresses you sent don’t fit Trudi at all. Do you have any with thicker straps that aren’t so low cut? (She caused quite a stir when she wore one of them to work the other day.) Who’s that Julia Roberts on the label? Is she one
of your restaurant’s waitresses? Trudi says they oughta cover themselves more!

Take care!

Dear George Clooney:

Thank you very much for dropping by with the disk player and your tailor. I will get the rest of the clothes out of storage for the next time your tailor comes by. (You don’t have to come though if it’s too much trouble!)

We hope you found our couch to be comfortable sleeping. I very much enjoyed hearing you talk about golf! We didn’t know there was so much to hear about the subject! Have you really golfed everywhere? I didn’t know there were that many golf courses!

Sorry I fell asleep toward the end there. Shouldn’t have had that last beer!

Bye for now!

Dear Mr. Clooney:

We’re very sorry we couldn’t take up on your invitation to vacation at your house on Lake Como, but Trudi has mosquito allergies and Minnesota mosquitoes are real WHOPPERS!

It was nice of you to stop by on your way. Your visit sure set trailer court tongues wagging (especially after the wind from the helicopter knocked over our neighbor’s trailer!) We were fascinated by your stories about how loud, shallow, and boring
Hollywood people are and how everybody there wants to use you or sleep with you—though Trudi wonders if adding an extra bedroom in your house might solve that problem—and how you wish you could find some real friends in the real world.

We both wish you luck in your search!

PS: Could we ask a small favor? Could you leave your pet pig at home next time? He was a very fun, energetic pet, but our dog

Schotzie was a lot happier when she had both eyes and all four legs!

Dear George Clooney:

Sorry about the dictated letter, but they don’t have e-mail at the hospital and my own handwriting won’t be legible again until the cast comes off. The neurosurgeon says there isn’t any permanent damage, but they likely won’t get all the dents out of my skull.

Maybe going out for a round of golf wasn’t such a great idea. We probably should have gone right in when the thunderstorm started and maybe it wasn’t too smart of you to pop that wheelie on your golf cart. (I guess the docs didn’t like it when you
took over the ER either, especially after you broke my ribs with the defibrillator)

Anyhow, we won’t be able to make it to the Oscars ceremonies because my skin grafts haven’t healed yet. (Are you catering that by any chance? We sure hope so! You seem like a guy who really needs to stay busy!)

And you don’t need to come visit again, if it’s too much trouble. Trudi and I found the screaming a bit much. Do nurses always tear their clothes off when you come around? Trudi’s still blushing!

We really, truly hope you find the friends you are looking for.

Good luck!

E-Mail from: Ed Vendetta, Esq. Law Firm of Skurvy, Vendetta and Capone.

To: George Clooney

Re: Lipinskis v. Clooney—Restraining Order

Dear Mr. Clooney:

Attached as a .pdf please find the restraining order in the above case Lipinski (“Plaintiff”) v. Clooney (“Defendant”).

To briefly reiterate the conditions as follows:

The Defendant shall stay a minimum of one hundred miles from the Plaintiffs, their persons and their properties at all times.

Nor is the Defendant under any circumstances to repeat his visit to the Plaintiff during the remainder of Plaintiff’s

hospital stay.

The Defendant shall make no attempt to contact Plaintiffs in any matter whatsoever, including postal mail, e-mail, chain

mail, phone, fax, teletype, telegram, Morse code, semaphore code, strung-together tin cans, rocks through windows or airborne

advertising banners saying: “FRED AND TRUDI! I’M SORRY! PLEASE FORGIVE ME!”

The Defendant shall not mail gifts or any other packages to plaintiffs, including free meals, DVDs, DVD players, second-hand

clothing, invitations to red carpet premiers, Oscar and other award ceremonies, resort openings, airline tickets to

Switzerland, or golf outings.

The Defendant shall not hold additional pet funerals in the Plaintiff’s yard.

“Oceans 14—Rascals in Nebraska” will not be filmed.

Finally, the Defendant shall not mention the Plaintiffs, both directly and indirectly, in any of his public utterances,

including references to them as “my real-life down-home All-American friends.”

Please download the document, sign and return to our office immediately (and you would mind throwing in an autographed

picture of yourself? Make it out to “Ed!” Thanks!).


Sincerely,

Ed Vendetta, ESQ.


Monday, August 10, 2009

I Think About Stupid Things


Last week, the Red Room Web site held a blogging contest. The object was to answer the following question: “What are your obsessions? Your passions? Your fixations?”

My first, impulsive answer was “You don’t want to know.” Number Two: “Ask my wife.”

And then there’s that old favorite: “None of your damn business.”

I oscillate between resistance to answer the question and the sweet impish desire to tell flattering—but flat-out—lies: “Ohhhh, I obsess all day about the Founders and how their legacy has at last borne fruit with Presidency of Barack Obama, while I nobly fix my gaze upon the distant horizon.”

Truth-telling is a deadly business so I’m better off joking about checking off all the movies I’ve seen in Leonard Maltin’s guide; wondering why movie villain Lee Van Cleef was never cast as a vampire (he would’ve been great); or finessing my Niles Crane impersonation.

As a man suffering from ALS once told an interviewer digging for great pearls of wisdom from a dying man: “I think about stupid things.”

The Red Room invitation was inspired by a comment author Joyce Maynard made about obsession and writing. I’ve not read Maynard’s work but I understand she’s written some classic memoirs, including one about her time with Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger. I guess you would categorize her work as “memoir’ or “confessional literature.”

Not one that applies to me.

I deliberately cast myself a genre writer. One thing that sets genre writers (or, maybe, “writers of action fiction”) apart from mainstream literary writers is a seeming rejection of personal revelation. For example, while you learn a whole lot of about spy work and spy life from John LeCarré’s spy fiction, you learn little about LeCarré’s actual life when he worked for British intelligence (though he wrote a brilliant true-life portrait of his con man father in The New Yorker some years back).

I attempted confessional pieces when I was quite young and, frankly, regret every word. Revealing (and obsessing over) the intimate treasures buried in my psychic sock drawer is so much less appealing to me at fifty-four than it was at twenty-four when I had the peculiar idea I’d somehow alchemize tragedian Eugene O’Neill with farceur Joe Orton and conjure something brilliant. (Yes, you're right. It was a bad idea.)

I do obliquely use my life and very infrequently my private obsessions in my tales, but not to “share myself.” Embarrassment aside, once I’ve shown my secret obsessive self to a reader, what are they supposed to do with it? Whether they actually see me in a protagonist or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how lost you get in the world I’ve created and the adventures that take place in it. My life is the spackled cement. You should hardly see it.

Back to obsession and writing. I don’t see that writing a book is as an obsessive act, unless you suffer from graphomania; in that case, the writer might never finish, only vanish behind slowly rising white towers of unread paper.

In life, it seems, though obsessives very often occupy books, they seldom write them, or at least successfully completed ones. An obsessive can, say, build a bridge, but he must delegate the overwhelming multitude of complex tasks to others to focus his obsessive laser-like vision--building that bridge as he envisions it in his mind. Here, obsession can actually work to the good.

A novel writer, though he needs some outside help, writes his books alone. Fiction and nonfiction alike, book are large complex projects, riddled with uncertainties and requiring a thought-out, nuanced, rather wide-minded approach. Passion (or “flow” as I sometimes think of it) surely plays a prime, but intermittent, role. But even a story aflame with passion on every page is simultaneously the product of a cool, detached and unobsessed eye. The writer has to consider and weave together a
multitude of details; he doesn’t need a laser vision so much as eyes and ears wrapped around his skull like jeweled headbands, seeing and hearing from all directions; and a fine filter to synthesize everything he absorbs.

At his most concentrated (and psychotic), the obsessive is tyrannized by one single thought, to the brute exclusion of all else, even—and especially—his own well being. He’s a closed-off beam of light, shooting through the blackness all around. His obsession imprisons him. He’s unable to stand outside his hot thin wire to see and work with the shape of it, the nuance and the context of the events he’s burning through; he might be likened to an extreme singularity or a kind of black hole.

The difference between an obsessive like Jack Torrance, the protagonist in The Shining and author Stephen King is the difference between “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed out countless times and Stephen King’s finished rounded masterpiece.

Sometimes I see the word “obsessive” used by critics to describe the relationship of an artist to his themes or techniques, but this seems an exaggeration. If Thomas Pynchon was as “obsessed” by paranoia as critics claim, he couldn’t leave his apartment (which he does quite often, or so I’ve read), much less write a book. If Alfred Hitchcock was as “obsessed” in his films with blondes as is said, he’d be a mere crazed girly photographer like Irving Klaw (though Hitch did suffer from
episodes of obsession in his life, as blond Tippi Hedren well knew; obsession did both her and Hitchcock’s art little good).

As I finish this, I’m certainly “focused.” I’m also “concentrated,” “fascinated”, “concerned with” and even “intensely thoughtful.”

But every day, I reach a point where I'm outside of myself and see that I'm no longer Master of the Universe I'm trying to put up on the screen. The words, the scenes, start to stumble and slow, my thoughts turn to slow-pouring mud, while my stomach growls and I realize I’m thirsty for a beer or some top shelf scotch. I have several other pieces to write and my wife calls from downstairs: Time to go watch Frasier.

(Photo of author's eye by author)

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Aroma of Wet Blanket


At last, you’ve typed “The End.” Your novel A Million Little Pieces with Vampires is finished.

Go on . . . go ahead . . . relax! Fall lazily into that barcalounger and never lift another finger
in dismal labor ever again. Years of effort and hardship are reaching their final happy payoff. As
happened when we elected Obama, angels will parachute from on high bearing empty shot glasses, full scotch bottles, and a new 100-inch flat screen TV that will always be tuned to Turner Classic Movies, which will only only show movies you like (Up Goes Maisie), while you eat all the free gourmet pizza you want (delivered the micro-instant your mid-section emits the teensiest gurgle) and collect every single remaining Ennio Morricone CD--

“Not so fast, bubs.”

Oh-oh. That’s Reality, standing over the lounger, wearing an upside down face and a fire-freezing stare (may also be known as Skeptical Spouse, Your Mom, or the junior high student counselor who said you’d never be a history teacher because you didn’t know what Big Bertha was).

“You still gotta find an agent who’ll hook you up with a publisher and pray that the publisher will
(or can afford to) hook you up with an alert, talented editor who doesn’t wish he were editing
Turnips! The Tuber That Saved the World instead.

“And then you’d better pray the publisher doesn’t get bought out in a hostile takeover by Worldwide Widgets who’ll then fire your editor out the nearest cannon and replace him with an editor whose last book was Why Supernatural Novels Always Suck (and That Means Stephen King, Too).

“Oh, and while the agent’s searching for that publisher and also scraping his gluteus derma off for his other equally beloved and likely more profitable clients, he’ll probably have more than a few suggestions to help improve your book and make it more readable and saleable, (such as ‘it’s
spelled C-A-T’ and ‘Superheroes who wear Depends have limited commercial appeal.’)

“And while we interrupt your fantasies of palling around with Peter Straub in the West Eighties or fulminating with Alan Furst about the lousy scotch they serve in the south of France, consider how you may wind up doing most all of your own hollering and chest-thumping, buster. That advance you’ve been dreaming of? Consider yourself parked in dreamland if it’s $9,999.99 (minus 15% to the agent) and also remember this: many publishers these days may clip a little note to that check:

“’HERE’S YOUR MARKETING BUDGET! SEE YOU AT BOOKEXPO!’

“Yuuuup! You design, place and buy the ads; you arrange the readings (if you can find any
bookstores left); you purchase the airline tickets and hotel and cab fare to the readings; you call
up Oprah (“No, really! It’s not a novel! It’s fact: Dracula lives in California! Just think of it! I’m the next James Frey!”) You mail it to the reviewers (and no paying book rate. You’ll die by the time it gets there).

“Meanwhile, you’re erecting platforms all over, like a fifty-band, rap-rock-hiphop mega-concert.
You got your weekly postings (those bits of B.S. you call ‘essays’ ‘cause you’re too much a goddamn fancy-pantsed Frasier to call them ‘blogs’) and now you have do them every . . . single . . . DAY, even if you don’t have anything more to say than “Best Western Keokuk, Iowa is the best darn hotel that ever was . . . superior to Best Western Weyawauga!”

“It’s back to posting ‘Me too!’ reactions to every Keith Olbermann-related article aggregated by
Huffington Post, even though you haven’t watched him since Obama won because he reminds you of your dad pitching a fit in a crowded restaurant.

“And while you’re posing proudly with your Pulitzer Prize in one hand, your World Fantasy Award in the other while the National Book Award wobbles on your bald skull ('I'm accepting my award and take THAT Mr. Pynchon!'), don’t forget: You Must Tweet.

“Yeah, you heard me. Tweet like the most fucking irritating songbird ever. Yes, your bathroom
behavior really is fascinating to the wider world. Count on it!

“’But Conan Doyle never tweeted about vacuuming cat hair off his carpet!” doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t. Go ahead. Google “Vacuuming cat hair carpet.” How many hits do you get? 522,000! If even one of those losers wants to read your novel, it’ll be damn well worth it, especially once you find your novel Portnoy’s Complaint with Alien Invaders sitting at the 4 million ranking on Amazon.

As for getting reviews of your own book, you'll do so much log rolling, consider yourself a lumberjack if you get the author of Spelunking for Claustrophobics to blurb you: ‘Boy, if I liked this kind of book, I might actually read it! Every page is numbered!’”

In return, of course, you have to blurb his latest tome: Penis: The Other Organ That Made the World. And you’ll call that the best book you ever read, too.

“Oh and before you haul yourself out of that chair, one more thing . . .

“‘Dog’ has only one ‘g.’”

(Photo and Bad Fake Web Page by Author)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Like Shootin' Fish in a Pork Barrel!

The following is a humorous shard of gimcrackery I wrote in the late 1990s for an e-mail column I had then. A recent review showed it still had the capacity to cause the heart to trip with laughter. I’ve updated it with photos and a little tweaking. And I do apologize to the Senator in question: His intentions and goals were good, but his method made him an irresistible bulls-eye and me grateful that I am not a politician.


Dear Honorable Elected Representatives:

It has come to my attention that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) awhile back pushed through a bill designating Lake Champlain, a somewhat large body of water located in his fine syrupy state, as an additional link in the chain of what are known as the Great Lakes: Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. This despite the fact that Lake Champlain is vastly smaller and separated by hundreds of miles of dry land from the nearest Great Lake, that being Lake Ontario.


Lake Champlain


By having Champlain designated as a “Great Lake,” Senator Leahy has gained access to funds for the conservation and management of those very Great Lakes for his own state.

I am not complaining. I am not bitter. Nor am I jealous. But I do feel somewhat unjustly neglected, for I too live very near a body of water that I truly believe is an integral part of the major ecosystem known as the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.



Farallon Islands

This body of water, though, to some, small and insignificant, has played a significant role in the historical ecology of the Farallon Islands, undoubtedly long before my discovery of it a few years ago.

I am speaking of the body of water located in my bathtub.

Renamed “Lake Burchfield,” by me in my honor, this previously unknown, but nevertheless significant, body of water was discovered by me when I took possession of my apartment in June 2002. Located in the rear left of the bathroom, just behind the toilet, Lake Burchfield is six feet long, three feet wide and two feet deep at its deepest. Fed by streams from the High Sierras, it drains into the Pacific Ocean a few miles from my home and hosts a unique ecosystem of extremely rare (and, dare I say, precious) microorganisms of a type and beauty found nowhere else in the
entire marine environment.



Lake Burchfield

Shortly after my discovery of this mysterious and complex biosphere I invited a select group of distinguished marine biologists over to study Lake Burchfield. Though they disagree somewhat with the “lake” designation, (Dr. H.P. Heckerbooper, for one, said,
“puddle” might be a more accurate appellation) all the scientists firmly agreed that they had never encountered an environment quite like the one encountered in the teeming shallows of Lake Burchfield.

Several newly discovered species have already been written about in numerous distinguished scientific journals (unfortunately of pitifully small circulation), including:

-- the extremely rare Thomas voracious, a bacteria whose diet consists entirely of soap particles

-- Tadus moronicus, a previously unknown genus of mildew, exclusive to plastic white shower curtains

-- and finally, the first sighting ever of the elusive and controversial Circuitous smudgus, the wondrous creature responsible for bathtub ring.

I won’t even go into my toilet, since there’s nothing in there but alligators anyway.
(and boy do I have the scars to prove it ka-boom!)

In addition, with the help of the experts noted above, I have introduced several endangered species of rare fish into this environment in the hope of restoring their devastated populations for future generations. To date, I have admittedly met with little success, but I am currently working with several marine environmental groups on a proposal to declare Lake Burchfield a major link in a chain of new Pacific salmon runs, provided we can get the fish to swim up the pipes.

In addition, I am currently breeding a unique subspecies of guppy, Invertius poissonus, known for its unique habit of floating upside down for the latter part of its life cycle.

Now: All this takes money and it is with this in mind that I am beseeching you, my elected representatives, for funds to continue my strenuous efforts to preserve, protect and study the amazing, unique hydro-scape that is Lake Burchfield. By designating it as part of the Farallones National Wildlife and Marine Preserve, Lake Burchfield will surely qualify for assistance under the National Sea Grant Program. In anticipation of this qualification, I have registered myself as a University.

Of course, many critics may call this “pork barrel,” but that, of course, is because the money is not going to preserve the wildlife in their bathtubs, which they themselves have never seen fit to pay attention to until I came along. It is in response to these accusations that I solemnly promise to sell Lake Burchfield to the Nature Conservancy upon my departure from this area.

I am in need of funds not only to continue the scientific studies, but also to protect the very environment itself. Already there are threats to build condos along the shiny enamel shores of Lake Burchfield. Indigenous species are under threat from various invasive creatures, including the deadly voracious Billus gatus, a microorganism so vile and pernicious that it has already devoured an entire fleet of plastic boats and neutralizes all dandruff shampoos.


Another Deadly Invasive Species!

Without funding, I may be forced to sell Lake Burchfield to rapacious developers and the incredible world that lives and thrives within its watery depths will be lost forever to future generations and leave nature a little poorer than I found it.

I am currently in negotiations to rent closet space on K Street and am ready with cash bribes for you to defend my cause! Checks should be made out to “Lake Burchfield Preservation Defense Fund.”

Please help, before, once again, another beauteous pocket of nature is gone for good! Remember: “Extinction is Forever (But Not if You Give Me Money!”)

Sincerely,

Thomas Burchfield

(All photos by author; boat by Elizabeth; cat by Flo)