and write -- blogs, epigrams, journals, op-eds, reviews, letters to the editor, tweets, comments, posts, non-fiction books.
“I didn’t expect that anybody would be interested in my kind of writing. I was interested, and this was for
Isaac Bashevis Singer
In Praise of the Small
I try to write 1,000 words a day, and on a good day I might keep ten of them, because
most of what I write is distilled to epigrams. In a very productive year I might finish as many as there are days, and including
some longer pieces, that would require an output of around 365,000 words. My verbiage includes essays, journals and chapters
of a book on the plumbing industry, but I am a short form person, most comfortable in bursts of at most 1,000-2,000 words.
And the longer efforts require torrents of words because I rewrite everything a dozen times. I will not leave a volume of
work that would make a hefty The Collected Works Of.
Half writer, half artist, half breed creator, bouncing
between office and studio, sometimes half a dozen times a day. In the studio it is pretty much the same thing. Draw, paint,
draw, paint, most productively late into the night, and in the morning, in the cold light, filling the trash can, saving only
an occasional effort.
We all must find a way to work that suits our nature. I have always been attracted
to small things. Small paintings and drawings. Epigrams and quotations. Short essays and poems. Short stories and small novels.
I don’t like War And Peace and I don’t like vast canvases contrived for modern museum shows. In my college years
I had the time and patience for the long read: Proust, Celine, even slogging through a morass of Henry James. And I began
my art career, in my thrilling first large studio, in a loft building filled with fresh young artists, doing some large cut-out
paintings, fiberglass sculpture and designing and building stage sets. Gradually the large object began to feel like an exercise
in vanity, of art careerism. Who needs a ten foot tall sculpture in their house? Or a wall-sized painting? These things can
only be in museums or mansions.
Writing or painting, I visualize as my ideal customer an intellectual who
lives for art, certainly not affluent, living in perhaps a small apartment filled with books and treasures, obviously not
having a lot of spare wall space or bookshelf inches. If the rich uncle you wished you had bequeathed you a Paul Klee watercolor,
could you find space for it in your home? Small is good for the way most of us live our actual lives. Twelve inches square
is good, six even better. Small things not only take little space, they take little time. How long does it take to read an
epigram? As long as it took you to read the previous sentence.
There is a lot of blather being written about
the rise of blogging and the death of the print book reducing our attention span to that of two year olds. I suspect that
when the dust settles it will have been more a matter of the media’s obsession with the media than any substantial change
in how we consume art and literature. But if it is the case, I will be perfectly comfortable in this Brave New World of brevity.
Up On The Ridge, Thinking and Walking
Up on the ridge with my excellent Austrian walking stick -- it gives a feeling of security on these wet slippery paths.
Compensates for a bit of unsteadyness consonant with my age. So many features! The comfortable curved corklike handle, variable
length, hardened steel changeable points for several conditions, wrist strap, and an adjustable spring to cushion long descents.
I can poke at stuff to investigate it, and part bushes to look thru them. Scare off wild dogs or cougars.
and walking make a nice team, more productive than thinking and sitting -- although there is something to be said for thinking
and lying, if you can keep from falling asleep. I keep a little spiral notebook in an inside pocket of my jacket, and an extra
pen, because I don’t want to think of something and forget it before I get home. If it’s a serious working walk
I carry a larger bound notebook with slicker paper, and try to organize my thoughts to coalesce in the vicinity of a bus stop
bench, or a stump if I’m in the woods.
Walking is good for you in so many ways it would be tedious to begin
to ennumerate them, but thinking tops my list. I doubt I’ve ever taken a good long stroll in these hills without experiencing
a flow of thoughts and ideas. Today I fill half a dozen pages of the little spiral book (I buy packs of them) while keeping
an eye out for bikers whizzing by. The majority of mountain bikers are courteous, but there are a minority who expect you
to get out of their way, without their slowing in the slightest. Nor do they respect signs barring them from the narrowest
trails. Walking may be good for me, but getting hit by a 180 pound man coming downhill at 20 miles an hour would definitely
I used to ride in these hills myself, and would still be capable of it, but at a certain age the consequences
of a fall outweigh the pleasures of the ride. Comparing walking with the memory of cycling these trails, I can’t say
I ever did any serious thinking on the bike. It is exhilarating, huffing your way up, and flying down, but you are a body
on a machine in motion, with very little mind or experience of what is passing. You always see something new walking a trail.
Today it’s a brown and gray shelf lichen on a fallen oak, multileveled like a highrise condo in the city, working patiently
to make soil out of the tree, and return it’s carbon to the earth for another cycle. As my carbon will be released to
do the same, when I am cremated and scattered, as is the fashion now. Watchful turkey vultures circle overhead, just in case
my carbon decides to make the return on this walk.
I’ve found that walking generates interesting thoughts,
but it’s most useful to just capture quick notes of them, and move on, with my feet and my mind. Just as a landscape
artist might do a series of quick sketches which would become the basis for an oil painting to be done in his studio, a few
words will suffice to capture the kernel of the idea. Unlike the landscape, which changes slowly as traverse it, as I am a
slow walker, my thoughts ramble over all of time and space, arts and sciences, history, politics, trivia, the usual neurotic
thoughts, and what we might be having for dinner. This is as it should be, it’s the nature of productive thinking to
I walk for about 45 minutes and there it is, an interesting thought, probably nonsense, but I am not
up here to edit myself, and it goes on one of the little sheets, the page is flipped and the notebook goes back in the inside
pocket. Not fifty feet down the trail, and another thought, and soon I am walking, juggling stick, notebook and clicker gel
pen, despite a light scattering of drizzle, because it is one thought after another for a quarter mile until the mental motor
sputters to a stop.
“It is only in walks that are a little too long, that one has any new ideas,” wrote
Brenda Ueland (If You Want To Write, 1938). “If you would continue to be alone for a long time, amblingly swinging your
legs for many miles and living in the present, then you will be rewarded: thoughts, good ideas, plots for novels, longings,
decisions, revelations will come to you.”
Another mile back to the car at the end of the road, stopping
briefly to chat with the lone pedestrian I encounter today, although bikers have been passing steadily. Home for a couple
of drinks, dinner, coffee, and then to my office with the little notebook to transcribe these words into a very long document
that simmers on my computer desktop like the French housewife’s perpetual stockpot, into which goes everything. Sometimes
there is something worth developing, others it is all worthless dross, but it doesn’t really matter, because I had a
wonderful walk up on the ridge.
“Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion
is that they don't stifle enough of them.”
The Laws of Divorce
The longer you’ve been divorced, the stranger it seems that you
could ever have been married to that person.
Divorce is bad, but the alternative is usually much worse.
The first cause of divorce is probably that second date you never should have had.
If you and your ex are still
saying good things about each other, you are both splendid human beings.
Now you know who your true friends are.
The resentful teenagers of divorce would probably have been just as resentful, even if there had never been one.
If you still feel a need to talk to your friends about your divorce after a year, that is far too long to be dwelling
If your spouse wants to toss the wedding album, remove the lid from the trash can.
If you only
have to give up furniture, property and money, you are still getting off lightly.
If you stay in the house, the
only way you can feng shui it is to make some major alterations.
You not only won’t miss the possessions
you give up, but in a year or two you won’t even be able to remember what any of them were.
There is absolutely
no requirement to divorce anyone from your spouse’s family except for your spouse.
Never say one bad thing
about that vile brute, or that witch from hell, in front of your kids.
Don’t make foolish statements about
how you will never, ever, get married again.
Unless you believe in reincarnation, you have only one life to live.
“If your happiness depends on what somebody else does,
I guess you do have a problem.”
|There was electricity on their first date!
Human Extinction, The Debate Continues
as to the cause of the extinction of the human species. Humans were top predators for several million years. They seem to
have been a single species. They were to be found on almost every part of the planet they called Earth, the majority living
in huge colonies. Like the dinosaurs, this species was dependent on a stable, moist climate providing abundant vegetation.
They seem to have had poor resistance to high levels of radiation. But perhaps the thing that doomed them was the arrival
of intelligent life forms who deemed them as useless and destructive to the cooperative biosphere. There is a great deal of
evidence that they were fairly intelligent, for apelike mammals, but still incapable of creating higher forms of social organization.
Predominant intelligent life opinion is that humans became extinct as the result of a long period of severe climate change,
to which they were unable to adapt. Rodent mammal scientists concur. Mollusks cite their tendency to consume, rather than
cooperate, with other species. Bacteria and viruses cite the poor ability of human hosts to mutate. Fungi opinion is that
humans became extinct because a thousand year period of incessant nuclear conflicts prevented all attempts to rebuild their
colonies. Beetle opinion is that the cause was the arrival of intelligent alien life forms, as many appeared at the time of
the human extinction. Algae theologians have long maintained that the Council of the Gods extincted them because the species
was inherently evil.
“What in hell do the experts know?”
Mayor Richard J. Daley
HOW I BLEW MY OPPORTUNITY TO BE OBAMA'S ALDERMAN
the 60’s before I had a clue about what I was going to do with my life, I was, of all weird things, a Democratic precinct
captain in Chicago. My precinct was just a few blocks from Obama’s present homestead (some dirty Syrian money lent a
hand in the purchase). Obama wouldn’t have had a clue then either, being around five years old. We weren’t Daley
machine demos, but independent insurgent demos, who had a long (liberal/progressive/commie) triumphal history in Hyde Park
and Kenwood. We were the only neighborhoods not in total peonage to the Daleys. Soooo, I just started thinking...what if I
hadn’t come to my senses and become a hippy and emigrated to California? Where would I be now? I would be Obama’s
You would have to be from Chicago to appreciate the majesty of this office. It would
mean that if Obama needed new garbage cans or a permit to widen his driveway, or a city job for his worthless cousin, he would
have to come to my office in the Fourth Ward, hat in hand. If he had a more serious problem, and many do arise in Chicago,
I would ask if he wished me to represent him as his Alderman, or as his attorney? Yes, this is one of the wonderful choices
a Chicagoan has, to be represented for nothing, or for something.
I suppose any of you reading this might
ask if I carried my precinct. Damn straight I carried my precinct -- me and my runners with our hard cards in hand. And did
I feel triumphant? Nope, I felt awful, because the Daley machine assigned two out of the nabe ladies to co-captain for their
candidate, and they had a couple of runners too. And they all sobbed in the polling place because they lost their city jobs.
Did I mention that the Daleys are heartless?
|The Ship of Fools on the Red Sea
"Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own."
SALLYANNS & WHOLE PAYCHECKS
Here in San Rafael, our SallyAnn store (Salvation
Army, as it is known to those of very modest means) is conveniently located next to our Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods, as many
call it). But I doubt there are many who, like me, shop at both stores. I get my sweatshirts at the SallyAnn and my salmon
at Whole Paycheck. My fellow SallyAnn shoppers include many recent immigrant families, some superannuated hippies, some with
not so many teeth, obese moms with unruly kids, a few oddballs flipping through the racks seem demented, and there are always
guys waiting in front smoking. If someone lit a smoke amongst the salad eaters at the tables in front of the Whole Paycheck
they’d probably call the cops. WPs are enlightened beings, thin and healthy & wealthy, and even possibly wiser.
The WP lot is filled with new hybrids, SUVs, Lexus, Infinitis, SmartCars. The SallyAnn lot next door is filled with junkers,
trash-filled vans with side doors that don’t close all the way, pickups with rain soaked carpet and old furniture in
Two worlds, side by side, with little in common beyond sharing a suburban city block. The Sals
do the yard work for the WPs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the WPs live a lot longer. Sals might spend up to a hundred
dollars a week on lottery tickets, because it gives them hope. The WPs have never bought a lottery ticket -- they don’t
need hope, they’ve got it all and they’re living the California dream. Sal kids are embarrassed to be seen with
their mom buying these second-hand clothes. WP moms get their kids clothes at Macys and Nordstroms.
Rafael is a fairly prosperous community (median family income $85,000), but also has a large poorer, mostly Latino population,
living out of sight in a mile of densely populated small apartments between the canal and a freeway. There are people in our
town of 50,000 who have never seen this neighborhood. It has a reputation for being dangerous, although it is not. During
the real estate boom quite a few of the apartments were converted into inexpensive condos. Now many of these condos are being
lost to foreclosure because the kinds of jobs these people do, such as construction labor, gardening, child care and house
cleaning, have become scarce. Clusters of day laborers, mostly small men, many likely Indians from Southern Mexico or Guatamala,
wait on corners and along streets in a nearby commercial district. I have never seen so many of them. When I’m driving
my old pickup they wave hopefully as I pass.
The SallyAnns, who are seldom doing well, even during a good
economy, are now facing much harder times. So the SallyAnn is always busy, because growing kids must have clothes. And the
Whole Paycheck has also never been busier. WP just spent 4.5 million buying houses to tear down so they could enlarge their
parking lot. The WP customers do not seem to be hurting at all - even the new lot is always full, and everyone seems to have
Am I seeing two worlds that are growing farther apart? Are the SallyAnns getting poorer while the
WPs are getting richer? On one corner someone is paying five bucks for a pound of peaches, on the other someone else is paying
five bucks for their winter coat. I’ll bet they’ve never even been in each other’s stores!
appeared on SF Gate (Chron) & Marin IJ websites)
“Get this in mind early: We never grow up.”
Projective Verse, Anglo-Saxon Syllables
Charles Olson nailed the speech of the common man in his essay "Projective Verse" (Poetry
New York, 1950). Going back to the Elizabethans, he finds the secret of the beauty of our language in the pressure of a breath,
which is a syllable, the pure mono-syllabic Anglo-Saxon tongue:
"O Christ that my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again"
The syllable is from the breath,
but if it is poetry it is for the ear: "The ear is so close to the mind... that it has the mind's speed." Speed
is essential, says Olson, crediting Edward Dahlberg: "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO ANOTHER PERCEPTION."
If you want to be a poet "get on with it, keep moving, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen." Olson took his
"...Rise/Mother from off
me/God damn you God damn me my/ misunderstanding of you/I can die now I just begun to live"
"As the dead prey upon us/they are the dead in ourselves/awake,
my sleeping ones, I cry out to you/disentangle the nets of being!"
Common speech is abbreviated, terse, machine-gun
bursts. Latin is not spoken in garages. The mechanic does not say, "I have extensively investigated your malfunctioning
injection system and my diagnosis is that the fluid modulating..." He says, "It's a goner, can get a rebuilt
for two fifty, okay?" "Go for it," you reply. "You got it," he says. "See ya," you say.
"Have a good one," he says.
"Have a real nice day," the waitress in the coffee shop says as
you head for work. "Cool!" your son says, when you tell him he can buy the Psycho-Slashers CD if he washes the car.
"Make my day." Reagan says to Kaddafi. "Gimme a hug," Grandma says. "We shall fight them on the beaches,"
Churchill said, and it lives. Your boss says, "Pete's outa here!" You say, "No way!" He says, "No
shit!" "Damn," you say.
The ladies are in a booth, "Gimme a break!" "And then she
calls me back, and listen to this, she wants me to pick up her kid..."
Are we talking just about English?
Blaise Cendrars wrote: "Poetry is in the street. It goes arm and arm with laughter. They take each other along for a
drink, at the source, in the neighborhood bistros, where the laugh of the people is so flavorsome and the language which flows
from their lips so beautiful."
The official language of education, politics and the media is an artificial,
stilted rhetoric. The language of deception, coertion, pretention and dominance. And there is the journalese of "bus
plunges". "brawny truckdrivers" and "posh residences." Common people are seldom heard from in print
unless they are murdered, crushed, victimized or swindled, but how different their speech sounds in print!
don't get nothing in this world for having an advanced degree. You don't get nothing but a slap in the face."
"One minute he's working and the next minute he's dead."
"That was his only hobby,
that and work, and he did both pretty hard. Many didn't like him at first because they didn't know how to take him.
he was that type of fellow. But once they got to know him he was a lot of laughs. He was always cutting up."
"He passed me pretty good. I remember thinking, why is he going so fast for $4.75 an hour?"
girlfriend had moved back to Michigan with the children and his heart was dripping with blood because he couldn't see
"...seven tons are going to get you every time."
"Just two weeks before
she died she cut half her thumb off and drive 35 miles by herself to get to a hospital."
"They say it's
always the quiet one that'll surprise you -- he was extra quiet. Of course, I was lucky. He went after wealthy people.
I work for a living, thank God."
"I'll tell you what, I think he was just about ready to do it again."
"I'm thinking that could have been my son. You see this young man dead and gone. It don't mean nothing.
To the fathers of this town, raise your sons, man."
Education can be an impediment to poetry in our truest
language. It is not possible to attend college and say, "I seen him last night." The scholar-class must respect
class distinctions. And yet the poet overcomes this adversity of education and learns to speak our common language of quick
breath and speeding syllable:
Spalding Gray says the monologue "will be what I do as long as I have voice
Jane Hirshfield wrote "Not one of the lives of this world the heart does not choose."
And Charles Olson gets the last word" The night has a love for throwing its shadow around a man/a bridge, a horse,
the gun, a grave.
(This piece originally appeared in Fish Dance
“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”
SILAS MARNER -- A TARDY BOOK REVIEW
high school, with a brain battered by hormones, I labored through Silas Marner by George Eliot. It’s a small book, but
at the time it seemed like a thousand pages of slogging through a swamp of words, every paragraph sucking at your feet. I
found the book bleak and depressing, even though it is the morally uplifting story of a lonely, miserable, mean man who finds
family, love and redemption through caring selflessly for a child, not his own.
But fifty years later, viewed
with somewhat reduced hormones, here is George Eliot, in majestic prose, filled with ideas, setting the scene for the book:
It was still that glorious war-time which was felt to be a peculiar favour of Providence towards the landed
interest, and the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for
which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels. I am speaking now in relation to Raveloe
and the parishes that resembled it; for our old-fashioned country life had many different aspects, as all life must have when
it is spread over a various surface, and breathed on variously by multitudinous currents, from the winds of heaven to the
thoughts of men, which are for ever moving and crossing each other with incalculable results.
In other words,
it seemed at first that the war was good for the landowners and farmers, but later it turned out that it wasn’t, because
the squires spent money they didn’t have and the farmers were not very good farmers, and food prices crashed, and life
is complicated and things are always changing. That’s what it says, but my literal version is not very elegant, is it?
There are only two sentences in the paragraph. Mary Anne wielded the semicolon, as few of us now do. Because
most of us write in short, choppy sentences, we tend to get lost in the long ones that characterized English prose for hundred
of years. I don’t know if I am ever going to read all of Silas Marner again, but I am now grateful, after all these
years, that a forgotten (at least by me) Chicago high school English teacher made me grumble my way through it. Great prose
stays with you -- it teaches you what is possible, big thoughts expressed in a beautiful flow of language.
“....from the winds of heaven to the thoughts of men, which are for ever moving and crossing each other with incalculable