Monday, December 30, 2013

My Year in Review: Part 1 - Names and Faces

Yes, it’s the end of the year and time for looking back:
At least that's what I think you're supposed to do, especially if you
have nothing else to write about. So this is Part 1 of a scheduled two parter. The subject is passings, a popular subject about now.

When I watch the Oscars or Tony’s, or CBS Sunday Morning at year’s end, 
I see the faces fade in and out to a lovely tune as tribute is paid
to artists, newsmakers, personalities, people of some import
who have died. Invariably I find myself feeling more touched by some than others. Sometimes it’s sheer likability, others I feel connected to, 
still there are those who have meaning in a grander sense.

I hadn’t intended to make my last blog of 2013 about the
“dearly departed,”  but there are some who I feel compelled
to mention. They made my life more pleasurable and meaningful
in their distinctive ways. If it helps, you can pull up a recording 
of “Memory” or “Yesterday” or “The Way We Were” to help set the mood. 
Or even better, Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues.”Duke's "Jeep's Blues"

So here is Part 1 of this year-end blog. Part 2 is a day or two behind it, or at least that's my plan. 

In no particular order:
"Forgiveness." What a powerful word he taught the world.
It's something we need a lot more of. And he has a very cool last name, 
except he added an "a."

Guitar player #1: Jim Hall. I've been listening to
this guy for the past 30 or 40 years and he was so tasteful, 
always played with top musicians or strictly solo. 

"Less is more." Elmore Leonard practiced it, captured so much story and character in a few words. I listened to his "Tishomingo Blues" read by Frank Muller on a long car trip this year and the miles went by quickly. Add to that one of my favorite - and best written - TV shows, "Justified," which returns next week!! It's based on one of Elmore's stories.

Guitar player #2: J.J. Cale. You may not have
heard of him. I love his easy, southern, bluesey style.
He and Ry Cooder are 2 of my favorites from that school.

If you recognize her, give yourself a gold star.
She's Patty Andrews, the last of the famous Andrew Sisters who kept the GI's, and a lot of us kids at home, singing and swinging during the 40's and 50's. She and Maxine and Laverne made musical history. Like this one: 

I used to like boxing; not any more. But this is one of the guys I loved to watch, a real pro, champ in many weight categories, and a complex life story
beautifully told by St. Louis' Opera Theater in "Champion" this year. 
His name is Emile Griffith      A short look at Emile & Benny Paret

Tony Soprano and so much more. James and his families kept my wife and I seated in front of our TV set every Sunday night, beginning in 1999 for several seasons. We're still waiting for his final movie to be released.

There never was a comic mind like his. I met Jonathan Winters many years ago when I was in LA at Bell recording studio. He was waiting for someone. I asked him for an autograph. He said okay, put a yellow writing tablet on his lap and started writing. Ten minutes later he finished and signed it. He had written three pages, a story that was as wild and funny as a routine. I gave it to my daughter when I came home and don't know where it is today.

Some great actors died this past year. One of my favorites was Peter O'Toole, a bigger than life actor and person. When I read about his "carousing" in the NY Times obit, I was surprised he lived this long. "Lawrence of Arabia" is
still one of my favorites, along with "Becket" and "The Lion in Winter."
And he never won an Oscar. 

This may just be the one where I feel the most loss.
Stan Musial. It's all been said. I saw him play when I was ten years old, at Sportsman's Park with my dad. Stan was baseball to me for the rest of these years. I even liked the steaks at Musial and Biggie's more because of Stan. My first team was Musial, Schoendienst, Slaughter, Kurowski, Medwick, Marion, Potter, Brazle, Brecheen, Cooper, Moore.

There were others. Many others who touched my life, either personally or through the media. But that's enough "passing" for now. 

Time to see if I can conjure up a Part 2, on a totally different subject.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

It's That Time of Year

This is the time of year when most people’s thoughts go to Santa and gaily decorated trees with twinkling lights and Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” and frantic visits to the mall and rolls of gift wrap and, if you’re Jewish, saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” 

Sad to say, that’s not how this holiday season, and winter in general, is working out for me. My thoughts are elsewhere, and it’s the fault of some of the members of my high school class. You see, we celebrated our 60th reunion this past summer. If you’re quick with numbers, you know that means we are the “Class of 1953,” at University City High. In those days our athletic teams were known as The Indians. Today they’re The Lions. (Times and sensitivities do change, don’t they?) 

Following the reunion I created a list of emails from as many of our classmates as possible. That’s 70 as of the last tally. It proved to be a great way for all of us to stay in touch with each other. At least those who wanted to. I found out who lived where, who was retired, how many children/grandchildren/even great grandchildren were strewn about the countryside. I thought, “This is really cool. After 60 years we still talk.” In some cases, more than we did in high school.

That was good. At least for awhile.

Recently, however, I’m beginning to regret ever starting the damned thing. Tell you why. I am sitting here in St. Louis, watching the snow melt and the cold rain come down, getting ready for the next Arctic blast, wearing a long sleeved tee-shirt under my sweater, reluctantly walking my two golden retrievers at 10:30 at night, urging them to poop quickly and get the hell back in the house. My bike riding and softball games and hikes are on hold until April. I feel like a prisoner of the gods of weather, and wonder where is global warming when I need it.

Here’s what gets to me. The email from classmates who don’t live in St. Louis. The ones who live someplace that’s green year round, or within a short drive of a beach, or doesn’t stock snow shovels at Home Depot.

Here are some excerpts from these messages. I’ll use only the first names, to protect them from NSA, scammers, telemarketers, and appeals from princes in Nigeria.

In no particular order:

1. Barbara wrote: I live in the San Fernando Valley in southern Calif.  Maybe if there are enough of us that live here we could start a reunion of our own. 

2. Jackie says:  Happy New Year from Woodland Hills , California. 

3. Jerry tells me: I still work part-time for them in their Palo Alto Office---- and likely will continue as long as I can ride my bike there (5 miles round trip mostly on a bike path).  

4. Earle told me about his two houses in California. At least I think they were both there. Maybe the second one is in Cabo or Hawaii.

5. Speaking of Hawaii, John has lived there for decades, has probably changed his name to something Polynesian with lots of vowels. 

6. Stan, who lives where it drops below zero, wrote: Will think of you when we are in AZ. for several months beginning the first of the year. 

7. Sally had the guts to lay it all out: Hello from California where the weather is NICE AND WARM!!!    Highs in the 70s tomorrow and the 80s on Sunday. 

8.Lenny wrote from Sun City, Arizona. I love that word, sun.

9. Lew actually OWNS the sun, keeps it on in Southern California. 

10. Jan had two knee replacements but had to brag that he bikes 20 or 30 miles in Clearwater, Florida.

There are more.... from California and Florida, also New Mexico and Arizona. Warm places. But I stay in St. Louis. In some ways it makes no sense. Our daughter lives in New York; our son, in Chicago, so there’s no family to keep us here. 

Maybe it’s because I really like living here. My good friends are here, a variety of things to do, a comfortable familiarity, theater and movies and parks and activities, a very cool and liveable house. I’m probably just too lazy to learn a new routine in a strange town,

So you’ll just have to excuse me for whining a little. It’s childish, I know. And since I started writing this, I have received two Christmas letters. But these were different. They both contained news of friends who have been through a very bad year. That got my attention, brought me back to reality.

Which brings me to some wisdom I read recently on a friend’s posting. It says, A good life is when you assume nothing, do more, need less, smile often, dream big, laugh a lot, and realize how blessed you are.Words to remember, and to read every morning.

Mark Twain had words for me too.Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

The boating analogy doesn’t work for me. I get seasick easily. But maybe it’s time for a Harley or a hut in Tahiti or backpacking through the Australian outback, or even a couple of months at a seaside villa in the south of Italy. 

In the meantime, I’ll wait for the kids to get home for Christmas while I sit by the fire and read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Killing Shelf

Some books seem to spawn sequels like trout in a stream. Or a pond or lake or wherever the hell trout lay eggs. I'm not a fisherman so I don't know and really don't care. The subject here is books. For instance, Dummies. I don't know how it started, but now there's a Dummies book for anything you need or want. I was at PetSmart yesterday and saw "Ferrets for Dummies." Seriously. And there was a large ferret standing there, leafing through the book. No, I'm kidding.

The Chicken Soup books have just about taken over the literary world. Every possible age group, event, situation, holiday and emotional need now has a Chicken Soup book. My personal favorite is "Chicken Soup for the Athiest's Soul." Again, I'm kidding. But you get the idea.

So anyway, I was at Barnes & Noble the other day, a rare occurrence for me. While waiting to check out, I saw three books prominently displayed, all by Bill O'Reilly. They were: Killing Kennedy, Killing Lincoln, and Killing Jesus.

Which gave me an idea about the next book I'm going to write: Killing O'Reilly. (Note to the FBI, NSA, BTAF and Fox News: Don't investigate me. I'm not even thinking about killing Bill. This is a joke, albeit a bad one.) Imagine the cast of characters in this one.

Beyond that, I began to consider other possibilities for the
"Killing" series. There are the obvious choices: Killing King (as in Martin Luther); Killing Bobby (Kennedy);  Killing Julius (Caesar that is); Killing X (that's Malcolm); Killing Milk (think Harvey); Killing Lennon; and Killing Gandhi.

They'd all make good stories, being major figures enmeshed in the flow of history and the fortune of nations, at least to some degree. However, once you get to Jesus, as O'Reilly has done, everyone else is kind of in steerage, lower down on the guest list. "Oh, yes, we may have a table for you. What's that name again?"

The category of "killing" has bigger dimensions than this, however, as we have seen with Dummies and Chicken Soup. For instance, how about a book called Killing Bambi's Mother?
This could be rife with intrigue. What part did Thumper play in her death? Is Flower the skunk really so cute and innocent? And what about the gunshot we hear? Who is that? Elmer Fudd? That's an incredible twist, a Warner Brothers character works his way into the Disney realm.

While on the subject of Disney, we need a book Killing Gaston. He's the guy in Beauty and the Beast who ends up impaled on a cluster of spikes when he falls from a tower. Gaston provides us with the opportunity for some back-story. Why did he grow up the way he did? He leads an angry mob to do away with The Beast. The book would personalize some of the people in that mob, and their relationship with Gaston, and if The Beast threatened his masculinity. Of course he didn't just fall from the tower at the end; someone pushed him. We need to know.

Finally, and not to belabor the point nor bore you any further, I want to read a book called Killing Jimmy. Here we peek behind the steel curtain of the Teamster's Union and get the real story of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
The events that lead to the decision to get rid of him, who gave the final thumbs down or "sleeps with the fishes" pronouncement. He was last seen outside a restaurant in the Detroit suburbs. Maybe the restaurant owner poisoned him because he was a lousy tipper. Maybe it was really an accident because he had a platter of spoiled oysters. Maybe it was more in the Teamsters' style involving a back-hoe, a cement mixer ("putty putty") or an acetylene torch. The president of the U.S. at the time of the killing was Gerald Ford. For 25 years, Ford served as the Representative from Michigan's 5th Congressional district. That includes Detroit. Hmmmmm.

And so the proliferation of titles goes on and on. If I were a biographer, I would jump on any of these possibilities. But I'm not. I'm must a lonely blogger with the world at his fingertips considering the possibilities.

Which brings me back to Bill O'Reilly. Maybe it's time to start another book.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Town, Our Lives

Thornton Wilder wrote the play in 1938. It doesn't have much of a plot. Not much happens. There are no great conflicts, few soaring emotions and even fewer surprises. Yet the play is rightfully considered a Great American Play, consistently performed over the past 75 years. 

And for good reason. It has never lost its meaning, its power. If anything, it has gained in relevance, as those simple, quiet days of the early 20th century in Grover's Corners recede further into the distance of time and memory.

I saw a wonderful production of "Our Town" last night, presented by The Insight Theatre Company in the beautiful theater of Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves. The talented cast understood their roles to their very core. The third and final act still hits me in the gut and leaves me lingering in my seat long after the house lights have come up.

What happens in Grover’s Corners? Not much. The first act is a day in the life of the town. Much like our lives. We wake up, brush out teeth, fix a pot of coffee, a bowl of yogurt or Shredded Wheat, throw on a pair of jeans or shorts and a tee, move through the day. And suddenly it's 11 at night, we're brushing our teeth and getting into bed. 

Just as quickly, it's Friday again. And summer is over. And you're attending your 40th or 50th or 60th high school reunion.

Think back on your yesterday. Or day before. What do you remember about it? Chances are, not much. What about last week? Last month?  We pass through our days as though we’re on a float trip, daydreaming, watching the trees and shore pass by, and we're suddenly close to the end of the trip. Thornton Wilder understood how fleeting it all is, and how we never arrive at a satisfactory answer as to what it was all about.

Near the end of the play, a young woman says to her mother, pleads with her mother:
    "But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment   we're happy. Let's look at one another." The young woman has died and has been permitted to return home. Her mother can't see her. Their time together has passed.

That's the point. The time has passed. As it does all too quickly for most of us. How seldom we don't "look at one another." We take for granted there will always be another day. Most of us take life for granted, seldom stopping to appreciate just how precious it is. Even as I write this, I know that an hour from now I'll be right back in that stream, letting it slip by unnoticed. But maybe if I just force myself to consider what "Our Town" meant to me, I'll remember a little more of what makes this day, and the next, and my life, so extraordinary. 

It's amazing what two hours in the theater can accomplish.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Going, going...but not gone

I couldn't let this moment in history pass without pausing to look skyward.

The article, from the Associated Press, was in today's paper on page 11. The headline read "Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system." Left the solar system!! That's not the kind of event you read about every day. NASA actually thinks it might have left our solar system a year ago but they couldn't be sure until now.

That's the kind of event I used to read about in short stories and novels, a long row of books that sat on the shelf in my bedroom. Stories by Heinlein, Van Vogt, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Leinster, and others. Stories set in some distant time and place.

But now, in my lifetime, something had been sent from Earth and was now moving through interstellar space. The article states, "...the spacecraft has escaped the sun's influence and is now cruising 11 1/2 billion miles away in interstellar space."

That's a great word. "Interstellar." I can just hear Ray Bradbury saying, "See? I told you.

So where is it going? you might ask. According to some experts, it's headed for Alpha Centarui, the nearest star. That should take about 40,000 years,  which will be about the same time the Cubs win the pennant. 

When Voyager 1 lifted off and headed for space, the year was 1977. Aboard was a gold-plated record which contained, among other sounds, some representative music of Earth. So whoever finds the ship, in whatever galaxy, in whatever eon, and unforeseen dimension, will have to have a turntable. If they do, they'll hear Bach's Bradenberg Concerto #2 in F (just the first movement. Too much Bach is not a friendly gesture); Chuck Berry singing his classic "Johnny B. Goode;" Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven with "Melancholy Blues" - not sure why they chose that tune - and Blind Willie Johnson with "Dark Was the Night." 

No rap, no Pit Bull, no theme song from "The Sopranos." See how far we've come in the past 36 years? 

Next time you look up at the night sky and see the stars - assuming you can see through the urban haze - think about Voyager 1.
Imagine this cold, metal disc hurtling through the space between the stars. A hopeful hand reaching out from Earth, perhaps eventually to tap some alien life form on the shoulder and say, "We're here with you." Then, with a stroke of luck or technical ingenuity, that distant being will put the disc on a turntable, drop the stylus into the groove, and hear Chuck Berry's opening guitar licks as he moves into Johnny B. Goode. 
And that being will say, "Cool. I wish I could play like that.
"Chuck & "Johnny B. Goode" on Soul Train 1973

Friday, August 16, 2013

All Those Yesterdays

Yesterday has been following me.
From 1972 and 1953 and 1947. Decades ago.
Not merely yesterday.

This weekend - it started today for me - is attempting to pull me back in time.
Faces and events seem to be gathering like wind-swept leaves from an October maple and swirling about me.
Colorful but fading. Patterns but scattered. (Sorry about the trite metaphor but it’s the best I could come up with)

It began today with a large gathering for lunch at Mike Duffy's in Kirkwood.
The occasion: to celebrate the life of Ellie Ohrn. We don’t mourn death anymore. We celebrate life. 
You probably didn’t know Ellie. I barely did. She was an established writer, close to legend status, when I first worked at D'Arcy Advertising from 1972 to 1975. I was busy trying to make a good impression, come up with incredibly original creative concepts. Ellie was a writer in the group but I didn't get to know her well. My loss. After hearing what friends and family and co-workers had to say about her today, and the obit in today's Post-Dispatch, I missed the opportunity to connect with someone quite special.

So, at the lunch today, were faces from my D'Arcy past, men and women I hadn't seen in a long time, many widows now, several with walkers or canes, stooped and struggling to remain vital, deal with losses brought by aging. Yet, they were there. And several who looked remarkably well. Sun-tanned, erect, bright-eyed, sharp and gregarious. How, I wondered, did they view me?

It was a visit to yesterday, 41 years ago. No game like the ad game; no stories like those told by the men and women who fought in the trenches for market share.

The leaves of time will continue to gather over the weekend.
Dragging me back 60 years, to 1953, when I graduated University City High School.

You guessed it. Saturday and Sunday, 60 or 70 of us (including spouses) gather for our 60th Reunion. Six decades doesn't begin to blur my memories of Mr. McKinney's chemistry class. Because of him, I decided to become a chemical engineer. That got shot down after two years at Wash. U when I ran headlong into Physics and some advanced math class I have since blocked out. I still have nightmares about those two years. He was just one. There were many others. I even remember where I sat in their classes. 

I still see the long, locker-trimmed halls, smell the aroma of wax, feel the comforting warmth as I entered the school building on a frigid winter day after walking several blocks. 

High School, in retrospect, pushed me into corners of acceptance I had no interest in. Good grades, polite friends, avoidance of cigarettes and booze, engineer boots and turned up collars to be cool. Joni James and Kitty Kallen and the Four Aces and even Spike Jones. For me it was not a time to break out and announce myself, but continue the long, gradual incline to self-improvement and acceptance. And pleasing my parents.

Those faces of my U. City classmates, fortunately with name tags attached, await me this weekend.

One more significant date. Sunday. August 18th.
My birthday.
They don't mean much these days, markers I'm glad to reach but have no cause to celebrate. Dinner with my wife, a movie in a theater (not hi-def TV), a walk with our two golden retrievers if the weather stays nice. That's birthday time. No, my thoughts don't go back to the day I was born. I know I was there. The rest is legend. But I remember the apartment on Leland in the Delmar Loop when I was four. The house on Midvale across from Flynn Park, when I was six. And a goldfish I pulled out of a bowl and watched it flop on the rug until it died. I might have been two or three then. My first experience with death, though it had no name. 

So the days continue. I played softball this morning. A great morning. Hit two singles, a double, a triple, and pitched. We won, easily. The back is a little sore, but it'll feel fine tomorrow. And today will be yesterday with fond memories of that game.

What's the lesson? Adele knows what it is. I interviewed her a couple of months ago, for a video project. Adele is 101 years old. Very sharp, both mentally and physically. She lives in an assisted-living facility. "So, Adele, what's your secret?" She smiled, nodded her head. "I don't have one. I just don't think about my age."

That's the secret. And I share it with you. So even if and when those fragments of the past occasionally come skittering your way, you'll know what to do. You'll know to enjoy those times, appreciate "old friends," learn as much about yourself as you can, and then get on with your life. Just don't think about how old you are. You have better things to do.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tomorrows in the Key of C

His name is Alex.
My reason for writing this is to ask you to do something important for him.

I first met Alex when he was 12 years old.
At the time I was host of a cable TV show called "Living Well." It ran weekly on HEC-TV. I think the total audience was 53. But the show gave me the opportunity to interview some rather interesting people, most of them seniors, because that's who the show was meant for.

So what was I doing interviewing a 12-year-old kid? Well, he was quite a kid.
Turns out Alex had a burning interest in World War II. It began when his dad took him to France and showed him the beaches at Normandy. Now Alex had made a hobby of collecting items associated with the war, even seeking out veterans. Not long after my meeting with him, Alex produced a documentary called "Six Heroes," a series of interviews with six men who had landed in Normandy on D-Day. It was an impressive effort, good enough to win him Best Documentary at the St. Louis International Film Festival that year.
Like I said, he was quite a kid.

I wish I could tell you this story has a happy ending. It doesn't.

Alex went on to better things, became a positive influence on many friends and younger people, went to college, gave his parents much pleasure. And some concerns. Alex had a tendency to drive too fast. And that's what ended part one of his story. As his parents said, "He was a meteor who shot across our skies."
That was a little more than three years ago. 

And now a new story has begun.
You see, his dad, Tom, has established Pianos for People as part of the Alex Townsend Memorial Foundation. Their mission is to put out-of-work pianos with young households, children's centers, shelters, the elderly, and everywhere that music should exist, but doesn't. 

Tom plays piano. I play piano. We both love jazz, blues, and the New Orleans stew of rhythms and harmonies. So music is one of the common bonds between us. When Tom told me about his Piano Project, I asked if I could help.
You're reading it.

I'm asking you to do a couple of things. First, if you have a piano you don't want anymore, or know somebody who does, contact the foundation. There are a lot of used pianos out there that go wanting for someone to appreciate them. Yes, pianos have souls. 

There's one more thing you can do. Pianos for People is a finalist for a grant from Monsanto. The money would help them refurbish more pianos and get them to more people. All you need to do is vote. You can do it once a day through this Monday, May 20th. Voting is not limited to just St. Louis. Wherever you live, you can vote. Here's the link:

Music has been a huge part of my life, from the time I began taking lessons at the age of 8 (yes, they had pianos back then, not just  harpsichords) until today, when I enjoy listening to Rachmaninoff's Second, Meade Lux Lewis' boogie, Peterson's songbooks, and Benny Green play with twenty fingers, or so it seems.

I know of Tom's love for music. I know what music can mean to help shape people's lives. Pianos for People is an inspired concept. Join the chorus.

That takes me to two quotes I'd like to leave you with. 
The first is by Plato.
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.” 

The second one is by Heinrich Heine. 
"Where words leave off, music begins."

Time to cue the music.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Listen To This

They call it "Inner Jazz." The subtitle is "Exploring the Landscape of the Soul Through the Transformative Spirit of Jazz." 

It's the Jazz thing that caught my eye. It's the Inner thing that promised to add a new dimension to the proceedings. Maybe I'm just looking for more meaning of life as the months pass all too rapidly. As Maggie Smith said, when asked how it felt to be 78, "Every meal is breakfast." The email came from Carol Beth True, superb jazz pianist, teacher and friend. She was going to be part of a jazz thing at Kirkwood United Church of Christ in Kirkwood. I made a note in my calendar. Five o'clock on a Sunday is usually wide open for me. That's four hours before Mad Men and Game of Thrones come on. And with DVR, it doesn't really matter anyway, except for the ritual. Probably a throwback to "the old days" when Thursday night was Star Trek Night, Tuesday night was Dick Van Dyke night, etc. Okay, I'll go back to Sunday night being Jack Benny night on the radio. Remember radio?

Sunday afternoon church is foreign to me. In fact, church anytime is. To say it's not even on my radar screen is an understatement. Still, the confluence of jazz and some sort of soul searching sounded appealing. I went. I listened. I let my thoughts wander. The music reached deep, starting off with "Equinox" by John Coltrane and some fine tenor sax work by Cliff Aerie. The program progressed with original tunes by him and fine solo work by Carol Beth and Cliff and Dave Troncoso on bass, Kevin Gianino contributing some very tasty work on drums. Plus a young vocalist named Arianna Aerie adding her sterling voice that delicately filled the church. The last tune was one of my favorites, "Afro Blue" by Mongo Santamaria.

There's something about "live" jazz in a church that I find very moving. Especially when coupled with a message about Our Earth. 

According to the Reverend Betsy Happel, this mingling of jazz and meditation will continue once a month. I'll probably be back there next month. A different jazz group will perform. But the spirit will be the same. The program they handed out contained several quotes, two of which I especially like and repeat here. 

John Muir: "When you tug at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world."
Buddha: "To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance." 

 Sometimes you just have to stop and listen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Writer I'm Going To Be

I thought I was a writer, until I heard Richard Ford speak last Friday night at the St. Louis County Library as part of their Read St. Louis Program. This, however, is not a review of the event. (I’m not a critic, though I tend to be critical at times. Ask my wife.) I’m just a guy who likes to write. I've written a few things, some of which I'm happy with, others that I can never get right, most of which I know can be better. Which leads me to often wonder what it must be like to spend time with a great writer, listen to him talk about his writing and mine, hear him read what he’s written, then apply it to what I’ve written or, better yet, what I could be writing.

I’ve never taken criticism easily, but if it were Ford, I would make an exception.

I sat with Peter Carlos. He was sitting on the aisle when I got there, empty chair next to him, and I knew I’d enjoy talking with him. In the half hour we had before Richard appeared, we talked about making movies and videos and writing and editing and teaching. He does all those things. The last time I saw Peter was when I participated in a video program called “Fade Up,” which he produces at Lindenwood. It was a conversation with Mike Wall about “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” Charlie Chaplin and my novel.

So there we were, these two bearded guys talking creative stuff while waiting for this esteemed writer to enter the packed room, which was growing warmer by the minute. The place was electric with anticipation. I’ve been to other author events there, but this one seemed to achieve a higher level of excitement. After all, Ford has won the Pulitzer and the PEN-Faulkner award.

John Dalton, himself an excellent novelist, introduced Richard with well-chosen words. (How else would you introduce a great writer?) Richard came up to the mic, talked softly, very softly, to the point that the first short story he read was almost lost to the audience. Someone suggested he talk into the mic more directly, which he did after explaining that he talks softly, which we had all figured out, and he launched into a short story he had written some time ago, called “Reunion.” It had its roots in St. Louis and takes place in Grand Central Station in NY. Then he segued into the opening pages of his latest novel, “Canada.” I’ve read the book. Listening to him read that short segment made me want to read it again. A Q&A followed.

Here are a couple of things Mr. Ford said during the evening that struck home with me. He said every writer’s duty, during the course of his writing life, is to put everything down on paper that is important to him. That doesn’t mean opinions and self-focused thoughts, but the things in your life and your world that have meaning to you and you want to say something about. Someone asked him if he’d thought about writing a children’s book or a YA book (young adult). He essentially said “no.” He said it’s not what he’s good at, nor what he wants to write. It would be strictly a “show-offy” thing, as he called it. He knows his strengths and passions, and that’s where he wants to be. He writes every day for 4 hours in the morning and 2 hours after lunch. Every day! In a little shack/hut/cottage down the hill from his home in Maine on the edge of the water - either a lake or the ocean. Doesn’t really matter. 

Richard’s from Mississippi originally but said he doesn’t write about the South because so many others have done it better than he ever could. He mentioned Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and a couple of other writers, one of whom lived in his neighborhood. “In fact,” he said, “I wasn’t even the first one on my block to win the Pulitzer.” So he moved to Michigan, to get out of the South where his non-racist attitudes were at odds with his neighbors. 

Richard maintains a wonderful sense of humor, a strict writing discipline, and the ability to see deeply into people and relationships. I’m not very good at relationships; writing about them anyway. It takes effort. Lots of it. He’s able to capture in a few carefully chosen words what it can take me a paragraph to even get close to. One of the things I could have used along the way was a mentor. Someone who would look at my work and tell me how to improve it. It doesn’t come from open mic nights. It doesn’t happen with friends. Maybe it happens with on-line writing seminars, though I don’t believe it’s personal enough. It’s a long way from the ideal: a placid retreat amidst tall, stately trees and expansive stretches of lawn, a lake or the ocean within strolling distance, and a group of people interested in writing, brought together by men and women who “have done it” and can turn a piercing eye to my pages and pinpoint the excess, the vague, the missed opportunities, as well as the strengths, the occasionally sparkling phrase, the well-developed character. 

That muse calls to me now. “Gerry, move to Greenwich Village. Be 27 years old again, catch Basie at the Vanguard, write all night, drink espresso with unshaven guys and long-tressed women. Or find that cottage in Maine, just a stone’s throw from Richard’s hut or Stephen King’s house. Or maybe discover that cozy cottage near Carmel overlooking the Pacific that needs a caretaker in exchange for rent. There’s a place for you, somewhere a place for you.”

The voice is tempting. What I plan to do, in a more realistic frame of mind, is to buy a trailer and park it on the banks of the River Des Peres, facing west. I’ll have a stack of spiral notebooks and lots of pens and pencils. I’ll also have a laptop but no internet connection. I will escape from the demands of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Groupon, and deliver my written masterpieces by hand, in a binder, to an agent or publisher who has been eagerly anticipating their completion. Then, as I await the royalties and reviews, and movie offers from small, independent production companies, I will return to my trailer, pour a half-tumbler of Woodford Reserve, sit in my plaid folding chair and watch the sun set over the river while listening to Bill Evans play “If You Could See Me Now.”

Then I’ll raise my glass to Richard Ford.