July 30, 2014

Still Pecking After All These Years

You'll remember (I know that you will) a recent post, part of which, perhaps the point of which, was this, from S. Marche: "Persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity." There was more, but you get the idea, though Marche, in sum, was basically endorsing that "persistence," that internal--I believe inherent--drive to write.

I should know. I have been on a long--some of you might say "unexpected"--journey, the trip led by that drive to write. While I cannot own up to a really regular, a quotidian sort of "persistence," as in writing every morning day in and day out, I can say I've come fairly close to that, most of it in the line of duty, as in a job, yet because that meant writing, my job rarely seemed like work.

From very early in my life, many of my memories are inspired by scenes very clear in my mind of me, writing, and of others--parents, friends and relatives of parents--aiding me in some way in that pursuit. I mean, as a child, crouched on a linoleum kitchen floor in Abernathy, Texas, trying to put together something resembling the look of a newspaper with those little rubber stamp and ink sets someone had given me. Every now and then, a yellowed example of that nascent journalism crops up in a box somewhere. (Spare me, please, the association of "yellow" with "journalism." I've heard it already.)

And stories--"Johnny Mack Brown stood in the middle of Main Street, both guns blazing..."--stories I could not help but try to write. I once told a friend at a kind of retreat in the mountains outside Taos that I could hardly stand to have a ream of pristine typing paper close at-hand, that, if and when such a ream showed up, I could not avoid putting at least one word--a single mark, even--on the pages, sheet after sheet. I still hunger for reams of paper; around me now, scraps of paper are everywhere.

I was six years-old, living in Lubbock (yes, Lubbock! the "Hub of the Plains"), my father a carpenter on some construction job there--a new hospital, as I recall--my mother, driving the 18 miles north and back south each day, teaching school in Abernathy where, the next year, she and I moved so I could start first grade; my father and younger brother moved, too, to a little dryland cotton farm outside Lorenzo my father rented to try his hand at farming--again (you could look it up; it may still exist on some ancient Kit Carson map in the dusty storage room of an abandoned museum out there). That unwieldy, not to mention unprofitable, arrangement lasted just a year, then we all moved to Abernathy, where we stayed, it becoming my father's place to make the drive south five days a week for the privilege of driving nails. I was six years old, in the thrilling midst of being able to read and write--pre-Abernathy, pre-first grade, still on Third Street in Lubbock--and entering and winning a poetry contest sponsored by Coca Cola (the requirements had to do with length, or lack of length, and, of course, the subject was to be Coca Cola). And here and now (and one must presume always) I can recite that poem without hesitation: "When a ballplayer runs to first, he needs something to quench his thirst. Coca Cola is what he'll need. It gives him that extra burst of speed." You may have seen it in The New Yorker. And the four of us at the dinner table that evening and the knock on the door--a guy in a crisp Coca Cola uniform delivering my--YES!--my first-place prize: one of those red, metal ice chests with "Coca Cola" written in script on the side, and a case of Coke--those small (were they six-ounce?) bottles. Man! I was off to the races, albeit in the tortoise lane.

Here it is, 65 years later--NO! Say it ain't so. Yes, it's so--a quarter to three in the morning, and I'm still pecking away. I can't say I've won any more contests, or, even, that I've entered any. But by God I'm about to. I've still got a peck or two left in me. No, I can't remember the last sip of Coke I had. Fair enough, for neither can I remember running with any speed, though I might still pick up the pace if I had to, in the World Series, say, the game on the line, depending on my beating the shortstop's throw to first.

In a new edition of his letters (17 volumes are planned, and this first one is over 500 pages), Hemingway said: "Writing is the only thing worth a damn, unless you're a painter. Then it's painting." That letter was written in 1925. Papa was 26 years old. He wrote all his life long, until he just couldn't write anymore.

July 28, 2014


Feeling the firm click of the safely clasp on the string of pearls I hang around my neck, I pause and  touch them with my wide opened palm.  I rub gently over my collarbone, noticing each pearl, and I journey within.  They were Mother's, a very long strand of fine large pearls that she wore wound around her neck twice or in a cluster or using different clasps for arrangements.  And then she couldn't do it anymore.

Molly and I decided to have them made into two strings, one for each of us.  I had just arrived late the night before in Corpus to find them laying on my bed from my sister.

I came early to Corpus for there was a funeral of a 24 year old son, boy, brother, cousin and friend found dead in his bed on Tuesday.  I was going to my family.  And with the pearls, I was taking Mama and Molly, who is in India.

My Daddy's beautiful smile full of love and happiness had not greeted me the night before as I got off the plane.  I took a cab.  I looked at the bay and the streets of my childhood and let myself into Molly's dark home alone with my thoughts.

The beginning of my drive from Corpus to Houston early the next morning was along the meandering and sweltering Southwest Texas single-lane farm road and waterway that I remembered.  It was unchanged, calm and wonderful, simple, small and quiet.   Soon, I was in full driving alert at 85 MPH through those fast paced freeways and overpasses in a huge sprawling city where I had been forewarned that the people are crazed in their panic and driving.

At the funeral home, my cousin's husband sobbed in my strong arms, and then my cousin, and each cousin, spouse and each child.  The service words were perfect, although there really are no words.  The tears and running noses was a steady hum - a beautiful young man/boy who is not coming back.

It is Family.  It is Love.

My friend, who lost her Billy last December, today sent a link to the NPR  story, "Always Go to the Funeral."  NPR STORY
After the link, she wrote, "I'll never forget.  Your faces."

And so it goes.   I will stay in Corpus for awhile and see Mama every day and maybe bring her over for some dinners.  We will see how we do.

Yesterday, with Mama at her lovely Memory Care where I so hope she can stay until she dies:
Mama, "You look just like Susan!"
Me, "I am Susan."
Mama, "You are Susan???"
Me, "Yes, I am Susan."
Mama, "But you look like My Susan."
Me, "I am Your Susan."
Mama, "You're My Susan?"
Me, :"Yes, I am Your Susan."

She was sweet and funny and we laughed and laughed and talked gibberish for 2 1/2 hours.

My childhood friend since birth is coming from Houston and we are going to Rockport for a few days of walking and talking along the water.  My friend, Caroll, from San Antonio, is coming to see her mother, who lives in the same facility as mine.  I may even reach out to others - friends of mine and also visit friends of Mama's.

Time will speed on by as always.


July 27, 2014

The Writing -- uh -- life?

"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment." -- Harte Crane.

Makes sense, a good vocabulary does. Like a magician, practicing the same trick 1,000 times so that he cannot fail on Saturday night in front of an audience, having the right word at the right time, just BAM! naturally, would be a welcome bonus to the usual -- being able to speak with something approaching decent grammar and meaning. And Crane was "drenched," "soaked." He stepped off the back of a boat and drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico after being beaten for making sexual advances to a male crew member aboard the Ozibal, coming back to New York, following a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico. He was heard to shout "Goodbye, everybody!" It was sort of a friendly departure.

But that's neither here nor there, one must imagine, for what else can "one" do, but jump? Did the young poet (he was 33 years old) just have a bad night? Was he drunk--he was an alcoholic, true--stoned, just tired? I don't know. I can imagine a time that just will not pass like Time has always passed--before. What else is there to do? It's, well, it's time. (Crane's body, BTW--there I go again--was never recovered, and a line on his father's tombstone includes the inscription, "Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 lost at sea.")

Writing is a hard business, though not nearly as hard as picking cotton, digging ditches, standing behind the counter all day in a bank, selling whatever door-to-door. In that list, writing comes out in first place, doesn't it?

I read a piece by Stephen Marche, a contriuting editor at Esquire and the author of "How Shakespeare Changed Everything," in which I saw several accounts of "failed" writers. Herman Mellville had early success with novels considered now to be (Marche writes) "lousy," only to fall completely out of favor when he finally found his speed--as in, "Moby-Dick." "Moby-Dick"? It sold less than 4,000 copies in his lifetime, and Mellville, Marche writes, "worked 19 gloomy years at the New York Customs House, self-publishing occasional poetry in batches of 25 copies. He ended up as a ziner, with `Billy Budd' unpublished in his drawer."

"Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Another "failed" poet, Thomas Gray, wrote that line, and it seems to hit the mark. That is, how many great deeds, great thoughts, go unnoticed, just because? If a tree falls in the forest...

Ezra Pound, Marche recalls, "whose name was synonymous with literary success for decades," did not wind up on top of the heap. Captured--as in, no kidding, captured--as a fascist sympathizer at the end of WWII, Pound was locked in a mental hospital for 13 years. At the end of his life, he told the poet Allen Ginsberg that he "found out after 70 years I was not a lunatic but a moron." Me? I've been fortunate. I found out in plenty of time to not do anything about it. Moronosophy, my field of expertise.

And writing is an all-around tough gig. For another instance, it's hard to get the speech right, the language, the--again--the words.

"Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars." So wrote Flaubert. How could he complain, worry? Dancing bears? Cracked kettles? Somehow, he came up with "Madam Bovary." Is it my turn yet?

No? Well, all right. I can persist. Can't I?

Maybe, but as I told a good friend of mine today, after he, an organ-builder of the first rank, told me a story about a wonderfully talented small-town Texas organist, who said that he never left a performance feeling anything other than bad, a failure, as though he'd loused up the whole program. Still, he played on--Riverside Church in Manhattan, Radio City Music Hall--and felt every time that he'd flunked the test, made a fool of himself.

That persistence is what I admire most--not talent or fame, but the persistence so many successful people regularly display. They stick to it, brother. They do not quit. They refuse to say "uncle," and keep on trucking.

Marche on that subject: "Persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. To keep bellying up to the cosmic irrelevance. To keep failing."

I'm a slacker, and I'm ashamed to admit it, but at least I'm honest. That must change--slacking, not the other.

July 22, 2014

Money! How Much is Too Much? Etc.?

There is a new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis, who catches our fearful approach to our (we feel) precarious financial situation with the stock market, following his best-sellers, Moneyball, about Billy Beane, who with less backing than other teams formed the Oakland Athletics into a sort of powerhouse, and after that, The Big Short, in which Lewis's heroes were short sellers who realized before anyone else that the housing "boom" was nothing more than a giant bubble waiting to pop. And it did...pop. And Lewis is a powerhouse.

In Flash Boys, he deals with high-frequency trading on the stock market. High-frequency traders (all this is from The New York Review of Books) buy and sell in large volumes and at an extraordinarily fast pace, trading thousands of times a SECOND. Their trading is entirely automated--MACHINES do all the trading. No one hits a key. No one has to sit at the computer. It's on its own. Yeah? Yeah. In 2009, a report estimated that high-frequency trading accounted for an estimated 70 percent of all the trading in US stocks--the whole deal is computers trying to out-smart one another.

Now, you and I work and save and now and then when we have a few bucks put back we might try to buy a little house and rent it out, try to start gathering rosebuds while we may--rainy days are on the way. We might even--brave souls wishing for just a taste of the sweet honey we KNOW everyone else is getting--start putting money into the stock market. I don't know, maybe through some financial advisor who has not a clue about how to change a flat tire or drive a nail, or a friend of a friend who has a cousin who is a stock broker and...there goes our savings. We may win, we may lose, but the thing is, we don't have the faintest idea how either happened. Isn't that a funny way to treat our "savings?"

Do you agree that, as the reviewer of Lewis's book, James Surowiecki, writes, "The idea that every day, investing decisions worth many billions of dollars are being made entirely by machines is, even to some on Wall Street, disconcerting. But Lewis is arguing that high-frequency trading is more than just risky. He says it's a form of legalized theft."

Is high-frequency trading a "curse on the market," as Surowiecki says readers of the book might come away thinking? Well, first, he posits the question thus: "While it's easy to dismiss them as scammers, it's also true that they are, in their way, amazingly skilled at what they do" (which is, basically, spend untold amounts of money to pay computer wizards to build programs that will allow them to trade faster than the next high-frequency trader). Surowiecki wonders, then, "why, really, should we begrudge them their profits and make it harder for them to make a living?"

According to Lewis, HFT is wrong, because it is a bad thing for the market to appear to the masses to be "rigged" and for investors to feel like they're being ripped off. I mean, DUH! HFT makes the whole system less stable, more risky. DUH! As in, a recent study finds that 60-70 percent of all price movements in commodity markets had nothing to do with anything that happened in the outside world. They were solely the result of traders (or, more often, computers) reacting to internal action in the market.

And when trading is automated, there is no way for humans to adequately supervise it. "High-frequency trading really does look like an arms race, one that's consuming enormous resources without actually generating any real social value, and doing damage to the market in the process...the real lesson: speed kills."

We just see (or hear) that the market is going up and up and we think, what a fool I am. I got to get my ass on board, or...or, or what? I don't know. Me? I've tried it, lost in it, and am very nearly about to do it again. It's just my good fortune, I guess, that I don't have any "extra" money to throw away on computers, reacting to market conditions like hummingbirds do to honeysuckle. But I have to do something. Everyone else is way up there ahead.

Want to bet fifty bucks the Cowboys don't do any better than .500?

July 20, 2014

The News

Headlines: Deadliest Day in Gaza...Russian Separatists Blamed for Downing Jet...Berlusconi Acquitted on Sex Charges...Another NFL Star Charged with Domestic Abuse...So Forth and So On

Gee! Bleak. Remember the good old days? Pat Boone? LSMFT? Pillow Talk?

How about: "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist." Jackie Kennedy (according to a new book about how the Civil Rights Bill came to be). In other words, Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker, "John Kennedy was not a martyr for civil rights, but his death aided the cause."Splitting hairs? Come on, Louis.

It is interesting, the longer we live, to find out little things we never knew, don't you think? Deep research by smart people with soft hands working on generous grants find that, oh, Lyndon Johnson "stole" the election for UT student body president, or, oh, this or that--stuff we did not know and may not even believe, and, hey, for good reason. Why SHOULD we believe, when even our textbooks are the products of politics?

Forgive me that pitiful schoolboy digression. I am, in fact, an iredeemable optimist. I am here to report that...

Friends recently attended a reading and appearance by the former Colorado senator and--many feel--ALMOST president Gary Hart ("monkey business" remember?) in Durango. They, as it happened (oh, how quickly we forget), were two of maybe half a dozen who were there, so Hart just said, hey, let's sit down and shoot the breeze, and they did. He's 77 now, still looks good, is still married to the same woman he mistreated back in the day, and is writing novels, among, I think, other things. One of his favorite topics, there that night in Durango, was the Kennedy assassination, about which he has, yes, written a book. "A conspiracy, no doubt about it, the Mob," he said, in Durango. I am one of the millions who is a fringe assassination conspiracy buff, for what it's worth--not much, and even that much is too much.

That, though, is not my point tonight. Whether JFK was the victim of a mob-run conspiracy or not, well, the jury will likely always be out. The point is that conspiracies do exist, and many times it's good that they do.

Martin Luther King, for example, called the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 "the child of a storm," meaning that, by 1964, the movement for civil rights was in the streets. That is, the long legal maneuverings of Thurgood Marshall and the N.A.A.C.P. "to clear a jurisprudential path to (Brown vs. the Board of Education)," Menand writes, was trampled by the onslaught of the King-led movement, which was based largely on Scripture and putting bodies in the way of billy clubs, fire hoses, and, even, bullets. King knew that the bodies, not constitutional law, would get Kennedy's attention.

Think back: In '60, JFK vs. Nixon, the most admired African-American in the country, Jackie Robinson, campaigning for Nixon, who was--YES--to the left of JFK on the issue of racial equality. But because of conspiratorial behind-the-scenes (where else?) machinations led by RFK, among others, JFK wound up with 70 percent of the black vote.

But we were not, at that point, 1960, focused on civil rights, but STILL on the Cold War. But Alabama, bless its racist, ignorant heart, changed the world: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" We owe civil rights legislation--so early--to the moron George Wallace, 1963, in his inaugural address as governor. Fire hoses, bad dogs, Bull Connor--pictures sent around the world, and JFK saw them.

So, JFK and LBJ are given the credit, and most of it well-deserved, but we do not know--or I did not know--that Harry Truman had made the same speeches in 1947, without effect, though he was able to end racial segregation in the armed forces by executive order, in '48.

The story goes on: Kennedy makes his "blacks have rights, too" speech on TV and, in Jackson, MS (should such a place be allowed to exist?) following the speech, Medgar Evers, the N.A.A.C.P.'s field secretary for the state, was shot to death by KKK ignoramus Byron De La Beckwith, and Evers's wife and three little children, who had stayed up to watch Kennedy's speech, saw their husband and father die.

A SINGLE WEEK LATER, June 19, Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery (all right, JFK!) and THAT SAME DAY the White House sent a civil rights bill to Congress.

Okay, okay, and so it went, and still goes, on. Civil Rights. Say what? Unlikely, but still...

Who made what should be and should always have been and almost is possible? JFK? LBJ? MLK? LHO? Who? A conspiracy? We need more of 'em.

LHO? Hmmm?

July 18, 2014

I'm Back and I'm...thinking about 19th century stuff

After a couple wonderful days and nights on the Rio Grande outside Creede, a little (200 pop.) mining town over Slumgullion Pass from Lake City, and following being blown away--again--by the young thespians at the Creede Rep's productions of The Liar and Annie Get Your Gun (next year will be the theater's 50th anniversary, and you'll never believe it till you see it), I'm back, wondering if "we" in this day and age are anywhere near matching the 19th century's literary output--lasting literary output.

I suppose I've been thinking of that subject because I'm reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, almost 800 pages of splendor--after you wade through the first 100 or so pages of what appears to be confusing silliness. Then--suddenly, part-way through brother Ivan's long, long "poem" about heaven, hell, faith, you cannot help but realize that you are in the presence of awesomeness. And, following Ivan's lengthy soliloquy (basically, though Alexi is sitting there, saying, "uh, yes, but..." now and then) with Elder Zosima's "dying" remarks about his life and "what IT all means," well, I suppose, yes, that's when I thought of "our" literary pantheon and came up with, as I always do, the mid- and late-19th century.

While Dostoevsky published Brothers in 12 magazine installments in 1880, after Tolstoy had come out with Anna Karenina three years before, around 20 years after Hugo's Les Miserable, I was also familiar with some of our own publishing prowess of that time: Thoreau published Walden in 1854, three years after Mellville's Moby Dick and just shortly before Whitman's Leaves of Grass made its first appearance (1855, and I say "first appearance," because Whitman wrote, rewrote and revised Leaves the rest of his life; it went from 12 to 400 poems). And, of course, Twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1885, the same year Victor Hugo died (a great man, not only of Letters but of all things France--politics, rebellion). Imagine the more than 1 million mourners, following Hugo's funeral carriage through Paris, sneaking glances at the recently available Huckleberry Finn as they walked along.

And 1885 was followed by Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886. That's a book--a short book--I've read several times, and just now, well, as soon as I finish Brothers, I think I'll read Ivan Ilyich again.

But soon enough, these great MEN came crashing down, brought to their ends by life, as it seems so often to happen. Thoreau cashed in in 1862,  Hugo 1885 (83 years old), Mellville 1891, Whitman on Mellville's heels, 1892. Nineteen ten was a bad year: Twain and Tolstoy, bam! bam! (Pretty interesting, though, huh? These two giants lived into the 20th century! Almost long enough to rub shoulders with Harold Robbins.)

And then there is--was--the great Dostoevsky. I've written before, about the precious memory I have of the time spent in a rather bleak period for me, with Crime and Punishment (1866), another book I've read three or four times. Dostoevsky, of all these writers, was, to me, the most memorable and vital and tragic and brave and resilient, even though he was just 60 when he died. (Thoreau's life was the shortest. He lived to be only 45, dying just after the start of our Civil War.) Dostoevsky, at age 25 or so, was convicted of behavior detrimental to the STATE and sentenced to death, along with a few others. The Tsar commuted the sentence just as the rifles were being raised to the shoulders of the men on the firing squad. Dostoevsky spent four years at hard labor in Siberian gulags instead. He suffered from epilepsy from that time on, and ultimately died of complications thereof.

A great time, the mid-19th century. There was a lot more to it, of course, but these are, to me, highlights I've long been aware of. Gives a guy something to shoot for.

July 14, 2014

Outta touch for a couple of days

We'll be out of touch for a couple of days, beginning tomorrow afternoon, though I'll do my best to keep tabs, or have you keep tabs on me; it's hard on you otherwise, I know. We'll be down on the Rio Grande southwest of Creede, camping for two nights with old Telluride friends, and seeing two plays at the Creede Rep, a truly Broadway-caliber theater group. In fact, Broadway actors and stage people show up there every summer, so it's the real deal. We've been going for several years, and it's fun. It's a beautiful camp spot and Creede is a cool little town--an old mining town, the end of the road, and 9000 feet, maybe a little bit more than that. It's still tough in winter, though there are hardy year-rounders there. We're used to it, of course. Telluride, too, Crested Butte, other old mining towns were end-of-the-road rough spots. Go there, and try to imagine what it would have been like, living year-round, clinging to the side of a 14,000-foot mountain, trying to mine gold, raise a family, and stay drunk. Do that, then you'll understand why gold is so valuable.

Little towns. As you know, our daughter and fine son-in-law are driving cross-country to a new job and life in New England. They've been camping along the way, with the dog. I've tried to follow them on the Atlas. Yesterday, tracing with my shaky finger across South Dakota and into northern Iowa, I found "the highest peak in South Dakota (almost 8,000 feet, as I recall)" the name of the nearby town? St. Onge. The St. Onges are very dear friends of ours in Telluride. A few inches farther and I came across Sibley, then, smiling, because one of my best friends here in Gunnison is named Sibley, I also saw, an inch to the west, the tiny town George. Now, get this: my good friend's name is George Sibley! Pretty weird? Good thing they don't make 'em weird enough to suit me.

The little heiress texted today, telling me that "it's fun, but insane, all this driving; it's fun, but we'll never do it again." Forty-five hours in a Honda Fit--great car, but small, as in little bitty. I know there are highlights along the way, though. I warned them to stay away from Wounded Knee: bad juju. And I asked for photos of fracking activity, but haven't seen anything from them yet. I think they'll stop in Indiana tonight, then muster out in the a.m. for Chicago, where they have friends. I was in Chicago for about two days and nights once; drove from Texas with friends to see friends, playing basketball all along the way in high school gyms. It was a great trip. I went to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play--Nellie Fox, Aparicio. In '59, wasn't it?, they had played in the World Series; might have won, but I don't think so. My trip there would have been about '64 or '65. The Windy City, for good reason, I imagine.

And I'll let you know that we finally saw a movie here; they play the absolute worst junk, always, both up in Crested Butte and down here, too; same people run both theaters. You'd think...But, nah, nothing but Transformers this and Hercules that. We saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I've liked those pictures; seen them all, I think. I liked this one, too, except it finally went the way of all things Hollywood, disintegrating into ear-splitting mayhem, guns and tanks and all-out war. Otherwise, it was pretty good, really. But if the previews turn out to be prescient, we're in for another long, dry spell.

How dry? We might even get to see Adam Sandler's Grown Ups 2, in which (I read) a frightened deer urinates on Sandler's face. (Anthony Lane in The New Yorker: "In the animal's defense, one could argue that it was merely taking movie criticism to a higher and more clareifying level.")

See you Friday, give or take. See how you do, going cold turkey, you-all.