Saturday, October 13, 2007

Writing and Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Allow me to tell you a story. Somewhere around 18 years ago, I answered the phone in the house in Mill Valley where I was staying at the time. The owner of the house was a writer of mystery stories, and she had fallen in love with a Norwegian sailor and was spending some time over in Norway with him.

I was a newly separated, married man in his early 40's, part of a sort of underground network of men taken care of by an underground group of women. Other men much like me occupied the other rooms on her property.

We rarely asked each other many questions, and we pretended not to notice when our various girlfriends showed up to spend the night. It was a bachelor pad, more or less, except for the female cat who used to love to position herself in the bathtub, sucking each drop of water as it slowly emerged courtesy of what must have been an eroded washer.

My latest roommate in this house happened to be a U.S. Senator. He was a courtly fellow, not here to see a lover but here to try and fix his back. He was visiting the same sports doctor who had recently saved the career of the legendary football player, Joe Montana.

For whatever reason, this powerful politician didn't want anyone to know he was undergoing treatment for his back problem. We became temporary buddies of a sort, mainly because we both liked books. He was interested in the ones I had written (he had an environmentalist streak) and we shared a deep interest in the novels of Faulkner, one of the most difficult of all American writers.

As a Southerner, my housemate quite naturally appreciated Faulkner. Finding out that I, an intellectual from Michigan, also did must have come as something of a shock to him. Anyway, he invited me to start going out with him to local bars, which I was not averse to, though at the time, I was trying to avoid self-medication, since I was trying to pursue some serious therapy and understand what the hell was happening to me in what apparently was an explosive midlife crisis. Therefore, when I went with him, I ordered bubbly water, instead of alcohol.

(Note: I did not succeed in figuring this mystery out then, nor have I since.)

Well, back to that phone call. The caller was Senator George Mitchell, (D-Maine), who at that point was the majority's head of the U.S. Senate. He was seeking my housemate, but I didn't know which bar my Southern friend might then be visiting, so I just took a message.

"George Mitchell called. Call him back."

Such is the rhythm of life. Live long enough and you gain these memories. I was reminded of that old phone call tonight as I read that the very same, now-retired Ex-Sen. Mitchell, is apparently prepared to issue his report on steroids in baseball.

That is something that you, dear reader, understand is of more than passing interest to me.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Time Slides

Rainy Day

While mentioning that I wake up at six a.m. sharp almost every morning, without benefit of alarm clock or any other technology, I neglected to continue developing that line of thought as sufficiently as I'd originally intended to.

About six months ago, my wrist watch band broke. What has become gradually apparent to me over that time is that I don't really need a weather vane to know which way the wind blows. Or, rather, I no longer seem to need a clock to tell what time it is.

I wonder how this happened?

Thinking back, way back, I remember fishing in Michigan's lakes with my father. He often liked to figure out what time it was by gauging the position of the sun overhead. Similarly, to test the wind direction, he'd wet his finger and hold it up in the air.

I'm not sure whether he routinely left his watch behind when we went fishing, but we often seemed to be basing our fishing time on the skies overhead. It's possible that I started gaining this weird sense of time back then, I just don't know.

In any event, it seems like throughout the day I somehow can locate the local time with a few minutes, when asked. Eerily, I often can get time right to the minute!

I certainly hope none of this sounds like bragging; if anything, I mean this as an embarassing confession and it kind of weirds me out, to be honest. Anyone out there have a similar "ability?"

My dark suspicion is I have spent too many years working inside organizations where time really was held to matter. The last place I worked, for example, virtually every meeting lasted exactly one hour. At first, this struck me as an extremely strange aspect of the place.

Over time, however, I began to appreciate the predictability of this scheme. Being an exceptionally punctual person (except when I'm not), I was almost always on time, or even early, for these company meetings.

Having meetings is what companies do, as we all know. Now that I am a consultant, clients will always be asking me to estimate the time it will take me to deliver whatever goods they desire. Unfortunately, my innate or learned skill at telling what time it is right now does not seem to extend into the future, i.e., I cannot easily say what time I will start or stop writing any particular piece of copy.

As a lifelong writer, I've developed an instinct. If I sit down and stare at a blank screen (or piece of paper), and no words come to me, it means I'm not ready yet. This is a very important lesson to convey to writing students, because they often mistake the state for "writer's block."

But the truth is we are not blocked, we're still in the "pre-writing" state. In my case, I've gotten the assignment, I know my deadline, and my mind is working on it. Ideas are turning around in my mind, much as laundry swirls in one of those dryers with transparent doors.

Maybe someday, neurologists will achieve transparency into our working brains. Maybe my son Peter will do that. If and when that time comes, I predict that a scientist monitoring a writer's mind before she starts to write will detect synaptic firings very similar to those that occur when her fingers start tapping the keyboard.

Now, more than four decades into a career of writing and editing, I have come to love the pre-writing moments. It is like sweet anticipation of any kind -- eating a good meal, tasting a good drink, making love, emerging from an overgrown forest trail to that point where you first glimpse the blue lake below that is your ultimate destination.

No, there is no way describe time other than it slides. It can slow, tick by tick, when you are waiting for someone to call or for your name to be called, whereupon you enter the stage to perform. It can race like a wild river when you are swept from place to place on a book tour; or just having fun with your new lover.

Sliding time. That's my description.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Home & Office

One thing about my new commute, from the bedroom to my living room, it doesn't allow me as much time to think on my way to work.

On the other hand, I arrive at my office before 6:01 a.m. Since I always awake precisely at 6 a.m., whether or not I have a job to go to, this may qualify as one of the shortest commute times in all the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.

I usually check my overnight email, which (to me) is a glorious aspect of life in the Digital Age. It still feels like magic to me, this wonderful connectivity. Most of us can remember when it took days or weeks to exchange correspondence with family and friends.

Now, it is instantaneous. Usually, I have a few messages from my various family members and few more from friends. I also have the usual array of "deals" from various airlines and retailers whose services I may have engaged in the past. These, I quickly delete, or mark as Spam.

Then, there are the feeds from some of my favorite web-based news and information services. While, I am going through all of this, I usually drink a cup of black tea and eat two pieces of wheat toast.

Sometimes I add a fruit spread to my toast, sometimes not.

Once the email boxes are cleared, I either get dressed or put on my robe to go out front to gather my newspapers. I don't think it is polite for an old guy to go outside in his boxers for this purpose, sorry.

Lately, I have decided to join all of my sons and switch entirely to boxers from briefs. This may well not be of interest to you, dear reader, but in my current state, this represents a change of major proportions.

Ever since I was laid off, ~ a month ago, the urge to change things has swelled within my breast. I am probably in rebellion against the American Salaryman lifestyle I often described earlier in this modest blog's brief history.

Only those blogs posted since 09.10.07 have been written by an unemployed person. What an auspicious firing date. My first day of work two years earlier had been 09.12.05. Notice how these two dates, one a beginning, the other an ending, neatly bracket the date 9/11, which for Americans seems to be the date of ultimate trauma.

My buddy Susan Faludi has written what appears to be another excellent and timely book about the gender-based cowboy foreign policy that the Bushies (with their token black lesbian Condi) executed in Iraq, to the great horror of almost all the rest of us.

One thing about investigative reporters, we always carry around a lot of secrets, which makes us a serious liability in some senses. Of course, I know a lot about a certain senior Bush Administration figure due to my years spent on a certain university faculty as a visiting professor. Not only do I know she is a lesbian; I know a much deeper secret -- her (very short) marriage to a man!

If you stop and take a deep breath, you might be amazed at what you are reading here on this obscure, seldom-viewed blog by an aging writer, currently unemployed, who commutes from his bedroom to his living room every morning, and is too modest to go outside for his papers in his boxers, even though nobody is ever around at that hour.

We all have to have our standards, after all!

One of our favorite friends in my household is Oliver. He is a lovely cat from the neighborhood, and clearly well cared for. But cats are like well-loved spouses sometimes; they wander off to somebody else's arms. Whenever I meet a sweet animal like Oliver, I cannot help but feel compassion for married people who cheat.

After all, we all only are human. We get attracted to new people from time to time.

One thing we never do is feed Oliver, although last night he begged for the chicken I was barbecuing. His owner cares for him very well. Which is another way of saying: Don't date married people!

Not that anyone is asking my opinion. But losing my job has unleashed a spirit of freedom deep within me not unlike the painful breakups of my past. Once you are free of your past commitment, you never know who or what may come around the next corner.

A beautiful new lover or a lovely new job.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Gum Rack.1

We now have a gum rack. (Click to make it bigger.) It's one of those old-fashioned things that used to be in your corner store, you know? Since I found this one, abandoned along 20th street, I have been experimenting with how to use it. I'm thinking it might make a good plant holder on my back porch.

Last night, we made this dinner -- salmon, broiled with sliced yellow onions on top; pasta with many spices; and baby artichokes boiled until they are soft enough that you can suck out their interiors without even bothering to peel away the leaves.

For appetizers, we ate seaweed, which Junko claims is turning my hair black -- back to how it used to be.

Today I took her to Costco. She'd heard of it, from other Japanese, but the actual experience freaked her out. She kept saying that she felt "overwhelmed" and "dizzy."

Here in the center of capitalistic excess, her reaction was an honest one, that of a human being unaccustomed to the food orgy many Americans feel so entitled to. Japanese men and women remain small, slender, and youthful-looking in ways almost unimaginable in America.

Meanwhile, we all become more obese.

Why? Stay tuned. We'll be having much more to say about this subject in the future...You heard it here first -- a new book will be emerging.


Doggie Style

Now for something completely different. I just love this little guy's expression. He is called hunpingu doggu in Japanese, which is where this particular guy, who I call Humper, came from -- Japan, that is.

You just plug him into your USB port and pull back his back legs and he goes into action. He never gets tired. Maybe the next time you really get bored at work, you could borrow Humper from me and entertain your colleagues.

I do loan Humper out to my friends. He's quite social, and he very much enjoys getting inserted into a fresh, new USB slot. So, keep him in mind if you need a little action, or perhaps a little distraction.

Meanwhile, click and play.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Brothers & Sisters in the Rain

A thick gray carpet of rain-bearing clouds moved in over this city today, yet so far no rain has fallen. I keep waiting, anticipating, hoping. Since as far back as I can remember, rain for me is intimately connected with reading.

One vivid memory is when I was a teenager, on a camping trip in Canada (where I saw my first moose), and one day a heavy rainstorm drove me into the car, where I consumed Joseph Heller's brilliant Catch 22, a bible for my generation if there ever was one.

As recently as last Thursday, up at Farm School, a brief rain shower sent me scurrying into my one-man tent with Haruki Murakami's magnificent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as my companion.

Together, Murakami and I huddled safe and dry, listening as the raindrops bounced off our rain flap. The sounds was different but similar to that of the Canadian rain bouncing off that car so long ago, as Heller and I stayed safely out of an unwanted wetness.

It is eerie when one finds a writer who feels like your brother. This is how Murakami feels to me, much as Heller did long ago.

They are the brothers I never had, spirits so similar in sensitivity and humor, so visually acute and so aware of the insanity of it all that I feel related to them.

After all, the writer walks alone. She meets her spiritual partner through the words they exchange. Bodily fluids mixed in love-making are sweet like honey; words exchanged in love are like honeybees. They gather, they sting, they create life, and you are left with an ineffable buzzing forever in your most delicate inner ear.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Farm School, Part 3

All good things, as we all know, must come to an end.

These images capture the final hours of Farm School last Thursday night and Friday morning.

The bittersweet feeling of a last moment is so familiar to me that I can feel it in my stomach, the place where loss always resonates.

More times than I care to remember, the parting moment arrived and had its way with me. In my childhood, it happened at Ludington and at Rolling Hills. Everybody else had left but we still were there.

My Dad usually was fishing. I was playing along the shore -- of a river, a lake, or (later on) the ocean. In my mind, a fantasy world emerged at these moments.

Sometimes, it was a counting world. I would gauge the waves as they broke over rocks, assigning them numbers.

Sometimes it was nothing more, or less, than a feeling -- that feeling that another ending has come. Somehow, as a child, I never saw a future, only the closing of a special past.

Hopefully, I'm better than that now, but then again, I'm not quite sure.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Farm School, Part 2

Of course, besides all the growing plants at Farm School, there are the growing children. This past week's group included 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

Unless your memory is much better than mine, by my age it is hard to recall the differences between those three school years, but they are massive. Between the ages of 11 and 14, children start becoming young adults, and the process is scary and lovely to behold.

One of the very best aspects of Synergy Farm School is that everyone who attends (including parents, teachers and the kids) is encouraged during a closing ceremony to describe what they learned about themselves by spending this extraordinary week in the country.

Since 95% or more of the people in attendance are city-bred, many of the lessons are environmental in nature. My 11-year-old Dylan, for example, said he learned during the "night hike" that he doesn't have to be afraid of the dark, or of being alone in the dark.
But a remarkable number of kids said they found out new things about their classmates, and they felt closer than ever before, even though many of these guys have been in the same classrooms for years.

That's how it is out in nature. We all discover new sides of ourselves.

When a friend of mine is depressed, for any number of reasons, I often advise her to take a long walk on the beach. There, you can once again regain that sense of how small and insignificant we and our problems are.

It doesn't have to be a beach. It can be a mountain trail, a desert path, the side of a river through the forest, or even a large urban park.
My theory, and experience, is based on the idea that we are, after all, animals. We need to feed our bodies more than food and drink. We need to allow them to stretch and walk, breathe in fresh air, and allow our ears to hear and our eyes to see.

The textures of life in the outdoors barely resemble that inside our houses and offices and gathering places.

In the outdoors, in nature, you can feel yourself reverting to an earlier state, a way of being that has become layered with confusion in our modern era, as we congregate in large urban centers, wear clothes that express our identity, and surround ourselves with the familiar cultural artifacts of our "civilized" lives.

Me, I far prefer to be free. Free as a bird. The first night at farm school, I walked back out to where my car was parked, to get a few items for my first night in my extremely small tent.

As I approached my car, quite a while after sunset, it was dark except for a slender slice of silver sky, illuminated by the moon and stars overhead.

Suddenly, from overhead, the silhouette of a hawk dove into view. What was striking were its claws, hanging low and empty, probably not for long.

I imagined the mouse in the field nearby, not yet aware of the predator headed its way.

Maybe I heard a death scream (more like a squeak) a moment later, or maybe I imagined that.

You know, I'm really not sure.

The difference between fantasy and reality out in nature is even more dramatic than in the city. As an animal, roaming free, I find myself extremely sensitive to form, color, structure, movement.

I can feel my heart beat and my salival glands excreting some sort of anticipatory chemical.

So, you may ask, what did I learn about myself at Farm School. The answer is not as much about learning new lessons as recovering old ones.

I have always been happiest when I have easy access to the out of doors. I think offices, bureaucracies, and jobs of most types often make me feel claustrophobic.

I want to be free, free as a bird.

If it turns out (to my surprise) that there is an afterlife, I'd love to come back as a bird. Imagine me, and my spirit, soaring high above, looking down on you not as food but with love and affection. Rather like an angel. Yes, that's it. I would like to be your angel.