Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A cutting wind off the Chesapeake

Felt like winter tonight, the hallucination helped considerably by a cold wind off the gorge. But I never felt a cold winter wind like the one that whipped off Chesapeake Bay when I lived on Maryland's Eastern Shore, on what is called the Delmarva Peninsula (because parts of it are in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), a flat narrow sandbar between the bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Once I walked out the dirt road from the farmhouse we rented to the mailbox, a quarter mile journey through a horizontal snow storm. I had a full beard at the time that reached my chest. When I returned with the mail, my wife ("Sally") took one look at me and screamed. Apparently along the way I had brushed some snow off my face -- but since the hairs on my beard had frozen, they snapped like icicles and I took the beard off half my face with the gesture! So much for my long beard.

What I consider my best talking blues from my folksinging days was written about my experiences on the Eastern Shore. I call it the West Meets East Talkin' Misery Blues. It ends this way:

But now I’ve seen everything there is
That Eastern Shore ended the list
That leaves only the grave to autograph
You can make this here my epitaph
It takes a cat to go to a garden … takes a dog to go to a tree … takes a seagull, flying o’er the Eastern Shore, to go to the likes of me

It doesn't get that cold here but it gets cold enough for me. It's not too bad when the wind isn't blowing, which it isn't most of the time. But tonight is a cold one for the little people out with their bags.

The Killer

One of my goals in taking piano lessons is to learn how to play (and sing, of course) a classic Jerry Lee Lewis song, like Whole Lotta Shakin' or High School Confidential. I can't think of a better swan song for an old guy than something by the Killer.

Jerry Lee Lewis has worn very well on me over the years. Not Elvis. I only liked the early Sun Elvis to begin with (Mystery Train etc) but I can't listen to him today. But of all the old rockers, Jerry Lee has risen to the top.

I didn't like Quaid's performance in the movie, though. I thought it was a caricature. It's a fine line: if you're going to go eccentric as an actor, you have to make sure you stay in the spirit of the character. For example, Jennifer Jason Leigh is very eccentric in her performance of Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (what a great title!) but she's so true to the character that she's brilliant. Quaid plays too much the clown for my tastes. I don't believe his performance. Leigh's performance left me shaking.

One of my favorite Lewis recordings is The London Sessions 1973.

Busy preparations

I'm impressed by how much work Harriet is doing in preparation for her opening Friday at the Janovec Gallery (SE Milwaukee and Holgate, 6-9 p.m.). Her studio, which we added to the house a couple years ago and which of course she's already outgrown, has turned into a wood shop as she builds frames and adds box thingies to put over some of the paintings. She's putting in hours and noisy hours at this. You don't get covered in sawdust being a writer.

Back from another mailing. Man, I've spent a fortune on postage this year.

Well, the artist is calling down that lunch is ready. Onward.

In the groove

Wrote a chapter on Sally this morning. Feel the rhythm and energy returning. Onward.

Reuben's Children

Accursed from their birth they be
Who seek to find monogamy,
Pursuing it from bed to bed--
I think they would be better dead.

Dorothy Parker

Muskrat Lovely

There's a new movie about a pageant on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that I remember well from my several years of living there in the 1970s. In Sally in the Blue Tent, I call the university where we were "Chesapeake College" and the entire second part of the novel takes place here. I'm glad to be reminded of this pageant, which involves a muskrat skinning contest, because this contest is right up there with the blue crab races for exotic competitions.

I fell in love with muskrats while living in Salisbury, Maryland. I had never had muskrat stew in my life but some locals introduced me to the dish. Muskrat, to my palette, tasted a bit like rabbit only wilder, and I ended up preferring using it in my own hasenpfeffer recipe than in the local stew. I bought my muskrats from a trapper at the local tavern. I haven't had muskrat since leaving but while living there, I had it several times a month.

The blue crab races take place in Crisfield, Maryland, at the annual National Hard Crab Derby. One event is the Governor's Cup race. After I'd left the shore (divorced again), an actor friend of mine, also from Oregon, phoned the governor of Oregon to get a Dungeness crab entered in the race. No interest. So my friend entered a blue crab in the governor's stead, the Oregon entry. Since he worked at a seafood restaurant, he'd put a local waterman on the lookout for the meanest blue crab he could find. My friend was confident the Oregon entry would do well.

And so he did! In fact, Oregon should have won the Governor's cup. As my friend described it in a letter, and as I wrote later in an article I wrote for Northwest Magazine, the Oregon crab took off at the start like a sprinter. (The crabs are dumped onto an incline, which is the track.) He sprinted to the edge of the track -- and stopped! About an inch from the finish line. And sat there. Then the big Alaska crab slithered by, and the mean Oregon crab attacked him. They wrestled for a bit, and then tumbled into the finishing trough. Since the Alaskan crab was on the bottom, he was declared the winner in a photo finish. Oregon got second but we thought he was the winner in spirit.

And this is an episode that must go in the novel, especially since it's a good setting for some more important psychological stuff going on in the story at this time.

A wonderful book about this area is
Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay

Halloween, 1964

I had wealthy, Republican in-laws during the time when I was an undergraduate at UCLA. I was an older student, returning after my Army obligation and in a hurry to get to grad school. I didn't get along with my in-laws much. They thought my participation in civil rights marches was quaint. They thought I was a bad influence on their daughter. I especially upset my mother-in-law at a Halloween party just before the Johnson-Goldwater election: she caught me in the kitchen, toasting the Democrats with the black help she'd hired to cater the party.

However, my in-laws were generous and gave great parties if you forgot about the plantation atmosphere. At Halloween they were especially generous with the costumed kids, giving each an individual polaroid. They took hundreds of polaroids during Halloween.

A Halloween controversy had dampened the enthusiasm of local residents in the expensive Sierra Madre neighborhood where my in-laws lived in a sprawling ranch-style home. Trucks of kids from poorer neighborhoods invaded the area! Given the better takings, why not? But suddenly this lily-white neighborhood was getting trick-or-treated by kids who weren't white -- and a lot of them. The neighborhood didn't feel safe and exclusive any more. I left town for grad school in Oregon before the Halloween issue was resolved and soon got divorced.

Johnson beat Goldwater, of course. On the campaign trail, the Texas senator boomed about how he'd never send American boys to fight an Asian war. Right. We got Goldwater in the end, just a dishonest version of him. So goes politics: you vote for someone and almost always get someone else.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Muse writes

I also received a letter today from the muse of the sonnets. We check in from time to time. She habitually lives a hand-to-mouth existence with odd jobs from a work placement center and a car she has to hot wire to start ... sexy perhaps for a younger bohemian but not when you're pushing retirement age. Her joy are her three sons, and the eldest, who lives in Bali, is due to visit soon, so she's walking on a breeze. The youngest is going to college in Seattle. The middle son is getting rich in New York. We probably should have lunch soon so we can check up.

A surprise contact brings to mind the amazing Victoria Woodhull

I heard today from Phyllis Kerns, a writer friend in Eugene whom I've known since she took a playwriting workshop of mine at Fishtrap some twenty years ago. She was "old" then; she must be in her 80s by now unless she was very prematurely gray back then. She amazed me because she'd been writing plays and screenplays for something like forty years and had never had a play produced. I'm happy to say that I was instrumental in getting a one-act of hers done in Portland, a wonderful comedy called "Cowboy of the Western World."

It was Phyllis who was working on a screenplay about the amazing Victoria Woodhull, the 19th century woman who ran for President, became (with her sister) the first female stock broker on Wall Street, a woman who addressed Congress, editor of the weekly paper that broke the sex scandal of the era (Rev. Beecher and a parishioner), mystical confidante and consultant to Vanderbilt, a story so amazing that it's even more amazing her story hasn't been told yet in a film. (The late journal Scenario published an unproduced screenplay that had been in development with Faye Dunaway in the lead, which is perfect casting.) She believed in Free Love and once in a speech said she had a right to have an orgasm with anyone she pleased. Pretty heavy stuff for the 1870s!

Here is her campaign song:

Victory for Victoria
The 1872 Campaign Song

If you nominate a woman
In the month of May,
Dare you face what Mrs. Grundy
And her set will say?
How they'll jeer and frown and slander
Chattering night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mrs. Grundy
In the month of May?

If you nominate a negro,
In the month of May
Dare you face what Mr. Grundy
And his chums will say?
How they’ll swear and drink and bluster,
Raging night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mr. Grundy
In the month of May?

Yes! Victoria we've selected
For our chosen head.
With Fred Douglass on the ticket
We will raise the dead.
Then around them let us rally
Without fear or dread
And next March, we'll put the Grundys
In their little bed.

A woman who believes in Free Love and a black man as her VP in 1872! Here is more info on this remarkable woman: Who is Victoria Woodhull? website.

Phyllis is an amazing lady in her own right. On the phone she sounded like she had all her wits about her. In fact, she wanted me to know that her son had just made a movie of a very old script of hers! She's sending me a DVD.

Phyllis has been writing a hell of a lot longer than I have, and sometimes it feels like I've been writing forever. She's an incredible woman.

Brand memories

Since our trip to LA to see Mahagonny will be spendy, I consider it my birthday and Xmas gifts for the next several years. This didn't stop Harriet from giving me a lot of little presents last week: a can of corned beef hash, a jar of pickled herring ... and a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. She doesn't appreciate the latter, preferring other brands, but she knows this is my favorite. It's probably my favorite because I grew up on it.

Our family started camping right after WWII, long before sleeping outdoors became fashionable. We didn't go to campgrounds or parks. We pulled off the side of the road, spread out the tarp, unrolled the sleeping bags and slept under the stars. We never had trouble. On the contrary, once or twice a week on our long cross-country drives (California to New Jersey and back again), a farmer's wife would come out to welcome us with a pie or freshly baked bread. We never felt in danger. It was a nicer country then, a nicer world.

We ate Dinty Moore Beef Stew for dinner practically every night. We loved it! We looked forward to it. It was a dinnertime ritual on the road.

A rush of these memories came when I opened my birthday can for lunch a moment ago. I can't think of camping without thinking of Dinty Moore.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying --
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Dorothy Parker

A dramatic appreciation of Dorothy Parker.

Northern Idaho

This is the first year in quite a while that we missed our annual trip to visit with Esther, Dick's mom, in the rest home in Orofino. The L.A. trip took our time and resources. A few weeks ago I did have a long telephone chat with her, and her mind is still sharp. She'd read Kerouac's Scroll, which brought back lots of memories of Dick, of course. We chatted about what a difficult book it was to write and read if you knew the origins of much of the narrative. Maybe next year we'll visit earlier than usual, during spring break if the weather's right. I hate to miss a trip, given her age. Each visit could be the last one.

Joe Bianco, publisher of the
I edited, never gives up. He still is creating marketing plans for the book. At least it's timeless. His latest strategy is to hit all the regional libraries (which I thought he should be doing from the beginning), and he's managed to get a special display of the book in the main library here during March. This is why I am a lousy publisher. I'd rather write books than market them. Marketing takes full-time energy.

We watch Sideways in class tomorrow, which means little prep time today. I expect to get some good writing done.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The work schedule

After reshuffling the projects on my plate, here's where I am:
  • I'm writing the draft of Sally in the Blue Tent, a novel.
  • I'm researching two future projects:
    • The libretto based on an American classic. Studying the source material.
    • A dark comedy of the old west. Reading two journals of the place and era, one by a man, one by a woman.
  • Brooding about Nails in My Coffin, a novel of interrelated stories. I know it's set in a retirement center. I know one of the residents dies in each chapter. I may start some back-burner writing on this soon.

This should keep me out of trouble.

Gem of a book

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker

Picked up a Modern Library hardcover in good shape, The Poems and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker, which originally I thought I'd give someone as a gift. I may yet but not until I've gone through it cover-to-cover -- and it may be one to keep on the office library shelf.

Dylan, the play

Thinking about Dylan Thomas today, I couldn't help but remember a production here of the play
(by Sidney Michaels) with Steve Pachosa playing the poet. It was Steve's breakthrough role, I think, a superb job. One I'll never forget.

Whatever happened to Steve Pachosa? I see a stand-in role listed in the IMDb, from over a decade ago. I don't recall seeing his name in cast credits here in a long time.

Maybe he's another fine actor who left town (can't blame him).

New home

Okay, I'm taking the plunge and officially using this interface exclusively beginning November 1, 2006. Maybe this will make blogging life a tad easier.

New interface

On the user end, this new interface is convenient and easier to use. I may soon make it my blog for new posts -- but not quite yet. Maybe in an hour ha ha.


I started this new blog in the "beta" format being started since Google purchased Blogger. Blogger has been a great host over the years but since the purchase I've experienced problems, "growing pains" no doubt as changes get made -- so maybe I should start my regular blogging in their new format. I'll give it a test drive here and decide.