Saturday, November 30, 2013

Week 15. Revision--sorting out the gold from the dross

Truth is, I'm not much of a reviser myself.

That's heresy for English teachers. We really do not have that much to do or teach, so we fill up time by telling students to be perfect, to sit in peer groups and edit and revamp material endlessly--forgetting that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But you won't get many English teachers who don't preach the Gospel of Revision. You have me, not usually much of a preacherman. But this week, I do have a little sermon for you.


I'm no typist, so in the days before computers, when I wrote longhand, I'd have one very messy draft, which I would eventually turn into a fair copy, and a certain amount of revision happened between those two drafts. But now that we have computers and revision is a breeze, I'm not interested. I only did it when I had to.

Don't misunderstand. As I write, I am always rewriting. I am changing wording, improving sentences, dropping material, sliding things around into different spots, reading the piece aloud, making changes. But that's just editing. I'm not taking a step back from the whole piece, re-imagining it, seriously preparing to take it apart and put it together in a way that looks substantially different.

And again, don't misunderstand. I don't not-revise because my material is always perfectly outlined and laid out in advance. It isn't. I hate outlines for nonfiction and, for fiction, I wing it, usually having no idea what will happen or how the story will end.

You'd think I'd want to revise! Maybe I'm too stuck on myself. But when I am satisfied (and that does not always happen right away), but when I am, I don't have some tortured ideology that insists on a major rewrite every time.

Many writers do have that tortured ideology. There are all sorts of tales of writers who spend years revising, or who lock manuscripts up for a year before sitting down and beginning the revisions, or who send the hopeless manuscript off to an editor for a complete overhaul. That's not me.

I don't know if it's you either. But let's pretend it isn't. Let's pretend you're an eager reviser. Pretend you're as ambitious and determined and flexible and sharp and patient and skilled as your classmate, stargazer_lily, who first wrote this:

and then totally rewrote it this way:

I was and am so frippin impressed. She took what was already good and made it much better. Why the hell can't I do that?

Or more to the point: why can't you? And why don't you? For week 15! Go back over the semester, choose a piece, and give it the spa treatment, a massive makeover, a total rebuild, a careful wash and wax til it shines like the sun in June.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Week 14: mini-research; before writing--

Week 14: organizing; mini-research essay.

Let's start with what I don't want. I'm not looking for academic research, footnotes, a bibliography, an encyclopedia article, a generic block of prose. I mean to continue and finish as we have begun--with creative nonfiction that has voice and is individual to the writer.

It's ironic and humbling that after a quarter century of bucking people up about finding research topics for isearch papers that I sit here today going through the same mental gyrations as my students.

Here are the standards I'm setting for myself:

* I should genuinely be interested in the topic

* I should genuinely not know much about it

* It should be easily researchable on internet

* It should be simple enough to allow some closure in the course of an essay--but not too simple either

These are tough criteria! Most anything I'm interested in, I already know enough about so that research would be an artificial exercise. Limiting the topic is also an issue: ten years ago, I spent months reading about and practicing clicker training; thirty years ago, I spent even more months reading about and practicing homebrewing; forty years ago, I began a lifelong quest to find out about and practice horsemanship.

I've thought of a dozen possibilities as I've passed through the last two days, but, since I eschew notetaking, every single one of those possibilities has already fled my memory.

Organization is, right now, a secondary issue. I certainly am not going to offer you a standard template or some classic 'solution' to marshalling facts and data. I tend to think that the writer ought to reinvent the wheel, make it up as he goes along, and figure out the best organization he can in the best workshop he has: his mind.

Later: I find my best ideas on long walks, and after several of those, decided that I should write about my latest problem--falling asleep while driving home from school.

I also do my best writing while walking and a three-miler was plenty of time to sketch in a really hooky lede. Me chewing on Altoids, slapping my face over and over, rolling the car window up and down, drinking coffee beverage drinks from the Neally Corner Store, pushing my latest CD (a 24 lecture series on the New Testament) in and out of the player...all to no avail. A second after I've slapped myself, alarm bells go off. I hear myself saying to myself: "Close your eyes just for a second. Nothing in the world could feel better!"

And then I fight back, shouting "No no no!" to myself. But suddenly I jerk my head up, my eyes open, and my car back to my side of the road.

I even got as far as googling 'fall asleep afternoon' and sorting through likely causes, rejecting some ('Me, a frippin narcoleptic? Sounds like someone who can't stop stealing drugs!') and finally settling on the obvious culprit, the one whose listed symptoms sound so so familiar: not only the afternoon sleepiness, but also the morning headache, the lethargy, the snoring. Sleep apnea.

Yes, I was all ready to roll, but then, fate intervened.... Well, you can read the actual essay for yourself.

Later still: I have to confess this was not really the essay I was envisioning. It is what it is. I could have worked harder at making it a firmer sample of mini-research, but...that would have been less fun. I've done some research! And so should you!

Frankly, this one got away from me. The research part was minimal (do as I say, not as I do, students) but by the time I realized I would have done better to stick with sleep apnea, I was already 1000 words into it. At 2000 words, it is a little too long. But the reason I kept at it was simply this: it was the easiest damn thing to write I've ever written. I kept waiting for blood, sweat, tears, the usual. Instead I just kept rolling!

Well, if you get a third of the way into 'Dog Bite' and put it down in dismay, that would be the reason why I should have stopped, but a writer tapping away can be like a person newly in love. Everything is beautiful! Surely everyone agrees with him! Why stop now?

Week 14; mini research: The Dog Bite

Here is Max 8 weeks after his surgery and his buzz cut.

Here is Max a few days before his surgery. The "cute" picture mentioned below.

Max is a 13 year-old Lhasa Apso. Max is totally deaf. Max has skin polyps.

His owners left him at a kill shelter in South Carolina, with the parting words: 'He is just too old.' A dog rescue group called PetConnect removed him from the SC shelter a few days before he was due to die and had him taken to the Washington DC area, where they found a cage for him in their own shelter.

After two weeks, they got a call from a woman in Bethesda Maryland who was willing to foster and possibly adopt Max. The adoption idea disappeared very quickly the first night when the woman's husband tried to use his Teva-shod foot to separate Max from the food bowl of their other dog.

A dog bite is a discouraging business.

The husband said, "He's gone. Take him back Monday." The woman was in touch with her sister in Maine who told her husband the story of Max. The Maine husband derided his Maryland brother-in-law for letting himself get bitten (and for wearing Tevas, but that's a different essay.) The Maine wife said, "Back to the shelter for Max. Let's see if we can find his picture on the PetConnect website."

Max did seem awfully cute. The Maine husband said, "Let's talk about this. Can we handle a sixth dog? Or would that cross the line from eccentricity to insanity?"

A day later PetConnect had enlisted a volunteer pilot who liked spending his weekends flying his two seater. The first weekend, storms kept Max grounded, but before too long, there he was taxiing up to the terminal of the Belfast Maine airport sitting tall in the copilot's seat.

He was not quite what we had expected. A few days before he flew out, the rescue group decided to remove some of his polyps and shaved him down to the skin. Don't believe anyone who tells you looks don't count--they count hugely, especially in dogs, where hundreds of breeds have been developed, a breed for every esthetic opinion. A buzzcut Lhasa Apso was not cuddle material.

Not that Max was a cuddler. Max has a few things that interest him and at the age of 13 and deaf, one doesn't expect to develop too many more interests. Max was interested in food. Max was interested in sleeping. Max was very very very interested in cats. Max gives a few signs of interest in my wife. Like never leaving her side.

The end. That's all Max cares about.

Here are some dog things Max no longer cared about, if he ever had: exercise, going for a ride, meeting new people or dogs, toys, carrying around favorite slippers, barking at the Fed Ex man, learning new tricks, getting rubbed or scratched. (To be fair, Max did come with one trick. He would sit pretty, and we very soon taught him that when he saw an EMCC safety whistle/flashlight'keychain, he should do his trick. When the red light flashed, the trick was over and the treat was on its way.)

We had two problems we hadn't expected. First, those darned cats: because Max would chase them heedless of traffic or anything else, he had to be kept on a leash around the dooryard.

Second, he loathed the collie, Maddie. Loathed, as in growled and barked furiously and very loudly if Maddie walked between Max and my wife or came into the kitchen when food was around or lay down too close to my wife. Really loudly. Giving no indication that anything short of death would stop him.

The easiest solution to Max's barking is to put Maddie out on the porch. She's glad to get away from him and a few pieces of kibble sweeten the deal too. The harder solution is to put the evildoer on the porch. A kibble or two in his supper dish will get him out there, but immediately he begins barking and scratching. It's easier to put Maddie out, but it isn't right! She's the victim and she winds up in the cold and the perp has it all his own way, getting everyone to dance to his tune.

Now we come to the dog biting. I'm not likely to be wearing Tevas indoors (or out), not like my brother-in-law, and Max has bitten my hiking boot many times. I put a boot on the threshold and no dog, not even Max, is to use the door until I step out myself. Lesson learned, Max! You can teach an old dog new tricks. He waits; he even waits while I call the hearing dogs to go out first. The bites never hurt, and I ignored them, though Max was always upset afterwards for blowing his cool.

(How do you know a dog is upset? They look upset, and if you don't believe dogs have facial expressions, you simply aren't paying attention. If facial expressions don't impress you, fear and stress will loosen a dog's bowels and bladder. Perhaps a more convincing sign?)

Last night I was watching a movie on the computer, a comedy from the 30s, 'My Man Godfrey.' There's a lot of that clever dialogue and subtle humor...and Max began barking. I can't rewind a movie I'm downloading. I'm missing all this repartee and these witty ripostes. No point telling a deaf dog to shut up, however sternly.

I stopped the movie and stopped thinking as well. My lizard brain was running the whole show without input from my higher cognitive centers....

I reached down to grab Max to put him on the porch--probably the first time I've ever tried to carry him, and he saw my plan and immediately rejecting it, trotting from the living room into the kitchen, out another door into the dining room, and then back into the kitchen. We went around this way for a minute like characters in an old Warner Brothers cartoon, until I reversed course and we ran into each other at which point, I reached for Max again, and this time--WHAM!

I screamed. I cursed. I watched blood streaming across my palm. The other dogs who had been watching in horror now crouched with round eyes and flattened ears. This was almost as bad as a thunderstorm. And, finally, ten seconds too late, I started thinking and found some heavy leather gloves, picked Max up, and removed him to the porch, where he stayed for a few hours until I could bear the sight of him again.

The wound was a deep puncture about the diameter of a Bic pen in the bulge of muscle between thumb and wrist. It pretty much looked as if someone who didn't like me and had no fear of the police had jammed a classic Bic right in there with all his strength.

I rinsed the wound with alcohol hand sanitizer and some hydrogen peroxide and held a paper towel against it till it clotted enough for a bandaid. Then I did what I always do when faced with a medical issue: went into a deep state of denial, aka 'stupidity.'  Instead of marching into the bathroom and immediately starting a regimen of Amoxicillin, I began imagining myself thousands of miles from home with an infected salivary gland (don't ask; it happens), and a strain of resistant bacteria running all through my body.

 Overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria, I know. I googled 'antibiotic resistance,' just to fortify my resolve. Then I specifically checked for 'reduced efficacy of amoxicillin' to see whether it was in some way more prone to eventual uselessness than its antibiotic cousins.

Apparently it isn't, but the memory of that swollen salivary gland bloating up the left side of my face, pressing against my trachea, swelling my tongue, hurting like hell, and the fear of the hypothetical future return of that infected gland over-rode any concern I had just then for the dog bite.

Furthermore, I fibbed to myself and rationalized. I thought, 'Well, there's a chance it won't get infected; time is the great healer; why borrow trouble; cross that bridge when you come to it; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; time and chance happeneth to all men; etc etc' Amazing the number of wise sayings one can adduce in a bad cause!

Where were these wise sayings: 'Penny wise, pound foolish; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; better to light a candle than curse the darkness; an amoxicillin a day keeps the doctor away'?

I was still in a state of denial when I woke up next day. Was my hand looking a bit swollen? Did it feel a dite hot? Was it a mite tender? A tad itchy? A shade red? Was that pus in the wound? And just how bad could a dog bite be anyway?

Come to find out, dog's oral hygiene is not the greatest, and any myths you've heard about the healing powers of dog saliva ('Let him lick the wound--it heals fastest that way!') are just that: myths. Various websites were telling me that with my symptoms and a dog bite as the cause, I needed to get me to a doctor.

If for no other reason, the websites said, than because death from tetanus was such a horrible way to go. A doctor would give me a tetanus booster, I was told. Except that my doctor, who has an M.D. degree from the School of Doom and Gloom, told me a year or two ago that there was no point in someone my age getting a booster. I probably had enough residual resistance. 'Probably' was good enough that day in Dr D & G's examining room, but looking now at Max's handiwork, I was not so sure.

Of course, the official advice is also to avoid Q-tips in your ears, to sterilize a needle before sending it after a subcutaneous splinter, and to deprive yourself of most of the best foods in the world! All advice I disdain. So, after a second's consideration, I ignored this new online medical advice.

What I could not ignore by late afternoon, about 20 hours after my run-in with Max, was the intensifying of all the earlier symptoms: more heat, more pain, more swelling, more redness....

What about toughing it out without antibiotics? Haha, what was the worst that could happen? I googled 'infection untreated sequelae' and in very short order was informed that "Chronic untreated infection can lead to significant morbidity, serious life- threatening sequelae, and premature death." But, apart from that?

The old joke runs that when a dog bites a man, it isn't news, but when a man bites a dog? Hold the presses! I've kissed dogs often, I've licked one or two over the years, but I doubt you will ever see me biting one, since one good bite deserves another, and 'another' is a place I never want to go to again....

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Week 13: appreciation/depreciation; the review

Assume for a moment you want to do a review of the same book you just did an introduction for. What's the difference between a review and an introduction?

Someone introduces you to your eventual spouse. Their responsibility for you two getting together is real but very minimal. They've just opened the door a bit and the rest is up to you and the spouse or, in this case, you and the book.

The person reading the introduction holds the book in his hands. He is about to read the book. As he reads, he will learn the plot, discover the themes, develop his own attitude toward the book. The job of the introduction is to give him some preliminaries and offer the introduction writer's appreciation of the book. The rest is up to him.

What if the marriage doesn't work? You go to a divorce lawyer and spill your guts! You tell the lawyer you used to be in love, but now! Now, forgetaboutit. You give the lawyer the good, so the lawyer knows the score, but the bad too, all of it.

That lawyer is like a reviewer of the book. He's in at the kill, there to praise where praise is due ("Your honor, Mr Jones is a highly successful businessman, respected in the community....") and to put the knife in too ("...which is why my client requests such a high figure for support, so that she may continue to hold her head up in that same community.")

A reviewer can do a lot of different things, and one thing he can do is slag the book, movie, tv show, concert, or whatever. One would not expect that in an intro.

The reviewer's job is to state an opinion (I hate to use the o-word after the conniptions many of you had with week 10....) The opinion can be based on anything: fact, fancy, comparison with other works or earlier works of the same writer/musician/actor. It can register a distaste for the elements of the book's plot, the writer's sensibilities, the actor's disappearing looks, the music's canned drum track, anything.

And another reviewer can praise these same things and write a completely different review. There is always an attorney for both sides, someone willing to argue the other way around.

Point is: you don't have to be right. There is no right. There is just your taste, opinion, knowledge, and insight.

That doesn't mean that there aren't crap reviews. You can love something and write a review that sings to the stars. I can love the same thing and write a review that can't get its boots out of the mud. Maybe you're smarter than me or better informed or a better writer.

I bet at this point you're wondering what a review should include. I prefer to let the material dictate my thoughts, but if you want some sort of guideline to some of the things that might go in a review (this discusses book reviews but can be applied generally), sort of a review of reviews, try this.

Later thoughts: having now written my review of 'Captains Courageous' and having a long back-and-forth with Sally in her week 12 book intro, especially my 6:14 comment, I feel much less certain about the difference between intros and reviews.

Well, that's what I have you all for--you struggle with it and maybe from your struggles I'll learn something I can teach future students if this course is able to run again.

Some thoughts on the 'Captains Courageous' review: I found myself back in English major mode, a place I never thought I'd be again after college graduation, June 1967. It was fun to do a bit of that, but I really had no way to join the two halves of the review, other than that cheating row of asterisks. The perfect is the enemy of the good (and it's even the enemy of the just-OK) so I leave it, imperfect as it is, for whatever interest it has and whatever lessons, good or bad, you might derive from it.

Week 13. Sample review. 'Captains Courageous'

"Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, this classic adventure tale stars Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning performance as Manuel, an old salt who fishes spoiled, rich brat Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) out of the drink. When the vessel's skipper (Lionel Barrymore) puts Harvey to work, the boy chafes at the idea. But crusty Manuel takes the lad under his wing and teaches Harvey invaluable life lessons through patience, forgiveness and resolve."

--Netflix description of 'Captains Courageous' (1937)


It's impossible to see a movie as it was seen by its first audiences. 'Captains Courageous' was made in 1937, just eight years before I was born. One of its stars won the Best Actor award, but--

We have too much history, think we know too much, are too suspicious or sophisticated or prone to see the movie the way the Depression audiences did.

Picture this. A sailor and a ten year-old boy who is not related to him are alone below decks. They are on a boat whose crew has not seen a woman for months. The man slaps at the boy's butt. Just a joke. The man tells the boy about his plans to make it with a bunch of women when they get to port. The boy asks if he's joking, if he really likes women. The man agrees he really doesn't. He caresses the boy's face and hair, as the boy, in tears, tells the man he never wants to leave him, ever.

Does this sound wholesome to you? It was family fare in 1937. It passed the Hays office decency code of Hollywood and was a movie especially pitched for children. It wasn't a dark plot to recruit kiddies to pedophile perversions! The scene I describe was viewed in 1937 as a natural way for a man and a boy to bond and relate, innocent, warm, and profound.

(I suppose it's a cheap shot to note that Spencer Tracy, the sailor man in the above paragraph, won the Best Actor award in 1938 as well--for his portrayal of the priest Father Flanagan of Boys' Town. Another movie where for all the boys and priests and deep conversation and roughhousing and high spirits, there is never a whiff or hint (in 1938 terms) of anything untoward.)

Or imagine this: a bratty kid is sassing a grown-up and the grown-up coldbloodedly hauls off and gives him a clout on the ear that knocks him off his feet. In 'Captains Courageous', this is understood to be a necessary and important part of Freddie's becoming a man. Today, of course, we are shocked and find it difficult to understand that the 1937 audience would be highly approving of this clout.

It's impossible to watch these movies with a single vision. One always sees them as a citizen of 2010, someone who knows all the scandals, who has heard the very worst about human nature, who would squint long and hard at the notion of a strange man caressing a beautiful child or another man hitting him.

But pretty soon one lets 2010 drift away and settles back into 1937 to enjoy the movies on their own terms as they were meant to be watched.

So, the scene I have made fun of, just as the moviemakers intended, moving, a tearjerker, warm, gentle, funny, and tremendously well-acted by the boy, Freddie Bartholomew, and the sailor man, Spencer Tracy.*

Even more impressive is the turning-point of the movie.** Freddie has cheated in a contest and Spencer Tracy is angry with him. But when a deeply ashamed Freddie apologizes and makes clear that he understands how he has hurt others and how spoiled he has been, Tracy welcomes him back to his society and the ship's society. He throws the boy a real life line, and it's very touching. But, of course, when I say Tracy welcomes him back, please understand that he welcomes him back with literal open arms and caresses, and any viewer watching today has that modern cynicism about potential pedophilia come between him and the full intention of the moviemakers.


This movie had an all-star cast and full thirties production values, but a lot of it is hard to watch today. It breaks into three parts, the way all Hollywood movies are supposed to. In the first act, we see Freddie Bartholomew in action: he's a spoiled, snobbish, manipulative, whiny, bossy, snotty, lying, cheating, blackmailing, no-good brat. Everything depends on Freddie Bartholomew here, and he isn't bad for a kid actor, but he doesn't command the screen either. The writing is flat, the action predictable and stilted.

In the second act, Freddie falls off ocean liner and is picked up by some Gloucester fishermen. One good scene follows another as we see Freddie finally getting a clue about how one might become a decent person--but this act belongs completely to Spencer Tracy who plays the Portuguese crewman who befriends and teaches Freddie. Tracy is everything you want: he's dumb, wise, brave, kind, strong, soft, funny, serious, tough, a pushover, a man among men. By the end of the act, Freddie worships him. So does the audience!

Unfortunately, that's just when Tracy is killed in a shipboard accident. Act 3 tells us how the new Freddie is able to apply what he's learned from Spencer Tracy to his own broken relationship with his father. Freddie's example helps show his father the way to become a real father, just as Tracy's example showed Freddie how to became a real person. But act three, like act one is unbearably trite and sentimental. We watch the action but mentally are rescreening the scenes with the departed Tracy we saw just a few minutes before.

And so the movie ends on the worst of all possible notes: Freddie and his dad are taking the dory, where Tracy made a man of Freddie, and towing it home to California as...a toy, a momento, a petunia planter? While the chauffeur-driven car rolls along, Freddie stretches his arms wide to show his dad how big some of those lunkers were out on the Grand Banks. He thus turns the most important moments of his young life into a cheesy fishing story, and fade, and The End.


'Captains Courageous' is now more time capsule than entertainment, I'm afraid. Except for the extraordinarily good scenes with Spencer Tracy in act two, one watches it mostly in wonder at how quickly ideas, customs, beliefs, film conventions, and conventional wisdom can change. This movie was a hit, somehow, just eight years before I was born.

* Part of the scene is available here: , but the tears are cut and if you want to see them (and Freddie Bartholomew is quite impressive), you will have to go here to about 1:21 and mute the awful music.

**Alas, not available on youtube

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Week 12: book intro

My wife seemed a little surprised that I wrote these two samples below as personal essays. Well, my dear, what are my choices? I'm not a literary scholar; I'm not a professional literary critic or a book reviewer. Neither are my students.

For 'The Hunter' I could have made noises about the hardboiled-detective books and movies of the thirties, the noir films of the 40s, and the drugstore-bookrack crime fiction they spawned in the fifties and sixties.*

For 'Slim' I could have made similar noises about the thirties' proletarian novels ('Slim' is more proto-fascist than red in its politics) and their macho, no-girls-allowed quality and what that might be all about. But that sort of academic writing would have been playing to my weaknesses, not my strengths.

I also could have done what is often conventionally done in the introduction, which is offer some details about the author's life, the book's publishing history, or some social or historical background that would add to the reader's appreciation of the book.

But I decided to avoid using anything that was not already in my mind because I don't want you to see this as a research project. This week is an appreciation of some book you like, written to introduce a reader to the pleasure you have had, using the material you already have at hand and in mind.

* Here are some of the covers which were considered extremely hot when I began spinning those drugstore racks: this, this, this, and, of course, this.

Week 12, Book Intro: 'Slim'

I would see my father going off to work, see his old army uniforms in the basement, see tough kids a little older than me with pretty girls. But all that was on the other side of an invisible wall. Real life was somewhere just beyond my reach, maybe forever. This is what all bookish boys worry about. Henry James made a career writing about just such worries.

Christmas vacation 1959. I had turned 14 a few days earlier, and we were on a family vacation in Quebec City--my two brothers, my parents, and their friends the Boutwells, with their two boys. We stayed at the Chateau Frontenac, all marble, velvet, leather, lace, silk, wrought iron, sculpted cornice, fancy stonework, bowing waiters, popping corks--but it was not pleasant.

Perhaps there was grown-up tension I sensed--Mrs Boutwell would be dead of cancer in a year or two, and Mr Boutwell and my mother would then run off together in what used to be called 'an ill-fated romance.' Perhaps the unpleasantness was partially because we were being led from one interesting place to another to appreciate the river, the Plains of Abraham, the old city, the sleighs, the wax museum. I am not a museum-goer, and I don't like being led.

Perhaps the snow contributed. It snowed so badly that our flight from Boston to Quebec was diverted to Montreal. We had driven in snow, endlessly from Montreal to Quebec. It snowed the whole time we were in Quebec. I still am not a great fan of snow. We did this and did that, hung around, bickered, fussed, too hot inside, too cold outside--and waited for mealtimes to punctuate the day and get us closer to bedtime.

At some point I went into the Frontenac gift shop off the lobby and looked at the paperback rack. This was the fifties--before the day of serious paperbacks. 'Paperback' was pretty much a euphemism for sexy trash with salacious covers. Serious people read serious books with real bindings! But I was never a snob about these things.

In the rack was a book entitled 'Slim' by someone named William Wister Haines. The cover showed a man in a safety belt high up on a phone pole. He wears a kerchief but no shirt. He is slender, well-muscled, and holds a huge spud wrench in one of his gloved hands. The wind carries off the smoke from the cigarette in his mouth and his eyes squint against the setting sun that has turned the sky red. This was Slim.

The paperback I bought that day cost 50 cents Canadian, which was expensive for a paperback; usually they were 35 cents. It was a Canadian edition, published in November 1959, originally copyrighted 1934. I know these facts because after I read the book, I carried it home with me, carefully put it on my bookshelf, watched over it for the next fify years, making sure that when I moved it was not lost, and now, November 4, 2010, as I write at 4:33pm, the book I found in the gift shop of the Frontenac is sitting next to my computer. The pages are crumbly and brown. The glue from the original binding is long gone. A neat piece of duct tape holds it together.

If my little paperback were still in good shape, a used-book dealer could ask $56 for it today. That the cover is inexcusably camp and homoerotic probably explains why this edition is worth more than the 1947 one....

If you found the catalog of dates, times, numbers, facts, and details in the previous paragraphs a bit tedious, you would not like 'Slim.' It is a book all about building towers and stringing power lines, and no technical detail is ever scanted. Here's how the book opens: "Every time he passed the pile of steel lying in the corner of the field, the boy stopped his mules and stared at it. It had been there for three days. He remembered the men who had deposited it: tall-booted, laughing men who had spoken knowingly of K pieces, X braces, struts, legs, wing sections, arms, and dropper plates."

That is not a prepossessing opening. If I were a literary agent and you showed me that, I would reach for my pile of form rejections. But in the half-century since 1959, I have probably read 'Slim' ten times, every five years or so. Why?

Here's part of the blurb: "Lineman! Slim knew what he wanted the first time he saw men stringing the high wire when he was still just a raw kid off the farm. This was for him, a rough, harsh, man's world. where there was always another power line to string, one more after that, and a new girl in every town. It was a world where men's lives hung on each other's skill and courage and danger was a drug more potent than sex...." More potent even...than sex? Catnip for a 14 year old boy!

But why do I keep coming back to it? Slim is so good, so decent, so brave, so smart--it's hard not to fall for him. And he turns himself from the raw farm boy of the blurb into a skilled lineman through guts and hard work--that kind of story is perennially popular, as is any tale of a young man's coming of age. And the whole world of Depression-era photographs I've always been fascinated somehow dramatized in 'Slim' too. But why do I keep coming back to a drugstore paperback long out of print, a book the world would not miss if it had never been written, a book I would not for a second claim had any literary or artistic value? A book sometimes more interested in X braces and K pieces than in its own characters? Why? I don't know. But I do.

Week 12, book intro, 'The Hunter'

Summer Reading. "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, 'Screw you, buddy,' yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge."

The first three sentences of a book by Richard Stark called 'The Hunter,'* published early in 1962 when I was 16. I found it in among a box of used books I bought for 50 cents at a neighborhood auction that summer. I was hooked. I didn't know books could do that! The schools had me totally brainwashed, blinkered, and blinded. Books were 'The Great Gatsby,' 'Moby Dick,' 'Oliver Twist.' Those are the books I was given, so those were the books I read, and I had never read a book that started even remotely like 'The Hunter.'

Even as a tender youth, I knew that Parker hadn't really said "go to hell" and that the other guy didn't say, "Screw you, buddy." As an up-and-coming hitchhiker myself, I had a pretty good guess what a "fresh-faced guy" might be. Wow!

Last night I read a book that starts: "When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, 'Deal me out a hand,' and got to his feet."

Yes, more than 40 years and two dozen novels later, Parker is still at it. By the end of graf two, he's garroting the hapless Harbin. A delightful summer read!

I've changed, but my reading tastes apparently haven't. Nowadays Stark can let his characters use the real words, but the whole rest of his shtik is there unchanged in all its glory. Parker is one mean sonofagun (if you know what I mean.)

Sometimes I imagine teaching a course in Noir Crime Fiction, starting with 'The Hunter' where it all started for me, but my inner snob recoils and reminds me that 'The Hunter' is not a real book. 'The Great Gatsby' is a real book; 'Moby Dick' is a real book. Serious people do not read 'The Hunter' and they certainly do not pay college tuition to find out what happened when Parker got to the Manhattan end of the George Washington Bridge. And if you don't like that, why then you can just go to hell, buddy.

* also published at different times as 'Point Blank' and 'Payback'

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Week 11: Sample # 1

Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago for ENG 162. This is a combination of essay and class instructions. I just segue from one to the other and back without apology or concern.

Unless I flatter myself badly, this is a piece about writing in which I display some knowledge about writing and teaching writing and student psychology. Or maybe not.

Love it or leave it, it is one of your 262 samples, but just a sample--don't go off and do week 12 of ENG 162 for week 11 of ENG 262! For example, in this piece for 162, I say don't use the first person--that's something for the 162 people, but has nothing to do with you--your job is simply to see this as a sample for week 11 of writing displaying expertise.
Baseball legend Ty Cobb used to say, "Hit 'em where they ain't!" That meant shifting his stance, shortening his swing, guessing on the pitch, and drilling grounders through the infield into gaps left by defense, then legging out a single or double. It sure worked for him.

But when he suggested to even-greater baseball legend Ted Williams that he do the same, to take advantage of the extreme Williams shift that opened the whole left side of the field, Williams was horrified. He had his thing, he did his thing, his thing worked. No way was he going to mess with it, change things around just to punch out a dinky hit--so what if that's what it took to win a game!He was Ted Fucking Williams (in his autobio, he says that's how he thought of himself), and you'd never see him change anything! Ever!And he never did! (And one of the elements of the Bambino's Curse was always Ted F. Williams. Appropriate they named a tunnel after him, not a soaring bridge.

But that's a sidetrack, and the 2004 baseball season is over--gloriously over and the curse is no more!)This week you're going to hit 'em where they ain't.In other words, you have your strengths and the fielders try to guess where you'll hit, but you're gonna pull a Ty Cobb. You're going to fool them!I seem to be addicted to sports epigrams this morning: the same idea is expressed in boxing--'Box them if they're punchers, punch them if they're boxers!'

Okay, you all have convinced me you're punchers! You do excellently what I spend a whole semester trying to get my ENG 101 students to even consider--you use yourself and your experience, thoughts, feelings, observations to motor a piece along.You're Ted Williamses! And I'm philosophically inclined as a teacher to have you reinforce those strengths, to build on them, but I'm equally suspicious of myself, arguing that--c'mon, John, you're obliged to get those students to peek at the weaknesses too.

So, how would you do in a piece where you couldn't use yourself directly? Instead of offering prompts this week, I want to throw out this gauntlet: write two or three pieces where you don't show up as an authorial 'I.'Not an anonymous encyclopedia article. Not voiceless instructions. Not cookie-cutter prose. Not a ranting political editorial about some evil thing. Not smarmy greeting card goop that's the most anonymous stuff going. In fact, NOT something that sounds like anyone else but you, but something that somehow has you stamped all over it--but that is not directly about you, your life, your experience.

Tough, tricky? You bet, but there ought to be roses on the other side of all those thorns!And why not post them on your blog, and use the comments section here to react to the assignment, ok?

How about an example for Week 12? Sure!Well, actually, most of this Week 12 prompt/lecture/theme material--all the stuff about Ted F. Williams, Ty Cobb, bridges, tunnels, boxers--is an okay example of me writing about something outside me in a way (again I hope I don't flatter myself) that is inimitably me, even though I'm not in it directly. That's what you're working on this week.

By the way, this kind of writing could be considered a distancing technique. If it works right, the reader keeps trying to pull the curtain aside to see you. The reader says, 'What an intriguing voice! Who is this?' But while continuing to intrigue, you never quite offer an answer to that question--which keeps the reader reading....

Week 11: Expertise; authority. Sample 2

I Know Where I'm Going

Out of the plane, shrug the knapsack on, stride along, walking stick clicking on the exit ramp linoleum. Turn left for Passport Control. Onto the rolling walkway. Striding striding, clicking clicking.

Stepping out feels so good after more than seven hours overnight in an economy class seat.

Avoid the escalator. Down the stairs to shake up those weary muscles a little. Through the doors to Passport Control. Signs say: Brits, EU, All Others. How dare they consign my USA passport to an afterthought category?

Squeeze left and walk slowly now, emphasizing my walking stick, tap tap, my third leg. I catch the eye of one of the Pakistani ladies in charge of opening the special gate for families with babies, old people in wheelchairs, people hobbling and handicapped. I don't limp, I don't ask, I don't do anything except walk along with white hair and a 64 year old face--and I catch their eye.

They say not a word, but open the gate for me, and instead of a 45 minute wait before my passport is stamped, I wait 45 seconds.

Turn right. Into the terminal. Skip the bureau d'exchange with their crappy exchange rates and fees. Bear right to the ATMs and pay their fees instead....

If I ask for 200 pounds, around 300 dollars, my request will be turned down because my dollar limit is $250 a day. I ask for 150 pounds. If I have not called my credit card company in advance of my trip, my next charge will be refused, and I will have to call home and tell them my mother's maiden name, my date of birth, my address, my social security number, my wife's name, and so on.

I have called in advance.

Down the stairs, more walking, more moving stairways, more signs I ignore. I know where I'm going. Heathrow Central Bus Terminal. Dead end corridor. Some people standing there crane their heads looking for stairs or escalators. Eventually the freight-size elevator doors open and we crowd in.

Ticket kiosk--single (that's 'one way') to Gatwick or return (what we call 'round trip')? Oh, single, definitely, because I'm returning to Heathrow an altogether different way. Credit card, collect ticket, out to bus docks. Onto bus, watch for a minute as the bus rams through the Heathrow traffic, and then I find the sleep I couldn't find in seven hours of flying.

An hour to Gatwick. Out of the bus, up the stairs, ticket counter--Eastbourne? Single or return? Single again. First class or standard? Ha, look at me, you have to ask?

Doze again on the train, but as the train winds along the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, I wake up, just in time to see the turrets of the castle in the town of Lewes, where I'll be sleeping in a couple of nights.

At Eastbourne Station I head for the Cafe Nero outlet. One double espresso for a jolt, one cafe americano for some stamina, and, yes, some pastry for mischief. I do have a 12 mile walk ahead.

The barista asks what I want for pastry. I point to the chocolate toffee shortbread. "Two pieces of that millionaire." (I asked once in a village bakery in the Lake Country why it was called 'millionaire.' The lady behind the counter said, "'Cos it's so rich, love!")

As I sit in the station with my breakfast, I take my map out of my knapsack, slide it into a waterproof case, and strap my gaiters over my hiking boots.

If I look a little out of place in a seaside resort town with my knapsack, gaiters, military surplus camo rain gear, flapping map case, and Red Sox cap--screw 'em! This is, after all, the starting point for the 100-mile trail, the South Downs Way, my way for the next week. Eastbourners have seen hikers before.

Into the street. Follow the downhill slope, bear right, right. More and more pastel paint jobs on buildings to catch the increasing light and bigger sky and suddenly...the South Cliff Parade and in front: the beach, the English Channel, and a vague wisp on the horizon, France, not on my walking tour itinerary today.

Past the ice cream stands and tea shops, up the hill, up up up and up, heading for Beachy Head, a cliff with a 500 foot drop onto a stone beach with a tiny lighthouse at sea level, the third most popular spot for suicides in the world, a cliff whose edge I will only approach on my hands and knees, a cliff whose edge many signs remind one is forever crumbling into the Channel.

Across the turf, short, springy, onto the first of the Seven Sisters, steeply folded chalk cliffs. Each fold takes one down nearly to sea level and then up, hundreds of feet to the next cliff top, hard work.... I rip open the bottoms of my gaiters and re-tie, tighter, my boot laces. If my feet are at all loose in my boots on the steep downhill fold, my foot will slide forward and jam my toes-- a few miles of that is enough to completely blacken the second toenail on my right foot and make walking the remaining 90 miles of my trip a bit dodgy, as the understated Brits might say.

I don't need my map yet. On my right is England, Scotland, and Wales; on my left a 500 foot drop to the ocean. But I take it out anyway to see what's inland a bit, to winkle out the building in the little combe, to simply enjoy this superb piece of colored paper that shows every building bigger than an outhouse, every stone wall, hedge, field, woodlot, driveway, ancient ruin, medieval plowing strip, stream, footbridge, pub, and postoffice--and a lot more too.

I skim along the chalk turf, no roots or rocks or rabbit holes to slow me down, but keeping my eyes down nevertheless, lest I slip on the wet downhills and sprain an ankle. My walking stick taps out a rhythm. I step behind a gorse bush, startlingly yellow (somewhere in Great Britain, every month of the year, gorse is in flower) and unload a bit of that earlier coffee.

My walking stick again taps out a rhythm.Tonight I will find a place to sleep in Alfriston, a town settled by Anglo-Saxons a few hundred years after the Romans left. Tomorrow morning I will order a full English breakfast of toast, jam, Weetabix, canned grapefruit sections, fried eggs, sausage, bacon, fried mushrooms, fried tomato, fried bread, baked beans, and lots and lots of weak English coffee. I'll need those calories for a long day of walking! Or, at least some of them ....

I know where I'm going, and I'm on my way.

Week 11 sample 3

“Welcome to Vacationland.”

“The way life should be.”

Slogans that lure strangers from afar to this northern state of New England to explore what it has to offer. Autumn being harvest season, it’s when we reap the rewards, it is the season of the leaf peepers, the newly weds and nearly deads.”

They come by road and by sea, in car or tour buses, on boats or cruise ships. All on their own adventures with hopes of catching a glimpse of a moose or maybe a whale, or to explore the great outdoors; whatever their adventures may be all these vacationers will soon grow hungry.

Melissa and I begin our opening shift by brewing coffee, icing creamers and lemons, setting up plates with butter packets and miniature pitches for maple syrup. And checking our sections for full sugar and jelly caddies.

The fog rolls up the street, and enchants me with its mist, can’t even see the cruise ships in the harbor. Today's passenger and crew totals over 7,000; now that’s not to say that they all tender in, or that they are all coming to the restaurant for meals or for our bus tour tickets, nonetheless we prepare.

At some tables you can’t even get the words, “Good Morning” out of your mouth, and the transient diner barks for coffee. I just close my mouth, bow my head and go fetch. I am more than just a vehicle to the nectar of the bean.

There are the diners that say good morning back to you, and ask how you are; as you take your breath to reply they cut you off and tell you what they will have. There are two creatures of this world,one:

“I want two eggs and toast.” The woman confirms.

“How do you want your eggs? I ask.

“Sunny side-up.”

White, wheat or rye? I ask.


“And you have a choice of homes fries or grits?


“Which?” I must ask.

“Oh, um, home fries.”

Then there are the others creatures;

“I want coffee black and my wife’s with cream and sugar. She will have blueberry
pancakes, real maple syrup and bacon well done. I a spinach and goat cheese omelet, wheat toast dry, home fries crispy, and orange juices with our meal.”
Followed by, “Oh and we are on your bus tour of the park, and we need to board in thirty minutes.”

Meanwhile I am standing there with one pot regular and one pot decafe and all I had asked was, “Would ya like coffee?”

Interactions with the transient diners like this continue relentlessly throughout the day. Passing dialogue, filled with questions on each side, and repeated answers, and inflection of tone as patience thins either mine or theirs.
All amongst the clamoring and clanging of dishes, and those god damn coffee cups, half empty begging to be filled and to be warmed.The checks that need printing, the printer that needs paper; those plates in the kitchen grow hotter the longer they sit dying in the window, the voids, the separate checks, and the ten percenters.

Then there’s Andy cussing behind the line at all the orders that just came in all at once. Tis the season of the leaf peepers, the newly weds and the nearly deads; we survived another grueling day of cruise ship season and the turn and burn beast that is breakfast.


Welcome to Vacationland, the way life should be,” a slogan that lures strangers from afar to this northern state of New England to explore the great outdoors, the rugged coastline and what Maine has to offer.

The season for a coastal tourist town is short lived; it begins early May and ends late October, along with cruise ship season. The town thrives, and makes it's livelihood off these tourists. The peaks of the season come in waves. The spring breathes life back into the village, the shops open their doors and streets fill.

The official kickoff begins the Forth of July and continues straight on through, till Labor Day weekend. Autumn dawns the season of the leaf peepers, the newly weds, and the nearly deads. With the kids back in school, the real harvest season begins, the cruise ships come to port almost everyday, two by two.

All season long they come all on their own adventures with hopes of catching a glimpse of a moose or a whale, maybe to go hiking and biking, or to shop the streets of an old coastal town. Whatever their adventures may be all these vacationers will soon grow hungry.

At some tables you can’t even get the words, “Good Morning” out of your mouth, and the transient diner barks for coffee. In the restaurant business you just close your mouth, bow your head and go fetch. But let it be know, servers are more than just vehicles to the nectar of the bean.

There are two creatures of the dinning world one:
“I want two eggs, and toast.” The woman confirms. These are the kind you must pry for information.

Then there are the others;

“I want coffee black and my wife’s with cream and sugar. She will have blueberry pancakes, real maple syrup and bacon well done. I a spinach and goat cheese omelet, wheat toast dry, home fries crispy. Oh and we are on your bus tour of the park, and we need to board in thirty minutes.”

Meanwhile your standing there with one pot regular and one decafe and all you asked was, "Would ya like coffee?"

Transient dinners also think that you are their tour guide as well as their server.They too will pry you for information, and lots of it.

They want to know, “Where is the closest Starbucks?”

Your answer, “Sixty miles inland.” (You came to Maine to go to Starbucks?)

“Inland? We’re on an island?”

Your answer, “Do you remember the bridge with the water on both sides?”

They want to know why they can’t check their email on their super-duper phones. “Don’t tell me you don’t have a 3G network?”

Your answer, “A 3 G, what? Welcome to Maine!”

All amongst the clamoring and clanging of dishes, and those god damn coffee cups half empty begging to be warmed.

When breakfast is all said and done the upstairs dinning room opens for lunch. They sit in the dinning room and answer their cell phones and yell into the receiver telling how they spent their day in Arcadia as they look over the menu. (When in fact they are in Acadia,on the other side of the country.) They see we offer a boiled lobster dinner.

They want to know, “Well can’t I just have the tail?”

Your answer, “You’re in Maine maim, it’s a pound and a quarter lobster,shell and all!”

“I have to pick it myself?” Some say with disgust.

Your answer, “We offer a lazy man’s lobster.”(For an extra charge.)“Fresh picked lobster meat sautéed in butter or white wine.”

They view of the bay can be seen through the dinning room windows; the sand bar exposed at low tide, the Porcupine Islands, and the boats bobbing along in the water. They then want to know,

“What’s the name of the lake out there?”

Your answer, “The Atlantic.”

Then they want to know, “How do they get all the boats to park in the same

Your answer, “Harbor Master, Charlie he does valet parking.”

Interactions with the transient diners like this continue relentlessly throughout the day. The turning and burning of tables, passing dialogue, filled with questions on each side, repeated questions and repeated answers, and inflection in tone as patience thins either mine or theirs.

The kitchen doors swing open once more, the hot plates grow hotter the longer they sit dying in the window, the checks that need printing, the printer that needs paper. The voids, the separate checks, the ten percenters and Andy cussing behind the line at all the orders that came in all at once.

Not all your comments got you as far as you wanted; the directions, the full “Taste of Maine” you just served them. No, still they want more from you; they will pry you for personal information, which has already been discussed, “those old biddies bugging about babies.”

While presenting the check, you collect their plates and they want to know,

“What you do in the winter?”

Your answer: “Hibernate, and wait for spring.”


The season for a coastal tourist town is short lived; Autumn exhales the life out of the town, and the shops board up their fronts for winter and the streets empty.The leaf peepers, the newly weds and the nearly deads have all gone back to where they came from. They have explored this great northern state of New England with it's great outdoors and rugged coastline.

The peaks of the season come in ways; and the harvest is over. That’s just the thing about Vacationland and the way life should be; they go just as they came.
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Labels: Week 11 Authorial/expertise