Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances
Saturday, November 09, 2002
Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity.
Friday, November 08, 2002
Today's quote from J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," in which Holden Caulfield expresses a sense of style similar to Writeright's.
[Ackley] took another look at my hat … "Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake," he said. "That's a deer shooting hat."
"Like hell it is." I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. "This is a people shooting hat," I said. "I shoot people in this hat."
Thursday, November 07, 2002
The Theory of Finite Weight
My wife has this idea
the theory of finite weight.
She thinks there
is just so much body fat
in the world,
and people pass
it around. When
this person loses
weight, that person
gains it. Fat goes
breasts to Hope's
hips, from Greg's
gut to John's
jowls. This explains
the weight yo-yo
so many people
ride a lifetime.
Up and down
their weight goes,
down and up.
but they shouldn't.
It's a law of nature.
Someone is always
is always losing.
must go somewhere
drives them away.
Jean, I need to erase
an inch off my waist.
Eat that cookie.
-- David Jordan
(first appeared in The Mochila Review)
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
I was shopping at Safeway when I spotted Stan Balfour pushing a cart up the cereal aisle. I turned and went the other direction. I’ve felt bad about it ever since.
Stan Balfour was my assistant coach on a Little League baseball team when our sons were ten years old. Adam Balfour was a small, soft-looking boy with cherubic cheeks and a shock of black hair. He played third base tentatively and batted weakly because he was afraid of the ball. He seemed a pleasant enough kid, though, which came as something of a surprise because I’d been hearing negative reports on Adam from my son Joe since they were in first grade. Adam poked me with a pencil, Adam swiped one of my lunch cookies, Adam stomped my foot in the four-square line, Adam called me fat. That sort of thing. My wife tried to make a case for Adam, saying maybe he liked Joe and was trying to get his attention in the only ways he knew how. Adam came to our house a few times for group events like birthday parties, and my wife found it interesting that he would stand in the kitchen and talk to her while the other boys rough-housed in the back yard.
We live in a tightly knit neighborhood, so we heard things about Adam from other parents, including teachers who worked at the boys’ school and had kids the same age. Adam didn’t do well in class. Maybe he had learning disabilities. Maybe he had attention deficit disorder. His temper was explosive. His behavior could swing abruptly from sweet (he was the first-grade teacher’s pet) to obnoxious (more than one classmate wound up in the principal’s office for whacking him after he insulted them).
I braced for attitude problems when Adam landed on my minors baseball team, and I was a bit wary when his dad volunteered to help coach. Stan turned out to be soft-spoken and reserved, although capable of the occasional wry joke. A government accountant by trade, he was pleasant if not exactly Captain Warmth with the kids, and he knew a bit about baseball. He made an okay assistant. And Adam never caused any difficulties. He didn’t play particularly well, but he didn’t stomp on any feet or call anyone fat. He seemed, if anything, as reserved as his dad. One day while we sat in the dugout during a game, Stan told me Adam didn’t hear out of his left ear, and his parents thought that triggered many of his problems. Adam felt stupid if he asked people to repeat themselves, so he ignored what he didn’t hear. This rubbed others the wrong way. Frustration over his partial deafness and clashes it provoked led him to act out. Yet he was embarrassed by the deafness and refused to tell people, especially other kids, about it or let his parents do so.
We won a bit more than half our games that year. The next year, Joe and I moved up to Little League majors. Adam quit baseball, and his dad quit coaching. I thought of it as natural attrition. It’s tough to keep playing a game you’re not very good at, and why coach if your kid doesn’t play?
I saw Adam around as the boys moved into their teens. He and Joe attended the same middle school, moved in the same social circles. Adam played rec league basketball and was on Joe’s team for a while. He took too many shots, Joe and other teammates complained. I had been Joe’s basketball coach for a few years, but by the time Adam joined the team I had surrendered the reins to another dad. Adam’s gunner tendencies weren’t my problem. After a season or two on the team, he gave up basketball.
When the boys started high school, Adam dropped from sight. His parents enrolled him in a high-powered prep school on the other side of town, several miles from our neighborhood. It was an expensive private school with a reputation for snobbery, but it offered a special program for kids who struggled to learn. The program operated as a “school within the school,” with pupils attending classes on the same campus as the general student body but segregated for academic purposes.
I wondered when I first heard that Adam Balfour was enrolled in the prep school whether he would prosper there. I thought his penchant for irritating people might be exacerbated by mixing with 14-year-old snobs. And if he couldn’t bear to be labeled partially deaf, how would he feel about being shunted into “special” classes at a school that bragged about how many of its graduates went on to Ivy League colleges? I bumped into Stan on a neighborhood sidewalk one day, though, and he said Adam liked school and seemed to be prospering.
Then came the morning in late winter when we heard from a neighbor, the wife of a doctor who lived across the street, that Adam Balfour had shot himself. The doctor helped treat him in his hospital’s emergency room. Adam died without regaining consciousness.
The story circulated quickly in the neighborhood. School had turned sour. Adam had been unhappy. He arrived home one afternoon while his parents were at work, went into their basement family room, took the .22 rifle with which his dad had taught him to shoot and fired a bullet into his brain. Stan found him when he came home that night. He called an ambulance, but doctors were unable to save the boy.
Joe, my wife and I attended a memorial service for Adam at a local Presbyterian church. It was a strange scene. The place was packed with ninth-graders, the boys and girls who had shared classes with Adam for years before he transferred to the private school, and their parents. The parents seemed stunned, for the most part, lodged in “There But For The Grace Of God” mode. The kids, on the other hand, seemed energized by what had transpired. They said “poor Adam,” they said “he had everything to live for.” They gathered in little clutches and whispered and shook their heads. They pulled long faces. A few girls even shed a tear. I couldn’t help but think: these are the same kids who disliked Adam, who found him annoying, pushed him away, ridiculed and belittled him. Now they are getting some kind of vicarious thrill out of his death. It was as if he were James Dean or Kurt Cobain, and THEY HAD KNOWN HIM. At a reception in the church social hall after the service, I spoke briefly to Stan and his wife. They seemed curiously upbeat, although I put that down to shock and, in all likelihood, tranquilizer drugs. They were pleased to see so many kids and parents in attendance. I didn’t comment on the weird vibrations I felt filled the church.
Adam was the Balfours’ only child, and his death cut them off from the kid-oriented social set of our neighborhood. They no longer bumped into you in the hall at back-to-school night or shared a bleacher seat at basketball games or carpooled kids to birthday parties. I hadn’t seen Stan in years when I spotted him at the grocery store.
Why did I avoid him? Why didn’t I walk up to him between the Cheerios and the Wheat Chex and say hello? I’ve been trying to figure that out.
Was it because I was afraid if I said “how’s it going?” he’d actually tell me? The Balfours still live in the same little brick house, and every time I drive by I imagine what it’s like for them inside, where their son’s bedroom lies empty and the basement still echoes with the sound of a rifle shot. I envision the house as dark and gloomy inside, a place bereft of dreams, optimism, hope.
Was it because I felt guilty somehow, as if I should have done something to help Adam? Joe said once, months after Adam died, that the guys on the basketball team felt bad about yelling at him for shooting too much. They wondered if he quit basketball because they griped at him, and if having basketball buddies to mix with outside of school might have kept him alive. That provoked me to wonder if I should have called his house that first spring he didn’t sign up for baseball and invited him to come play. Was remorse my problem?
I finally concluded, though, that what really sent me scuttling away from Stan Balfour was an unwillingness to confront the fragility of a life as child-centered as the one I, and many people like me, live today. If so much of what we do is aimed at protecting a child, making things go right for him, smoothing the way, giving him the training and education and moral support it takes to turn him into a happy and successful adult, what does it say if that child chooses to kill himself? Did we parent badly? Did we not pay close enough attention? Did we pay too much attention, unintentionally smothering what we sought to protect? Is it crazy to invest so much in our children? Should we just view them, like some 19th Century farmers did, as livestock bred to help with the work and little else?
Stan and his wife were good parents, as far as I know. They seemed to go about the job of parenting much as my wife and I do. But their son killed himself. Talking to the suicide’s father would have brought me face to face with so many questions about my own existence, I was afraid to do it.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
I went to the dentist today. Her name is Ronda (as in "Help Me. . ." but with out the h after the r). She gave me approximately thirty-two shots of novocaine, then sanded off half a molar and stuck a temporary crown on it. I have to go back in two weeks to get the permanent one.
The temporary crown fell off the first time Ronda attached it. She had it in place, but pushed on it with her fingers and it came loose. On my back in her chair with that snake-shaped lamp shining in my eyes and half my head numb, I couldn't really tell what happened. I simply saw Ronda blink. Then I felt her fingers wiggle in my mouth and saw her turn away to fiddle with something on her tray, out of my field of vision. When she turned back and started pushing on my tooth again, I realized she was re-attaching the crown. She hadn't uttered a word.
Moments later, when she finished re-setting the crown, I couldn't resist saying -- or slurring in numbese, the language of the dentally challenged -- "I bet in dental school they teach you never to say 'oops,' huh?"
"Oh, yes," Ronda replied. "They give lots of lessons in what not to say."
That made me think -- dentists and doctors MUST get lessons in what not to say. Why don't they ever show that on "ER" or "Scrubs" or whatever quack show they have on TV these days? Imagine the list the professor would hand out.
Thou shalt not say:
"What the hell?"
"Hey, Marj, check this out."
No, it's a far better to just blink, as Ronda did, if you bust off part of a patient's tooth or spot a cancerous tumor the size of a kumquat growing on his left testicle. We all must remain calm.
Which makes me think of my previous dentist, whose name was about as calm as they come. Her name was April Love. This made her not only Pat Boone's favorite song and the absolute living image of innocent affection in spring sunshine, but the one and only, original Dr. Love. Yas, the doctor is IN!
April Love retired early. That says something about dentistry and innocence, but I'm not sure what.
Monday, November 04, 2002
I ran into my old friend Tommy (T-Model) Goodloe at Starbuck’s. He launched into one of his tirades.
“So my ex-brother-in-law calls me up from Corvallis and offers to sell me tickets to the Oregon-Oregon State football game. Two hundred bucks a seat. Can you fucking believe it? The guy has two extra tickets, face value forty-five each, and he wants me to pungle up four hundred bucks. Says he could get that easy on the street in Eugene. I tell him, shit, man, I wouldn’t give you forty-five. Those dog-ass teams will be lucky if they don’t have ten losses between them by the time they play. Oregon’s got no defense, Oregon State’s got no offense. They’ll stumble into fucking brainlock. Remember that zip-zip tie a few years back? Same deal. And it will rain, let me tell you. It will rain big time. To hell with that.”
Tommy is a burnt-out sportswriter. He used to work for newspapers, but he kept getting fired for things like showing up drunk to cover the state high school soccer championship. He said he knew it was going to be paralyzingly boring, and the only way he could face it was to down half a dozen margaritas before he went. He let his wife drive, though. Ex-wife, now. Tommy lives by himself in a houseboat on the Columbia, freelances the occasional magazine piece on snipe-hunting in the Wallowas or fishing for grunion in Crater Lake.
“Listen,” he said at we sat at a window table watching red and yellow leaves blow down Bybee Boulevard, “organized sports are a joke these days. An ugly joke. I’m glad I don’t cover that crap any more. I do this outdoors gig, go interview a salmon now and then, and I make enough to get by. I don’t have to watch the Jailblazers pretend to care about basketball. I don’t have to duck when Barry Bonds throws his dirty shirt at reporters after blowing the World Series. I don’t have to listen to expensive lawyers split hairs to get Ray Lewis off on a murder charge so he can play in the Super Bowl. For the Baltimore Ravens, no less. Ravens! What the hell is that? They used to be the Cleveland Browns. Who used to be the Los Angeles somethings. And the Colts are now in Indianapolis, loaded moving vans in the middle of the night and sneaked out of town. How can anybody root for people who’ll drag a team anywhere to chase a buck, tolerate any kind of anti-social behavior, glorify trash talk and sack dances and all that happy horseshit? God, it’s hard not to get pissed every time I glance at the sports section of a newspaper. Miami is about to win another college football national title. What’s the average SAT score for the scholar-athletes on that team? What’s the GPA? How many of them will graduate? How many will have legit jobs in five years? And what is Oregon State? Miami North? The Beavers graduate next to nobody, but lead the league in personal fouls.”
“Well, T-Model,” I said, “the Anaheim Angels won the World Series. That was a feel-good deal, right?”
“Who cares?” he responded. “Nobody. That was the lowest-rated World Series in television history. A pair of wild cards. They shouldn’t even have been there. It was the Runner-Up Bowl, a couple of mediocrities who got warm at the end of the season. Why did they play 162 games from April to October, so we could watch two teams who couldn’t even lead a division play each other for the ‘Championship?’ Spare me. I’d rather have watched the stinking Yankees, and that’s saying something. It’s like the Mariners last year. Win 116 games and don’t make the series? What bullshit! Let’s go back to 1954. The Indians win 111 games, make the Series and THEN flame out to the Giants. Enough of this NBA-style months of exhibition games to eliminate one team so the rest can then get serious.”
“Ah, Tommy,” I said, “you are a bitter man.”
“Yeah?” he answered. “Well, don’t get me started on ice-skating. I’ll have to kneecap you. Or boxing. I’ll have to bite your ear off. Turn you into fucking Van Gogh.”
I didn’t want to be Van Gogh, so I went. As I pushed through the door, I looked back and saw T-model lift a three-day-old Oregonian sports section off a chair at the next table.
Okay, ya got me. William Stafford never won a Pulitzer Prize (see Nov. 3 entry). His rep was established when he won the National Book Award for "Traveling Through the Dark" in 1963. Writeright regrets the error, as we used to say in the newspaper biz. I'd edit it out of yesterday's screed if I could figure out how.
Sunday, November 03, 2002
Ever read a literary cover letter? I write a lot of them, and it struck me that explicating one might be a way to introduce myself to people who stumble onto this weblog. Here’s what one looks like:
Nov. 2, 2002
6702 SE 29th Ave.
Portland, OR 97202
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Paterson Literary Review
Passaic County Community College
One College Blvd.
Paterson, NJ 07505
Dear Ms. Gillan:
Enclosed is a story I would like to have considered for publication in Paterson Literary Review. It is entitled "What the World Needs Now."
I am a former newspaperman and teacher turned fictionwriter/poet. I grew up in an Air Force family, and my wandering as military brat and working man took me everywhere from Nebraska to California to Georgia. I now live in Portland, Oregon, with my wife and son.
I bounce back and forth between prose and poetry sort of like my writing hero, Raymond Carver. In recent years my work has published by dozens of magazines, including The Clackamas Review, Stringtown, Comstock Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Pearl and Plainsongs.
I am enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope for return of any poems that do not suit your needs. Thanks for your consideration.
Here’s the explication:
You gotta start with the return address, because in all likelihood what you send out will bounce back. Rejection is a fact of the writing life. When I need bolstering against the vicissitudes of my chosen pursuit, I sometimes turn to Oregon’s patron saint of poets, William Stafford. In one of his books about the writing life (Crossing Unmarked Snow, Writing the Australian Crawl, etc.), he said he managed to find a publisher for something like one out of ten poems he wrote. And he won a Pulitzer Prize, published a gazillion books, etc. So a scribbler like me should be able to learn to live with rejection, right? Ahem. yes.
Next comes the address. This can be tricky. A lot of magazines list as many as three editors in Writer’s Market, on their website, wherever. I read in one of those how-to-succeed-as-a-writer essays that you should always direct your submission to just one editor, because that way it won’t slip between the cracks and wind up being ignored. But if you pick one, won’t the other two be insulted? I always figure all these people are scrambling to be the bigshot, the honcho, the first among equals at the magazine, and if I address my submission to one either of the other two might throw it away just to be sneaky-mean. So I include everybody but the janitor.
Now comes the salutation. This, too, can be tricky, because a lot of people in the lit biz have ambiguous names. If the editor is Henny Wenkart, how do you approach said editor? Is it Henny as in Youngman (a guy) or Henny as in Penny (a chick, quite literally)? Do you say Dear Mr. Wenkart? Dear Ms. Wenkart? If you get it wrong, the recipient of your valuable submission is likely to be miffed. And you don’t want to say Dear Mr. or Ms. Wenkart, because that would reveal that you don’t know your ass or your elbow. The only solution I have come up with is to hail them by the full name -- Dear Henny Wenkart. It sounds like the beginning of a credit card solicitation, but . . .
Computers can be wonderful things, doncha know, but they also are dangerous when it comes to composing first paragraphs of submission letters. What I try to do is store my letters in a file, then open an old one and recycle it when I make a new submission with a story or batch of poems. The hazard is that you may, as I have done on occasion, forget to change the name of the magazine. So you wind up mailing a letter to Henny Wenkart at Bleeding Hearts Magazine stating that you hope to have the enclosed story published in the Chattahoochee Review, which must puzzle the hell out of old Henny.
The second paragraph amounts to biographical boilerplate. Some editors (aside from the smart ones who say don’t send a cover letter because they don’t want to wade through a barrage of self-serving bushwah) claim they want to get to know the writer, so I toss in variations on the paragraph printed here. I have another version that mentions additional former jobs (gardener, grocery clerk, movie reviewer, etc.), so I sound more like a romantic artiste. I also vary the list of states I’ve lived in -- picking from among the total of eleven -- so that I mention having resided near the city where the magazine is published, if possible. Maybe the editor has a regional bias, I figure. Saying I live in Portland always strikes me as redundant, since my address appears at the top of the page, but a biographical thumbnail with no reference to where I hang my chapeau seems incomplete. I also vary the details on my family. If poems are racy, I don’t mention the wife and kid. If a story is warm and touching, I throw them in; I may even mention my career as a Little League baseball coach.
In the third paragraph, I sell the editor on the greatness of my talent. I ally myself with Raymond Carver (born in Clatskanie, Oregon, and raised across the Columbia River in Washington), another Northwest writing hero. I see a resemblance between Carver’s deadpan prose and my own, and I began writing poetry about six years ago after I read his poem “Lemonade” in the paperback book that compiled Carver writings used as the basis for the movie “Short Cuts.” Before I read “Lemonade,” I thought poetry had to rhyme or be totally incomprehensible, or both. I progressed from “Lemonade” to Carver’s poetry collections (“A New Path to the Waterfall,” etc.) to studying the whole genre to writing my own. At last count, I’d had 115 poems accepted for publication. I’ve experienced more success as a poet than I have as a fiction writer, to my puzzlement (and occasional consternation).
I segue from the Carver tie-in to talking about my publishing credits. The idea is to convince the editor that everyone else is publishing my stuff, so he should, too. I like to mention prominent magazines and ones near the editor’s hometown (allowing for that regional bias again). The process is complicated by the glacial publishing schedules of literary magazines, however. I should have more than five dozen magazines available for mention, but a third of them are still sitting on pieces they accepted months, if not years, ago. I’ve even had magazines fold after accepting but before publishing my story or poem. So I have to choose between saying “my work has been published by Open Bone” and “my work has been accepted by Nimrod.” “Published by” sounds so much more legit than “accepted by” -- who knows if an accepted piece will ever be published ? -- but sometimes I have to settle for “accepted by” as part of my sales pitch.
Penultimately (isn’t that a cool word? I didn’t know what it meant for years and years), the last paragraph deals with what happens if they don’t want your stuff. I usually pop for stamps to get my story or poems back, even though the copies often are so bedraggled after the mail trip out and home that I can’t re-use them. Telling an editor “throw this away if you don’t like it and send me a post card saying get lost” is inviting a slap upside the head, it seems to me, even though some magazines do profess willingness to recycle rather than return manuscripts. I tack on that “thanks for your consideration” line because it occasionally occurs to me how grueling it must be for an editor to deal day after day with hordes of arrogant, desperate, sniveling writers like me.
Ultimately (a much less cool word), we have the closing. The parting sentiments -- Sincerely, Yours Truly, Best Regards, etc. -- are a hoot, when you stop to think about them. I mean, how sincere is this letter? It’s a sales pitch, verdad? How true is it? Well, it doesn’t contain any out and out lies, but I will admit to a bit of spin-doctoring. Best regards? What I really mean is you’d better publish this, weenie, or I’m going to hate your guts. Oh, well. The signature is sincere. I use only blue or black ink, which is exceedingly sincere. I used to toss in an occasional green or lavender signature, just for the hell of it, but I decided I got too many rejections on those. Neatness may not count, but sincerity does.