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My youth plays out in monochromatic Super 8, all shadows and light, soundless but for the clacking whir of the projector, each jumpy image spattered by specks of dust that flash past, gone before they even register in the mind.

Around me, I see the shining, sun-bleached hills behind our houses, wild land laced by the trails I hike in adventures that are my haven, my freedom, my escape. I see the black-and-white blurs of schoolmates as they race their Flexi-Flyers headlong down the sloping streets. I see my family—mother, father, sister—wave and laugh, speaking silent words to whomever runs the camera, as they go about their daily lives.

All is shades of grey, wan and distant.

In my home, though, moving past the dark stain of lawn, the walls of pale grey stucco, and the brightly trimmed opening of the doorway, beyond the shadowed living room where children dare not tread, through the kitchen with its charcoal-colored wood, and into the chiaroscuro of the family room, there is a red chair.

It is red. So red.

It stands in the ashen jumble of the room like an open wound, colored the red of blood, bright and arterial, shiny as a skinned knee. Upholstered leather is nailed to its frame by rows of brass tacks that glint in the streaming sunlight, their rounded heads faceted by the hammer blows that set them.

It is an old chair—I do not know a time when it was not there—a holdout from days before my birth. Wing-backed, claw-footed, it is large, its arms stained by the grip of a thousand hands. Here and there the leather is a bit dry and has cracked, revealing tufts of excelsior and batting. It creaks when I climb up, as if complaining, as if I am an unwelcome intruder, and perhaps I am, for it is my father’s chair, and his alone. I curl up in its empty embrace, breathing in its captured aromas of Old Spice and Bond Street.

And on this day, this one day, it is the chair in which my father sits and, for the last time in our lives, gathers me up in his arms, in his warmth, in his scent. It is the chair in which he tells me of my mother’s death. 

After that day, I do not know what happened to that chair. I still see the wall of books, the ancient davenport, the old B&W television on its tubular stand, the corduroy love seat, the sliding-glass door that opens out on the too-bright patio, all these I see in the flickering cinema of remembered youth, but there is a dark spot, a lacuna, a patch of emotional blight where the chair once stood. After that day, I do not remember it being there. I do not remember my father ever sitting in it again. I have excised it from my past, wished it out of existence. 

In my experience, time does not heal, but it does teach. Sometimes it teaches us to understand and adapt, while at other times it teaches us how to cope and survive. The disappearance of that red chair is just such a lesson, learned during the sixty years that separate me from that day. That chair, the cauldron of my earliest grief, has bled out, its color used up, the power of its memory spent.

And I can live with that.

k

 

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I am made mute,
the words struck from my mouth
by the unfathomable.

The world’s gyre spins,
casting lucid reason
into the dizzy vortex.

We cannot see,
having doused the light
for what it might reveal.

Fear is our all,
leading from temperate sense
to blistering fireworks.

Answers are lost,
along with their questions
as knowledge becomes foe.

Bereft, I reel,
accompanied by emptied thoughts
about the stolen same.

Tears are useless,
for I am wept out
and the world is a sponge.

I long for sleep,
for dreams untroubled by dark terrors,
a retreat from what I cannot control.

But wishes fail,
and the tragedy of this circus
continues unceasing.

So I hold tight,
cherishing bits of trust
and blink at each morning’s sun.

k

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crocus blooms explode
blue/gold beneath grey spectra
the sun remains hid

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My first first date was a disaster.

I was a sophomore in high school and wasn’t old enough to drive, so Mark and Julie (my upperclassmen friends) agreed to a double-date. It was going to be great. Mark had an ancient, rusty, squeak-shocked Austin-Healey sedan. He and Julie would get me and then Lori (my date), and drive the four of us to Sausalito for dinner at the Alta Mira. From there, we’d go into the City where we had tickets to see an off-Broadway production of a play. We’d be home late, but not too late.

I was terribly nervous. I should note at the outset that Lori and I were barely friends. Beyond saying “hey” in the halls, pretty much the first conversation we’d had was my stuttering invitation, asking her out. The fact that she had agreed was, in itself, a victory (in my book, anyway), so my nervousness had a large helping of anticipation added to the basic impression of doom. But I wanted it to be a special night, so Mark and Julie and I planned the itinerary well in advance. What could go wrong?

Not being able to find Lori’s house was the first thing to go wrong. She lived on a narrow hillside side street, and the house was set back from the road, up a juniper-covered slope, accessible only by a twisting, shadowed stairway lit by a dim lamp up at the house. We must have driven past it five times before we noticed it.

Despite being late for our reservation, dinner wasn’t bad. The Alta Mira was a legend where I grew up. A grand old hotel tucked up in the fog-blanketed hills above Sausalito, it had a fancy restaurant and it was famously difficult to find (locals had had T-shirts printed up that said “No, I can’t tell you how to get to the Alta Mira.”). Driving up to this fancy-schmancy place in Mark’s rust-bucket drew sniggers from the valets, but we shrugged it off. We were having dinner at the Alta Mira!

We then drove across the Golden Gate and into the City, down to a tiny theater situated in an ill-lit corner of the Mission District. I wasn’t much of a theater-buff, so I knew nothing about the play we were going to see: Norman . . . Is That You? It was a relatively new play—this was 1973 and it had only premiered in ’70 (to middling reviews)—so I was going in blind. The play, we quickly learned, dealt with a young man coming out to his parents. As I said, this was ’73, so the general attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks was decidedly unfriendly, and it was definitely not a given that everyone was comfortable with the topic of homosexuality. Suffice it to say that my date did not seem comfortable with the topic.

Leaving the theater, our conversation was three-sided, with Lori maintaining a sentinel-like silence as we walked back to the car.

Which wasn’t where we had parked it.

Stolen? Couldn’t be. Who would steal a rust-laced, barely-functional junker like that? Then we saw the sign: No Parking 11PM–5AM, All Vehicles Will Be Towed.

It was 11:10 PM.

At the bottom of the sign, a phone number for the impound lot was printed, so the next task was walking to find a phone booth (remember, kids, mobile phones weren’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye at this point). We found one a few blocks away, via which we learned that the impound lot was a fair distance, too far to walk, especially in the heels Lori had chosen. Mark and Julie and I pooled our cash; we probably had enough to get the car out of impound, but we weren’t sure, so paying for a cab was out of the question; even the streetcar was an iffy proposition. We decided our best way to get at all close to the lot was to do a hop-on/hop-off run on cable car. In the late hours, they weren’t so strict about payment if you were just on for a few blocks.

Eventually, we made it to the lot, had enough for the fine, and sprung Mark’s car from the hoosegow. By this time, Lori’s silence had become so intense that it had a gravitational field. When we finally rattled our way up her street and Mark stopped in front of the long, dark stairway, Lori was out of the car before I could round the vehicle to open her door. She was halfway up the flight by the time I reached the foot of the stairs. She never looked back.

Frankly, I do not blame her one tiny little bit.

We never went out again. We never actually spoke again. It was a long time before my next first date.

My last first date, on the other hand, was better. I’d learned a lot in the intervening years. Still, though, I did manage to break the First Rule of First Dates as, over our lunch of enchiladas and tamales, I told her we were going to get married and have a great time growing old together. (I’d known her all of two weeks, and to be honest, it had taken a lot of discipline not to tell her that when we first met.)

Despite this obvious faux pas, on Monday (Valentine’s Day 2022) we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of that last first date, and had our forty-first Valentine’s Day meal of Mexican food to commemorate it.

So, yeah, the last one went a bit better.

k

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These past few weeks, a large cadre of Americans has been decrying the “cancel culture” that is coming down like a ton of bricks on Joe Rogan and Spotify, whilst simultaneously applauding the RNC’s censure of politicians with whom they disagree. In addition, this tranche of the conservative mind-bank is paving the way for suing teachers and school districts, should they have the temerity to teach kids about social issues, as well as—surprise surprise—continuing to indulge in its penchant for banning books.

Frankly, I was surprised that the RNC was so stupid as to believe they wouldn’t get any blowback for characterizing the January 6th riot as “legitimate political discourse,” but it definitely did not surprise me that conservatives are still into banning books.

Banning books—banning any type of artistic expression, really—is the worst way to control said expression. Know why I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ? Because of the furore raised by the so-called “religious right.” Know why I read Lolita? Because someone believed it would scar me for life. Know why, this week, I bought a copy of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale? Because a Tennessee school district banned it and I’m too old to have had the opportunity to read it in school. (In fact, in the weeks since Maus was banned, it has risen to the top of bestseller lists, and I’m pretty sure some of those purchases were made by families who specifically wanted to get it into their children’s hands. So, not a great model for successful social engineering.)

This all got me thinking about the practice of banning books. Who does it, and why? At the outset, it’s clear that books have been challenged by factions on both sides of the political spectrum. The left has challenged books here and there, for use of the n-word and for racial stereotypes, but by far these actions trend more heavily to the conservative side.

The American Library Association has for decades tracked the most challenged/banned books, and has compiled lists of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books, by decade, since the ’90s. The reasons books have been banned break out as follows (multiple reasons can be given for a single title, so the percentages total more than 100%.)

  • 92.5% — Sexual content
  • 61.5% — Offensive language
  • 49% — Unsuitable for age group
  • 26% — Religious viewpoint
  • 23.5% — LGBTQIA+ content
  • 19% — Violence
  • 16.5% —Racism
  • 12.5% —Drug, alcohol, and tobacco use
  • 7% —”Anti-family” content
  • 6.5% — Political viewpoint

I researched some of these more deeply and found that of those deemed unsuitable for an age group, the books were intended for juvenile and/or young adult readers. I also found that for books tagged with the “political viewpoint” reason, many of the complaints were not about the political views put forth in the book, but were in regards to the personal views of the author. One book, The Grapes of Wrath, was banned—and I’m not kidding—because it portrayed Kern County, California in a negative light.

Yesterday, I went around the house, pulling banned books off my stacks and gathering them together. I found about two dozen, from the Holy Bible to Jack London to Stephen King to George Orwell. While some of them are still TBR, I’ve read most of them, including many that I read when I was in school. Banning them, taking The Great Gatsby or Flowers for Algernon or To Kill a Mockingbird off the shelves at my school would have done nothing to further my education. And good luck keeping me from reading The Lord of the Rings.

Sheltering our youth from ideas in the name of education is both a folly and a disservice. It’s also a fruitless exercise because kids will find a way, and banning a book is a sure-fire motivation for a curious youth. I mean, do you think I was over 18 when I saw my first Playboy? Do you think I was 13 when I saw my first PG-13 movie? Do you think I was 21 when I had my first beer? Hehe . . . no, to all of the above.

Now, I do not think that all art is appropriate for all ages. Some books, due to their themes or topics, should be introduced with curation and context by someone familiar with the age group and the subject, someone like, oh, I don’t know, maybe a teacher. But what one particular 15-year old may find disturbing, a different child of thirteen might handle fine, especially when supported by teachers and family.

I once met an 8-year old girl who told me she loved my Fallen Cloud Saga. I actually winced when I heard her say that, because I really did not intend those books—with their occasional scenes of violence and sex and themes of prejudice and racial hatred—for a prepubescent audience. But the girl’s mother was standing right behind her, beaming over her child’s precocious intellect and, talking further with them both, I had to admit that the mom’s decision to let her daughter read my books was fine. For her daughter.

And there’s the rub. Not all kids are alike, not in any way. There are all sorts of ways to tailor curricula to address specific parents’ concerns and fulfill individual students’ needs, all without banning certain books for all students.

Banning books is stupid and does not advance the intended goal. One wonders why they even bother anymore.

k

PS. If you’re wondering where I come down on the Joe Rogan/Spotify fracas, I dropped my Spotify membership. And if you’re now wondering why I’m okay with “banning” Rogan but not okay with banning books, consider that:
(a) I’m not banning Rogan; I’m merely refusing to support him and his exclusive carrier, and
(b) there’s a big difference between banning a book because it has uncomfortable truths in it, and refusing to support Rogan’s continued pattern of providing a platform to spread lies and misinformation.
—k

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—-

first light begins its
slow creep toward younger hours
dreaming of new life

—-

I wrote that haiku yesterday or, more accurately, I copied that down yesterday, as I awoke with it fully formed in my brain. All Things Natural have been “front of mind” lately, as this week we had our first real break from the rain, and I’ve been spending time outside.

Every afternoon this week, for an hour or two, I’ve been out in the gardens—pruning, raking, trimming, clearing, gathering—in a futile attempt to complete all my cold-weather chores before the season warms and the now-dormant plants awaken. While this is arguably less of a workout than time on the elliptical, I keep at it longer, so I’m calling that a wash.

One thing I cannot do while gardening, though, is watch a video (my go-to for indoor workouts). So, because I’m a over-achiever by training and cannot do merely one thing at a time if I can do two (or three), I indulge in the next best thing: I listen to podcasts.

I’m relatively new to podcasts. I’ve tried audiobooks, but since I have no commute and thus no regular activity where I must remain eyes-alert but idle-eared, I usually got a few chapters into a book and then didn’t have a chance listen to it for a month or more, disrupting the narrative.

Podcasts, though, are perfectly suited to this task, even the hour-long ones. Encapsulated, whole, pithy, geared toward the audible rather than the visual, I can set them up in a row and burn through them whilst puttering with ferns and maples, roses and lupines, listening and working simultaneously.

The two I’ve been listening to this week are both language-oriented, and I recommend them to writers and readers of this blog.

Science Diction:
This podcast is an offshoot/subset of the more well-known Science Friday podcast. I’ve never liked Science Friday, as the faux banter they use to tie together the various “articles” is—sorry guys—cheesy and painfully obvious. Science Diction is a subset of those “articles,” was hosted by Queen of the Vocal Fry, Johanna Mayer (at least through 2021), and focuses on the meaning, etymology, and historical context of science-y (and not-so-science-y) words. Ambergris, jargon, hurricane names, gene names, robots, mercury, these have all been topics of this 12–20 minute segments, and I’ve burned through them all, loving each one.

The Allusionist:
Helen Zaltzman hosts this language-centric podcast, with a voice that is the perfect juxtaposition of posh British tone and working-class American idiom. I’m only a handful of episodes into this (working from 2015 toward the present), but already they’ve covered the origins and history of words/phases such as “bra,” “going viral,” and the c-word. As with all good (IMO) podcasts, they spiral outward from the base topic a bit, to give a broader view of the surrounding context, showing the wider connections to the world at large. They vary in length from 10–30 minutes, and come out once a fortnight.

There are other language-focused podcasts out there, but I haven’t spent time with them so cannot recommend. If you’ve listened to any, please leave a recommendation in the comments. I expect I’ll be burning through a lot of them this season.

k

 

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I was in a foul mood all last week, so when a friend offered her opinion of a movie I’d recently enjoyed, deeming it “fairly good, while predictable,” I took it as a passive-aggressive reference to my low-brow viewing choices.

Naturally, she did not mean it that way and (thankfully) I have a strict “reread before hitting enter” policy when posting to social media, so no damage was done, but it did get me thinking.

The movie in question is of the “coming of age” variety and my friend’s evaluation was, to be frank, pretty spot-on. The movie is predictable, as we follow a young man growing up, navigating the pain of early adulthood until, at movie’s end, he comes to terms with his father’s history of absence and utter unreliability.

Predictable. Trite. Cliché. I’ve used these words to describe (in negative terms) both books and movies. I’ve done so here on this blog, and usually I’ve not been kind about it. So, why do I look down my nose at some formulaic works, yet enjoy others? Why do I consider some works to be entertaining, even though they are utterly predictable?

We’re all familiar with the old argument about story archetypes, how many there are, and how old. According to common wisdom, there are only seven archetypal plots (though opinions differ, and widely so). Whether this is true or not, formulas are used to build stories, especially in film—the coming of age plot, the rom-com, the murder mystery—and they are often followed to the point where you can set your watch by what happens on screen. Eighteen minutes into an episode of Murder, She Wrote? A body is going to drop in three . . . two . . . one . . .

Why do we enjoy such stories, even when we know how they’ll work out? And when do we not enjoy them?

I returned to the movie under discussion, and found that my enjoyment had nothing to do with the story’s predictable nature. I knew the boy would grow up and be happy. I knew the boy’s father would remain an irredeemable two-dimensional deadbeat dad. I knew the boy would have some sort of confrontation with his father and, in so doing, accept his own adulthood. I knew all this would happen, and to be honest, those were the least engaging sections of the film.

What grabbed and held my interest were the differences, the ways in which the writers deviated from the expected. As one example, it was how a collection of men—grandfathers, uncles, and pseudo-uncles—cooperated to raise a boy, communal fathers to an abandoned son, a composite role model that was both counterpoint and counterpart to the flawed original. The formula, that’s the foundation on which the whole is built, the scaffolding that supports what is new, but it’s the differences that set it apart.

Absent these differences, that’s when formula is a problem. That’s why the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was a flop: simply filming it in color wasn’t enough of a difference.

But with sufficient differences, ah!, now we have variations on a theme, the same story told from a different point of view, and we enjoy the result. Otherwise, we’d never watch another rom-com, see a new staging of Macbeth, or read another mystery novel. We’d be all “Been there; done that,” and set off in search of the totally new (and good luck with that).

Some will argue that there are no original stories; that everything is an interpretation of one of the seven archetypes; or a fanglement, a mash-up of two or more to fashion what merely seems new. I disagree but will allow that, in most cases, it is true. We do tell the same stories, over and over, and we enjoy the retelling, the predictability.

So, when I begin to fret that my current work-in-progress is just another old tale retold, I’ll make a point of remembering the differences I’m working into it. Style, setting, sub-plot, backstory, characterization, tone, structure, pacing—differences large and small all adding to a unique outcome.

Formulas just are; it’s how we employ them that determines if they’re worth the time.

k

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