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Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

For six decades, my feet have touched the earth. This did not seem a consequential thing before, but I have learned otherwise.

I grew up on the shores of San Pablo Bay. While, behind me, the dark oases of live oaks studded the rolling golden hills, I walked unshod down the shingled shore, the smooth curves of wave-worn pebbles pressing upward into the flesh of my bare feet. I would gather kelp vines to use as bullwhips, challenge fiddler crabs to duels, and with a poked finger annoy the anemones until they spat. My bare toes gripped the ragged rim of a tidepool’s edge, and my arches provided stability as I balanced on weather-beaten logs. To my bare feet, the cool water and the hot stones were as natural as the salt air and the scent of baking seaweed were to my lungs.

Then, with shoelaces tied together and draped over my neck, I kept my shoes dry as I crossed the tidal marsh that lay between shore and home,. Navigating past clumps of reeds, gently pushing aside the serrated blades of pampas grass, I let my feet breach the brackish water, sink into the yellow mud, continue down through muck the color of rust, until they hit the underlayment of fetid black peat, the foul and oily rot squishing upward between my toes. Here, shoes were worthless, destined (if used) to be left behind in a muddy grave or, worse, to survive for a few brief and redolent hours on the front stoop before my mother gave up and threw their ruined stink into the trash.

When school let out for summer, my friends and I tossed our tattered Keds aside and headed up into the sun-bleached hills behind our homes. We followed creekbeds and ridgelines, slid on the fragrant mat beneath the eucalyptus trees, and winced as spiny oak leaves pierced our callused feet. Come late August, with back-to-school sales shouting from every newspaper and TV ad, I’d be given new shoes, along with my mother’s admonition to take care of them this time because she wouldn’t be buying me any replacements.

To be safe, I rarely wore them outside of school.

In the time between those days and now, I maintained my contact with the earth, barefooting my way through the years. Working in my gardens, shaded by their canopy of spruce and fir and maple, I felt with each step the sun-warmed grass, the cushioned mat of russet needles, the crunch of pinecones, the coolth of upturned soil, and always I reveled in the chthonic energy that flowed upward from earth to sole to crown. My feet are still callused, though now mostly from walking on pavement than traipsing across youthful hills, but lately, age has begun to make its effects known.

An injured ligament across the left arch and instep has required support beyond what my bare feet can provide, for which I resorted to an ankle brace and bindings. The foot has improved, albeit with glacial speed, to the point where the tight grip of the bindings is not always required, but sadly, the foot is not yet able to go it alone, and so a shoe (with arch support) is needed.

The practice of walking shod was melted out of my DNA by the sun of many summers and so, even though it lessens the pain, wearing shoes around the house feels alien and unnatural. I feel as if I’m just passing through my own home, on my way to somewhere else, some place where bare feet are a faux pas.

My heart holds tight the hope that this is a temporary condition and not the first step down some inexorable decline, and that by the solstice I will once again be able to feel the ground beneath my feet, but there is no guarantee. Meanwhile, I will practice patience; but do not be surprised if, now and again, I leave my shoes on the bottom step and walk out to spend a few minutes standing barefoot beneath the garden’s green-leafed roof.

k

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I need a new word
for the conflict that
rages within me

I need a word
for the feeling that hits
when I see
a response to force
so primal
so basic
so innately human
yet
so brave
so admirable
so worthy of honor
that
I become a forge
a crucible filled with
heart and spleen
love for the spirit
hatred for the reason

This alloy of
love and anger
horror and awe
this reactive nexus to
the best
and worst
of humanity
surely deserves
a word of its own

k

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from beyond our horizon
comes the sound
    tympanic booms
    savage rumbling
    the faraway growl
        of stomachs hungry for
        power
        control
        more

so we fret
with brows furrowed
    in cultivated concern
    whilst
we mumble apologia and
    with clucking tongues
serve imported tea
    at finely-set tables

but that thrum
    that urgent pulsation
to our distant friends
is the pounding of fists
    on skins stretched taut
a percussive temblor
    shaking hearts and lands
a crescendo of chaos
    building
        to the cymbal’s crash
        to rimshot snares
        to the xylophonic dance of bones

once was a time
this selfsame song
danced upon the breeze
    a faint and subtle rhythm
we listened and
    with pallid interest
chose to admire
    the musician’s technique
rather than critique
    the tune

but the cacophony spread
and others took up the noise
until the world shrieked
    through those bloody measures
and millions vanished
    beneath the grinding treads
        of war

in time
we wrote a coda
    to the obscene chorale
having learned
    that for some
    more
    is never
    enough

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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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purple-robed dawn creeps
past evergreens cloaked in fog,
lifting night’s dark veil

sleeping birds awake,
unfurl dew-draped wings and sing
the morning to life

a cat on the sill
chitters, a phantom huntress
prowling her grey world

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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