Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some Other Character, Part Two

In class last night, we did a writing meditation. Each person in the group recalled a face he or she had seen--not a relative or friend's face, preferably a remembered face of someone the writer didn't know anything or much about. Then we did the body: remember what you can about the person's dress, gesture, shape and movement. Once we wrote about the body, I asked everyone to describe the person doing a simple action: sitting down, picking something up, turning around, anything that person might do when she or he thinks no one is watching. I described this fully in my entry called Some Other Character, written Sunday, August 17, 2008.

Following the in-class writing, I told them that this would be the character they used for a take-home assignment. The assignment has enough logistic problems to solve to keep the conscious mind focused on solving them; meanwhile, the unconscious mind has the freedom to pour into the mix its own dream.

Here is the assignment: Your character is in a strange town for some reason you don’t discuss—though it may or may not become clear. He/she is not you. While staying overnight somewhere, something drives him/her out: desire, sound, image, thought, idea. The character thinks as she/he walks, drives, bicycles, until he/she sees something unusual, meets unusual person, has unusual experience. This event is the climax of the story. The story may then conclude in a way you feel appropriate: stop there or take character back to where he/she started--or anything in between. Along the way, the character hears an animal sound. Twice, mention one color and one body part; give two descriptions of atmosphere, sky, celestial bodies…

I will post one or two of the outcomes when they are turned in.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How Is a Fawn Like Obama?

Harley the dog went wild this morning on our walk through Treaty Line Park! A deer appeared on the path as we came around a bend. The fawn, as large as a fawn can get and still have pretty white spots, stared a moment then dashed into the trees on our right, fifteen, twenty feet in, and stood stock still, staring at us. He thought it made him invisible. It almost worked, except for those big ears sticking out! Harley wanted to give chase!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

......Photographs of Jim Shirey

Several years ago at Cleveland State's Imagination workshop, I met with a few participants one-on-one after reading their work. I waited to read "Satan's Breath" last thing before heading to the conference, a complicated tall tale filled with bodies and voices of iron workers hanging out at a gas station.

One of the guys wore ripe jeans he never changed, thick with grime and grease. The buddies, if that's what they were, made him get a new pair. When he took off the jeans they stood by themselves for a while, then took off running. They all gave chase but the jeans got away.

Years later one of the guys had a plot of land and a son to whom he wanted to pass on his lore. He took him out in the fields and forests but at one point released a slow, silent, deadly fart he didn't want his son to smell (Satan's breath). Trying to draw the boy away from the scene of the crime, he distracted him with some natural wonder when he saw movement ahead.

It was the pants, still running.

Forgive me Jim for any errors I've made. I'm working from memory. I went from dreading to meet the writer to a kind of wary eagerness. He showed up at the appointed hour, a man my age or more, I couldn't be certain, with a wild gleam in his eyes and springy hair standing all over his head. We talked about the story a while, then he started telling me a little more about his life.

A retired math professor from Athens, Ohio, he collected sticks and roots and burls and gnarls of wood on wanderings through fields and forests around his house. He picked ones with spirits in them, took them home, polished them up. He had some in the trunk of his car if I wanted to see. I figured only cowardice would keep from me from going along.

We ambled to the parking lot, and he really had a load of sticks and such in his trunk. When he pulled out the first, I almost gasped. In the center, around a gnarl in the branch, I saw the three distorted faces at different heights, facing different directions. He asked what I saw, but I wanted him to tell me what he saw.

He pointed out the same faces and described them as I saw them. Each stick, root, or branch had its own spirit looking out, turned to a high polish. On our way back, he pointed out a configuration in a tree and I saw it there too. He gave me a stick, a little one like a natural peace pipe to set on the table when I conduct a workshop or pass around. I've done that a few times.

We kept contact after the conference, with the help of another workshop participant, a brilliant poet named Sammy Greenspan. It was a red letter day when I got new poems from her or new photos from Jim. I call his photographs portals, and maybe he does too. I ogle them frequently, vary them on my wallpaper, and treasure the good fortune that let me meet him.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Amazing Adventures

Reading my father's autobiography--of his military years right now--makes my head spin, but not in a bad way, like the girl in The Exorcist. The ease with which this Ohio farm boy leaped into the saddle amazes me, as it must have amazed him at times--though he seems to have taken it all in stride, flying here and there all over the world. I had to laugh when I read that Dad dashed off to Holland when the dike broke--it turns out he was the boy who stuck his finger in the dike.

He reconnected the broken communications cable and called out the Engineers to patch up a dike that had taken years to create with dirt and boulders. The new one they built with concrete has evidently held up over the years. He was feted like a hero whenever he went back to Holland.


His brief account of our life in France was refreshing. I've never lived any place I could go back to and say there, that's my home, so it's wonderful to have someone confirm what happened. I had the same experience when I read some things my sister Liz wrote for a writing class she took--great relief, great happiness. She was there too! I remember with vivid clarity the estate in Montigny and SHAPE village--what a wonderful time that was. Literally, full of wonders. I am eager to read what he wrote of our time in Germany, which I know is coming.

It's as if this were my first time reading the autobiography, though I remember every section once I arrive at it. It's all refreshed by distance and passage of years, oddly enough. My favorite lines so far are quotes from people he knew. One was that the mountains in Africa were so high and the clouds so dense, pilots often found some of them contained rocks. This was when he was (we were) stationed in Eritrea, East Africa. He had decided not to fly with two friends going across the mountains to get to Kenya, I believe, only to hear shortly that they had run into a cloud filled with rocks. Their bodies were recovered surprisingly low on the mountain.

My other favorite line came when Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was being established in Paris, they cleaned out Pigalle. My father mentioned that the red light district was well patrolled and medically attended, suggesting that he thought they probably should have let things be. A French officer he knew said that when they shut down the red light district all of Paris took on a rosy glow. Good line, that.


Many wonders pass through the book, including a few deaths to which he had to attend. It struck me in the reading that you can probably judge the arena in which a man has worked by the number and nature of deaths that occur. I wanted to hear more about my father's having to initiate and oversee the exhumation of all the American bodies that had died on local African soil. He said they were well preserved in the arid climate and suggested this probably had something to say about why the mummies survived so well.

He said a few other interesting things that left me wondering, such as that during the trip from California to Africa, my sister and I fell ill with a flu that required several days hospitalization in Rome, which afforded he and my mother a chance to visit the antiquities and sample the fare. That is certainly odd, but I'm glad they went, as we obviously survived.

I loved the things he mentioned that Liz said. On her way to Africa, at three years old, she asked my father where her backyard was. That's a line I heard repeated throughout our lives as a family together. When she disappeared at the Paris zoo, they searched all over for this beautiful spot of sunlight and only found her when they went back to the car. She was sitting on the hood and informed them, I knew you'd have to come back to the car, so I just waited.


I woke up in the middle of the night last night, as I sometimes do, and as I sometime do, I read an hour or so before going back to bed. The autobiography kept me engrossed. I sometimes reread sections to get them down right. Things he understood so easily sometimes require a bit of concentration. The man was a globe trotter, to be sure, but a workman as well, a dedicated soldier--absolutely dedicated.

When I was fourteen I was assigned by a teacher to ask my parents a few questions about their lives, one of which was, If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently? A very stupid question for a child to ask a parent, but that's because it's a good one--who would expect an honest answer? My father said, I think I'd like to try it all again without a family.

He did not hesitate to tell the truth and never considered sparing the feelings of a growing fellow. It makes me laugh now, as one man speaking to another. Back then it merely made me think, and I guess there are those who would say that's always a good thing, eh?

One thing for certain: I never forgot it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Old Soldier

I'm rereading my Dad's autobiography. The last time I read it, years ago, he had just finished it, and now he's been gone for quite a few years. I'd have to count up right now to remember how many--maybe I'll just ask my sister Liz what year that was. I was the only immediate family member, as far as I know, who wasn't there beside him when he died. I had gone back and forth from Ohio to California several times to see him before that--times I often recall now--and then I went back for the funeral. It was so wonderful to see my mother and sister and brothers and all their families. Dad would have been satisfied to have been the reason for the gathering.

I have always loved my father even though there was trouble between us. As the oldest boy, I took the brunt of his frustration and anger as I was growing up. Of course, my sister and brothers remember it too, but the fact that he hit me across the face or on the head a few times too many never quite went away altogether. As much as I loved him and loved to see the intelligent light in his eyes, his obvious pleasure to be among his family, there was always some part of me that felt he did not love me, in spite of the fact that he always made sure I had what I needed in this life.

Of my brothers, I think Russell had the strongest connection to my Dad. He had a great ability to understand Dad. Steve had a great ability to love Dad and the sensitivity to initiate a better relationship with him--though this came many many years later, after Dad had had to live with the fact that he really couldn't control his anger sometimes. Steve presided over Dad's funeral service at my mother's insistence. He did a wonderful job--a job I could never have approached. At the service, he said that he realized he would never again look into another grown man's eyes and see the total approval and unconditional love he saw in my father's eyes.

Liz was his daughter, and though she knew what it meant to fear Dad, I saw in a living way every day his reverence and his love for her. Of course, Liz was an amazing girl. I don't know really how David related to Dad. Once, after his own trials had begun, he told me he didn't think Dad wanted the abundant life. That's interesting to me--totally religious terms. I don't for a moment think that summed up David's relationship, it's just that I remember him saying that.

But Dad had the abundant life, it's obvious from reading this autobiography. Slowly my own feelings of isolation from my father have dwindled and gone down where they belong, into the grave of my father. Those feelings have left me, and I now am mildly angry at myself for ever having wasted a moment of our lives worrying about that, but I couldn't help it at the time. I couldn't fully talk with my Dad, though we did talk, because of the memory of his hand on my face. At thirty years old I woke up from a dream and still felt his fist on my cheek bones.

It wasn't constant; it never made me stop loving him. It troubled our avenues of communication but did not close them. In later years I know his memory of those days and times made him a little unable to talk to me. It troubled his own credibility in his own eyes. But here's why I am saying this now: reading this autobiography I hear his simple, clear voice untroubled. That's because our relationship has grown more loving and more kind. I talk to him often and none of that remains except as a memory of how sometimes in life you do things you can't seem to stop that you just wish had not been so. I know from experience. It was some damn saint or other, probably Paul, who said something like I have done things I should not have done and left undone things I should have done.

At the same time, oddly enough, the fact that he hit me impressed upon me my importance to him. Ain't that strange. And every year of my life I understand the importance to me of his life and his intelligence and his generosity--whatever he had belonged to others. He was a man who gave himself to religion because he knew he required it. I hear his voice coming off these pages and am deeply touched by his honesty and his simplicity and directness.

And I like him. I remember what it was all those years that made me admire him. I have always been proud of my father. I know all about his abilities. I know about his immense vocabulary and his personal honesty. I know about his angers and frustrations, but I am listening to the man trying to tell me--all of us in our family--how he lived and the amazing things that transpired in his life. The rest is the past, the past that instructs us in who we are and what our lives will be.

This morning, when I woke up, remembering what I had read the day before, I said Thanks, Dad. Thanks for writing this down. And then later, walking my doggie, I said Thanks for all of it. Thanks for my life. I told him I wouldn't change a thing. Then I added that I thank my mother too, because I thought she might be listening in. I generally talk to her on another frequency. A parallel development has occurred in my relationship with her. I dream of her frequently. But today was about Dad. I can't wait to get to the rest of this and read it all over again.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Some Other Character

I'm teaching Writing Short Short Fiction for the second time, though I've taught Fiction Writing for years. I know what I want to fix in this class and what I want to keep, but I definitely want to take the class in a different direction.

One thing I want to do right away: direct students away from writing about their immediate and personal lives. Personal writing would be an interesting course, but that's not what I'm aiming for. I want their pieces to take place in the world of fiction, in the world of dreams rather than their immediate realities.

On the first day in class I'm going to have them do a meditative exercise. I want them to close their eyes (really or imaginatively) and remember the face of someone they have seen, a face that stuck in the mind. It's important this not be someone with whom they have relationship in their personal lives, especially not a family member--just someone they have seen who stuck in their minds for one reason or another.

Then I want students to describe this face in as much detail as possible, on paper. See the face as completely as possible; write it down. Next, I want students to recall the person's body and do the same: describe it as completely as possible, including how the person was dressed, how he or she gestured, and so on. Anything they don't exactly remember in this part of the exercise may be filled in by something that seems to fit.

Now, I want everyone to imagine that person doing a simple action: sitting down in a chair, picking something up off a table, turning around to look at the person looking at them. The action takes place when the character doesn't know he or she is being watched--surrounded by silence.

Once we finish this exercise, I want them to use this specific character as the main character of a very short story written to follow a skeletal structure I have already designed, which will make them write something that has a beginning, middle and an end--sort of. I will give them enough problems to solve that it will distract their conscious mind enough that their unconscious mind, their dreaming mind, can walk right out in the open and dance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Imaginary Gardens with Real Frogs

I got a nice rejection slip from a magazine today, with a thoughtful note. I almost didn't know I was being rejected until I got to the end. I sent the essay they rejected to another magazine right away--one that just started taking online submissions.

Something good came of the rejection slip: the editors use a nice postcard with an inspirational photo on the front, so I can put it on my office door, which is plastered with postcards. I also have a new one with a Hippo, from my daughter Heather, I can put there as well.

My office door has nothing but images, which is probably because I can't commit to words right now. Pictures will do it for me: here's the world we love, some of the little pieces of it we hope the politicians of one country or another won't destroy.

John McCain recently said in response to Russia's invasion of its neighbor Georgia that countries can no longer invade other countries in the 21st century. He obviously didn't remember or count our invasion of Iraq, which makes it hard to posture.

But isn't it odd there are so many people in the world who are willing to kill? It's a requirement that presidential candidates be willing to kill if the cause comes up. Sometimes you can't help it; sometimes you can. Maybe the dividing line between candidates should be when and for what reasons they would be willing to kill people and destroy their habitat.

In the center of my door sits a green frog on a green lily pad. If elected, I hope you can keep from destroying frogs or things that live on or in or near water. Or things that are green or that have eyes or that don't have eyes, like the lily pad on which my frog sits.

That doesn't seem like too much to ask, but many people feel it is a proud right, even a national heritage, to kill people who get in the way, or animals and plants that can't get out of the way. That's why my rejection slip is good, and the hippo Heather sent is good. I will put them on my door with the images of things that shouldn't be destroyed.

We tend to think our opinions make us who we are, make us unique, important, powerful, or part of a more powerful group that gives our opinions teeth. But our opinions make us common, even dangerous, and that is often what opinionated people are after.

The sense that they ought to be feared.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Deer Park

This morning I took Harley to the park again, and the deer came so close to us--two beautiful spotted fauns and two does. They stood within twenty feet, just in the trees, and watched us walk past. Dumb Harley didn't even see them until we were almost past them--then he went into high alert. The deer seemed unfazed--I think they may be getting used to us. Or, since Harley looks like a little deer, maybe they thought I had one of them on a leash!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

......Photo of a Dog Like Duke

I have mentioned my dog Harley a couple of times because he's a big part of my life. Or a little one, since he's only thirty pounds, but he looks like he ought to be much bigger--at least fifty or sixty pounds. He's proportioned like a bigger dog, and I think he's part yellow lab because he loves to swim. His muzzle is black, but the rest of him is gold, though I'm told his color is fawn, which seems to fit because he looks like a little deer and has a weakness for deer. I used to be able to walk him in the park without a leash, but once he gets the scent of a deer, all bets are off. Nothing can stop him from chasing after a deer.

I once started writing a book about How to Be a Writer, but my first chapter--about whether or not a writer ought to have a dog, and if so, what kind of dog, and so on--got so long I never got to the second chapter. There was too much to consider about the dog.

I remember every dog I've ever had, from the time I was a small child, and I will write them all down some day. My daughter Heather, who lives in Tarrytown, New York, sent me a placard that I have hanging on my front door: Heaven is the place where every dog you've ever loved comes to greet you. Even though Heather has a cat, she loves Harley too. When she comes to visit he likes to sleep on her bed, even though he has his own bed the rest of the time.

My daughter Alexis, as busy as she is, has to have her little dog Rubi in her sphere. And my dear Lisa has her own special nutty relationship with Harley, who is also her dog in a big way. Their relationship is unique and maybe a little neurotic but close and fun. And maybe what started this talk about dogs is that Lisa has only had one other dog in her life, and his name was Duke.

Her mother, she says, always told her she was allergic to dogs, but that one day they might get a nice non-allergenic dog, but this black and tan dog followed her home. Her brother and sister came out on the porch and sat with it, telling her to ask their parents if they could keep it. Lisa told her parents they could put an ad in the paper, and someone did come to see the dog, but it turned out not to be theirs. On the phone, the couple said their dog's name was Duke, so Lisa and her brothers and sister started calling it Duke, to see if it would come.

Duke stayed with them his whole life. Sometimes he ran away, Lisa says, but he always came back. Duke had a troubled relationship with her mother--he seemed to intuit she never really approved of him. But Duke loved her Dad. When her Dad came home, she says, he would say Dukey Dukey Dukey and rub him and talk to him before he said hello to anyone else. I think Lisa loves Dukey more because he loved her Dad.

When we visited Heather in Tarrytown the last time, we went to Coffee Labs, a coffee shop up the hill from the Hudson where people can bring in their dogs. Lisa saw this woman who had a dog that she said looked like Duke, so she took a picture of the dog who looked like Duke. So among the photos of our trip to New York is the unknown woman--who looks very familiar--who let her take a picture of her and her dog. Duke may have died years ago, but she remembers him and casts his image on any dog who looks vaguely like him. In this way, Duke lives on, and all the dogs I ever loved live on as well, in memory, where they move and wag and bark and smile and curl up on the floor beside me.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Heart Attack

I just got back from taking Harley to the park. We walked through a mile and a half trail that has some up and down. A few teenage runners came through, the boys one at a time, a couple panting and struggling, some lighter of foot. Two girls came through coming off each foot as if they weighed nothing at all. They were talking, of course, and I heard one of them asking if a boy the other one mentioned was Italian looking, which she said meant he had a dark complection.

Actually, this is the trail on which I first had my heart attack two years ago in November. The day I had the heart attack it was raining lightly, and I was walking Harley. It was like a blue-grey sheet pressing lightly on my chest. The pain was not extreme, but it did threaten to keep me from finishing the trail. I had to stop several times. I wondered what the heck was happening. I made it up the steepest little incline but I felt it stronger and then it let up a little. It went away and came back. I didn't know it was a heart attack. And I got pretty wet.

When I got home, I tried to put it behind me, but Lisa got home and brought a twenty-four pack of bottled water, so I pulled it out of the trunk and carried it up to our apartment. By the time I dropped it on the kitchen counter I was having the same pain times three--which still didn't feel like it ought to be debilitating--and had to go drop in my desk chair in the second bedroom. I put my head down on the desk and didn't want to talk although Lisa kept asking me what happened. She is really a caring person with a strong ability to empathize with others--an ability she can't quite stop because it is part of her make-up. I love this about her.

But I could not speak and I just wanted to have Lisa understand I couldn't speak right then, but of course she did right to be concerned, and she did right to have me take an aspirin, which thins the blood and allows it to flow more freely through the clogged artery.

I got to feeling better and went on to my evening class, but I never made it to class. I called Lisa and asked her to pick me up and take me to the hospital, where they gave me nitro--three pills under the tongue at five minute intervals. It tasted like red hots. The pain went away and they told me I had indeed had a heart attack, which still seemed amazing to me. I can't explain how mildly ecstatic I felt. I had Lisa beside me and I didn't have the pain anymore. I was going to have to have a couple of stents put in, but none of this was something that I objected to greatly. I felt God's presence all around me, and that was an incredible high.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

American Consumer

I recently realized that when I hear about 'The American Consumer' I am one of them, as I consume one medium skim cappucccino when I come to this coffee shop to use their internet connection. Other things I consume: books, pens, paper, CDs, a few pairs of jeans and a shirt or two. That's about it. I pay rent or mortgage but that doesn't seem so much consumption as a condition of life. I eat. I almost forgot about that, and I have a weakness for fish from West Point Market.

I have always had a visceral disgust reaction to the idea of 'The American Consumer' so I suppose I must consider myself part of a somewhat disgusting group, but I am ok with that as I actually derive a great deal of pleasure from what I consume, even though it is fleeting. I also consume the local parks, where I walk my dog Harley, sometimes with my dear friend Lisa. I love to consume the parks. Last evening, while consuming a park, I consumed several snapping turtles, one extremely large, with his own ecosystem growing on his back, moss and all--a real Horton Hears a Who world. I also consumed a medium sized turtle and a smaller one, as well as two different kinds of herons, one of which caught and consumed a fish. I consumed numerous carp, and, as the evening wore on, several gnats and mosquitos consumed Lisa and me, which only seemed fair.

This morning, after consuming one another, Lisa and I came here--though Lisa was uncertain whether or not we should walk Harley before or after we came here. Lisa likes to write here and sometimes I get to hear sentences or paragraphs or groups of paragraphs she has written. I tend to write at home, especially when no one else is around, or late at night, or early in the morning, with no rhyme or reason except I get a story caught in my gut like a bug of some sort, a germ. I like the idea of a germ, because it has two sides. One kind of germ causes a disease, the other causes growth, or has growth as its main property.

I suppose that brings you completely up to date, whoever you are, and I am glad of that.

Your Correspondent,


About Me

My photo
I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.