Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where should we have our thanks? (Hamlet 5. 2. 320)

When an idea flickers and begs to become flesh, where should we have our thanks? (Hamlet 5. 2. 320)

When a word that you rarely use or hear used springs forth unbidden, where should we have our thanks? (Hamlet 5. 2. 320)

When flickers calls to flesh and the First Ambassador’s question haunts idle thoughts, where should we have our thanks? (Hamlet 5. 2. 320)

That is a notion taken up in a fascinating audio essay, “Me, Myself, and Muse,” a program I was privileged to hear while driving roads I’ve driven many times. The essay revived me; it pulled the wax from my ears so I could listen to the Siren’s call, and I was alive to it, the skies, and small blossoms dancing in the blast of my auto passing. Cue it up right now, and listen, all ye who write!

Oliver Sacks, one of the fascinating people interviewed, once wrote his name in the Finite Book, vowing to take his own life if he didn’t finish a book he’d wrestled with for too long. His self-imposed deadline worked. The book seemed to write itself when--or was it because--he threatened his other self, the writing self with death.

Rainbow Over the Ozarks
Al Griffin Photography

Elizabeth Gilbert made no such vow, but she’s familiar with creation, with writing blocks, with the wraith that exists in the ether, one that some call the Muse. Inspiration, creativity, and ideas are available for the plucking, she believes--if we allow ourselves to be their vessel.

Gilbert learned from Tom Waits, known for talking to his music as he creates it. Some songs must be sweet-talked, but others desire a bit of bullying in order to exit the birth canal. Now Gilbert speaks to the Muse as well. In fact, the title of her wildly popular novel, Eat, Pray, Love, was delivered unto her after she appealed to it, explaining that she could not sift through all the truths to glean a title; she needed the gift of a title and on the day after her appeal, the title streamed into her consciousness.

So where should we have our thanks? From ourselves! Once we believe in the possibility of our own gift, we give it life. Believe and talk to your gift. Ask it to take your hand and write.

Reading Challenge:

Listen to the Radio Lab’s story, “Me, Myself, and Muse.”

Writing Challenge:

Compose a letter or prayer to the Muse. Ask for help with a specific writing challenge.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Doomed Rebels and Little Dryer Sheets

In the home we sold, I enjoyed an oversized utility room with space for a large-tub washer and a dryer with nice cabinets above. In this room, I also installed a feeding station for the cats, a tall cabinet for cleaning products, and clothes racks on which to hang damp clothes as they finished drying. I could move about easily and see anything I needed.

In the condo with spectacular views where I live now, my utility room is a narrow closet with just enough room for a small-tub washer and dryer. When the folding doors that hide these machines are open to allow access, the one on the right prevents the dryer door from opening fully so I’ve had to buy a tool with a long handle to reach inside the dryer, squeeze the plastic handle, grip some clothes, and haul them hither. Inevitably, the dryer sheet escapes, and I must chase it down before stuffing it back into the fray, forcing it to do its work until the buzzer sounds.

As you can imagine, my reaction begins at mildly annoyed to Moby-Dick sized foul language. Yesterday, however, it occurred to me that the dryer sheet is simply the rebel among us. The one who cannot stay no matter how much he wants to do what others expect, demand, or need. He simply must march to that drumbeat few of us hear.

Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, includes such a rebel. He’s Tom Wingfield, the only son of Amanda Wingfield and a father who fled years ago. Brother to Laura, an unmarried adult with few skills, Tom is sole support for two women. His own life has been put on hold, his savings taken to pay for a typing course so that Laura may support herself one day. Tom has the spirit of a poet, but he’s tied to a paycheck from a shoe warehouse.

If Tom upholds his duty as breadwinner, he will never build a life of his own, he will never see the world, and he will never write a word. The true Tom Wingfield will wither and die. So he leaves Amanda and Laura to endure however they may. He cannot live unless he leaves.

Randal Patrick McMurphy, protagonist of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is another little dryer sheet destined to flee its oppressive chamber. He’s a slacker, ill-equipped for the working world, but his charity toward others redeems him. He sees Nurse Ratchet’s tyranny for what it is: abuse, and he asks nicely for modest changes that will enrich the lives of those confined to her ward. He learns that reasonable requests only feed her hunger for absolute control so he accelerates into defiance and fury.

McMurphy could have chosen a different path and remained free and hearty. Most of us would have yielded to the oppressive culture and dodged the irreversible consequences of our own convictions. McMurphy simply could not do that. He had to fight. Fighting was in his DNA, it seems, and he rises to the stature of hero even as he’s broken, labeled a fool, and lost forever to his own or anyone else’s cause.

Tris and Katniss are other little dryer sheets. Neither can accept the place where fate places them. Both struggle to escape and reluctantly accept the burden of changing the quality of life for others. Both hope to forgive themselves for what their natures compel them to do because for them and all of us, the line between duty and necessity is almost invisible.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Writing Challenge:

Tom Wingfield and Randal Patrick McMurphy are mirror images of people who cannot assume the roles and responsibilities of their society. Some of these people lead us to become better. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Sister Prejean, Sister Campbell, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez and so many more have moved us to open our hearts and minds to freedom, equality, and justice. Others, including conscientious objectors, who cannot abide society’s strictures, have constructed their own prisons. Write a sympathetic portrait of a rebel, destined to break the boundaries of his existence

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"The Ice Palace" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What distinguishes pastoral poetry from other poetry is a sense of place. Pastoral poets believe that place shapes those who dwell near sheep and cattle, birds and streams. The poets suggest that living so close to the circle and cycles of life, endows shepherds and farmers with ardor, humility, and insights less easily attained by those who live apart from nature.

City-dwellers, on the other hand, tend to be more driven, no more and no less hard-working than rustics, but more competitively for daily, they brush shoulders with others on the same path with the same objectives. They become more ruthless, knowing that the great pack of humanity will kick out weaker members.

Our lore is ripe with inferences drawn about others based upon place. Russians, for example, are thought to be mirthless, in need of vodka to make it through the long monochromatic winters and want. The French believe in vacations, in family and love, in sharing their wealth with those in need; their own civic and familial pride grants them a measure of arrogance that Westerners dislike. Greeks and Italians gesticulate broadly. They are loyal to older family members, and like the French or Spanish, believe in time taken for food, family and rest daily.

Even here at home in the United States, place sculpts our perceptions. Southerners sometimes behave as if the Civil War isn’t over, as if civil rights had not been decided in favor of all. Northerners seem to believe that Southerners don't just manifest a fondness for molasses, but have molasses for brains. Those who dwell in New England believe they think more quickly and are more enlightened, especially when comparing themselves to those sluggish folk across the Bible Belt.

Winter Hunting
An eagle flies above ice in search of open water and food.
Photo by Al Griffin
The power of place intrigues Fitzgerald and thus, he gives us “The Ice Palace,” built from thick blocks of ice, grand as befitting its palatial name, dark without the torches held aloft by platoons of men hardy enough to withstand frigid temperatures most of the year. These people take pride in ruddy cheeks and surefooted trespass over icy ground.

Into this icy realm ventures Sally Carol, a Southerner who longs for adventure. She cannot love any of the Southern boys in her hometown because they’ve been ruined by their love for the South. They don’t dream of being anywhere else. They cling to old traditions and each other, and they do not aspire to more. Their cars are old but sufficient. Their homes wilting in the depleted Southern soil, but they can’t imagine moving.

Sally herself has a bond to the soil. On it, Southern boys died trying to defend a way of life, and she grows nostalgic thinking of them. She loves them for their sacrifice.

Her northern fiancĂ© cannot fathom such regard. He thinks of Southern men as too soft, too self-indulgent, too frail, and he makes the mistake of saying so. This chills Sally Carol’s hopes that he can keep her warm through a long winter. Place has too powerful a hold upon her.

Reading Challenge:

Read Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” Consider reading other authors for whom place has power, Cormac McCarthy for example.

Writing Challenge:

Invent a character sculpted by a place.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Those pesky pronouns! At first glance, the title of Fitzgerald’s story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” leads readers to assume that Bernice bobbed her own hair, but as readers read on, they learn that pronoun referents are not so easily identified. Bernice certainly bobs some hair, but not her own.

Fitzgerald explores why Bernice would cut hair belonging to someone else in this short story, written in the early twentieth century when styles for women were changing. Hemlines were climbing to expose a bit of ankle, then the calf, and later knees. Hair lengths were also becoming shorter. Long tresses gave way to shorter bobs, a cut still in vogue today.

In fact, women of all ages enjoy great hair freedoms today. They may choose a bob, but add extensions or poofs for special occasions. They may be blond in the morning, strawberry blond later in the day, and brunette by midnight, thanks to dyes, wigs, and tints. Nearly a century ago, women did not enjoy such variety. Their hair grew from birth, but only young girls wore their hair loose down their backs or swinging in braids. Older women pinned their hair into loops and waves upon their heads, letting it down after undressing for bed. Those young women who dared to defy convention by bobbing their hair often faced derision and criticism.

Today, more men cultivate long hair
on their chins and upper lips while
others visit spas to wax away the
unruly chest and back hair.
Al Griffin Photography
When we first meet Bernice, we quickly discern that she is neither daring nor defiant. She's restrained and reserved, so much so that her beauty fades. Others overlook her appearance because her personality drains all color from her cheeks and eyes. She does not understand allure, flirting, or popularity, but she’d like to be the girl sought after, like her cousin Marjorie, and finally begs Marjorie to be her Pygmalion, her Svengali, molding Bernice into a girl the boys admire, unaware that such transformations involve power and power—well, you know, corrupts.

Both Marjorie and Bernice are unaware of the nasty little beast that nests inside the human heart. Marjorie’s comes to life when she realizes that Bernice has become a bit too attractive to the boys who once adored Marjorie herself. Bernice’s springs forth when Marjorie inflicts a great humiliation upon Bernice.

That pesky human heart, so fickle, absolutely unreliable, and perfectly capable of breaking, is the pulse of Fitzgerald’s story. It, like those pesky pronouns, can befuddle and confuse us unless we take great care with our own heart, and even more important, with the hearts of others.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

I might argue that “Head and Shoulders” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, considered in last week's post, is a story in which Mrs. Tarbox transforms Mr. Tarbox, initiating a shift in power comparable to the shift that occurs between Marjorie and Bernice in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Elaborate.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Head and Shoulders" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literature lives. More titles appear daily. I despair of ever keeping up so I don’t look back often. Recently I have, pulling from my shelf a heavy paperback: The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I wanted to re-visit the language and wince once more with characters who suddenly see themselves as others might, usually unfavorably.

The first story, “’Head and Shoulders,’ was the first Fitzgerald story to appear in the Saturday Evening Post (21 February 1920);” (Bruccoli 3) it seemed a good place to begin. I couldn’t recall reading that particular story and stopped myself from scanning the table of contents to find my favorites. I wanted to discover Fitzgerald again so “Head and Shoulders” is where I directed my attention.

The details provided by Fitzgerald’s insightful narrator delight, and from these, characters apparate, becoming tangible and heavy as gravity inexorably pulls them toward the event horizon, there to remain frozen forever, unaware that time and events continue. Horace Tarbox, the protagonist, is a prodigy admitted to Princeton University at the age of 13. There he studied, aloof, introverted, and insulated until Charlie Moon, Horace’s first cousin, introduces Marcia Meadow into Horace’s closed, darkened suite of rooms.

Possibilities are endless in the Light
Photo by Al Griffin
Light arrives with Marcia. She’s bold, a young starlet who sings and dances upon the stage after World War I, a time when being on the stage bore the stain of scandal. She dares Horace to kiss her, calls him Omar, and promises to entertain him in her own apartment when she moves to New York City to perform. She is a siren singing of life, and Horace answers. For the first time, he doesn’t ask why; he leaps and races across the threshold into a world of unknowns and pulsing possibilities.

Meeting Marcia is a happy accident. They marry, and she seems to adore him. She makes him her first care and concern, never minding that his bookish background makes it difficult for him to find work that pays well. He settles for an office post, earning a bit less than she as a performer. She breaks with custom and continues to work after they marry in order to help. She even defines their respective roles as he the head and she the shoulders; in other words, he the brains and she the work horse. She also nurtures Horace, understanding that a life behind a desk may make a man dull and sluggish. She urges him to join a gym and enjoy gymnastics, something he’d forsaken after devoting himself entirely to scholarship, and in exchange, she vows to read Pepys, a work he admires.

At the gym several nights weekly, an old, dormant talent surges to life, so much so that others take notice just when notice must be taken. Horace is good on the rings, and that's a lucky break for Marcia can no longer be the shoulders. She must retire after becoming pregnant so Horace forsakes the office and books on economics in favor of rings and a muscular torso. He becomes the shoulders. Even more surprising, Marcia has become the head. She confesses that she’s been writing a book she calls Sandra Pepys, Syncopated and begs Horace to take it to a publisher, believing it worthy. Horace, always charmed by his dear wife, agrees even though he’s keenly aware of the book’s flaws after a first reading.

But Sandra Pepys speaks to people, and the book succeeds. Now Marcia is definitely the head while Horace the shoulders, and Marcia draws the attention of a French philosopher much admired by Horace. Anton Laurier appears in the Tarbox home to meet Mrs. Tarbox. Horace is actually only acknowledged as Mrs. Tarbox’s husband. Horace's own scholarship, scholarly articles, and early intellectual gifts are no longer a factor in his life; he is the performer.

And thus, Fitzgerald lets fall a tiny toxic drop: Horace who’s been absorbed in love, by love, and by devotion to duty, warns his guest not to answer when someone knocks upon the door and crosses the threshold, intruding upon a well-formed, narrowly defined existence, surprising us readers for we believed in the joy created when Horace and Marcia unite. Horace’s warning jars our belief, and we know that Regret has become a member of the Tarbox household. We are now certain that it will surely cloud the light upon the meadow, preventing all therein from flourishing.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Head and Shoulders” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

Write a journal entry capturing your reaction to the story immediately after reading the last sentence.