Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two Melodies From The Region of Ice

PSA Flight #182, seconds
before it crashed in San Diego,
killing 144 people, on Sept. 25,
1978. I did not see the crash, but
I wasn't far away, and I saw the smoke.
Not until I visited Ground Zero four
days after 9/11/01would I experience
anything similar.

  Today is September 25, 2011.

   On this date 33 years ago, in 1978, a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 crashed in San Diego after colliding with a private plane whose pilot was practicing instrument landings.

The crash killed 144 people: 132 on the plane and 12 on the ground.

Plus, it goes without saying, the poor bastard in the private plane who was practicing instrument landings, and his teacher, too.

I was in San Diego when it happened. I was on my way to a graduate seminar at San Diego State University that morning and had my car radio tuned to KFI out of Los Angeles. It was a hot, dry September day, and when I glanced out of my car window and saw an upside-down pyramid column of black smoke on the horizon to my north, I assumed that what I was looking at was just another southern California Santa-Ana wind brush fire.

But then KFI announced a major plane crash in the San Diego neighborhood of North Park.

I did a double-take. That was no brush fire I had seen.

What I had seen was the smoke (oh god, that upside-down black pyramid -- I'll never forget it) from what was up to that time the worst aviation disaster in U.S. history.

Unfortunately it didn't hold that title for long. There was a crash in Chicago just the following summer that killed more people, and there were more and bigger to come. 

But this disaster, which shocked and horrified my city of San Diego when I was not-quite 23, is branded indelibly in my memory. I saw the smoke.

The disaster put PSA out of business. PSA, which for years had a "lock" on California's air commute business, e.g. San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento, was doomed after this catastrophe. Lockerbie '88 put Pan Am out of business. North Park, '78 put PSA out of business

But I didn't open my notebook this afternoon to make an almanac.

I'm remembering something else.

In two weeks, more or less, I will be 56 years old. And this catches me thinking back 40 years, to when I was on the eve of my 16th birthday, rather than my 56th.

I have blogged on the subject of clinical depression before. But it was exactly 40 years ago this month, on the eve of my 16th birthday, that I experienced it for the first time. Imagine being not-quite 16 and feeling that your life is over.

And yet, it really isn't that uncommon. Teenage depression is not uncommon. I had it. I'm not talking about "the blues." I'm not talking about boredom, either (although boredom in its most extreme form, what the French call ennui, is definitely part of the bouquet that is depression.) What I'm talking about is an omniverous conviction that there is nothing to look forward to, no future happiness, no future nothing. As for today, forget it. Nothing that ever gave you any pleasure now gives you pleasure anymore. You take pleasure in nothing, you hope for nothing, you look forward to nothing. Life is over.

And you're only 16.

That was me, September, 1971. 

Now here we are, in September, 2011, and I'm remembering that.

My entire family, with one exception, was subject to depression. Depression is a disease, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can, and often does, run in families. And because depression can run in families, so can suicide, and it does. Only one member of my extended family, that I know of, ever committed suicide. But many of the rest of us have been, and are, prone to depression. My mother was. My father was. My younger sister was. I am. The only member of my immediate family who has never been depressed is my older sister Carla. And I don't know how she does it.

But now, suddenly, I know why (aside from the anniversary date) I decided to start this blog posting off with an anecdote about a plane crash.

Going into depression is crashing, just as anyone who's ever been there knows.

High school was my first time. When most people talk about high school as their "first time," they're talking about losing their virginity. When I talk about high school as my first time, I'm not talking about getting laid; I'm talking about considering suicide.

Well, okay, maybe it wasn't quite that extreme, but believe me, I was in the suburbs of that city.

And the hell of it was, I didn't even know what the hell to call what I had. I'm not sure the term "clinical depression" had even entered the language in 1971. As Bob Dylan wrote in one of his songs, "My best friend and my doctor won't even say what it is I've got." 

My parents sure as hell didn't know. Which is quite ironic when you stop and think about it. Because both of my parents suffered from depression, and I'm sure they didn't know what to call it when they had it, either. In my father's case, I'd say it was called "just another day." I think my father was depressed from age 25 until the day he died.

My mother had it, too. But their generation didn't acknowledge "the doldrums" as a medical problem. It was just something you went through. And to an extent, their attitude rubbed off on me. "You're in the goddamn doldrums," my father said to me about the time I turned 16. "Well, sometimes everything just seems to be in the goddamn doldrums." That was my Dad's diagnosis. To his credit, he offered a treatment that actually helped, even though he had only a vague idea what he was treating. Dad thought a weekend job might give me something else to think about besides "the goddamn doldrums," and he arranged for a buddy of his who owned a gas station to hire me as a weekend gas-pumping boy. (Such boys existed in those days, and occasionally, girls too. But it was mostly teenage boys who ran around pumping people's gas for them, and checking their oil and cleaning their windshields. Can you imagine such a thing today?)

The point is, I never sought medical treatment for depression until I was in my early fifties. It wasn't a "macho" thing, I just didn't think there was anything doctors could do for me. Then my wife took me in hand and led me to her own happy-pill doctor, who promptly put me on Lexapro. I perked up within weeks. Then I was a believer. But it was a long time coming. Up until age 52, whenever I became depressed, I'd just mope and cry for three months until it went away by itself. I didn't know I had any choice.

I want to talk about how all of this got started. Because it's a cautionary tale, and not just for teenagers either.

I was thinking yesterday, while riding around on the Tbilisi Metro, about the sorry fate of the late Anna Nicole Smith.

There is a tie-in here, I think. It's a common, and quite deadly fallacy in American society that our happiness can be pinned on the achievement of some future goal. "If only I could become vice-president of sales, I'd be happy." "If only I could become department chairman, I'd be happy." "If only I could buy that house in Malibu, I'd be happy."

Uh-huh. And then you become VP for sales, or you become department chairman, or you get that house in Malibu, and then you look around and you start singing, like Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"

I suspect that that's what happened to Anna Nicole Smith. She wasn't as dumb as the stand-up comics told us she was, or maybe as she wanted us to think. Okay, she wasn't Stephen Hawking, but you don't go from slinging fried chicken in some Texas podunk to having your own cable TV show, with Playboy stardom in between, without having a certain cunning as well as a certain moxie. Anna Nicole was not as dumb as she and her publicity made her out to be. But I fear that she fell into the chasm of the American fallacy: "If only I could be a star, some kind of star, I'd be happy."

Well, she did, but she wasn't. What little genuine happiness she had was in her son (surprise!) and then when he died suddenly, that was it. All the Playboy kudos and cable TV appearances in the world wouldn't make up for the loss of her child. And poor little, big-boobed self-promoter Vicki Lynn Hogan, America's cable-TV guilty pleasure, went down in a Hindenburg-style crash of drugs and alcohol.

Bless her heart; she was no dumber than millions of others who fell into the same trap.

Vicki Lynn Hogan, aka "Anna Nicole Smith." I sort of wish
I'd had a chance to talk with her before she "offed" herself,
and I'm not being a smartass. All I would have done was
talk and make notes. (Blondes aren't my type, even if they
do have gigantic breasts that 700-year-old oil millionaires
want to marry.)

I fell into that trap early. Early enough to learn my lesson, that staking your happiness on getting something you want is a lose-lose.

I hate to say this, but it's probably the reason more than 90 percent of all marriages fail. People get married looking to "fix for a lifetime the passions of a day," as historian Will Durant put it, and the mass result is that family-law attorneys get to drive BMWs.

I've been married and divorced twice myself, folks, so I know something of what I'm talking about.

But this is about something that happened much earlier, something that had nothing to do with marriage, but everything to do with raised expectations and their consequences.

When I was 14, my family moved back to southern California after two years in Spokane, Washington, where my Dad had been stationed with the U.S. Border Patrol. I was deliriously happy in Spokane and fervently detested my home town of Chula Vista, CA. When I got the news that my family was moving back to Chula Vista, shortly after my 14th birthday, I locked myself in my room and cried for half an hour.

Well, I had to go; my family was going. But that fall, when I started at Chula Vista High School, I had only one idee fixe in my mind: get back to Spokane somehow. I had been happy there, and knew I would be happy again if only I could go back.

I had a junior high school buddy back in Spokane, and the following summer my parents and his mother arranged for me to come up for a visit. I got on a Greyhound bus in San Diego and took the 36-hour ride to Spokane all on my own (age 15!)

That summer visit to Spokane was a disaster. I kept getting sick, and the weather was too hot to go outside much of the time, and my friend and I got cabin fever and started late August I was back in Chula Vista, facing the start of my junior year at Chula Vista High.

But with a difference, now. The thing I had been living for, the return to Spokane, had been realized and had turned to ashes in my mouth. What was there to live for now?

Well, nothing.

I know it sounds laughable now, but it wasn't then. What totally "freaked me out" as we used to say in those days was that all of the little things that used to give me pleasure all of a sudden gave me no pleasure at all. Nothing and none. Not music, not friends, not books, not television, not even the once-heartwarming sight of the early-morning sun making a little yellow pattern on my bedroom wall. Nothing.

And I started acting goofy. My room offered nothing but the walls closing in. I sought to avoid my room at all costs. Sometimes I would even stay after school to avoid going home. Or I'd go hang out at my friend Randy's house until I had to leave. When I did go home that fall, I would often just slip into my bathrobe and then sit in front of the TV set, enjoying nothing, until it was time to go to bed.

I was 16, and acting like I was 90.

But when you're 16, it's sometimes amazing how you bounce back from illnesses, even, in this case, mental illness.

I'm not saying I was cured overnight -- the cycle ran about three months. I didn't really come out of it until January. But there were, shall we say, signposts, and I offer these for fellow sufferers, especially those who visited that particularly malignant version of Toyland, the Land of Teenage Depression.

Autumn started to come on. The days began shortening. My birthday is in October, and ever since I was a kid, the coming of autumn meant one bad thing (going back to school) followed by a series of good things: my birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Just a few weeks ago I was discussing with my older sister the fact that, when we're down in the dumps, she and I, baroque music has a way of making us feel better. Bach, Handel and company are just good for your spirits, that's all. It just so happened that I was discovering this kind of music when I was a teen. By coincidence (or not), for my 16th birthday my buddy back in Spokane, the very same one I had visited the previous summer, sent me a tape of what has been in all the years since probably my favorite classical-music album. Its somewhat cumbersome title: Telemann: Four Concertos for Diverse Solo Instruments, featuring "First Chair" soloists of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy, conducting. This RCA recording was made in 1969, and although I don't have it anymore, to this day it remains my personal theme song of "the return to life." I listened to this wonderful recording over and over that fall, as depression maintained its firm grip on me, but ever-so-gradually began to loosen.

Georg Phillip Telemann, 1681-1767
God bless this man and his music!
My Dad's getting me that Shell station job also helped a bit. It gave me something else to do on Saturdays and Sundays besides watch TV and avoid my room. And it put a few spending dollars in my pocket, a novel experience for me at 16.

Then along came Melody. And this time I don't mean a melody by Telemann, although those melodies were sweet enough in themselves.

I mean a girl named Melody.

Today she's an old bag with grandchildren, but let me tell you, in the fall of 1971, when I was wrestling in the grip of Mr. Sad, Melody Lynn Coker was just what the doctor ordered.

She was a year ahead of me in school, a senior to my junior. We knew each other from the school choir, in which we both sang. She had light brown hair, a slender figure and the prettiest gray-green eyes I'd ever seen.

She was also a moron, but in those days, who cared?

Many teenagers between the 1950s and the 1970s
pumped gas as part-time jobs. I was a "Shell" man.
I fell head over heels for Melody. So did my pal Keith. We mooned over her together. Believe it or not, we even dated her a couple of times together. The reason we were able to do that was because she didn't especially care for either of us. Her mother thought it was funny. "My daughter is going with two guys," she was overheard telling someone. "And tonight she has a date with them." Yeah, Keith and I were taking her to the movies. We went in Keith's 1959 Fiat. Melody sat between us.

Nobody got fresh with anybody. Or was invited to. Little has changed between my 16th birthday and my 56th. Women still chuck me aside in favor of guys who have to move their lips when they read. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

But it didn't matter, in fact it might have been a good thing that Melody, whose life revolved around the Assembly of God Church and the only ambition she ever had, which was "to get married and have a baby," (this at age 17), wanted nothing to do with me. Or Keith either. I can't speak for Keith, but for me, being in love with Melody at age 16 was a ding an sich, as Immanuel Kant might have said if he had attended Chula Vista High School. The idea was to get me out of the slough of despond, and if unrequited love were the specific for that condition, bring on unrequited love! The heroin-methadone analogy doesn't apply here: nobody WANTS to be depressed. And while Melody put me through endless hours of misery, it was certainly a healthier, more "normal" kind of misery than watching my bedroom walls close in on me.

I mean, look what might have happened to me. If Melody had returned my feelings, I might have been in harness as a husband and father at age 19. Eek. There might have been guys out there who wanted Melody that badly. I don't think I was one of them, although I will confess that, being a teenager, I did think about it. Thank God Melody didn't like me that much.

There was an Act II to the story of Melody and me, but I'll save that for another time.

Relax, there was no Act III.

But, as Virgil guided Dante through the infernal regions and up the Mount of Purgatory to where Beatrice awaited with her light show (and her put-downs), so Melody, accompanied by the tunes of Telemann, the screams of gas station customers who wanted their windshields wiped, and the thousand other bumps, quacks and squeaks that make up the noise of life, unwittingly led me out of the Valley of the Shadow of Doldrums. ("Unwittingly" is the way Melody did almost everything. But I don't care. Sometimes, even after all these years, I want to give her a swift kick in the ass, but I do bless her memory.)

I've been back in the valley of shadows a few times since I was a teen, but there's no visit to that valley like your first. And if you survive, you get to share.

Hope to see you in the mountains.

PSA flight #182, seconds before 144 people died on Sept. 25, 1978.
I did not see the crash itself, but I wasn't far away, and I did see
the smoke of its aftermath. Not until I visited Ground Zero
four days after 9/11/01 would I experience anything similar.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Letter to a (not so) Young Author

Nearly four years ago, in the ancestor of this space, e.g. the first "incarnation" of Night Thoughts At Noon, I talked about how, at age 52, I had decided to hang up the idea of becoming a celebrity author, seeing as how there are no more such things as celebrity authors anyway, and regard my non-blog writing as a hobby rather than an obsession:

It's okay to be obsessed with a dream until you reach a certain age, say, 35. If you haven't gotten your foot on to the first rung of the Starlit Stairway by the time you're 35, you should probably subject yourself to some agonizing reappraisal.

Well, since I never did dream of movie or Broadway stardom, nor of becoming a rock star (well, okay, every male in my generation, myself included, has fantasized about being a rock star, but "fantasy" and "dream" are not the same thing. A dream is a wish your heart makes. A fantasy is just a wet dream. Anyone who can't distinguish between a genuine dream and a fantasy generally ends up on Thorazine) I cut myself a few extra years' slack. After all, Henry Miller was 43 when Tropic of Cancer saw print.

Me, in my dreams. (Up to age 35, that is. After age 35, I no
dreamed of being Tom Petty; I dreamed of owning him, as
in, "Yeah, I'm Tom Petty's manager. What's he worth to you?")

But I went past 43 and kept on going. If you follow the link above, you'll see that by age 52 I had decided that while dreaming is all well and good, it was unlikely that I was ever going to be in Scribners' stable of authors.

It's not that I'm not good enough. Of course I'm good enough. So are a lot of you. But you know the cliche: "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Cliche, sure. But as an author once said, "That cliches are cliches because they contain dollops of truth is as much a truth as it is a cliche."*

Since nobody reads anymore, nobody knows anything about the publishing business. But there's a showbiz cliche that applies to book publishing as surely as it applies to Broadway and Hollywood: "You can't get a job unless you have an agent, and you can't get an agent unless you've had a job."

True. And in the book publishing world, you can't get an agent unless you're already famous, or unless you come to that charlatan, that crook, that sleazeball, the agent, recommended by somebody who is already famous. If Cormac McCarthy tells his agent, "Check out this guy Kelley Dupuis, he's brilliant," I'm in with Flynn. If not, I'm down in the subway declaiming my poetry with a jar next to me for tips, and a lot of people shaking their heads in disbelief as they shuffle by.

So, at age 52 I decided, "Screw agents. Screw the Avenue of the Americas. Screw all so-called 'real' publishers."  I will no longer worry about leaving a snail-trail across some "literary agent's" driveway as I crawl up to that most-likely-only-semi-literate douchebag's front door to beg, beg, beg him for a favor. Screw him and screw his sleazy business. From now on, I write purely for the joy of it, for the delectation of myself and a few friends. And if I never get on the Oprah Winfrey Show, who cares? She always made me faintly queasy anyway. All that hugging and stagey weeping. Eek. (I know that Oprah's audience is 98% female. Do women really fall for that crap?)

Sour grapes? Yeah, maybe. But Gore Vidal pointed out a few years ago that the audience for serious literature in America amounts to perhaps 7,000 people. Out of 250 million. Seven thousand people.

Hey, everyone. Things like serious literary fiction and poetry are going (or have already gone) the way of chess. Soon they will be (poetry already is) a miniscule niche market, capturing the interest of only a handful of enthusiasts, ignored by the 250 million who only want to watch CSI and play idiotic computer games like Captain Anthrax.

Given this state of affairs, why should I worry about whether I become the next Ernest Hemingway or not? There isn't going to be another Ernest Hemingway. The age of the "celebrity novelist" is over and done with. Nobody reads books anymore, unless of course they're shorter than 225 pages and deal with either celebrity gossip, the latest insane diet, or that good old perennial book-seller, sex. Or if they're "scandalous" in the only sense that "scandalous" means anything these days, e.g. challenging traditional belief of one sort or another, like The Da Vinci Code, as spurious a pile of crap as was ever piled, and naturally, a smash hit.

I've been thinking about these things again lately. Why?  Because I have not changed my views in the last four years, and now, on the eve of my 56th birthday, after writing poetry for more than 40 years, I'm going to bring out a volume of my poems. It's in production now.

It will be first book of poems, and probably my last.

At the same time, my friend Dianne, who lives in the state of Washington, is bringing out a volume of her own poems. It is also her first.

My book will be called The Key. Dianne's is called Howling At The Dark Side Of The Moon. My POD publisher is Outskirts Press. I've worked with them before. Dianne's is Trafford.

Dianne and I have been having an e-mail discussion of issues relating to POD publishing. I felt a need to straighten her out about the distinction between POD and old-style "Vanity Press." They're not the same. Also, I felt the need to remind Dianne, if she didn't already know it, that literary agents who charge money for their "services" are even bigger crooks than those who don't. A "legitimate" agent (if there is such a thing) will NOT charge an author money for his or her services. They get their kick-back from the publisher. An agent who asks you for money up-front is basically the literary equivalent of a drug-dealer. Avoid that dirtball. He's a dirtball.

So ... here you drop in on the conversation....(my half of it, anyway)...

Dear Dianne,

Just remember, I make a distinction between POD and old-style Vanity Press. They are NOT the same. POD offers a suite of services; vanity press was just a printer. Vanity Press outlets like Vantage Press (which is where the term "vanity press" came from) would design a product for you for some exorbitant amount of money, print 100 copies of your book and then ship them to you in boxes, whereupon they would sit in your garage and get moldy.

POD is just what it says: print-on-demand. Order one copy, they print one copy. Order five, they print five.

Obviously the digital age enabled this; in the old cold-type world this wouldn't have been possible. But now, in the digital age, POD publishers provide marketing and advertising services, and even editing services, if you want to pay for that. POD does more of what a "real" publisher does than Vanity Press ever did. But of course you are the client, and if you want that extra service, you have to pay for it.

But that, too, has an up-side, and it is exactly the same up-side you get when you're "the customer" anywhere else: if Jack-in-the-Box asks "Do you want fries with with that?" You have the option of saying "No, thanks, not today."

POD is buffet-shopping for authors: take what you need, spend as much as you want, leave the rest. Use your head.

Despite the increasingly-wheezy efforts of the New York Publishers' Inbreeding Club to sneer it away at book fairs, POD is here to stay. (New York, on the other hand, could be nuked and I would consider it no big loss.)

Well, okay, there are issues. POD's obvious downside is that there's little quality control. Yes, they do have editors and they will make suggestions, but nothing is "juried," as the snotfaces in the publishing industry say. Nobody's going to say "No, we won't publish your book," unless of course it's obviously libelous, sufficiently obscene to attract attention in today's world, where nobody even acknowledges the existence of obscenity, (how obscene would that have to be?) or if it not only calls for New York to be nuked ... but shows you how it might easily be done for less than $500. These things might get even a POD publisher to turn you down.

But by and large, anyone who can cough up the money can get his or her book published, whether they can write or not. And, yes, I've seen some self-published books that were so awful they had me laughing out loud.

But I have also seen books issued by The Respectable New York Publishing House that were so idiotic they had me laughing out loud. Or expressing disgust. I once saw in a bookstore (I swear I'm not making this up) a "legitimately"- published novel whose main character was a roach. I am not talking about Gregor Samsa, whose metamorphosis was a metaphor for his miserable human life (and by the way, Kafka's Gregor was a domed beetle, according to that meticulous nit-picker Vladimir Nabokov, not a roach.) I'm talking about an honest-to-God roach, as in, "a member of a nest of roaches, whose mama was a roach." A novel about roaches. I can only assume that whatever "legitimate" publisher gave the green light to that project must have been (a) Stoned out of his mind, (b) In need of the aforementioned Thorazine or (c) The subject of a videotape shot at last year's holiday party featuring himself, two hookers and a Great Dane.

How many copies do you think this "legitimately" published, "juried" novel sold? We'll start at five, which probably covers the author's immediate family.  I'd say a bid up from there would be optimistic. I'd also guess that even his immediate family was, by and large, grossed out. Some of them might even have suggested that he join his publisher on Thorazine.

Publishing is like showbiz -- sometimes a blowjob will accomplish miracles. Remember Pia Zadora? Somebody was obviously blowing somebody to get her into the movies.

But POD's obvious upside is that people like myself, and yourself, who can write well but never managed to crash the party because we didn't know the right people, can get into print. Without begging on our knees, that's the part I like. POD levels the playing field. Once you get your product ready, it's just a question of doing what the so-called "real" publishers do for yourself, e.g. cadge reviews and spread the word. Nobody reads books anymore anyway, so it's not like you're missing the big riverboat if Harper and Row doesn't "do" your book for you -- have you noticed how many Harper and Row titles, not to mention Scribners, MacMillan, and all the rest, wind up on the "bargain" table of your local bookstore within a year? That means they've been "remaindered." They didn't sell especially well, so it's "Mark the price down, baby. Get as rid of as many as you can and pulp the rest."

Let me tell you about my favorite example of this. In 1991, Vikram Seth published his mammoth "masterpiece," A Suitable Boy. My opinion at the time was that that was a rather "lightweight" title for a towering masterpiece, but it's an author's right to choose his or her own title. (Although sometimes authors do second-think themselves on this score. Example: Catch-22.  Joseph Heller wanted to call his novel, which the Vietnam era turned into an anti-war classic, Catch-18.  But Heller's book was published in 1961, not long after the publication of Leon Uris' Mila 18. Heller's publishers persuaded him to change the "18" to a "22" so the two novels wouldn't be confused with each other.)

But getting back to A Suitable Boy. The critics in 1991 were comparing poor Vikram Seth with Goethe and Tolstoy. An honor? Well, yes, but with a big razor attached. Writers and serious readers would appreciate how appalling must have been that kind of pressure on the author. Being compared with Goethe and Tolstoy? That Seth went on to write An Equal Music and other works is testimony to an apparent, miraculous ability on Seth's part to tune out media-noise. God bless him.

But even as long ago as 1991, most TV-watching idiots (and that accounts for most of the population of the western hemisphere) couldn't have picked Goethe and Tolstoy out of a police lineup. Vikram Seth is among the last of the great dinosaurs, the final generation of literary geniuses in English. The ones nobody reads anymore. (Except the 7,000, in America anyway. And I flatter myself that I am a member of the seven thousand. I'm a fan of Vikram Seth's. Someday I hope to be able to tell him, face-to-face, how I came to read his book The Golden Gate in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1993.)

Within 18 months A Suitable Boy, this masterpiece that had the London critics creaming in their pants, was on the "bargain" table. His masterpiece was "remaindered" after a year and a half.

And so...if a genius like Vikram Seth sees his masterpiece remaindered just 18 months after the critics are hyperventilating about it, where do you suppose I found my storied novel about the roaches?

DING! Correct! The "bargain table." I'd be surprised if it lasted on the store shelves more than six and a half minutes before being remaindered. I'd be just as willing to bet that the middle-management type at Snotnose and Company, Avenue of the Americas, New York, who approved its production was sent on a vacation to rest and recuperate. Or better yet, fired for smoking dope at the control point, as we used to say in radio.

Gore Vidal was right. The great age of books is over. Cinema is now the art of the moment. So, since ain't nobody gonna read our books anyway, why should we cultivate a supple spine crawling on our knees toward the Avenue of the Americas? POD is taking over more and more market share as, ironically, the market for good books spirals ever downward. Given Gore Vidal's demographic numbers, (I don't know where he got them, but given what I see around me, they sound perfectly credible to me) who needs Scribners? Scribners was relevant in 1925. Only Dreamworks and Tri-Star are relevant today.

Henry Miller once said, "Paint as you like and die happy!" I'll go along with that. And now the war-cry is "Publish as you like and die happy!" None of us is going to get famous, or rich, by writing. Not unless by some miracle Oprah Winfrey happens to take a liking to what we've done and hugs us on TV. Ain't gonna happen.

So. Do you want to write or don't you? Write as you like, publish as you like, spread the word as you can...and die happy.

*Actually, I said this, in my book Three Flies Up (Outskirts Press, 2008.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Showtime in Batumi

Here in Georgia, there are two things you can count on.

The first is that things that you expect to happen either happen late or don't happen at all.

The other is that things you don't expect to happen, happen all the time. If you're the sort of person who likes a well-regulated life and regular feeding-times, do yourself a favor and stay out of the Caucasus.

Case in point: last Saturday afternoon I was minding my own business.

That same morning I had been to an orientation class for new teachers of English. However, for me anyway, the orientation session became moot when my fellow teachers from Public School #117, owing to a scheduling foul-up, didn't show up. I, who speak a total of four words of Georgian, was the only teacher from #117 there. Not much of an emissary for the others. Sorry.

So, for me anyway, the class was tentatively rescheduled for Monday (tentatively is the way we do everything here in Georgia), which was okay with me, and off I went to spend the afternoon having lunch and shopping with my pal Jason, another teacher.

Late that afternoon, tired, I was walking back to my tiny Soviet-style apartment in the Tbilisi district of Varketili, when my cellphone rang. It was one of the young women from Teach and Learn with Georgia, the Georgian government agency that brought us all over here to teach.

I assumed that she was calling to reschedule my orientation class (again.)

No. She had something else in mind. Apparently, at the 11th-and-a-half hour, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had decided to invite all of us TLG English teachers to attend the premiere of Keto and Kote, a new musical based on the three-act comic opera by Georgian composer Viktor Dolidze. Written in 1919, the opera was adapted as a film in 1948. So the story has been around for a while. It's familiar here in Georgia.

The new Batumi Opera House, where the premiere of Keto and Kote
took place on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2011.

But this new musical treatment of it coincided with the recent opening of the new opera house in Batumi, on the Black Sea. Saakashvili was planning to attend, and decided to invite of all of us. We were to be provided with transportation to and from Batumi, a luncheon on the way, and overnight accommodations.
As guests of the government.

Hey, who could turn down such an offer?

Ah, but then came the kicker. "We leave tomorrow morning," she said.

"Tomorrow MORNING?"

"Sorry, we didn't get much notice either. If you would like to go, be in front of the Radisson at 8 a.m."

I was about to drop with fatigue from the afternoon's shopping, but I said, "Yes, of course. I'll be there." I'm a guest in this country, and furthermore, working for its Education Ministry. Am I going to turn down an invitation from the president? Not likely. Besides, I'd been wanting to see Batumi.

So, I went home, showered, packed my backpack for the road, had a beer, read for a while and went to bed.

Sunday morning at 7 a.m. sharp, I was hiking toward the Varketili Metro station to get myself up to where that bus was (hopefully) waiting.

When I got there I found a lot of my fellow TLG teachers milling around. (Milling around is something we do real well. We do a lot of it.) Most were quietly chit-chatting, smoking, watching the TLG supervisors try and round everyone up for the road, assign us to buses. (There were two, plus a smaller bus of the sort known here in Georgia as a "Marshutka." This is something sort of halfway between a bus and a van. They carry maybe half-a-dozen passengers. You can hail them the way you'd hail a taxi, and they run all over the country, usually at breakneck speed, dodging cows and goats in the road. They're scary, but they're probably the fastest road transportation in all of Georgia.)

Some teachers, familiar with the tried-and-true Georgian tradition of hurry-up-and-wait, were wandering across Rustaveli Avenue to McDonald's for coffee. Now that it was after eight a.m., McDonald's was open. Yes, believe it or not, in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, nothing and I mean nothing, is ever open before 8 a.m. and that includes McDonald's. Before eight a.m. the only people doing business here are the cab drivers. I was astounded at this until someone reminded me that the Georgian work day generally doesn't start until 10 a.m. We Americans, with our puritan work ethic, are scuttling to our offices at dawn; the Georgians have a somewhat more laid-back attitude toward life and work. Tbilisi is buttoned up tight until eight a.m. every day; the only 24/7 business you'll ever find here is an occasional gas station.

The bus pulled out of Tbilisi at nine a.m. for the drive to Batumi, which normally takes about six hours. But between getting stuck behind trucks going through the mountains, our sumptuous lunch break along the road, and traffic generally, the trip took more like eight hours.

That wouldn't have been a problem, were it not for the fact that the curtain was to go up at 7:30 and they were NOT going to hold the curtain for us. After all, the president of Georgia was going to be there! It was nearly 6 p.m. by the time my particular group reached its hotel, the super-luxurious Radisson Batumi. I waited to see how our "handlers" were going to handle this.

I soon found out. Word shortly came down from hotel management that nobody was going to be allowed to check into their rooms until after the show. There just wasn't going to be time beforehand.

We were told that if we wished, we could go up to the men's and women's spas on the third floor and change clothes, but that was about all they could do for us at that point.

So I did that. In the men's spa on the third floor I found my colleague Aman, calmly and unhurriedly shaving.

"Don't we have to hurry up, Aman?" I asked him.

"Probably not," he said. "Anyway, I'm going to take a shower." He proceeded to do just that, and as I shaved and changed into my own clean clothes, we visited, sang Tom Petty songs together while he was in the shower ... Aman's my captain. I go where he goes.

He turned out to be right. After we had both shaved, and he had showered, and we had gotten into our clean clothes for the theater, we had plenty of time to make it to the bus.

The theater in Batumi is indeed brand-new, and gorgeous. I wish it had a cloakroom, though; I held my hat and jacket on my lap through the entire performance of Keto and Kote. I think President Saakashvili was indeed there; there were TV cameras all over the place, anyhow. But I don't know what he looks like, so I'll accept it on faith that he was somewhere down in the orchestra section. I was in the balcony, on the right side, precisely where I had sat at the Vienna State Opera on New Year's Day 1988 when my then-bride Chris and I saw Die Fledermaus on our wedding trip. It brought back memories.

Keto and Kote is a bit of a puzzler unless you see it in perspective. On the surface, it's a re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet legend (sort of) with a happy ending. But look a little deeper, historically: 1948 was the year of the so-called 'Zhdanovschina', when Josef Stalin's cultural henchman Tikhon Khrennikov was sending trouble in the way of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other composers whose music had displeased Stalin. (Our bus passed nearby Stalin's home town of Gori going both ways.) This show, in its 1948 film version, was the kind of thing that the Composer's Union thought 'safe' in those days. Evidently even Stalin liked the film, and the original opera.

But that's all ancient history now. Today it's just fun, and that's obviously what this new adaptation was all about. It celebrated the Georgian spirit of revelry, dance (and yes, good Georgian wine) in a tongue-in-cheek production characterized by colorful costumes, dazzling lighting effects, and of course, lots of athletic dancing.

When we all got back to the hotel after the show, a little surprise awaited us. Lado Arteneli, the show's lead baritone, was staying at the same hotel at which we had all been put up, the Radisson. When I got back, there he was in the lobby, chit-chatting with admiring audience members and autograph-seekers. I chatted him up a bit myself, (he told me that he's going to be singing Amonasro in Aida at the Met this coming February) and, yes, I got his autograph too.

It was getting late. I called my old girlfriend Nadya up in Moscow to tell her that I was in Batumi,what I had just seen and how I had come to be there. Then, intensely fatigued after eight hours on the road followed by an evening at the theater, I declined to join my TLG friends in an excursion to a local Georgian restaurant. I sat at the bar in the Radisson, had a beer or two, ordered a Caesar salad from the hotel menu, and then went up to my room to shower, read for a while and get some sleep.

The next day, Monday, we saddled up around 11 a.m. and began the long drive back to Tbilisi. Most of my fellow sojourners slept much of the way back, except for the crowd down on the lower deck of the bus that had a non-stop poker game going. (They were playing for Georgian coins of denominations smaller than one Lari) I read in David Copperfield, the book I had brought along to kill the road hours, (it's thick and therefore good for killing hours of any kind) looked at the incomparable Georgian landscape as the bus rolled along, and thought about the rewards that sometimes accrue from life when you don't know what to expect, and don't waste too much time worrying about it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

At Home In Tbilisi

I'm living, here in Tbilisi, in what the Russians call a "one-room apartment."

What do the Georgians call it? I have no idea, but the Russians are not popular around here, so who knows? But Georgia was part of the Soviet Union for a long time, (one reason the Russians are not popular here) and so this apartment in which I am living is known as a "Krushschoba." That's what they call these piles in Moscow, and there are plenty of them there. They were called "Trushchobas" when they were built circa 1960 on the orders of former Soviet premier Nikita Kruschchev. Naturally, Russian smartasses started calling them "Kruschchobas" after Kruschchev," and they are pretty awful.

Krushschev was trying to solve Moscow's housing crisis in a pretty damn quick hurry. There just weren't enough apartments. People were living five families in two rooms. "Communal apartments." Awful. Nikita tried to solve that problem, but as always when decisions are being made at the top, with no consultation from anyone, the solution was ... poor. Communal apartments were replaced with lousy, cheap, crumbling 30-square-meter dumps. All over the USSR, not just in Moscow. And it's in one of those that I'm living now.

Not that I'm complaining. In my last update from Tbilisi I told my readers (both of them) that although Teach and Learn With Georgia, the organization that brought me here, intended that we teachers of English all live with host families, I didn't really want to. I like to have my own place, and I do, such as it is.

My ex-girlfriend Nadya, back in Moscow, lives with her mother in a place much like this. Only I think hers is bigger. I have a sitting room, a bathroom and a kitchen. The kitchen is the size of what used to be a phone booth back in the United States before phone booths disappeared, killed off by cellphones. (Oh, by the way, public phones are also dead here in Georgia. The old Soviet-style public phones around Tbilisi have been eviscerated; their dials and guts are gone. They are now basically receptacles for trash.) I wouldn't recommend trying to play handball in this place. It's way too small.

But I have a stove, a bed, a sink, a shower and a toilet. Who could ask for anything more?

Taxis are plentiful here, and relatively cheap. The cabdrivers all understand Russian, which helps me because I speak a little Russian. I can say, for example, "Отведите меня к общественной 117 школы. Прямо по этой улице, затем повернуть налево." They understand me, and off we go. Two Lari, or about a buck and a half.

I'm not bothering to learn Georgian. I'm only going to be here until next spring, then I'll be somewhere else. Georgian is spoken only in this little country. Russian might be useful to me somewhere else, like Brighton Beach, New York, for example. Georgian? forget it.

There are a number of small markets here in my 'hood, so I can get what I need. The local beer is good. And there is plenty of produce. Yes, Georgia was the USSR's fruit-and-vegetable bazaar. When Georgia was part of the Russian empire, (and the Soviet Union was nothing more than a continuation of the old Russian empire under a new name), the Russians called Georgia the land of "grapes and rice." We're relatively south here, and things grow, as they don't on the other side of the mountains where it gets cold. Russia basically has potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets and onions. Georgia has fruit. Tomatoes, bananas, apples, strawberries. Watermelons. Oh, my god, watermelons. They're everywhere. I saw a guy the other day driving a Lada down the street (a Lada is basically an old Fiat) and the entire back of the car was loaded with watermelons. What was he planning to do with 100 watermelons? I don't want to know.

Last Sunday I went with some friends to the Tbilisi zoo. It wasn't as bad as I feared. The elephants and ostriches seemed happy. Now, I'm from San Diego, which has the world's greatest zoo, although I haven't been to the San Diego zoo in 35 years. San Diego is a great place for a zoo because...well, because it's warm there and the animals won't freeze in the winter. I always wondered about the Moscow zoo. How do they keep the animals from freezing? Tbilisi isn't as cold as Moscow, but I still wonder. The zoo here in Tbilisi has rides. We went on the bumper cars. Reminded me of when I drove in a demolition derby, in Sacramento, California, in 1985.

Some of my colleagues, fellow English teachers, have attended what they call here in Georgia a "Supra." I'll never go near one of these things. A supra is an organized drinking party. Someone is named Grand Poobah, and when the Grand Poobah proposes a toast, everyone drinks. No one is allowed to drink until the Grand Poobah proposes the toast, but when he does, everyone has to. My pal Aman, an English teacher and the captain of the local American partying team, has attended a couple of these things and been so hungover the next day that he swore he would never drink again. Fat chance. I stay away from supras.

Georgia is a very poor country. That's okay with me. I like poor countries. They remind me of myself. I will probably never be able to retire, and certainly not in the United States. Too expensive. So I had better get used to living in poor countries, because a poor country is most likely where I'm going to end my life. Fortunately, ex-pat is a role that suits me right down to the ground. I do not miss America in the slightest. I have no use whatever for Barack Obama, Lady Gaga or So You Think You Can Dance. My parents are dead, the family house in California gone, and there is nothing in the United States I miss in the slightest except baseball. And I can follow baseball on the Internet.

God bless the Internet. And greetings from Tbilisi. Wish you were here. It would serve you right.

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Wish I Believed in Doggie Heaven

When I say that I wish I believed in doggie heaven, I am not being sarcastic. I am not being ironic.

For the moment, I am not being my usual smartass. I promise to re-assume that role momentarily.

But I really do wish I did. Believe in doggie-heaven, that is. I envy people who believe that all dogs go to heaven. When they lose their beloved little canine pals, they believe that those little pals get to spend eternity romping joyfully in some sun-drenched meadow in Elysium. 

That's so consoling. And I do so envy them. Because that consolation is so needed. There is no heartbreak like the loss of a beloved pet. It's just like the loss of a child, and there's no getting around it.

I don't know to what extent my ex-wife believes in doggie heaven. Probably she doesn't. But she has always been a huge dog-lover, and when we lost our "little girl," our miniature schnauzer Alexandra, in 2008, and I was crying "like a fire in the sun" as Bob Dylan put it, Valerie consoled with me with the very image I just mentioned, that Alexandra was at that moment romping in some sun-drenched meadow. Healthy again, strong again, able to see and run and bark again, as she had not been shortly before her death at age 16. In fact toward the end of her life Alexandra couldn't even handle steps: when we put the pups outside, she had to be carried.

Belief is such a balm. I envy people who have it.

I'm thinking about such things right now because I know one thing is true: if there were such a thing as doggie heaven, no one would deserve to be there right now more than my friend Callie, who died last month.

I never did take a picture of Callie,
but this little character could have been
her twin. She looked just like this.
Callie was a light-brown chihuahua. She was tiny. So tiny I could pick her up with one hand. Like Alexandra, she was old. Maybe 16 when she passed away. But her death still came as a shock to me because of its timing. I departed on July 30 of this year for Tbilisi, Georgia, where I am currently serving as an English teacher. I couldn't take Callie with me, so I left her with my sister. I knew she would be well taken care of at my sister's, cuddled, loved, given treats and made to feel like family, just as I had tried to make her feel in the one year that she and I got to spend together.

I arrived in Tbilisi on Aug. 2nd. One week later my sister informed me in an e-mail that Callie had died peacefully in her sleep.

Okay, she was 16. In dog-years that's 112, or so I've always been told. But to die so soon after I'd left the country? Did she die because she was pining for me? Did she die because I had stuffed her full of cookies and cupcakes while she was alive, unaware that she may have been diabetic? These questions tortured me. And yes, I cried.

Carla consoled me. "She had run her course," she said. "She never had much TLC until you came along. You did fine by your little doggie friend."

I tried. But somehow when your little doggie friend dies six days after you leave the country, and after you've tried your best to set her up with a good home, you feel responsible.

For the year that we got to spend together, Callie was my best friend in the world. In fact I was often made to feel that she was my only friend in the world.

I hope Callie didn't die because she missed me. I knew that my sister, and my niece Alicia, would make her feel part of a family. That's why I left her there. Carla had four other little dogs and two cats, so I figured Callie would have good nap-taking company. And in fact perhaps a day or two before Callie died, Carla did send me a photo of Callie curled up in nap-mode with Golden Boy, the big, friendly orange cat. He was twice her size.

Callie deserved to have a family. Before I came along, she didn't have much in that direction. Not that John and Mayra Hansgen, my landlord and landlady for the year I lived in California, were mean to her or anything. No, they treated her fine. It's just that they both had jobs and were most of the time not home, and Callie's only companion on their patio most of the time was Negra, another aged chihuahua, who was as mean and nasty as Callie was sweet.

Callie had been a stray. John and Mayra's daughter had picked her up and brought her home. That's really all I knew. The daughter gave Callie TLC when she was around, but she was only around about once a week. The rest of the time Callie was alone with Negra, something I wouldn't wish on anybody.

Then, in the summer of 2010, I came along. I had just come back out to California from the east coast, and was renting a room from John and Mayra. I paid little attention to any of the dogs at first. John and Mayra had four of them: Brandy and Koko were big dogs; they stayed mostly along one side of the house. Callie and Negra were the little ones; they stayed on the patio.

I was unaware of the doggie-politics of the household until one day when I happened to come out the back door and saw Callie lying on her back on the pavement, one paw scrunched up to her face, Negra standing over her. My first thought was that Negra was bullying Callie and that Callie had assumed the "submissive posture." I intervened. "Negra! You leave Callie alone, you little bastard!" I chased Negra away and scooped Callie up. Callie was terrified. I tucked her underneath my T-shirt and took her into my room. With her little head poking out of my collar, I sat in my computer chair and rocked her quietly until she calmed down.

As it turned out, Negra had not been bullying Callie after all. Callie was epileptic, and she had been having a little seizure.

But the experience bonded us, Callie and me. After that Callie decided that I was her very best friend. Whenever I would come back from driving my taxicab, early or late, if Callie were awake or should happen to awaken, as soon as I came through the patio gate she would climb out of her doggie-bed and here would come this tiny figure, trotting across the patio after me. Callie followed me wherever I went.

Animals are so great. They love you without guile, without agenda and without expectation. They expect nothing in return. They just love you because they love you. So unlike people. Callie decided that the thing she wanted most in this world was just to be with me. If I were there, she was there. How many times did I accidentally kick her because she was tiny and, when I came into the room, I didn't see that she was getting right under my feet? How many times did I accidentally whack her with the patio gate when I opened it upon returning from my taxi, not realizing that, having heard my approach, she was standing right there at the gate waiting for me to come in?

These mishaps broke my heart every time they happened.. And I would always pick Callie up, stroke her little head and apologize over and over. And she always forgave me immediately.

As I said, so unlike people.

Mayra didn't want Callie in the house because she knew that Callie, and Negra too, would piddle on the carpets if they were let inside. I defied Mayra, to hell with her. The carpet in my room had been ruined with pet stains before I even moved in. What the hell? I would let Callie in, but keep my door closed so she wouldn't venture out into the hallway. But every now and then I might go down the hall into the kitchen for something and forget to close my door. Sure enough, a moment later I would turn around and there would be Callie, standing in the kitchen door just looking at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, "Are you still here, Daddy? Did you leave me?"

"No, I'm right here, Sugar Plum," I would assure her, then scoop her up and take her back into my room. I'd put her on the bed (she was too little to hop down) where she would make a little nest for herself among the pillows and curl up for a nap.

Sometimes Callie was very insistent about wanting to be picked up. I'd be sitting at my computer doing something, and I would feel her tiny front paws on my leg. I'd look down and she'd be looking up at me, again with those big brown eyes to which I could not possibly say no. "Pick me up!" Those eyes demanded. "I want to sit in your lap!"

I always did. And she would stretch out on my lap and go to sleep. But those naps were always short because I was forever having to stand up for something. This inconvenienced Callie, but again, she was very forgiving. She always came back.

But Callie's very favorite place was next to me in bed. And I don't mean on top of the quilt. She liked to burrow down under the covers and curl up right next to my skin. I usually did not let her do this; I was afraid she would burrow down there and, in her sleep, piddle on the sheets, forcing me to strip the bed and wash everything the next morning. It happened a few times. No, usually when she began to "burrow," I would scrunch the covers up tight so she couldn't get under them. After a few moments she would get the message and go make herself a nest among the pillows.  If she couldn't be right next to me, being a foot or two away was the next best thing.

But sometimes I would let her burrow, and she was never happier than when she was curled up in a little ball, right against my back, happily and peacefully asleep next to her best pal, me.

Callie often didn't get enough to eat because Negra was such a bully. Negra would hog all the food, and if Callie tried to come up and get some, Negra would snap at her and chase her off. I noticed this, as did John and Mayra. Callie was often fed separately from Negra. We would put her up on the patio table where Negra couldn't get at her and let her have her share of the food. John often gave the doggies chicken as a treat, and made sure Callie got her share. I would also give her treats, a diced-up frankfurter perhaps, or a cookie or a cupcake. I often stopped at Albertson's while driving my cab in order to make sure that when I came home I would have something in the way of a treat that I could crumble up for Callie in a little bowl.

When I was preparing to leave for this overseas teaching job, I agonized about what might happen to Callie. In a perfect world, I would have taken her with me, but pets weren't allowed. I did not want to leave her at the Hansgen's. It wasn't that John and Mayra were mean to her, of course not. But Negra was mean to her, and John and Mayra were, for much of the day, not home. I wanted Callie to be some place where she might get at least some of the love and affection I had tried to lavish on her during the year she and I got to spend together. I spoke to John, and he readily agreed that, if I could find a place where Callie might get more TLC (and less Negra) than she was getting at his house, well, that was okay with him. So I took Callie, and John, who had bonded thoroughly with my cat Humboldt, whom I had brought along when I moved in, well, he got to keep Humboldt. We did a swap, Callie for Humboldt. And I think Callie and Humboldt both did well.

I would like to think that Callie was happy during the one week of life that remained to her after I left the United States. My guess was that she would maybe pine for me for a day or two, then get used to being at Carla's and settle in with her new family. There wasn't much time for that, as it turned out. But I do hope that when she breathed her last on that Saturday night after I flew away, she was having a sweet dream about ... oh, maybe romping in a sun-drenched meadow somewhere, healthy, strong, able to bark again.

For the time being, Callie rests in my sister's backyard alongside Honey, my nephew Joey's dog who died three years ago. They both sleep beneath a beautiful, blooming yellow forsythia, a cutting from a tree which belonged to my late father, and which he gave my sister about a year before he died. So one corner of the yard is a memorial both to my father and to beloved doggie-friends. My father loved dogs. Peace be upon them, all three, and also upon those people I envy so, who believe that all dogs go to heaven.