Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Happy One Year Paper Cut

It appears that I missed the official one-year anniversary of my Paper Cup blog. Big Deal. I am back posting it to the official date August 10th not because I am superstitious, but because I feel like I want to make the belated effort. It will make me feel better. Fat chance.

I didn't start my blog to dig into my inner voyeuristic diary, but rather to build a readership. To connect with others who haven't had the pleasure of poking into my notebooks. Yes, I still write by hand. It's sexy. It reminds me that I can only really attempt art with words and not sketches or pictures. I suck at those things.

I'll admit I have been fairly flaky this year with regards to making regular contributions. I am going to try and change that, but I am not making any promises. Promises are for lolligaggers and suckers.

I've also been putting most of my energy into my Girma Dali serialized novel on my wordpress page.

Sorry that this has been such a blah blog, but I suppose it says a little something at least in the subliminal sense of what I truly think of anniversaries.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Birth of Girma Dali

Okay, it's been a mondo long time since my last post. I can admit it when I've been slacking off, but I've been working on a special project and now I'd like to share it with you. So far I have promoted Paper Cut as multifaceted arts blog and included interviews with writers and covered a wide range of topics. Today, I want to plug my new serialized novel Girma Dali which I launched in honor of this 2010 World Cup. The inspiration for this novel is as diverse as my interest in general.

Girma Dali is a one of kind football star who leads his underdog squad The Harambee Stars of Kenya into the World Cup Group Stage. He has gained great respect of his fellow players, fans, and world leaders alike because he is gifted with the ball, but also because he appears to be somebody who can bring peace to the world. Diplomats, senior officials, and political leaders want Girma Dali to use his cultural, motivational, and bargaining capital to stop the bloodshed in his nation and throughout the African continent. Dali rises to the occasion and goes where he is needed. When he learns that his best friend from childhood, who he met while he was living in Kibera, might have fallen into the captivity of an unscrupulous warlord Dali all but falls apart. He promises to save his best friend Benga, but has nowhere to turn.

Girma Dali is a sports novel, an adventure novel, and in a way, a platonic love story. Girma Dali is about brotherhood, family, pride. Deep at its core it is about reconciliation, hope, and the unwavering burden of personal gratitude.

Here is an excerpt.

Amid the swerve and pulse of hungry bodies Girma Dali picks his spot, a tissue-wide patch of net where’s he going to strike. A green-jerseyed defender closes in on him his brute momentum unleashed like a kamikaze pilot swooping into enemy orbit, his lunging body makes Dali cut the other way. After the defender has crashed, Dali has already made another charge, the pull-weight of his monster calves bring him within a sharp angle of the far post. Chalk and turf shoot from his hurried spikes. A rip of adrenaline carries through his thighs up his tall spine his arms pinch in at the elbows calm as old men napping in a hammock. His round wet bold, green eyes, more than anything else, lust for the back of the net. If only that would settle it, there are pyrotechnics rumbling in his gut firing signals to his brain mirroring back all the hardships, sacrifice, how he slipped free by the skin of his teeth and the ball waits before him a microcosm of his life, a crucible of his self-worth, he’d loved to sock the cover off, but its wound too well in his brain.

Sweat beads furiously down his flushed cheeks. He scrambles. A nervous tick clamps hold of his motor skills bites into him like senseless bacteria attacking an innocent host. He’s careful, oh so brilliantly careful with his touch, sending a fake signal left and takes a meek chip right. The boot stopped by the goalkeeper. And just like that the cheers of some eighty odd thousand stadium fans, billions worldwide, whisk to a hush. The goalkeeper hurls the ball to his punchy defender. Life is good for a few more seconds, but at any moment, the ball is intercepted and the hopes and dreams of nations blow away like so much chalk dust.

Football is a game for legs and hearts. Girma Dali has put his soul into the game. He flies through defenders like he’s got wings, his ferocious instinct makes him both feared and loved. He plays with breathtaking fluidity you feel like weeping. The moment somebody thinks they’ve nailed the grand alchemy that makes Dali a genius somebody else came along and offers a new, kookier explanation. All agree Dali is a god in cleats.

He broke onto the international stage, seemingly out of nowhere, and arrived by accident. He played for a string of so-so clubs mainly in the MLS then landed a spot in the Japanese League. He never scored more than three goals in a single season. For five years, he had blown his national team tryouts. Last Spring an outbreak of a mysterious influenza knocked three men off the roster and in a desperate need of a warm, healthy body his name was penciled in. The Harambee Stars needed speed, discipline, a better coach, mental toughness, a goalie who didn’t suffer from narcolepsy— they would’ve settled for one decent chipper whose committed work ethic might rub off on them. They were also kind of lazy. Coach Sangaré had flip-flopped the players’ positions numerous times sure the winning combination was only a shuffle away. The whole while, the great spark, Girma Dali hugged the bench his wide green eyes gobsmacked at the streams of screaming fans that filled the stadium. He’d never seen so many people staring back at him, well, maybe not exactly at him since he was riding the bench, but at the players tearing up the sun-baked field.

The breakthrough game happened to be a friendly against Paraguay, three years ago to the day, when Moussa M’bami sprained his ankle and later Ken Ogolla was thrown out of the game for squeezing the referee’s nipple. The Harambee Stars had bled through their whole roster save for the bright-eyed and jittery Girma Dali.

Coach Sangaré pointed at his last bench man the slouching Dali in his spotless white visitor’s uniform, picking at grass. He had no idea he was being summoned into the game. He froze for an instant staring at a grass sprig wedged under his thumbnail. The Coach’s bearded neck swelled, his nostrils flared, and he rushed Dali as if a manic rhino about to gore a snoozing poacher.

“Get in there,” Coach Sangaré yelled waving his stubby finger.

Girma Dali snapped out of his funk. He ran so fast he zipped out of his shoe. The battered leather lump tumbled end over end with its laces tangled until it stopped to lay on its side, in the middle of the field like a spoiled child waiting to be scooped up by its parent. The other team snickered. Nobody had seen anything so ridiculous. They couldn’t stop laughing, Paraguay’s star forward nearly split his gut, but this didn’t seem to bother Girma Dali who had waited his whole life for this golden opportunity and didn’t bother to put back on his shoe. Big deal, as a kid he’d played many games in the street barefoot. There he honed his craft, his toes long since callused he could play on the side of a mountain, on top of a volcano. He was filled with the same ebullient desire from his youth.

The rest of the game the shoeless Girma Dali hustled with unparalleled zeal. He dashed with feverish glee, a crinkle of a smile splayed on his cool pink lips. In less than sixty seconds, he made his first touch with his shoeless foot. He dribbled to the outside past one then two defenders his ability to switch gears, midfield, left to right was marked by his almost rubbery legs bending at his whim. What looked like a hard pass turned out to be a fake, a short drift to the outside of the defender and Dali caught up to the ball then advanced a few yards from the box. When he ditched the last man he saw the lone Guaraníes’ goalkeeper who was no longer laughing. Dali struck and was blocked. The goalkeeper cleared the ball and precipitated the race to the other end. Dali owned a few slick moves. He replayed the opposing team’s gossipy cackling as he ran the length of the field with the growing urge to prove himself. When he crossed paths with his unlaced shoe he didn’t stoop to retrieve it instead he kicked it past the foul line. This had his teammates, his coach, and the fans shaking their heads. His opponents howled not so much because they found him to be a joker, but because they thought he was nuts. Good, Dali thought. Let them think it. He carried on, majesty, Merlin, merrymaker with the ball. Everybody who had ever doubted his abilities stood before him, an angry phalanx of cacklers, he sped past them putting on what would later be dubbed “the exhibition” full of corner kicks, spirited tackles, and magic.

He did not make a single goal that game, but he was credited with a steal and two assists. His stock shot up in Coach Sangaré’s eyes and the coach told the press that he had a secret weapon in Dali.

The next game he played with both his shoes. They didn’t come off his feet. He didn’t even bother to give his laces a tug. River Plate double teamed him and for the first half this seemed to do the trick in neutralizing the Harambee Stars’ scoring drives. Dali managed to stay hungry on defense making a couple of steals, but when he ran in offensive mode he lost a step. His kicks skittered, didn’t have the same teeth they had in his first game.

They were already in stoppage time when Dali squeezed into the penalty box tip-tapped the ball luring the goalie to the right and then booted it by him on the left. The game ended in a tie, but it was a sweet victory. The stadium erupted. It was astonishing to have such thunderous applause for the visiting Kenyans, but really there were many Boca Juniors fans on hand rooting against their most hated rival, River Plate. For fun, one of his teammates had decided to kick off his shoes. Then another and another until the whole team scampered around in socks.

Coach Sangaré eyed his players, but you could almost tell he’d been itching to join.

When the Harambee Stars matched up with the European squads they held their own. First, Czech Republican then Netherlands, Greece, and Ireland all of the matches fought hard. Dali got better each time out. His passes launched with stealth accuracy and he seemed just as happy to let his teammates take the goal or to drop back on defense and tangle with his opponents. The siren sound of the bench, a frightening ring, he’d always seemed to hear these things his will would not let him fall not now he’d come too far and so fast. The World Cup seemed an eternity away and yet it also felt a day away it was the perfect anomaly summing up Girma Dali’s life things that should have been out of his reach suddenly came into tow. Yes, he’d had luck. Do you want to call it that? He owed a little to chance and didn’t give himself enough credit. In Dali’s eyes nested the ever-looming sense of debt.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saramago's Legacy

I could recap all that's been said about the Great Saramago, but there have been numerous postings already that have proffered a far better summation than I could slapdash together primarily because I'm not an authority on his oeuvre. Truth is, it took me a while to latch onto his prose. What has fascinated me however, has been is earnest writing style and the hot-aired balloon loftiness of his sentences. I first became acquainted with All The Names and I was enamored by his protagonist clerk dredging through files, a kind of Portuguese Harvey Pekar. The provocations he stirred with the Catholic Church didn't necessarily lure me into his books, but I must confess a spritz of controversy doesn't hurt. Not in my book.

What really got me interested in his writing was a friend of mine who was trying to emulate his style. She is, by the way, a brilliant writer, but didn't give me permission to use her name. Yet. If I coax her long enough maybe I'll update this blog and give her the credit she deserves. The funny thing is that the same comet tail of magical realism sweeps through her stories and chapters. Saramago, in her eyes, is the perfect muse. In both their worlds, characters lope through scenes with the zealous need to understand themselves within the incongruities of their surrounding space. This then is the engine that drives the work. I underscore this word engine because as you may or may not be aware Saramago had been a mechanic when he completed his studies, before he planted himself into the Portuguese bureaucracy that supported him for much of his life.

He was a later bloomer in that Malcolm Gladwell sense. Saramago started publishing his stories when he was in his fifties. You can imagine he had had ample time to accumulate layers of self-doubt, self-loathing, the witch's brew that makes for great prose. Critics seem to consider his art a clever amalgam of the Philosopher King and the Village Idiot, indeed there is a strange, but delightful dichotomy.

I feel there is a great deal to learn from his prose. I feel the labor in his writing not only the labor of revision, but the labor of life. He has peppered the nitty gritty into his prose, stirred our thoughts, and hinted at the profound.

No, I do not I wish to emulate him, but I want to read his work judiciously as my friend has so that I can better inform my own style.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Here's A Fact-Checker For You

Last summer I had the chance to listen to Debra Gwartney give an argument against doing research for memoir. There’s a certain contradictory ring to this advice since a memoir should be closer related to one’s personal journalistic account than homespun fiction. What Gwartney was driving at was the inherent need to keep the facts straight can sometimes mess with the story.

When you are attempting to fact-check your life story you are bound to get many lopsided opinions from relatives and friends. Naturally, they all have their interpretations. Memoir writing is subjective business, but that’s okay. Gwartney’s point was that “memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen it. We are puzzling after our own shadows and are trying to shed light on our inner selves.”

Today we are inundated with memoir. This blog is a kind of ad hoc coalition of personal notes. We’re swimming in this stuff. So then what truth, if any, are we really after? Is it only our inner selves? I read a recent blog post by the Southern Bookman, Louis Mayeux, who wrote that we can trace a lot of the preoccupation with our inner selves to Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography”, to Thoreau’s “Walden”, and Mark Twain. So clearly we as a society have been preoccupied with this for a long while.

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy sinking my teeth into new stuff. I love to learn. I am not always trying to get to know me better, but the world around me. It so happens that I’m on biography kick. Interestingly enough, one of which was about Benjamin Franklin, the other two I recently finished were about Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

Now ordinarily I wouldn’t pick anything about Elvis. I don’t particularly care for his music. I was lured by the author’s name etched on the jacket, Bobbie Ann Mason, author of “Shiloh and other stories.” Her style is mint juleps. The Sinatra book, “Why Sinatra Matters” is by Pete Hamill who I consider to be a solid, but not a knock-my-socks-off kind of writer. Early on in Hamill’s book the author recalls a night he spent drinking with Old Blue Eyes in which a clutch of newsmen are tossing back drinks in the iconic PJ Clarke’s. Hamill makes it a point to play out a scene of ordinary, beery chitchat. Sinatra flirts with a young woman who he believes is eavesdropping on the conversation. He asks her if she’s ever heard of Jimmy Cagney and she says “He was the captain in that picture with Henry Fonda, right? About the navy?” To which Sinatra responds “You win a dish of strawberries, sweetheart.” The young woman is baffled while the guys rip into laughter. She says “I don’t even like strawberries.” Now Hamill later notes Sinatra himself had gaffed on the strawberries because they belonged in the film “The Cain Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart. Sinatra should have offered the young woman a potted plant as Jack Lemmon did in “Mister Roberts” the film that Sinatra was talking about.

Why go into this roundabout scenario? Was this really how it unfolded? Hamill is a well-respected journalist. Who knows if this is how it played out bit by bit, but it does say a lot more about Sinatra who saw that era as a blur. Sinatra himself was in a slew of War Pictures though he himself had never served. When you take this mix-up and then hear Sinatra lash out at Jilly Rizzo when Rizzo confuses Joans and says “Joan Crawford” and Sinatra replies “Blondell, dummy” we get the Chairman of the Board’s sometimes imposing persona. Hamill evens things out. In the same scene the talk diverts to favorite literary authors. Care to guess who Frank’s vote went out to? The Great Gatsby. He clearly professed his preference to Fitzgerald over Hemingway. Sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon, cast his vote for Hemingway.

This is the golden fodder of reading biographies, finding out the friends and foes and foibles of famous people. I am sure that Hamill saw his task as depicting the most accurate picture of Sinatra as possible through the limited and imperfect topography of recollection. Let’s not hope Hamill pieced together a stenographic account of those drinking nights with Sinatra, but I’d like to think that he arranged the music of those memories the way Nelson Riddle arranged the late recordings and gave us a distinctive timeless voice.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Throwback Mountain Dew

Has there been a Back-to-the-Roots campaign in Soft Drink Land? Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Mountain Dew have killed the High Fructose Corn Syrup kick and added real sugar for a limited time. They’ve also rolled back the old-fashioned cans. Throwback Mountain Dew resembles a lowbrow beer. If that’s not going to get you excited I don’t know what will.

I need to be upfront. My first sip had me shaking my head. For whatever reason, it tasted a bit like Theraflu. I think it needed a bit more chill-time. All beverages have an optimum serving temperature. The only lukewarm soft drink I can bear is ginger ale, but that’s me. After a while, the Throwback Mountain Dew opened up. What at first threw me for an ephemeral loop grew on me. The sour side became savory; its sweetness unveiled. It had balance reminding me of the great pour-me-a-pitcher’s-worth homemade lemonade my best buddy’s mom made from fresh-squeezed lemons. Throwback also reminded me of Mellow Yellow. Remember that bad boy.

The more I started to enjoy it I wondered why I had a first impression of Theraflu. Then I recalled one of my most memorable white wine experiences, Coenobium, a wild quartet of four seemingly implausible grapes: Verdicchio, Grechetto, Malvasia, Trebbiano— none of which were indigenous to the parcel in Lazio where the Sisters of the Cistercian Order toiled over the vines. Forget about all the nun-plowing-the-fields hype, which I was fully aware of, I had set high expectations for this Bea blend. I had never been a big fan of the father’s (Paolo) hyperbolic Sagrantino, but I was willing to put aside my hang-up with nepotism to improve my palate.

I was dumbfounded by the rich savoriness of the wine. From the first sip I had this woozy liquid penicillin sensation jitterbugging on my tongue. To another wine slut this might be a turnoff, but I was lulled. I direct your attention back to the Theraflu greeting from my Throwback Mountain Dew. The more I reflected upon it I realized that I was making a connection to pleasant wooziness. This is I had also done with my first taste of Coenobium. Who knows why we make all these weird associations? Some of us have weirder tastescapes than others but it helps to be in tune with it so that you translate it properly long after the first impression has worn off.

Down to the bottom of the can, I wished I had gambled and picked up a full case. The tinny quality pressing into the lip beats anything bottle-poured (particularly plastic bottles). There, I’ve tipped my hand. Throwback MD is cursed with a yucky aftertaste. There’s a brilliant softness like a wet ball of cotton candy melting to its final speck whereas its evil twin with artificial sweetener is loaded to the gills with syrup.

The promo label gets it all wrong. There’s a hick getting rocket-corked through the brim of his skuzzy hat. Call me a sucker for irony. This is the perfect soft drink for unwinding in one’s Jacuzzi, a cold towel wrapped sausage-like around the neck. It’s one heck of a swill.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

God Bless you Mr. Salinger

I guess this will serve as my first elegy to a great writing mentor. Salinger is the first writer I truly admired and tried to emulate. I devoured his books and actually reread them. I loved the way he got under his characters’ skin and slipped under my own. I loved that he topped off by the two-hundred page mark.

Vonnegut passed away a few years ago and I meant to write about how profoundly he had and still influences me, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I’m a champion procrastinator. Updike checked out last year. That didn’t shake me. Frankly, I was more familiar with his criticism, book reviews, and New Yorker pieces than any of his fiction. I paid my respect by dusting off a copy of “Rabbit Run”.

Salinger though is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, his death is anticlimactic. He made himself untouchable. I imagine many folks are surprised he whisked into this new decade. Salinger peeled out of hibernation briefly in 1996 when he gave the green light to a small Virginian press Orchises to publish the last of his New Yorker stories Hapworth 16, 1924. Salinger, of course, reneged and Seymour Glass’s 7-year-old camp letter never made it into book form.

Over the years much has been said about the Sound of Salinger’s Silence. Some have suggested that the reclusive nom de plume William Wharton belonged to J.D. In 1976 John Calvin Batchelor wrote a famous mock-sleuth essay contending that Thomas Pynchon was J.D. Salinger. The following year Gordon Lish tried a stunt with Esquire publishing an anonymous story entitled “For Rupert— with no promises.” After much speculation and hope that Salinger had written the piece Gordon Lish, then the editor at Esquire, admitted that he penned the story.

In 1997, I remember picking up a copy of Esquire from the newsstands and turning the pages with trembling fingers to an article on Salinger. Ron Rosenblum wrote a terrific piece, but it left me along with many others longing for that chance to reconnect with Hermit from Cornish. There’s an awesome line that pretty much sums up what I perceive to be the Salinger Sensibility though Rosenblum included Delillo and Pynchon as also being disinterested in uber-publicity.

“In a publicity-mad, celebrity-crazed culture, they have become in effect the Madonna and Michael Jackson of Silence, celebrities for their reticence and their renunciation of celebrity, for their Bartleby the Scrivener-like great refusal, the resounding echo of their silent "I would prefer not to."’ (Rosenblum Esquire 1997)

Imagine living in the Age of Twain. Anybody who ever crossed his path has long since left this mudball, but Salinger, well, he’s our modern day Twain. Perhaps, a reincarnation if you go for that fluff. The thing that really shocks the pants off me though is how many souls have actually plunked down their cold hard cash to own a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”. It’s mind blowing. Sixty-five million copies have been sold worldwide. To give you an idea just what that means take this into consideration. In terms of record albums, only Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has out-grossed “The Catcher in the Rye”. Salinger’s magnum opus has sold more copies than any two Beatles albums combined, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” more copies than Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, The Eagles Greatest Hits”, the Bee Gees, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”, Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection”, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. I’m comparing apples to oranges because in this attention deficit planet of ours it’s a mega phenomenal accomplishment to have your book outsell the heart of rock n roll.

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How does “The Catcher in the Rye” stack up against hardbacks and the paperbound? Well, as you might have guessed the Bible, the Quaran, The Book of Mormon, Chairman Mao’s Poems, and “Lord of the Rings” have all sold more copies. Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Agatha Christie’s “And then there were None” rank higher than TCITR and I’m sorry but not surprised to say that “Da Vinci Code” has about 15 million copies on Holden’s story. But, it is still encouraging to note that Salinger has a handy lead on Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist”, “Anne of Green Gables”, Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty”, all the Harry Potters, “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Bridges of Madison County”. Salinger eclipses “Diary of Anne Frank”, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, “The Communist Manifesto” and even “The Valley of Dolls”.

Does this give me new faith of my fellow Homo Sapiens? Not a chance. More junk will be published and read, but it’s a numbers game right? I digress. Sorry Senor Salinger. I went into a momentary sidetrack, perhaps I need to spend more time consulting with my local spiritual trainer to put me back onto Brahmin-track.

If anything at all Jerome David made me wish I was a neighbor of the Glasses. He was somebody I would trade all my Mickey Mantles to sit down and chat with the guy. I really would have loved to tell him how much I thought he pushed personality and time bomb-ticking sentiments over the edge. He plumbed into a new layer of youthful unconscious giving us unfiltered, wry frankness— a hairline between tragic comedy. There’s that part in “The Catcher in the Rye” when Holden admits that Somerset Maugham is a pretty good writer, but isn’t the kind of guy he’d want to call up on the phone to shoot the breeze with, but Thomas Hardy, now there’s a guy I’d love to ring up. Salinger’s characters drop bits of insight as if leaving behind a trail they will someday need to get out of the woods. Before the reader knows any better he’s foraged lifetime’s worth of confessions. We’re torn between hoarding it or mouthing it off to whoever. Certainly not J.D because he enlisted to be a hermit and I’m not saying that in a bad way I really love my solitary confinement.

In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” there’s a dwarf camped in the backseat of the limo Buddy Glass is riding in along with the estranged bridal party. Our eyes are glued to that stovetop hat propped on the dwarf’s head as if the supreme adaptive edge for all mankind is hidden beneath the ill-fitting Brobdingnagian-sized hat. It’s as if Salinger wanted to defy the Chekhovian maxim show and shoot. One who has chronicled the Glass family through their many incarnations saw the gun go off in “A Perfect Day for Bananfish”. But while there is a whiff of self-immolation in much of his confessional prose Salinger, the writer, sweats it out through his unbearable lightness of being. He doesn’t Hemingway, Plath, or Foster Wallace his way off this mudball. He goes on. No public readings, podcasts, barnstorming tours, no Charlie Rose or Oprah interviews.

Just think of him as the complete antithesis of failbetter. Where do you set the bar after the Glasses and the Caulfields? Lit scholars can mock him worship him he deserves stones and psalms, but whatever you do you cannot put down one of his books and not mumble to yourself, bastard.

If you nuked his popularity and served his prose as a cold burrito you are still left with raw sustenance— moon juice. He’s on a quest to reveal the sound of one hand clapping. He is the crown prince of people. If Michelangelo forever changed the way we looked at the human form then Salinger dug under the skin and showed every foible. He examined the stuff of humanity under an electron microscope. In “For Esme— With Love and Squalor”, the young soldier makes a little boy furious then want to kiss him on the cheek. Sure that soldier’s motivation was to get his big sister in the sack, but this is Salinger’s brilliance. He’s a writer of love letters. Brothers write love letters to sisters, mothers, brothers, his epistolary style stretches ad infinitum.

Some years back, I actually traded messages by way of the bathroom mirror as sort of a tribute to “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”. “Emulation is one of the highest compliments, but it is also juvenile” writes Stephen Kuusisto in his seminal memoir “Eavesdropping”. My copycat impulse reified. Instead of swiping J.D’s words I enacted scenes. Maybe I don’t judge a man by his suitcases, but I pass judgment on the books he palms, the way he orders his coffee, and what type of haircut he wears. I’m not only suspicious of phonies I have my own silent restraining order imposed on them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Memory is the Heart’s Gravity

“Memory is the heart’s gravity.”
- Riccardo Pau-Llosa

This line stirred me. I read it from the poet Riccardo Pau-Llosa’s “From the Cuban Dead.” Memory has long been a preoccupation of mine. I still subscribe to the Charles Dana Foundation newsletter that snailmails me a copy of the latest noggin news. I am drawn to documentaries that attempt to shed light on our wise ape species and how we came to distinguish ourselves from our hominid ancestors, but as much as I long to deepen my knowledge of purely intellectual capabilities I cannot help but consider the more sensitive side of the brain.

I was struck by a recent episode of The Human Spark on PBS in which Paleo anthropologist Randall White showed remarkable evidence of the first necklaces in the caves of France. In fact, those necklaces were made of strung-together teeth of anatomically modern Homo Sapiens. A bit macabre one might say, but on the other hand endearing. Our ancestors didn’t exactly have a material-clogged estate to sift through. Cousin Ruthie gets the silverware, Uncle George gets the rocking chair, and Aunt Phyllis can make do with the Chiapets and Tupperware. No. The Neanderthal and the ancient Homo Sapiens didn’t have that luxury of picking and choosing what to keep. They were Hunters and Gatherers for crying out loud, they were always on the go. The toothbrush hadn’t been invented so it wasn’t yet going to be buried with loves ones [Ancient Egypt].

Teeth were just about the only memento our primogenitors could take with them for posterity’s sake.

I have a Billy club that belonged to my grandfather and a few china bowls from my grandmother, and also an iron-clad toy soldier from a great uncle I never met. Many of us have some of these forget-me-nots in their junk drawers, attics, basements, independent [cost you an arm and a leg] storage facilities. Some of us even wear these post mortem trinkets on our wrists, necks, and pinkies. And let’s not forget about the urns filled with loved ones ashes stashed our homes in our dining rooms, over on the mantle, peering at the grand piano home. Yes, this too might seem macabre, but also maybe a bit endearing.

I don’t want to lead you to believe that we’ve been evolutionarily wired to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors I am only suggesting that there is a tender ethereal element inside us that wishes to carry the weight of our precious memories around our necks, within in our hearts, but it doesn’t make us human because Neanderthal is the first species to have been recorded as setting funerary practices— laying down flowers by grave sites. But let’s take it a step further because primates don’t have the monopoly on emotion. Elephants mourn the death of their families. They have been observed wailing the loss of their tumbled kin.

What I’m getting at is this, it pleases me to know that with all the preoccupation we have with invention, book smarts, street smarts, yada yada, there is plenty of room in our brains for emotional intelligence. Make room.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The $99,000 Answer Is

New Years is a time for resolutions, a whole day reserved to get over your hangover. I think of it as a chance to indulge my insatiable appetite for a certain Bensonhurst bus driver named Ralph Kramden. Every year without fail the Honeymooners Marathon is broadcast on WPIX. It’s a chance to relive one of the greatest comedy combos Art Carney and Jackie Gleason to ever gloss the idiot box. As a kid, I was a huge fan of their humor, their improvisational acumen and the simple, sidesplitting chicanery.

I long for a program redolent with their comic signature that never seems to get old. Maybe I am wired for it. the setting is sparse and the scenarios, by and large, are same. Ralph and Norton are cooking up another hair-brained scheme that’s bound to go awry but you keep rooting for them because the two of them are teeming with an unbridled crapshoot in the game of life. They believe they are mere inches away from reaching a big payoff, but they, time and again, grossly miscalculate. They are brought back down to earth. Ralph is back in his two-room, that sink, that stove, and those four walls. No, Alice you are not going to get to see Liberace. And yet they are still happy-go-lucky.

I love “The $99,000 Answer” episode (#18 of the classics) written by Leonard Stern and Sydney Zelinka. Ralph seems so close to hitting his high note. He knows all the popular songs, he can even knows the obscure Italian folk music and operas Mrs. Manicotti crones to him. If Ralph doesn’t get kicked out of the apartment for having Norton playing the piano all hours of the night before the big show then Ralph is, for sure, going to be a champ— he is that sharp when it comes to his musical knowledge. But, of course, it wouldn’t be the Honeymooners if things didn’t go kerplooey by the end. “Mr. Kramden, for one-hundred dollars, who sang Swanee River?” “Huminiahumina humina Ed Norton,” Ralph says and you cannot laugh at the irony of his forgetting the real composer of Swanee River and hazarding his ridiculous guess as his old chum Norton as the composer.

I’m also a huge fan of “TV or Not TV” which is considered the first episode of the classic 39. Who can forget that pithy, poignant line— “Official Space Helmet on Captain Video.” Really I could spend a whole day rattling off lines. Before Seinfeld, this was the most highly quotable show. Was it in fact? I don’t know, but I bet it was at least for me.

Zip zip it is done.