Friday, September 29, 2017

Moving

About once a week while driving to work I see a couple out for a morning stroll. This morning was a cool September day after a stretch of much too hot and humid ones. The street where I see them in North Oakland is tree-lined and leaves cover the sidewalk. I never get a very good look at them. Since I’m driving it is almost always from behind, then a sideways glance as I go past, followed by a quick vision in my mirror, then I go about my day. As a result it’s difficult for me to get a handle on them.


He is tall and very thin, with very long white hair. He has some sort of physical disability. His hips seem to lean to one side and he limps along with very short steps. The hair and physique makes me think he is older than I am but that may not be true. The woman with him looks younger. She may be his wife, or his daughter, or simply a friend. She may be a physical therapist who comes once a week to help him out. She holds onto his arm, lightly as they move.



And move they do. What strikes me most about this is how quickly they seem to be moving. Short, shuffling steps, but fast, churning up the autumn leaves. Whatever difficulty he may have, it’s obvious he is going somewhere, even if it’s just the end of the block. Perhaps I’m reading into it, given that I see such a brief moment of their day, but I always feel a sense of the joy of simply being in motion.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reflections and Projections on Writing

In my previous post I mentioned that I am reading The Crow’s Dinner by Jonathan Carroll. As an author he is difficult to describe. At bookstores I have seen his novels filed with Horror, with Science Fiction and Fantasy, and with contemporary literature. Magical realism probably comes closest to defining his genre, but even that doesn’t quite get it right.


The new book is different than his others. It is a collection of short, some very short, essays that he used to publish regularly on Medium.com. I read them pretty regularly at one point but over time I had gotten way behind. The book is 500-plus pages of one to two page essays. He wrote a lot of these. I kind of love them.


Carroll brings a number of things to all of his writing. He had tremendous observational skills allowing him to capture the tiny moments of the every day that brings verisimilitude to the worlds he builds. This applies not only to the physical world, but also to people, their behaviors and motivations. It all feels very real, places and people we all recognize from our own experiences. Then, when something fantastic or magical occurs, it seems as real as everything else. He finds the magic in the mundane.


That seems even more evident in his essays where he deals pretty exclusively with the real world. He is attentive to it, relating anecdotes with clarity and vision. He is compassionate about the human condition in all of its flaws and wonders. With a concise economy of words he conveys moments of everyday magic.


If you can’t tell, I am envious of his skill.


This morning I had a conversation about writing, specifically the merits of brevity versus longer works. There’s a place for both, obviously, depending on what your goal is. This conversation was specifically about writing for comics, and how many words on a page are too many (because in comics words equal space), and how much the art should tell. It’s a fine balance and there is no right answer. That seems to be the one place where my style leans toward the more sparse and concise. But then Alan Moore of Watchmen fame puts a whole lot of words on a page and it works.


There’s a reason that my fiction tends toward novels instead of the short story. The same is true of my reading habits. To paraphrase, I like big books, and I can not lie. Big books that comprise trilogies, or more. But excessive word count isn’t always necessary. A good haiku says everything it needs to. In the current era when we’re bombarded by too much information word count can be a detriment. I’m certainly guilty of scanning web pages instead of reading them thoroughly. How much time can I spare? While I can’t deny that Twitter is powerful, I feel that much of it lacks context. Some topics simply can’t be critically addressed in 140 characters.


But there has to be a happy medium between a tweet and tl;dr.


I have a lot to learn from writers like Jonathan Carroll. In this spirit I plan on trying some new things with this blog. I won’t entirely give up my longer pieces, but I want to try my hand at shorter posts. Using his style as a guideline, without completely aping it, I want to tell smaller stories. A side effect of this, I hope, is that I will write and post more often, because I often psyche myself out with the need to write about something more in depth. I want to observe the world around me a little more closely and report what I find. I want to look for the magic in the everyday. The post that immediately precedes this one was an attempt. There will be more.



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Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Odds and Ends

Last week I had two experiences that ended with opposite endings to what I normally expect.


I went to the Rivers Casino here in Pittsburgh. I’m not a gambler. In the many years the casino has existed this is my third trip. The first was when it opened, just to see this new addition to my city. The next two times for the buffet (which is a different type of gambling, I suppose). I play low stakes poker with friends occasionally, but I’m far too intimidated to sit down at a professional table with strangers. Slot machines are hungry beasts that have never been my friends. But I was there, for the food, because on my previous trip I had been given a coupon for a free buffet. Twenty dollars worth of free is a good thing. I tipped my waitress five bucks and then walked through the casino to go back to my car. On a whim I stuck a dollar in a penny slot machine. Fifteen cent bet, no luck. Second fifteen cent bet... ding ding ding, lights, and sirens! I hit for $6.70. Pretty good return on a fifteen cent investment. I cashed out because quit while you’re ahead, right? So I left, full of buffet and, minus the tip, $1.70 more than I walked in with.


A couple of days later I made a trip to the library, which I do a lot of. I read a lot, and the library is free. I still need to occasionally buy books for my collection, but the library has saved me thousands of dollars in my lifetime. I had a book on hold, The Crow’s Dinner by Jonathan Carroll, one of my favorite authors. It’s a large collection of his short blogs, most of which first appeared on Medium.com. I followed it for years. While there I stumbled across a new book about David Bowie called Forever Stardust. Within five or ten minutes of reading each of them I knew I needed to own them. They cost more than the dollar seventy from my casino windfall.



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I can’t help but feel I still came out ahead.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Talking Leaves, Open Book


As I mentioned in my previous post I believed that the main reason my memory of Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide was so strong was because of the art on the back cover. A free hand drawing I did of that when I was eight is my first very specific memory of realizing I had some artistic talent, that I could draw. I remembered very little of the actual story, other than Sequoyah created a phonetic alphabet that allowed the Cherokee language to be written down for the first time. I had never really paused to wonder if there was something in the story itself, rather than just the artwork, that made this stand out among all the other volumes of Childhoods of Famous Americans that I read at that time.


After reading it again for the first time in nearly fifty years, the answer is yes. Yes there was.


But, some disclaimers before I go any farther. This entire series of books were written as story-driven narratives and not as accurate historical documents. In my subsequent research I discovered that there are tremendous gaps in what is actually known about Sequoyah. I will say that the author, Dorothea J. Snow, did an admirable job of taking what information was available and creating a story that incorporated actual history. The book is also a product of its time with some of the attendant problems of racist attitudes and the white mans interpretation of what Native Americans were. While it firmly acknowledged the rapaciousness of the European expansion across America and the mistreatment of the Indians, it also seemed that most of Sequoyah’s best qualities were inherited from his absent white father.


But I read this when I was eight, so none of that was part of my prior experience, and I have no interest in tearing apart this artifact of another time in a scathing review. While these are certainly valid complaints, it’s not what I’m here to talk about.


The book begins with Sequoyah being teased by his peers because he has to help his mother with household chores and gardening, something they see as ‟women’s work.” Because he is lame in one leg he is also unable to hunt or to compete in their sports the way the other boys do. This also sets him apart.


I was not lame, and my father was a positive presence in my life, but reading this now, I can see echoes of eight-year-old me. I was, and let’s be honest here, I still am, a Momma’s boy. Mom has always been, in many ways, my best friend and I interacted with her in the house more than a lot of boys do with their mothers. Not so much with the cleaning and housework, but I liked to help her cook. Dad would want her to chase me out of the kitchen because he thought I was in her way. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind back then that we both enjoyed the experience and that I was earning a valuable life skill (I’m not a chef by any means, but I can whip up a mean pan gravy). I still do this when I’m home, and one of my favorite holiday traditions, both Christmas and Thanksgiving, is helping with the spread. I was much more interested in learning how to make homemade noodles than in changing the oil in my car. I resented some of the time Dad would engage me in car maintenance. I am now incredibly grateful for this time spent with him that younger me couldn’t appreciate. Interested in cars or not, the time with Dad was invaluable, and I learned enough about cars to save me a million times on the road. But, back then, I would rather have been reading than changing tires.


Okay, that’s still true.


I was also not very interested in hunting or sports. These are two of the most important manhood rituals where I’m from and I just didn’t care very much for either. Let me say, for all of my friends and family who do engage, I am not opposed to either of these, then or now. Just not my thing. When I was twelve I got my hunting license because I didn’t know how to say no back then. It was just expected. I loved being out in the woods, but I didn’t feel the need to kill anything. I did though: squirrels, and groundhogs, and rabbits in small game season. When I was eighteen I finally accomplished the ultimate cherry-breaking moment of being a hunter and shot my first buck. I was literally sick and haven’t been in the woods with a gun since.


With sports my lack of interest may be because I’ve simply never been any good at them. Or, perhaps the reverse is more likely. I never pushed to be better at sports. Just not competitive enough, I guess. I went to one practice for wrestling in fifth grade and after spending an hour on my back with my opponent’s knee in my nuts I never went back. I played Little League baseball for a year, but that was more to hang out with a friend than from any real interest in playing. I could hit pretty well, but couldn’t field for shit. I was a slow runner.


Which brings me to an anecdote. The boys in my school loved to race. Every recess had boys challenging each other to see who was the fastest. I wasn’t and as a result, got challenged to race a lot. It’s an easy win, right? One day the playground was covered with snow and ice. I was wearing boots with really good tread. Due to traction I won my first race ever, against the guy who always beat me. I won a second one as well. He didn’t want to race anymore and when I asked him why he said it was unfair because I knew I was going to beat him. You know... just like he knew that every other time he challenged me.


Life lessons.


I hated the military posturings of my gym teacher and was actually kind of happy on those occasions when I sprained my ankle or broke my arm and had an excuse not to participate. I got to go to the library and read instead.


And of course, I was teased about all of this. I was teased a lot. Before I get too far into this I do want to say my childhood wasn’t Hell. I was picked on, because of my interests and my red hair, and because I was sensitive and cried easily which made me an easy target. But I was never beat up. I didn’t live in fear. I had friends. My teachers mostly liked me (probably not the gym teacher). I recognize how much of a golden child I was. But I had my tormentors.


And I see little Wayne in these aspects of Sequoyah.


My interest in reading and in books is what prompted this blog and the last one, so it’s no surprise that I share that with Sequoyah as well. The Cherokee did not have a written language. The white man came bearing sheets of paper with strange markings on them. These ‟talking leaves” were treaties and orders from the government that gave them great power. The Cherokee, according to this book, believed they were magic, allowing the white man to communicate over long distances. Sequoyah became fascinated by the talking leaves and became determined to unlock their magic. He spent many years working on this, becoming an outsider to his people. They thought he was queer (in the old sense of the word), and strange, and maybe dangerous. He would become obsessed with his project to the detriment of his other work, his friends and family.


As I pointed out in my last blog, I too became fascinated by the talking leaves when I was very young and learned their magic very early. In my world of sports and hunting and those who simply don’t appreciate books in the same way I do, I too have been considered strange and queer (in both definitions of that word).


These things are not mutually exclusive of course. I have friends who hunt and read. I have friends who are way into sports and read. After living in Pittsburgh for nearly three decades I have learned an appreciation for the Steelers I didn’t believe I would ever have.


But I’m still more interested in books. I still believe that they are magic. Entire worlds are held between their covers. The wisdom of the ages is there for anyone to access. They are time machines, allowing us to hear the thoughts and voices of people long gone. They are portals to imagination and empathy. The story of Sequoyah that so spoke to me when I was eight continued to live as strange lines on aging paper until my now 56-year-old eyes could rediscover it. The words were unchanged in all those decades, but I am a different person so it is now a different book.


But, as this experience teaches me, in many ways I’m still the same book too.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

BookQuest



I have always loved books. My mother says she read to me constantly as a baby, long before I was conscious of what books were. As I grew older she says I was always asking her to read to me. Books, children’s books, comic strips and comic books... everything that had words on a page. She smiles as she talks about how she would set the words to song to put me to sleep at night. She winks when she tells me how I would correct her if she skipped the words to well-known stories.


For me books have always been magic. They are portals to other worlds, the most important of which has been my own imagination.


As you might guess, I learned to read early. The mystery of what was contained on these strange marks on paper we call the alphabet was one I needed to solve. Apparently, for all of her indulgence, I needed more time with books than Mom could give me. By the time I started first grade I was already living between the pages. One of my most-repeated anecdotes of that time was when the teacher, Mrs. Baldwin, yelled at me for not paying attention. She was teaching the alphabet to the class and I was bored, so of course I grabbed a book from the shelf in the back to keep myself occupied while the rest of the class got caught up. Yeah, I was an arrogant little snot, but I was bored. I still reach for a book when other people are boring me.


I grew up in the country so there wasn’t a local library. My small school was serviced by a library bookmobile and I couldn’t wait for the weekly visit. Luckily it continued to make rounds during the summer months as well. The librarian, Mrs. Berryman (who I have alreadywritten about), loved me because of my love of books. By fourth grade a new grade school had been built, consolidating several smaller schools and gave Mrs. Berryman a permanent home and large new library. I practically lived there.


I graduated to chapter books pretty quickly. The earliest full books I remember reading were the Howard Pyle version of Robin Hood (I spent a summer writing a play based on it and trying to recruit my friends to be in it. It was, sadly, never produced. Luckily, in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a school musical production). I also read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 4th grade my classmate Charlie Brown (yes, that was actually his name), reenacted the scene from Tom Sawyer where the boys first encounter Injun Joe.


Actual copy from my childhood
My really beat up copy of Tom Sawyer. The copy
of Huck Finn is long gone. Mom says these
were my brother's copies from when he was
little.

There were a series of books on the library shelves that I plowed through. They were a series of biographies of figures from American history, written for children. I specifically remember a few: George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Kit Carson, Brigham Young, Betsy Ross, and many others. I read them all, some many times over. I credit these with my interest in history which eventually led to one of my undergraduate degrees.


One in particular stands out in my memory, but not because of history, but because of art. The book was a biography of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah, inventor of a written alphabet for the Cherokee language. The cover of this book, like all of the covers in this series, was covered with drawings, done in the inked style of the comic books I was so familiar with.


In third grade all of the boys were obsessed with cars, based on the Hot Wheels and Matchbox toy cars. I had a bunch of these, but I didn’t have the same obsession. Trapped indoors for recess in the winter everyone was drawing their favorite cars. I tried, but just couldn’t get the hang of it. One of my regular tormentors made fun of my inability to draw. One day, while the others worked at their cars, I did a freehand drawing based on the art on the book. It was, in my memory at least, really good. Okay, really good for a third-grader. My teacher praised it. So did other kids in my class.


My tormentor said, ‟Yeah, but you still can’t draw cars.”


This whole experience stands out plainly in my memory. I pinpoint this drawing of Sequoyah, unfortunately long lost to the ravages of time, as THE drawing that made me aware that I had some talent. The one that eventually led to the art I still do today.


The problem with memory is that it is incomplete. I have spent many years of my life trying to track down this series of books. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the titles were, or what the series was called. I tried my Google-Fu with every variation of ‟American biographies written for children in the 1960s” you can imagine. Nothing that ever came up seemed to match. My visual memory for these, especially for Sequoyah, is strong. I would know it when I saw it. But many image searches later and I was still unsuccessful. Every trip to a used bookstore for the last twenty years included a perusal of the children’s section. Still, no luck.


But books are magic.


A month or so ago I was in the main branch of the Carnegie Library. This is not an unusual occurrence. I typically do two things when I’m there; I look for very specific books that are next on my reading list, and I browse the shelves to see what catches my eye. I frequently discover books and authors I have never heard of before. That day a book on a display caught my eye due the title. Morningstar: Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood is not something I would have ever been aware of except by the synchronicity of it being there right when I have been researching the concept of Lucifer Morningstar for another project I’m working on (not a Satanic one, I swear). It’s also the name of the character I am currently playing in a superhero roleplaying game. I picked up the book, discovered it had nothing to do with my research, but saw that it was a memoir about a woman my age and the significant books she had grown up with. Good enough for me, so I took it home.


On page seven of her introduction she mentions a series of of books in her childhood library called Childhoods of Famous Americans.


Click!


Two minutes on Google and I had it. Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide by Dorothea J. Snow. I saw the picture of the front cover and I knew my search had ended.


But it hadn’t. The thing is, there are multiple printings. I now realize that I had actually found the book in my searches years ago and didn’t recognize it because it had a different cover. I looked around Amazon and Ebay and found copies but none of them showed the back cover. I finally ordered one with the front cover I recognized. It arrived a couple of days later and I excitedly tore open the package only to disscover the back cover was blank. I had the book, but what I really wanted was the drawing.


So, more research. I discovered that the cover artist, who also did illustrations for the interior (all of which lit up memory switchboards in my brain), was Frank Giacoia, a name I knew from the hundreds of comic books he pencilled and inked in the 1960s and 70s. I found another copy for sale with a different cover, but by the same artist. I ordered it. I was once again disappointed.


Third time’s the charm. Through Alibris I found a store in Florida that listed four copies in stock. None of them had pictures. By this time I had found a photo of the back cover with the drawing I wanted, so I wrote to the bookseller with the photo. A woman named Virginia wrote back immediately that she would go their basement and check the overstock. Four days and eight dollars later and I held the book in my hands.


I read it last night. My eyes scanned words I haven’t seen in nearly fifty years. I stared at the artwork and remembered doing that one specific drawing, and some of the others I had forgotten about as well. In reading it now, with a lot more self-awareness, I can see why this book, more than any of the others in the series stuck with me. The drawing I did cemented the image in my mind, but the story says a lot about who I am, and who I was.


But that’s a separate blog.