Wednesday, October 22, 2014

R.I.P. The Editor: Ben Bradlee

For a short time in the post-Watergate '70s, Ben Bradlee and I had something in common: we were both editors of a Washington newspaper.  Of course, fledgling alternative weekly Washington Newsworks was not exactly the giant, swaggering Washington Post.  We were the "Washington Outsiders" (as our promo said--I wrote it) in direct contrast to the insiders at the Post.  Though there was also another daily in town (the solid, well-edited Washington Star) the Post was the measure of all journalism in Washington.  They were all over the glamorous federal Washington, but their Metro section was weak.  So we looked for our stories there, as well as in the youth culture that the Post saw chiefly with bemusement.

Though I never met Bradlee, he was already an icon.  I'd been in Boston when the Pentagon Papers and Watergate were happening--my own stories on the 1972 Nixon campaign cited the Post's reporting before it permeated the political consciousness.

  Then when I was Newsworks editor, Bradlee's boldness was an unadmitted model.  My first news decision was reviving a story that had been held back because it might offend an advertiser.  Bradlee wouldn't be intimidated! I worked with the writer to make sure the story was solid, and we gave the advertisers a heads-up on its publication (They shrugged--they knew newspapers reported stories when they bought the ads.)

  Later I went after a national story which involved facing down some very important people, channeling Bradlee without realizing it.  My proudest moment now was how Newsworks covered the assassination of Chilean activist Orlando Letelier in a car bombing by Pinochet's secret police on the streets of Washington that also killed American Ronni Karpen Moffitt.  Jeff Stein did all the reporting (he's now a columnist at the Washington Post) all on his own, so except for a little text editing my role was as Newswork's Bradlee.  I put the story on the cover and gave it major play inside.  I worked with Jeff, with the art and production department.  The result was the best and most thorough coverage in the city.  Better than yours, Ben.  I'll bet you noticed.


Those who knew him are marking his death with their remembrances.  (For good example, David Remnick at the New Yorker.)  For everybody else, there's an apparently dead-on portrayal of Bradlee by Jason Robards in the classic film of All the President's Men.  For me, there was and is the example of a editor with courage and panache who stood for--and stood up for--a kind of journalism I believed in, and tried to do.  Sure, he had lots of faults and some lapses.  So did and do I.  But as a model, he was it.  May he rest in peace, but his restless spirit ever pervade American journalism.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Beginning of a Long Thought

"Recently, while moving my CD collection to new shelving, I struggled with feelings of obsolescence and futility...The tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding."
Alex Ross
"The Classical Cloud"
New Yorker September 8, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nothing But the Dream

Two interesting quotes from an essay on a writer I doubt I'd enjoy reading.

In the New Yorker (Aug. 25, 3014) James Wood is writing about James Kelman, a Scottish writer who writes fiction mostly about the working class in a particular part of Scotland.  Woods writes that Kelman's characters, while not engaging in flights of imagination or even deep thought, insist on "the play and the liberty...of the mind."  "More desperately, it's that they see privacy as the last unmortgaged, unindebted, unsold space, always on the verge of being invaded by the materialism of survival that tyrannizes the rest of life."

Well, as a kid in a working class culture, and then as a student being groomed for the middle class, I felt very much the same.  The privacy of thought, the resistance to its violation.  And this is linked to Woods' other fine phrase, about a story "in which hope and fatalism are evenly weighted, and only fantasy retains any dignity."

Yes.  There's a thread in my non-non-fiction writing fits for the past forty-plus years that plays with the various notions of "nothing," and with pluses and minuses that cancel out somehow.  It is finally only the writing, the fantasy, that has any certainty about it, though only in those moments of creation or initial inhabiting.  Or as I put it in a song that I wrote and have been singing (secretly most of the time) since the early 1970s...well, I keep them secret awhile long.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Enterprise

"...when it comes to representing the outer world, no painting can compare to a window pane. This principle applies much more forcibly to literature, because there is no verbal equivalent of the window pane.  Words can describe things only approximately: all they do with any real accuracy is hang together, in puns, metaphor, assonances, and the self-contained fictions of grammar and syntax."

Northrup Frye
Creation & Recreation

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Leave-Taking

Tonight there's an orange half moon.  I suspect the color is related to the big fires burning to our north and east.

The piece of fiction writing I accomplished this summer was based on the day I left for college and the day I arrived.  Even since then I keep finding earlier versions of dealing with these days, in boxes, file cabinets and trunks.  Clearly it seemed important near the time (the first version written within months) and subsequently, and now, which I suddenly realize is pretty close to exactly a half century ago.

Apart from the language, there's the perspective of time, and the decisions of what to include (relevant information and memories, for example) that sheds light on that person--even if not deliberately fictionalized, now so remote in time as not to be exactly me as I am--and the meaning of those two days.

In going through the version I happened upon most recently and making some additions and changes to the "chapter" I wrote this summer, I realized that, even with the changes I may make in the future, this is basically the last version.  And the best.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Set

    photos by Kowinski 2014

Another summer gone, sort of.  Humboldt State starts very early by my standards, so my work--intermittent though it may be--begins again.  But the theatre season is mercifully at an end, so my series of columns--mostly reviews, one preview--is done for now.

I did more than I wanted to for Stage Matters, to add at least some income to balance higher expenses, principally a whopping dental bill for one lonely tooth.  At least whopping for me.  It will take me writing 12 columns to pay for it.  Which means that all of my summer income goes there, and it will require more.

Otherwise, I went nowhere, stayed home in June and July to deal with necessary household matters.  I got some writing of my own done, not a lot but some.  I revised plans for several projects, which I hope make them more doable.  In the fiction based on my life and times, I decided to center it in the most dramatic period (which in fact was the original plan!) and what is now the most historic period, the mid-60s to the early 70s.  It would start with leaving for college.

So I dug out what I'd saved, and it was quite a lot.  I had the first piece of writing I did at college, a cliche-ridden piece that nevertheless preserved a few details about the car trip from burg to burg (Greens to Gales.)  I had occasion to marvel again at what has survived over time--in this case, a postcard from the motel outside Moline where we stayed overnight before driving on into Galesburg in September 1964.

As for freshman year, I have letters (letters!), bound copies of the student newspaper, some academic work, and evidently I'd decided before to focus on orientation week because there are drafts with lots of information.  More than I remember in fact, so there are items in those pages that I can't identify as fact or my own fictioning.  Not that it matters.  But over the years, even when it wasn't going right or I had to abandon drafts,  I've always felt that I was preparing raw material for some ultimate draft.

After completing the introductory story of those couple of days, it struck me that I could frame the college years by starting with a moment at my draft physical, the second one, at Fort Des Moines.  So I found what files remain on that.  I found something like a narration (in something like verse), and there might be more writing I did about it near that time that I haven't found.  But I have the official letters back and forth.  I was amazed to see how compacted in time it was, between my pre-induction physical in Chicago and the appeal physical in Iowa.  The reality of all this leaves me a little dazed, still.

So in short, as usual I didn't do nearly the amount of writing I had hoped, and summer was not nearly as different in terms of demands on my time as the rest of the year.  Time of course is running out on realizing projects, but as there is no demand for them from outside myself,  it's harder to concentrate, to work through the emotions, the effort, the psychological exhaustions, etc.  And the prospect of that enormous silence at the end.  I feel that when I complete smaller projects, even columns (if I hear from any 'readers' at all it's too long after, and I've already disconnected) and it takes awhile to get back the required energy and focus on my world of illusions.  Finishing a big project, what would that be like?

As for the outside world around me, despite the drought we've had roses all summer, and a self-transplanted gaggle of yellow flowers in the back yard (previously known as Toby's flowers).  The grass is browner than it has ever been in front, and the ferns there are wilting.  On the side however, the shaded ferns are doing better.

Our hummers are returning to the feeders more regularly.  I saw two and so I got the second feeder out of storage since early spring. I see them around occasionally in the spring and summer but they seem to range pretty far for the flowering flowers, and the one year-round feeder is very slow to empty.  August is about the time they rediscover the ready supply of the feeder. Sitting on the back porch, listening to a Doctor Who audiobook read by David Tennant, I saw three together, with one hovering in front of me as I said hello.  I've read they know the face of the person who stocks the feeders.  They sure seem to.

It's an odd time--the changing climate resulting in noticeably dryer, sunnier and warmer summers is disquieting for what it portends, though it is pleasant enough in itself.  A hot day here is still under 80F.  Now that I'm acclimated to the North Coast, I find I relax more when it's foggy, the way it is supposed to be.  The persistent sunshine is almost shocking.  And we do have some foggy days and nights, though they seem like afterthoughts.  They say the redwoods could be gone in a century.  But then, I'll be gone long before.  How many more summers, still pretty strong and capable?

It's comforting to know from the blogger stats that almost no one reads this particular blog.  I have some readers for a couple of blogs, and virtually none for others.  So I do them for my pleasure and to keep a record.  I don't know why it is easier to do it this way than simply by keeping a digital journal.  But it somehow is.  

Sunday, April 06, 2014

R.I.P. Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen was a friend and contemporary of Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron, but his writing career was amazingly different and very individual to him.
His career began as an expatriate writer and part-time spy in Paris (where he helped found The Paris Review) and ended as a Zen Monk in upstate New York.
In between it took him to Africa, the high Himalayas, the Pine Ridge reservation and Antarctica.

 He became most noted for writing nonfiction about nature and travel, but at considerable personal cost (financial and otherwise) he wrote about the plight of Native Americans (and specifically what could well be the most conspicuous injustice of 20th century America, the continuing incarceration of Leonard Peltier), and then about his Buddhist practice.

He also wrote novels, the form of writing that was most important to him.  More than 30 books all told, in a long, rich and singular life that ended at the age of 86.

He left behind books that will be important for whatever uncertain future books may have.  Personally I revere his The Snow Leopard (and its companion Nine-Headed Dragon River), In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (and its companion Indian Country.)  He writes beautifully of North American shorebirds in The Wind Birds and of Antarctica in End of the Earth.  And the list goes on.  I first became aware of him in college when I read parts of The Tree Where Man Was Born in the New Yorker.  It was a daunting yet inspiring and instructive work in certain ways for a fledgling writer to read.

But he is such a unique writer that even the most ardent readers of some of his books may well be immune to others.  Of his novels, I've read and admired Raditzer and especially At Play in the Fields of the Lord.  But I have yet to yield to the charms of the Watson series of fictions he worked and reworked in recent years, including his National Book Award winning Shadow Country (which made him the only writing to win this award in both fiction and non-fiction.)

The official publication date of his latest and now last novel is this coming Tuesday.  It's called In Paradise.  

Here's his New York Times obituary.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.