Thursday, December 27, 2007

Another North Coast variation--instead of buying
and/or cutting down a fir tree, we use the pruning
of a redwood tree in the yard. This is last year's.
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Christmas Past Present

We had a quiet but good Christmas. We visited with our far-flung families by phone: I talked with my sisters in western PA., Margaret with her mother in Virgina, son in New Mexico and daughter in San Francisco. They and their families, and the rest of our families, all are healthy and solvent, so that's a good Christmas right there.

Our Christmas dinner included wild salmon, a very North Coast dish. My childhood Christmas memories also include fish, but on Christmas Eve at my Italian grandparents. They both came over from the same village in Italy (they'd grown up on the same street) in the 1920s (my grandfather first, then he sent the money back to bring my grandmother and my mother, who was not yet 4.) There were a number of families from their village who came at around the same time to settle in the same town, or a nearby one. In fact much of the substantial Italian immigrant population in our western Pennsylvania county came from the same region of Italy, the Abruzzi.

Theirs was the tradition of the meatless Christmas Eve--or vigil--dinner. Many Italian regions shared it, with variations. There were a variety of seafood dishes--different kinds of fish and other seafood (including squid), prepared in various baked, broiled and fried ways, served in the meal or just passed around as appetizers and complements to the main dishes, plus pasta with a fish sauce.

This tradition seems all but unknown where I am now, along with other food connections to my Italian family past. There are Italians here--including our nearest neighbor, who was born there--but they are mostly northern Italians who came here as diary farmers. Their food is much different. They would think of us as southern Italians, although geographically the Abruzzi is about dead center on the boot, on the Adriatic side. Sort of how San Francisco is called northern California, though we are almost as far north from the Bay as SF is from LA.

On my own, I tried to maintain some of the vigil tradition when I lived in Pittsburgh, where it was much easier. The fish dish I liked the best as a child was the fried smelts, and when I tried to find smelts here in Arcata, at first nobody had heard of them, and then someone told me, "around here, we call that 'bait.'" So I didn't ask for them again. (But it looks like the lowly smelts are about to have their environmental revenge.) These days the most I do to stay somewhat connected with those days is bake some jumbalone, which is a family recipe for a rather simple but tasty cookie/cake kind of thing.

Beginning with my generation, family in western PA has mostly lost the vigil meal tradition, as have others removed from the direct immigrant experience and no longer living in the old towns and neighborhoods. But I was pleased to see in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that there's something of a revival underway---only now it requires a course in how to prepare this meal, known as the feast of the seven fishes (a name I hadn't heard before.) Calamari, Baccala and sphagetti with tuna sauce--I remember those, and more.

But I do occasionally make sphagetti with fish sauce--my mother often made it on Fridays, back when you went to hell for eating meat that day. But when I make it it's not with tuna sauce. I use salmon. I got the idea from a friend. Since he's Karuk (an Indian tribe indigenous to this place), I'm an immigrant in his country. But it's nice to share traditions, especially when they're tasty.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Big Ben earlier this season in an old-style Pittsburgh
Steelers' uniform, celebrating the team's 75th year.
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Them Steelers 2007

Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers broke a two game losing streak in St. Louis, winning 41-24, but losing their star running back, Willie Parker, for the rest of the season with a broken leg. It's been that kind of season, in an odd kind of year.

The year is odd because there are several teams with exceptionally good records, and a number of teams with very bad ones. With three games left in the season, Miami became the last team not to have won a game. On the other end, several teams have lost only two or three, and the New England Patriots are undefeated, with a strong chance that they will end the season that way. For the uninitiated, this is pretty unusual.

So the Steelers, in their first year with new coach Mike Tomlin, seemed to be having a very good year by ordinary standards. They in fact led their league in several key categories, Willie Parker being the league-leading runner at the time of his injury. Several players, notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward, broke single season and all time team records. They started well and at one time had a 7-2 record and then 9-3.

But their first losses of the season were to weaker teams, which suggested problems in the long run, especially with the dominance of New England, and the near-dominance of Indianapolis in their conference, with Dallas and the surging Green Bay Packers piling up wins in the other. So despite their record and statistical dominance, by mid season I had the feeling they weren't quite up to the standards of at least New England and Indianapolis.

Then they lost to a team that had only one win (the New York Jets in overtime), barely won against Miami when it was winless (though under horrible field and weather conditions), and then the past two games, fell hard to New England, and were outplayed in a close game by Jacksonville.

So their victory last night was important, though it hasn't on its own gotten them into the playoffs yet. The Steelers lost late season games and almost didn't get into the playoffs in 2005, when they became the first wild card team to run the table on the road and win the Super Bowl, defeating New England and Indianapolis to get there. That's less likely to happen this year. At this point in the season, the very good teams with the fewest injuries have the advantage, and in 2005 the Steelers were just getting injured players back in the lineup towards the end of the season, so they were able to peak at just the right time. Now, especially with the injury to Parker, that's not so true. Besides which, New England has been healthy all season, and they still are. It's unlikely anyone is going to beat them in the playoffs this year, as long as they stay that way.

But when they are playing well, the Steelers are still tremendous fun to watch. I could watch only the highlights of this game, since as a Pittsburgh exile sans satellite hookup, I am nowhere near a broadcast. (But it was exiles like me that comprised an estimated half of the crowd in St. Louis--when you hear the crowd roar on the Steelers' big plays, it sounds like a home game.) Big Ben has become a big play threat: backed up and throwing from the end zone in his first play of the game, he threw a pass fifty yards in the air and completed it for an 80 yard gain.

Right now, the Steelers have big time players in the skill positions, but uncharacteristically are weakest in the offensive line and lately in the defense, partly due to injuries. So while you can't count the Steelers out of any game with Big Ben and Hines Ward on the field, they may just have to survive this season with a taste of success and a hunger for it all next year.

Between last season and this, I spent a couple of weeks back in western PA, and even though it was late spring, the Steelers were always a presence. A bus boy in a cafe started a conversation with me about them. I accompanied my two best friends to a bar, where I was the surprised participant in a conversation about the Steelers as I used the urinal in the men's room, with a voice in the one stall, a complete stranger who I never saw. He was probably having a running conversation with everyone who came in. There was also a woman in the supermarket wearing a t-shirt that said, "If you ain't a Steeler fan, you ain't worth s--t."

So I could hardly be surprised when I read on a sports blog the reaction of a young woman who flew in to Pittsburgh for the first time, to see the Seattle Seahawks (the Steelers- 2005 Super Bowl opponent) play at Hines Field. She remarked that the first person she met on arrival was a knowledgeable football and Steelers fan. She doesn't encounter that many in Seattle. But within her first few hours in the 'burgh, she realized it wasn't a lucky coincidence: it is the norm. (And the Steelers won that game, 21-0.)

This season also marks the 75th year of the Steelers, one of the oldest teams in professional football, and a source of local pride and identity for much of that time. I suppose in every place that is a place, there is a point where the vulgar and the exalted meet, and where the present extends the past. For Pittsburghers wherever they may now be, it's the Steelers.

Update 12/26: As a result of games they didn't play, the Steelers are in the playoffs as their division champion, and their first round opponent will most likely be Jacksonville at home, a team they just lost to. But they're pretty evenly matched, and in that case, it's hard to beat a team twice. So it should be an interesting game, and if they win it, New England would likely be next. The Steelers play a now meaningless game this Sunday, while the New England Patriots could break the NFL record for the longest perfect regular season on Saturday. Meanwhile, Big Ben of the Steelers was named NFL Player of the Week on offense, with a "perfect" quarterback rating (whatever that means) in the Rams game.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

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A Book Sale and Sadness

I recently attended a book sale at the Humboldt University Library, and not for the first time. They sell books that have been donated, and books the library is discarding. I have complex feelings about both categories, and the sale itself.

I don't mind buying books that have been donated, though when I donate books to the library, I mean for them to wind up on the library shelves, not in a jumble sale. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself buying discarded library books just so they won't be thrown away.

The whole idea of discarding books chills me. I mean discarding books that aren't going to be replaced with new copies. I suppose it makes sense to get rid of technical and scientific texts that are no longer useful except for historical documentation and interest. But other choices bother me. I noticed at this sale they had evidently cleared several shelves of books on the work of Henry James, as well as books on and by William Dean Howells. James does not happen to be an author I'm much interested in, although it's possible that I'll live long enough to develop an interest. One of several comments made by Norman Mailer (may he rest in peace) that stays with me is that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other, and that can change over time.

I am also reminded of a line in Wallace Shawn's play, The Designated Mourner, to the effect that a certain person who'd just died was the last expert on the poetry of John Donne. These days that's entirely possible.

So now where will I go for books on Henry James? I use this library a lot, and once I did encounter on the shelves, among the books I was examining for one of my personal quixotical research projects, several volumes with little pieces of paper sticking out of them, indicating that they were scheduled to be discarded. Scheduled for demolition! It's gotten so that I continue to renew several books I have just so they can't discard them.

Of course they need the money from the sales--especially because of budget cutbacks. This library bought no new books for several years, and buys few this year. I'm not sure if I were a prospective student, I would even consider coming to a school with a library that has stopped buying books.

And I'm no saint about the sale either. I usually go in the afternoon, make my selections, and wait for the closing bell when you get a grocery bag full of books for a buck. At which time I rescue as many books as I can. It's partly book greed, of course. It's been my major addiction for years. I have many more books than I will ever read.

Including one I got at this sale--a 1912 copy of Modern Instances, a novel by William Dean Howells. I got it as a helpless gesture of respect for the author. It's not the first time I've done that, although this is probably the one I am least likely to read. I have found books at this sale that I've read and enjoyed, books that I just enjoy owning, and books that have been helpful. Though I once actually found an obscure book I was looking for, I more often found helpful books I hadn't known existed. Serendipity has always been a good research method for me. This sale has helped build the house of books that shelters me, so I can't complain. But I do wonder just what it is I'm witnessing.

Monday, April 30, 2007

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Captain Toothpaste Returns

WHO IS CAPTAIN TOOTHPASTE? asked the bold print on the last page of the Knox Magazine spring 2007 issue. That’s easy. I am.

Or I was in 1968. I cut a record under that name, which was included in an issue of the Knox College literary magazine. The song was called “Nightdove.” Thanks to Knox Magazine, you can hear it yourself, right here. That’s me singing and playing guitar. I also wrote it--my real name is on the label as well, paired with a “J.Rider” as co-author. That was me as well.

I was also the co-editor of the magazine, with Wendy Saul. It was called “The Siwasher” then. Knox College was known as “Old Siwash” from stories written about it using that mythical name. It also turned out to be something of a racial slur which Native Americans found offensive. Our Spring 1968 issue was the last one with that name. Some years later, the school officially dropped references to Siwash, and adopted a new name for its sports teams.

The magazine had followed the same format for the years I was there: student stories, poems and reproductions of art works. After publishing such an issue in the fall, we decided to go multimedia. We broke out of the book with 8x10 reproductions of the work of four photographers, plus an art poster suitable for hanging. We talked a lot about how popular music in the 60s was a vital and representative art form for our generation, so we wanted to include records. We kept to our budget for all this by collecting the usual stories and poems in a booklet with a generic cover. And we put it all—book, photos, poster and two records---in a manilla envelope, with a poem by Howard Partner on the flap.

The record with the hot pink label (both were small but played at 33 1/3 format) featured Rick Clinebell’s rendition of the Joni Mitchell tune, “The Urge for Going,” on one side, and three cuts on the other side: a piano duet of an original work by Karen Janecek, a tune by the Knox folk group, Four in the Morning, and a rock tune by the Bushes.

The record with the yellow label had three tunes by the bluegrass Stoney Hollow Boys: Rick Lindner, Tom Stern and Mark Brooks, all from our class of '68. And on the other side, “Nightdove” by Captain Toothpaste.

Rick Clinebell was our music director. I was about to take the tapes of all the music to a record company in one of the Quad Cities (Davenport?) when he rushed me into a practice room in the Fine Arts Center with his guitar to re-record “Nightdove,” because something was wrong with the original tape. So I played and sang it just once, messed up the lyrics a little, but that was all the time I had. That’s what’s on the record now.

The recording studio where the tapes were turned into masters and then into records was run by an older gentleman and his wife. She loved the name “Captain Toothpaste.” She said she thought of it at night when she brushed her teeth and it made her laugh. While she was telling us this, her husband was at his mixing board, and asked me if I’d like some echo added to my song. I said sure. I was there with Wendy and Barbara Cottral. It was a sunny spring day. Later we had sandwiches at a little airport, watching small planes take off and land.

The print part of that last issue of the Siwasher were stories by Barbara Ann Cottral (now the famous story writer, Barbara Bean) and Jeremy Gladstone, a play by Sherwood Kiraly (now the famous novelist, Sherwood Kiraly), and poems by Nicholas Brockunier, Harvey Sadow (the world famous ceramicist), Wendy Saul (the famous writer,) Anne Maxfield, Bob Epstein, Phil Ralston, Linda Pohle and me. The next fall the magazine became “Catch.” I had a story in that first issue, too.

I don’t really remember but the whole multimedia thing was probably my idea. Influenced partly by Marshall McLuhan, I was fascinated with the idea of creating interrelated works in various media, specifically of publishing a novel that would be packaged with its own movie and soundtrack. It was barely practical then, and of course it’s much more doable now. I did something like it in the mid 1980s, when I recorded two songs (“The Malling of America” and “Mall Rats”) in the studio with musicians and backup singers, etc., to go along with my book, The Malling of America. The songs were a big hit at my speaking engagements for awhile, and actually got some radio play.

The “Captain Toothpaste” identity was very 60s, of course. Although there’s a homage in there to Howdy Dowdy, too, who was sponsored by Colgate toothpaste, creators of Happy Tooth and Mr. Tooth Decay. Also some satire on commercial culture that included the music industry.

Especially with that little echo added, “Nightdove” turned out to be kind of country surrealism. It reflects a lot I was feeling and thinking about at the time, especially in view of the world we were being drafted into a few weeks later.

Of course I’ve long since left such youthful preoccupations and pretensions behind. And I’m much too mature to call myself Captain Toothpaste. These days I’m known to readers of Daily Kos, Soul of Star Trek and everywhere on the Internet as Captain Future.

It is as Captain Future that I was invited to chair a panel this fall at the 40th anniversary Star Trek convention in Seattle, where I met some of my readers, including Walter Koenig (Chekov) and Jonathan Frakes (Riker). I’ve met Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Marina Sirtis (Troi), George Takei (Sulu), Levar Burton (Georgi LaForge) and Nichelle Nichols (Ahura), who introduced me to Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on ground not on this Earth. But Captain Future is not all about space. The Climate Crisis on the only world we’ve got is a primary preoccupation of my main site, Captain Future’s Dreaming Up Daily.

But Captain Toothpaste is a part of me, too. Save the nightdove, save the world.

Update 9/9/07: Just got the fall issue of the Knox Magazine, with their follow-up. I don't know why they won't mention blog addresses, especially since they basically got their information from a link to this post. They did add some information about the Stoney Hollow Boys. I don't remember Rick Lindner ever being called "Willy," but they name him and Tom Stern, but also Peter Schramm, former professor of biology, and Ken Pahel, another faculty member, as the string bass player. No mention of Mark Brooks. I distinctly remember him playing a washtub bass, the first I'd ever seen. I wonder whose memory is faulty here. I suppose I can be forgiven for forgetting Peter Schramm, since he failed me in a course which led to my never graduating. It was a course in evolution--pretty ironic, since failing the course selected me as not among the fittest, and doubly ironic because I've written a lot on the subject of evolution since, and have become the go-to guy for reviewing books on it--and science in general--at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. I also created the official web page for one of his predecessors, Paul Shepard, one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, about evolution and so much more.

I also see that our 1967 anti-war poetry reading got into the history of Old Main, and that the post-Kent State/Jackson State takeover of the deans offices in 1970 is described as "peaceful," which it was, apart from the rock band playing in the hall. It was scheduled to be less peaceful, when the college decided to call the cops and have me arrested (or so I'm told.) But we left before then--specifically we declared victory and went home, which was our solution for how to get out of Vietnam.

Though Knox likes to give "credit" for leading that action to former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, it was actually me. He wasn't even my chief of staff! Though they did get the name we called ourselves right--"The Students Are Revolting." I ask you, who else but me would have come up with that? I was reading about Dada at the time--and reading our generation's dadaist, Abbie Hoffman. But more about all that another time.

Monday, April 23, 2007

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Shakespeare's Birthday

April 23 is designated as Shakespeare's birthday. It's also the date of his death. There's some factual basis for this date--William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, when it was the custom for that to happen 3 days after birth. But there's some evidence his family celebrated April 22 as his actual birthday.

However it is parsed, it's appropriate for the greatest known playwright to have his birth celebrated in spring, for the springtime festivals from time immemorial were the wellsprings of theatre. So much of Shakespeare's theatre is related specifically to the festival tradition in England.

Back at Knox College when I was a student, the English and Theatre departments threw a Shakespeare's Birthday party on the closest weekend. When everyone was sufficiently lubricated, scripts would be passed around, and classic scenes performed. I recall doing the Porter scene from Macbeth one year. These festive readings all led up to the main tradition of the party: our shy, older English department chairman (though I suppose he may have been only in his 50s then) would read Romeo in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, with one of an endlessly renewed selection of lovely female students.

The Shakespeare's Birthday party was a rite of spring at Knox, where the winters on the Illinois prairie were long and hard, and spring was short but spectacularly green and beautiful.

One of Shakespeare's greatest plays, As You Like It, begins in a harsh winter and ends in a magical spring. In honor of the day, I've posted extensively on it, over at Stage Matters.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

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R. I. P.: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He survived Pall Malls for 84 years, and it was a fall resulting in brain injury that led to his death. Kurt Vonnegut has been part of my life and close to my soul since the 1960s, when my fiction writing teacher who'd been his student at the Iowa Workshop got us reading his early novels, just a few months before the world discovered him big time with Slaughterhouse Five. Of contemporary writers, I felt closest in ways I can't explain to two: Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His New York Times obit is here.

Vonnegut was one of the voices we clung to in those bitter years of the late 60s. His voice was so distinctive that it was something that writers attached to rhythmic mimickry had to get loose of. No sooner had you broken the habit of writing like J.D. Salinger, Hemingway and Joseph Heller, along came Vonnegut. So it goes.

He was a countercultural voice who came by it honestly; he earned it. His use of science fiction motifs was part of it, especially for me. In later years he took on the appearance as well as the mantle of our 20th/21st century Mark Twain.

I've known so many people who knew him, and I've seen him on various screens and of course read him, so I feel I did know him, in that peculiar way in which he didn't know me from Adam. I encountered him in person at least three times I can recall. He spoke in Pittsburgh, where the U.S. Army had once sent him to study engineering. His speeches, especially at colleges, are legendary--even the ones he didn't actually deliver. They were full of wit and practical wisdom, and lots of provocation of thought and feeling, worth any 20 political or academic talks.

Before that, he passed through my mind as I was walking in Boston one afternoon, idly thinking I might run into him. Late that night, while sitting in an unprestiguous, noisy, overlit restaurant with members of a rock band I was supposed to be writing about (the drummer lamenting the absense of the groupies he had been promised), I glanced across the room and saw Kurt Vonnegut looking at us, and not real kindly. Such a coincidence is common in Vonnegut's fictional universe, where there are "leaks" between worlds and time is permeable. It actually happened to me twice within a short time; the other time I was in O'Hare airport thinking about Paul Simon, and a minute later there he was. It was weird enough to be a little scary, and so it's never happened again.

The last time I remember was in Manhattan. It was on the street and I saw him walking towards me, wearing just a comfortable indoor sweater on a cold coat-and-scarf day. I recognized him and smiled; he looked at me the way I was often looked at in New York--that ' are you somebody I should know?' look--and when he'd concluded I wasn't, he looked away. But I have that picture of him, walking the midtown streets as if from one room of his house to another.

I was talking about a short story of his just the other day. Someone, I forget who, has recently written a satire in which the suggested solution to social security and medical care shortfalls because of aging baby boomers is to kill them--humanely, I assume. Apparently this idea is striking a chord, which doesn't surprise me. Vonnegut wrote about it in the 1950s, in a story called "Welcome to the Monkey House" (also the title of his first story collection.) Because of overpopulation, old people were encouraged to visit their government sponsored Ethical Suicide Parlors. It was a wicked idea, but what makes writers cherish Vonnegut is his imagination, his detail. These Parlors were housed next to Howard Johnsons, their purple roof next to the orange roof of HoJos. They all had Hostesses, stewardess-like young women who humor the old folks but efficiently hurry them along to take their injection and die peacefully in the Barcolounger. You absolutely know that when these places are established, this is what they will be like.

I've only quoted him here once, from a 2006 speech in which he said: “The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.” That's Vonnegut in a nutshell: vivid, combative, funny, outrageous, passionate, pushing at the edge but with wit and meaning.

Vonnegut often wrote about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego--a version of who he might well have been if it hadn't been for the sudden success of Slaughterhouse Five, a poor and obscure science fiction writer. In Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake, Kilgore Trout dies. He was 84.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

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The Boomers Are All Right

I posted this at 60's Now. It's one of those posts that blur between the generational (which I what I want to emphasize over there) and the personal (here.) That's probably going to happen a lot as time goes on.

But if you're checking in here from time to time because you're a contemporary, you might want to check out 60's Now and the companion site, the Boomer Hall of Fame. Aside from a number of posts on Saturday Morning Sci-Fi of the 50s, I just added an essay/review about poet/essayist Gary Snyder which recalls his week at Knox College in 1967.

We've been criticized and put down since we were kids, but especially in the 60s. We were too loud, too bold, too earnest, too political, too romantic, too idealistic, too cynical, too crazed by sex, drugs and rock & roll. We protested too much, our music was disgusting, we wanted to change the world but we didn't know how. And so on.

These days (when our awful music is everywhere, forty years later, and we're in the middle of another obscene war that if this country had accepted what we learned from Vietnam never would have happened) we're criticized again, this time by some of our own. Boomers are the self-absorbed, self-indulgent generation that talked big and instead just soaked up big money. We stay in the workforce too long and hog up all the good jobs. And now we're selfish enough to still be alive, so we're going to bankrupt the country and younger generations paying for our Social Security and health care.

Most of this is politicized crap, but the worst part of it is that Boomers themselves are joining in. Self-examination is a good thing. Self-loathing is pointless and in some ways the opposite of self-examination: it's an excuse not to bother. I think most of us understand that a lot of the anger against Boomers is right wing anger about the 1960s. Which is anger against those aspects of society that show more tolerance, more open-mindedness, compassion and idealism.

There are differences between generations, and there are different pluses and minuses between and within them. But this Boomer trashing is preposterous. We're neither the best nor the worst, if there could even be such a thing. It's fashionable to bow to the Greatest Generation but we know them as our parents generation, and they were hardly perfect.

Nor were we or are we perfect--or any other image-- as should be obvious. Here in this space will appear critiques of who we were and who we are, what we did and what we didn't do, what we went through and what we're facing now. But the baseline is this: we're all right. Some of our generation are arrogant, mindless, cruel, clueless, greedy, presumptuous, terminally cynical or perenially deluded. Some of our generation has been very quietly courageous, self-sacrificing, dedicated, compassionate, relentlessly true to their ideals. Most of us have sampled from both bins. Welcome to the human race.

Let's recall that the cultural phenomenon called "the 60s" never involved more than a minority of our age group in a major way. Most of us weren't protestors or hippies. (I mean I was, which is how I know we were a decided minority.) We were just such a huge generation, even a minority of us turned out to be a lot. Most of our generation were always going to have a more or less conventional life, according to the conventions of our time.

Many of us embrace the 60s now, and we should. At the same time, that many of us got a life, raised children and can help our grandchildren, not exactly cause of shame there. (I didn't manage to do any of that, but I admire my contemporaries who did. ) Sure, we all have regrets--or we should--- about overconsumption, about getting sucked in, etc. And some good things turned bad or at least awry. But Boomer self-bashing is more pathetic than any other excess we're supposed to peculiarly own.

Come around here [to 60's Now] if you want to. I hope I can break through my own barriers to discuss the aging issues that confront those of us at the head of the Boom, the first-thirders of 1946 to 1950. But don't expect either cheery nostalgia and self-congratulation all the time, or a fashionable attitude of clever but ultimately cynical self-immolation either. The Boomers are all right.

Monday, February 19, 2007

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In Richard Ford's novel, The Sportswriter, the protagonist observes that "for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret." That idea knocked me back when I first read it, in the mid 1980s, when the Vintage Contemporary version of it cost $6.95. Ford's protagonist was 39 years old, and I was very close to that age at the time.

I didn't want to think about regret, and I wasn't fooled by the sportwriter's belief he had licked it. In the years since then, I've mistakenly recalled this quotation as stating that after a certain age a man can't avoid regret. Well, if Ford doesn't say it, I will.

I used to think regret was an offshoot of Catholic guilt, and maybe associated with the shame of the working class hero who doesn't quite "make it." Maybe so. But there's a non-freakish and maybe even appropriate quality to it. And a certain inevitability, at least for some of us.

Several years ago I was pleased to hear novelist Martin Amis admit that small regrets hit him suddenly every day, to the point that they stop him in his tracks, literally, as he walks down the street, and he involuntarily winces and mutters to himself because of some small memory that emerged with the peculiar force of shame and the pitiless, bottomless thump of regret. I was pleased because I thought I was the only one this happened to.

For it seems there isn’t a day—and on some days (or most often, nights) that I don’t wince, mutter and wish to hide when some memory surfaces that demonstrates my mistakes, idiocy, foolishness, stupidity, arrogance, fear, timidity, etc. Were I more actively suicidal (and this particular means available to me), the fitting method would be to put my head in an oven, for its appropriate combination of ending the farce and hiding my head in shame.

Regrets range from the absurd (maybe if I'd discovered hair conditioners sooner...) to the nearly absurd but poignant (so that's what she meant--she wanted to sleep with me! Why did it take me 25 years for my brain to tell me this?), and the cringe-worthy moments of being a clueless jerk, either arrogant or timid, passive or too aggressive...and so on, ad infinitum. As the years pass, it seems entire eras of my life belong in the "being a jerk" or "being a fool" categories.

Fortunately, I haven't killed or maimed anyone, and since I've never been a husband or father (the source of many regrets, that grab like a hand on the windpipe at odd moments, seeing a child with a father for instance) I also don't have to deal with the death of a child, the failure to support one, the effect on children of a divorce, or just the "what did we do wrong" of a child who turned out badly. But there are times when the regret over not having done things overwhelms such calculation.

My regrets do tend to be of what I haven't done, haven't accomplished; the story of my life I kept faith with that was supposed to have a different middle and ending. And though regrets run the gamut, they often do return to what I haven't written, how I haven't connected.

More recently, as both he and I have gotten even older, I heard Amis on TV tell Charlie Rose that he believes men experience regret, possibly for the first time in their lives, as they get older, and probably have a bad death because of it. Whereas, he believes, women are more likely to come to terms with their lives, and die in peace.

I'm not sure about that, but a fog of regret does permeate my life at times. It particularly comes at times I return to the frenzy (which by other peoples standards probably looks leisurely) of schedules, duties and writing for hire. Much if not all of my writing, both paid and unpaid, seems these days to be shouting down a well. And I face the terrible choice of risking and extending myself each time anyway to do the best writing I can, or the equally terrible alternative of not caring how badly I write, since it doesn’t really matter.

At times like that—when I regard the ruin of the past, the lost energies and time when I could have concentrated on creating something worthwhile and lasting but did not quite do it, rather conned myself into thinking I was doing it; and I regard how my time is being absorbed now, the person I am becoming—the future looks bleak indeed: continuing to diminish myself until I get sick and die.

But there is a little balm to be had in my little corner of the blogosphere. I've been writing and posting on A Blue Voice since August 2002. This was one of my first blogs, and though I have posted more often on newer ones the past couple of years, there's more here than I probably remember.

Thanks now to the new Blogger/Google formats, there's this "label" process that allows these posts to be organized according to content. I've really just started that on this one, with the most recent posts, and then (for the hell of it, hah!) the earliest. The process is very time consuming, especially on this blog, because I have to read or at least skim every post. But it is oddly comforting. I may not have accomplished much in worldly terms, or in earning a vast readership, but I did produce writing that is not half bad, more or less, from time to time.

I don't know if the labels will be useful to anyone else, but I think they will be useful to me. There's a growing list of them to the side--click on one and you get all the posts with that particular label, that topic or reference. Access from organization is what works for me. Who know, I might even be able to grow a book from this, for whatever that might be worth.

I don't know if regret is ever very useful. But at this point it's doubtful. You probably never know when you've made your last move, but once that happens, regret is truly useless. The option that the well-timed regret may serve to move you towards just isn't there. Whatever road you're on, is the road you're on.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

R.I.P. Yvonne DeCarlo

Though many remember her only from The Munsters, this is the Yvonne DeCarlo of the 1940s--a World War II pin-up girl. She was a glamorous actress in not very good movies when I became aware of her as a child in the 1950s. Probably what got my attention was her musical name.
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R.I.P. Tillie Olsen

Her book of linked short stories, Tell Me A Riddle, is an American classic. In his book, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles writes in great detail about how these stories touched so many of his students of all backgrounds, particularly women. Olsen's nonfiction book, Silences, dealt with her own inability to write as well as barriers to other writers who couldn't complete or publish their work, which include censorship and self-censorship. This book became especially valued by women writers. Olsen finally did publish some of the work that had caused her so much trouble, as Yonnodio: From the Thirties. She died on New Year's day in Oakland, CA, a couple of weeks shy of her 95th birthday.
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R.I.P. Carlo Ponti

Ponti produced classic Italian films, such as Fellini's La Strada, and later produced other international classics such as Blow-Up, Dr. Zhivago and The Verdict. His divorce to marry to the young starlet he discovered, Sophia Loren, was a 1950s scandal. But they had the last laugh. Ponti died this week at the age of 94, still married to Loren.
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