Thursday, November 05, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
I posted this on my Stage Matters blog, in connection with a Dell'Arte School original production here on the North Coast about the Great Depression. But since it's about family and history, and what I learned on my summer vacation, it seems to me it also belongs here...
I saw the Dell'Arte original show about the Great Depression, called The Body Remembers, shortly after returning from a visit back home to western Pennsylvania. While I was there, my sisters and I sorted through several boxes of photos and documents, some unopened since each of my parents died (my mother in 1974, my father in 1990.) There were some photos from the 1940s and 30s, and also three letters my father received at his CCC Camp in 1940--one from a hometown buddy who was in another CCC camp, and two from his mother--my paternal grandmother, who died several years before I was born.
My father rarely talked about his past, but whenever there was an economic recession or other economic problem in the news, I could pretty much count on him saying that what they ought to do is revive the CCCs. I've since read about the CCC and other New Deal programs, but those letters provided something more specific: the role they played in my father's life, part of which led to me.
The Civil Conservation Corps was a program that employed young men (starting at 17 or 18) in conservation projects all over America. The projects were developed by the Interior Department, but the Corps was run by the Army. Young men lived in Army-style camps, were provided with food, clothing and shelter, and paid a small wage, most of which was automatically sent back to their families. Between 1934 and 1943, some 3 million men cumulatively worked in more than 4,000 camps.
From the letters we learned that my father was in a camp in Blain, Pennsylvania, a few hundred miles from his home in United, PA. Some guys got sent thousands of miles away, often to the West, but that may have mostly been earlier in the program. His friend was in a camp even closer to home, in the Laurel Highlands, not far from where one of my sisters now lives. There were apparently about 150 guys at my father's camp (though 300 was the norm), and they were building Big Spring state park. The camp was very isolated, probably as far into the woods as he'd ever been (or ever would be again). But besides a military schedule and discipline, they had activities--sports teams that competed with other camps, for example. His friend was closer to a town (Somerset) and so seemed to have a lively social life. (Here's another good source on the CCCs in this region.)
My father's hometown was built by the United Coal and Coke Company, and his father and grandfathers were (or had been) coal miners. Mines were closing in the 30s, and there were big and violent strikes in the 20s and 30s, that got the miners essentially nothing. There were few jobs, no money and no future there.
The plight of the miners in the area was so severe that the FDR administration built one of a few experimental communities there. They built new houses (with a novelty in the area: indoor plumping) and started cooperative farms and eventually a small garment factory. It came to be called "Norvelt," the last syllables of Eleanor Roosevelt's name, after she came to visit it. Locals apparently just called it the homestead.
The homestead is mentioned in my grandmother's letters, though they didn't get to live there. They were still in United. By 1940 Norvelt was changing, and people who lived there were being asked to buy their houses rather than rent them. But I also learned about Norvelt on this trip because there was an article in the local newspaper while I was there: this summer was Norvelt's 75th anniversary. And as it happens, one of my sisters now works for a small business that's housed in the very building that used to be the Norvelt coop garment factory.
At issue in the letters in 1940 was what my father was going to do next. Apparently his hitch was up, and there was anxiety about losing the money he was bringing in. The family was saving to buy their house. The letters left the matter unresolved, but they fit with something else I saw many years before. It was a mimeographed, stapled newspaper, and inside it was my father's name, as editor-in-chief. Probably my mother dug it out and gave it to me, when I started my string of editors jobs in junior high. My father never mentioned it. I've examined it since, though at the moment I've lost track of it again.
It was the publication of the "self-governing community" called Armor City, a National Youth Administration work experience project in South Charleston, West Virginia. It was another federal project under the umbrella of the Works Project Administration. It seemed to be very much like the CCCs, except this was for slightly older young men, and it's purpose was to train them for jobs in industry, not the woods. Eventually it was training them for jobs in national defense, and judging from other information about South Charleston at the time, that's what my father was probably doing. There was a big naval munitions plant in South Charleston, which FDR visited.
My father was at Armor City in 1941 and apparently still there in 1943, when he was called home for his mother's last illness. (He was found physically unfit for the draft. As children we were told it was because of color-blindness, but it may actually have been because of a deformation in his back, perhaps the result of a fall in infancy.) Soon after, he got a good paying job in industry, in a plant in Youngwood, PA that made military instruments. That's also where he met the young woman who would become his wife and my mother.
I grew up with some tales from the Depression, on both sides of the family, as well as from the lives of parents and grandparents of school friends, and total strangers. I got more interested in it all in the 60s, thanks in part to Bob Dylan being so interested in Woody Guthrie. And of course, Arlo. I've heard stories since--Steve Allen told me a few--and read many more. It's important in terms of what individuals and families went through, though I would stop short of calling those who lived through it and are still alive "Depression survivors," as some of the Dell'Arte publicity did. It sounds too much like "Holocaust survivors," which is a different order of experience.
It also tends to distance us from it. Books like the Stud Terkel volume that inspired this production are one way to get close to it, or even recollections in memoirs--I was especially interested in Malcolm Cowley's, with his Pittsburgh connections. But of course the best of all is family memories, and letters like these.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Within the past few days:
I was about to go back to some writing about H.G. Wells and The Time Machine for about the hundredth time. I turned on the TV, which was on the Turner Movie Channel. What was on? The Time Machine.
I was towards the end of reading The Martians by Kim Stanley Robinson, which includes stories about characters who appear in his Mars trilogy of novels (which I finished reading early last month.) I was reading a chapter called "Sax Moments" about a character named Sax, while listening to music on my new (and first) Mp3 player. A couple of pages later was "The Soundtrack" which named music that the author evidently listened to while writing the trilogy, and music he associated with various characters. For example, the music for the character Sax is Beethoven's late string quartets.
Which is what I'd been listening to as I read the Sax chapter.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Woke up thinking--I've been here over 12 years, and I've not attended a single wedding or funeral.
I went to bed thinking--the complacency etc. of my parents and their generation drove me nuts when I was young. But the future disasters I saw for my lifetime are mostly still in the future. They'll shape the lives of the next generation or the generation after that.
[These are from old, undated scraps. They could be months old, or years.]
Sunday, July 05, 2009
I just saw a video of the film Synedoche, New York, written and directed by Charles Kaufman (who wrote Being John Malkovich, which I didn't much like, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I did kind of like.) This is an unusual film in form and content, which covers in dreamlike fashion some forty years in the life of Caden Cotard, a theater director in Schenectady with a messy life, who wins a MacArthur Grant and goes to New York City to create a massive theatre work as his ultimate expression.
There are layers, time jumps, reality and fantasy intermixed, visual and word puns (like the title), probable references to various mental disorders and possible elements of Jungian psychology, in this movie about life, purpose, love and especially death. The story begins with Cotard at about 40, in more or less the present, and leaves him at about 90 in an apocalyptic future. Throughout the often brutal, tragic and absurd events, Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) keeps getting new and often ridiculous ideas about his increasingly sprawling play, which involves hundreds of actors in residence for decades, but never a finished play for an audience. His dying words are something like, "I think I know how to do this play. I have an idea."
The DVD includes a discussion among a group of young film bloggers, all of whom have astute comments. They talked about the personal impact of this film, how it required something from them, and how they feel this is missing from movies. It reminded me of movies and their impact on me in the 1970s (though some of the movies I saw then and was affected by so strongly were made years before.) They also all found the movie initially depressing.
I can see why, but even though I am older than Kaufman, his view of the point of view of someone my age or older seems right. Though the presence of death, the brevity of life, the telescoping of time, the ongoing stubborn and probably futile search for a summary expression, are not just implied but hammered on, I felt the ending was fairly positive. Cotard finds an illusory but fulfilling final moment of love, and his last thought is a further idea on his never-ended project. I can see why younger people find this depressing. But I don't exactly, and it turns out that Kaufman (in an interview on the DVD) agrees with me: the all-encompassing work is never finished. Trying to create it is just life.
Perhaps it also is a product of age that I found so much of the movie, while painful, was also funny. Maybe this movie for the young is a tragedy. For the old, a comedy.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Yes--that hasn't changed. Only the famous--only the gods get stories.
Except here it's just one story. Every famous person gets the same one: the rise, the fall, the resurrection. Fame, obscurity, rediscovery. The end.
Monday, May 04, 2009
But this time, instead of just tossing the notes into folders for projects that seldom seem to escape those folders, I'm going to post some of them, as whim indicates.
Some, that have a verse (or versible) form, I'll shuttle over to the verse site that's even more unknown and connected than this virtual stealth blog. For the adventurous, it's here.
Some were intended as expressions of characters, as possible expressions of possible characters, in various projects, but I doubt if I'll even try to indicate that here. I'll just throw them out into cyberspace right here, as opposed to burying them in folders until I either cull them from their project, use or misuse them in one draft or another (should I get around to that), or until they get tossed out by me or whoever cleans up after my time.
I may or may not title them but I'll invent a new classification, i.e. tag, for them, as below: notes to myself.
Friday, May 01, 2009
People have been writing professionally for a very long time. There were patrons--kings, churches, etc.--and there were little writing jobs ( as a girl or a young woman, my maternal grandmother got paid to read and write letters for other girls in her village who weren't literate.) Getting paid through publications has been a primary source of writer income for a few centuries.
Now they say this job is also becoming obsolete. Although newspaper reporters often will insist they are not really "writers," they are just about the only people who write who have steady jobs, with union benefits. But now newspapers are dying one by one, and companies with multiple newspapers in many places are teetering.
The magazine business is also endangered, and so is book publication. Within publications, particular fields are fading or gone. There are few theatre critics left, and partly as a reflection of the declining book business, book reviewing and book reviews are disappearing.Except for a very very few, writing in my lifetime has not been all that lucrative. Freelance rates were arguably seldom if ever at the level that they were in the 1920s, say, inflation adjusted. (In fact, sometimes they were identical, inflation not adjusted.) But the current crunch began contracting my income sources several years ago. My magazine markets having dried up, I began freelancing for newspapers. In one year, I had pieces in five separate sections of the San Francisco Chronicle. The next year most of the paper stopped assigning freelance pieces completely, and the others bought fewer. The Book Review was the last, when my editor was replaced, and then that editor was also replaced within a month or so. Now the future of the section and of the newspaper itself is in doubt.
I wrote my first piece in years for the New York Times, which the editor loved and we began discussing future assignments, when the order came down at that paper to stop all freelance assignments in the arts section.
Some of the changes for me are to be expected at my age--I'm not the demographic for subjects I used to write about, and frankly they don't interest me anymore. But I saw this article recently by a young writer, about even younger writers. It's called "Is writing for the rich?" [continued below]
Now it's kind of been that way in the arts, including dramatic and literary writing, since at least the 1980s, when I researched an article on the subject. But he's talking about the world of the Internet, where self-publishing through blogs means that lots of people are writing for free, and just about everybody is reading for free, too. Very, very few people are getting paid to write on the Internet, and almost nobody is making a living at it.
To some extent, there's still the phenomenon of one door closing and another opens (though it's at least as likely that, rather than more noble or useful, the place it leads to is more degrading.) But things can only contract so far before they functionally disappear, like tailor shops. Without getting into the complexities of all this, the general tenor of things seems to be saying to me that my trade, like that of my father and grandfather, is becoming obsolete.
It's not the activities themselves that are obsolete or without value. Sewing, tailoring, making clothes are crafts requiring skill and they make valuable products. But for a long time they were paying occupations for many people, and now they aren't. Apart from sweatshops, they are more like hobbies (and as such may end up generating income. The current knitting craze has generated web sites, online companies, podcasts, books and book reviews, etc.)
The activity of writing continues, even if for small (very small) audiences or just self-expression, which might define it as a kind of hobby. When I started blogging, it was partly out of frustration with the barriers to publication, let alone payment. I spent way too much time writing book proposals instead of writing books, as well as plays never produced, and songs that voices never shared. So I chose to write for free, just to make something that was public.
But I'm also still writing for income, and will probably always need to. The truth is I never made what could reasonably be called a living at it, but I never felt it was obsolete, or that I was. At this point I wonder if it even matters. The income is largely to finance more writing, that doesn't generate income, or at least not yet.
Back when my grandfather had a tailor shop and my father worked for Singer Company, how I was going to make a living by writing was a mystery to my family, as it was to me. I didn't have a clue. That was a class thing partly, and apparently it remains partly a class thing.
In those "writing career" terms, I've made some wrong-headed mistakes and bad guesses. I've followed my intuitions to some successes, too, when others thought I was nuts. At times I've let self-indulgence and self-pity, ego and romantic delusions misguide me. Still, that's no more than half the equation. The rest is outside me--the context, the circumstances, the times, the places, the forces, the people, who decided what I was good enough to be given to do, or allowed to do. And what its value then was.
While in large measure other people and larger forces have defined my life, I keep trying not to let them define me. Which is another way of saying that as long as I am writing--in notebooks, on legal pads, on typewriters and computers and in the sands of time, scribble, scribble to the deluded end--I am.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Monday, February 09, 2009
Monday, February 02, 2009
Sunday, February 01, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
By beating San Diego Sunday, the Steelers bring home another playoff game to Pittsburgh. What a year! The league's media darlings--the Patriots, the Colts, the current champion Giants, the Cowboys, Fauvre and the Jets, Miami, even San Diego was a sweetheart for awhile--they're all gone, out of it, finito. All that's left are four scrappy never say die teams who often win ugly and sometimes lose ugly: the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, and the two toughest: the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, facing each other for the third time this season on Sunday, for the AFC championship and the right to go to the Super Bowl. It's going to be an insane week in the 'burgh.
P.S. If you think this is just a personal obsession, consider that the highest rated TV show of the week was the Steelers-Chargers game. It more than doubled the ratings of the second place show on Sunday: the Golden Globes.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Steeler Update 1/11: Steelers 35-24 over San Diego. The Steelers rediscovered the running game, with a finally healthy Willie Parker, and pass protection. Since the Baltimore Ravens won their game, the conference championship between the Steelers and Ravens will be in Pittsburgh, which means another $20 million or so for the city, and a lot of partying.
The Steelers ended their season by beating all but one in a string of tough opponents, and earned a division championship. They did it with tenacious defense, opportunistic offense and by their skin of their teeth.
The lack of respect they get from the media and the league continued. When Big Ben engineered a late 4th quarter 95 yard drive to win against Dallas--the kind of drive that made John Elway's reputation--all the sports media wanted to talk about was the rumor of dissension in the Dallas locker room. Yet the Steelers were almost silently installed as favorites against the Titans, a team that had been undefeated most of the season.
That game was their significant lapse in their stretch run. After hammering the hapless Browns in the final game, they seem to be still as healthy as they've been all year (assuming Ben's "mild concussion" was just that) and the elements are still there for victory, but so are the vulnerabilities. And as sports analyst and former Steelers running back Merle Hoge says, the playoffs are when vulnerabilities are exploited.
The surprise--maybe the shock-- of the Wild Card round so far was the Indianapolis Colts, widely predicted to win it all, losing to San Diego. Depending on the outcome of the Ravens-Dolphins game Sunday, the Steelers could play their first playoff game against San Diego. The Colts being out of it is a significant advantage for the long-term chances of the Steelers, but San Diego is not necessarily good news, even though the Steelers began their 5 game winning streak by defeating them in an ugly game, 11-10. The Chargers are a better team right now than they were then, and they can exploit the problems with the Steelers offense: pass protection breaking down, and Big Ben taking a lot of chances. Still, Big Ben threw for a lot of yards and the running game was solid in a badly officiated first meeting (hence the score.)
Still, the danger for the Steelers tomorrow is a Ravens victory. Although they defeated the Ravens twice this season, a third time might be pushing it. I feel better about their chances against Miami, if the Dolphins win tomorrow.
The Steelers had a good year, even if they didn't often look that good. They didn't lose to a bad team; all four of their losses were to playoff teams. Now one of them (the Colts) is gone. If the Ravens lose tomorrow, and the Steelers get by either San Diego or Miami in the next round, I like their chances against the Titans (assuming they advance), even though they defeated the Steelers pretty soundly a couple of weeks ago.
So what I'm saying is, that although some fans were high enough a few weeks ago to ask if this team is as good as the 70s dynasty teams, I'm not so irrationally exuberant. Especially because of the inconsistent offense, I don't necessarily believe their playoff games are going to be fun to watch. But with this team, you never know. The Super Bowl is not inconceivable.
Update: The Baltimore Ravens won their AFC Wild Card game today, and Philadelphia won the NFC. Philly plays the New York Giants next week, a game they will lose. The Ravens play the Tennessee Titans, and the winner of that game will play the winner of the San Diego vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers game Sunday. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Though Pittsburgh sports media is a lot more optimistic about beating San Diego.