Capricious and Arbitrary…

Fifty-years ago I wrote a short story about a deceased bachelor lawyer in San Francisco who wrote fiction secretly for 40-years. When his townhouse was cleared following his death, the executor discovered the manuscripts neatly stacked in a closet and contacted a publisher to determine if they had literary worth. He said yes, and when published they were celebrated as a national literary event.

I’ve always been interested in the distinction between the creative process and its end product. My character was reclusive but felt compelled to write. He noted in his journal that with the volume of literature, mostly unread, filling library shelves was overwhelming and he had no interest in adding to it.

Is it the process or the product that drives an artist? I was married to a talented visual artist for thirty-years–a painter (chalk, pencil, watercolor, oil, acrylic, encaustic) and printmaker (woodcuts, linotypes, etchings, lithographs, monoprints, multi-media, collage). She had been an artist since early childhood. I loved her work and for years encouraged her to seek representation so others could see how good she was. She resisted until she was in her 40s, claiming her satisfaction came from making it not showing it. Eventually, an artist friend introduced her to a gallery owner who gave her a one-woman show. She continued making art. It’s what fed her. She made a moderate splash, developed a following, attracted a dealer and was represented by several galleries.

Nevertheless, in spite of her success, not everything sold, and the unsold inventory is currently in a family storage locker. It may seem like magical thinking, but I believe she’ll be re-discovered sometime in the future, chez Vermeer, and Antique Roadshow will tell one of her descendants that it’s worth millions. But art celebrity is capricious and arbitrary. She understood it was the process not the money or recognition that fed her creative spirit.

Over the years I’ve known many artists; writers, painters, potters, sculptors, musicians, some famous and some not, but recognition is not what drives most of them–it’s the need for self-expression. It may feel good to be recognized, but it’s the process that feeds their souls. It’s a relative few who can support themselves solely from the product. J. K. Rowling and Andy Warhol are rare exceptions.

Interesting facts: “Only 1 in 3 books make back what the publisher spent to acquire and release the book. Two-thirds of those numbers sell less than 1000 copies.” (Tim Grahl: Story Grid). I have great admiration for those artists who stay the course in spite of the odds against making a living at it. It takes courage, conviction, dedication and hard work.

Earlier this week I had a conversation with two writers, both published novelists, about their processes. Cecily Wong is finishing her third novel. Each one has taken five years from conception to publication. Her friend, Julia Pierpont is 200 pages into a second novel seven years after publication of her first, Among the Ten Thousand Things. Both are committed to their art, but need to support themselves with outside work – teaching, copywriting and in Cecily’s case managing a family store. Writing is not a get rich quick business.

Cecily and Julia are both fiction writers, but I also had a conversation with Delia Cabe, an old friend and non-fiction writer, who teaches magazine writing at Emerson College. I wanted to see if her process differed from theirs.

She told me that nonfiction is different. Rather than submit a completed manuscript, publishers and agents only want a proposal and sample chapters. This is great for the writer, who doesn’t have to spend time researching and writing without a contract. The publisher directs the author to create specific content he or she believes will sell.

In Delia’s case, she came up with the idea for a book about bars that were like libraries, pitched the idea to her agent who asked her to put together a PowerPoint proposal. It went out to multiple publishers, but only got a few nibbles. Two years later, the agent noticed an uptick in publishers wanting cocktail books and re-circulated the proposal. One publisher came back with an alternative: How about a book about bars in NYC with strong literary ties?

She took the idea and ran with it–spent three months of intensive writing and research (including countless days pounding the streets and bars of Manhattan and Brooklyn). The publisher loved it, passed it to a copy editor, and in 2017 The Storied Bars of New York a delightful romp through the literary watering holes of The Big Apple was published to great acclaim. BookRiot called it “One of the 10 Great Books for Booze-Loving Book Nerds.”

I occasionally submit an article or essay to Post Alley, a Seattle-based writers collective whose contributors are mostly retired journalists. “It taps an extensive talent pool of “displaced journalists,” experts and informed citizens — many of whom lack ready platforms for their work. The site is supported by contributions of time, writing, and editing by members of the Post Alley writers’ collective (now about 55 members).”

I’m flattered whenever one of my articles is published and even more so when a veteran journalist adds a favorable comment. But I write because I get satisfaction from the process. Writers–fiction, non-fiction, and journalists seldom hit the home run that leads to affluence and/or influence, but what they do is meaningful in every sense – personally and hopefully for the audiences that read them.

Commas and Semicolons…

I’ve never had a literary agent or an editor, but I developed a deep appreciation for the skill set after hearing Mary Norris, copy editor at the New Yorker, read from her book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen several years ago. But there’s a film playing in theaters now that has expanded that appreciation exponentially.

Turn Every Page is a documentary that chronicles the fifty-year relationship of Robert Gottlieb, the editor-in-chief at Alfred A. Knopf Inc. and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro. The film is the result of a seven year-long project by Lizzie Gottlieb, Robert’s daughter and an accomplished film maker in her own right.

It might be hard to imagine how a film about an editor and writer could be a thriller…but it is. Caro is 86, Gottlieb 91, and their drama revolves around the much-anticipated completion and publication of the last volume (Volume 5) of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. This concluding volume details his presidency during the Vietnam War years. The first four volumes run to more than 3,000 pages.

Much of the film centers on the book that brought the two together, The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, who was without question the most influential urban planner and developer in American history–the man responsible for planning and building more than 627 miles of freeways and connecting roads around New York City without ever holding elective office.

The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1974. In its final form the book came in at 1336 pages. Gottlieb cut more than 350,000 words (700 pages) from the manuscript to reach the final count, and they argued about every semicolon. Fifty years later they still do.

Editing Caro is no easy task, but Gottlieb is no lightweight. His stable of authors has included Toni Morrison, John LeCarre, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton, Nora Ephron and Mordecai Richter. And, as Joseph Heller’s editor, the one responsible for changing the name of Heller’s novel from Catch-18 to Catch-22. But that’s another story.

Before my encounter with the “comma queen,” I developed an appreciation for editors when Kit Duane, an old friend, asked me to read a Vietnam war novel she was editing. It was 2005 and thirty-years after the end of that terrible war. I told her I didn’t think the world needed another Vietnam war novel, but she asked me to read it anyway. It was about a Marine platoon leader. She thought it was remarkable and wanted my opinion as a former Marine and Vietnam era vet.

I was wrong. She was right, and the book, Matterhorn, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for 16 weeks in 2010. So much for my literary vision.

If you have even a passing interest in writers and the role of their editors, Turn Every Page is a master class in editing relationships and should not be missed.

Gottlieb, who earlier in his career served as Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster and The New Yorker, says he views the editor’s job as helping the writer deliver his vision, not changing the work. His aim is to add clarity to the writer’s intention.

Along the way, the filmmaker brings in New Yorker editor David Remnick, novelist Colm Toibin, late night host Conan O’Brien, and actor Ethan Hawke to add content and appreciation for both writer and editor.

One of the more interesting exchanges between these two involves an extended discussion on the use of the semicolon – during page markups. Both are adamant about the purpose of that particular punctuation, and when the discussion got overheated Caro had to leave the room to avoid an intemperate outburst. Hearing that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s strong views on the same subject: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you went to college.”

Vonnegut’s opinion was not given air in the film, but other literary opinions were expressed. Colm Toibin praised Gottlieb and Caro for their attention to the rhythm of the prose, something more often alluded to in fiction rather than non-fiction. And Mary Norris made a cameo appearance with a remark about commas.

The most agreed upon opinion, however, is that the first requirement for an editor is to be a good reader and childhood photos of both Caro and Gottlieb reading as very young children are included to make the point. If you are reader, you will be richly rewarded by seeing these two in action. It’s in theaters now but should be streaming soon.

Update: 46,000 and Counting…

Al-Jezeera  reported this an hour ago (February 19). That’s where the death count in southeast Turkey and the northwest corner of Syria stands today. Two weeks ago, a 7.8  earthquake devastated the area, opening cracks in the earth, taking down buildings and crushing everything below. It looks like 9/11 x 10 with rescue and recovery made even more difficult by a civil war, lack of access, blocked border crossings, snow, and freezing temperatures. Every day the death toll increases, but rescue teams are still uncovering live victims from beneath the piles of rebar and blocks of concrete left in the quake’s aftermath. One million living in UN-supplied tents on the Turkish side. Aid blocked to the Syrian side.

In 2017 I wrote about Mohammed “Med” Malandi ( a young Syrian refugee I met in Berlin. I told the story of his harrowing escape and journey across Turkey, to Greece, then on to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally to Germany. Med was one of the lucky few. In 2018 he was granted asylum and the right to work in Germany. His brother, Hussein, landed in the Netherlands, but their parents stayed in Idlib – one of the few remaining rebel-controlled, Assad-fighting areas in the northwest corner of Syria.

This is the picture I posted of Idlib in 2017 as Assad and Putin were attacking the last remaining rebel enclaves. Amazingly, the rebels have been able to hang on with ragtag support from the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and limited military and humanitarian efforts by Turkey, the US, and European allies. This is where Med’s family is still living.

I wrote more of his miraculous story in 2020 ( Today I’m writing about him again.

This is an aerial photo taken somewhere in the earthquake zone on Tuesday:

When I checked in with a close friend in Berlin yesterday, she told me Med’s family is OK despite the earthquake and a bitter cold snowy winter, but “the many homeless people and destruction around them is an enormous challenge….there had been constant bombing during the last times from Putin and Assad that threatened their lives also , then the cold, snowy weather now…a complete disaster …and no help yet coming in …all you can do from here is donate- and hope, very hard to stand!

It’s difficult to imagine what “OK” might look like. There were no high-rise buildings left in Idlib for the earthquake to destroy. The Russians and Syrian forces had already destroyed them. Most of the remaining residents are living in basements or temporary shelters.

When I asked about humanitarian aid and organizations to support, Med advised “that all international help goes through Assad’s hands and so you don’t know where it goes at the end. Because of the sanctions the regime is in need for money…nothing goes into region of Idlib…a nightmare for everyone who has to live there…” but for anyone wanting to donate he recommends and this other organization,

Med is a political cartoonist. This is his self-portrait. It haunts me. I know he’s safe now, but his family is not and there are literally millions of families like Med’s who are not safe–victims of the earthquake, victims of Putin’s murderous war in Ukraine, people without homes or countries to call their own. It calls for compassion, something that seems in short supply in our chaotic world. This is a call to action. I ask you to be your best self and lend a hand if you can. There are many options. I’m giving to White Helmets. They’re already onsite, but UNHCR, Save the Children, Red Cross, Red Crescent and World Central Kitchen are reliable alternatives. Think how you would feel if you were huddling under a thin blanket in Idlib. That’s how I’m thinking about it.

Dry January…

Two days until the end of my Dry January…

On Friday night a friend asked me why I wasn’t drinking at our granddaughter’s birthday celebration. I deflected. The answer is complicated but it’s about gratitude… and grace. Here’s the story.

Marilynn and I have “cocktail hour” almost every night. We’ve set that time aside to be together without an agenda. It’s our little ritual. We continued it during Dry January. M still had her glass of wine but I went dry. I’m looking forward to the taste of my first Rangpur Tanqueray martini on Wednesday (recipe on request), but I chose to observe Dry January as a reminder that alcohol almost killed me once and how grateful I am that it didn’t. 

It happened one night as I was driving my motor scooter home after a law school keg party. I was gonzo and it was raining hard when I ran into a car backing up Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley. I don’t know why she was backing up the street, but I went over my handlebars, over her car, and landed in the bed of a pickup truck parked on the side of the road. I woke up the next morning in the hospital. A week later I was in the Oakland jail. No serious injuries but the motor scooter was totaled and I was dealing with a DUI. The judge had never seen a motor scooter DUI so he downgraded it to “drunk in and about a vehicle.” I credit grace for my survival, but maybe it was just dumb luck.

Anyway, that’s the reason I am observing Dry January, but it’s only part of the reason for this post. The other part is that if I hadn’t survived I wouldn’t have the life I have today. I wouldn’t have two of my children or grandchildren. I wouldn’t have had Marilynn’s love and companionship, or the extraordinary friendships and adventures that have made my life what it is today. Yet, despite those positives, I’m acutely aware of my foreshortened future. It feels like every day I am reminded of mortality. It doesn’t diminish the gratitude I feel. It probably enhances it, but it’s double edged. There are red flags everywhere. 

  • It began two years ago when my friend, Hugh, a sailor, cyclist and world class marine scientist died of ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease less than a year after his diagnosis. We used to play guitars together.
  • Then last year my former wife, a successful artist/printmaker, was admitted to a memory care facility in Idaho. 
  • And, this past December my friend Suzy had a heart attack and died unexpectedly in the restroom of a hair salon. She ran the Illinois and Washington state film offices while raising quadruplets as a single mother. 
  • Also in December my friend, Michael, a musician, actor, painter, and potter was admitted to a memory care facility with Lewy Body Dementia, an Alzheimer’s-like disease that robbed him of his memory.
  • Then on January 6, I got word that Eric, a fellow Marine and friend from law school days, died of Parkinson’s/dementia in a Vermont Veterans’ Home.
  • And, again on January 6, a former Navy pilot buddy and distinguished botany professor, disclosed he’s terminal and considering a Death with Dignity option.

These reminders of age and mortality break my heart, but my pain is nothing compared to that felt by their families. Beyond my circle of friends, the world is a mess. War. Climate disasters. Unregulated guns. Racism. Greed. Famine. Boneheads and bad actors in positions of power. And yet, my life is good. I scream at the TV and feel powerless. Yet, I believe that if I treat people with respect and kindness my life and theirs will be better. At least it won’t make things worse.

My mother died the month her bank account went to zero. Timing is everything. M and I think about that. We’ll be OK, but you never know how long you will live or if some calamity might drain what’s left. It’s a small problem all things considered.

At this point, I miss skiing and our European bike trips but it comes with the territory. M and I argue about how to load the dishwasher and sometimes worry about falling at night on our way to the bathroom. These are the small problems we’re dealing with. On the other hand, she’s currently advising a senior healthcare client whose facility was acquired by a rapacious private equity firm, and I’m still writing this blog and working on the Great American Short Story. We’re reading, writing, streaming, cooking and going to the gym. We’re busy and engaged in the continuum of life, but truth to tell I can’t wait for the end of Dry January on Wednesday.

A Rangpur Tanqueray martini in a frosted glass, up, with two stuffed Spanish olives please!

America: Listen to Your Poets…

I have not so much emulated the birds that musically sing,

I have abandoned myself to flights, broad circles.

The hawk, the seagull, have far more possess’d me than the canary or mockingbird.

I have not felt to warble and trill however sweetly,

I have felt to soar in freedom and in the fullness of power, joy, volition.

Walt Whitman, Old Age Echoes from Leaves of Grass

At end of each year the winter solstice and family birthdays remind me we’re at the end of something and the beginning of something else – a convergence of old and new – things to celebrate and things to ponder. Time to review the passing year and reset for the what’s coming.

It may be age or the passing of friends but this year’s review feels different. Mine is a lamentation on America and Americans. Who are we and where are we going? Last year a friend sent me a book titled America, We Call Your Name which included the following in the introduction:

America, listen to what your poets are saying. Are we the corrosive, racist, authoritarian regime that the 2016 election brought to power, or are we a democracy, that fragile, imperfect form of government that must be constantly guarded in the struggle for equality and freedom?

It made me think of poets, past and present, who have shared their wisdom about the American experience. Poets are slow, deliberate and focused. They choose their words carefully for meaning  affect and power. They are artists but also problem solvers. I thought of Whitman, and the 100-year-old leather bound edition of Leaves of Grass given to me by my “Danish grandmother” whose father bequeathed it to her.

And I thought of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and my teacher, Theodore Roethke—a recluse, a doctor, an insurance executive, an unsuccessful farmer and a bipolar English professor—all exceptional poets—and their successors Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Amanda Gorman and the musical poets, Dylan, Springsteen and Paul Simon.

A poet friend recently suggested I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s audiobook Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon where they explore Simon’s songwriting process. I was particularly taken by the origin of his song, America. Such an innocent wistful evocation of what I often feel these days and the reason I settled on this subject for my year-end essay.


Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.

I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

Counting the cares on the New Jersey Turnpike

They’ve all come to look for America

All come to look for America

All come to look for America.

Vietnam, 9/11, Donald Trump and January 6 have stripped away the innocence of Whitman and Frost and left us with soul-searching questions about who we are as a nation and a people. I ask myself almost daily how the electorate that chose an inspiring African American to be its president in 2008 could follow by electing a sociopath ignorant of America’s history and institutions eight years later. I will probably never understand what prevents Congress from enacting legislation to address gun violence or the reform of immigration laws to address the crisis at our southern border. I ask myself why and how the Supreme Court could ignore strictures of the 14th Amendment and became an agent for political implementation rather than arbiter of Constitutional legality. How could a rampant virus become a polarizing political cudgel?

I hear strident voices but don’t see any bipartisan solutions to these concerns. Aren’t we the same people the Founders were talking about when they stated, “We the People of the United States,” in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.” The same imperfect founders who “held that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?” 

It may be that we should pay less attention to pundits and more to our poets for inspiration and motivation.

Last year seven local writers, all women and all retired from professional careers, published a book called Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020. It included calendars, diary entries, poems, essays, stories and other reflections culled from a year of isolation and Zoom gatherings during the pandemic. They are concerned citizens seeking understanding and solutions. The book was self-published but found a wide circulation and this year Washington State University Press picked it up and republished it as Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020 and Beyond adding the adverbial clause.

Like Paul Simon, the last few years have left many of us looking for America—the America we grew up in or thought we knew as we were growing up, the America I fought for, the America that declared its independence and set the standard for democracy with its new Constitution in 1789.  

That’s the modern America Amanda Gorman celebrated with her 2021 inauguration poem. No pollyanna optimism, just a new generation poet with wisdom to share:

The Hill We Climb 

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.