Book Stores: Entertain the Light

Timeless_Books“Books should, not Business, entertain the Light …”

So wrote Abraham Cowley, 17th century English poet, in Extract from Poetical Blossomes: A Wish. But what happens when books are the business?

It’s no secret that traditional publishing is an unprecedented upheaval, roiling through changes affecting everyone in the equation from publisher to distributor to agent to author to bookseller. The dynamics of publishing have irrevocably changed; but so have the socio-cultural dynamics of entertainment—and life in general.

We live in a global society that is becoming increasingly fragmented, the glass monolith of world-wide reach broken into mini-shards of online communities formed, filled, abandoned and forgotten. Remember MySpace?

Businesses, large and small, attempt to tap in to these communities, to access the customers they depend upon to stay viable. Communities spring up around all hobbies, habits, activities (both legal and il-, both savory and un-), and political niches. We can tailor our lives around built-in predilections, preferences and biases: we hear the music we know we’ll like, we see the news we want to see.

I believe this mass panic of macro to micro is a result of the unprecedented, global reach of the internet and the effect it has on the human animal. Mass media is not easy for us to process—anthropologically, we are a tribal, cooperative species, and a tribe on a scale of 4 and half billion is actually short-circuiting our ability to connect.

So what does this have to do with books? Quite a lot, actually.

The traditional publishing formula, complete with traditional wisdom, holds that hand-selling, personal recommendations, perseverance, marketing and time create bestselling success for an author.  A series, I’ve been told, builds; the key is to keep writing good books and to keep the publisher behind the series. An author of stand-alones is supposed to follow a similar path, building awareness and recognition with each book. Time, though, is not something that huge corporations like. They prefer profits now and quickly.

This is one reason why authors prize independent book stores: they cultivate actual, physical communities of people—not just online groups—built around a love of reading and a love of experiencing a space with fellow readers. Unlike giant, bean-counting, Wall Street-watched corporations, independents follow their own course, hand-selling, setting up events, helping spotlight new and midlist authors on the proverbial road up to becoming a bestseller: they are an integral piece of the success formula, the one outlet that will connect readers to authors and provide that crucial time needed to build a readership.

The best of them follow this route because it’s their heart and soul as people—and because it’s good business. It separates them from the faceless corporations they pit themselves against on a daily basis, and gives them something the suits will never experience: a true sense of community. That’s what keeps them alive.

Unfortunately, it’s no secret that many independents are suffering, largely due to economic pressures of cheaper books online. More and more close every year. Those that are surviving or even thriving are managing to provide service and connectivity in an increasingly disconnected market and depend upon their community, just as the community depends on them.

Portland is a great community and the city loves its books. Yet tragically Powell’s Books, the Portland-based, self-proclaimed largest independent in the world, has, as I’ve reported on Facebook, seemingly joined the ranks of the walking dead, the souless corporate zombie nation of books-as-widgets, of authors as pains in the ass.

A quick recap: I’m published with Macmillan, a midlist author, albeit one with more than my share of critical acclaim. A Macavity award winner, an LA Times Book Prize finalist, lots of other nominations and a couple of other awards. I suffered a three-year hiatus between the second and third books of my series because I lost my parents; my newest, CITY OF GHOSTS, finally launched this month to stellar reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Bookreporter and Publishers’ Weekly.

I travel on my own dime, where I can, when I can, and do so in order to connect with booksellers and readers. A list of some of the great and wonderful stores I’ve visited and will be visiting is on my website—all fabulous independents. I enjoy events, and am successful at them. My readers are loyal, and I’m glad to say that they increase in number every year. I planned to add Portland, as usual, to my list of stops.

I’ve signed at Powell’s twice and bought books from them many more times than that. I met Michael and Emily Powell at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival when I was a Prize finalist. I had a wonderful time at the Beaverton store. Powell’s booksellers are terrific people. And thus I was shocked when the company events manager—in a supercilious, unctuous and yet reptilian email—”declined” to have me in for a signing. The reason, apparently, is that my sales aren’t “high enough”. What constitutes “high enough” has not been spelled out for me, and this despite the fact that they seem to feature non-genre authors with lesser footprints than mine. I am apparently no longer worthy, despite the awards, despite the Wall Street Journal, despite it all.

Before receiving this decree, we attempted to reach a person at the Beaverton store—to let them know about the good reviews on CITY OF GHOSTS (since they were carrying it)—we were put off by centralized customer service employees who admitted that they were employed as gate-keepers. When we tried to buy a book, we were routed to a center. Not a book store location, but a center. Finally, one person confessed that the management had instituted a “fence off the booksellers” order … no person, no author, no reader, no customer, could speak to an actual bookseller unless he or she walked into a store and cornered them in person.

That’s when I decided to share this story.

Now, I actually have experience in retail. I know first-hand about small business and community-building. For nearly ten years, my mother, partner and I owned and operated a comic book/pop culture store in San Francisco. We were a new generation of such enterprises; one of the few, if not the only woman-owned in the industry.

As part of creating a successful small business, we forged a community; events were a major part of the experience. We had many, many artists and writers in: people like Kelley Jones and Erik Larsen and Mike Carlin and Denny O’Neil and Mart Nodell. We also featured much less well-known artists and writers: one example were the creators of a very small press comic with an African-American hero we heavily promoted for Black History Month. Why? Because we believed in the cause and we believed in the comic—and because “good” business practice can be both ethical and pragmatic.

Let me add two more points: unlike books, comic books ARE NOT RETURNABLE. We took real risks in promoting people. Our returns were not always financially the same, but they all contributed to the overall success of the store and certainly to our satisfaction in it. And—unlike bookstores, who receive steeper discounts and co-op for promoting author events—we received no financial incentives of any kind.

Powell’s, unfortunately, has turned a corner. They’ve embraced the dark side. They are, sadly, not the only ones. Independents that demand a guarantee of return on an author-funded appearance? Dark side. I’ve signed with NYT list authors who’ve had one or two people attend. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING, other than the kind of bottled lightning that catches on when something reaches a cultural threshold of recognition—can guarantee a line at the cash register. The financial rewards for the author and the bookstore can come later, and over time—when a customer needs a recommendation, when someone’s looking for a signed book.

If independents want to survive, and I pray that they do, they need to strengthen their communities and strengthen their personal connections, not diminish them. They need to partner with midlist authors willing to do events, not rebuff them. The best of the indies already do, and we need to support them, sign with them, buy from them and keep them alive! The worst of them, like Powell’s, are cultivating an attitude of gate-keeping that is beyond comprehension. Does it really cost so much to host an author when a) the books are returnable and b) you’re receiving co-op? Minimal risk, maximum chance to increase your business and build a stronger community?

As a poster child for independent success, Powell’s has enjoyed a stellar reputation. But it should no longer do so, and, in fact, should be held accountable for the gulag-like changes instituted upon its workers, its customers and its community. I’ve been told that this more-corporate-than-corporate model unfolded after Michael Powell’s departure, and it’s heart-breaking to see his bookstore crumble so ethically and spiritually, if not yet economically.

Sadly, Powell’s no longer entertains the light.

I, for one, will be spending my time, my energy—and my dollars—at bookstores who do.

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5 Reasons Why I Love New York

Chrysler_Building_Midtown_Manhattan_New_York_City_1932I’m heading to Thrillerfest and New York City this week, and the prospect of traveling to the Big Apple again made me think about a few of the reasons why I love it.

So, from a West Coast perspective, mind you … New York, New York.

1. It’s the ultimate, fabled, legendary City of Cities. Sure, the Mama Rose line in Gypsy is true: “New York is the center of New York”—but it’s also the most urban, dense, entertainment-rich and storied city in the world. It’s an artistic treasure and an artistic treasure house, an inspiration for everything from Gotham City to a Miracle on 34th Street, and a focus of literary gold for Fitzgerald and countless other greats.  My ancestors on my mom’s side arrived here, like millions of others, cleared through at Ellis Island and made a wish on the Statue of Liberty. History abounds at every corner, noise, hurry and bustle is 24/7, and the city’s profoundly global diversity makes it, at the same time, profoundly American.

neighborhoods2. Neighborhoods. They can be a block or a borough in size, but they are real and they are fabulous (to paraphrase Teri Hatcher). Small, unexpected touches, like baskets of flowers hanging from light posts and mom-and-pop stores in place of large chains can make New York feel like a very, very, very busy small town (on caffeine). Everyone has their favorite take-out place, their own dry cleaner, their own deli. New York is big … but it’s also personal.

munson diner3. The Food. Hungry at 2 am? No problem. You can find a tasty chicken kebab right outside on 42nd. Late night at a show? No problem. Pizza places are full through 2 am and beyond. Craving an egg soda and maybe “real” pastrami? No problem. Diners still abound and every neighborhood has a good one. For real bagels, real pizza, real anything, New York is the ultimate food capital of the world. Well, except for salads and sourdough (my San Francisco) or hot dogs and Polish food (Chicago).

Looking Up at Empire State Building4. Looking up. I love Art Deco, unsurprisingly. I can’t get enough of Streamlined Moderne, and San Francisco, while the Jewel of the Pacific coast, boasts plenty of Victorians and far fewer Deco masterpieces. The Chrysler Building is my personal favorite, but no skyscraper, however tall, can ever top the Empire State Building, the most magnificent, proud, and dignified tower in the world.

stock-footage-new-york-city-usa-march-crowds-in-rush-hour-people-traffic-commuters-new-york-city5. The people. I love New Yorkers. They are direct and to the point and don’t waste time. I’ve never understood the “rude New Yorker” cliche. What I find rude are people who do something thoughtless or dangerous that hampers your own activity, whatever it is, and then try to dismiss your aggravation as not being “laid back” enough. Hey, I was born on the West Coast, and I’ve got a very New York gesture for passive-aggressive “laid back” offenders.

There are a million reasons to love New York, which is why there are a million stories, songs, paintings, photos, films and celebrations of it. But here’s the one I’ll leave you with, one most of the world has recognized since 2001: New York is resilient. New York is heroic.

9-11-september-new-york-cityNew York is life.

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Mulligan Stew, Sonnet Style

You know, I really had ambitions to write a long, thoughtful blog. When you’re a writer, you’re always writing—even when you’re not at a keyboard. The blog was starting to take shape in my head, and then …

mouse1You know what they say about best laid plans. Actually, it was Robert Burns, not “they”, and what he wrote was:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,

He wrote “To a Mouse” in 1785. One of my favorite poems, actually. But I digress …

So what is keeping me from writing my planned opus, you ask? The fact that I’m getting ready for a trip to the American Library Association national conference and in the midst of booking signings for the upcoming CITY OF GHOSTS launch. Oh yeah, there’s also the small fact of needing to get a whole lot of writing done on CITY OF SHARKS (tentative title for the next Miranda Corbie).

So … until I get back from the ALA in Las Vegas, I’m relying on Mulligan Stew this week. Which means I dig up any ol’ bit of miscellany that might prove interesting enough to share.

What I found was a sonnet I wrote twenty years ago (when I had time to write sonnets). I wrote a number of them; always loved the challenge of the rigorous meter and rhyme scheme and resolving couplet at the end.

Here ’tis. I’ll be back next week after a sojourn in Sin City, and though I don’t expect the trip to inspire any sonnet-writing, you never know …

 Sonnet on Reaching the Age of Thirty

By Kelli Stanley

Time’s sickle swings; his arcs draw ever near
While careless Laughter yields to wistful sighs,
Each pass of Phoebus’ chariot gleaming fear.
Persephone-like, the Earth we bid goodbye;
No more to smell the meadows blessed with green,
To reap the harvest bounty of God’s grace,
No more foam-flecked, blue-gray horses, Sea god scene;
Unkindest cut, no more to touch thy face.
And in such thoughts sinking, now graven heart stands still
Too ready, forsaking Fortune’s destiny;
In fear, dread drowning pulse of tree and hill
Frozen; cheating Death by dying free.
Then heart remembers, wise and old with strife—
While yet Love lingers, eternal is thy life.

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Top Five Writing Fears

Royal S5 013I just turned 50.

This means I’m certifiably middle-aged and that means I’m much, much more dangerous.

When you get older, I find, you tell the truth, consequences be damned. You have more tolerance and less tolerance, simultaneously. You don’t put up with the slings and arrows in the name of “learning” or “experience” or bear fardels with any blind, youthful enthusiasm.

So I thought it was time I tackled the five fears that are usually uppermost in the mind of a writer … and the responses you need to send them skittering back to the shadows where they belong. I hope these help fight the dark days, both for published authors and those who are striving to be.

I’m sure I will be re-reading my own advice often … because, even at 50, it’s a lot easier to dish out than to follow.

writers block1. I can’t write/have lost my ability to write.

This is the fear most common for first-time writers, but it hits everyone, no matter how many books you’ve actually written. If you’ve managed to complete a novel or non-fiction work and you’ve gone through the agent/editing process and you’ve managed to get it published, I’m sorry—the pain doesn’t end there.

Every subsequent piece of writing will seem like the first time in terms of self-doubt, self-sabotage and torture. Sure, that first book was pretty good—you just re-read the first few chapters and what stank like cow piss to you when you were writing it now smells like Chanel—but now … now, it’s all over. Now, you’ve forgotten how. You’ve developed amnesia, Alzheimer’s, too much self-consciousness, too much awareness, yada yada yada …

Here’s the response: if you’re suffering self-doubt, you’re normal. It takes an enormous amount of  energy, compulsion, and ego to create in the void of a blank page, and sensitive, creative people (you know the type) don’t often have the unbridled egos necessary to handle it 24/7, especially with a publishing deadline. The good news is that if you’re wondering whether or not it’s good, your work is already better than 98% of books that are self-published on the internet, many of which suffer from an arrogance that crosses into delusion.

Thank your demons for proving that you’re not delusional … and keep writing.

Books2. No one will read it.

This fear is more the province of a published writer, as new authors are mainly concerned with finishing the book. But if you’re lucky enough to see your work made available, this, too, will be one of the fears that keeps you up at night.

I call this one “launch sickness.” It tends to manifest itself when a new book hits the racks and magnifies with how much money you or a publisher is staking on the book, because—believe it or not—that adds significantly to the pressure. Do not envy those people with billboards advertising their books … their sales have to pay for them.

Hollywood is strewn with the sun-bleached bones of failed epics (Lone Ranger, anyone?) massively bloated projects that failed. While six figure advances in publishing are very, very rare these days, the more success your books have, the more pressure there is for you to achieve more, particularly if the publisher is staking any money on huge print runs or an ad campaign.

Still, even for a modest book with modest expectations, this insidious fear will creep into your bones and whisper that your book is going to get buried. The publisher isn’t putting up much money—no one will read it. The publisher puts money in it—not enough people will read it.  It’s got you where it wants you.

Here’s the response: Ignore the whispering. You have no control over your book once it is available to the public. Do what you can to call attention to the fact that you’ve written a good one, but honestly—everything else is up to the universe, and the universe is rarely thought of as a just and balanced place. So try—very, very hard—not to worry too much about readership. The accepted wisdom is that with enough material in the marketplace, they will find you.

Hope and faith come into play … hope that they will find you, and faith that there are enough of your kind of readers out there to begin with.

Bad-Book-Review23. Those who do read it will hate it.

Except, of course, for our families and friends. In fact, all good reviews come from people who like us, right? That’s the only possible reason for a good review, or so says this particular little demon. So we ignore the good ones and remember the bad ones, unless we have the discipline to not read them at all.

OK. So the truth is, we need as many readers as possible to stay in the business of being authors. But good books, let alone great books, rarely appeal to masses, especially when said masses have been given free reign to exercise opinions … some of which, more rightly, should be exorcised.

I’ve always felt that readers help create a book, and I still hold to that belief. A book truly comes to life when a discerning reader brings his or her own imagination and vision to what you’ve created. I love to meet them, I travel to conferences and bookstores and events in order to do so, and they never fail to amaze me. I’m incredibly, enormously grateful to them and, indeed, would not be able to continue writing without their support. Journalists and bloggers and writers and librarians, true reviewers, literate people of all stripes … the business of writing itself would not function without them.

Note, however, I said “discerning” reader. That does not mean “every” reader—in fact, quite the opposite.

What if someone hates your book? What if a whole bunch of people hate your book? And what if (gasp!) they leave a “review” about it on a website? How do you react?

It depends on who wrote the review. Solid, well-thought out criticism is always worth seeking out, even if it’s painful to swallow. But a vitriol filled diatribe or a comment that could only be called stupid? Not so much.

Here’s the response: If you think it’s a good idea to pluck a random person off the street and give that person control over your happiness, then by all means listen to grammar-challenged opinions excoriating your work.

Do you stop writing? Do you stop writing YOUR way, change who YOU are, because a comprehension-challenged nitwit doesn’t like the kind of books you write and decided to read yours to get his or her hate on?

You can clearly label your book in one genre and have people who hate that genre attack it for exactly what makes it the genre that it is. You can be read by people who have no problem with graphic serial murders but who get very worked up about honest conversation using Anglo-Saxon profanity. You can have people try to correct things that aren’t mistakes and get mad at you for telling them they’re wrong. People can bully you, lie about you, lie about your work, and broadcast it to audiences as intellectually and socially limited as they are.

As an author you can be be attacked and pilloried and subjected to personal insults, be envied and therefore hated by people who desperately want to be published, in short be treated to all the indignities and injustices of celebrity without (at least for 99.9% of authors) being rewarded with the money that celebrity usually brings.

So ask yourself: do you really give a damn if someone whose taste, intelligence, social conscience or mental or emotional health makes them a person you a) wouldn’t respect or b) should avoid decides they loathe you, loathe your book, or leaves an insulting review?

Is that why you write, why you continue to work and sacrifice and labor through the course of a year and sometimes more?

Remember: being hated by some people is a compliment.

Oscar_statuettes_1810272c4. If I don’t achieve X, I’m a failure.

This is probably the most deceptive of all writing fears, because it changes in scale with circumstances.

To a first-timer, this could mean “If I don’t get published.” To a NY Times Bestseller, it could mean “If I don’t get to #1 on the list.” To a critically-acclaimed author, it could mean “If I don’t get a good review from the NY Times.” To someone who has been writing for many years, it could mean “If I don’t finally win an Edgar (or Pulitzer, or LA Times Book Award, etc.).

Down this path lies madness. The perfect self-sabotage is a never-ending series of qualifications for success.

Here’s the response: Do not let outside forces define what success means for you. This means you have to define it, which is damn hard to do (see #1). Nevertheless, defining your purpose in writing, your attainable goals (not your dreams, which are dependent on other people and other circumstances beyond your control), and your own success is very important to your well-being.

Come up with something you can live with. Something like, “I want this to be my best book —my best book according to me, that is.” Hold to it, and hold it fast—and don’t get sidetracked by any other definitions of success. If they happen, they happen. You’re a winner, no matter what.

supernova-explosion-cosmic-rays5. I’ll be forgotten.

This is the one you get after you’ve been published. It’s also known as “I’m gonna lose whatever small success I’ve had and die unknown and unread, my books pulped into recycled paper and my e-books wiped by a virus.”

That title is a little long, so let’s keep it simple.

This is actually another (in a way) beneficial fear, because (like #1) it proves that you are humble and have a sense of the big picture.

I revisit this fear quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a classicist by training, and I’ve translated fragments of authors who were noteworthy in the ancient world and who are now mostly lost, whose work was not transcribed by monks or was destroyed at Alexandria.  Despite their contemporary glory, they are doomed to be known as footnotes in obscure passages from Plutarch.

This could also be termed the “What does it matter, anyway?” fear. Basically, it’s what comes up when you’ve successfully fought all the others.

Here’s the response: Millions of years from now, our sun will explode. Should we stop writing and worry about how our books are going to be saved or should we just write the best damn books we can, following the response to #4 about defining our own success?

Sure, we can pull back in time like a giant cosmic camera, imagining the future, imagining the fate of our work, our cultures, our species and our planet. And after all that, take a stiff drink and bring our worries a little closer to home and do something to combat global warming.

What matters is the here and now: finishing your book, working to make it the best it can be, and trying your best to get it noticed.

In other words … keep writing.

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50 Things At 50

Blue_candles_on_birthday_cakeI’m turning 50 this week. I woke up and suddenly have been around for half a century. And that feels old.

This birthday is a tough one. All birthdays are, since I lost my parents, who (as an only child without any close extended family) were not only my best friends, but the keepers of my history and the validation of my memories. But the older you are—especially on “landmark” birthdays—the more those memories of where you’ve been and who you were become faded … and there is no magical Photoshop filter to recolor them.

The thing is, you’re supposed to become wiser with age—that’s the plus side. As a child and a teen, I was always told that I was “older than my years” … now, of course, I want to be told that I’m “younger than my years”. Hopefully my preternatural wisdom has now not only chronologically caught up with but has actually been enhanced by this half century of life experience. Herewith, then, are 50 observations, bon mots, precepts and aphorisms … certainly not the sum total of what I’ve learned at 50, but a few pointers along the way.

  1. Character is built on the edge of despair. (My father’s favorite maxim.)
  2. You may regret what you don’t do, not what you do … so do it. (One of my mother’s favorites.)
  3. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Tap it.
  4. Honesty is not always the best policy, but it’s the only way you can maintain your own integrity.
  5. Being hated by certain people is a compliment.
  6. We are all part of the fabric of nature—sew and mend, don’t rip.
  7. Be kind to all animals—including people.
  8. Star Trek (original series, of course!) is the blueprint for our future.Star-Trek1
  9. Communicate by whatever means necessary, but always communicate.
  10. Most business books contain one good point summed up in a pithy sentence, then spend 300 pages in embroidery.
  11. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  12. No one, including the people who love you best, can read your mind.
  13. Death is as difficult a process as life. Honor it.
  14. Don’t strive to be perfect. Strive to be the best you can be.
  15. Opinions are like anuses. Everyone has one.
  16. Expand your tribe.
  17. Every generation thinks succeeding ones are spoiled, soft and witless.
  18. Lean on your friends and prop them up when they need you.
  19. Pop your head outside of your customized box and discover something new.
  20. Know your generation’s faults and vulnerabilities.
  21. Set your boundaries and defend them.
  22. Re-read the “Desiderata” regularly.Desiderata
  23. In fact, read more poetry in general.
  24. Try not to judge too much—remember that other people may be having a rotten day, too.
  25. Trust your instincts in any situation where you feel danger.
  26. Tell your children that you believe in them, and show them that you trust them.
  27. Don’t let any relationship become a habit.
  28. Look up once in a while.
  29. Always travel—it grows your brain and your heart.
  30. If you can’t travel, read about other places, cultures and times.
  31. Talk to elders and treasure their memories.
  32. Life is not just. Understand that, but keep fighting to make it so.
  33. Don’t live your life for someone else’s approval.
  34. Hug a tree, and marvel at the wonders of nature.redwood
  35. There are some absolutes in life. Recognize them.
  36. If you’re stuck in traffic, make the most of it—play an audio book or learn a new language.
  37. Be thankful.
  38. Be proud.
  39. If you spend too much time preparing for the worst, you’ve lost some of the best.
  40. Leadership is not a macho catchphrase. It’s responsibility.
  41. Vote.
  42. War is never a good option, but sometimes is the only option.
  43. Always respect a uniform, but always question authority.
  44. Listen to music without words.
  45. Fear is always lurking behind us.
  46. Crying is not a sign of weakness.
  47. Don’t stereotype genders.
  48. The generous-minded appreciate satire.
  49. Philanthropy can be a smile.
  50. Share.

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The Chairman of the Board

las vegas welcomeAt the end of this month, I’m heading to Las Vegas.

Not exactly for pleasure—to be honest, I wouldn’t travel to Sin City for fun. I prefer quieter getaways. And not for research, though Reno figures prominently in CITY OF GHOSTS.

No, the desert oasis is calling me because the American Library Association’s annual conference is happening there, a huge and wonderful event in which I’ll be giving a couple of talks (including one on “Sin and Vice in Special Collections”—sounds titillating, no?) and signing a lot of books.

Obviously, the library fun won’t be around-the-clock, so in checking out possible theatrical entertainment, I discovered “The Rat Pack is Back” show, and promptly booked tickets.

rat-packI’m not usually one for “tribute shows”, a genre I didn’t really recognize as a genre until I wandered through the Ticketmaster site. But the yearning for a Las Vegas that was demolished with the Sands and finally passed away with Eydie Gorme still envelops me; the Las Vegas of my parents, the Las Vegas of my dreams, all neon and snap brims and cigarettes and Old Crow bourbon on long, shining wooden bars.

The Las Vegas of the Rat Pack.

The hero of the Rat Pack, the Boss before Springsteen, the one and only Chairman of the Board was, of course, Frank Sinatra. A man as ineffably cool as his startling blue eyes, a voice that made bobby soxers swoon and middle aged women grow misty over their Pink Ladies.

Young SinatraI own most of Sinatra’s music; I’ve listened to Sinatra’s radio shows from the ’40s; I’ve seen most of Sinatra’s films, from musicals (Anchors Away) to five star dramas (From Here to Eternity) to his action/adventure/PI phase (Tony Rome).  I know most of what has been written about Sinatra and some things that haven’t. And in addition to considering him one of the top three talents of the entire twentieth century, I think he was a very good and decent man.

Yes, I know about the “broads”. I also know about the organized crime connections. Sinatra was a man of his era in many ways and a man beyond it in others.

The fact is, when it comes to the treatment of women, the United States was and is grotesquely sexist. If you don’t believe me, check out the responses to the recent Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, a topic designed to protest the domestic and global dehumanization and hatred/fear/abuse of women exemplified by recent events in Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Santa Barbara. The misogyny this affirmative hashtag has engendered is deep enough to drown in.

You could also take a look at the response to Hilary Clinton’s run for President in 2008.

Hatred and contempt of people based on race and sexual preference has been partially driven underground and has, in some places, diminished. But hatred and contempt of women? Not so much. I see more misogyny every day on social media than Sinatra’s ever been accused of. He may not have been a proto-feminist, but he was certainly no bully and from all accounts, he was, if anything, rather Victorian in his gallantry.

He was, however, a proto-progressive on matters relating to race and religion, and he famously put his money where his mouth was, recording a great anthem (“The House I Live In”) for an America dealing with an upsurge in what would later be termed “hate crimes” immediately after it had defeated Nazi Germany.

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Stories abound about Sinatra’s ire over the contemptible treatment of his friend Sammy Davis, Jr.; when it came to standing up against racism and anti-Semitism, he really was the Chairman of the Board.

About those organized crime links. The thing is, Sinatra was Italian. Italians live and work and breathe within a system of personal relationships and networks. I lived it Italy long enough to understand this, and long enough to have experienced it.

mercato_centrale_insideCase in point? As a foreign student living in Florence, I shopped for groceries at the Mercato Centrale (the central market) which, at the time, consisted of many, many small, individual shops (the green grocer, the chicken lady, the pork butcher, the pasta maker, the bean seller, etc.). You get the idea.

The one bread seller in the market was always inundated with a mob of women crushing against each other and the small, glass display case, trying to get the attention of the girls who took the orders. One young bread seller seemed to empathize with an American student trying to speak good Italian … and it was on this bread seller and her favor that I depended, week after week, to secure my focaccia and everything else. She’d skip right over some of the louder and more aggressive Italian signore, and make sure I got my bread. God bless her … I hope she’s had a good life.

In short, Italy has had more governments than Joan Rivers has had facial surgeries because Italians invest more in familial, personal, local and regional relationships than they do in the idea of a distant, representative authority.

Frank-SinatraThis is also the way Sinatra operated. He prized those relationships—and the loyalty that went with them—above all else. For an Italian, especially of his generation, they actualized his very identity and signified security and survival.

It was the Kennedy family’s betrayal of this loyalty that actually sent him toward the conservative side of the political spectrum in later years.

So yeah, I think I understand some of the Sinatra mystique, and, while I don’t expect much from this tribute performance, I do hope it will make me recall the time I saw the Voice himself … a wonderful memory, like so many wonderful memories, engineered by my mom.

dreesen and sinatraShe grew up in Harvey, Illinois, and was good friends with a young man named Tommy Dreesen. Mr. Dreesen grew up to have a fabulous career as a stand-up comic, and later became the regular opening warm-up act for Frank Sinatra.

Mom stayed in touch with Mr. Dreesen through the years. He’s a wonderful person, a terrific comic and a superb writer—I last saw him at his book release at the 2008 Book Expo America.

Long before that, however, on one of Sinatra’s last tours—held at the now defunct and much-missed Circle Star Theater—we had a chance to meet with Mr. Dreesen backstage when he and my mom reunited and shared some personal stories and family history.

The concert was amazing. Sinatra was old, yes, and relied on memory prompts. But he was still the Boss, still the Chairman, and when he performed “The House You Live In”, he still sang it with the same conviction he had fifty years earlier.

I caught a glimpse of the man backstage, while we were in Mr. Dreesen’s dressing room. You could feel his presence, feel his energy, diluted with the years, but strong and sure and fierce. And those eyes …

I’ve only seen eyes that blue and that piercing twice in my life. Once was when I saw Frank Sinatra … and the other was at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

Sinatra winkingSomehow, I think Mr. Sinatra would have enjoyed that comparison. ;)

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Noir Off: The Letter vs. The Unfaithful

The_Unfaithful_movie_posterRemember compare and contrast? It still remains one of the most useful tools in the grade school era repertoire, and has lead the world to innumerable discussions on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon, and Superman vs. The Hulk.

Film sequels provide a particularly apt opportunity to explore similarities and departures and, most importantly, lead to questions about why those decisions were made—both originally and the second time around.

Today, I’d like to riff on two films—one very well-known, the other not-so-much. If you haven’t seen either The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring the formidable Bette Davis, or The Unfaithful (1947), directed by Vincent Sherman and starring the under-appreciated Ann Sheridan, you might want to go do that now … spoilers abound below.

The Letter is considered (by TCM and most critics) an “essential”, a masterpiece, a quintessential viewing experience. It’s a beautifully made, chilling film, and Wyler’s direction is sublime. The Unfaithful—which was, indeed, a remake of The Letter—isn’t considered much at all, except by noir aficionados, as it was made in the noir-defining post-War years, and that’s the category into which it is generally lumped.

The basic plot line both films share is a short story (1924) and self-adapted play (1927) by W. Somerset Maugham, addressing the eternally fascinating subject of feminine betrayal. You might remember the theme—it’s been around since before Genesis.

The creaky tale has been filmed a number of times, both in English and other languages, with the Wyler/Davis version receiving the most critical attention and praise. The Unfaithful is a reworking of the same story … but oh, what a difference a war makes.

Auteurism and Bette Davis fandom aside, let’s compare and contrast the plots of these two films.  Here’s a breakdown of the basic plot of The Letter:

A bored wife (Leslie Crosbie) is stranded in a foreign (colonialized) country while her amiable but physically and emotionally distant husband travels to his various rubber plantations and leaves her at home. One sultry evening, she shoots and kills a man whom she claims was trying to force his attentions on her (the word rape is never uttered); the act is committed in front of the native workers on the plantation and in front of the film audience.

Unfortunately for Leslie, her husband’s clerk makes it known that he knows of a letter in which she pleads with, cajoles and threatens the dead man, begging him to visit her the night he is killed. The letter is actually in the hands of the dead man’s Eurasian wife, who is willing to sell it while the clerk acts as a go-between. The couple’s best friend, an attorney, arranges for the sale, which empties her husband’s bank account (he’s oblivious). Leslie is acquitted of murder, but when the husband finally realizes the money is missing, he confronts her and discovers that a) she was in love with the dead man and b) she killed him deliberately out of jealousy, and c) she still loves him and isn’t sorry for it.

Leslie wanders outside in a daze, where she’s knifed and killed by one of the natives at the behest of the dead man’s wife, who now has both money and revenge. [The fact that Leslie must be punished is not in the original story, but was insisted upon by the 1940 Hays Code.]

Rather noir, right? Yet The Letter is usually described as a melodrama (which it is), as if it could only be one or the other.

Now, let’s take a peak at The Unfaithful:

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Chris Hunter is living in Los Angeles in one of those swanky new ranch houses, waiting for her husband to finally get home from one of his many business trips. She seems happy and is viewed as “too good to be true” by her husband’s cousin Eve (Eve Arden, in a delicious turn); Eve, in fact, is the kind of audacious broad that throws herself a “Divorce Party”, which Chris attends.

On the way home, as Chris is walking to her door, she’s attacked by a man in the shadows, his hand over her mouth, and pulled inside the house. We see in silhouette a violent struggle.

Cut to her husband Bob waiting at the airport; she was supposed to pick him up. He phones, and we see from his face that the news isn’t good. Bob arrives, relieved that his wife is all right, but unsettled by the fact that she apparently killed a man in self-defense. Their best-friend attorney Larry arrives (he’s actually Eve’s divorce lawyer). Chris tells the cops that she didn’t know the dead man; that he’d shown up and demanded her jewelry.

At the precinct, she is confronted by the dead man’s wife; he’d been an artist and a not-very-good husband, prone to wandering off and not telling his wife about it. Still, the wife violently reacts to the accusation of attempted robbery, and hysterically accuses Chris of murder.

A bit later, Larry (played by the wonderful Lew Ayres) is contacted by a smarmy art dealer, who offers to sell him a bust of Chris sculpted by the dead man; the artwork clearly proves she knew him and therefore lied to the police. Larry confronts Chris, who admits she posed for the man but stopped when he tried to get “too personal.” Terrified that a scandal would hurt Bob’s business, she lied. Larry advises her to come clean; instead, Chris tries to buy the statue for $10,000, only to find that the art dealer has given it to the sculptor’s vengeful wife.

The wife eventually shows the piece to police, who arrest Chris for murder just as she’s confessing to Bob that she actually did have an affair with the sculptor, but that he truly was trying to kill her—and that she’d been lonely after their two-week old courtship and wartime marriage. Bob refuses to forgive her as she’s hauled away to face trial.

Larry gives an impassioned defense of Chris, reminding the jury that she’s on trial for murder, not adultery. Eve explains to Bob that he’s being a jerk by not forgiving his wife. Chris is acquitted, and, through Larry’s machinations, it looks as though Bob and Chris will at least try to start over.

The Unfaithful is a terrific film, and arguably less “noir” than its predecessor. So, without further ado, let’s compare and contrast.

1. Message movie vs. escapism

We know we’re not on a Malaysian rubber plantation from the opening shot of The Unfaithful. A palm tree-lined suburban street accompanies an omniscient narrator voice over that tells us “The problem with which [the story] deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” The most fundamentally significant thing about the  film is that it is seeking to be topical and explicitly, rather than implicitly, moralizing. We are told by the Voice of Authority that something is wrong with our present society, and we are shown a street in “Anywhere, USA” to prove it.

The “exotic” setting (and the concomitant, underlying racism) of The Letter has vanished, as has the escapism of the earlier vehicle. Malaysia may as well have been Oz for most American movie goers, and there is an obvious connection made both in The Letter’s script and direction between the oppressive heat and foreign (read “savage”) surroundings as contributing to Leslie’s crime.  The Unfaithful does not portray a Joseph Losey version of Los Angeles in which a quiet suburban street can provide the same link between crime and setting that Wyler’s film does (see The Prowler); that would come later.

The Unfaithful is intended to pack a message; The Letter is intended as escapism.

2. Race and Gender

Gale_Sondergaard_in_The_Letter_trailerThe gender roles, actions and implications of The Letter are unexamined and taken for granted; rather, the cultural tensions and explorations revolve around colonial practice and race, and, on one level, can be seen as upholding long-held racist beliefs; the wife sins when she is taken away from white society and left alone in a “savage” environment. The dead man was married to an Asian woman (changed to Eurasian in the film, as mandated by the Hays code—the character was brilliantly played by Gale Sondergaard); this alone was enough evidence for Maugham’s generation to understand that the philanderer was a lowlife.

Race is jettisoned in The Unfaithful, and instead, we are led to examine the interactions of both genders. Instead of a cold Bette Davis mercilessly gunning down her lover under a moonlit, sweltering sky, Ann Sheridan’s character is actually attacked; the audience is party to her vulnerability, not her guilt.

In fact, the film obliquely refers to a problem of violence against women, especially sexual violence. Though written in 1946, the film wasn’t released until June, 1947—six months after the Black Dahlia killing. Given the Los Angeles setting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dialog uttered by the detective was alluding to some of the crimes against women (i.e. Diane Sparks murder in 1946, etc.)

Maugham was uninterested in exploring issues of female frustration or loneliness or guilt and is, perhaps, most famous for one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman in the annals of literature—and that’s a lot of misogyny—in Of Human Bondage.  Women in The Unfaithful move from centuries of blame and guilt to a more nuanced portrait in just seven short years.

3. Woman vs. Woman

In the 1940 film, Gale Sondergaard’s character has Leslie killed in retribution of the murder of her (cheating) husband. Before this, she humiliated Leslie by throwing the titular letter on the ground and making the woman pick it up.

The real dynamic here is woman vs. woman; they both loved the same weak and despicable man who was unfaithful to each.

There is no female bonding; no Letter to Three Wives and certainly no First Wives Club. There is just raw jealousy, depicted as an inherent state of female identity, leading to social chaos and murder.

Eve Arden The UnfaithfulThe Unfaithful, however, offers a different dynamic in the character of the felicitously and symbolically named Eve. On the surface, she is bright and brittle, celebrating her new-found divorce and not particularly team Chris. She is perhaps the iconic woman, in contrast to the actual heroines of the story, who both bear names that could be either masculine or feminine (Leslie and Chris).

It is Eve who delivers the punch at the end, who provides the message we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot. It is Eve who offers a reasoned and reasonable explanation to Bob for his wife’s behavior, and it is Eve who tells him he needs to take some responsibility, too.

She is a woman who is defending another woman, just on the basis of being a woman in a difficult situation, not out of friendship (as does the attorney Larry); as such, it is Eve who is the clearest thinker and the most uncompromisingly moral voice—all this in the mouth of a (scandalous) divorcee.

4. Forgiveness Does Not Equal Weakness

Leslie’s husband in The Letter is a dope. He’s distant, he’s dim-witted, he’s a sap. He joins a long line of noir saps in being such a sucker for a dame that he’s willing to forgive and forget if she just tells him she loves him.

In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Bette confesses that she still loves the dead man.

Queue up Gale Sondergaard.

Zachary Scott excelled at playing sleazy, villainous types, but in The Unfaithful he manages to project just enough decency to convincingly play a man who eventually understands that forgiving his wife does not mean he’s a sucker. He’s helped greatly in this by the fact that Chris is no Leslie; she loves her husband and actually was violently attacked.

Forgiveness is a powerful, powerful message, and one that must have struck home with the millions of couples who married quickly and, post-1945, repented at leisure.

5. It’s the War’s Fault

If The Letter could be said to have a moral, it would be:

A. Don’t trust women.

Followed by:

B. Especially out of the country and among “uncivilizing” forces.

C. They are inherently overly emotional, conniving, and devious.

Ultimately, the explicit lessons of The Unfaithful are as follows:

A. Divorce is bad, forgiveness is necessary and you should try to work it out (the post-War attempt to stabilize a society reeling from cataclysmic social changes).

B. Women aren’t all conniving gold-diggers and cheating hussies. They have feelings, too.

C. Don’t blame each other; blame the war.

When asked if it was “his fault” he was shipping out to another continent, Eve upbraids Bob thus:

“You knew you were going when you met her. Let’s face it, that’s why you married her—what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim. You didn’t marry her … you just took an option on her.”

Bob: “She could have said ‘no.’”

Eve: “Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.And then you were off.”

David Goodis, a brilliant noir writer, helped pen The Unfaithful, which could just have easily been titled “The Unforgiven”. But the messages are less in character with what we think of as ‘noir’ (especially the ‘femme fatale’ trope) than they are in The Letter, which is much more rooted in 19th century melodrama.

One sought to titillate an audience desperate for escapism; the other, to reassure and pacify the jangled nerves and chaotic social structure that was post-War America. In so doing, The Unfaithful became a rara avis itself, a modest crime thriller/film noir that did not demonize women, but, instead, offered a sympathetic and far more realistic portrait of infidelity and the female homefront experience.

If you haven’t seen it … I recommend it!

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Top Ten Bond Songs: Gold Standards

Once in a while, I like to rank things. Ranking helps you define the subjective qualities that comprise your individual tastes, forces you to think about the subconscious criteria that inform your opinions, and as a bonus gives you something to argue about endlessly at cocktail parties or (the internet equivalent) your blog.

On a recent road trip, I cranked up the James Bond themes and chose what are, to me, the top ten best. My criteria were as follows:

1. Expresses an essence of Bondian baroque: operatic, epic, seductive, exciting. The song should not feel like it could just as easily have been from another franchise (Eye of the Tiger, anyone?) or remixed disco euro-syth dance music (the dreadful Die Another Day, which ranks, in my view, as the worst Bond theme).

2. The song expresses aspects of the characters and themes, particularly James Bond, or at least the James Bond of that particular era.

3. The song was important to the franchise: it charted high and/or financially helped the film.

4. In style, melody and arrangement, the theme bears traces of the 1960s, the era that defined the film James Bond, but is still recognizably a well-written song.

5. The singer invests emotional hyperbole. If you’re singing about James Bond, people, make it big.

Of course, the Monte Norman theme is THE Bond theme, so it’s not included in the running, and not every song on my list scored high on every criterion. Your mileage—and 007s—may differ.

1. GOLDFINGER

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This is the Bond theme to end all Bond themes. It defined Bond, defined over-the-top villainy (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”) and is the essential benchmark for all subsequent Bond music. In other words, the song (and incredible performance by Shirley Bassey) set the standard for the entire series, much as the film did for the franchise.

2. SKYFALL

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After film after film of unmemorable Bond themes, Adele’s grand foray not only scores high in every category, but also qualifies as a damn good piece of music, independently from 007. Skyfall was a film that demanded gravitas, and Adele delivered, securing her rank as the second greatest Bond diva of all time.

3. THUNDERBALL

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Sir Tom Jones. James Bond. One of the greatest films of the series and remade as Never Say Never Again when Connery needed a job. Sir Tom and Dame Shirley Bassey are both Welsh, and the Welsh have that emotional, over-the-top investment in the music nailed. Most Bond themes have been sung by women, and I’d argue that Jones’ Thunderball is the single best male performance.

4. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

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One of the worst films and one of the best Bond songs, thanks again to Shirley Bassey’s commitment. She’s too authentic to be campy, and too grand to be dismissed. Plus, it’s a rare theme that expresses a feminine (and even somewhat “liberated”, surprisingly) viewpoint. I don’t need love … for what good did love do me? Diamonds never lied to me … 

5. LIVE AND LET DIE

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Paul McCartney and Wings offer a memorable, fast-driving anthem that just misses sounding like most other Wings songs by incorporating enough of the Monty Norman/1960s flourishes that register as Bond. Plus, it’s Paul McCartney on Roger Moore’s debut outing, a most felicitous new beginning for the series. The first time a band’s performance helped sustain the franchise, but not the last …

6. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

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Lulu is an underrated treasure, probably best known for To Sir, With Love. Here, she rocks the snappy Bond theme with nary a hint of the laid-back ’70s in sight.  Another triumphant performance of emotional intensity helps compensate for the light lyrics (meant to evoke, of course, memories of Auric Goldfinger), and lifts this theme song to the level of classic.

7. NOBODY DOES IT BETTER

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Something happened to Fleming’s James Bond in the 1970s. Was it Vietnam? Watergate? Weed? There’s a thesis in there, somewhere, but meanwhile, we still have Carly Simon’s excellent pop song. Another example of a theme that lifted the franchise and  defined the film Bond of its era, if not Fleming’s master spy. Imagine this playing over Daniel Craig’s face, and you’ll see what I mean.

8. GOLDENEYE

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Most of my top ten Bond songs are performed by UK artists—Welsh, English and Scottish (Lulu). Here, though, American Tina Turner helped relaunch the 007 franchise with this catchy-cool, urgent theme, adding some grit and edginess to Pierce Brosnan’s choir boy good looks for his debut film, an auspicious new beginning for the series.

9. MOONRAKER

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Shirley Bassey’s third theme was still squarely in the 70s, but Dame Bassey elevates it to the moon, so to speak. Soaring, vocally rich and even a little haunting, Moonraker transcended its filmed namesake.

10. A VIEW TO A KILL

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The only Bond theme to soar to number one, thanks to Duran Duran. That feat alone wins it a spot on the list, as musically, the song is more Simon Le Bon than James Bond. Still, it lifted up a sagging and flagging end-of-series and helped prove to the world that it needed a younger 007.

Notes: Only two Americans feature on my list. And, though I like two more of the Brosnan era theme songs (particularly The World is Not Enough), the vocals were reedy-whiny-90s enough to keep them in the bottom half of the oeuvre. I would recommend, however, kd lang’s end credits rendition of Tomorrow Never Dies/Surrender, which I prefer to the actual Sheryl Crowe-sung theme song.

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So what say you? Did your song make the top ten?

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5 Things I Learned in Monterey

I just came back from a trip to Monterey.

Windy DayNominally vacation—but actually research—the trip was phenomenal. Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck and Stevenson and a magnate for artists and dreamers for more than a century; both rural and urban, town and city, land and water.  Smaller and slower than San Francisco, not as unforgiving, dominated by a sky that mirrors the sea and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Travel is always educational—anything that plucks you out of your ubiquitous environment, your quotidian habits will, perforce, teach you something, if it’s only to take your sea sick pills one hour before boarding an ocean-going vessel.  In fact, it’s the learning—that fantastic popping of brain synapses, the inspiration, the understanding, the wisdom gained—that, for me, makes travel as crucial as air and water and food.

So, without further ado, and with tongue only partially in cheek, here are five things I learned in Monterey. To be fair, some of the list I’d already learned, on other days and in other ways, but retaining knowledge requires repetition … if not a few days spent in Monterey.

Portola View1. Patronize people, places and businesses that strive to be better than they must. Our hotel, the Portola Hotel and Spa, is one of the few conference hotels in town. The location is ideal: just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the State Historic Plaza of buildings, including the Custom House. And yet … the Portola is an icon of customer service, beautifully and thoughtfully designed rooms, and delicious food prepared according to the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood guide. The hotel is better than it needs to be—and will always earn my patronage because of it. As a writer, I try my damnedest to follow the same rule: don’t crest at the minimum of excellence. Exceed your own expectations, and you will exceed everyone else’s.

Kelp Forest2. The Earth likes balance. Balancing checkbooks, careers, family life, personal relationships, giving and taking and eating and sleeping and … yes. As 21st century adults, as global citizens, as human beings, we are pushed and prodded by the struggle for survival in an ocean full of predators. We act out that struggle on a daily basis, whether it’s managing a hostile work environment, trying to conquer feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, or facing the dilemma of work demands vs. family needs. And through it all, we seek balance. Not too much of this, not too little of that.

Sea OtterThe magnificent undersea kelp forests thrive on maintaining a balance, too. Like the redwood or saguaro cactus forests on land, they play host to a dynamic, intense and complex eco-system. Abalone and sea urchins eat kelp. Sea otters—a critically endangered species because they were once hunted to the very edge of extinction—eat abalone and sea urchins. Without the otters, the kelp forests will disappear. And with the kelp forests … oceanic life.

Balance. Yin and Yang. The secret to survival for us all.

3. You have choices. Make them count. The only unpleasantness I experienced on the trip was from a business that takes out whale watching cruises. Specifically, one man at that business. Their website lists “partners”, one of which was the glass bottom boat ride on Monterey Bay. My question was innocuous: because it was windy and the glass bottom boat booth was empty, I asked if they knew whether or not the boat was going out (their kiosk is within 50 feet of the glass bottom boat’s). His response was “Does this look like the glass bottom boat ride? Does this look like the same building?” etc. etc. Berating, abusive, bullying … because I was a tourist? Because I am a woman? As in all criminal behavior, the brain tries to find a rational reason for such ugliness, but, in truth, there is none. Criminality is all about the self—a profoundly anti-social attitude. When I told this man his behavior and attitude were unconscionably rude and that furthermore, his website suggested the businesses were connected, he demanded “Show me on the website where it says so.” Finally, he refused to give my anything but his first name.

I wanted to report him to his supervisor. And then I discovered that he owns the business … and that a close relative owns the glass bottom boat ride. Their family has been in Monterey for about fifty years, and apparently “give back” to the community. My response: So does Donald Sterling.

So, guess what? No patronizing his whale watching tour. No patronizing his family’s restaurants, which are in prominent locations on the Wharf and on Cannery Row. I exercised my right of choice and fervently hope others do, too.

Sea Wolf II4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Nature, the ocean, other people. Exercising that choice above, we set off on an amazing adventure through the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The sea was windy and dark blue and the swells were not small, but, oh, what magnificence. We encountered a krill bed, so dense with these small creatures that they turned the water pink. Everything seems to eat krill, from whales to salmon to penguins. Thankfully, they populate quickly. And as a bonus, they look like sea monkeys. ;)

Whale TaleIf you’ve never experienced seeing a whale spout—or watching a blue whale, the world’s largest creature, execute a dive, its gray, massive body gliding effortlessly through the waters, about twice as long as your 70 foot long boat—then take a trip to Monterey. These massive, gentle animals eating and playing (we saw mother and calf humpback whales rolling over in the water in between dives) is what the word awe was made to define. And did you know that the Orca (Killer Whale) is a member of the dolphin family?

Cannery Row Sign5. Truth lingers. Cannery Row was once Ocean View Avenue. When overfishing killed the sardine and canning industries that gave the street its nickname, Steinbeck his title and a raison d’etre to Monterey, tourism moved in, and the city changed the name officially in 1958.

Cannery Row today—especially on a warm weekend in May—is overflowing with tourists who wander aimlessly into shoddy amusement halls, chasing something they couldn’t put into words. Most of the time, they are there to buy: food, souvenirs, shells, stuffed animals. They are surrounded by a wonder of the world, with sea spray and roar and nesting cormorants and barking sea lions and the occasional back-swimming otter within easy view, but most of them stalk wide-eyed through the streets, the history and beauty of the place serving as window dressing for a snack, a t-shirt, a drink.

AquariumMany of them, fortunately, wander into the Aquarium, which does an amazing and near-miraculous job of balancing education with entertainment and amusement with protection. In order to engage the average tourist, the amusement must be there, make no mistake; but they serve up lessons with the show, not lectures, and in so doing they are playing an instrumental role in saving the world’s oceans.

Ed's PlaceAlso in so doing, they are continuing the work of Steinbeck’s friend and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts, whose unassuming business and home stands at 800 Cannery Row, unnoticed by many of the snackers and shoppers, just as it stood in the middle of the giant canning factories and apron-wearing workers, whistles shrieking a call to can the latest catch.

Vacant LotSteinbeck’s Cannery Row was already gone when he wrote the book, but even it lingers in the morning and late afternoon, the shacks of the workers still preserved off the main street, the vacant lot, home to his idealized bums, still vacant. The book is not the best of Steinbeck, because he was trying to resuscitate something already gone and so he romanticized it, the Great Depression through the ash-covered windows of Hiroshima, the lost past of youth always more attractive than the presence of middle age. But here and there you still see it, the noise and the stink, both as it was and how Steinbeck portrayed it.

Truth lingers in places like San Francisco and Monterey, the truth of personal experience and even the emotional truth of memory.

Duke, intrepid sea dog belonging to the captain of the Sea Wolf II

Duke, intrepid sea dog belonging to the captain of the Sea Wolf II

I’m honored and happy to have witnessed it.

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When I Was Hemingway

Most writers hoard what is survival gear for most of us … words.

Bits and bobs, flotsam and jetsam, beginnings and endings, random jots of thoughts and perceptions and well-intentioned stabs at craftsmanship.

the-sun-also-rises-coverYou never know when a scrap might be useful, when that discarded sentence, slightly retooled, will fit perfectly into a problematic paragraph. And, because you never truly know whether or not your beleaguered brain will ever be able to replicate something reasonably engaging, you hold on to those scraps as life-preservers, wards against the terrors of the empty page.

Likewise, many authors file first completed attempts away, storing first drafts under the literal or metaphorical bed only to emerge with them later, held aloft triumphantly, after said authors have already been published and their early attempts are suddenly notable.

I wish I could report that I’ve saved up a few incomplete manuscripts, but my first book was published and every subsequent book has been, too. However—because I wrote all  kinds of things, from translations to original poetry to sonnets to screenplays, long before I decided to cast caution to the winds and actually become a working writer—I can offer a few oddities from time to time, particularly when I’m hitting deadlines on a Monday and scrambling in the dark. ;)

hemingway-drinking

Today, it’s Hemingway. Or, rather, a Hemingway parody/pastiche, a single page of prose based on both subject and style of Papa himself.  I wrote this many years ago for a “Bad Hemingway” contest, but, as fate would have it, missed the deadline. To have and have not, eh?

At least in writing Hemingway satire, I am in good company … Raymond Chandler did, too. Those of you familiar with The Sun Also Rises and Papa’s short stories should recognize the title and a number of lines. So, without further ado …

Big, Two-Hearted Harry (Part I)

It was late and the room at Harry’s Bar and Grill was already smoky with the regular crowd when Jock walked in. He sat across from the rummy and pretended not to notice him as the rummy was always hard up and wanting Jock to spot him.

“The regular?”

Jock nodded and watched Harry make the drinks. Harry ran a good place, a tight place, a place where a rummy could come and have a clean corner, a well-lit haven. A clean, well-lighted place where a rummy could forget his cojones had gotten blown off in the war.

“Your drink. Lady Breck’s been waiting for you.”

“Thanks Harry.”

Jock liked Harry. He liked the way Harry poured the absinthe. He liked it the way Harry ran a tight place. He liked it how Harry understood about the rummy and could talk about the important things. He liked it about the scar on Harry’s arm. He liked it how Harry’s tattoo danced when his muscles twitched. He liked it when Harry bent over. Liking that made him feel funny.

“Hello old chap.”

It was Breck. Lady Breck was damned attractive. Her short hair fell boyishly off a chiseled face. Her tight sweater did nothing to hide the curves of a body built like a sleek-hulled yacht.

“I thought you were waiting for me.”

“Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable. I have been waiting, but I couldn’t help tromper-ing you with that white hunter. It’s the way I’m made.”

“That damned red-faced Williams? You didn’t have to do that.”

“Oh darling, don’t be difficult. I’m all yours now. My one true love. But oh darling, I’m so miserable.”

“Don’t talk like a fool.”

“You’re right. You know I feel rather good. I feel rather good not tromper-ing you with the bull fighter. I could have, you know. You chaps left me alone for an hour. I had everyone except Manuel and the rummy. Poor old rummy.”

“You should feel good. Let’s go upstairs.”

They kissed. Breck pulled away. “Oh darling, I’m so miserable. That rummy and I could have had such a damned good time together.”

Jock took her arm. “Yes”, he said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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