Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

April 5, 2017

I sometimes say that the only thing I’ve ever done that was harder than writing the book I’m working on, Street Song, was living out the events the book describes. It’s probably true, but it’s hard to know for certain while I’m still in the midst of it. Writing a book (as opposed to a “read”) is one of the most difficult things you can do. So much is involved and it all has to be organized in an organic way. This book is difficult not because it’s extremely personal, which it is, but because how you present your personal stuff has to be done with a special kind of care or it comes off all wrong.

When I started Street Song I thought it was one thing. Working on it, however, it turned into another and another and another. But then, a book, if it’s any good, is lots of different things. The book is partly my attempt at making sense out of my life, partly a warning to others, partly a long letter of explanation to someone I alienated that I didn’t want to alienate, and partly a plain old job. (We all need something to do.) Hopefully it will give some people inspiration—not because of anything I did, but because of what I saw.

As you’ve always heard, writing a book is an incredibly lonely task. You’re inside your head nearly the entire day—even when you’re not writing—and it goes on for years. In my case, nearly 11 years now.  It has led me to places in my daily life that I never expected to go to, created problems I never would have anticipated, as well as misunderstandings that I haven’t known how to correct. (I often feel at a remove from the world around me and can’t reach across the gulf.) This is not to say that there are no joys involved. They have happened, but they are few and far between. Writing is grueling. The greatest joy for me , I think, is the last pass, after you’ve finished the last draft and are fine-tuning the language and massaging the subtleties. I’m nearing that point. About a year away now—maybe less. I’ll be happy when it’s over.

Lane Tietgen Revisited

July 28, 2016

LaneMy goal as a youth to make it as a singer-songwriter is a major thread in my work-in-progress, Street Song. You can’t really describe music with words, and, as I’ve worked on the book, it has occurred to me that most readers will be curious to know what I sounded like. I haven’t played seriously in over 40 years, but have never stopped entirely. I’ve decided to make a small demo-type recording of six songs which I’ll make available one way or another to readers of the book. All the songs I’m recording are referred to in the text. Three of them are songs that I wrote. One of the most vital songs in Street Song is “Highway,” by the singer-songwriter Lane Tietgen. I first heard “Highway” in 1972 on an album called Crazed Hipsters by Finnigan and Wood. Lane was not a member of that band, but had been in a band called The Serfs with Finnigan and Wood’s lead singer, Mike Finnigan. You can hear the Crazed Hipsters version here.

In the 60s and 70s, songs fulfilled the same function as poetry had in other eras. Religion, too! Certain songs changed the way people looked at the world. “Highway” did that for me. Several years ago, seeking permission to quote the lyrics in my book, I spent some time tracking down Lane Tietgen. I finally found him in nearby Sonoma, and he kindly gave me permission. When I decided to make this recording I knew “Highway” had to be one of the songs I recorded. So I sent him another email asking if it was okay for me to record it. He said I could, but he wanted to know if I was certain that I was playing the correct chords. I’d never learned it back in the days I was performing because it sounded like the type of song you needed a band to play, and I was a solo artist. Although I’d started learning the song, I hadn’t put a great deal of work into it yet, and I was unsure about a few of the chords. So Lane suggested that I come up to his place so he could teach me the correct chords. I was quite taken aback—pleased as could be. Judy and I recently drove up to Eureka in Northern California, and along the way  we stopped for my “Highway” lesson. Thank you, Lane.

Not many people know his work, which is a pity. I have a two-part piece here on my blog called “The Magnificent Return of Lane Tietgen” which I suggest you all read. He continues to be one of the few practitioners of the singer-songwriter genre who, in my opinion, is still really doing it. The best of that genre was about the exploration of the human heart, not neurotic complaints or political posturing. Lane has stayed with his heart.


Back from Facebook

July 17, 2015

I’ve been doing the Facebook thing for awhile, becoming familiar with its workings. I’d been told many times that I will need a Facebook presence to publicize my new book when it comes out. But since I started posting over there I haven’t paid any attention to this blog. I don’t really like Facebook. (I didn’t think I would.) The temptation is to be quick and superficial and a smart ass. I expect to start posting here again soon. Until then…

Not My Way

March 3, 2015

For several days I’ve wanted to post something about Netanyahu. But I’ve been unable to get past contemptuous feelings and obscene phrases, which are not my way. So I gave up.

Plum Blossoms Again

March 3, 2015

Outside the dining room window
I see plum blossoms again.
The tree is misshapen
from ancient bad prunings.
Because it no longer puts out fruit
I keep suggesting that we cut it down,
replace it with an apple tree.
But my wife says no.
The birds like it, she says.

Different, I guess

March 1, 2015

Taking a break on a long road trip,
sitting in the sun
in an outlet mall parking lot
in Gilroy, California
comparing two Italian translations of
The Catcher in the Rye

A Word on Terrorism

February 2, 2015

I care about language. I don’t like to see it abused or misused. I don’t like what has happened to the word “awesome,” for instance. The word has lost its meaning. You have to go hunting for some other word to take its place. Recently I was trying to compose something that touched upon the shootings in Paris and I found myself deliberately avoiding the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They’ve become propaganda terms, used in the same way that “communism” and “communist” were once used: They’re intended to stop all debate. Which of us isn’t against terrorism? A common line of reasoning is “I don’t care why they’re doing it. There’s never any justification for terrorism.” If you say, “No, there’s never any justification, but there are reasons it happens,” the subtlety goes right past them. You’re dead in the water. You’ve become a “terrorist sympathizer.” It should be pointed out that, contrary to the way the media uses the word, terrorism is not a philosophy. It’s a tactic. And it’s a tactic that the United States Government is not above using. The military described the opening days of its assault on Bagdad as employing a strategy known as “Shock and Awe,” which did kill many civilians along with military targets. What is Shock and Awe if not the very definition of terror? And we decapitate our enemies, too, but from a distance with remote-controlled missiles. How is that any less barbaric? So I avoid using the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” You end up playing some ideologue’s game when you do.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’m free to say what I wanted to say in my original post. Next time.

Sneaker Synchronicity

October 14, 2014

Nearly every October, the City of San Francisco afflicts its citizenry with the screaming lunacy of the Blue Angels. (A friend describes them as a motorcycle gang in the sky, which, I think, nails it.) I think it’s best to restrain one’s hatreds, but the Blue Angels are one of the few things I will admit to feeling contempt for. It’s been my practice for several decades now to skip town the days of the horror show. A few years ago, Judy and I and a few like-minded friends started up a tradition of going up the coast to Drakes Beach to spend the day in the sand, eating, talking, and swimming. Sometimes I bring a book, and I decided to do so this year. I wanted something lightweight (meaning, not too heavy for my daypack), something I could dip into if I felt the urge to read, but could quit easily. I studied my shelves for some time before settling on a book of poems by Gary Snyder. Short nature poems at a wild beach. Perfect.

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach is narrow and ends abruptly at the base of a long wall of sheer white cliff. You can tell from the sea weed and the channels in the sand that the waves sometimes come up all the way to the base of the cliff. But they’ve never done it during any of our outings—and I’ve been there 15 times or more. I’ve sometimes wondered, in my ignorance, if it was something that happened only at night. When Judy and I arrived around noon, none of the others had shown up yet. The fingers of the waves were coming in closer than usual. Judy asked me, “Did you check the tides before we left?” I assured her that I had, although I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d read. It seemed to me that high tide was supposed to be at 2:40 pm. But that was for the Golden Gate. I’d understood the book to say that there is a one hour 20 minute time difference between the tide times at the Golden Gate and at Point Reyes Peninsula—where we were—which would put high tide at 1:20 pm. At 1:15 the waves were still a reasonable distance away, so we relaxed. I pulled out the book of poems and began reading. I kept one eye on the waves, though, and, while I couldn’t be sure, it looked as though they might be coming closer.

Other people on the beach were becoming uneasy. Not that there was any danger. It was more a question of “Are we going to have to move our stuff?” A small group of picnickers passed by on their way up the beach, and one of them stopped to ask me if I knew when high tide was. I told her what I thought I knew, but had to admit that I wasn’t sure. She had an accent, so I asked her where she was from. She said France, which led to a brief conversation. While we were talking, I remembered reading that the Coast Guard had issued a warning for sneaker waves that day. I asked her if she knew the term “sneaker wave.” She didn’t, so I thought I ought to explain it to her. She had difficulty understanding, and was more concerned with catching up to her friends. She let me think she’d understood and then left. A few minutes later, a guy approached me and asked if I was waiting for a particular wave, a wave that had a name. His question made no sense to me. I thought he was just being goofy, and I was a little rude until I realized that he was French, too, a friend of the woman, and was seeking clarification on what a “sneaker wave” was. As we talked, the surf kept throwing out an occasional longer wave. Last gasps of the high tide? Playing it safe, Judy and I moved our stuff a little closer to the cliff and onto a slightly elevated portion of the beach. The way the waves were breaking, I felt certain we were in a place that would stay above it all. I spotted a park ranger coming down the sand, so I trotted over to ask if she knew when high tide was. She said 2:40, which meant I’d misunderstood the tide log. It was obvious now that we were were going to have to abandon the beach entirely. Right at that moment, two of our friends, Bruce and Michele, showed up. As Judy and I greeted them a huge wave reared up, smacked down on the sand, and started rolling toward our stuff. The four of us hoisted everything up off the sand just in time. We were luckier than most. Up and down the beach, folks were mourning over their soaked picnic supplies. Just then the French girl walked by. “That was a sneaker wave,” I shouted.

As we were leaving, Bruce noticed that we’d missed one item, the book of poems by Gary Snyder. It was sitting in a shallow pool of seawater. He picked it up, handed it to me, and I saw the title again: Regarding Wave.

Independence for Scotland

September 17, 2014

It’s not really my business, but if I lived in Scotland I would vote for independence. I think generally the world is better off with more smaller nations that correspond to an actual culture than meganations, whose sole aim is the acquisition of more power.

A country shall be small
and its populace small in number.
Implements that multiply men’s strength
shall not be used.
People are to take death seriously
and shall not travel far away.
Even though there be ships and carriages
no-one shall travel in them.
Let the people tie knots in ropes
and use them instead of script.
Make their food sweet
and their garments beautiful,
their dwellings peaceful
and their customs joyful.
Neighboring countries may be within eyesight
so that one can hear the cocks crow and the dogs bark
on either side.
And yet people shall die at great age
without having travelled hither and thither.

Tao Te Ching 80, translated by Richard Wilhelm

That passage used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore. I’ve come to agree with it.

The Future of the Book: An Introduction

June 14, 2014

This is my first entry on a subject that I want to address: the future of the book. It’s something that matters to me very much, of course. Many internet enthusiasts maintain that the book is dying, which I think is naive. The book is suffering right now, but it’s not going to die. The internet will die before the book ever does. I’ll go into why I think that’s true in future posts. For this first post, I want to look at a brief exchange in an interview with the poet and ecology activist Gary Snyder that I saw on YouTube. This extract confirms a hunch I’ve had about one of the beliefs of cyber-intellectuals, a belief they tend to keep in the background. I’ve put into italics the specific point that I’m referring to.

Interviewer: Do you think that there is any literary vocation, in the largest sense of the word—literary, not poetical—one that may be assumed by so-called prose writers?

Gary Snyder: Maybe. I don’t know. The publishing business is falling apart. Books are not selling. Bookstores are closing. Everybody is saying the Internet is the new thing. What do you think? It’s your generation. What do you think is going to happen?

Interviewer: I think we will still need literature for some reasons.

Gary Snyder: By literature, you mean books or do you mean writing?

Interviewer: Writing.

Gary Snyder: Is it okay for writing to be online?

Interviewer: Honestly, I do think so.

Gary Snyder: Do you think writers should be paid?

Interviewer: Um… Well, that’s a difficult issue.

Gary Snyder: Well, you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true. Um…

Gary Snyder: Unless you want to be an academic, but that’s not a real writer.

Interviewer: But would you say it’s just to write for a living? To earn money?

Gary Snyder: Whatever you do you have to earn enough money to feed your family.

Interviewer: Okay. So you’re a pragmatist.

Gary Snyder: Of course I’m a pragmatist. I’m a grown up. You know? I’m an adult. I know that I have to feed a family.

The interviewer is around 20 years old, a student in Krakow, Poland. I’ve looked into him a little. He’s an urban technofile. I’ve long had the sense that the real attitude of these people toward writers, musicians and other “content providers” is that they should be doing their work for free in their spare time, that to make a living doing creative work is elitist. I feel that my hunch has been confirmed here — “Well, that’s a difficult issue.” For cyber-intellectuals, the internet fanatics, the most vital aspect of the digital lifestyle is gadgetry. You need content to give the gadgets something to do, but that’s secondary. This is another example of form over content — the medium is the message — which is backwards. We live in a backward, or an upside down, era. (I’ll do a future post on Marshall McLuhan, of whom I used to be a big fan.) Listening to the interview, when the interviewer agrees with Snyder’s assertion that you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living at it, he’s not being sincere. It’s merely a tactical retreat. A grown man has challenged him over something he has not thought through, so he backs off. But his real attitude, which he’s not willing to push too hard here, is one of the most widespread that those who write books, make films, take photos, or make music have to deal with nowadays: Your work should be free, and if you’re not willing to give it to us, then we’ll simply take it from you. Can someone offer support for this idea? I’d be interested in hearing from you.

You can watch the entire 25-minute interview here.