Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sandra Bullock Licks Her Lips - Report From Austin No. 2

As I was saying last time...I was at a statewide meeting of creative writing teachers in Austin, Texas over the weekend.

On Saturday morning I sat on a panel that discussed using research in creative writing. I shared how I was drawn to research because over the course of more than 140 posts on this blog I faced the prospect of having very little to write about of significance.

In a sense this has always been a blog, as they used to say on Seinfeld, " with the potential to be about nothing."

That's because for one year The Van Winkle Project required that I subtract from my life all information about anything happening beyond the great horizon.

What did that leave a "sleeping" man with that he might comment on that might be of interest to others?

A) He could talk about his memories and mire everyone in the muck of  his nostalgia.

B) He could focus on mundane daily activities and minutae and turn the blog into a quasi-journal slash diary no one cared about.


What I finally decided to do was try to strike a balance by writing on some days about significant moments in my past and on other days about interesting observations from my present life. But, I told the panel, I still needed more.

Take a bow research. The starring role, played by my best 21st century friend...

Most of the time before posting I found myself digging around and satisfying my curiosity about  various matters. I then included that information in my posts.

Example: I wanted to write about the concept of "brevity" and how we value it in this era in which are days are already packed with too much to attend to. So there are shorter songs (you can count jam bands on one hand), shorter sermons, faster advertising pitches, and texts and tweets instead of emails.

This led me to remember the word "brevity" as it's used in the cult classic film The Big Lebowski. Hmm. Let's read a bit and refresh our memory about that movie as well as see what others say. And while I'm at it, what did the Spartans think about the idea of paring things down to a minimum, especially in their speech?

Voila. I had my post, The Whole Brevity Thing.

I call this kind of posting sensibility "value added." I figure only the person writing a strictly humorous blog should get a free pass from having to offer readers value added. (That's because making us laugh is an unimpeachable public service on par with helping little old ladies cross the street, i.e., already valuable enough.)

The rest of us bloggers, right up to Roger Ebert with his million viewers, owe our readers something useful, if for no other reason than as non-monetary compensation for taking up their valuable time.

What might constitute value added on a blog post?
  • A recipe.
  • A practical tip.
  • A factoid, piece of quotable trivia.
  • An interesting story from history.
  • A great quote
  • A ponderable insight.
  • A link to something cool.
  • A great photo.

So in the midst of my utterly subjective thoughts about how to blog, here's my value-added for today.

If you ever visit Austin, Texas and are looking for some excellent dining in the medium price range, try Bess Bistro on Pecan.

The restaurant is in the basement of a former bank where the vault used to be.

Friday night found us dining for the first time at Bess where we met Telmond and Jackie, a wonderful Austin couple in their eighties. They fell in love 60 years ago as UT students a few blocks away on the campus. Jackie was an Austin gal. She told us she used to live just a little ways down Sixth Street from the former bank now Bess Bistro. She remembered what Sixth was like before became the street for clubs and live music, a veritable Bealle Street of the Southwest.

Not that it matters (but quotable trivia) Bess Bistro is owned by actress Sandra  Bullock.

No  blind side here.
Sandy knows good food!
What's the dining experience like?

The most expensive dishes are in the low thirty-dollar range. There's plenty of items one can order for under $20. The cuisine is comfort food or food you've heard of, all of it coming with a twist. Like how my ribeye steak was served with braised brussel sprouts. Or the quail that arrives on a bed of grilled greens.

We found everything to  be delicious, all the way to the finale. You've got to have the beignets with chocolate sauce for dessert. Killer! - A.H.

COMING: A Walk on the Grave Side, Report From Austin No. 3


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Novel Idea - Report From Austin No. 1

I was in Austin, Texas over the weekend.

The occasion was an annual gathering of creative writing teachers who come from around the state to swap ideas and share their work.

I had the honor of reading a chapter from my new novel Evangel which is currently a lost puppy in search of the loving leash of a publisher.

Evangel is not a satirical novel, although at times I must say I find what the Christian faithful say and do in real life to be humorous. I often have the same response when I read the Bible. Am I the only one?

That trickster Jacob fooling his old man with a bunch of animal skins so he's as hairy as his brother Esau. Hilarious! Or there's that ultimate action hero who happens to be a half-dipstick short on intelligence, especially when it comes to women who whisper in his ear and give good massages. I speak of mighty Samson.

The New Testament is  richly humorous, too, not all sober and finger wagging like Mitch McConnell talking about the deficit. In the days before the story of Jesus turns grim and bloody his twelve disciples offer a combination of earnestness and not-getting-it that could be worked into a set of stand-up.

- Did you hear the one about Peter trying to walk on water? No, seriously, folks. He thought this was a good idea. And he can't even swim! I mean I'm afraid of heights, so I should think of jumping off a cliff?

- The other day I heard James and John were trying to book the best seats in a  place called heaven. Isn't that a little premature? Like getting your Super Bowl tickets a few thousand years early?

It's not that I don't take God seriously. I do. It's the humans in the Bible (as well as those currently walking the earth) who tend to make me laugh. I assume their creator laughs, too. Fortunately, though, the rest of the story is that the God of the Bible stops laughing just long enough to save humans from themselves. That's comedy, not tragedy...

The Sermon on Sex
There are no rules for how one goes about reading for 18 minutes from a novel. I thought it best to search for a chapter that perhaps would offer some liveliness and warm the corpuscles of the audience in the Double Tree's highly air conditioned Wildflower Room.

Ah, yes, let's try pages 92-103, what I refer to as the "Sermon on Sex" chapter.

In this section Pastor Frankie Wey offers a challenge to the married couples at On the Rock Temple Fellowship, a megachurch in Pinebridge Meadows.

"Why does the devil have all the sex?" Dr. Frankie asks rhetorically from the stage as he addresses 3000+ people. "I say it's time Christians stole back sex from Satan who has taken it and perverted a beautiful gift from God!"

To improve intimacy and strengthen marriages Dr. Frankie goes on to ask each married couple in the church to commit to the ultimate self-help regimen:

Have sex every day for seven days.

The husbands and wives are to report back the following Sunday and share the results.

This scene in my novel has roots in a real challenge a Grapevine, Texas minister issued his congregation in 2008. You can read about this notion of "putting God back in bed." here.

The "Seven Days of Sex" pastor in Grapevine, Texas also preached a sermon
earlier this year with a real Ferrari on stage.

In the sort of me-too'ism that's has long been rampant among American churches, which are just as subject to trends and fads as any other quarter of society, other preachers around the country have tried out the idea. Below is a billboard that sparked controversy when an Alabama church put it up, not because of the one-man, one-woman message, but, well, the preacher was talking about sex in church!

"Wine of Love" by Natalia Morez 2002
If you're a fiction writer and you hear about something like this, including preachers providing a public exegesis of (blush) the Song of Solomon, you think, "I've got to try this out with my characters and see what happens!"

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

Hot stuff! Somebody ought to write about it... So I did. - A.H.

COMING NEXT: Sandra Bullock Licks Her Lips - Report From Austin No. 2


Friday, September 23, 2011

A New Literary Analysis of Rip Van Winkle

Now that Phase I of the Van Winkle Project has ended--avoiding the news--I'm in the midst of Phase II. In this effort I'm  somewhat like my literary inspiration, Rip Van Winkle.

Since 12 months was long enough for me to forget all the details of Washington Irving's account, I combed the house until I found my nice little copy of Three Tales with its handsome, vintage illustrations.

I wanted to read  the ending again and make sure I had it right in my memory.

I especially wanted to revisit how Rip deals with a flood of new information (America had become an independent nation during his sleep) and how he spends his days once he's newly awakened.

It turns out that Rip wakes to a sort of personal paradise.

As I read the full account I learned that twenty years is sleeping and aging and being completley out of it brings with certan advantages.

Because Rip is old no one expects him to contribute.

In addition, his nagging wife has burst a blood vessel and died years ago. She will never again critique his behavior or nag, nag, nag.

For the first time ever, Rip can truly be himself unimpeded and enjoy life as never before.

Set Free
Have I arrived at a "happy age" like Rip Van Winkle? Well, our cases are both similar and different. I have no nagging wife. Rather than wishing her away, I am proud of the fact that my wife has been with me this entire time. She endured my project heroically, even during those early days in May when she was dieing to tell me that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

What I realize, though, is that I did have another version of a nagging wife living with me. For decades. A nagger par excellence. This other wife of mine has a name.

The news.

You see, one can read this little story as something of a parable. It breaks down like this:

There's something that bothers a person greatly in life. It hounds them. Then one day a wonderful thing happens. They accidentally escape it in an unexpected way (in Rip's case a magic nap). When they come back to their old life everything is new and better. All it takes is TIME.

Let's give this gradual de-toxing phenonomenon a name: The Rip Van Winkle Effect (RVWE)

How the RVWE Works For Me
Compared to before, my life now seems largely quiet and peaceful. The news doesn't have the hold on me that it once did.

I don't hear that nagging voice saying, "Check online and see what's happened in the last hour," or "You've got to watch the evening news every night, every minute of it" or "Read the newspaper as soon as you bring it in in the morning."

Nag, nag, nag.

And I used to obey. I was afraid I'd miss something I needed to know. But I realize the truth now. It wasn't about need. It was habit.

My news habit seems to have been burst its own blood vessel and gone away.

I realize, of course, that bad habits can return. In stressful times ex-smokers scrounge a butt and light up. Yesterday, habit returning, I said, "Hey!" to someone in the hallway after vowing weeks ago that such a low-grade greeting would never cross my lips again [See: Andy Rooney's Eyebrows: A Mini-Rant]

I'm hoping for the best this time. That I can model myself on Rip.

I especially like the bit where we're told he makes friends "among the rising generation." Whenever I have hope for the future, it almost never comes from anything I read or hear in the news. It comes from the young people, especially my students.

What else can I learn from the Rip Van Winkle Effect? That eventually all things pass. What I wring my hands over today at some point will simply be history and have an end date placed on it.
  • The bad economy
  • Global terrorism
  • Mideast unrest
  • Famines in Africa
  • Assorted annoying people, both public and private
  • Unfortunate musical styles and fashions

Yes, I may actually outlive the popularity of Justin Beiber, Snooki, and too many movies based on comic book heroes! However, I'm not naive. I know what any intelligent person is thinking. My list of "wish-it-weren't-so's" will be replaced by new ones. No matter how long one waits, true paradise never arrives.

Though it's no solution to try to sleep through all the bad stuff, I now believe it might not be a bad idea to take more short news naps than the nagging voice in one's head says is socially acceptable. Accrue some RVWE.  If upon waking the bad news hasn't gone away, at least it will be more distant.

It seems to have worked for me.

LAST THING: In case anyone is wondering, I don't plan to neglect the other aspect of the ending of Rip Van Winkle:

"It was some time before he...could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor."

For the foreseeable future this blog will be my "bench at the inn door." I'll lounge here and idly chat and share my reactions to old news. Not that anyone cares. I'm just an old guy who is behind the times.

Still, I figure if I'm going to live on the same planet as everyone else it might be a good idea to at least get back into "the regular track of gossip." Next time someone says "Super Committee" or "Michelle Bachmann" I'd like to know what they're talking about. - A.H.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Glory on the Gridiron (The Day After)

I just went one year without any NFL football. No preseason, no 16-game schedule, no playoffs, no Super Bowl.  As Van Winkle, I "slept" through it all.

To some this might sound like a hardship. But here's the deal...

I'm not that monster-size football fan that almost single-handedly supports the beer companies and cable TV. You know the type. He has to know the results of all the games and he watches three games on Sunday and doesn't miss Monday or Thursday nights either.

And he is a he.

Still, I dabble in football-watching the way I dabble in other things. I show up in front of the TV screen at opportune moments, hoping to be rewarded by some feat between the hash marks that suddenly shoots adrenaline to my brain, which then tells my vocal cords and tongue to go to work:


Which is what happened in the fourth quarter of the Oakland at Buffalo game yesterday.

I was semi-watching (okay, dabbling massively) on the couch, trying to mark a few student assignments from my Fiction Workshop. I had already seen the J-Lo Fiat commercial three times too many. This ad heralds the coming of a teeny-tiny but cool two-door car to America.

Ms. Lopez, so made-up and digitally retouched that she more resembles a polished piece of plastic than human flesh, overshadowed the whole thing. Especially when I made the mistake of turning off the mute and I heard the singing. Cue the robots, please...


There...that's better.

One thing I realized after no TV for a year is how eye-poppingly great HD TV looks when one is watching the action unfold on the field. Whenever there was a close-up on a player I could see the sparklies in the silver paint of the Raiders' helmet. Grass stains on pants. Fantastic detail on the tattooed biceps.

Football is eye candy.

Since I had missed 3/4 of the game I didn't know that the Raiders (8-8 last year) had blown a 21-3 halftime lead. The plucky Bills, who many said were better than last year's dismal team that lost their first 8 games before going 4-4, were on a tear with three unanswered touchdowns.

Then I woke up on the couch. This is one of those moments when all the dull penalties, the runs up the middle for no gain, the worse than useless necktie comentating, and even those interruptive J-Lo moments go away.

Buffalo has just scored minutes earlier to go ahead 31-28. The Oakland quarterback drops back and he heaves a pass 50 yards. Churning toward the goal line is rookie Denarius Moore. Mr. Moore has two Buffalo defenders on him. He gets a step on one, the other is gnawing his collar bone as he goes up and snags the ball and falls into the end zone with the defender atop him. Mr. Moore lands holding the ball.

Amazing catch! Oakland scores!

But we're not quite finished because the Bills will march down the field, helped by foolish Oakland face masking and pass interference penalties. The Bills will survive a fourth and 3 on the Oakland 24 yard line and at that point I knew they weren't going to be denied.

Sure enough they scored with 16 seconds left. There was time for three more Raider plays. The last one (6 seconds remaining) was a Hail Mary heave into the end zone. Multiple hands belonging to three Bills and one Raider grasped in the air for the ball. As they came down it appeared that both a Bill and a Raider were holding the ball? No. When they hit the ground, Buffalo had intercepted. End of game. Bills win it 38-35.

Is this a typical NFL game? Hardly. But it does represent the kind of sports drama I missed out on last season when I was Van Winkled.

Yesterday's game reminds me why I'll always watch some sports. Unlike the rest of the news, sports are reliable. If you watch enough games, something GOOD, something memorable, something that makes you for a moment feel "Yes!" always happens.

The rookie makes the impossible catch!

Maybe there are other ready-made communal spectacles that can reliably deliver this kind of thing, but right now, the morning after my Sunday "fix," this guy is having a hard time thinking of any.

Football, baseball, basketball, golf. All of them offer a peculiarly American Sunday afternoon liturgy. The people show up and watch the ritual performed over and over again. They know that at some point it's quite likely they will briefly touch the transcendent. When that happens they find themselves cheering for something beyond their smallish, seemingly insignificant lives.

I know exactly what it feels like.

And, if I partake via TV, all this comes with minimal or no cost to me, other than time invested. It seems like a pretty good deal...

That's why I'm not surprised that so many people worship in front of large screens, and the stadiums dwarf our churches. And heaven? Isn't that another name for making it into the end zone? Nothing but net from outside the arc? Home run in the bottom of the ninth? The eighteeen foot putt?

Maybe not. You see, it's all so brief. And in the end it may not work out like you expected. Ask Denarius Moore, ask the Oakland Raiders. I think those gentlemen will tell you. - A.H.

Sorry, Denarius. Even though you pointed heavenward and the score changed
seconds later to OAK 35 BUF 31, your team went on to lose.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

News of the Lowercase "m-e"

Twenty years later he awoke and went home.
"The Return of Rip Van Winkle" by John Quidor
Hello. My name is Albert Haley. I live in Abilene, Texas, where I am a writer and teacher of creative writing at a local university.

For the last year I've been de-emphasizing my identity, particularly on this blog where I once even went so far as to interview myself with a paper bag over my head. [See post.]

To all my kind readers, accidental, and otherwise, I remained Van Winkle. I signed my posts V.W.

Today I am not going to suddenly open up and invoke a cult of personality, but I will cease to remain in the awkward stance of an anonymous person engaged in an odd (and difficult) project of trying to avoid all news, sports, entertainment, and weather.

The person who thought it would be interesting to try to become a modern-day Rip Van Winkle has awakened. Albert Haley is now roughly like everyone else.

Except I'm starting to wonder after what I've done to myself if I really am.

Hangovers and Pummelings
Although it was a relief for my project to finally end last Sunday, Sept. 11, and thus be able to abandon the daily vigilance required to make sure I didn't overhear or glimpse news, it was the oddest thing to dive back into current events.

I found myself faced with the first newspapers I'd looked at in one year. [See: Sleeping Professor Wakes, Slowly Wades Back into the News]

I began with a weary sounding and downbeat headline story about the U.S.'s latest trillion dollar deficit and what must be done to trim federal spending.

It was clear from both the tone and content of the story that many people have been discussing this for some time. But I don't remember debt reduction being a front-burner issue when I went to "sleep" one year ago.

I thought then of how when Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle closed his eyes in the famous story there were union jacks waving in the breeze. He awoke to find a piece of red, white and blue cloth with stars on it raised in their place. "How did that happen?" he wondered.

I have a similar reaction after being debriefed  by family and friends and learning of Arab revolutions, terrible disasters, partisan vitriol, Congressional paralysis of action, and an economy that seems to be on life support. In addition, I gather that America has gone from having the equivalent of a neutral expression of patience on Uncle Sam's face to a full-blown frown that borders on "Holy Moley, what am I going to do now?"

Intellectually, as I continue "back reading" from my pile of saved newspapers and Newsweeks stored in the garage I can understand the current gray mood. A lot of tough stuff is buried in those pages in the garage.

Still, I don't feel any of this strongly myself. I think it's because my emotions haven't been run through the news ringer of having actually lived through any of it and (here's the big thing) I refuse to force feed myself 365 days of mostly bad news all at once.

Someone in the news business wrote to me the other day warning me what that might be like:

How I'm Actually Doing
While managing to avoid the sad, depressed, anxious state my correspondent described, a new "m-e" seems to be emerging.

    -He reads the morning newspaper in about half the time he used to.

   -He listens to NPR for about 4 minutes on the way to work in the
    morning, that's all, an espresso shot of news instead of a grande.

    -During the day at work he's no longer in the habit of checking the home
      page of the NY Times every hour or two.

    -He only watches the lead story, maybe a couple of more on the evening
     network TV news. Sometimes he skips the show altogether and
     concentrates on cooking dinner.

    -He's in no rush to find out every detail of all the big news events of 2011
     that he missed.

In many ways I'm still enjoying the sort of lifestyle that I forced myself into over the last year. Could it be that I'll never again be a news junkie? That I can now take news in moderation?

There are "social drinkers." They drink just enough to fit in with everyone else and be convivial company at parties and occasions. Maybe I've become a social imbiber of the news?

Maybe. But I'm still working it out. I worry that I'm taking up the mantle of the less informed and therefore, by my  own standards, I am becoming a less intelligent person who has little or no basis for critical thinking about life and the world.

And what do I say to all the journalists out there who are dedicated to working hard, most of them for mediocre wages, to bring us so much news because they believe it can not only offer truth, but it can yield valuable clues and lessons about how all of us should behave in the future? Do I tell them, "You're spoiling my party, so buzz off?"


Excuse me, but to work this out, I think I'm to have to revisit something I did at the beginning of this project. I have a sudden urge to re-read the story of Rip Van Winkle, concentrating especially on the ending.

I'll find how Rip lived the remainder of his life after awakening with the world around him changed. After that I'll check back in with you. - A.H.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Then I Woke Up...

...and I had pancakes.

After all, the big day had arrived on a Sunday, a day that's always crowded with activity. Getting ready for church, going to church, coming home and fixing our traditional Sunday brunch.

I decided I'd waited this long to learn the news. What did it matter if it took a few more hours?

I left the newspapers lying unretrieved out on the front lawn, put on my apron, and got busy.

One of my accomplishments during my newsless, entertainmentless, sportsless, weatherless year was to develop to maturity my Sunday brunch pancake and waffle recipe. This is of major signficance because for me these delicious hot griddled versions of bread are an occasion for absorbing satisfying quantities of 100% maple syrup.

What I discovered was that I could take a product that is fairly average in quality and, with the right embellishments, turn it into something that knocked my brunch guests (wife and son) out of their chairs. This saved time and it also proved that the potential for greatness can lurk in something as common as Aunt Jemima mix.

Fat makes all the difference, starting with the butter.

Supposedly the AJ mix contains its own rising ingredient and dehydrated eggs, but you have to "egg" this mix on in order to get it to do what it should, i.e., rise with an airy insouciance that clearly intimates that these light cakes are going to dance rambunctiously in your mouth before they dissolve on the tongue.

And the buttermilk! The instructions on the box say use water or milk, but you wouldn't believe the difference buttermilk makes in flavor and everything else. Remember what television was like before the HD version arrived a few years ago? Those were your old pancakes. Blurry, jittery, ghosting pancakes. Bring on the buttermilk and you have high definition taste. You can even see the difference in these thick, lucious golden beauties.

Yesterday I ate pancakes with great enjoyment and then I went and got the newspapers and brought them into the house.

With the maple syrup sweetness still soaking my molars, I sat down on the couch. As planned my wife and son made a 30-minute presentation (with visual aids) concerning the events of the last year. A photographer/writer from the local newspaper took pictures and took notes for a story that would run on Monday.

I asked questions. Then some more. Not that I'm finished. I'm still thinking of additional questions that must be asked.

- "How many people died in the Japan earthquake?"

- "Tell me the dimensions of this thing people are calling 'the Arab Spring.' What countries are we talking about besides the leaks I heard about Egypt and Libya?"

- "How long did it take the Navy SEALS to finish off Bin Laden?"

- "Okay, a film called The King's English won the best picture Oscar, but what else was nominated?"

- "I know Greenbay beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Was it a good game?"

- "Is anyone starting to think the US economy is like Humpty Dumpty? All the irresponsible mortgage bankers and derivatives brokers and bond rating agencies and Fed chiefs let him slip off the wall and no one can put him together again?"

- "Is anyone saying that with this summer's record heat we could enter another Dust Bowl era?"

And the questions go on and on at the same time I'm trying to digest, along with my comforting pancakes, all the things my family told me--plus what was in yesterday's newspapers.

Will anyone feel insulted if I say that it felt like a LOT of bad news to imbibe in such a short time? That's why I need to take a day or two to decompress. I'll continue going through my newspapers, magazines, and ohter sources. Then I'll be back. - A.H. (formerly V.W.)


Saturday, September 10, 2011

And Only Hours to Go (Before I Awake)

Honestly, it used to feel like the day was never going to arrive. Then at about the six or eight-month mark the days began to pass more quickly. So quickly that I haven't really given much thought to what it will be like to return to the opportunity to resume what I used to take for granted.

Knowing lots of stuff about what's going on everywhere.

I've thought of an analogy, though.

Back at Christmas we were at my father's house. We always stay in the upstairs bedroom where there are some old family furniture pieces. A trunk that belonged to my great grandfather. A chest of drawers that were used by my grandparents.

And our old family Magnavox console hi-fi in a cherry wood cabinet purchased by my father in Denver, Colorado, in 1958. He wanted his three sons to be exposed to history, art and culture in the form of 12" long playing records.

Typically I pay little attention these days to the hi-fi with its gold laced grill front, even though it once meant much to me. I used to lift the lid and stack up to 6 records on the turntable spindle (I can still smell that distinct black vinyl odor). Magic followed in the form of swelling, passionate classical music by the world's greatest composers as it vibrated through the living room for hours.

Crank up the Rite Of Spring past the middle setting on the rotary dial and a little kid could shake the walls...

Decades later the hi-fi has become a level surface during family visits where I empty my pockets of change, receipts, and keys. But at Christmas I had a new idea.

Let's lift the lid. Poke around.

What if I turn on the power switch?

Amazing! After 60 years the tubes are glowing... There are no records to play, but I spin the dial until I hear distant voices, that's all, because most of the A.M. radio band is obscured by static.

That's when I start to imagine that tomorrow morning, Sept. 11, 2011, I'm going to be a bit like that old hi-fi. My tubes will glow warmly and I'll remember that I can still pull in a signal and make the outside world come into my house.

News, entertainment, sports, and weather. I'll spin my mental dial, listening to my wife and son as they de-brief me, fingering the old newspapers and news magazines stored out in the garage. During that time of reengagement what is already past tense to everyone else will become my temporary present.

I'll turn on the TV again, too. Even though we don't have a cable or satellite feed, there should be plenty to glean. I've ordered a new amplified antenna in lieu of the inadequate rabbit ears I've used in the past. I'll be able to pick up a few missing on-air channels. The Sunday NFL games will come back to me!

How long will it take for me to get caught up? And what will be my reaction to what I missed? Have I learned any lessons, made any discoveries in the midst of mass media deprivation?

I'll be working out the answers to these questions. That's what the rest of this project and my posts from here on out will be about.

And one more thing. I'm going to stop signing off as V.W.

Awakened to the whole range of life with all its charms and disappointments, human heroism and fleshly frailties, accomplishments and tragedies, I intend to once again put on my true identity. But for now, and those remaining hours, minutes, seconds until the counter turns over to 0-0-0, I remain as ever, your faithful dozing servant. - V.W.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hello, Sexy Friends

Today as the time of my "awakening" draws nigh, I am going around and paying silent, admiring attention to some well known friends from my former life as a news and culture junkie. I want to reassure them.

"Hey, it's me. I'm about to return."

I begin by going out to the garage where I have stored a year's worth of the local newspaper and the Sunday New York Times.Many months ago I took a picture and posted it with a yard stick alongside to show how my newspaper stalagmites were growing. The papers have now gone well beyond 36" in height.

One year's worth of daily local newpapers on the left.
52 issues of Sunday NY Times on the right.
 I stare at the picture posted here and I feel a bit like someone who is looking at an old photo of his "ex." Hmm. We once had a beautiful relationship. She was so sexy! All those pages we turned together. All that ink that smeared on my fingers...

Then something happened. We separated. But what if? The "what if" being our getting back together. Can it be like before?

One of those imponderables I suspose. You'll never know until you hold out your arms, say, "Come to me!" and give it another try...

While I am in the garage I open up the car and loft a special greeting to the in-dash radio. "Hello. I'll be turning you on soon!"

The radio is silent, but not for much longer.

For 365 days all that has come out of my car's speakers has been music from pre-Sept. 2010 CDs. I didn't dare tune in an FM or AM station for fear that someone might play new music or break in with (gulp) the news. Of course, NPR, my normal drive to work drug, was absolutely verboten.

"Michele Norris, Susan Stamberg, Robert Siegel, Ari Shapiro!" I call out. "Oh, how your alternatingly bemused and concerned voices once made sweet love to my ears!"

Lastly, I have to go into the den and stand respectfully before the silent TV. Over the past 12 months I've only fired it up when watching a DVD of a movie (again, pre-Sept. 2010 vintage) or in order to watch Seinfeld re-runs on the indie channel.

I've watched it very little in the last year, and, yes, that is dust, definitely dust...

I take in the sight of my Television Lover in her stripped down, barest form. I do so for longer than is healthy for a normal adult male. A 42" empty, unenlightened HD screen. It's true what they say. The sexiest color is black, all black. And the sexiest pose a TV deprived person can imagine? One finger on the remote.

Time Served
My project has lasted long enough that there's a certain unreality about what used to be the norm in my life. It's difficult to imagine that once this Sunday rolls around I'll be free to do as I please with newspapers, magazines, television and radio, not to mention how it will be "surf's up!" time on the Web as the many sites I've carefully avoided for so long are once again open to me.

I guess this must be a little bit how a prisoner feels as his release date approaches. He's planning for it, filling up a bag with his few personal effects, figuring out where he'll have his initial meal on the outside, who he'll want to visit in person first. At the same time it's got to be as frightening to contemplate as it is exhilarating.

Can I survive my reencounter with all that's already happened in the news, sports, entertainment and weather?

And assuming I'm able to catch up to the point that I acquire some more than passing familiarity with what events and changes took place during the past year, can I then get back into the harness and joyfully become a consumer of what's happening on a daily basis the way I did before?

I must testify that it was quiet and peaceful in the Van Winkle slammer. On the other hand, it was a prison or, if not that, a very sensory deprived coma-like state. I don't want to go back, which is not the same thing as saying that I'm dieing to go forward...

Truthfully, I'm feeling anxious about returning to the normal world. What's it going to be like? I have no idea. - V.W.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Not My 9/11

I found the magazine in the library in the English Department last week.

Right away a glimpse at its slightly fatigued cover told me it wasn't new, but vintage like many of the books and journals our profs have squirreled away on the oak shelves to free up some much-needed space in their cluttered offices.

But in my instant glance I knew more. This copy of People was almost 10 years old. It has been that long.

On the Nature of the Media
Often people who ask me about The Van Winkle Project are curious as to why it began on Sept. 11th last year and will end that way in just a matter of days.

I point out that when I conceived of the project in late August 2010 a September 11th date seem like an made-to-order marker date. With a date like that, I'd be able to easily remember when I gave up the news, entertainment, sports, and weather and look ahead to the exact month and day when I would again be free to access them.

But there was another reason.

It occurred to me that Sept. 11, 2011 would be different this time around. Even typing it is different:


With the tenth anniversary of the "worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history" in store for all of us, I anticipated that the media would "play" and "re-play" that terrible day (and its aftermath) as if it were the re-release of the blockbuster movie of a season past.

Image by V.W.

Count me out.

No, it's not that I fear that we have such bad taste that 9/11 Firefighter Hero toys will be given out at McDonalds or images of the blazing Twin Towers will be put on T-shirts.

What I do expect is a series of talking heads appearing on TV and the Web, all of them all of them ever-so-sincerely feeding us a combination of nostalgia, reliving the grief,  "making sense of it all," and pondering the unanswerable question: "How have we changed in the ten years since?"

Old news will become new news for as long as it's convenient and people can be induced to pay attention.

And what could be more of an emotional draw? 9/11. Have two numbers ever had more poignancy when pronounced?

I'm guessing the 9/11 revival has already begun. Perhaps weeks ago. I don't know. Van Winkle, as planned, has set me free of it.

On the Nature of Memory
For anyone who does want to remember 9/11 in his or her own way for however long suits them, you mustn't think I disapprove. I speak only for myself.

It's not that I'm of the mindset that "it was a long time ago and I've moved on."

Neither am I keen on the idea that "I and my country changed forever on that day." Historians far down the line will have to decide that.

And I do believe there are memories worth keeping about that time as long as I don't fondle or make a fetish out of them.

Going for a morning run, coming around the corner to my street, in a cool-down, walking mode, and seeing my wife on the front lawn waving at me to hurry into the house. Our son is three years old. I start running again! Something might have happened to him. I just run! And find the TV on (why? we never turn the TV on until the evening). It's showing a fixed view of the North Tower burning from the first airplane strike.

Over the next few days, I watch more TV than at any time in my life.

 I open my mailbox one day during the anthrax scare and I see a package with a return address I don't recognize. A feeling of creepiness and icy dread comes over me. Inside the house I stand at arm's length as I open the packet. A rational voice tells me that no one is going to pick me out from the entire population of the planet to poison or blow up in a fiery explosion, but at a deep animal level I've never known before I am spooked. Then I have the package open and with relief hear myself say, "Oh that! From that person! Why didn't I guess?"

 I put a flag decal on the back window of my car. I've never been the patriotic sort, but it feels like it is a way of saying something in the only available channel I have: "We're not bad people. This shouldn't have happened to us" and "We're going to bury our dead, praise them, and rebuild what's been destroyed, and do it together."

 I move through an airport, almost completely empty except for National Guardsmen who stand apologetically with their M16-A2 rifles. Everyone seems so nice and speaks soothingly to one another. The message: "Sorry about this, but we're getting through this together."

Those are my memories. All of them are passing away.

Ten years later the flags have become much less numerous, even here where I live, which happens to be the most flag-waving of small cities with its military base and its proud remnant of silver-haired World War II veterans.

Along with the vanishing flags, the images of the burning Towers and a blackened Pentagon wall have dimmed. Like old photographs bleached by sunlight.

Long ago they made the movie about the heroes of United Flight 93 who really were heroes in the original sense of the word because they put their lives on the line to try to stop something. That film opened in theaters, got reviewed, was released on DVD, and then I watched other movies.

As far as I can tell, 9/11 was a season. Seasons end. What followed were two wars. And then came another kind of war engendered by an economic collapse that was like a bomb falling on millions of people around the world.

Those wars have not been seasons. They are more like eras. My memories of 9/11 are crushed beneath everything thing that has happened since.

On the Nature of a Legacy
All this is to say that the extent of my 9/11 memories has just taken place out here in the open in the naked space of a blog post.

When I awake up literally on the morning of September 11, 2011 as well as metaphorically (The Van Winkle Project ends) I will turn to other considerations.

What has happened to the world and America over the past 365 days?

Still, my thoughts and analysis can't help but be informed by 9/11. I did glimpse something there of worth. It's become a standard by which I'm perhaps tempted to measure people by. Because I now know what we're capable of.

9/11 was a reminder that humans can be together. During those gray days I found out that violence, which is a great uniter of peoples, doesn't have to be part of the equation.

It is possible to subtract out the "hate" and achieve "one" by joining together in the sum of our "love," "compassion," "caring," and "bearing of sorrows" and a desire to restore. I was witness to how for a brief interlude we had:
  • Gracious and freely given kindness toward strangers
  • Prayer stripped to its Book of Job essentials: Help Us Whoever You Are because I don't understand what's happening and can't get through this alone or bear such pain!
  • A quieting of the usual non-stop commercial voices that call us from our highest purposes and beg us to be small, craven, self-interested, isolated individuals day after day
If there were disasters and loss of life in the last year, as I assume there must have been, did people somewhere find strength in the behaviors listed above?

And I wonder will we ever as a species turn this direction without it requiring a great calamity that drives us to our knees? Because that seems too hard and costly of a means to get there, much too hard. To find love and our better selves and to learn what really matters only by walking on the smouldering bones of our dead? This is an appalling vision. Surely there is another way? - V.W.


Friday, September 2, 2011

The Author's Hand - Part II (Flamboyant!)

In our last post we looked at some books signed by authors whose personal inscription is rather pedestrian, even (yawn) ho-hum compared to the extraordinary quality of their literary output.

Perhaps it comes from having signed too many books. Maybe it's a general boredom setting in when it comes to the mundane task of scribbling out one's name for some fan who smells slightly of garlic and has an inordinate fascination with a certain novel's character. Or it could be the writers are too humble to linger too long over their own names...

Whatever the case, I've discovered there's one group of writers who do rise to the occasion. The copies of their books that are in my library feature premeditated strokes of ink. Truly each has embraced their status as a man or woman of letters!

11 Authors Who Sign With Elan

Our first three writers take up and wield masterfully...Sharpies and markers. And I'm not joking.

Ken Kesey: Long ago the late Ken Kesey was the leader of a band of proto-hippies who called themselves "the Merry Pranksters." They went around the country in a technicolor bus, making home movies, and turning people on to a newly available (and at the time still legal) drug called LSD. Journalist Tom Wolfe has chronicled this story in his The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.

Given this background, I'm not surprised that in his later years the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (as well as my personal candidate for Great American Novel, Sometimes a Great Notion), had an eccentric way of signing his books--with gold or silver colored markers as in the case of my copy of Sailor Song. It's not terribly readable but it's all Kesey.

Mary Karr: In the 1990's it was the Liar's Club by Mary Karr that helped jump start the public's fascination with memoirs by ordinary people. These were people like Mary who grew up in not so savory circumstances, but managed to overcome. Ms. Karr is still writing memoirs. A student of mine caught her book signing for Lit (about her alcohol drenched years and more) and asked her to sign a book for me.

I've heard Ms. Karr speak, too. She's a stylish middle-age woman who at the time favored pencil skirts and lots of leg on display.  She was brassy and no-nonsense like her books, a Texan who went to New York City and then, biggest plot twist of all, found Jesus and joined the Catholic Church.

I love this cover for Donald Barthelme's twisted
take on the familiar fairy tale.

Donald Barthelme: Here's an author whose works remain the equivalent of a foreign film. Those who know Barthelme's stories still rave about him. These are post-modern tales that are singular and original and overtly weird. Like Mary Karr, Barthelme was another Texan who fled his home state to hang out with the artists in New York City. There's a method to Barthelme's madness. His stories give us people who speak mechanistically, almost randomly, and move in response to consumer messages or products. It was D.B.'s way of sinking his teeth into the soulless aspects of lives adrift in a world ruled by TV screens and media messages. Black humor abounds. I think the implication is either wake up before it's too late or learn to laugh because in a push-button world it's not going to get any better.

Lastly, there are writers who exude tons of personality when they sign with a ballpoint, roller ball, or classic fountain pen. They're  fond of a well placed loop or curve or backward stroke, yielding stylish results. Or maybe, like Annie Dillard, they're so anti-style that it becomes a style of its own...

Annie Dillard: One of the highlights of my literary memories involves meeting Annie Dillard at a signing in Michigan. She was funny, effusive, friendly and said she had a headache. I couldn't tell, though, that she was feeling any pain as she chatted with everyone in sight. An effervescent woman! She looked at my wife's copy of Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek and noted all the sticky notes placed on practically every page. She said to me, "This looks just like books I use when I'm researching. I find myself highlighting everything! And then it's almost pointless. The whole book becomes yellow!"

Dillard's signature is quick, like her rise to the top. Pilgrim, which is a modern-day Walden that intertwines science and theology using the voice of poetry, won the author a Pulitzer Prize when she was just 29 years old.

Really? Does this signature say "Annie Dillard"
or "A . d . d"?

John Irving: I was living on my own in an apartment by the beach in Long Beach, California. I bought the Sunday L.A. Times and read a review full of lavish praise for a new novel. It was called The World According to Garp. I bought the book.

A few years after that my own novel would be published and by then Mr. Irving would have appeared on the cover of Time magazine and won numerous awards. Some of the award money, that which came with his American Book Award for the paperback edition of Garp, he donated to his publisher earmarked for "the next best first novelist you publish." My publisher chose me and my novel went out into the world bearing a gold seal: John Irving First Novel Award.

When I wrote Mr. Irving a note of thanks, he responded with a typed postcard (a la John Updike). He encouraged me and told me that, among other things, he sold hot dogs at football games when he had a family and was scrimping by, hoping someday his writing would make some money. His persistence paid off. He's still writing and writing and writing...

I can't explain why ("John" almost looks like "Tom") but
I LOVE this signature...

The writer in front of his typewriter,
working on...a crossword puzzle!

Kurt Vonnegut: I would have been thrilled to meet Kurt Vonnegut. Because he was an idealist who loved life and people so much, he was very hard on our stupidities and I'm, frankly, on board with that.

Vonnegut shares an outlook and a sense of humor similar to Mark Twain's, but he's arguably even more imaginative in his satire as he habitually tells stories set in the near future. In Slaughterhouse Five, his masterpiece, he manages write about the historical past, the present, and a science fiction future.

I started to read Vonnegut in high school, starting with Cat's Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House. Decades later I'm happy to say I'm still catching up to all the novels he wrote. When I finally get to the end, I'll start over and re-read them.

Five years before he left us the signature looks
as if it says "Kit Kat," but still it's HIM...


Li-Young Lee: Here's a poet who writes not according to rules but by obeying his instincts, wit and heart. In the face of what he considers to be a reality filled with wonder, Li-Young Lee delivers pure emotion and a dose of mysticism. He's also the most incredible reader I've ever heard. I listened as he kept 400 hundred freshmen on the edge of their seats for 60 minutes. This is unheard of...on par with splitting the atom. [See-listen]

Lee's free form signature is particularly apt for the memoir he signed for me, The Winged Seed. The book was born when he challenged himself to write about his life's story in one sitting, eschewing sleep, until he reached the last round dot of terminal punctuation. It took him 36 hours of non-stop writing, The result is a species of rushing prose that sounds, no surprise, like poetry.

Galway Kinnell: Here's another poet whom I had the honor of escorting when he visited our campus a few years ago. This leads me to take back something I just said. Galway Kinnell's readings are every bit as entrancing as Li-Young Lee's. As someone said to me, "Galway could read the phone book and make it move you." [See-listen] The man is like his poetry and his signature: elegant and understated, the hair now white but still thick with a shock of it that falls boyishly upon his forehead. Galway is perhaps the greatest poet left to us from the World War II generation.

Perhaps the world's most dapper writer...
Tom Wolfe: The most commonly remarked upon facet of Tom Wolfe's storied career (to his chagrin) is that he always wears white suits. He's a dapper man, but a remarkable prose stylist as well. It was said that he "invented" what came to be called the "New Journalism," a type of writing that was the opposite of the "beige prose" of a reporter trying to be strictly objective and keep his/her voice out of the article.

Journalism wasn't enough for Wolfe. Long a critic of late 20th Century American novelists whom he saw as self-absorbed and lacking in social commentary, he decided late-career to show them how it ought to be done. Starting with The Bonfire of the Vanities, there has beeen a succession of door-stop size novels on whatever topic Wolfe thinks needs illuminating. And can the man sign a book? Oh, yes, he can sign like he's the guy wearing the WHITE SUIT!

Jonathan Franzen: The youngest writer here (although he's not that young), Mr. Franzen has IMO the most unique signature. One suspects that he practiced it for years as a child while watching Star Trek episodes.

I've read a lot by Mr. Franzen, including The Corrections, Freedom, and his nonfiction. He's a careful, insightful writer who seems to actually like his characters. Time put him on their cover last year (shades of John Irving) with the headline, "Great American Novelist". I'm not sure Mr. Franzen is there yet, but as Hemingway's Jake Barnes said to Lady Brett at the end of The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Try copying this signature. How's he do it?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: I lost a friend and colleague this year to cancer. Recently, her books were removed from her office and made available for whoever wanted them. I overcame my sense of being a vulture, knowing full well this is what Vickie would have wanted. She would not let a good book go to waste! Take it and teach with it!

It seems appropriate to end this post with the thick book of poems I found in her hoard. It's by modern Russia's most popular poet. He actually came to mesquite tree land in 1992 and signed this book for Vickie. From Russia With Love...