Monday, June 27, 2011

Cold Fried Chicken: Short Screenplays and My Rocket House Days

The Preface

I spend a great deal of time talking to my buddy Bill. Bill and I discuss books and movies and the theater over beers at the dirtbag bar near the fancy restaurant where we both work. Unfortunately, our work schedules differ; Bill works the back of the house and I work in the front. Needless to say, I'm grateful for the few shifts a week (or a month) when we get out at the same time and walk down the street to the dark bar reserved for the likes of us, restaurant workers.
Bill and I are by no means the only service industry workers at the bar. Rather, there are several and everyone comes from all of the nearby restaurants. The cacophony of conversations range from poorly behaved customers to outdoor adventures and music festivals. Yet for Bill and me, the conversation is one of us asking the other about his impression of a book, movie or play.
You see, Bill is a theater guy. He's passionate about the theater. I suppose it's only fitting that he works a kitchen. An actor/director as a cook/kitchen manager? I learn something from Bill during each conversation. I hope that he learns something from me too. Of course, I am a writer/waiter which is only a difference of one letter. Like Bill, I don't let the job for pay get me down, instead, I do it to afford time for what I find important.
So, that's all the real background you might need for the impetus of this story: Bill and I drink beer after work and talk books, movies and plays.
The day after one of the above dark bar excursions, Bill handed me a stack of books and movies. Among them: Writing Your First Play by Roger A. Hall, a textbook Bill used in college. He had raved about the book at some point, and I was curious about it too. I thanked Bill for the treasure.
That night, after work, and being burdened with a half dozen of Bill's books, and a few of my own, I began the march up the hill toward home.
I passed by The Roxy which is an all night eatery. Just the smell of old cooking grease, burnt butter and fried potatoes was enough to make my decision for me. In old cartoon fashion, the smell came wafting out of the open door and lured me in with my feet six inches off the floor.
Sitting at the counter, I ordered “The Letterman,” a nice plate with two eggs, homefries, and fried ham complete with toast. Once the server walked away, I decided to read away the minutes until breakfast.
I quickly moved through Writing Your First Play. I was instantly impressed with it. I could see why Bill liked it. The book has humor, good structure, sound advice and meaningful exercises. Although I have no interest in writing a play, I have written a number of screenplays and I have taught writing workshops. This book was a real treat to read.
Breakfast came.
I was daydreaming when I dug into the eggs.
Nice hat,” she said.
I looked up from the plate of greasy breakfast to see a glassy-eyed patron standing at the counter near me. “Thanks,” I said.
Where'd you get it?” she asked.
Salt Lake City,” I said.
What were you doing there?” she asked.
I could have told her, my family lives there, but then I have to explain too much and strangers aren't worth it. And whatever would happen with this stranger was not going to be my fault; I didn't make eye contact. “It doesn't matter.”
You're right,” she said. “It is a cool hat.”
Thanks,” I said. I hoovered down over my breakfast. Late night diners at late night, I really should have known better.
What are you reading?” she asked.
As I looked up, she had moved over a few stools and although she was close enough to me, she was kind enough to leave a stool between us. “Oh, this: Writing Your First Play,” I said.
Her eyes rolled across the cover. Then, oddly enough, my glassy-eyed diner-counter neighbor began to discuss theater. She quickly moved to David Mamet, then to the film version of American Buffalo.
Now that we were on the subject of film I began to enjoy the conversation, after all, I have seen more movies than plays.
At length, her food came, all boxed and bagged, to go.
Come over and watch a movie with me,” she said.
I can't,” I said. And it was no lie, there were at least fifty reasons why.
Come on, just a movie,” she said. “I'm staying in the hotel, room 308.”
I can't,” I said.
Yeah, well, goodbye,” she said. She said it in such a snarky way to add one more reason to the fifty.
Once she left the diner, the place became quiet and peaceful again, late night and hushed. Over my breakfast I shook my head, hat and all, and looked back at Writing Your first Play. Who writes such books? I wondered. Then I wondered if I could write such a book. The last diner thought, of course, what movie did the glassy-eyed girl really expect to see?

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Summer 2011 Reading List

So this is how it happens: someone in a partnership needs to do the driving. Someone needs to make the decisions. Someone must, as it happens, make things happen. There are, at moments in life when living through your days grifting and drifting, that you must trust your accomplice implicitly and completely. My accomplice, worth mentioning here, is someone I trust completely. She does the driving. I mean that she does the driving in life only because when we're in the car, I am always at the wheel. It's all a give and take.
So, in life, she is the one in charge. For instance, I was talking to my buddy Mike the other day and he asked about my living situation. “I live with Janice,” I said. He asked about the rent. “Well, I give Janice $700 a month and she takes care of everything.” Later, he asked about cellphone plans. “What's your plan like?” he asked. Again, I said, “I give Janice $700 a month and she takes care of everything.” “You're a lucky man,” he said. And yes, yes I am a lucky man.

We're set up in life, my accomplice and I. We got jobs. We drive a car (only occasionally) and we live in a beautiful apartment building in the southwest neighborhood just off downtown Portland. We live in luxury by 1951 standards and now, sixty years later, we still live in luxury. Just to the east of us is downtown Portland where we both go everyday and prospect for gold. Just to the west of us, and I mean only one block west, is the beautiful Washington Park complete with the world famous Rose and Japanese Gardens. To the north and seen outside of our sixth floor window is the Knob Hill neighborhood which is my favorite place on Earth. The shipping yards on the Willamette River are in the distance and Washington state just beyond that. We make fun of Sarah Palin daily with the view. Sarah Palin may well see Russia from her house, but we see Washington. I doubt either the Russians or the Washingtonians are up to no good these days, but from the comfort of our living room I can keep an eye to the goings on of the latter.

What does this have to do with Janice doing the driving? And furthermore, what does this have to do with the summer reading list?

First off, we live where we do because Janice picked it out. She did a good job. The place is beautiful.

Second, the reading list? Well, it has to do with where we live. Our building, The Vista St. Clair, was built in 1951. The same people have been been taking care of it since. It's very well maintained. Stepping into the lobby you really so feel like you just stepped into the mid-century. It's posh and it's classy and most importantly, it's clean.

As I chose my reading list, I chose mid-century novels. I figured I'd start with 1925 and end in 1975 since those fifty years really do classify as mid-century. The Painted Veil begins the set in 1925 and Looking for Mr. Goodbar reigns us in at 1975.

When Janice asked me how I choose my reading lists I said “at random.” This has been the case until now. “Mid-century books,” I said. “Yeah, but why these?” she asked.

Good question.

I chose these by looking at the best seller lists for the years in study. I chose books that I knew were important for their time. I also chose books I know are readily available at my local library, and that's that.  And here it is:
The Painted Veil—W Somerset Maugham
Lost Horizon—James Hilton
A Tree Grow in Brooklyn—Betty Smith
Lolita—Vladimir Nabokov
Lady Chatterly's Lover—D.H. Lawrence
Valley of the Dolls—Jacqueline Susann
Looking for Mr. Goodbar—Judith Rossier

Who cares how or why, right? Pick some novels, make a study of it and enjoy; that's all a reading list needs to be. For me, well, we'll see how it works out.

As always, good luck and happy reading.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Spring Reading List Wrap-up

As spring winds down and fades into summer, I wonder how long the rains of Portland will last. Yes, if April showers bring May flowers, what will the rains of June, July and August bring? And really, what does it matter? When Janice and I moved here in November, we had no idea what the springtime would bring. We had no idea of the details brought on by time. But I feel inclined to recap the events of spring.
We got jobs. Jobs. Oddly enough, we both went right back to the work in the very (respective) industries we were both so desperate to get out of in Denver.

We moved. As I told you last week.

We're getting into a new life that seems strikingly the same as the old life. The view out the window has changed.

But the spring reading is something altogether different. My spring reading list involved the pre-move days, my working days and the Blue Max line commute. In fact, a busy schedule during the spring took its toll on my reading time. I found I could read on the train and I did so for weeks. I only stopped reading on the train when I found I could write well enough and make the time go by quicker.

I've said this before and I still have to ask: why aren't more people reading on public transportation? With Poetry in Motion, I still find public transportation to be a very literary place to be. There certainly are people reading, but something tells me that those people would be reading anyway. Perhaps those people, like me, have very busy schedules and reading on the train is the only true free time for reading.

The spring reading list:

Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

The Glass Door – Dashiel Hammett

Howard's End – E.M. Forster

50 Great Short Stories

What I read:

In the Cut – Susanna Moore

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

The Reader – Bernhard Schlink

Factotum – Charles Bukowski

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson

Gentlemen of the Road—Micheal Charbon

Looking at this list now, I feel almost embarrassed by how few books are there. I don't know why, I just feel like I could have read more. I didn't as usual read as many of the books as I had listed, but that seems to be pretty common with my life as a reader. But, that's life, that's always life, there will always be change, things to do and time will always be at a premium.

First, we lived in Wood Village up until mid May. I began working downtown in March. At least I was able to read during the two hours on the train daily. Needless to say, I did do some of my reading on the train.

On my list: Aimee Bender's book was a treat. Her work is, and has always been a treat to read. I think about Aimee more often when I walk by the nail shop on NW 23rd Avenue in Portland's Knob Hill neighborhood. What does Aimee Bender and the nail shop have in common? The nail shop was once Books on 23rd, and back in 2000 when she was promoting An Invisible Sign of My Own, I met her there. So, I like Aimee Bender's work. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was a wonderful treat to read. I feel, in a way, like I grew up with Aimee, me as a reader and her as a writer. Lemon Cake was not outside of her former work, the narration was still solid, the point of view still first person and somewhat detached, and a little alienated. The flow of this book, if this means anything, was so much stronger than her former novel, and so much richer than her short stories. Her books are well worth the of characters' histories.

Our Man in Havana? Graham Greene. Catholic. Juxtaposition of culture: Cuban, American and British. It had a fun espionage twist. Cultural juxtaposition books: That Sheltering Sky and The Stranger.

Gentlemen of the Road? Micheal Charbon. Fun. Funny. Epic. Old worldly adventure type. Originally written in magazine serial form.

The Reader: confessional. Great themes of crime, punishment, ethics, emotional connection and emotional detachment. If grouped with other holocaust/WWII books imagine it pared with The Accident or The Monkey Wrench Gang.  Talk about a well rounded view of similar happenings from different perspectives. I still hold fast to the belief that fiction is closer to real life than anything else. It does speak to us of the events and what a person (character) may be inclined to do. I found The Reader to be an easy read and a very compelling story told by a tragic if not damned narrator.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Best fucking book ever written. Funny, satirical, pertinent, wise. If lumped with other “drug culture” books like The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley or even Burrough's Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has won out. Thompson pokes fun at the drug culture as well as the mainstream. He hates Nixon, excesses and racism. But the historical context is beautiful. The haunting comparison between San Francisco in the middle 1960s and Las Vegas in 1971 makes the work itself worth reading. That, and it's funny. Thompson, himself, considered Fear and Loathing a failure. I don't agree. It didn't invoke in me a desire to soak carpets with ether, but it did make me question my ability as a writer and as a thinker.

Last, Factotum. Reading Bukowski is like watching a dog kill a pigeon. For as brutal and gross as it is, I think I'll read more of his work before I claim anything more.

That about wraps it up. I'll admit that I chose thee books almost at random. They were fun to read. I never forgot why I was reading them either, to grow as a reader and as a writer. I hope you can wrap up your spring reading list with the same feelings.

Monday, June 6, 2011


The frogs, in chorus, croak and call and sing all night long. There is a certain level of peace to it, this is true. When I hear them, I think of Mack and the boys from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row capturing hundreds of the cacophonous amphibians in old gunny sacks. It's a nice reminder, every night that nature abounds around us. Janice, my accomplice in this caper called life, loves the frogs too.

She's from the desert, and the frog song to her is something of the exotic. She's a fanatic when it comes to these woods on the farthest reaches of the Portland Metro area. Frogs make her giddy, the sea gull's call make her giggle. The wildlife being attractive to her, I get it, I know, it is strange compared to what we knew in Denver. Her fascination with garden slugs is weird. It's a strange sight, actually, to see a grown woman watch and examine with joy on her face the small slimy meanderings of these shell-less snails. It's life in the green-green rain soaked woods. It's been a time, for sure. It's been like living a dream, if you can believe it. I had been threatening for years to run away to the woods of the Pacific Northwest to write a novel. Why? I guess with the hub-bub of urban life that a sojourn to the woods would equal a novel.

As far as my creative work, Wood Village, Oregon was kind to me. Numerous short stories, and two novels. Not bad, right?

But living in the woods had some drawbacks too. Meth users, trashy people, lack of culture and the inconvenience of stripmall commodities that have become homogenized and close early are the notable drawbacks. Then, four months into our stay in Wood Village, we both got jobs in downtown Portland. The commute downtown meant a 20 minute walk to the #12 bus. It meant a five minute bus ride to the Max station on that #12 bus. It meant a 45-50 minute commute on the blue line train. People do it all the time, these horrible commutes. Janice and I have always been urban dwellers so the whole commute thing has been a very strange thing and one I'll never get used to doing. As urban dwellers, our commute has generally meant a walk of 30 minutes or less. The advantage of walking, of course, is the incidental booze on the way. But moving from downtown to the suburbs was just too difficult to get used to.

The story is not so interesting. My place at 2831 Monroe Street sold just over two years ago, May 2009. Janice sold her place at 1313 Steele Street last year, June. When we moved into a downtown Denver apartment in the summer of 2010, we had no idea what would become of us. The infestation of German cockroaches hastened our departure from Denver and from our old lives. Once we left that apartment, we moved in with fellow UFM worker, Jana Bloomquist on the edge of Denver's western suburbs. The 'burbs. Admittedly, I enjoyed Jana's place for the month we were there. Then we moved to Wood Village, Oregon. This was a funny feeling of alienation for me. I like to talk about books and writing. The suburban neighbors were of no appeal. Did my mental well-being suffer? Maybe. Did my writing? No, not really. After all, I completed four manuscripts in the seven months of suburban exile.

Where does it all leave me now that we're back in the city? Good question. We're home, my accomplice and I. I don't know how long it will last, a year for the minimum, I suppose. I know that now it's time to develop a new schedule and a new life. Great prospect, I suppose.

Occasionally, when I talk to other writers and people who want to write, I always say that one must be in a space to write. Yes, this is true. Writing, the very act of it is generally very solitary. Most of the space I mean is in the mind and the mindset. Getting yourself up to be a writer is no easy task. It's a question of how to develop the habit and set aside the time. Now, coming back to an urban neighborhood and one that I love and have always loved a great deal, the physical space means something too. The physical space, I now feel means more than ever. After all, I love the view out the windows of our new place. When looking up from the notebook or the computer screen, I see a very different world, a world of layers and activity, industry and ennui. A world of possibility.

The interlude?

Doubtful. Yet, in the process of change and settling in, my work stays the same, but my ability has become enhanced by a simple change of surroundings.

I'm grateful for the space and the time and the possibilities. Forging ahead, it's time to do good work. I hope all of you have these things. In this interlude from topics, it's time to relax, learn and settle in.

As always, good luck and happy writing.