Square One Writer’s Block

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

Okay, I need a new direction. Writing the blog post on Cockroaches took three days and was absorbing. I had to go back through it on my iPad reminding myself of names and sorting out the red herrings from the real resolution. I neglected to say in my review that the plot was not memorable.

The difficulty arrives from the fact that I’m more or less stuck here in a mountain village in Kern County, California far from Toronto, as a result of a family illness. There are days when I am superfluous to need, but then again, a relapse occurs and I’m fully involved. I don’t even have time to think. Other days like this one, I am at loose ends despite bear incursions.

Because I’m a big reader of mysteries, several people have suggested that I write a mystery. I thought about it.

Okay… I’d need a crime, a locale and a detective. I could set it here in this mountain village. Wait Mar Preston has already done in Payback, although I didn’t recognize the happy, friendly village I know in the misanthropic town she depicted. Besides hers had a town hall, whereas the real place has only one centre of administration, the club house. This village is unincorporated. In other words even its roads are private property and privately maintained. The streets are patrolled by security guards, although the sheriff rides in for serious matters. So I suppose I could write a truer picture of our remote mountain valley.

Then I’d need a crime. Darn. Something bad would have to happen. Something seriously bad. What stops me there is my own personal experience. My father had a way of being on the edge of seriously bad stuff. After his death, three different police forces spent $1,000,000 trying to figure out exactly what. I can only say it was not worth every penny. Even if he did look exactly like the police drawing. (See home page for ebook.)

Most of all, I don’t have a scientific background except for Biology 101 which taught me how to dissect a pig embryo. I suppose I could make it all up from my extensive reading and my watching of CSI, but I am loath to do so. It’s possible that television writers take liberties with fact. And I have no experience of group work in policing.

I could write about group life in a high school prep room. Pretty cut-throat especially before smoking was outlawed.

Actually I could depict two older women, who have no investigative qualifications except curiosity. And mystery reading. One of them, the elder, would be irrepressibly garrulous, a little deaf and charmingly dotty who could worm information out of a stone wall. The other an ex-English teacher, more reticent, but with a mind like a steel trap. I suppose Clara would want a slice of the royalties. Anyway, that sounds too fey and Agatha Christie has already captured the market.

I’m reminded of the conversation between the writer and the doctor at a party. Doctor: When I retire, I’m going to write a novel. Writer: And when I retire, I’m going to take up medicine.

So, no, I think not.

I could find another indecipherable novel like The Luminaries, study it carefully and blog about it. The Luminaries post draws about 150 hits a week, once 164 in one day. Any suggestions?

I have embarked on the project of following The Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon on Starz and reading the books, but those stories are pretty decipherable. They are historical romances, no matter what the author says.

I could start writing a memoir about this illness, but the patient will write her own as and when.

For the time being, I sit here on another sunny warm day on the edge of the pine wood, writing a blog about my inability to get a good idea. I swear I’ve marked a hundred “personal” essays from students just like this.

Help!

 

 

 

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Winter Blues

“Pile Driver Blues” was an a cappella opus, I made up one weekend when I found myself trapped in a San Fransisco airport hotel during construction. I sang it to a two year-old as I pushed him in a stroller around the concrete. Next door was the infernal, 12 hour a day, ground-shaking pile driver. It was not my last encounter with the blues. January seems to breed them.

Does it pay to examine their origin closely? Holiday hangover? Weather fallout? Economic downturn? Legitimate grief? Fatigue? All of the above? Information is always useful, I suppose, and may provide perspective.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the treatise on ancient Chinese medicine, sees it as a good and necessary way to slow us down in winter so that we get enough rest to consolidate our strength.

Early this morning, my sister Georgia, alerted to my winter blues, phoned to prescribe Northrop Frye’s Double Vision Chpt. 3. I was taken aback, to say the least. I was on my way to a tai chi class, however, so I tabled the suggestion.

Two hours later, I was back home, stretched and invigorated, but bluer than ever. I tried a nap and woke up ready to try her idea. I found Double Vision on-line and began reading. What do you know, she might be onto something.

Chapter 3 is called “The Double Vision of Time” and begins with a description of the tragedy of time. “It seems probable that the basis for consciousness … is the awareness that the uneasy pact between body and soul will dissolve sooner or later..”  The body’s drive to survive makes us suppress our consciousness of this as much as possible or, at the very least, to convince ourselves that we are not going to die at once. The result, however, is a “subdued anxiety”, or quiet desperation, according to Frye, scholar, critic, a fellow Torontonian, and 78 years-old when he wrote that (1912-1991).

Ordinarily, we see time as horizontal and linear, comprised of past, present and future, although all attempts to grasp “Now” prove illusive. It barely emerges from the past before it vanishes into the future. Moreover, its progress involves a kind of repetition which Frye describes as parabolic as is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare’s seven stages of man, beginning and ending in helplessness. (“All the world’s a stage..” As You Like It II, vii) “Thus the tragic aspect of time in which every moment brings us toward death.” The double vision of time involves superimposing a vertical dimension, in which all time exists at once.

In practical terms, we can free ourselves from time by “genuine achievement” in everything that matters and that can be accomplished by the building of habit through “incessant practice”. Practicing the piano, for example, repetitively playing scales and practice pieces eventually allows us to break through to the freedom of accomplishment. Thus we come to an “enlarged sense of the present moment”. Experience and awareness are one. Now we are in the “Now”. This intensity is spiritual connection, the vertical dimension, enlightenment.

Right. I think I get it. I do have a number of practices: tai chi, journal writing, cooking, blogging. If I just keep at them, with intention, I’ll break through to a timeless moment? And such a moment will surely be free of the Blues.

House of Cards × 2: U.S. and U.K. (spoilers)

H of Cards title cardNow that you have spent 25 irretrievable hours of your life watching both the U.S. and the U.K. version of House of Cards let us consider who is more ruthless Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Urquhart begins as Conservative Whip in the British House of Parliament and moves on to Prime Minister. Frank Underwood, Democratic Majority Whip in Congress, ends season 1 as potentially vice president of the United States.

What is not in doubt is that House of Cards has been a phenomenal streaming success. Netflix which produced the U.S. version of the political thriller, House of Cards, now has 29 million subscribers, 7 million of them international and has posted earnings of 1 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2013. Apparently the dire warnings of reviewers that releasing all 13 episodes at once was a reckless $100 million gamble were greatly exaggerated. Moreover, many viewers, like me, steamed through the U.S. series and immediately began watching the U.K. version.

If you look at reviews comparing the 2 productions, you will come across those that say, for example, that the U.K. version, although 20 years older, is “faster, leaner, tighter and a far more rewarding watching experience” (http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/03/28/house-of-cards-the-us). Indeed I had read that opinion several times before I began watching either and mindlessly parroted it. But comparison is not that simple.

Francis Underwood had me at the get-go. It could have just been Kevin Spacey in high definition and close-up. He exuded vitality and sex appeal. He seemed like such a sincere fellow and the newly elected president, Garrett Walker, had done him wrong. Walker had promised Frank the position of Secretary of State, but once he no longer needed Frank’s support, he broke that promise. Underwood and his high profile wife, Claire settled in for long sleepless nights plotting their revenge. I was with them all the way in episode 1. Little did I know…

Thirteen episodes and 7 days later, I tuned in to the U.K. version with Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. Wait a minute!  This Francis is cold, bloodless and decidedly not hi-def. He speaks with a posh accent in an arch almost campy style. It took 2 or 3 episodes for me to get over that reaction, but the story itself and the assurance from others that Richardson was a great actor kept me at it. They cited Richardson’s charm. Although Spacey was called more menacing, his southern charm – Underwood is the representative from South Carolina – and old-fashioned courtesy was also noted.

Michael Dobbs, who wrote the books on which the British version is based, called the American version, written by Beau Willimon, “much darker”. He must be referring to the mood, for Urquhart has a higher body count.

The U.S. show has had one season of 13 episodes at this point, while the U.K. show had 3 seasons of 4 episodes each. A second season is planned for Spacey’s production, so conclusions now are only provisional.

Certain similarities are obvious. Both are stories of Machiavellian leaders intent on revenging a political slight and rising to the top. Both shows reference Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although Richardson’s more directly. He frequently quotes from that play, but he has none of Macbeth’s initial ambivalence. He jumps right into the bloody fray and says, “I am in blood stepped in so deep..” without apology or regret. Both have wives worthy of Lady Macbeth. Both break the fourth wall, peer into the camera and address the audience directly. We are never in doubt about their opinions and overall intention, although we may be misled about specifics.

Yet the stories are different. Well, they would have to be. The British show is about the parliamentary system, in which the prime minister is the leader of either the Conservative Party or Labour Party, chosen by party members before an election is called and elected by only one riding. The prime minister then chooses his cabinet, appointing a minister for each portfolio. The president of the United States,  having been chosen as leader of either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, is of course elected to that position by voters nation-wide, . Once elected, he is secure in his position, but the British prime minister can lose the position in a non-confidence vote over a budget or other important bill. In that case, an election has to be called even though the term is not up, unless another leader is chosen who can rally the vote in the House. On the other hand, a president can continue in office in such a case although it is a tough slog as we have seen lately. Both, however, have the position of party whip, the House leader charged with ensuring that party members vote in support of party policy. Both Francises begin as majority whips, Urquhart for the Tory or Conservative Party and Underwood for the Democrats.

The U.K. series was first broadcast in 1990 and begins with Margaret Thatcher’s  fictional successor, Henry Collingridge winning an election and then betraying his chief whip by passing him over for Foreign Secretary.  Two days after the first episode aired, Thatcher resigned. John Major took over as party leader and prime minister. Campaigning for the now necessary election -in the middle of a recession – was suspended  (bleedingcool.com) in order to watch episode 2.

The U.K. series strikes me as extremely exciting because of its topicality. It did not, of course, cause the Iron Lady to resign after 4228 days in office. That was forced upon her by her own party, which was as fed up with her increasing despotism as the working class was with her crushing reforms. In the course of 3 seasons of 4 episodes each, the despair of the disenfranchised poor becomes one of the main themes. We see the bonfires of the homeless as they huddle for warmth. We also visit the palace and meet the new king, played by Michael Kitchen, who seems to share many of Prince Charles’s preoccupations. In this alternate future, Queen Elizabeth has passed on. But some things seem familiar. There is, for example, a beautiful blonde princess who has charge of the heir to the throne and a “fat princess”, a decidedly sportive red head. Viewers in 1993 (season 2) and 1995 (season 3) would have had no doubt who these characters were modeled on.

The U.S. production is not as specifically scandalous perhaps, but it does tackle current issues in government such as the influence of lobbyists for big business. Remy Danton, who lobbys for petrochemical interests, turns out to be an unlikely comrade-in-arms for Claire Underwood and her Clean Water Initiative.

It also updates media influence. In London, Mattie Stornin is a reporter for the right leaning tabloid, the Chronicle. She does have computer access, but certainly not to the wealth of information that Zoe Barnes, in Washington in 2012, has at her command. Nor does she have a mobile phone, although another character has a wired-in car phone. Mattie cannot easily switch gears and go to work for an internet news blog called Slugline as Zoe does. News happens in an instant in 2012. Reaction via Twitter, ditto.

Claire Underwood is the more prominent of the two wives as director of the not-for-profit Clean Water Initiative. Elizabeth Urquhart is less of a figure in her own right, but gains power as time moves on. Both readily approve of their husbands embarking on affairs in pursuit of their goals and expect the same in leniency in return. Frank and Claire frequently ask each other, “How can I help?” Initially at least, the Urquharts and the Underwoods are at one with their spouses.

Both stories have a Stamper, chief adviser, confidante and co-conspirator, ready to implement even the most devious of plans. Both have trusted security men to do their bidding although the British Corda plays a more important part, particularly in the final solution to Urquhart’s problems at the end of the series.

Both have a cocaine and alcohol addicted stooge -M.P. Roger O’Neill and Rep. Peter Russo- whose weakness is exploited, who do their master’s bidding and meet their deaths and not at arm’s length either. Both Francises are willing to be hands on.

The love affairs are different in that Urquhart tells us that he really did love Mattie even though he was using her newspaper pieces to further his plans. He is haunted by her. Frank Underwood does not seem capable of love but does show us he is capable of brutality in his treatment of Zoe. Zoe is not the soft, unworldly creature that Mattie is and she has the advantage of still being alive at the end of season 1. Creepily, Mattie calls Urquhart ‘daddy’. Indeed it is the very last thing she ever says.

One advantage of 1990 London is that the IRA is still blowing things up, so an extra car bomb here and there gets blamed on them. No one even suspects they are inside jobs, inside the P.M.’s office, that is.

Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards is incredibly rich. Even the titles, time-lapse photos of Washington throughout a day, are a pleasure to watch, all 13 times. There are grace notes like Freddy’s BBQ where Frank retreats to indulge his taste for ribs, Adam Galloway’s artist’s NYC loft where Claire takes refuge; the abandoned library at Frank’s old school, the Citadel; the S.C. town of Gaffney complete with peach- (or bum) shaped water tower. There is time for meandering through the woods, however irritably, or running through graveyards.

On Thatcher Day, the 4228th day Urquhart holds the office of prime minister, Elizabeth Urquhart assures her husband that Corda knows how to preserve his legacy in spite of recent disasters. Oh, good grief, Francis, parse that sentence before you agree. Or does he know somewhere in his benighted soul exactly what is about to happen?

So what will happen next season in the U.S. series? Will Frank’s body count match Francis Urquhart’s. Will Zoe, her Chronicle boyfriend, and her pal at Slugline uncover Frank’s machinations? They are well on their way. And surely Frank doesn’t really want to be V.P. The job bored even the boring Jim Matthews out of his mind. Isn’t it likely he has a “grassy knoll” plot waiting in the wings?

It looks as if judgement as to which Francis is more ruthless will have to be postponed.

Septuagenarian at Doggy Bootcamp

What I want is to get on with my post about satire in which I discuss with my usual clear-eyed insight novels by Jo Nesbo and Martin Amis and short stories by George Saunders. What I want is to finish my post about my new way of cooking rice, which is apparently actually old and Persian.

What I want is to be the 27 year-old second ballerina, I dreamed the other night, with a gorgeous male partner, capable of lifting and protectively holding me.

What I’ve got is 50 more years and doggy bootcamp.

Georgia thinks it’s funny. Georgia says write about that. But she’s just a baby septuagenarian, just barely started, so what does she know? Blake and I have seniority. I’ve known Georgia since I was 6, longer than anyone else still extant, that is to say ‘above ground’. Blake I met when I was 16, so he’s the oldest friend apart from siblings. We have had various septuagenarian adventures together, but this one is a solo. (See 115journals.com under septuagenarians)

The crux of the matter is that Blake has gone walkabout or, more prosaically, flown off to the west coast to see his daughter, who is, coincidentally, my daughter. The thing about children, even adult children, is that they cement you together. So when Blake cast about to see who could dog-sit, I came immediately to mind. Why not? He had taken the measure of my mothering skills some years ago. And I had mothered quite a few dogs as well, notably a big black Newfoundland throughout her long, lumbering life, but also a couple of her playmates including a spaniel. A 7 kilo sheba innu would be no problem.

“She’s a zen dog,” he assured me, alluding to her Japanese origin, “and she only needs to be walked 3 times a day.”

I felt better already.

March in the north -can I call Toronto north?- is unpredictable. Last year temperatures got up to 20 celsius, well into the 70s F. This year not so much. It is below freezing, there are brisk winds, especially from the north and a windchill. Okay, no problem. First walk of the morning: undershirt, merino wool long-sleeved undershirt, short-sleeved wool undershirt, ribbed cotton turtleneck, wool cardigan, vest and long down-filled coat, not to mention wool tights and fur-lined cap with ear flaps that tie. What?! Did I say I’m old? Did I say I was born in an unheated bedroom? Did I say God didn’t hand me an internal thermostat?

Right, we’re ready to head out the door. Despite the gear, I can still bend over enough to put the dog’s collar on. True she immediately starts to retch and gag. I still have something to learn there. Out the door. Well, not quite. We have to stand testing the air first. There could be danger. Down the front walk, turn right. Stop dead. There is a tree here and there are messages on it that have to be carefully ‘read’ by sniffing. Boy dog messages no doubt. ‘I was here. Where the hell were you?’ It isn’t a matter of gently tugging on the leash. Her 4 paws are glommed onto the frozen ground. There is no moving her. The bad news is that there is a tree in front of every house. And I have forgotten much in the last 25 years. A quick stoop to mark is not the same as an actual pee. It will take several walks to teach me this.

The second or afternoon walk is meant to be longer. Typically Blake hikes with the dog along disused rail tracks or up hidden ravines that wind under city streets and emerge miles later in its centre. Then they hike back, I make a foray down the bike path beside the woods in the afternoon. We come upon five robins foraging for worms in puddles that are about to freeze over. Initially, there is a strong smell of skunk, but that  doesn’t concern Ms Zen. She moves on inspecting the leave-strewn margins minutely until, finally, she finds exactly the right spot. It transpires that I have a lot to learn about poop and scoop. Suffice to say, I am glad she is in favour of a quick return. I desperately want to wash my hands.

The rest of the afternoon is devoted to rest and recuperation. Yes, I exercise every day but  I don’t go out in the cold and walk up and down hills. After dinner the wind is roaring and another walk is on. I long for the good old suburban dogs who stood in a writhing heap at the back door. I would open it, they would dash out and one of them would shout when they wanted back in.

And how does Blake even have a life? All I can seem to squeeze in is a short trip for groceries. Tai chi class seems to be out of the question. Gear up,walk, take the gear off, collapse.

Days pass. It becomes clear to me who’s in charge. She chooses the direction or rather her nose chooses the direction. There is absolutely no discussion. If I tug the leash too hard, she throws up. Simple as that. One sunny afternoon, we get as far down the paved path as the mown lawn. Having done her ‘job’, as my grandmother used to say, she stands gazing into the woods. These are the woods where she, Blake and I came upon 3 deer last year. She stands and stands. She gazes and gazes. A twitch on the lead. No response.

“Let’s go,” I say, my voice rising, my best kindergarten teacher voice.

She looks at me balefully, as if to say, ‘that voice!’ She looks back at the woods. She wants the lead off. She wants to run up and down those wooded hillocks, following those hidden paths. And if she were my dog I would let her. If Blake were here he would let her, but not and not. (Dear Blake, The weather is getting warmer. Your house is fine. Your roof hasn’t leaked. No one has stolen your car. Yours truly, Joyce p.s. Your dog is lost.)

It is only when a white-haired man comes down the path that she deigns to move. She thinks it might be Blake.

The first 2 nights she sleeps in her bed in the living room near the front door. Surely, he will return for her! On the third night, she accepts a helping hand onto my bed. I’m not keen on a bedmate but, otherwise, she is just going to stand beside the bed and stare at me. Weekends I sleep in the second best bed (See 115journals.com “Consider the Second Best Bed” ), a narrow bed. I sit her bed beside it. No dice. I drop a quilt there. Well maybe. As a septuagenarian I am acquainted with the night and I observe that she alternates between the bedside and the living room couch. In the morning, I discover a wet spot there.

Now Blake has assured me that this former show dog never has an accident. I believe him. I am familiar with an ‘on-purpose’. My Newfie dog once protested the fact that she was not permitted on the couch while the cats were by emptying her capacious bladder in the middle of my bed. Fortunately, I wasn’t in it.

Okay, no problem. Georgia can tell the story of having to change her entire bed at 4 a.m. because her Springer Spaniel did have an accident.

When Ms Zen arrived 5 days ago, I typically got up bent from the hips and shuffling, your standard septuagenarian gait. Ten minutes of tai chi put the spring back in my step. Now I walk like one of those extreme body builders I used to see in Venice Beach. My thighs are so stiff, they can barely scrape by each other. It takes a long hot shower to limber me up enough to do tai chi to limber me up. On the other hand, once it gets going, this old body seems more balanced and functional.

While it’s true, she eats only home-cooked meals, Blake brought them, frozen for easy ‘heat and serve’.

She’s just rolled her body off my bare feet and gazed at me with what looked like adoration.

Sage Baby: Bad Titles follow-up

A couple of posts ago, I ruminated about titles that get outdated by time, including George Orwell’s 1984 and my blog 115journals. I imagined that the three journals I have written since are seriously put out and I rashly promised journal 118 that I would mollify it by posting its highlights. Today I reached page 215, the last page. Journal 118 started on July 8th is now retired from active duty.

Let’s see what’s there.

Oh. My. Goodness. Anais Nin would have relegated its first part to her diary of pain. When she was mortally ill in Big Sur, as I remember, she divided her journal in two and kept the unpleasant stuff separate. I haste to add that my “pain” was more mundane and much alleviated by simple means such as a new regimen of supplements to replace the minerals I was short of.

Then I come to a dream I had in which I was a young doctor just beginning my residency when I learned that I was pregnant. The dream was suffused with love, warm, nourishing love for and from my husband, and a quickening sexual desire. I went out for a walk by myself on a rainy Sunday evening to relish this feeling. Oddly, I came upon my actual/ non-dream-life son in the course of this walk. He was working as a blacksmith -not of course in real life -outside his forge and raised his head only briefly to ask if I had written another book.

I seemed to be living an alternative past and seeing an alternative future.

When I looked at what the dream meant, I saw that I was dreaming of healing myself. The Sunday night walk could be seen as a sign I was now complete enough in myself to do so. Someone I told the dream to said I was dreaming about my “sage baby”, that gestation is a symbol of spiritual cultivation.

So I looked on the internet for “sage baby’ and found it was the name of a company that produces baby blankets, a name given to both boy and girl babies and the name of a musician. Not helpful. I imagined people sitting in a shamanic circle fashioning tiny doll babies out of sage leaves. Then I finally realized she meant “wise” baby.

Ah, a familiar idea. One of western civilizations most important festivals centres on the wise or sage baby, born in a manger. But it has seemed to me for some time that this is better understood as the birth of the Christ in the cave of the heart, in other words, our own soul discovering itself and knowing it is one with the divine creative spirit.

A book is another kind of sage baby and my real son was/is fashioning his own sage baby, in iron with fire.

So there you go, Journal 118. That is surely your highlight, an actual insight.

Isn’t it curious that in our dreams, we can be any age, possibly because we are not actually age-specific.

How’s your sage baby coming on?

Bad Titles: journal 118 protests

Like George Orwell, I have chosen a title that has overtaken itself. He thought 1984 was sufficiently removed from 1948 that it represented a future where Big Brother watching your every move seemed believable. But, oh George, try teaching that book in 1984 or 1993 or 2012. It is about the past now, in more ways than one. (Thank you closed circuit TV, Google, Facebook and internet surveillance.)

I knew that lesson and yet I went ahead and called my blog, 115journals.com. Journal 118 wants to act as spokesperson for itself and 116 and 117. Journal 118 is a mature and confident speaker, about to retire from active duty and hand the daily grind over to 119.

Still a bit of a whiner: “Look at all I did for you, getting you through a July of heath issues and an August of intense family vacation. And who gets the glory, 115? What did she ever do for you?

It’s just a matter of chance, I counter. Orwell reversed the digits of the year he wrote the book. I was writing in journal 115 when I started the blog.

But 118 is seriously miffed, although partly mollified by the fact I reread its whole heartfelt tale. True I found there the essence of the summer, we are fast losing here in our northern city. It caught the swallows hunting at dusk, the crickets at dark and the glory of the Farmer’s Market at Wychwood Barns.

Please accept my appreciation, 118. I hope you will be mollified by my promise to issue a “Best of 118” in the near future.

Where’d Y’ Go?

I know Journal # 118 wonders too. Far from the nearest WiFi connection is the short answer. The library in that little rail town had one, but its hours were so weird I never caught up to it.
As for #118, I’ll get back to you. Living with an ever changing family of up to 17 left no time for reflection.
Coming soon: Septuagenarians in the Wilderness.