Thursday, March 31, 2011

Which is what?

So which is what? Which one of these honkin' old brick buildings is McKeough School, where I attended from 1959 to 1964 (though it seemed like 20 times that long)?

I won't give you any hints, but I'll help you match the photo to the description. One of them is the Kent County Penitentiary. One is the Armoury in Tecumseh Park. One is a Baptist church with the inexplicable title of Duchess of Wellington. One of them is a munitions factory or something, and one is Park Street United, the church where my minister was thrown into jail for sexual improprieties (look it up: his name was Rev. Russell Horsburgh). And one is McKeough School. Oh-oh, that's six!

Since I am sure the suspense is killing you, I'll tell you. The first one is McKeough School, which operated, incredibly, until 2001. I remember looking up the web site in the '90s, and wondering why the whole thing hadn't fallen down. To me, it looks like a set for Jane Eyre or something, where they have to break the ice in the washbasins.

Why can't I get it any more?

These slabs of stuff were the building blocks of my childhood.

My Dad would bring them home for me from his school supply store, which also carried a few art supplies. Each slab was a different color. When I took it out of the package, there was a familiar smell. The plasticine smell.

Faintly chemical, a little like dirty socks. Not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. It didn't make me want to eat it, like Play-Doh, which has a biscuit-dough texture and a whiff of vanilla that makes it irresistible.

It took a while to work this stuff in your hands until you could make something out of it. I was always making something out of it, usually alone. I didn't use plastic cookie cutters or try to make Gumby or other "claymation" figures like the always-morally-correct Davy and Goliath. No one used the term claymation then, though I knew it had something to do with stop-action and being incredibly patient.

What I loved about plasticine was the fact that it never dried out, could be endlessly reused and recycled, got warmer and more forgiving as you worked with it. It was the ideal substance, the medium for my imagination as expressed through my fingers.

I still dream about McKeough School in Chatham, Ontario where I grew up in the '60s. Last night I dreamed it was no longer a historical site (as I think it used to be, before being shut down due to violating every building code in existence), and was being demolished.

My memories are fragmentary but powerful. The principal, Mr. Robertson, was an ex-army man who made us march in to military music ("Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail. . . "). He sometimes came in unexpectedly and had us stand beside our desks while he inspected the troops. We were expected to stand rigidly at "ten-HUT" until he said (no, I am not making this up) "at ease".

That school was old. The stone steps going in had hollows in them from countless thousands of feet. The basement where we watched "fill-ums" (mostly National Film Board hygiene things) was like somebody's pitch-black furnace room.

I remember things, like bringing 32 pink-iced Valentine cookies to school for the class (my mother did all the work, as I remember, turning them out grimly like a machine. Housewives kept score on each other then.) I remember the Monday after the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show, when everyone was buzzing about them and trying to buy Ringo dolls. Our teacher, Miss Wray (an elderly spinster, like all the McKeough School teachers) finally said, "Settle down, class. This lesson has nothing to do with wigs."

Then there was Kennedy. We had some idea who Kennedy was, of course. How could we help it? Then one day in November the voice of doom came over the loudspeaker asking all the teachers to get down to the office, now. This was unusual, as the teacher had to ask the hall monitor to keep us in line for a few minutes.

When Miss Wray came back, she was ashen.

Then Mr. Robertson came on again and called recess: what was going on? It wasn't recess! I can't recall exactly how he communicated this, but somehow we all knew Kennedy had been shot and we were being sent outside, a nonsensical turn of events, though my adult self realizes they were probably trying to figure out what the hell to do next.

While we were milling about outside (the girls on one side, the boys on the other), Nancy, a girl who had been born in the States, started rallying us around her. We stood in a big circle in the yard and chanted, "Kennedy, Kennedy, rah-rah-rah! Kruschev, Kruschev, boo-boo-boo!"

It didn't do any good, though we were dismissed early after the faux recess, which we always thought was a good thing. My parents didn't say anything that I can remember, but Bullwinkle wasn't on, nor was anything else I liked to watch. It was all "coverage". Walter Cronkite nearly cried, which was scary, like Mr. Robertson crying or something. Confusion was everywhere, reaching its nadir as I watched Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death on live TV.

But what does all this have to do with plasticine? I'm getting to that, be patient.

At the end of the school year came the ultimate event: the McKeough School Picnic. This was a grand occasion with all sorts of sports, races and games, prizes given out, and a splendid fireworks display at the end (including the Burning School House, which didn't look like anything but always provoked subversive whoops of joy). I remember one year coming in third in the sack race, proving that even then, I was pretty good in the sack.

There was all sorts of food available for this event, bake table things and the like. My mother always made three kinds of fudge: chocolate, vanilla and coconut. To this day, I make damn good fudge with a similar recipe (the old-time kind where you boil up syrup to the soft ball stage - no thermometers, you wimps! - and beat the hell out of the molten liquid until it "fudge-ifies", as my kids called it eons later). She also made tons of popcorn using a beat-up old saucepan, put it in paper sacks while it was still sizzling hot, and drenched it with melted butter. Eaten fresh, it was agonizingly good.

But the plasticine! We're still getting to that. Along with all the other gorgeous things we did, there was the Hobby Fair. I don't remember much about it, frankly - maybe it involved crocheted toilet roll covers, stamp collections or something like that. There were ribbons given out, firstsecondthird. I had never won anything in my life, mainly because I never entered it.

Then, at the end of Grade Three, I got an idea.

I cracked open several new slabs of plasticine that my Dad had brought home from his store. (Don't ever think he bought them for me, because he didn't. This was excess stock that would have been returned to the manufacturer or thrown out.) I started warming it up in my hands, revving.

Then I began to build.

We had just "taken" a poem in school about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It was endless, taking up page after page, a simple story crammed with detail and unfamiliar words like "nuncheon" and "sugar-puncheon". The most memorable lines are quite well-known: "Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,/Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats."


I would make rats. I would make the piper, holding his flute triumphant and spiriting all the rats out of Hamelin. My fingers flew as I made rat, after rat, after rat.

I don't know what color they were. They must have rested on something, some sort of cardboard (though I think that came later: I wasn't thinking of an actual display). I don't know how many rats, exactly, but there seemed to be hundreds of them.

Surprisingly, I think it was my mother who said, "We have to enter this in the Hobby Fair." I looked up at her: it was highly unusual for my parents to acknowledge any sort of talent in me, with three older siblings (one of them thirteen years older) who seemed to surpass me at everything. Even then, I fully expected to understand my 23-year-old sister's erudition when I was ten.

So my rat-swarmed display was entered. Came the time for the judges to snoop around all the exhibits, looking to pin ribbons on them, or not. One of them stopped at my Pied Piper station and sniffed, "I don't believe a child in Grade Three could have made this."

As it happened, a neighbor lady, Peggy Aitken, was standing there and said, "Oh yes, she did! I saw her making it!" This wasn't true, but I appreciated the vote of confidence.

I won first prize. For my rats. For my Pied Piper of Hamelin. I don't know what happened to the display; I suspect it was recycled, like all my plasticene things. No one took a picture of it, and I don't know what happened to the ribbon.

Nice story. But the thing is, now that my grandkids have outgrown Play-Doh (which is only useful for mucking around and making fake cookies), I can't find real plasticine. It's just not anywhere. I've gone to that Michaels craft store and bought some abominations. It's called all sorts of different things, usually Modelling Clay (which it isn't: this isn't clay at all but some sort of polymer product that never hardens), Krazy Klay and the like. I once bought a huge rainbow package (the different colors now come in small tubes like fat pencils), opened it, and was knocked back by noxious fumes.

The smell was just overpowering. Like moth balls mixed with Varsol (a more foul version of turpentine). I did let the kids play with it once, thinking, it has to be safe, I bought it at Michaels!, but their fingers were coated in disgusting oily smears, and their fingernails looked like they'd been coal mining.

So I go on the internet to find out what the hell, and it's vague as usual: it sort of tells you where to buy the stuff, if you can get it. The slabs might still be made in Britain, maybe, if you're willing to pay L25 per slab and shipping and handling, and you'll probably still get the wrong stuff.

I want my plasticine back! My eldest granddaughter Caitlin, who is endlessly crafty and creative, is just at the "big rats, small rats" stage. She could make her own Pied Piper display (though it's more likely to be Lady Gaga and her legions of fans). Don't tell ME I have to make my own, using creosote, crank case oil and corn syrup.

I saw something on the net saying Plasticine, the original name brand, had been banned for being a biohazard. Nonsense! The original had a faint odor, nothing like the knock-you-back fumes of the crap I bought at Michaels. If kids ate it in great quantities, maybe. But that's also true of poster paint and Elmer's glue. I don't understand why, if actual Plasticene is banned, they don't also ban this foul Third World glop that won't come off your hands until it wears off.

Like so many things I've lost, I want it back, but it's unlikely. I'll keep on trying to find something decent at the dollar store, then pitching it out when it stinks or won't mold any better than a pencil erasor.

Oh, by the way. The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. My tenth birthday, coming only three months after the Kennedy Assassination and four months before my Pied Piper victory. It was one of those years.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Please excuse the Spanish subtitles; I know they're moronic, but I can't find a version without them. This is "my scene", the one that melted me down completely the other night. Jesus, there are no words for it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quite possibly the most beautiful photo of Harold Lloyd EVER

What is it about you, Harold Lloyd? What's the mystery?

Part of it is, of course, the fact that you are plain gorgeous. Add to that superior acting skills and a naturally balletic/athletic grace, and you have a killer combination.

But most of all, Lloyd ("dolly" in anagram) had an indescribable charm, and a way of gently but insistently taking you on-side. His was often the humor of humiliation, something that might be hard to take from a lesser-skilled comedian. What he was saying, without coming out and saying it, was, "Sometimes life is embarrassing. Sometimes we feel plain foolish. Has this ever happened to you? Like this. Let me show you."

And he'd show you, and you'd groan and shake your head, seeing yourself, and you'd laugh. And laugh.

The best part, though, is the way he always won in the end. Some critics have misunderstood Lloyd (hell, most critics have misunderstood Lloyd, especially several decades after his films stopped being shown in about 1940), calling him a "go-getter", and explaining his waning popularity in the '30s by saying that his style of go-getting had got up and gone.

It wasn't that way at all. If Lloyd was driven by anything, it was romantic yearning. In fact, the few critics who did understand him have always insisted that he single-handedly invented the genre of romantic comedy.

In his most famous movie, Safety Last! (in which he scales that skyscraper and dangles off the hands of a huge clock), his task is anything but a foolish daredevil stunt: he has to prove himself to his fiancee, the peony-sweet Mildred Davis. Always there's that struggle to prove his worthiness, to put his personal anxieties aside for the sake of a higher purpose (and what purpose could be higher than love?).

In Girl Shy, when his "how to romance women" manuscript is laughed and jeered out of the publisher's office, he feels like such a failure that he's purposely nasty to the woman he adores, cutting her loose from a loser at the expense of his own heart.

My God! That's the most romantic thing I've ever seen!

Yes, and there's more. That race to the church at the end of Girl Shy: it's a flat-out epic, the shy, stuttering, failed writer galloping through hell-fire to prevent his (already spurned, but still adored) inamorata from marrying a callous bigamist. This sequence, one of the finest in movie history, has to be seen to be believed, and it's obvious he's doing most of the stunts himself, working without a net in the typical Harold Lloyd way.

Lloyd didn't like heights, and I don't know how well he liked thrills, but he seemed to need to seek them. Testing, testing himself all the time. Against what, we don't know. When I researched The Glass Character, my novel about Lloyd and his times, I discovered a complicated man who seemed simple, who maybe even thought of himself as simple. His intelligence was subtle, mercurial, and worked at light-speed. It's that canny look in his eyes, friendly, yet in some way sizing everything up. As he got older, that look deepened. The charming old gent was still fierce inside, still looking for a duel somewhere, maybe not so much to win as to prove to himself that he still had it.

Harold's nickname was Speedy. He liked it when people called him that. It's a boy's name, isn't it? - not the kind of nickname a middle-aged man might choose. Did the name choose him, I wonder - or was it Foxy, his charming, twinkly old Dad, a man who could sell snake-oil to an anaconda?

When he finally had to let go of an acting career that had become his life's obsession, Lloyd had to change gears quite dramatically, finally taking up a dizzy array of hobbies and athletic pursuits. What people didn't always know about him was his dedication to philanthropy. (He didn't believe in thumping his own drum.) Still, through the Shriners, he did a tremendous amount of good for children's hospitals. Especially burn units. Lloyd had been horribly burned in an explosion when he was still in his twenties. You don't forget a thing like that.

I can't say everything about Harold - can't say anything, can I? - except that I love him. The novel waits in limbo, and I don't know what, if anything, is going to happen to it. I ache to see it in print, for it's the work of my life. If it doesn't make it, I'm going to feel like Harold in that publisher's office. The look of devastation and the collapse of his dreams goes way back inside him, not just in his eyes but in his spirit, as if he has somehow, uncannily, made his soul visible. This isn't just great acting, it is a powerful actor's instinct for reaching into the psyches of his audience. What has just happened to me, dear viewers, has also happened to you, and you know it.

I really thought that when I finished writing The Glass Character, someone would get as excited about it as I was. So far the silence has been deafening. Hell, Harold's movies made more noise than this. Being ripped to pieces is easier than this indifference. I already posted about how I was literally rubber-stamped by an agent who wouldn't even waste a sheet of his stationery on me but sent me back my own letter with a stamp on the corner of it that said, "List is full".

I'm not supposed to take this personally, but it's kind of like losing an arm, and I can't let go of the obsession. Well-meaning people tell me to just enjoy the writing process and forget about all the rest. But as I've written before, it's like a concert pianist, trained over decades, being told he should be perfectly happy performing in an empty hall.

You're not supposed to fall in love like this, you're not supposed to be subsumed. It ain't professional. But it's the only way I know how to be. I caught a bad case of Harold Lloyd, and right now I've got it bad. I may never recover. Sometimes I wonder if I even want to.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My brush with greatness: Old Violet Eyes in the Eaton's store

This is from way-hey-hey long ago, 1996 I think, my newspaper column period, in which I turned out literally thousands of the things. How well I remember the stifling atmosphere, the restive crowd, the bottled water and mascara'd drag queens as we waited for just a glimpse of this Living Legend. I'm kind of lousy at scanning these old things and had to chop it up into pieces, so if you can't read it, tough potatoes.

The girl with the violet eyes

We all knew it had to happen. For the past several years, reports on her health had been increasingly bleak. At the end, all we had were a few cruel papparazzi shots taken through the fingers of someone trying to cover the lens. She was frail and slumped over in a wheelchair, but, extraordinarily, still carefully made up and coiffed for the cameras.

I don't need to tell you much about Elizabeth Taylor (who once snarled at a reporter, "Don't call me Liz!"), because she was a sort of one-woman pageant, or perhaps spectacle, for all of her 79 years. She belonged to her public, and on some level she always knew it, but, stubbornly, ferociously, she also insisted on belonging to herself.

She ran through an awful lot of husbands, many of them foolish choices (Eddie Fisher being almost as incomprehensible as Larry Fortensky). Two of them she called "the love of her life" (and only Taylor could have had more than one of those). I've always sought out Taylor bios compulsively, the best one being Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger's recent Furious Love, which concentrates on her unmanageable passion for the human wreckage that passed for Richard Burton.

Ah, Liz and Dick, Dick and Liz, horrible for each other and meant for each other, snapping and snarling and making turbulent love through two whole marriages that both enriched them (as in their brilliant collaborations in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew) and tore them to pieces.

The description of Burton's slow agonizing descent into intractible alcoholism is particularly excruciating to read. Here was a lavishly talented actor who like Anthony Hopkins emerged from a tiny, stigmatized coal-mining country, but who - unlike Hopkins, who escaped in time - was constitutionally incapable of being honest with himself about the booze.

Taylor seemed to be matching him drink for drink, so what happened? Was she a lot tougher than she looked (which she had to be, surviving endless surgeries for all sorts of ailments and injuries), or was he just unusually fragile? There was always something disturbingly passive about him as he hitched his wagon to Elizabeth's blazing star. The Furious Love bio is peppered with charming little notes he wrote for her, calling her Twiddle-Twaddle and Fatso. He wanted more than anything else to be a writer and would sit and try to write a novel, finally passing out at the typewriter. It was all very sad.

I won't sit here and tell you stuff you already know. I'll only give you a few impressions: Elizabeth walking into the poolroom where Monty Clift is hiding out in A Place in the Sun, the two of them so preternaturally beautiful that the camera wants to hide its eyes from the blaze. Her bravura performance in Suddenly, Last Summer (almost ignored, though it is one of her best) in which she gives a 20-minute monologue breathlessly describing a secret so horrific her family threatens to bury it with a lobotomy.

In spite of being a successful child actress who gave a stunningly sweet performance as the ultimate horsy little girl in National Velvet, she lacked some of the equipment that helps an actress be taken seriously. She had a kind of unfortunate voice, with no resonance and a tendency to shoot up into near-squeakiness, but she got past that. She was so stunning that at first sight, men thought they'd been hit with a board. She got past that. And those world-famous violet eyes (yes, they really do seem to be a sort of bluish lavender in the early shots) and the voluptuos body with a waist so tiny she didn't need corsets for period dramas, and the screaming fishwife personal dramas played out right in front of us. All this she somehow incorporated.

And jewels, and dogs, and children, and more husbands and more husbands, and John Warner and obesity and a diet and a book and a stage career (not too stellar), and Larry Fortensky and Michael Jackson and AIDS campaigns and and and

This was a very long, very large life. I liked her, always did. Liked the way she laughed like a drunken sailor on leave (one critic said). And I can share a secret with you now. I was in the same room with her.

I can't say I exactly saw her, though a couple of times I glimpsed the top of her head and heard that famously squeaky voice. I was part of a crowd of hundreds of people pressed together on the stifling fourth floor of a department store in Vancouver, waiting for a visitation by the grand dame herself as she launched yet another fragrance, called White Poodles, or Violent Passion, or something like that. (Nobody gave a rip about the perfume.)

Gay men were jumping up and down to get a glimpse of her. Well, how did I know they were gay? When Elizabeth (I refuse to call her Liz, she hated that!) began to expound upon the fact that her little Maltese had "poo-poo-ed" on the hotel carpet, one of them said, "Too much infor-maaaaaaa-tion", and I can't imagine a straight man saying that.

Funny, because that huge crowd wasn't all older people as you'd expect. Every age and every gender was represented (so to speak). Hers was the greatest camp performance of all time, and people couldn't wait to see it.

But don't forget who she really was. Don't forget her shrieking harridan in Virginia Woolf reducing Burton to a pile of emotional wreckage. Don't forget Maggie the Cat almost bursting out of her white slip while an oblivious Paul Newman drinks himself into a stupor. She was a lot of people, yet somehow or other, in the midst of all the hullaballoo of her life, she remained herself. Big-hearted, big-chested, violet-eyed, rowdy, ladylike, Dame Elizabeth, shrieking harridan Elizabeth, caring human being surviving in shark-infested waters, her humor and even her supernatural beauty intact.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Paradise lost

I don't know if it's really gonna be like this, but Cavalia, a travelling horse show which is billed as a kind of Cirque de Soleil with horses, is supposed to be impressive beyond words. They claim to train their horses naturally with hand signals, and yes, I know it can be done, with years of patience. And it's a damn sight better than the foam-dripping mouths of horses with their chins cranked into their chests, hiking their knees so high they must risk injuring themselves with every performance.

You hear stories of heavy clunky boots strapped on to the feet of Tennessee Walkers, forcing them to lift their hoofs higher than they know how. Sometimes harsh chemicals are applied to their feet to blister them into obedience.

Anyway, it won't be like that tonight, as I watch in wonder on opening night of Cavalia in Vancouver. We lucked into four choice tickets from a news anchor at my daughter's workplace: all the anchors got free tickets, whereas the mere reporters, who work twice as long and hard, got doodlysquat. But fortunately, the 11:30 p.m. anchor couldn't attend, and so. . .

And so, four of us, my daughter, 7-year-old Caitlin, her little friend and I, will sit and watch (in good seats, saved for media who might write it up or broadcast a glowing report) as horses prance and dance, and riders twirl around balletically as they gallop in circles.

The horse is my totem animal, my touchstone, the essence of my soul, even though I never get to spend any time with them. This seems to symbolize the essential frustration I feel about living on planet Earth: I am forever thrust out of Eden, though there was a time when I lived there and didn't even know it.
That time whizzed by at light speed, leaving me behind to look around in bewilderment: where have all the horses gone?

This blog originally was supposed to be about The Writer's Life. Phoooey on that. If it is, it's a place to pour out the corrosive acid of having doors continually slammed in my face. The situation seems nearly hopeless, as I am long past writing for fun or amusement. An author, like an actor, is someone who has crossed a certain threshhold. Driving cab will never do it, though everyone seems to think I should just be happy I put those books out at all.

Well, maybe I should be.

Writer's workshops and conferences (and books and more books) tell you how to present your work to editors effectively. Yes. And that's about it. No one tells you how to navigate the desperate minefield of actually dealing with publishers when you are at cross-purposes with them, and when your agent continually sides with them as they slowly mangle your work to pieces.

What does all this have to do with Cavalia? Exactly nothing, except that horses, like publishing my novels, seem to be part of a great Paradise Lost that I wander around in every day. I must have had some sort of stupid expectation that I would go on publishing. I went on writing, after all, didn't I? I wrote three more books. And there they sit, warehoused.

I wonder if maybe this really is about the writer's life, as every other writer I've talked to tells the same bitter story. Yet, at the same time, someone is being published, or there wouldn't be a publishing business, would there? Well, would there?

It's just that the someone needs to be me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Do I have to actually write something?

This is the best of times, and the worst of times, all glommed together.

Things are particularly sweet with my grandkids. For Ryan's 5th birthday, I knitted him a new blankie, his old one having been reduced to a pile of strings. Now he must transfer his attachment to a nice-looking one, which I hope he won't pull to pieces.

Caitlin's new lavendar fuzzy replaces her yellow fuzzy. She bit a big chunk out of it - no kidding, and she's 7. She wore away at the edge of it for a couple of years until it had a big semicircular bite mark on it. I begged her not to chew this one to pieces, as it cost about $45.00 to make.

NO MORE BLANKIES, I swear! Yes, I love making them, but it strikes me as silly to go on and on replacing them until they're in university or something, or getting married. "Where did the groom go?" "Oh, he lost his blankie. We'll just have to hold up the service."

In other news, things are moving along, or at least moving, maybe, in my search for a home/venue/a shred of hope on The Glass Character. I suddenly joined Facebook and feel foolish now because my "profile" was nothing but a desperate ad for the novel. I'll have to change it today if I can get the bally thing to work. I feel embarrassed, because I don't know Facebook from a hole in the ground and swore I wouldn't go there. BUT I REFUSE TO TWEET. I have a bird to do that.

I have a bird that whistles, I have a bird that sings.
I have a bird that whistles, I have a bird that sings.
But if I ain't got a contract,
Life don't mean a thing.

Just so.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Across the Universe (NOT the John Lennon song)

The "It's Life, Jim, But Not As We Know It" polka.

Lucy! In! The! Sky! With! Diamonds!

Guess I better say something about this. Before he became a total self-parody and general all-around show biz phenomenon, Shatner liked to speak-sing in the hammiest manner possible. Believe it or not, he was considered a good actor then, and it's true he could be a pretty good journeyman actor if he put his mind to it, which he usually didn't. I remember watching the Ed Sullivan show (I'm dating myself here, but there's no one else available tonight) and my Dad said, "Look who's coming on. It's that William Shatner fellow. He's supposed to be the next big thing, you know." He did, amazingly, Hamlet's Soliloquy. I don't remember how well he did it, but he wore an outfit sort of like the Jolly Green Giant, a tunic and tights (green, I think, but - oh, I don't know! I had a b & w TV!). It brought to mind all the soliloquys he did on the show (damn, that word is hard to spell): every week he had Some Big Important Speech. "WE. . . the PEOPLE!!!", or "You're gonna be. . . just. . . like . . .them" (the "grups"). "No more blah blah blah!" "I'm a grup. And I. . . Want. . .To. . .Help. . . You." Looking back at some of his photos, he was quite a good-looking guy, with a hint of sweetness to soften his masculinity. He ran to fat however, not a good look in polyester, and in one show where both Kirk and Spock had their shirts off, Nimoy won hands down in the bodacious space-bod category. He was very hairy, but in a nice way. A good Jewish boy, but so's Shatner! Not everyone knows that about him. He grew up in Montreal in the Jewish quarter. He 'n' Nimoy are best friends. I'll try to find the video about that. It's cute and very touching. And blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahbl

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Losing My Mind

Do I know anything about Dorothy Collins? No. Except that she kicks the hell out of this song. I heard Cleo Laine sing it many years ago and thought it was definitive, then heard it again this morning and collapsed into helpless tears.

You said you loved me. Or were you just being kind?

I could only write The Glass Character, which is 312 pages of unfulfilled love, because I know everything there is to know about Stephen Sondheim's paean to hopeless longing. I like the heroic, torch-song way she sings this. She just has so much voice, yet you get the sense she is only using about 3/4 of it. Oh God. I dim the lights. . .

I've lived inside that yearning, sometimes for years. I had this friend. . . he said he loved me; he was just being kind. I can't say more. I can't.

Did I somehow transfer that gut-twisting yearning to my main character, Muriel Ashford? Am I right now suffering the same anguish because nobody even wants to look at this novel, which I am sure is the best thing I will ever write?

Are you there?


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Was I behind the barn door?

There are things I just don't get.

As a writer, getting publishers to give me the time of day is extremely difficult. It's even harder to get an agent, though people generally say things like, "Well, just find one and they'll do all the work for you."

I also hear at writers' conferences (and sometimes whispered like a dirty little secret by other authors) that you have to go about it a whole 'nother way.

You have to make a leap.

What's a leap? you may ask. I'm sitting here trying to figure it out.

I think the guy who was lecturing at the Surrey Conference (damned if I remember his name, his book, or even what he looked like) was trying to tell us that mailing a printed manuscript on 8 1/2" x 11" white bond paper, typed and double-spaced with a 1-1/2" margin around the edges, with a stamped self-addressed envelope included or we'll never hear from them again, is just a little bit antiquated and will probably get us nowhere.

But that's the required procedure on 90% of publisher's sites.

This fellow saw that approach as marching in place, or even going backwards. He said we have to make a leap. Didn't tell us how, of course. OK. So how do we do it?

This is the only thing I can think of. It's something you hear every day, in every field: "it's who you know". You have to make "contacts". In this age of the internet, it's supposed to be dead easy. You can have hundreds, thousands, or (if you're Charlie Sheen) even millions in the course of a day.

For writers, this creates a degree of queasiness. We've all been told to make contacts. At the aforesaid Surrey conference, the publisher of a small but prestigious literary press was heading for the ladies' room. A fellow participant grabbed my arm and said, "Look. There she goes.
Go after her!"

I couldn't bring myself to do it.

Then there was the girl in orange. I don't remember her book, either, or her name, or anything about her except that she was wearing a shriekingly bright orange shirt and rainbow suspenders. She looked like a particularly unattractive clown. All that was missing was the Bozo nose and fright wig.

"I'm a shameless self-promoter, and you should be too," she told us. (And by the way, why is self-promoting so often tied to shame?). You have to get attention any way you can. Make sure you wear something that people will remember."

But orange isn't my colour. Is this why I'm not getting anywhere with the three completed and (I believe) publishable manuscripts I have in hand? I can't just toss them away or delete them. Sorry to say it, but my first two got raves. "Fiction at its finest", etc. etc. Unless these were lies, I have to presume I have something to offer.

Not long ago, I did manage to make some, maybe, contacts. It happened in a roundabout way. There was a flurry of emails exchanged, then - silence. The usual silence that falls when the other person realizes I might actually want something: for example, to get a publisher to acknowledge that I exist.

Apparently I broke some awful taboo, for the same thing happened with another potentially fantastic contact. This person - well, this was sort of like having God on your Facebook, but I can't name him because I know I'm not supposed to - loved my novel, even raved about it.

And then. . . the same fatal silence.

When I committed the awful faux pas of disclosing the fact that I'm not getting any attention for my wonderful novel whatsoever, and wondered if he had any suggestions, the line abruptly went dead. Though I am supposed to make contacts and "work" them until I get what I want, at the same time, I am NOT supposed to do that, because it's embarrassing and an admission of failure.

Contracts are supposed to drift through my mail slot all by themselves. Advances for $200,000.00 are supposed to just appear on my bank statement. Oops, we're rich!

I don't care about rich. But it seems like my professional need for someone to look at my novels is just wrong, somehow. The work should be its own reward. I should quit trying to suck up to people, for God's sake!

So I should make contacts, but not make contacts. I should know exactly how to "work" these nonexistent contacts so they don't abruptly hang up the phone as soon as I express some sort of need.

Why does the whole enterprise become so repellent, then? Why do I feel that I've:

(a) broken some sort of awful taboo by even trying to contact anyone,

(b) embarrassed myself by handling it all wrong (i.e. expressing the need to get my novel published),

(c) blown it by "losing" that giant marlin once and for all, and not even having a clue what I did that was so wrong so I can fix it if it ever happens again.

There are times when I just feel like nothing. I know I'm good, finally, and it took decades to get that far, to overcome the feeling that I wasn't up to scratch. But I seem to need a James Mason to sit in the club and listen to me sing and tell me, "You're good. Very good. In fact, you're far better than you know."

In reality, there are no Norman Maines around, not in my life anyway. Even if it did happen, I'd find some way to blow it, and not even know how or why.

I don't understand the deal. If a writer wants to become well-known, they're egotists, narcissists, greedy, and maybe even outright frauds.

But we don't expect a concert pianist to play in an empty hall. Or a painter to carefully hide all her canvasses in the attic (or just throw them away). The very idea of it is absurd.

Writing fiction is an extremely ancient art form, going back to the time when humans first became verbal. After the grunts and shouts resolved themselves into words, we developed the need to make story.

At first, no doubt, it went something like this. On a hunting expedition, the water buffalo pawed the ground, snorted and charged straight at the hunters. But Ugh was so fearless that he ran at him with a roar and skewered him through the heart with his flint-tipped spear. (Never mind that it was really Gronk who killed the buffalo.) And that night, over a scrumptious meal of water buffalo filet mignon, Ugh would begin to speak.

"The water buffalo charged at us, and soon we knew we would all be dead. The other hunters tried to hide in the bushes, but I took my spear and ran it through his heart. He groaned and fell down, and now we eat his flesh to honor his spirit. (He adjusts his new water buffalo robe.) I thank the gods that I was given so much courage and strength, for I have saved my people from certain starvation."

Yes, writers were bullshitters then, too.

But if Ugh sat by the fire all by himself, it would all be. . . well, kind of pointless. There would be less urgency for language to develop, allowing us to retell the tales of everyday struggle that eventually evolved into myth.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I want my place by the fire. I KNOW how to make story, damned good story, and nobody is interested and it's killing me by inches.

Like a fool, I keep trying, but it seems I can't put a foot right for all the landmines.

I don't want to be a star. But I sure would like to be born.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Beatles - Rain (sing along with Paul)

The Beatles - Rain (turn up the volume)

If the rain comes

Rain fell on Skagit Valley.
It fell in sweeps and it fell in drones. It fell in unending cascades of cheap Zen jewelry. It fell on the dikes. It fell on the firs. It fell on the downcast necks of the mallards.
And it rained a fever. And it rained a silence. And it rained a sacrifice. And it rained a miracle. And it rained sorceries and saturnine eyes of the totem.

This quote is the kind-of-a-thing that makes writers wanna give up forever. It's the feverish vision of a strange sort of man, half Byron, half Donald Duck (and half Betty Boop, probably, though we don't know where that half is stashed).

I was trying to find the whole quote, because I know it goes on. So I found my punky-smelling, beige-paged copy of Tom Robbins' classic Another Roadside Attraction, and began to dig.

Because I haven't even had my breakfast yet, for pity's sake, I gave up, but I did find this:

The afternoon sky looked like a brain. Moist Gray. Convoluted. A mad-scientist breeze probed at the brain, causing it to bob and quiver as if it were immersed in a tank of strange liquids. The Skagit Valley was the residue at the bottom of the tank. Toward dusk, the wind flagged, the big brain stiffened (mad doctor's experiment a failure), and ragged ribbons of Chinese mist unfurled in the valley. The blaring cries of. . .
OH FOR GOD'S SAKE. Mercy. Mercy.

And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.

This reminds me of nothing more than Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's a-gonna Fall: I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it/And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it. And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinking/But I'll know my song well before I start singing.
Why? Why all this? If you read this strange, incoherent blog at all (and who does? I often feel I am shouting into the abyss, and I am beginning to realize that my chronic failure as a writer is a sign of an intractible Fate), you'll know about the cedar boughs outside my office window. They are vanes, omens, semaphores. They hang in three-dimensional layers, a sweet intimate bough that sweeps on my left side, a less-visible perpendicular wodge of green that doesn't want to talk to me, and behind all that, a backdrop of bush that just goes on and on.

We live in suburbia, but at night comes the trilling and squealing of shabby-looking pack animals, the kind that search around for garbage in the night. At first I thought I was going crazy with the sound. My husband, half-deef, couldn't even hear it. It was only much later that I found out what they were.

Anyway, this isn't about that.

Rain sweeps and drones in Vancouver, a close enough cousin to Skagit Valley to pass one of those primordial DNA tests (if only by a whisker). Yes. We have this too:

Moisture gleamed on the beak of the Raven. Ancient shamans, rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the Freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran in the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating.


Pitiless, endless, suicidal, the rain takes up residence for some eight months of the year. No, twelve. Let's quit lying about this so we can go on living. As in northern Alberta, where I lived for many years, it can rain just like it can snow, any old time. In the middle of a grand day. It can split the merry blue sky like a railroad spike.

I like a storm. I love a storm when I am not in it. We don't get good hail around here (hail merry!), but in Alberta, once in a while a big satchelful of temporary diamonds would be dumped on the ground, and the air would hiss with ozone. The roof would thunder and dents would appear on the hoods of cars. Then a gleaming bounty lay on the ground, sublimating in sinuous vapors. Soon it'd just be that rice-paddy mush that's left over from a violent hunderstorm.

Here it's more temperate. Just a continuous pissing down on your dreams, a Monty Python foot crushing all ambition and hope.

I just realized something. Shakespeare bombed. He said something like, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", then goes on blathering about "the darling buds of May". Doesn't the idjit know when summer starts? There's a meteorologist on CTV news who knows better than that. And he's not the most celebrated writer who ever lived.

What's my point? Jesus! it's wet, and grey, and discouraging out there. I won't tell you what I've been going through with my work lately. It's the best of times, and the worst of times. Something spectacular might happen, but at the same time, it might be the end of everything.

Or, as usual, I will just be left hanging and face the same indifference, the averted face and cold shoulder, that my mother presented to me when I was born.

The opposite of love isn't hate. It's indifference.

The universe doesn't care. It's indifferent. But why do people have to be?
And what about my mother? My mother.

If the rain comes they run and hide their heads.
They might as well be dead.
If the rain comes, if the rain comes.
When the sun shines they slip into the shade
(When the sun shines down.)
And sip their lemonade.
(When the sun shines down.)
When the sun shines, when the sun shines.
Rain, I don't mind.
Shine, the world looks fine.
I can show you that when it starts to rain,
(When the Rain comes down.)
Everything's the same.
(When the Rain comes down.)
I can show you, I can show you.
Rain, I don't mind.
Shine, the world looks fine.
Can you hear me, that when it rains and shines,
(When it Rains and shines.)
It's just a state of mind?
(When it rains and shines.)
Can you hear me, can you hear me?
If the rain comes they run and hide their heads.
sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fI.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Enter the Dragon

Today I found out that dragon floats are a traditional feature of Mardi Gras.
This one's a doozie, isn't it? I think it's all the same dragon.
I can only imagine the effort that went into constructing him. Do they keep him year to year, do you think? Where? Does anyone own a tarp that big?

Or does he fly off to some primordial Mardi Gras Dragonland to wait out another year?


When I flipped my calendar today, I noticed that this isn't just any old Tuesday. Y'all know what Mardi Gras is, right? Those folks in Nawlins sure know how to put on a party.

Most of us have some vague idea that it's tied to Easter, but are not sure how.

Well, they'd be right. But more than that, it's tied to the cycles of the moon.

Ever wonder why Easter's on a different Sunday every year? Why doesn't it settle on one particular date, like Christmas or Ground Hog Day?

Because it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon, that's why, and cuz the moon's on a four-week cycle, sometimes it's earlier, and sometimes it's later. Ask the Chinese, who celebrate the Lunar New Year in a similar way.

You may ask: what does this have to do with Christianity? Nothing. What does it have to do with paganism and goddess-worship and Druids all that moon-related stuff? Plenty. The early Christians were smart enough to graft their big event of the year on a very old tree.

Before Mardi Gras even came along, it was called Shrove Tuesday. Most Christians don't have any idea what Shrove Tuesday actually means, except that there's always a pancake supper in the church basement, that damp place that always smells like the inside of a pumpkin, with undercooked pancakes on paper plates and kids spilling syrup and running around on a sugar high.

OK then, Shrove Tuesday is the beginning of six weeks of Lent. So what's Lent? Some people have some idea that it has to do with fasting and/or self-abnegation of some kind. Then comes Good Friday (the day Our Lord was nailed to a post to die: so why is it called Good?), and Easter Sunday, the miraculous day of Resurrection.

But it all has to be carefully timed to the cycles of the moon.

My bit of research into Shrove Tuesday was strange indeed. "Shrove" is the past tense of "shrive", which means to confess one's sins, to be penitent and grovel for forgiveness, and hopefully be absolved ("hey, I had a bad childhood"). If one is so absolved, they are described as "shriven". An unattractive word, if you ask me, resembling "shrivel", "shrine", and "shorn".

So what does this have to do with all those pancakes? Plenty. Before Lent, the traditional time of fasting, you had to use up every bit of fat in the house so the next six weeks would be a culinary disaster, everything sticking to the pan cuzzathefact they didn't have them-all Teflon thingy-dings then.

So yuz gorged yourself on sweet carbs on Fat Tuesday (which is a reference to the cooking fat, though in Nawlins it can have other meanings), then go into a long stretch of dire austerity. But I have a problem with all this. If you've been shriven already, why fast? Haven't you suffered enough?

It's hard to square stacks of oozing pancakes, Dixieland bands and drunken riots with the dreary plainsong of Gregorian chant. But after praying and fasting for seven or eight months, I think I've found a common point here.
Illicit sex.

Can you guess what I mean?

Can you?

Can you guess why the Catholic Church is scrabbling so hard to apologize for all the horrendous abuse that has gone unchecked among their most valued clergymen for generations?

When you wake up from Mardi Gras, perhaps stuck to the floor with your own vomit, you may not be able to remember just who you were with last night. Isn't this something like those sweet little 8-year-old altar boys who try to push out of their minds a memory so horrific that they know no one will believe them?

I've got nothing against sex, folks, but it's too bad it's so often associated with drunken revelry, things you'd rather forget, and little boys and little girls trying not to scream because this kind of love is "special". So special that they dare not mention it to anyone at all.

There is a certain culling. The ones who can't make it. We don't know what's the matter with those people, why they can't get it together! Some of them even leave the church because entering the sanctuary makes them feel unaccountably sick. These are the ones that kind of sift down, doing horrible things like sticking needles in their arm, and eventually die.


I used to eat the bloody pancakes, pray out the bitter, penitent six weeks (never quite sure what I had done that was so wrong), and make sure I suffered terribly on Good Friday, until I realized one day that I had goddamn well suffered enough.
And that I wasn't going to be fallout. Not for anyone.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuscadera, wheel-a barra, some place in Mexico. . .

Did somebody say Tom Waits? Did somebody say Bob Dylan? This guy combined the best of both. I mean. . . "Wheeling, West Virginia, with everythin' that's in ya. . . " This was the first, and possibly last master of verbal jazz. (And he sang just as badly as both-a dem guys.)

She don't look back

(So howcum I'm posting this-all? I got reading Positively 4th Street again, maybe due to taking the guitar out of its dusty case for the first time in a dozen years. Or not? Anyway, these were kind of cool books, reviewed for an internet publication so's I can rerun them any time I want. They do go back a few years, but I heard-tell that Bob Dylan just performed at the 2011 Grammys, so I looked at the clip. It wasn't good news. He sounds like Tom Waits on Draino, a growling monotone that bespeaks shredded vocal chords. Is it finally time to wind up the Never-Ending Tour?)

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 328 pages ISBN: 0-374-28199-8

Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes
Grove Press 527 pages ISBN: 0-8021-1686-8

During a weekend retreat at a Benedictine monastery earlier this year, I reconnected with one of the idols of my youth in a setting which was both wildly unlikely and oddly appropriate. “I’d like to play you some of the most spiritual music ever written,” Father John told us as he switched on the CD player to the howling bark of the greatest visionary popular music has ever known, Bob Dylan.

Appropriate, because after all, Dylan the master trickster pops up everywhere these days – on TV commercial jingles, in an audience with the Pope (in which he sang “Blowin’ in the Wind”), at the Kennedy Center as an awkward but grateful honoree, and even at this year’s Academy Awards.

He has been nominated for a Nobel Prize for literature and booed off the stage by hostile audiences for the sin of “going electric”. Throughout his monumental career as a troubadour of conscience, Bob Dylan has not reflected the times so much as predicted them, keeping one eerie step ahead of whatever way the wind blows.

It’s not surprising that on the occasion of his 60th birthday, various writers would attempt to capture his enigmatic presence in biography. This is a nearly impossible task, like picking up a blob of mercury that scatters into a million glittering bits. The problem is that Dylan has lived so many lives in one, all of them radically intense: the idealistic young folkie visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital, the jaded rocker crashing his motorbike, the family-oriented country squire, the born-again Christian zealot, the actor (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Dharma and Greg), the grizzled survivor on his famous Never-Ending Tour.

Just when critics were about to write him off as a has-been, he recorded the amazing 1997 Grammy-winner Time Out of Mind, followed up by the ultimate Dylan hurting-love song, Things Have Changed. Receiving his Oscar for best song, he looked frayed around the edges, exhausted by a life at the fringes of normalcy. But he still has those hypnotic, penetrating eyes – eyes that can see for a thousand miles, deep into the heart of life’s most fragile, compelling mysteries.

New York journalist David Hajdu has come as close as any writer to nailing Dylan’s mercurial soul to the page – a curious fact, given that POSITIVELY 4TH STREET does not center on him exclusively (but then, perhaps enigmas are best glimpsed out of the corner of your eye). The book recreates a charmed time, the era of the ‘60s folk boom with its burning idealism and compelling personalities. It was the perfect cultural milieu for a gifted, ambitious artist like Dylan to make his debut.
But as Hajdu points out, he wasn’t the only opportunist in the crowd. Joan Baez comes across as a curious mixture of brash confidence and quaking insecurity, using the ‘60s to her advantage in a way which in retrospect looks quite ruthless. “She just devoured everybody’s things,” a friend recalls of her ability to expropriate song material and make it her own. “I knew I could do what (the folk singers) were doing and a lot better than them,” Baez claimed.

Her Anglo-Mexican background made her a bit of an exotic, and she soon graduated from the coffeehouses of Cambridge to the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Musician Bob Gibson gave her a push, but it was hardly necessary: “If I hadn’t ‘introduced’ Joan Baez, someone else would have. It was like ‘discovering’ the Grand Canyon.”

Such a force of nature seemed to be on a predestined collision-course with another astral body, a tightly-wound Minnesotan minstrel-boy newly renamed Bob Dylan. The former Bobby Zimmerman, a baby-faced Jewish rock musician from a small town, had remade himself in Woody Guthrie’s image and was busy charming the socks off people (particularly young women) all over New York’s Greenwich Village.

Dylan even mimicked Guthrie’s tics from Huntington’s chorea, causing fellow singer Eric von Schmidt to describe him as “a spastic little gnome”. But with all his charm, Dylan was paradoxically an extreme introvert; as Theodore Bikel reminisced, “He didn’t reach out to touch you. You had to come where he was.”

When these two supernatural beings joined forces, they immediately went supernova. Dylan’s embryonic talent to capture the political zeitgeist was cheered on by an enthralled, deeply infatuated Baez.
Meanwhile her little sister Mimi, still in high school, was developing a quieter but beautifully polished musical gift of her own. Destined to live forever in Joan’s giant shadow, she even ended up with a sort of faux Bob Dylan in the person of Cuban-Irish writer Richard Farina, whom she married at the tender age of seventeen.

The Farina of Hajdu’s account was not so much an original as a badly-smudged photocopy of Dylan’s blazing genius (“I could kind of see the strings,” one friend put it), a hanger-on who would stop at nothing to further his ambitions. While Dylan turned out such searing masterpieces as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Masters of War and The Times They Are A-Changin’, Farina fiddled with a dulcimer and rehashed traditional folk tunes, winning over a surprising number of people on charm alone.
“He walked and talked as if he had been born wearing a cape,” a friend remembers.

Many believed he went after Mimi just to get to Joan, and the ploy worked. For a time there was a strange sort of romantic formation, not a triangle so much as a rectangle, Bob and Joan on one side, Mimi and Richard on the other, with flirtations flying dangerously in all directions.

Though Hajdu is very good at recreating all the fizz and spark of the folk era, he drops names at such a thick rate that it can make for hard going: “Carolyn and Richard had never met Mimi and Todd, and Mimi and Todd had not met Alex Campbell, a Scottish folk singer whom Carolyn , Richard and John knew.” There must be a less-awkward way to introduce the huge cast of players on the folk scene.

But like the magazine reporter he is, Hajdu just has to tell us who was there and what was said, giving some passages a distinct gossip-column flavor. Still, he does show us a Dylan bristling with paradox: stumblingly inarticulate in person, but a master communicator on stage; a protest-song writer par excellence who had virtually no interest in politics; a man both vicious (as in the slashing Positively 4th Street, a diatribe against all his old Greenwich Village friends: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes,/You’d know what a drag it is to see you”) and deeply compassionate, as in the Ballad of Hollis Brown and Chimes of Freedom.

And he traces the inevitable falling-out between the King and Queen of folk, as Baez comes to realize that Dylan “criticizes society, and I criticize it, but he ends up saying there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it, so screw it. And I say just the opposite.” Dylan’s scandalously poor treatment of Joan on his tour to London further undermined the romance, which was destined to blaze briefly, then collapse.

A far worse disaster struck Mimi Baez Farina when her husband was killed in a motorcycle crash on her 21st birthday in 1966. Suddenly it was all over. Dylan abandoned folk and went electric; Joan Baez remained glued in the ‘60s, forever associated with that all-too-brief time when anything seemed possible.

For a more blow-by-blow account of the life of Bob Dylan, you couldn’t do much better than British writer Howard Sounes’ DOWN THE HIGHWAY. This book is as detailed and relentless as one of Dylan’s marathon-length songs (say, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands or Desolation Row) and seems to go on as long as the fabled Never-Ending Tour. For Dylan addicts hungry for trivia tidbits, this is fine fare, but there is a certain fineness missing from the writing, a subtlety which would have helped capture the mystery of the man.

Here we learn that Bob’s nickname in high school was Zimbo, and that he piled his hair on top of his head in deliberate imitation of Little Richard. We find out that the last thing his mother said when he left home was, “Don’t keep writing poetry, please don’t.”

Though Sounes does acknowledge the greatness of Dylan’s lyrics (citing such classic lines as “he not busy being born is busy dying” and “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), he tends to focus more on his subject’s messy, convoluted personal life with its dozens of complicated love affairs. Though Dylan made a brave attempt at marriage to Sara Lowndes and has been a loving father to his six children, he is not good husband material, and can’t even seem to hang on to his friends for long.

What emerges in Sounes’ book is a portrait of a desperately lonely man, isolated by his genius and an almost pathological social awkwardness. In some ways Bob Dylan is a bit of an idiot savant, supremely gifted in his words and music but handicapped everywhere else. But as Sounes points out, his strange charisma is so strong that these flaws only add to his mystique. As one record executive put it, “Is he a regular guy? No. Why would you want him to be?”

The baffling way he has always played with the press reflects a deep shyness and a reluctance to share private details. It would be interesting to know what Dylan would make of a book that probes his personal life so deeply, sometimes at the expense of what should be the main focus, his art.

Still, I was intrigued to learn that “Lay, Lady, Lay” was originally written for Midnight Cowboy (typically, Dylan missed the deadline), and that Woodstock legend Wavy Gravy remains a close friend. And yes, the musicians really were stoned on the infamous Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (which, like a lot of Dylan classics, was done in a single take).

But let the master have the last word. In preparing to write this piece, I plunged back into those songs again and was astounded at their freshness and power, even decades later. This is the real reason Dylan is worthy subject matter for books like these. The man still has the capacity to move me to tears, especially in my personal favorite, his ringing anthem of the dispossessed, Chimes of Freedom:

“Tolling for the aching, whose wounds cannot be nursed,
For the countless confused, accused, misused
Strung-out ones, and worse,
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe –
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashin’.”

To that I say – amen, Bob; amen.

Guitar lessons

Caitlin's musical tastes are along the lines of American Idol and Taylor Swift, whereas mine are steeped in classical music (from childhood, whether I wanted it or not) and the folk craze of the mid-'60s. So who knows where this musical experiment will end up. I think she's a little young (7) to be starting, so I hope Mom doesn't Craigslist the guitar due to lack of storage space.