Perhaps it is spring

Perhaps, finally, it is spring.

Some of the little birds outside have been doing these half-chirps

thinking that it would be okay for them to open their mouths

only to have the true wind, the east coast wind

shoving that sound right back in their throat.

I wonder, if at night, the shoved in wind,

does that keep them up as well?

They might not think that hard about it

being that they are birds.

Advertisements

The Place of the Novelist

“I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.”

-Ralph Ellison

I often turn back to Ralph Ellison when I’m starting something new. I can’t help myself. Invisible Man, for me, is the great American novel. If even there is such a thing, then Ellison’s work is it. Perhaps it was the time in which I read the book – in College, at San Francisco State, while enrolled in my Black Studies classes. This one was taught by Dr. Mary Hoover. I cannot remember reading a work of fiction that floored me in both technique and story as this one. It is, I believe the most of all American Tales.

It was the book that affirmed for me that writing novels was the way to communicate with the world, and to a large extent, I haven’t gotten it right yet, but it’s not going to keep me from trying. After all, if one bangs their head against the wall long enough, we’re either going to knock down the wall or knock ourselves out. Either way, there will be result of action.

The above quote is from a Paris Review interview with Ellison who goes on at length about writing and what he set to achieve with the book. It is interesting that he distinguishes writing “The American Novel” instead of just a novel itself. Perhaps though, he is right. Most of the work to come out of this country, from what I have read at least, is about that conquering of a frontier, and at the same time, with that conquest, actually creating some form of reality from the novel. Perhaps that is why so many Americans want to be novelists.

We may be looking for a myth to call our own. While other countries in the world have thousands of years of tradition, religion, culture, etc. to fall back on, Americans have a short time frame in their history, with most of it being created on realities that are often overlooked or thought best to be forgotten (slavery, stealing of land from native Americans and Mexicans, etc.) Perhaps then, in a nation without a stable experience, we need to find our place by creating myth.

“…shaping of culture as I should like it to be”. That quote has really been sticking with me. If this is indeed the fact, our novels are all attempts to put our visions of the country out there in the world. The American novelist, more than any other country then, is creating a foundation to draw upon for it’s own material. I wonder if that is true. If we look at the novels that we read in High School, for what was required reading, it does provide an interesting foundation. I’m not sure what children are reading in High School these days, but for me, the novels that set my foundation for myth were:

1984, Catcher in the Rhye, A Single Pebble, The Collector, The Stranger, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Looking at these now, I realize that the only two American novels out of the bunch are Catcher in the Rhye and A Single Pebble. Both of those, in some way, are indeed about conquering a frontier. It appears in this brief sampling, that Ellison was right. Though the frontier that’s captured in Catcher in the Rhye is more of the conquering of youth in the form of New York City while A Single Pebble is about an American trying to conquer a foreign being, there is that sense of journey to discover something outside of ourselves.

Is that what the purpose of the American novel is? If so, it brings me back to a conversation I had a with a foreign student while teaching English a few years back. When I was talking about how Walt Whitman went away and wrote in a cabin on Walden Pond, about how he wanted to go and discover himself, she remarked how “selfish” the act was. How one man took up so much time discovering what he wanted for himself. How he wanted to define himself. Is that something that is inherent to the American novel? That we are trying to figure ourself out?

In this past Sunday New York Time’s book review section, when Jonathan Franzen was asked what kind of books he enjoys reading, he remarked “I like fiction by writers engaged in trying to make sense of their lives and of the world in which they find themselves..” This would seem to back up Ellison’s answer to the following question:

“Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?”

“It is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development.”

So then, so far, the American novel has been concerned with the question “Who Am I” or simply, answering the first lines of Hamlet: “Who’s there?”

I cannot and do not wish to answer for the entirety of  the ever-growing list of American novelists as to whether or not the big question everyone is trying to answer is “What the hell am I doing here in this country and how am I going to live with myself as an American”, but I can at least answer for myself, and try like hell with my next work to move away from that question. The American novel may be in a state of stagnation because it continues to ask the same question over and over again.

I, as much as anyone with the 3 books I’ve written, is guilty of the very same thing. How then to move on and away from such things without being untrue to who I am: An American searching for some kind of identity. And, more than that, to take some of the importance away from the novelist themselves, as being the shaper of myth. Perhaps it is now more about an exploration of the rest of the world by taking the American and their importance to it out of the picture.

I would be an interesting dive to say the very least.

Dear Golden Gate Toll Booth Workers

 

Dear Golden Gate Bridge Toll Booth Workers,

Today I opened the New York Times and read that the people were being taken out of your soul. Computers were replacing those who stood in your tool booths collecting bills and giving smiles.

I remember all of you with great love – when I used to visit my father up in San Francisco and the people in the booths welcomed us into the city when we drove over from Sausalito.

Your hearts beat inside the wonder that was created to lift spirits and connect lands.

You are not just a combination of steel, cables and paint – you are a smile on the way to work, a look in the middle of traffic, and a piece of humanity that gives us all pause when stuck inside our vehicles.

How many lives did you all touch – You magnificent workers inside tiny spaces? Moments of pause have been deemed too costly. Perhaps they can build another sports stadium or do product placement over what were once windows filled with citizens of the city the great Golden Gate protected.

For generations now, those who cross your entrances and exits will be greeted with another electronic statistic void of personality.

It’s progress they say – a cost saving tactic designed at efficiency. What of the people who no longer have jobs to go to? Jobs that required being friendly and welcoming with pride in their work?

I thank you, all of you who shared their energy with me throughout my lifetime – making the voyage to San Francisco seem like a magic act with each visit.

Though you have been removed from the physical bridge, you are in so many souls, forever.

For the billions of bridge crossers, we thank you.

-CH

The Rain

On rainy days like this, I always think of Sausalito – of times with my father when the area around his apartment complex flooded and the sounds of the rain hitting the mud below got louder and louder the more the water piled up. We couldn’t go anywhere and that was just fine – I enjoyed those moments I spent with him. There were these huge glass windows that looked out over the bay where the houseboats would sway back and forth. We’d cook something and eat on these plates – I remembered them so well – they were plastic and kind of deep with raised edges. He always had bagels in the freezer that we’d make with butter – put them in the broiler part of the over with little slabs of butter on them.

I think now, even when I taste that, I remember those times with my father. I remember them as a child and feel less of an adult with all the weight that comes with it. There is something about the weather moving around as it does – on this morning, I can hear the weight of the rain coming down and think that perhaps it’s some kind of wormhole to another time. Those days in Sausalito were our times, a very special place in history. It was still untouched and unfiltered. How amazing.

We’d play chess – my father taught me to play, and the board looked so big. I can still remember the pieces and the weight of the board itself – how big they were in my hand and how each move was such a huge decision because everything else dropped away except for the game. But the surroundings – the time we spent, the moments that were shared and all that was exchanged, were all captured I think by the falling rain that caused the flood that allowed times for games to be so important.

I can still remember looking up and seeing the houseboats moving. I remember the cranes flying above that were housed in the Eucalyptus trees that grew high above the fence just the right right of his apartment complex. Everything felt so natural, and today, with the morning rain in Brooklyn, I have those memories flooding back.

Each time it’s gray like it is today, my thoughts drift to San Francisco, both in my time there as a college student and my time with my father when we’d race through the city and the areas surrounding it trying to squeeze in as much time as possible. Those memories are amazing and filled me quite strongly this morning. Memory is like that with the sounds and smells of you past, and there is a very distinct connection between Brooklyn and San Francisco – perhaps it’s the smell of trees or their ability to hold onto the rain much longer than the cement of Manhattan does.

 

 

History

How will I tell this new story? The papers are stacked up and the photos, most of them, all have dates. The numbers match. The timelines of history can do the rest. I’ve been talking to relatives and people who have had contact in some way (and I believe that studying is a way) with my grandfather. His story is different, and in many ways, not so different from those who went through the same thing when leaving Europe. When being made to leave Europe. However you want to look at it.

When we talk in terms of history, we talk in terms of dates, times and huge numbers – so much so that that human element gets lost a bit. So how does one bring humanity out of a sea of numbers and statics? For me, I must travel back in time now to Germany in the 20s and perhaps even before that. I can no longer ignore everything that’s being presented to me.

Yesterday, I sat down with a relative who knew my grandfather in Germany, in London and here in the United States. He helped fill in some pieces that I didn’t know – the fact that he was so willing to travel back in his memory was incredible to me. Now, the question is not only how to put it all together – how to get it all going and put into the right context, but how to tell the story. It’s important to tell these stories so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.

We can see that in many ways, right now, we are in an era of incredible thought and progressing. Technology and the ability to create and dive further into what exactly makes us human is greater than it has ever been in the history of the world. What will we do with that ability? Can we use to to distribute knowledge in such a way that brings about a greater understanding of each other? Do humans want that – to understand? I’m not sure. I think I’d like to explore that – what do humans want and why do we act in such a way that separates and divides?

I’m not so sure that is a genetic trait – I believe, though I have no proof, that perhaps we have been studied so much that our thoughts are constantly being manipulated and we believe what we do because it’s been fed to the right part parts of our brain. We are, in fact, living against our natural order. In the middle of madness and war, there has to be other alternatives. Perhaps this journey I am taking with the spirit of my grandfather is going to guide that. It’s a higher purpose I believe and one that I must take another leap of faith.

What else can I do when information keeps on being presented in this way? I must move with the universe. Big leaps, but those usually turn out with great success or a tremendous fall – both of which might be better than just staying the course.

Mr. Batcho

Today was a great thrill. I found my Freshman High School English Teacher, Mr. Batcho. This was the man who made me love literature. He was the one who, when we were 15, had us read The Stranger. That was the first day of the first class in High School. Next was The Collector. Next was A Single Pebble. He never let us write a thing in class or at home.

We had to be there early each morning and write whatever we had in these little blue books. I don’t remember much else of high school because after that, I knew that someone my life had to be involved with books. With writing. We talked for a bit. I remember that we was leaving teaching to go sail up the Yangtza river before they damned it up. I had always wondered if he ever did that and today I found out that indeed he had.

I thanked him over and over again for giving me the love of reading and writing, and that his lessons had stayed in my soul. His voice sounded exactly the same. Even the way he ended some of his sentences with “man”. He talked about how he had biked through Paris in the 50s – his time in the Korean War – and about what his granddaughter was up to.

He told me about the shakespeare classes he was taking even today! Amazing. He was such a huge part of my life and I let him know that each word I write is because, in some ways, because of him. The way he taught us, the passion he instilled in us to push and get out of our comfort zone. To fail and learn from that. We all have that one teacher who meant that us- and it’s important I think to find them and let them know how much they meant. How much their lives changed our lives.

I talked to him a bit about my writing and what I was doing and that he had inspired so much of that. It was incredible to connect to that person who, in my brain, still stands for everything that I love about writing, literature, and the connection that people have with books.

More than that, it was the time to say thank you. Over and over again. Truly.

From the Place

I guess that’s the hardest thing to do – write from the place of origin. Where is the center of the story? That, for me, is the most difficult thing to find. Lately, I’ve been listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. It’s hard for me to listen to anything else these days. It’s such an incredible album in it’s entirety.

So honest and perfectly carved up. “Mango peaches and lime. Sweet life.” The studio was his for the whole thing. What is it that makes this album so special above so many others? Not a clue, but I know my ears can’t listen to anything else without craving for more of that album. It gave me faith in music again and made me enjoy art – which is so sublime – such a feeling of pleasure and relaxation and, at the same time, a heightened state of understanding. Trying to find the center of the story, so I’ll need to shake the characters from my other three and focus.

Can’t bring them along this time. Something different. Guess that’s what it’s like to try to make it. Make something real out of something as unreal as letters strung together. I guess that’s what I’m after in this new one – and I’m stuck as hell as usual at this phase. With about 100 or so type-written pages, 150 computer written pages on this book behind me, I’m ready to go, but just looking for the jumping off point. Where is it coming from? Love? Sadness? Loss? Want? There has to be a seed – a center of the universe for each book, and though I haven’t found one yet for this one, I’m circling around in my Carl Sagan space craft (if you’ve seen those old 70s Cosmos shows you know what I’m talking about).

I don’t mind the frustration part of this section of the process. The birth will be worth it, so I continue. All 3 of my books have started out here in some way, so there is something magical about this sketch book. Calling out to my characters in hopes that they hear and will finally jump in the right way onto the page just like the Lyrics in Frank Ocean’s songs.

I do remember now some amazing moments in “A Visit from the Good Squad” when the boy takes a dip in the bathtub and we see the main character’s reaction to that. Incredible moment. It’s the same when Ocean is in the cab. Just honest moments. Looking for honest moments in fiction is like looking for sanity in an office environment.

Still, you must create beauty out of those moments. Maybe it’s that. Creating beauty out of the moments of pain. Exposure.

 

Hollywood Forever

Dear Hollywood,

We’ve known each other since I was 5 years old.

How special you are beyond the sights of the tour buses.

You exist at the end of a long wait for an Astro Burger order at 2 AM with onion rings stacked.

There are secret statues along Sunset Boulevard of Greek philosophers speaking truth next to the strip clubs.

Your waiters spill out from hopefully soon-to-be-over nighttime gigs at clubs and restaurants where they serve who they hope to be.

Hollywood Forever (2013)

Hollywood Forever (2013)

Your mountains have secret trails and legends of their own that can only be fully explored on life altering dates with a woman who causes trembles as moves towards finally kissing her are made.

The stools in diners like Angels, up past the Sunset Boulevard most tourists know, still turn slowly, and the clock on the wall is backwards while nobody says a word.

There is always an alley where actors are practicing their lines – but only when it’s light. The shift happens after sunset and it all starts again.

You have classic horror movies showing for free on the walls of the oddest places, and all around the glow, young lovers, and those looking for love outside of their facebook status, are settling in for the night.

Across the street, at the bus stop, more citizens sit and wait for a ride home.

The strange thing, for me at least Hollywood, is that everyone who comes here wants to be on a screen instead of part of your insides.

The rest of the world is beginning to catch up with your ability, but I believe it’s your soul that will keep them falling in love, forever.

This book, Hollywood Forever, is how I saw you all those years.

-CH

Vests

Crossing the waters in Brooklyn

Crossing the waters in Brooklyn

On the way to the subway, saw these kids taking a field trip for their school. Holding hands and looking across the wide street with wide eyes and cautious strolls, each of the movements were so different. Each took steps and moved in their own ways. Once across, some acted like they had just set foot on new land after a long journey, while others continued as if it were no big thing. The orange vests though – it was as if they were all in the same kind of club.

Handed out to those who still were able to exist on imagination, they all belonged to that exclusive club of youth. Of not knowing.

I tried to get a shot of all of them walking together in a straight line so that they may look like orange ducks, but the use of a camera has never been by strong suit.

Around the country, scenes like these may have been repeated over and over again, some needing vests, some just strolling and holding hands. Wonder what would happen if adults would hold hands and look out for each other’s safety. If we did continue to look out for each other. Something though, changes when we loose the vests and loose the time in the middle of the day to cross the street safely. We let go of clasped fingers and start walking on our own, trying to be the first on the sidewalk and then looking back and feeling better that others are still in the middle of the ocean.

We are though, all in the middle of the ocean. We reason other things and believe that the truth, whatever it is, can guide us and justify our actions. Even thoughts such as that, so much going on when the cross of the street happens. Perhaps there should be an national orange vest day where everyone who is wearing an orange vest will be okay with you walking up to them, grab hold of their hand, and walk with them across the street.

Right there, even writing that, I laughed at the silliness of such a thing.  You probably did too, but these kids seem to have been doing a pretty good time of it. Maybe it could be sponsored by Prell or one of the other hand sanitizing products – encouraging the clean use of holding someones hand as you travel to your destination. Odd ideas when you take time to notice the crossing of the street.