Tuesday, January 31, 2006

When I was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I saw a student jump to his death from the 26 story library in which I was studying for exams. I was sitting in an easy chair facing a window that overlooked a pond in the center of the campus. Looking up from my book, I saw people gathering on the grass below. Some of them were pointing toward the library. Others held their hands to their mouths: Body Lingua Franca for ‘ Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing here. “

What was that like? What was I seeing, what does it remind me of now, thirty years later?

People on the streets of lower Manhattan, looking up at the towers on September 11.

I could see all this pretty clearly as I was on the fifth floor of what was then the world’s tallest library.

I had no idea why all those people were gathering on the lawns surrounding the pond. I knew something was happening in or on the building in which I was studying. That was apparent from the body language of those to whom I was now paying more attention than the journalism text I held in my lap.

It wasn’t long before I knew what those five floors beneath me knew. As I was looking down and they were looking up, something sped past the window through which I was glimpsing this odd scene.

What the fuck was that? I thought.

Whatever it was, it had gone down, so that was the direction in which I looked. I leaned forward, put the book I was reading on the floor. Looked straight down and saw the body sprawled on the cement five floors below.

I was struck by how benign it all looked. People experience these awful events; they survive tornados and hurricanes. Tsunamis. Fires that consume neighborhoods just east of places like Malibu and Bel Aire.

Wives’ husbands drop dead as the two of them eat dinner. Wife asks, “ Pass the salt please, “ and he doesn’t.

I saw my father die. I was there, at the hospital. Heard The Voice on the PA system announce, :"ICU, resperatory. STAT.”

My mother and I were in the cafeteria when I heard that. She didn’t hear it. But I did.

“ Let’s go, Mom, “ I said. “ Let’s get back there. “

I told mom to sit in the waiting room, then walked into ICU. A cadre of doctors and nurses were on top of my father. I'd never seen anything like that before. This was new. I was more curious than anything. What's going on here? I felt no fear and no shame.

This was a few years before I started working in a hospital. “ Code “ was a word I associated with RAF Chicksands. NSA. Top secret clearances, one of which I had.

You expect to witness death in a hospital. You're sitting on the fifth floor of the world's tallest library, studying journalism - death surprises the hell out of you. There, it's something you're supposed to be reading about.

It's been said that revenge is a dish best served cold. Stress is a similar dish. Believe it or not that suicide never bothered me all that much. But in 2001, after seeing those people hurling themselves from the towers...

That was real. I know it was real because I saw it on TV. I was working on a locked psych unit in western Massachusetts. Staff and patients were watching Today I was talking to my friend Ariel, a psych nurse. Then I heard the charge nurse say, " Come here and look at this; the World Trade Center is on fire. "

I didn't feel much as I watched the TV. But two weeks later I called in sick. I was feeling anxious. Very anxious. My heart was beating fast and I was sweating.

All those people. Jumping...

Have you seen the videos? I avoid them; it's hard to watch. Lots of books have been written about that day. You could go to the library and check them out. Me?

It's only been four years. I'm not ready to read about it.

Not yet.
The creative writing workshop I facilitate gave a reading at the local library Sunday afternoon. I was introduced by a librarian. Then I introduced the readers. Tried to break some late January ice by saying that Oprah had been expected to introduce them.

" But she called this morning and said she couldn't make it, " I said. I paused, then said, " I made that up. I never talked to Oprah. And she would never talk to me; I'm writing a memoir. "

I'm not exactly Chris Rock when it comes to doing a stand-up comedy routine. But as I looked out at the puddle ( hardly a sea ) of faces, I did see some smiles. A few actually got the joke, the point of it being that James Frey and Oprah had just had a falling out. Frey being the substance abusing pathological liar who " duped " The Big O " into adding his " memoir to her list of books America Must Read.

Frey's book was the first non-fiction book chosen by Oprah. When it was disclosed that Frey's story was a pack of lies, Oprah at first defended the guy. Called into Larry King's show and said that all that mattered to her was that it was a " Great story. "

That's like a wife forgiving her husband for screwing around with the au pair after she hears his explanation, which is thick with quotes from Hamlet and sounds like something David Mamet might have written.

The reading went well. I was proud of the writers. This was the third year the class has been invited to read aloud. Takes courage to write the kind of stuff they write. Takes guts to read it in class. Reading it out in public?

Gutsy crew.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The title of the book on your lap is Progress Notes. It's not a bad question to ask at this point in the narrative: Am I making any progress?

As I sit here writing, listening to Warren Zevon, I'm thinking: Maybe not. Holding my own? Maybe. A plane on the tarmac, one of several waiting to take off? Maybe. Holding pattern is the term that best describes where I am. What next? That's the question.

Montaigne, the Godfather of the personal essay, wrote about his hemorroids. He thought: If itr's about me it's about time readers knew about it. And so much of what I've been writing recently has been about me.

Whoever it was who first said - Write about what you know- should be taken out in the hall and shot. You put pen to paper and press the keys with that in mind and you're going to end up writing about one thing and one thing only.

Your damn self.

I think it was a Czech novelist who wrote: " Life is elsewhere.


So I'm going to try to get the spotlight off me. Try to focus more on there, less on here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

" The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story. That's not enough anymore. "

Christy Fletcher, a New York City literary agent commenting on the
fallout from the revelation that James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces,
is far more fiction than not.

There's this old dumb joke I often tell to make a point about how high or low one should set the bar of expectations.

Family walks onto a beach. They spread their blankets. Unfold their beach chairs. Strip down, take off their jeans and T Shirts. Scurry like lemmings into the water. Becky tosses a frisbee. Joline catches the disk. Bobby rides a wave, body surfs. Pushed like a stubborn mule towards the shore. Clint, an aloof kid, skinny, his face thick with pimples and blackheads wanders unnoticed into the sea. Deeper and deeper he goes and, oops, he's caught in a rip tide.

Poor Clint.

But the good news is there's a lifeguard who spots Clint flopping around like a bluefish on an umbrella rig. Lifeguard bolts into the blue water, swims like Tarzan swam, gets to Clint just in time. Rescues Clint. Drags his sorry ass back onto the beach.

The family surrounds Clint and the lifeguard. Rodney, an uncle, steps up. Confronts the lifeguard. Rodney says:

" He was wearing a hat. "

Sometimes what you do, even though you think what you're doing is the very best you can do, isn't enough. The effort you make isn't even close to enough.

Where the fuck's that hat the kid was wearing when he moseyed on into the water?

For the past year or I've been busy writing a memoir. I've also been spending some time facilitating a creative writing workshop. Among the items on the agenda of these once a week meetings is memoir: what it is and what it should be.

I have some working titles for the two memoirs on which I am working.

But there's a title that keeps coming back, like a song heard on the radio in the morning that keeps playing over and over again in your mind.

The Best of my Recollections

For the past year or so I've tried my best to tell a good story. I've tried my damndest to write the story well. I came up with a clever title.

That's not enough?

Raised by a pack of coyotes. Killed a man just to watch him die. Married an actress who died after being held hostage by a cousin of one of the terrorists who captured the world's attention at the Olympics in Munich. Was chosen, in the mid 1980s, to be the first advertising copywriter in space, a member of the space shuttle crew. Cellmate of former Providence mayor Vincent " Buddy " Cianci.

That's just a thin slice of my resume.

Given that material, I could write stories like Michael Bolton writes songs and still expect to land on the best seller list faster than you can say " Bridges of Madison County. "

That was then. This is now. Now we memoir writers, our thick/thin skins, are covered with the soot and ash, the fallout from the James Frey/Oprah wars.

It's not fair! I've been telling the truth ( As I see it. ) I have never ( knowingly ) lied. Oh sure, that time I wrote about me getting a $250 ticket for littering on the Jersey Turnpike? Okay. I embellished that one a bit, a tad, a short hair. Okay. It was a warning. It was a U-Turn. It was the Garden State Parkway.

Big fucking deal!

It was the best of my recollection. Memory fails. I want you to remember that. Recall what I'm saying. I'll call you in three years.

See how much you can remember.

Friday, January 27, 2006

We're back from Florida. The laptop's back from the shop. That guy Frey was back on Oprah today, and John Kerry's back, too. Urging the Democrats to filibuster the Alito nomination. Someone said on Imus today that Kerry's going to read his pre-nup agreement, which is reported to have more pages than Moby Dick. That'll kill some time. As did Kerry's run for the presidency.

A lot's happened since my last entry on this blog. There was an election in Palestine and there was some confusion and the U.S. Supreme Court got involved and what happens next? Hamas wins. Be careful what you wish for and all that. You want democracy in these god forsaken places? James Madison is spinning in his grave. Give morons the vote and guess who'll they'll vote for.

The Patriots lost; they're not going to the Super Bowl. Maybe we should encourage Teddy Kennedy and Kerry to file a bill making it possible for the team to do what it damn well pleases, clip, step out of bounds, use hidden mikes, wire the other team ( And maybe some guys on our own team ) so we'll know what their game plan is.

We could call it: The Patriot Act.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

George Carlin has a great riff about location, location, location. Here and there. Been there done that. Don't go there. I'm here for you. That kind of thing. Only Carlin could come up with material like this. Irish, literate, addicted to wine, Vicodin and the nuances of the English language, he's clean and sober now. But he's still obsessed with what we say and how we say it.

Carlin's latest book was one of several I took with me on our vacation to Florida. Florida? yeah. Been there. Done that. Someone said, Don't go there, but we did. Now we're back.

I'm here for you, again, dear readers.

When I was a young airman ( Over there ) in England, I had this plan. When I got out, was let out, when I was discharged, released, I'd one day drive cross country. Then write about what I saw and heard and felt.

Haven't been there. Haven't done that. But I've been up and down the east coast, traveled I-95 and I-81. 301 too. That damn speed trap. I've gone south and I've returned. God! So many times since that first time in March 1967. Then the destination was Fort Lauderdale. This time Donna and I were headed for Fort Meyers Beach. We stopped in St. Augustine on the way down and we stopped in Jacksonville on the way back.

There's an old fort in St. Augustine. Jacksonville was, is and will always be a military town. But it's repositioning itself, like Newport and Groton. Tourism is overtaking militarism. The city on the St. John's river is now a place people go to. In the past it was a place from which sailors were shipped out.

Getting there from here in Rhode Island means you have to fly, take the train, drive or be driven. When Donna and I headed towards Florida on our honeymoon in 1977, I drove. Straight through. No stopping, except for bathroom breaks. Donna drove a little, but it was mostly me who drove south.

This time I was driven. Donna was behind the wheel for most of the trip. I'm a nervous passenger who thinks often of the first sentence in that Brett Eason Ellis novel, Less Than Zero.

" People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. "

You drive south on the interstates and you are constantly reminded of why they're there. The interstate highway system was Eisenhower's idea. Kennedy wanted us to plant men on the moon. Ike envisioned people like me being launched from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Destination: Fort Meyers Beach. The cold war. Mutually Assured Destruction. All out nuclear war. Fallout shelters. Dr. Strangelove.

The key word is, of course, escape. All those routes: Means of escape. Getting out of here. Going there. Where it's safe. Eisenhower was nothing if not prescient. He knew what the geographic cure was long before we added it to our vocabulary.

One of our stops was in Jacksonville, where we stayed with our old friend Terry C. Sunday night Terry drove us over to Atlantic Beach. Bill and Diane and their black dog, Tralee were to be our host, hostess. The black dog would be there to remind us of what black dogs are and what black dogs represent. We got there and Bill kept asking, " Anyone want a drink? " He and Diane have this wonderful house and we wanted to see it. But Bill wanted to know: What do you want to drink?

" How about a rum drink, " Bill asked.

A rum drink? Here we were just a few miles north of Margaritaville, just west of all those places where drinks have fancy names and are served in tall glasses with little umbrellas stuck in them.

A rum drink?

The drink needed a name. I challenged Terry to come up with one. And I went to work on the name.

Maybe we could call it a Rumsfeld.

I saw Bill preparing the drink. He poured the rum and then looked for other things to pour into the tall glass. I got the feeling that it didn't matter much what he added to the rum. A little of this, a little of that. Whatever's within reach. If someone asked Bill, " What's the story with that rum drink? " Bill might say, " It is what it is. "

And you pour into it the stuff you have, not the stuff you wish you had.

Florida. We learned some things there. The royal palm tree for instance. It's on the license plate. It's what you look for when you travel south; it tells you:

You're here.

But what we learned, Donna and I, is that the tree is not indiginous to the state of Florida. It arrived, as we did, from someplace else. No one's really sure whence it came. And there was a story in the Times today. Royal palms are on the way out. Leafy, shade giving trees are being planted in the soft soil of the Sunshine State. Less sunshine. More shade in which black dogs can sleep.

Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California: " There's no there there. "

I'll drink to that.

Hey Barkeep. I'll have a Rumsfeld.

Florida. It is what it is. But we'll be going back Donna and I. We'll be going back there.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Dateline: Jacksonville, Florida.

Donna and I are staying at our friend T.erry's house, just a few blocks from the St. John's River. Terry has always been one of our favorite house guests. He knows just what to bring with him and is not one of those visitors who feel they are there to be waited on. Entitled he is not. And he's turned out to be a fabulous host, preparing dinner for us last night and breakfast for us this morning.

Afrer breakfast Terry took us on a tour of this part of the city. It's a delightful place, thick with interesting neighborhoods boasting an eclectic array of houses. Magnolia trees and Spanish moss. Parks. Canals. Libraries and outdoor cafes.

Terry's lived here for nearly three years, having moved from the Fort Pierce area down the coast. Before that he lived in Key West. Gradually moving north, like spring does.

We'll be leaving here tomorrow morning, heading back home. First stop Florence, South Carolina. Then drive eight hours to someplace in Pennsylvania. Final leg Wednesday. It'll be good to be home. It'll be late January. Then February will come and then March. Spring looms.

I know, I know. Who cares about this vacation we're on? It's not like the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Donner party we ain't. Haven't been attacked by Indians. Been pretty relaxing; nothing's been eating us.

Well, there is one thing I could probably write home about. There was this guy with the chainsaw in Fort Meyers beach. I didn't like what he was doing with it...

More on this later.