Old Moon

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Blast from the Past

I find myself with a mentor. Suddenly an old schoolmate (from the graduating class behind mine in high school) phoned. I remembered his name, but not another thing about him. He was looking for some old yearbooks for a book he's writing. I had some of them. As they say, One thing led to another, and I found myself in long, intense, fascinating conversation with a man who is unable to talk without mentioning several famous (not just well-known) show business names in every sentence. This goes with the territory because he's the son of a famous actress and writer and stepson of a Broadway producer everyone has heard of.

Because he's working on a memoir, he asked me what I knew about a number of people from our school, many of whom I lost track of the minute I graduated, some of whom are no longer alive, and some of whom I happened to know about. In the latter group is a woman older than I whose life has repeatedly intersected with mine. She has led a remarkable life as basically a servant of humane causes--as a teacher. First in California, then in Nigeria, and finally in China. Her parents and mine were close friends. When I answered his question about her, I told him what I know, and he immediately said, "She became a saint. You have to write a poem about her."

After the phone call, I decided in an offhand, this-will-come-to nothing way, to try. I sent him the result. [He mistrusts the Internet, is a bit of a conspiracy nut, and has almost total recall. Hence all communication is via phone or snail  mail.] He called me the night he got the poem to demand I send him a signed copy.

He calls two or three times a week with advice, lists of required reading, and guidelines about what to do about writing. (He's reading Peripheral Vision now.) He insists on discussing the novel I'm trying so hard to find some entree for into the traditional publishing world. His behavior is like that of someone who has made me a protegee. It's a stimulating experience, and sends me to bed after a couple of hours (sic.) on the phone so wired I can hardly wait for another day to get started working in the light of the previous evening's talk.

We are diametric opposites politically (beginning with the fact that I'm not at all political and he is). Our artistic tastes are apparently not similar except in a few cases, but this man is unalterably opinionated, so I listen and glean. The point to all this is that I've discovered--or rediscovered--how stimulating it can be to have reaction to your work, but also how invigorating to have someone determined to direct you whose opinion you respect. I don't have to agree with everything he says, and the freedom to choose is liberating beyond anything I've experienced since graduate school days.

Would you believe I'm looking forward to the closing-in sense winter brings?

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

I've been reading a Pulitzer Prize winner. Without Mr. P's name on the cover, I'd have stopped after 30 pages. I persevered, and have come almost to the end. The characters that in the beginning made me grind my teeth have matured or died. From the beginning, the writing was vivid, original, attractive, but the situations and people in them made me want to drop them as quickly as I could. Even now, with only a few pages to go, and filled as I am with admiration for the creativity evident in A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'm shaken.

I'm not a prude, and the Anglo Saxon epithets were realistic, suited to the mouths uttering them. I simply wondered why I should care about people who were not only crude (though sometimes sensitive), but self-absorbed and amoral. Their world seemed to offer nothing on its surface to suggest they might need to become observant, other-directed, or altruistic, but their lack of imagination on their own behalf astonished me as the material that had won such a prestigious prize. I think that was the point, and satire was evident, but I felt cheated by seeing nothing else for so long.

It got me thinking about fashion. We all know that it comes and goes. We all know it applies to a lot more in our lives than clothes. It appears to be omnipresent in either the persons or the perceived rankings of judges--of all the arts. Where (outside of that enclave known as "Inspirational") are critics who are willing to look to the effects of their judgments on viewers and readers? What has happened to contemporary art? Why is the public so ready to immerse itself (if I may refer to it as a monolith for the sake of this argument) in the down sides of life? Happiness is so often as easy as understanding Rabbi Schachtel's aphorism: Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.

It's clear that nothing is quite that simple, but it's also clear that too many young people, especially those who have almost everything they could ever want, are the most dissatisfied and depressed and at a loss. Even today there are plenty of anecdotes about triumph over adversity, and too few of humility and gratitude. It's disheartening to see how much adult literature is devoted not just to showing the abstracted, drugged gyrations of musicians and those who look to the noise in their headphones to define themselves, but also to those who glamorize mindless sex as being as uncomplicated as the next drink at a bar, who give not a thought to how their actions may cause others to suffer, or even to the harm they do to themselves.

These days, you almost have to venture backwards in time to find pictures of life redeemed in spite of or because of depravity, dishonesty, error. The ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen, even Sinclair Lewis or Harper Lee...make your own list. Writing and painting and music hardly dare to be beautiful these days except for some poets. The cachet is in being gritty, hip, up on the latest fashionable illegality.

Being human should not be made to appear like a sentence to misery to be lifted only by discouraged compromise.