Memory of home, from “Man in Landscape”

It’s not that the times aren’t dark. It’s that they’ve been so for so long that the darkness has become normal. We no longer notice it, or, if we do, we keep it to ourselves. It would serve nothing and no one to make mention of it, save for death. And for all the platitudes which grace television and billboards, don’t be fooled: death is the master here in these latter days, death the only one being served, regardless of what anyone tells you.

***

But I remember. Every now and then, lying in bed, at night, I smell cookies. So mundane. But I do catch their scent. My mother made them once or twice a week. It was in a time when people obsessed over their health. She didn’t care. Or, she did—how could she not, being a mother?—but decided that the pleasure it brought us was worth the risk.

I would smell them baking, the oven door no barrier to their aroma. The smell would fill the house, butter and chocolate and sugar giving the house the sweet smell of home. Then they’d come out, done, but we couldn’t touch them. They had to cool down, and we had to eat dinner first. No dessert before dinner. (Remember dessert? Remember good meals? Remember?)

We’d eat the meal, each of us recounting our days—me, my brother, our parents—long and leisurely, not concerned with the passing of time, for time didn’t pass when we were all together, in the kitchen, swapping stories, reconnecting our lives together after a day apart at work and school.

And then, after dinner was eaten and the dishes put away, Mother would bring out the cookies. (I called her Mother. He called her Mama. My choice was not one of formality; it was simply who she was, what fit her. She could be both Mother and Mama. She carried multitudes in her.)

Oh, I don’t know if anyone else would have enjoyed them as much as we did. They might have acknowledged their good taste. But would they have devoured them as we did? With the same fierce love? No. They tasted all the better because, busy as she was, she took the time to bake them. Sometimes she’d prepare the batter the night before, so that all she’d need to do when returning home from work would be to put them in the oven. On the weekends their making would be a family project, even Dad joining in on the work. (To me he was Dad. To my brother he was Pop. There was no formality in him. He was a man who could talk to high and low and treat them equally with equanimity. He was loved by all. Most of all by Mother.)

After we’d had our fill, we separated, to attend to our own interests, strengthened by that time spent together, our rejuvenation. And the cycle would begin again.

Do you remember family? Do you remember love? Do they still exist? Can they?

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If I can write a third as well as this, I’ll die happy

On my bucket list is to be in Dublin some June 16—hopefully while I’m still ambulatory and in possession of all my faculties—and go from place to place—preferably bar to bar—and listen to James Joyce’s Ulysses being recited. Yes, Bloomsday in Dublin is on my list of things to do before I die.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was worth reading, but definitely not worth re-reading. Dubliners is a master class on the short story form; “The Dead” may be the best short story ever written in the English language, possessed of the force of a novel. So, I was familiar with Joyce when I decided many years ago in my UCLA days to take a seminar on Ulysses. It may have been hubris, or the devil-may-care attitude of youth, but I thought I could tackle what many call, again, the best novel ever written in English, or maybe in any language.

I’ve read the work only once; and it has stayed with me ever since.

When I greet a good friend—male or female—I sometimes do so with the words “Ah, plump Buck Mulligan”. And my philosophy of life can be summed up in this exchange:

—Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

And of course, the video that begins this essay is perhaps the most sublime expression of love I have ever read. It was in my mind when I wrote the final chapter of The Genealogies. We travel back in time to the first assignation between Marcelo’s mother and father, and the chapter is an explosion of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to the man she will marry. (Don’t worry, it’s not ruining the ending. Again, the lesson is in the journey, not the destination.) Of course, I didn’t copy the style or the matter of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But its essence, the absolute joy it finds in love and life informed my writing.

The thing about the book is that Joyce infuses it with the joy of being alive and human. Leopold Bloom could have easily descended into a pathetic character: a Jew in 1904 Dublin, a cuckold, uxorious, on the margins of society. But instead he’s one of the most brilliant and simply human literary creations of the 20th century. Stephen Dedalus could’ve been a scapegoat for everything Joyce saw in himself as a failing; but his alter ego grows throughout the novel, getting to the point where he is ready to, like Joyce, write about the condition of his country and its people. And Molly Bloom, an enigma throughout most of the book, erupts with the force of a woman reveling in life in that magnificent final chapter. She goes from being a chain around Bloom’s neck to being the person who gives his existence meaning. Molly confronts the world on her own terms in the “Penelope” episode, as enraptured of her own little king as that other Penelope was of her wandering husband 3,000 years ago.

If you haven’t read Ulysses, I hope this essay encourages you to do so. It may, quite literally, change your life. At least a little bit.

A little night music

So, I have a blog.

I already have a home on the Interwebs at The Peoples’ View.  That’s where I opine on things liberal and politic. Check it out if you can, not just for me, but for all the fabulous writers who reside there.

That was my first taste of blogdom, and the bug bit me something fierce. But, of course, I live in L.A., and as with every waiter and dog-walker in this town, I have higher ambitions.

One of the works I’m highlighting on this site, The Genealogies, has been in gestation since 2004. I’m reaching Finnegans Wake territory here. Its composition has alternated between periods of steady, accumulating work, and long lapses of inactivity. The novel is done, but the editing has taken forever. Writing the novel is the fun part. Rewriting is the real work, and work it is. I have, quite honestly, hit a wall of disinterest. I think most of it stems from writing in a vacuum, as I alluded to in my “About” page. I have neither the time nor the inclination to seek out a writers’ group and put my work before its tender mercies. I know just how bitchy a breed we are, and my trusting nature extends only so far. So, one of this site’s benefits is that I get to do a virtual workshop on the book with you, my readers. I’d rather have the opinion of an educated readership than the neuroses of an MFA. I have enough neuroses of my own to spare; adding someone else’s might just push me over the edge. So, I’ll rewrite, post, and hopefully get constructive feedback from an audience which will, eventually, buy the damned thing once it has been polished to a diamond sheen. Preferably before I’m on my deathbed.

But what occasioned the creation of this blog was the new piece on which I’m working, Man in Landscape. Originally, in the few seconds which gave birth to this project, the blog was to be solely devoted to that work, which came to me as I watched a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich. (If you don’t know who he is, Google him and listen to his music. The 20th century is written in it.) As I was searching for a domain name, I tried different variations on “man in landscape”. The Genealogies was the red-headed stepchild of the project, but a necessary part of it, as I’ve lived with it for so long.

So, I’m working on two novels at once, which I’m sure violates some sort of quantum law. But, as I read more than one book at a time, it’s all of a piece with me. And, as this little essay indicates, the work of this blog won’t concern itself solely with the novels. Essays, opinions, reviews, and the general wonderment of life will grace its pages. I’ll write about the ephemera of life, and on the mechanics of the novels, thinking aloud in a way that will hopefully be interesting to you who are not me. All of us make the mistake that our opinions are of vast interest to anyone within hearing distance. Perhaps mine will be of some utility, or at least of entertainment.

So, thank you for making it this far. The lesson is in the journey, not the destination.