Saturday, January 13, 2018

SPECIAL DAYS


A few weeks ago, I wrote here, for the first time, about my birthday. I suppose one of the reasons I’d been thinking about it more than usual was because of the reading I’d been doing. It was reading that had gotten me thinking, not only about my own birthday, but about everyone else’s as well—about what birthdays in general meant, if anything, and about how different people celebrate them, face them, shy away from them, ignore them, or cope with them.
I’ve kind of concluded that, whether we pretend to ignore them or not, if birthdays have any major importance, it is that they are mile-markers, and as such, they qualify as “special days”, days on which we take stock—consciously or subconsciously—of our lives.    
Recently, on the long flight to the US from Patagonia, where I make my home, I began reading a rather odd collection of short stories. The anthology was the brainchild of renowned Japanese novelist, short-story writer, essayist and translator Haruki Murakami. He had selected, introduced and contributed to the collection, for which he acted as editor, and which he called—rather unremarkably—Birthday Stories. (Vantage, London, 2006, © 2002 H. Murakami) https://www.amazon.com/Birthday-Stories-Haruki-Murakami/dp/0099481553

If the title was unremarkable, however, the idea behind this 2002 project wasn’t. Murakami started out by considering his own birthday in 1949 (the same year I was born), and how his attitude toward it had changed since the progressive days of a Japan ravaged by war and nuclear holocaust that picked itself up out of the ashes and re-tooled into a major world industrial power within a short couple of decades. He traced the change in his own perceptions from a youth replete with idealism and rock ‘n’ roll to this time in 2002 when he was in his fifties and was no longer especially glad to be marking each new anniversary of his birth.
And yet, he thought, what if, at fifty-two, he’d been told he had only a few months to live, and now he was marking his fifty-third or fifty-fourth birthday? That, he indicated, would definitely be cause for celebration! “For that,” he wrote, “I can see chartering a boat and setting off a massive firework display in the middle of Tokyo Bay.”
By the way, I think I failed to mention that Murakami turned sixty-nine yesterday. But what’s important about this is that in his introduction to the birthday anthology, he mentions that he especially remembers one that provided a kind of minor revelation. He was attempting to ignore it, having gotten up, as usual, at about 5 a.m. to write, and turning on the news as he was making his morning coffee. The newsreader is giving a rundown of some of the day’s events and celebrations: “...the Emperor was going to plant a ceremonial tree, or a large British passenger ship was due to dock in Yokohama, or events would be taking place around the country in honor of this being official chewing gum day...” And finally, the newsreader lists famous people whose birthday fell that day, January 12th, and suddenly he is hearing his own name, “novelist Haruki Murakami,” being read. And this was when he realized that his birthday was no longer “just for him,” that it had become “a public event.”
With this in mind, Murakami pours himself a cup of coffee, carries it to his studio, turns on some music at low volume and, with the Japanese winter darkness still surrounding him outside, sets to work. “The day was just beginning,” he says. “It was a special day in the year, but at the same time, it was an absolutely ordinary day.”
The writer imagined that he might indeed someday have a birthday when he would feel like sailing out into the middle of Tokyo Bay and setting off an armload of fireworks to celebrate. And if that kind of a day ever came, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so. “But today, at least, was not such a day. This year’s birthday was not such a birthday. I would just be sitting at my desk as always, quietly putting in a day’s work.”
As an aside, I recall a personality from my youth who intentionally set out each year to make her birthday a special event. And I remember that, at the time, I thought this was a brilliant idea, since it somehow seemed to renew her zest for life each year. This was in the Buenos Aires of the mid-1970s and the woman in question was a friend of my mother-in-law’s. Her name was Susana and she had been an important political point person at the grass roots neighborhood level for the Peronist movement (also known as Justicialism), surely—and still today—the most important and controversial political movement in the history of Argentina. One that is credited and blamed for every good and bad thing that has happened here in the last seventy-five years...depending on whom you talk to.
And even then, in the nefarious early years of the military regime known as the Proceso, when political activists of just about every color, and especially Peronists, were disappearing left and right or being shot down on the streets, Susana could still fill her house with hard-nosed remnants of the Peronist old guard for her birthday celebration each year. But this was more than a clandestine political get-together. Through my wife’s mother, we had a more intimate insight into this custom and it was clear to me that Susana’s birthday parties were a generous celebration of life with all of her friends, Peronist or not (since my mother-in-law, for instance, could not have been more rabidly anti-Peronist).
As such, there were rituals that went with it. She would re-paint as much as she could afford of the interior if her cozy house that stood at the end of tree-lined Plaza Vélez Sarsfield, next door to the Church of the Candelaria, and every year, like clockwork, she would buy all new linen for her bed and bath and all new lingerie to wear over the course of the following year. When I knew her, she was nearly eighty, but the drive to maintain this tradition, this bit of clear-cut coquettishness and sophistication, was as strong as it had been when she was thirty. Nor would she rest up excessively for the big evening party. At noon she would meet up with some of her most intimate women friends for lunch at a nice restaurant, and in the afternoon, after a brief siesta, there would be tea with her sisters.
For Susana, celebrating “her day” was of paramount importance. It was a way of ending one year on a high note—no matter what other moods the fate of that year had entertained—and of kick-starting the next one, to which she always looked forward with courage and a positive attitude. I found her, then, an absolutely admirable person, because she never seemed to treat a single day that she had been given with indifference or disdain. Each and every one was a gift, a “present” (that no past or future could deny her).  
Haruki Murakami
Anyway, this idea of birthdays being special—selectively rather than generally—stuck with Haruki Murakami and presented itself with certain ramifications. “Special” could mean a lot of things, as was clear from two stories he’d read about the time the idea of a birthday anthology first hit him. One was Timothy’s Birthday, by William Trevor, and the other one was The Moor by Russell Banks.
Trevor’s story is about a young man struggling with a long-running conflict between the life he wants for himself and the one his parents perceive him to have (despite their vision’s being totally at odds with the protagonist’s reality). The reader is given a glimpse at those conflicting realities (plus a third-party view through the eyes of a friend meeting Timothy’s parents for the first time) at the culminating moment when the young man decides to make a stand and refuses to go to his parents’ place for the rather depressing birthday celebration they’ve prepared for him.
There’s a bitter-sweetness and a heart-wrenching statement on the relativity of time in Banks’s masterfully-written story, The Moor. In it, a late-middle-aged guy out with friends on a snowy evening thinks he sees an elderly woman “giving him the eye” from a table where she appears to be celebrating with people who might be her family.
A regular at this bar, the guy asks the owner who the old lady is and what the occasion is. “The old lady’s eightieth,” the owner tells him. There’s a point at which the guy tells his friends he thinks he knows “the old gal from someplace.” And one of his buddies quips, “Probably an old girlfriend.” At which he laughs sarcastically...but his pal has hit the nail right on the head. And the poignant scenes that follow appeal to the deepest of our youthful memories and emotions.
Murakami also includes a Raymond Carver story in this book: namely, The Bath. It’s the story of a child who falls into a coma on his birthday after being hit by a car. This tragedy is played against the separate and—under the circumstances—surreal perception of a baker who wants to collect his sixteen dollars for the birthday cake that was never picked up and on which he thinks he’s been stiffed. It is a stark portrait of a tragic and sardonic twist of fate as only Carver can paint it.

Contentious baked goods also appear in The Birthday Cake, by Daniel Lyons, in which a bitter, cantankerous old woman refuses to give in to her better instincts and change a sad reality for a single mother and her child, simply by, once in her life, foregoing a set and hollow tradition. And in Lynda Sexon’s Turning, three eccentric elderly ladies tell a four-year-old birthday boy the story of the “Emperor Who Had No Skin” (no clothes, you mean; nope, no skin).
If you’ve ever been a pubescent boy, you’ll identify with David Foster Wallace’s story, Forever Overhead. It’s your thirteenth birthday, you have “seven crunchy black animal hairs” in your left armpit and twelve in your right, you’re having a party tonight, and you’re spending the afternoon at the pool. And despite the fact that your family has insisted on tagging along and making a day of it, you can’t help but notice that the poolside is replete with “girl-women...curved like instruments or fruit, skin burnished brown-bright, suit tops held by delicate knots of fragile colored string against the pull of mysterious weights, suit bottoms riding low over the gentle juts of hips totally unlike your own...”
The recently deceased Denis Johnson also puts in an appearance from beyond the grave in this anthology, with Dundun, yet another powerful and senselessly violent image of the mean-streets world he seemed to know so well. In this case, it’s Dundun’s birthday and he’s celebrating by getting stoned on his birthday present (some gifted opium) and, sort of accidently-on-purpose in a drug-laced haze, shooting one of his erstwhile buds—who’s sitting around dying while the relative merits of taking him to a hospital are being slow-motion weighed.
In Angel of Mercy, Angel of Wrath, Ethan Canin weaves a strange tale of a woman who ends up celebrating her birthday with a lady from the SPCA and a flock of rare blackbirds that fly into her apartment through an open window. And Andrea Lee tells a sexually sophisticated story in The Birthday Present of an American expat living in Italy who decides to fully embrace the idea of “when in Rome...” and give her aging, older husband a date with two high-society call girls for his birthday—with detailed insight into the workings of both her dichotomous inner feelings and of the foreign environment in which she has chosen to live. A similar story but in reverse is A Game of Dice, by Paul Theroux, in which a gambler gives his wife a buff young surfer for her fortieth birthday.
In her simple, cogent style, Claire Keegan shares an introspective birthday moment in the life of a nineteen-year-old boy who decides to take a nocturnal dip in the ocean to celebrate his day. Lewis Robinson’s subjects seem to always have his native Maine as a setting and Ride is no different. It’s the story of a young man, the son of divorced parents, who decides to spend his birthday riding in his truck-driver father's rig. Little does he know that his dad has chosen precisely that day to heist a painting.
And finally, Murakami’s own contribution is called Birthday Girl, and is about a young woman who thinks there’s nothing particularly special about her twentieth birthday and decides to work instead of celebrating, but ends up having one of the strangest and most life-changing moments of her young life.
I can pretty much guarantee that, after reading the Murakami Birthday Stories anthology, you’ll find yourself taking a new look at birthdays and what they mean.     
Whether your birthday is today or some other of the ever-special days of the year, I wish you a very happy one, and many more to come. But “happy” like “special” can mean a lot of things and what I wish you more than anything else is that your special day should be memorable, somehow extraordinary, a day to make you realize that no two days are ever really alike, that every day is a new beginning, that every day that you are alive is truly special, a “present”, because the future only exits in our imaginations.  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

DICKENS—A GHOST FROM CHRISTMAS PAST WITH A MESSAGE FOR CHRISTMAS PRESENT


Charles Dickens in his studio.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that my favorite Christmas story is A Christmas Carol, a novella by the immortal nineteenth-century British novelist, Charles Dickens. As just about anyone in the English-speaking world will know—after successive generations have created multiple movie and cartoon versions of the work—it’s the story of a miser, whom Dickens ingeniously named Ebenezer Scrooge (a surname the pronunciation of which puckers the face into a grimace of negativity), who spends a very special Christmas Eve wrestling with his inner demons and awakes on Christmas Day a brand new and infinitely better man. He is forcibly aided in that task by four ghosts, who come to him in four separate visitations: that of his former partner and fellow miser, Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge to save his mortal soul and not do what he, Marley, did with his life (unless he wants to be saddled with the same fate, to be lost in limbo); the ghost of Christmas past, who reminds him of his youth and the generosity and love he was shown by others; the ghost of Christmas present, who takes him on a mortifying tour of his current misdeeds and their consequences; and the ghost of Christmas yet to come, who makes him face his vile, pathetic legacy if he fails to change his ways.
First Edition - A Christmas Carol
By way of background, Dickens wrote this novella when he was thirty-one and did so in just six weeks with the publisher breathing down his neck. I tend to think of Dickens as being among the first “bloggers”, since, by this time, he was already quite well-known for the works he put out weekly in serialized form through periodicals, the most famous of these being the hilarious and eminently human Pickwick Papers—a work that made him a renowned writer by the time he was twenty-four. This was an innovative form of publishing that he would practice throughout his life.
But A Christmas Carol was a new departure, since it was the first work of his that was published in book form, and it met with immediate commercial success (for the publisher) coming out on December 19, and with the entire first press run having sold out by Christmas Eve. By Christmas the following year, the book was in its thirteenth printing. Some of these printings were clandestine and the author ended up being cut out of the commercial chain. Dickens sued, but the publisher went bankrupt and the writer ended up with only meager profits from the publication of what was surely one of his most popular works. He eventually recovered some of these losses, however, by making histrionic readings of the novella the centerpiece of well over a hundred of his highly popular and lucrative speaking tours. Unlike many writers who are infinitely better on paper than in person, Dickens was a powerful public speaker and an outstanding actor, which rendered the events of these tours exceedingly well-attended and often, especially in the author’s later life, well paid.   
Still today, A Christmas Carol must surely hold some records for popularity of a literary work. Since its first printing in 1843, it has never been out of print and has seen multiple adaptations for stage, screen, musicals, animation, etc.
The mean-spirited characters, like Scrooge, whom Dickens wrote about are often put down by critics to the melodrama and black and white characterizations that were so often a part of literature in the Victorian Era. But Dickens’s characters were not, in fact, black and white and even the worst of them often demonstrated glimmers of humanity or fleetingly redeeming qualities, despite their general and inevitable cruelty and avarice. Scrooge, however, crosses over entirely to portray a principle in which Dickens apparently believed strongly: the redeemability of the human spirit.
One of John Leech's color illustrations 

from the first edition, when Marley's
ghost comes to call.
The fact that Scrooge has to be “scared straight” and be threatened with the most abysmal of fates to come around to “the spirit of Christmas”—which, in the end, clearly makes his redemption yet another egotistical gesture—seems immaterial to the author. He resorts to spirits from the great beyond in order to recover Scrooge’s soul for the common good by hook or by crook, and does so without apology, since it was very likely what he would have wanted to have the power to do—active social reformer that he was—in real life, where he had observed such widespread inhumanity.
And, melodrama or no, Dickens came by his vision of public authority and private “charity” honestly. Born into a respectable if not exactly wealthy family, Dickens would witness how his father, John Dickens, frittered the family’s finances away and fell into abject debt and destitution. By the time young Charles was twelve, his father had been sentenced to debtors’ prison. The Dickens family lost everything to their creditors and Charles was forced to leave school, sell his books and take a job in a boot blacking factory, a typically filthy, unhealthy industrial operation of those times, in which child labor (which was practically child slavery) was the norm. The experience was to leave Dickens with what one biographer referred to as a “deep personal social outrage,” while providing the world with what was to be some of the greatest literature ever known. His treatment at the hands of some of the many child exploiters of those times gave Dickens a unique insight into social injustice and provided him with much of the grist for his writer’s mill.
An illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens as 

a boy working in the boot blacking factory, 
from the 1892 edition of John Foster's 
"Life of Charles Dickens".
Oddly enough, A Christmas Carol is a highly secular tale. It doesn’t harken back to the story of the Nativity or preach from a biblical pulpit. But it surely encompasses every main principle of true Christianity—universal love, generosity, selfless charity, forgiveness, understanding, redemption, etc., etc.—in a way that envelops the reader’s heart and, hopefully, shames us for our own miserly ways and lack of social conscience.
This is why I come back to Dickens and A Christmas Carol every year at this time, because it has never quit being a universal story. Indeed, now more than ever in contemporary history, we are facing a world at least as cruel as the one Dickens portrays, and seem to have learned nothing in the last century and a half. Millions still live in slavery, employee exploitation is rampant, once strong organized labor is on its knees (thanks to government-corporate collusion), and every effort is being made to sweep the poor under the rug, rob them of their benefits and leave them for dead. Never has there been greater accumulation of wealth at the top, while tens of millions of refugees have nowhere to go, people go hungry and live on the street in some of the most “advanced” economies on earth, the planet is being poisoned at an alarming rate, and people are today more hatefully divided along political, religious and social lines than at any other time in recent memory, and to an extent that belies unquestionable advancements made in the twentieth-century post-World War II era.
Oddly enough, fundamental Christianity is enjoying a rebirth. But what exactly does that mean? Simple lip service to some religious dogma? Has it been redefined to ignore the basic teachings of its founder and namesake? And what does the greeting “Merry Christmas” really signify, unless it’s accompanied by a Dickensian transformation like the one that Ebenezer Scrooge underwent?
Fundamentalist Christians consistently advocate “getting Christ back into Christmas.” But what does that signify? Whether you are a “believer” or not, the original teachings of Christianity—and of the other monotheist religions as well—provide a perfect guideline for secular life.
Every single doctrine of the major religions—Judaism, its offspring Christianity and Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on—contains some form of the one basic rule on which all the rest of their doctrines hinge: The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that’s the not-so-hidden message as well of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge could only see the error of his ways when he was shown the mirror image of his soul, and saw the face of cruelty, selfishness, disdain and indifference reflected back at him.
In the spirit of Christmas, it’s an exercise we would all do well to emulate, whether or not we have spirits from beyond to help us in our task, and something we should demand, as well, of the leaders we choose to follow in all walks of life.
I sincerely wish you all a Merry Christmas and a year of love, peace and healing ahead. 


       

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A FEW THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND LIFE


This past week, I “celebrated” (at this point in life perhaps “commemorated” or “marked” would be better terms) my sixty-eighth birthday. I’ve foregone the formality of “birthday parties” since I was in my early forties. But this year there was lunch out with Virginia at our favorite eatery, La Fonda del Tío. Virginia had gone through the relative indignity of turning sixty-eight two months earlier, but I’d been away in the States at the time, so she didn’t have to worry about anyone at La Fonda finding out and making a big deal out of it, because she never goes to lunch there alone.
Unfortunately, in my case, one of the waiters is a friend of mine on Facebook and knew it was my “special day”, so after lunch there was a mortifying moment in which a gaggle of waiters—most of whom, to my chagrin, take me as a kind of “father figure”(I never saw myself as father material, but apparently some people do)—gathered around the table, sang me a full-throated version of “Que lo cumplas feliz” (while I looked down at the remnants of lunch and muttered “No, come on, don’t do this to me”) and then proceeded to set a large dish of ice-cream with two spoons and a flaming candle stuck in it in front of me.

Let me just say, La Fonda is not TGI Friday’s. Waiters don’t sing Happy Birthday to the patrons, and the owner, Mario Longui, is not wont to hand out free desserts. This was special. So there were hugs all around as the other patrons gawked. It’s that these lads are a lot like family to me.

Anyway, sixty-eight...That’s a number! Granted, there are bigger ones, but still... That one’s big enough to carry some weight.

I must say, I’m grateful to have made it this far. There was a time when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and lived under a dictatorship, when some of the activities I was involved in as a writer and ad hoc human and civil rights activist made me doubt I would ever make it to my fortieth birthday. And for a while I kind of lived my life that way: in a certain sense, as if there were no tomorrow.

But there was a dichotomy too playing out in my head, one that made me eat, drink and be merry to almost criminal excess, but at the same time to start understanding the importance of being strong physically in order to keep strong mentally. So that was the exact same time—a time of too little sleep, too much booze and huge meals at 2 a.m.—that I also worked out like never before, lifted heavier and heavier weights, did faster and faster cardio circuits, ran longer and longer distances, and even did a bit of martial arts training (nothing crazy, mind you, just enough to re-learn how to handle myself, long years after my Army training) to sharpen my senses and my combat skills...just in case.

Then, all of the sudden, circumstances changed. After seven years of fairly constant risk, my world became a quieter, less dangerous place. I missed the adrenalin, sneaking around like a spy, sitting with my back to the wall and my eye on the entrance in bars and restaurants. But democracy was afoot, and it was, at the same time, as if the sun had finally come out in the world I was reporting on. Even the topics I was writing about turned tamer—no longer murder and mayhem, though often still corruption and high crimes and misdemeanors. But also stories of a new and better business world, of new-found corporate responsibility, of contemporary, entrepreneurial companies that were treating their personnel like family and their customers like community, of environmental issues and how to face them, of trade in a globalized world that, back then, looked like it might become the new diplomacy in a context where war would become anti-economical and financially suicidal, and where everyone would live in peace, harmony and ever-increasing prosperity. All a pipe-dream as it turned out, but a hopeful message for the future for as long as it lasted.

And then I was fifty, and wondered how on earth that had happened! It sneaked up on me in the Patagonian woodlands I had moved to at age forty-three and where I had subsequently and ultimately isolated myself from my former environment of non-stop urban madness and media deadlines. But this too was a sort of ruse by which I fooled only myself and started taking on more work than I could safely handle, maintaining constant contact through the Internet with the fast-pace world I’d pretended to abandon and allowing myself to continue to be a roped into insane deadlines for translations and writing projects and editing assignments that I might as well have been doing in a big-city office considering the extreme stress I was under. Although, when the work-day...or the work-week...or the work-month was finally done and the deadlines met, my new surroundings did indeed fill me with something like peace. But sometimes as if I were looking at them through iron bars or, more aptly, from behind bullet-proof glass, where I touched nothing and nothing touched me.

Fifty-five, however, was to be a turning point. There were momentous events that triggered it. Momentous for me, while merely fortuitous or fateful in the minds those whose lives were not directly affected—things one could expect out of life. But hey, they happened to me! Namely, within the two-year period from my fifty-third to my fifty-fifth birthday, I lost both of my parents and my younger brother. The loss of my father, and then my mother, six months apart was sobering. Suddenly, I was the older generation and, despite my advanced age, technically orphaned. My brother’s death, meanwhile, was a sock in the jaw and had a profound wake-up effect. He was only fifty-one, and the kind of vital guy I thought would live forever. Certainly, I figured, he would outlive me. But in a heartbeat, he was gone.

I started looking at life differently. Oh, it wasn’t an overnight process, nor was it without trauma, and, subsequently, it left me with chronically erratic blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia. But there was a kind of metamorphosis—even if what I turned out as was nothing even remotely as beautiful as a butterfly. And indeed, the change is still incomplete, and full of serious flaws and doubts. But one of the things I’ve learned is that change is often good...liberating...healing, while avoiding change can be stultifying and paralyzing, and can, ultimately, turn you into one of the walking dead.

Within the process of this transformation from young to, um, not young, there are some other things that I’ve learned as well, both about writing and life. As my sixty-eighth birthday gift to you, let me just share a few, for anyone who cares to listen:

1. Everybody has a story. No matter how boring or commonplace a life might look from the outside, there’s a unique story in each of us—our story. It is as distinct—if as apparently similar—as fingerprints. And only you can tell yours.

That said, not everybody is capable of sharing his or her story. That’s where we writers come in. We have the means and the obligation to help others articulate and share their stories with the world, sometimes even after they are gone. This is our job and our duty, apart from telling our own story, to write the stories of those who can’t figure out how to tell theirs. But first, we have to get them to provide us with the elements of their stories. Or, failing that, we must develop the know-how to piece their stories together from clues with which they themselves or others provide us.

Therein lies the biggest part of what some might call “our gift”—our talent, our special innate skills. The rest is just about setting word to page. When we try to answer the question of why we are writers, this should be the answer. A shrug and an enigmatic arching of the eyebrows is an unacceptable response.

I prefer to define this as “human insight” and if you don’t possess it, you may indeed write, but you will never be a storyteller.

2. There’s an expression in Spanish that goes: The Devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the Devil. And yet, it’s next to impossible to transplant what you know through vast experience into the consciousness of a young person, and you certainly can’t do it by lecturing him or her. They simply don’t have the intellectual stomach for it. For one thing, they can’t picture themselves old. At their age, their theme song is “I’m Gonna Live Forever” and almost everything they can learn by experience, they can only learn by growing older. You can’t transfer age and experience like currency from one account to another. Why, because a young mindset compared to an old one is apples and oranges. But what you can do is take the time to tell them your story and hope that the lessons it offers will help them with the decisions they’re going to have to make later. Lighten up, though. Tell it like you were sitting around the campfire together, not like a parable from the pulpit. I’ve learned by experience that no one wants to hear an old man preach.

3. If you seriously want to be a writer and/or storyteller, there are some things you need to do no matter how talented you might fancy yourself.

Learn the rules: language use, grammar, structure, style, spelling, syntax, etc. You can decide for yourself which ones to occasionally break later, when and if you ever get good enough to do so. But first you have to learn them and know them backward and forward. Think of them as being like the rulebook for baseball or for a card game. You can never be a serious contender if you don’t know the rules of the game.

Another thing you have to do is read—deeply, broadly, eclectically, constantly. I cannot stress this enough. Thinking you can write without reading is like thinking you can step into the ring for a prize fight without training. Boxers spend hours and hours training for every minute that they will spend in the ring. Writers spend hours and hours both reading and writing for every line that they will ever publish.  

And while you’re doing it, analyze what you’re reading and try and find out what makes this writer or that so alluring, so inspiring, so exciting, or so boring, irritating and impossible to read. Figure that out and you’ll be on your way to finding a style and a voice of your own. In the meantime, imitate! Like the art students you can see at the Louvre, sketching what they see on the wall so that they can go back to their rooms and try their darnedest to forge the masters down to the last detail. If you practice imitating enough different writers, you’ll eventually start catching on to what makes their voices unique and in that way get clues to finding your own unique voice.

4. Never argue with a fundamentalist. Religious, political, nationalist, regionalist, creationist, whatever. Trying to change a fundamentalist’s mind is a fool’s errand, as is even trying to get one to at least understand your viewpoint and, perhaps, consider that it may be of some merit. 

This is a particularly hard lesson for liberals or moderates to learn. Why? Because their whole premise for living is that there is nothing that can’t be questioned, that we learn by constantly challenging our beliefs and incorporating new knowledge that will help us evolve as human beings and as societies. Fundamentalists, on the contrary, live by their beliefs and take them as “the god’s truth”, inflexible, immobile, unchanging forever. And anyone who challenges those beliefs or tries to present a different viewpoint for consideration is a mortal enemy—and perhaps a demon assigned by the Devil Himself to wreak havoc in the world.

With the rise of the social media, we tend to interact with all sorts of people with whom we would ordinarily not come into contact. So there’s a learning curve we need to cover quickly. Fortunately for us Americans, last year’s presidential election has provided us with a crash course in fundamentalism and fundamentalists—who seem to have come out of the woodwork in record numbers.
My advice, based on recent immersion-course experience: Avoid wasting time and patience. Watch for the fundamentalist warning signs—unbending adherence to a narrow set of beliefs as hard and fast facts, intolerance to anything that challenges said beliefs, hostility in the face of other opinions, taking any and all questions posed as a personal attack, rash reactions toward logic and reason, irrational reactions in the midst of debate, etc.—and do not engage. 

Maintain your peace of mind. Walk away. There is nothing to be gained by doing otherwise.

5. The cemetery is full of “indispensables”. When you come to believe that without you, the world you live in will grind to a halt, it’s time to take a deep breath and get a grip. How do I know this? Because I have been “indispensable” multiple times during my forty-odd-year career. I was an “indispensable” news editor, an “indispensable” managing editor, an “indispensable” special projects editor, an “indispensable” translator and an “indispensable” free-lancer. 

As such, I worked my way into several near-nervous breakdowns, and became an inveterate insomniac. More than once I feared work might literally kill me. But I couldn’t just quit, because I was “indispensable”.

Oddly enough, whenever I have managed to question my indispensability and simply walk away, there has been no Armageddon, no collapse of society, no crashing of my former place of work into chaos and oblivion—and, truth be told, when there has been, it has been richly deserved. Usually, everybody has managed to muddle through without me, and yet, I have been a repeat offender when it comes to “indispensability”.

Okay, couple of things: If you think you are indispensable, you’re only kidding yourself. And in the end, it’s an act of vanity, a way of embracing self-importance, usually as a home remedy for low self-esteem. The saddest thing is that by believing in your “indispensability”, you are playing into the hands of those who want to exploit you: your boss, your workmates, perhaps even your family. They know you’re not indispensable—only you are dumb enough to believe you are—but as long as you’ll reject delegation of authority and allow them to keep piling responsibilities and tasks on you until you finally collapse, they will, because whatever you will take on, they don’t have to!

My advice: Just say, “No!” Get a life and enjoy it.

6. Which brings me to my final point. This really is the first day of the rest of your life...Unless, to paraphrase Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty, it is the last one.

Either way, you might want to think about this: Today, right now, are you doing what you would be doing if you knew for sure that this would be the last day of your life? If not, then maybe you should be thinking about doing what you would be doing if it were. I know that it’s not always possible to cast caution to the wind and do whatever you please. Maybe there’s someone you have to take care of or something you still feel obliged to do.

But life might seem so much more rewarding if we were to get up every day thinking, “This is the first day of the rest of my life...or perhaps the last one. What do I really want to do?” 

If you’re footloose and fancy free, own it! Answer to know one, and do exactly what makes you feel fulfilled and happy, whether it’s sitting in an armchair reading a book or strapping on a backpack and traveling the world. 

But if not, then at least take some time for yourself today and every day, and do something  that you really want to do, and let nothing and no one stand in your way.
Many thanks for helping me celebrate the start of yet another year. I plan to make this one count!  



Monday, November 27, 2017

EXCERPT 12 – VOICES IN THE STORM: THE NIGHT DESK


This is the latest excerpt from my as yet unpublished memoir about my early days in journalism in Buenos Aires, with the Buenos Aires Herald.
It was just when things were heating up in Argentina, with the imminent return of General Perón, after over seventeen years in Spanish exile, that James Neilson decided to leave his post as night desk editor at the Herald and to take what I can only imagine was a better-paying job as media chief for the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, the job he was doing when I first joined the paper. Years later, when I had gotten to know Jim a lot better, I would find that career move completely out of character for him, since Neilson was proudly—almost arrogantly—British and tended to show open disdain for almost anything American. Furthermore, he must surely have considered the post at AmCham Argentina, a lackey’s job (as I would a decade later when I held that same post and was more intellectually miserable there than in just about any other job I ever had). But I reasoned, in the end, that it was all about making a better living. After years of appearing to be a confirmed bachelor, Jim had married and taken on the immediate responsibilities of a family since his wife had children by a previous marriage. Providing well for them was a clear priority, I’m sure, and, like most journalists at the Herald, he not only did a full-time day job but also moonlighted (or “sun-lighted”, as it were, since the Herald was a night job) as a free-lance correspondent for numerous international publications.
James Neilson
Whatever the case might have been, however, his nine-to-five gig at the Chamber coupled with the notoriously low rates the Herald paid to contributors meant that he could only provide op-eds to Cox on an occasional basis. These high-quality pieces Cox happily published in the center-page op-ed editorial section under a special slug called As I See It  and under Jim’s pseudonym, Clive Peterson—the pen name to protect Jim’s identity in his new AmCham post, and the slug, evidently, so that Cox could keep Neilson’s opinions separate from the general editorial line of the paper.
My boss on the Night Desk, then, was Nicolás Meyer, who had worked for some time as Neilson’s assistant in that department, and seemed delighted to share with me numerous anecdotes about what it was like to work with such a difficult personality as he seemed to consider Jim. In fact, he kept a typed list in the filing cabinet behind him of Jim Neilson quotes. Things such as, “My baldness is a clear testimony to my superior masculinity,” by way of example.
In his own intentionally jaundiced and disdainful style, it seemed clear to me that Nicolás admired Neilson as a journalist, but having been on the receiving end of Jim’s own well-developed cynicism and disdain while working for him, preferred to compliment him only in a sort of backhanded fashion, by immortalizing his most outrageously egotistical quotes. But having been a target of such contempt didn’t keep him from treating others the same way. He seemed to delight, for instance, in presenting me to other people as “Dan Newland, a musician who wants someday to be a journalist.”
Cox working at home
Despite all of his hardcore newsman talk, however, unlike Neilson, Cox and his brother-in-law, Andrew Graham-Yooll, Nicolás was not a hard-news hound at all. Atypical of those who occupied the news desk anchor post before and after him, Meyer tended to be less of a newsman and more of what was known in the trade as a “stone man”, an editor who is more interested in how the news is organized than in the news itself. In this sense, he turned out to be an excellent teacher for me, since before I sat on that desk with him, I couldn’t have cared less what news “looked like”. I was only interested in the story as such.
What I learned from him straight off was that you could have the best stories in the world but if they were presented in a way that was more mixed up than a dog’s breakfast, no one was going to read them. The whole idea of a newspaper or magazine was not only to select, prioritize and present news in such a way that it was eye-catching and attractive, but also to choose the news in a way that would appeal to a particular readership. You couldn’t report all of the news, unless you were a news agency churning out arid copy by the yard through a teletype machine twenty-four/seven. Newspapers—and news magazines to an ever greater extent—had to be highly selective and had to put the publication together in accordance with a “news schedule” on which there was a consensus among the publication’s editors.
Nicolás was very clear about this when he was teaching me the ropes. It was the old idea of The New York Times’ nineteenth-century owner, Adolph Ochs that was to become a Times motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.” For his part, Graham-Yooll, who headed up the local news desk, had modified this phrase to more closely fit his idea of what a city editor did every working night of his life. He referred to it as “all the shit that fits.”
Nicolás taught me all about column widths (measured in units called “picas”), active headlining, page-diagramming, text-cutting, re-writing to fit space, the basic symbols of copy-editing, and some hard and fast rules about what you could and couldn’t do: no tombstoning (placing one head next to another), no widows (single words left all by themselves at the top of a column), no labels (heads that give news a generic name rather than actively telling a story), no points after Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc., or between letters in initials or acronyms (USA, for instance, instead of U.S.A.), since otherwise, the news page ended up looking like it had taken a load of buckshot, and no key data in the last few paragraphs of an article, which might be lopped off in eleventh-hour attempts to make everything fit with the shop breathing down your neck to just get the damned thing to press. In fact, he explained, news should be written in ever widening concentric circles. Meaning, you wanted to pretty much tell the entire story in the lead and second paragraphs. From that core, you widened your circular net, adding more and more details designed to flesh the story out and provide all available information to the reader. But if a story needed shortening, it should be written so that it could pretty much be cut from the bottom up...and still be a story. 
What was of apparently capital importance at six p.m. might be of miniscule importance at eleven or twelve, he indicated. So a carefully crafted fifty-line news story handed in at seven or eight o’clock, might well be chopped down to one or two succinct paragraphs at eleven or twelve and inserted into the Around the World briefs section on the back page of the paper. This was the other thing I learned from Nicolás: Don’t fall in love with your own copy, because, at the end of the day (literally), it’s all expendable.
The other thing I learned from him was, and I quote: “You can never have enough specific instructions on a diagram sheet. Draw as many eyes and arrows and exclamation points as necessary to bring attention to things when you need to demonstrate what to watch out for. And if there’s something that could possibly be interpreted as a mistake when it isn’t, then you need to write next it, ‘¡Ojo! ¡Esto va así!’ (meaning, Attention! This goes like this!) so that some good Samaritan who knows a bit of English doesn’t change it and screw it up.”
And one major point he made repeatedly in the time that I worked with him was this: “In creating your diagrams and giving instructions to the print shop, always assume that you’re working with imbeciles—because more often than not, that’s precisely the case.”
If Meyer sought to diminish my incipient reputation by portraying me as a wannabe newsman musician, the truth of the matter was that he was a wannabe cinema critic news editor. While the rest of us escaped our night-time desk jobs by reporting during the day on politics, social issues and human interest stories, Nicolás’s by-line went almost exclusively in the Herald on pieces about the “Seventh Art”, of which he had developed vast knowledge. He left most of the mainstream cinema stories to the “owner” of the stage and screen section, Fred Marey (whose real name was Fritz Mayer).
Herald editorial department in the mid-1970s, Fred Marey
left foreground at his typewriter.
Fred always had abundant material he wanted to get in on new Hollywood movies, concerts and opera performances at the city’s world famous Colón Theater, and other stories about musicians he knew personally or about new releases in classical, jazz and popular records. He directed a show on Radio Nacional (Argentina’s public radio) called Pot Pourrí Musical and his pages in the paper, which also carried the cinema schedule and other regular items of interest, was more of the same, an eclectic entertainment section in which just about anyone visiting it could find something of their taste and interest.
As such, Fred experienced every attempt of contributors to gain access to his section as an invasion. But as night desk editor, Nicolás outranked him and was, ultimately, the one who diagrammed the section, so there was little Fred could do to sidestep Nicolás Meyer reviews. The tension between them was, however, palpable. Fred—a German Jew, who, along with his also musician brother had managed to escape the Nazis and settle in Argentina, while much of the rest of their family had perished in the death camps—would protest under his breath, handing the copy to me for his section before retiring for the night, “Diss Nicholas zinks he’s die cat’s viskas,” whenever he was asked to hold space for something Meyer had written.
Nicolás, for his part, kept a folder in his filing cabinet behind the night desk, right next to the one that bristled with James Neilson quotes, in which he also recorded “The Best of Fred”. Things like sayings that Fred turned inside out: “You’re getting die horse before der apfel cart.” Or hilarious lines from his critiques: “In this film Paul Newman will be not only starring but will also double as producer-director. It has been some time since Newman last hyphenated himself.”
“And a word to the wise regarding Fred,” Nicolás warned me early on. “It’s unlikely he’ll ever offer you a biscuit from that stash he has in his second desk drawer, because he’s tight as a wedge. But if he ever does, a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ is a good idea, because I think he brought them over with him in thirty-eight when he emigrated from Germany.”
So while Nicolás was a pioneering fanatic of the works of directors like Federico Fellini, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, and while he introduced many less than erudite Herald readers to classic gems from the cinematography of Germany, France, Russia, Japan and Britain, his interest in hard news was more about how to fit it in the paper and how to get it all done in five or six hours than about the content.
This was reflected in the very clear division that was jealously maintained between local and international news coverage when I first came into the paper. The front page news schedule depended mainly on the Reuter’s and UPI international wire schedules from which Nicolás culled the paper’s headline news. He brother-in-law, meanwhile, handled local coverage, almost exclusively on the middle page of the paper facing the editorial section. And it was only when Bob Cox insisted that some local item of spectacular characteristics needed to at least have “a teaser” on the cover that Nicolás would reluctantly acquiesce, and even then would try to talk Graham-Yooll into just giving him a five or ten-line summary with a “continued in the local news section” line at the bottom.
After working with Nicolás for a time, I finally figured out that all of this was coldly calculated to coincide with the schedule of the Mitre train line out of Retiro Station. Nicolás’s last train to his home in the northern suburb of Acassuso pulled out shortly after eleven p.m. So, the international and features sections of the paper had to be put to bed by eleven on the dot so that he could race to the station down the road, catch that last train and not have to ride for twice as long on a bus to get there. If he had to wait for Cox or his brother-in-law to write an entire front-page story, he’d never make his train, and there wasn’t enough ink in his veins to make him think it was important to do so. 
I grew weary, then, of hearing foreign correspondents up at the SAFICO building on Avenida Corrientes where many had offices and just about all of them hung out, talk about “how clever Bob Cox was” for “hiding all of the meaty local news” that he was investigating in the middle of the paper and keeping the front page international “so that the cover would be innocuous” to the regime.
“You’re wrong,” I would protest. “Don’t try to read any sinister motives into it. The front page news schedule only has to do with a single criterion—whether or not Nicolás Meyer can make the eleven-twenty train out of Retiro.”