Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Purpose, Passion, Perseverance...and Ambrose Bierce

Just 26th story in 23 Chicken Soup books!

It's been a bit over a hundred years ago that journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce mysteriously disappeared while reportedly traveling with rebel troops during the Mexican Revolution. Few these days may remember his short stories, his columns in the San Francisco Examiner or the satirical The Devil's Dictionary. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I have the latter on my Kindle.

Back in the early sixties, when I taught high school journalism, I used to ask students to choose famous news stories from the past for classroom term project presentations. I'd provide a list of suggestions...disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the Hindenberg, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Snopes Monkey Trial, the Sacco and Vanzetti case...and I'd tuck in the names of noted journalists as well, always taking care to mention Bierce.

I've been invited to submit a guest blog on perseverance to a website that features tips for writers. The hostess suggested I might want to write on perseverance, since my true stories have appeared in well over a hundred anthologies in less than a decade. It's been a busy morning for me, and I've not yet written the piece. I've browsed through my own posts, though, and note I've written three previous entries that address the topic. I'll use some of these thoughts as springboards for the new piece.
 I opened my Kindle to see if he had included a definition of it in his dictionary. He had.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, 1842-1914(?)

"Perseverance, n. a lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success."--Ambrose Bierce

(He also had something to say about plagiarism: "Plagiarism, n. A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.")

I'm still laughing. Yes, perseverance enabled me to fill a bookcase with books that include my stories. Is this a credible achievement? Should I give myself a pat on the back?

I remember my lofty ambitions as a high school journalism student. I'd planned a career as a writer...I'd hoped to combine journalism and novel writing...I'd be a modern distaff Hemingway. I'd win accolades...maybe a Pulitzer or even a Nobel. There'd be no stopping me.

Something did stop me, though...and it was life. My life took other turns. Though I continued to write and edit, I never made a career of it. I'm delighted that my son, Steve Elders, copy chief for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar, has. He's lived my dream of devoting a life to the fourth estate.

I've done other things, though. And I write about some of these for such anthology series as Chicken Soup for the Soul and Publishing Syndicate's Not Your Mother's Book. Among those other things...I've a long history of volunteering.

So I'm thrilled that one of my stories about a volunteer activity made this latest book...Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering and Giving Back. I need some inspiration I'm going to read a few of these stories before I write that blog on perseverance.

Though Bierce makes me laugh, Nelson Mandela gives me words that spur me on:

“It always seems impossible until it's done.” --Nelson Mandela

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Enigmatic vs. Explicit: Cryptic vs. Cookie Cutter?

Sunflower...a lifelike portrayal

"Chaos is order yet undeciphered"--opening message of Villeneuve's Enemy.
Sunflowers, through an artist's lens

Last night a friend and I watched Jake Gyllenhaal in another riveting performance...or should I say two. He plays dual doppelganger roles in the 2014 much-lauded Canadian film, the psychological thriller, Enemy. After the movie, my friend, an actor and director himself, had a discussion about why he hated the film, and why I found it mesmerizing. At the heart of our discussion lay the huge difference between us when it comes to thinking about art.

He's a realist, who readily admits that the paintings that adorn his walls are nearly photographic portrayals of scenes depicting the American west. He took a moment to tour my living room. Nothing could be mistaken for a photograph.

"The horses in my paintings are anatomically correct...very true to life," he explained.

I laughed. "The unicorns in my paintings don't vary much from the actual beasts," I countered.

About Enemy. Are the identical men two sides of one man? Do Anthony and his pregnant wife represent an earlier affair of Adam's? One reviewer on Internet Movie Data Base sums it up with the caption, "Kafka Meets Lynch."

Here's the core issue. My friend proved to be unfamiliar with Kafka's Metamorphosis, which I had likened the story line to. I didn't mention Eraserhead, David Lynch's equally disturbing film. When I made the allusion, he grinned.
"Hey, basicallly I'm a handshake guy in a fist-bump world."

I do enjoy my friend's wry humor, and his ability to laugh at himself.

I mentioned that I knew the movie had been adapted by director Denis Villeneuve from a novel, The Double. My friend shook his head dismissively. He didn't seem interested in reading it. This morning I put a hold request on the book with my Orange County branch library. Last night I didn't add that the author, Jose Saramago, was a brilliant and thought-provoking Portuguese novelist, a 1998 Nobel Prize Winner. 

One comment about the movie on the IMDB thread resonated with me. "For those who prefer linear story lines of everyday possibilities the film will likely not find an appreciative audience. This is a film that demands the full attention of the viewer and the acceptance of alternative ways of viewing reality and alternative reality."

When I was a graduate student in English, focusing on late nineteenth century American and British literature, I based my Master's thesis on the role of women in the novels of William Dean Howells. Howells was known as the champion of realism. At the same time I fell under the spell of Henry James, known also for realism, but whose later novels had much in common with the school of impressionism.

I loved both of their works. I admire realism. I admire abstract impressionism. I am fortunate to enjoy the best of both worlds. I even have no problem with imaginative riffs on real people's lives. This next week I plan to watch Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. 

Are such films pretentious artsy garbage? Indeed, are imagery and symbolism mere smoke and mirrors purposely tossed out to anger those who believe that some artists simply are trying to act intellectually superior? Is it all right ever to distort reality?

Lewis Carroll wrote a bit about that:
'But I don't want to go among mad people,' said Alice. 'Oh, you can't help that,' said the cat. 'We're all mad here.'

Do we always have to call a spade a spade? Do we always need to solve the riddle that is life, or how we perceive it? Is it all right sometimes to remember that life is but a dream? 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

All's Fair in Orange County

It's true that a writer can be sidetracked by the siren songs of summer events in Southern California. Especially, perhaps, if that writer for eons has been cloistered far from their lure. Now that I'm home once more in the Southland, I'd planned long uninterrupted days of fashioning fiction. Instead I'm out dancing to the hypnotic beat of the summertime.

This past week I sat in on what used to be called "dress rehearsal," but is now "final dress," for the Westminster Community Playhouse season opener, Sabrina Fair. The 1953 Broadway production served as the basis for the film, "Sabrina," which starred Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The latter, directed by Billy Wilder, differed in great detail from the original play, which lead the author, Samuel A. Taylor, to divorce himself from the production. A remake in 1995 featured Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.

Though I loved the Hepburn film, mostly because she sang the haunting "La Vie en Rose" in French, the local play production enchanted me. I could imagine basking in the walled garden by the terrace of the Long Island mansion, lounging in the lawn chairs, sipping cocktails and gazing at the stars overhead, just as did the cast.

Other pluses include the ebullient performance of Tiffany Berg as Sabrina. The women's costumes, from seamed hosiery to matching belts and heels, and elegant hairstyles set me right back into the Eisenhower era. I even had owned a polka dot dress similar to one worn by Alison Mattiza, playing Aunt Julia in this production.

Run dates and times for this production are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sunday matinees at 2, through August 23. Tickets information can be found here: Reservations: 714-893-8626.

 The Orange County Fair continues its "One Big Party" to celebrate its 125th year of operation, with a closing date of August 16. I went on a Friday, taking advantage of mild temperatures and a senior admission special, plus the $2 sampler snacks, featured by nearly every food vendor. Highlights for me in the crafts pavilion included the wonderful woodworking displays or handcarved guitars, a crocheted wedding dress, and quilts featuring nursery rhymes.

I admired a miniature horse snacking on grass for a buck a peek, cashed in on a free ride on the ferris wheel (a Catalina view was obscured by the marine layer), and sampled mint chocolate chip gelato, chicken fajitas and polish sausage on grilled french bread. I said a wholehearted "no" though, to chocolate-covered pork rinds or bacon, and even bypassed the deep fried pineapple.

This next week I'll be writing...I promise myself I'll finally finish the story inspired by my spring trip to the Wildacres writing retreat. I generally fare well with promises.

More information on the Orange County Fair: