Monthly Archives: January 2014

Compelling Personal Story

I don’t have one, a compelling personal story. Nope, nary a really good tale, let alone a whole life story, just one pleasant ordinary life. I always thought CPS was the one told when you, you know, did something MAJOR. I was raised on the lives of the saints as CPS…those who suffered and died for their faith, believing that eternal life with God was the better deal. Or the biographies of those who were first–first to see a river, or first to climb the highest mountain, or first meet a new ethnic group [but we didn’t call them ethnic groups back then]. And being first meant the unknown, the fact that you had no idea what hazards lay ahead but you went anyway. And, the one thing these CPSs had in common? They were about dead people, lives well led, fully spent, done.

There’s a saying in the Euripides story of the Trojan Women when Troy has been sacked, the husbands killed and the children are sacrificed to the gods or turned into slaves. Somewhere along the way, Hucuba, wife of Priam, Queen of Troy says, “Count no one happy, however fortunate, before he dies.” That made sense.

Which brings me to the Orson Welles quote, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” The political climate of now being what it is, you don’t need a whole story anymore, and so the converse must be true [I studied Logic in college, the logic syllogism—if A is true and B is true, then C must be true or not] then, If you want a compelling personal story, that depends, of course, on where you start your story,” meaning it may not be the whole story, just one compelling personal vignette. Because that’s what many of these CPSs are today, a brief evocative description, account, or episode, not a story, a whole story.

So, to me, a verification of a compelling personal story is the whole story, not just a couple of years, but the WHOLE of it.

I’m writing a narrative non-fiction. This is the story of a man of fortunate background, aristocratic, well-educated, in a stable home, loving parents, older brothers, raised in a castle, having a brilliant mind, excellent in school, transferring into a career, successful. Very little in this is compelling, it all seems so easy, excellent name recognition opening doors, a life of interest, but not so that you’d write a book about it fifty years later. In this case, the CPS comes from his death. A meaningless, stupid, senseless death that did not have to be. And because it is so meaningless, stupid and senseless, changing the world, mourned by millions for what would now NOT happen, his life now is compelling, because everything he did, all that was in him, all that he worked to accomplish was over, perhaps never to return again. How sad for the rest of us.

Every one should tell at least one compelling personal story, it doesn’t have to be their own, it doesn’t even have to be real, but it does have to be a whole story, compelling and necessary. I hope I can do this one justice.

 

Magic

I’m not sure I believe in magic. I know! What a thing to say! A lifetime reader of fantasy, science fiction, a long time watcher of every scifi/fantasy movie or TV show, it’s a wowzer of a statement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic lately, there are so many children’s books that are big sellers with a touch or a basis in the weirdly paranormal, the wildly fantastical and the amazingly scientific. Magic, duh! I know I shouldn’t say it. But, still! Sigh. I read everything as a kid, from John Carter on Mars, to the Brothers Karamazov, to the Tales of Ivanhoe, followed up by Nancy Drew. It was the human story that amazed me, that people could be there, in that place, living that life. It wasn’t the magic.

In the late 60’s we had a family friend, John Hallford. My first southern gentleman, a courtly man, much like my dad, but with a flair–he was a member of the International Society of Magicians, the headquarters were the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, below the big sign and Yamashiro Sky Room. John and Bernice, his second wife, would call me up and we’d go to the Castle for dinner or just for drinks and a show. In those days, you had to be a member to get in.

Parking was behind the castle, you walked to a massive wooden door that would creak, a little like Inner Sanctum, and inside would be a library, a librarian desk and no door. You would offer your name and reservation and wait until a sufficient number of people moved into the library and then the outer door would slowly close and you would be invited through a hidden door as the bookshelf would move off to the side. Inside was a dim, warm inviting bar. At one end of the bar was a stool that, for the uninitiated, slowly dropped until your chin was even with the bar top. A piano played solo, as in all by itself. There were small rooms, alcoves, niches; private, concealing, hideouts really, where small tricks and magic was practiced and discussed. Up stairs, in the dining room was a groaning board, twelve feet long, full of salads, fruits, vegetables, meats and all forms of desert. There were never crowds, especially as we usually went on a week night. Magicians from all over the world came to the Castle, to perform, to chat, to be seen by peers. The theaters, mostly in the basement, where the performances took place, were small, intimate, velvet curtains covering a tiny stage with footlights that separated the magician from the audience of maybe twenty, twenty five people. One night a young man from Budapest performed, it was astounding, he was from behind the Iron Curtain, a novelty in itself. And he was quite dashing. A mop of curly black hair, a bleach white dress shirt and tie, and a Mary’s Mantle blue tuxedo. He performed with sliver balls, his pale long fingered hands moving over, under and around, making the shiny orbs disappear and then reappear. I sat, mesmerized, just five feet from where he performed. It never occurred to me to figure out how he did it.

Although my sisters mocked my acceptance of his trick without wondering how, I was quite happy to give him his due. He did the performance so well it was riveting, besides, did I mention he was handsome, adorable, wow? The fact is, magic may exist–– who am I to say? We could use more of our brains than what we now use. And that old saw “magic is just science we don’t understand yet” is probably more than true.

I’ve read there are really only ten true stories from the depth of our ancient primal myths, surely they have all been written more than once. The magic is that people continue to write, to make variations on the same stories, and create a pantheon of remarkable literary characters [or not so literary–––maybe imaginary characters is a better word]. Magic is the ability to make a reader suspend disbelief, to care about the plight of the main character, to feel with that character the solution to the problem and then to be in wonder at the end.

wonder |ˈwəndər| noun; a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Yep, that is magic!

Non-Fiction

Non-fiction––meaning true, real, what happened. Don’t putz with the facts, tell them. If you want to emphasize one over the other to prove your thesis, well, okay then, but let us know. Otherwise, it is just plain annoying!

I’m reading MARY POPPINS, SHE WROTE: THE LIFE OF P.L. TRAVERS. And Why? is what I keep asking myself. I’m about 9% of the way through the book [Kindle Edition] and am gagging. To call this a sympathetic biography of Travers is like calling milk chocolate slightly sweet. Yikes! It’s hard to tell where P.L. or Lyndon [as the author refers to her] begins and Valerie Lawson’s idea of  Travers ends.  Quotes like “Allora was a perfect place for dreaming. Quiet, far from anywhere, the town was bitingly cold in winter and intensely hot in summer–extremes that helped her imagination take flight as she sat before the fire and gazed into it’s flame…”  Seriously? Triple yikes. And, Lyndon’s continual search for the father figure she lost is just plain exasperating.

My problem is the lack of distance between Travers and the biographerLawson. While apparently Ms. Travers left copious notations and diaries, she wanted to remain elusive and mysterious. After a 9% look into her life, I say, “Okay, Ms. Travers, you can stay a mystery, because you are quite dull and uninteresting, at least in Ms. Lawson’s telling.” This book is a slog.

So? Why did I read this? Well, I watched Mary Poppins, the movie, when it came out without a back thought for it being a book or not. So now, when other writers were talking about how special the books were, I thought I would read. In this instance, probably the only one I can think of, I liked the movie better. True, I’m an adult reading this now, after hearing all the hype about how fabulous the books are, and how they are not supposed to be children’s books [but they read them anyway—sigh–who didn’t do that?] and be about all this other-worldliness. But I don’t think I would have been agog over them as a kid. I was reading NANCY DREW, and Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE and HEART OF THE MIDLOTHIAN, this would have been pap!

Haven’t seen the movie yet, but will. I’m amused by the fact that Emma Thompson refers to Walt Disney as an old sod. Comments come out, yet again, about how difficult Disney was, how harsh, determined in the face of artistic creativity. And yeah, I get upset at the Disney version of the Greek Myths and American folk tales, worrying that children believe this is the way it was written. But wait! His name was on the door. When you choose to work for a person who has a view of the future, you implicitly buy into that view. Roy and Walt created an industry, [yeah, maybe someone else would have and could have but they were the ones who did.] Give credit where credit is due. I admire individuals who have a driving passion to get things done their way and in the process create a demand where there is none.

I have little admiration for someone who wants to remain elusive, rewrites their own history,  effectively lies about their ancestry and pretends to not care, i.e., P.L. Travers. And, If she wanted all of those things, then, hey, just give interviews and torch the pack of papers and notations. The BBC Video by Victoria Coren Mitchell is worth a look. Still a paean to Travers, but still, a little more distance makes a huge difference.

I may or may not finish this book. Sigh. When will I learn that libraries are so much more effective.

 

Epiphany

There are more words than I care to admit to that I first learned, that  started with a capital letter. Epiphany is one. It’s one of those words that roll nicely off the tongue, with a hard fssst sound in the middle. Very satisfying to say. But it was not just a word, or only a feast day, it was a major event.

While Jesus was born to the Jews, he was made manifest, revealed, to the Gentiles when the Magi found him, twelve days after Christmas. I’m a Gentile, and i always thought it was sad it was called Little Christmas. A strong word like Epiphany should be enough. Revealed. Manifest. Very powerful words.  It was a non-Latin word, not English, not one of the romance languages. Like the Kyrie Eleison, the only Greek in the mass, so it stands out when you singI like that.

There are not many of our feast days where we use the Greek, most are with Latin reference. But back to epiphany, in small letters. The word means a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being, a moment of sudden revelation or insight. I like that we don’t overuse the word in English. There was a time though, people would say “I had an epiphany.” No mention of what was now known, more that something was. Like a lot of words, epiphany has felt its fair share of abuse.

There are some words I’d like to use more. Epiphany is one. Catholic in the small ‘c’ sense of universal. But I wonder if today, readers, especially kids, would even know they are common nouns not just names. Sort of reminds me of the term ‘elevator’. In business school we learned that Otis designed the first vertical stairway. He named it an elevator. It has become a common noun, not a proper noun. Companies have spent a truck load of money protecting what could be common nouns, Coke, Kleenex, Xerox, just to name a few. They identify, they immediately bring up an image. Go into a restaurant and order a Coke, if they only serve Pepsi, the waitstaff will ask if a Pepsi is okay. Why, because it’s not just soda, it is a Coke!

With so many words being coined, made up, ginormous, selfie, ugh, functionality, which may be among the worst of them, it’s almost sad we’ve lost some great words. And it is fun to have an epiphany, to reveal, with sudden insight, what I think about common and proper nouns.

First Day

I’m not a late night sort of person, not really enchanted with the glitz and glitter of the evening. It’s dark. In the winter it is cold, usually very cold, at least by my standards. If you don’t have snow to cover all the dead branches, fallen leaves, brown grass and bare bushes, the world is not the most attractive sight. And. It’s hard to see.  So, not a First Night kind of girl.

Where did the feasting of New Year’s come from? My own unscientific and less than historical view is that it had a lot to do with the Georgian Calendar. Although I’ve never understood why the new year comes in the middle of the darkest of winter times. For me, Spring. March 1 should be New Year’s Day.

But the co-opting of non-Christian feasts into Christian feasts was probably one of the world’s first excellent marketing slash spin campaign. Ever. Bully! We take it as common fact that the holidays, especially the Christian ones, center around what we call pagan feasts. Spoiler Alert! Pagan: ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin paganus ‘villager, rustic,’from pagus ‘country district.’Latin paganus also meant ‘civilian.”  The idea of a mystical birth in the middle of the death of winter, one that would bring renewal, was a powerful one, but for Catholics that is not the beginning of the year. For us it is the First Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before the Christ’s mass, Christmas, when we prepare, get ready. Await!  January first is when we celebrate the gift of Mary, the Mother of God.

Me? First Day should be like the most galactic, ginormous, perfect Monday. I’ve always LOVED Monday. Seriously! Each day at Villa Cabrini we lined up by class in the quad of the elementary section of campus. Mornings would be cool, refreshing, new. But on Monday, my baby blue uniform would be freshly ironed, the collars and cuffs bleach white, my Buster Brown’s polished. My plaid book bag hanging across my body would have my binder and sharpened pencils. In my lunch box the Thermos full of cold milk and a sandwich wrapped tightly in waxed-paper would sit alongside homemade chocolate chip cookies and an apple. Mother Superior would make the morning announcements and then the loudspeaker would blare a John Phillips Sousa march. Ah, that March King! He really knew his stuff. We would stand in place before marching in a drill you learned in kindergarten. March to the front. Turn back by ones, down by fours, back up by twos, down by twos and then each class peeled off to their respective rooms. By third grade you could do it in your sleep, but I never did. It was activity, movement, exciting. We were, for a bunch of grade school kids, precise, exacting, and perfect. It set the tone for the day. Do it right. There was no other option. Expectations! What a motivator. 

Resolutions don’t impress me, but assessments do.  Beginnings are tantalizing, wondrous, promising, and exciting. This is a new beginning. Just like Monday! Happy First Day!