On Creating Art

In 1980, after my divorce, I decided to study creative writing for the first time, and I took an excellent course through UCLA Extension.  I enjoyed the class, but I was nervous about one of its main requirements: that you submit a 5000+ word story to the rest of the class for their critique.  I vividly recall how brutal the comments of my fellow students seemed, and how surprised I was when the teacher took me aside and said:  “I think they liked it.”

Recently, in preparation for this blog, I have been doing a different kind of studying with my friend Cathy Wild,  who is a writer, an artist, a counselor and a creativity expert, among other things.  When Cathy critiques a poem of mine, she won’t let me settle for “good enough.”   She forces me to continue to look at how to make whatever I’m working on better, until I can’t make it better any more.  The following poem, which began as a simple note about a fun fact*, went through several drafts.  You will have to decide for yourself whether or not I can continue to make it better.

PUCE

Puce.
I know I’m no good with colors,
Couldn’t describe a one of them,
So a blind man could understand.

Only
The deep purple-brown of your lips
Comes alive for me
Shimmering in the dark.

When
I kiss you, my lips become puce.
It is as though I’ve fed
Upon your blood.

And
It comes to me:
Puce is the color fleas leave.
Why couldn’t I think of that before?

 

*Puce is the French word for flea; ma puce is a term of endearment. I guess you have to be French…

 

My Mother’s Grave

My mother died in 1979, on her sixty-ninth birthday. She had been visiting her twin sister in the hometown I share with the two of them, Beaumont, Texas.

From her birth in 1910 until my grandfather’s early death in 1937, my mother and her sister were prominent members of Beaumont society as the daughters of the doctor (Guy Howard Reed, my grandfather) who attended to the richer families in town.   I visited Beaumont many times when I was growing up, and the dubious values of social prominence and keeping up appearances were drummed into me by my mother’s mother (the doctor’s widow).

The poem that follows was written shortly after returning to Beaumont for my mother’s funeral and burial near her parents. It had been fifteen years since I had been to my home town, and I surprised myself by being depressed by how small the attendance at her funeral was and how shabby the graveyard looked.   I guess I had expected my grandparents to keep up appearances, even after death.

So many pretty places to put a grave –
Nestled among the virile pines,
Or grandly surveying the sleepy river,
Not here.
Not in this lifeless place,
With its dried-out grass and air of neglect.

A graveyard should be a lively place,
Somewhere to pretend the dead still live,
Somewhere the dead would want to live.
And the people who come to stare somberly
At the fresh-dug hole
Should look just as they did
When she was young and full of hope.

On Memory

All my life, people have remarked on what a good memory I have.   When I was younger, I was often asked if I have a photographic memory.   Well, I don’t and never did.  In fact, the so-called photographic memory of people’s imagination probably doesn’t exist.   What I do have is excellent recall, especially for moments that are emotionally important to me.   I remember vividly the night I broke up with my first wife, even though it was 1979.   No doubt many people recall such important moments.  I also remember the first fist fight I got into when I was a little boy and the time in seventh grade when I was told a cute little red-haired girl liked me.   ( I don’t remember her name; the emotional impact is what I recall.)  All that sounds fairly normal, I expect.

Unfortunately, I also remember casual remarks that friends and acquaintances made to me months ago, especially if they said something I particularly wanted to hear, and I am cursed by a tendency to assume that whoever I was talking to remembers the same conversation.    As you might expect, this ability of mine  has led to a fair amount of misunderstanding and embarrassment and even some heartache over the years.   On the other hand, it has also meant that I have exceptional recall of my earliest years.  For example, I have a vivid memory of being 2 1/2 or so and being hoisted up to the center of a large bed by my father and surrounded by comic books.   The words are not in my memory, but I also have the impression of my father telling my mother that this was how I was going to learn to read.  (He was right.   I was reading by the age of three.)

About fifteen years, ago, my memory started to change.   Where once I could remember any phone number I needed simply by telling myself to remember it, now when I called a number from memory, one or two of the digits would be uncertain.  I started to have difficulty remembering names for the first time.   Failure to recall a name is now part of my daily life.  My reaction to all this was to reflect on what my earliest memory was; to see how far back I could go before it was too late.

First, some context; I was born in February of 1944.   The comic books incident described above would have happened in the summer of 1946 at my grandparent’s house in Kingsville, Texas.   From September of 1944 until September of  1945, we lived on an army base in San Antonio, while my father worked for the Quartermaster’s Corps.   I was pretty sure that all the early impressions that were floating around in my head were from before the summer of 1946, but which came first?  When you that young, you don’t spend much time looking at calendars.

At first  I thought my first memory was of sitting on a kitchen counter next to the sink and saying  “airp’ane” as one flew overhead.   But then I realized I was remembering my mother talking about the day I said my first word.   So my first memory had to be the one in which I was sitting on a small chair on a small plot of grass and feeling proud that my parents weren’t hovering next to me.   I would have been around nineteen or twenty months.   I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s a real memory.   I wrote the following poem to commemorate it.

grass
smells good
lots of room, nothing around
but grass

chair
cane chair,  my chair
pretty flowers painted on it
stiff strings to sit on
my chair

hat
my cowboy hat
pulled tight under the chin
I wear my hat in my new chair and smell
grass

Political Conventions

In the last thirty years, I have attended a number of California  state-wide political conventions, mostly because my late wife, Pat Wiggins, was an active politician and officeholder.  Much useful work was done at these conventions on identifying public policy ideas and in developing relationships, but they had very little effect on the selection of the Party’s nominees for the various state offices.  But there was a time when conventions mattered…

In the summer of 1956, my family had just moved into our new home on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, right across from the bowling alley.    My father had just surprised the family by bringing home a new television set to replace the cheap Kenwood model we had left behind in Beaumont, Texas.   It was a surprise, because Dad had been reluctant to purchase any kind of TV set until about a year before we left Beaumont, and even then he brought home the cheapest possible model.   When we got to Sacramento, and he brought home the Zenith, my sister and I were stunned.

It turned out that my father had an ulterior motive for his uncharacteristic investment in popular culture.  He was a big supporter of Adlai Stevenson, and he wanted to watch the Democratic Convention to see if Stevenson was going to get a chance to lose again to Eisenhower.

I was captivated by the Convention.   (My sister, who was only eight, was not.)  In those days, you had a choice between NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley or CBS’s Walter Cronkite.   My father was a Huntley and Brinkley fan, and for four days we watched them every chance we got.   We listened to the speeches – Civil Rights was in the air, but support was muted because of the Democrat’s need to hang on to the supposedly Solid South.  We heard famous men being interviewed from the floor, people like Harry Truman and Averill Harriman ( a Double Dactyl, but unfortunately, Harriman is too obscure these days for me to write one making fun of him.).

When the roll of state was called for the Presidential nomination on the third day, there was real drama, because no one could firmly predict what would happen.   As the roll call went on, I kept score, as though I were at a baseball game, and when the tide started to turn clearly towards Stevenson, I got so excited that I jabbed the point of my pencil into my palm. ( I still have traces of graphite embedded under the skin.)

We need to find a way to make politics engaging again, instead of distancing.   We should probably start by celebrating people like Elizabeth Warren. who stand for something besides positioning themselves to do well in a partisan primary.

Reversing the Digits

I remember distinctly the day I turned 53.   For some reason, I still felt young at 52, but 53 somehow seemed the start of middle age.    I decided, just for that day, to reverse the digits and be 35 again.   It was a lovely age, and I enjoyed my birthday thoroughly.

Today is not my birthday, and at 71, I am getting to be too old to credibly reverse the digits, even for a day.   But I can remember, and honor, my seventeen-year-old self.  Here is a sweet little lyric that I wrote when I was 17:

Oh, to walk in the woods late at night,
With the smell of the rain in the air,
With our breaths coming quickly and tight,
And the moon shining brightly and fair.
Oh, to walk, and to talk, and to kiss.
Oh, to want, and to do, and to dare.
Oh, to live in a rapturous bliss,
Without torment, or struggle, or care.

It makes me feel good, just to write it down.