Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Of Moss, Jung, and My Final NaNoWriMo

For much of my life I have wanted and planned to be a novelist.  I have participated in National Novel Writing Month a few times without "winning:"  making it to the 50 thousand word finish line.  I started again at the beginning of last month and planned to create a fictional version of our "family tragedy."  I started strong.  I built some characters.  I had a sense of where the story was going.

But then self-awareness intervened.  After a windstorm in early November I got up on our roof to sweep off the pine needles while thinking, "When I'm done I'll get back to work on the novel."  But while I was up on the roof I noticed that many of the shingles on the north side of the house had bits of black moss growing on them.  So I went down the ladder, got a butter knife, and climbed back up onto the roof to spend another hour and a half picking off each little piece of moss.  And it was then, finally, that I realized, "I would rather pick moss off a roof than write fiction." 

And that was that. 

I have some grief over this realization because I've held the thought that I would become a novelist for almost five decades.  I've bragged to people about books I would write.  I've started at least six novels. The only one I finished, however, was at a severe cost.   The engine that allowed that book's completion was a relational obsession that ended very badly.  This was the sort of motor that tears apart its vehicle. Not a power I ever wish to harness again.

Why is it so difficult to let go of this image of myself as a long-form fictionist?  Carl Jung, read through the work of depth psychologist James Hollis, had the answer.  In the latter's book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, he quotes from Jung's writing on The Development of Personality, "What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents . . . have not lived."  And guess who also wanted to be a novelist?  But who never succeeded?

If you guessed, "your dad," you're right.  He was a newspaper man who dreamed of writing the long book but never did.  He was so proud of me when I sent him my completed novel -- he wrote a long, unprecedented personal letter.  (But then, after he read that work, with it's gay romance and sex scenes, he never mentioned it again.)  So giving up this mistaken dream of crafting the long work is also giving up a finding approval from my deceased dad.  (Are we ever done with our parents?)

Another reason I know I'm not meant to be a novelist is the way my body responded to the work.  My friend and life coach, Barb Morris, has said over and over again that we should listen to our bodies to know what we want.  What I experienced when writing long form fiction was physical discomfort at staying still for such lengthy periods of time.  I do not experience this discomfort when working in other art forms.  In fact, when I have been on writing retreats for the purpose of producing poems I have sat so long my bladder nearly burst because I couldn't leave the thoughts uncrafted into beauty.

So this is good-bye to that particular dream.  When I was getting ready to retire in 2014 I told friends that my first year would be a "fish or cut bait" year for novelizing.   I thought I'd be fishing for great plots.  Now I've been retired for a year and a half and have no novel.  I think that's good proof that it's not what I'm meant to be doing.  So instead of trying to hook the trout of the long story, I'm cutting bait to toss in the water of my unconscious to tempt back Euterpe, Erato, and maybe even Clio.

I'm still a writer, after all.  Just not a novelist.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

She Oughta Be Committed!

Or, to put that more responsibly, I ought to be committed.  To my promises to myself.  As a worker bee I met the commitments I made to the systems that rewarded me:  as a student I did not take incompletes; as a teacher I graded and returned most assignments within a week or less; as a colleague and friend, I generally do what I say I will do.  In other words, I score pretty darn high in conscientiousness.  But not when I'm the person to whom I'm making promises.  My first year of retirement accentuated this particular problem.  I kept making plans for myself and kept reneging.

But a few weeks ago I got a healthy kick in the butt from a human potential workshop called the Wings Personal Effectiveness Seminar.  It put a bright light on the way I show less respect to myself than I do to other people.  So I decided to start keeping some of the commitments I've made to myself.

Finally -- self published
One such commitment was to make sure my collection of poems about Wayne Lonergan got published.  After a couple of years trying to place the book with small poetry presses, I gave up on finding a spot in that world.  But I couldn't put it in the drawer of forgetfulness with all the half-finished novels.  So I decided to self-publish it in the easiest way possible:  through Create Space, an arm of the monster, Amazon.  

Why should I still care about this collection of poems, written a decade ago?  I'm certainly a different person now than I was then.  The rage that infuses these poems has little place in my current life.  But it was once the core engine that drove me and that I thought may have driven Wayne. 

I was drawn to his story as early as 1992 when I first saw it in an old Life Magazine I was perusing for my dissertation research.  In 1999 I visited the archives of the City of New York, photocopied all the trial documents and began work only to find myself scooped a few months later by a much better and better known writer.  Then I tried a novel about the murder but couldn't complete it.  (And besides, that had been done too.) Finally, in 2004, I took two weeks on my own on the Oregon and Washington coasts and wrote poems inspired by Wayne's life, pushing myself to create at least four poems a day by hand on notebook paper.  Later I edited them a bit, but not much.  Thus, although these may not be excellent poems, I'll say that the collection was truly "inspired" -- the words and thoughts that pushed through me in Wayne's voice were only partially mine, only partially the fruit of my unconscious dancing through my cerebral cortex.   Many of these words and images are blown through the breath of the Muse.

The voice in Murderous Glamour is angry, wounded and broken.  The work imagines an abused child who became a hustler and a killer.  In my vision of his story, Wayne is full of furious justification.  He defends himself relentlessly and clearly, claiming the need to survive.  The language is often coarse and sometimes beautiful.  In my vision, Wayne both loves and hates the God that his mother worshipped.   His story is one of pleasure and suffering. 

Like so many of our stories.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dad's Naked Ladies

Sam Hanson, 1987
 A couple of years before he died at age 90 in 2004, my dad and I had a kerfuffle over nude women.  Or rather, we had an argument over whether or not he had agreed to allow me to use his nude paintings to illustrate a small collection of poems I'd written about strippers.  In my version of the story, he agreed to let me to use his pictures and I shelled out a grand to a vanity press imprint.  But I mistakenly took this action before he actually read my poems.  Sadly, upon said reading, he became quite upset and immediately withdrew permission to use his paintings.  

So I too got upset because I'd already paid a substantial amount of money on the project. (I didn't know at the time that I'd eventually get it back.)  There followed some tense phone conversations between Bend, Oregon, and Pocatello, Idaho.

Sam Hanson, 2004
Eventually he pulled the "old man" card:  "Kakie, dear, you know I'm an old man and sometimes get confused."  Well, no card beats that card, so I gave in and we went back to being friends.  I abandoned that project.

Why was he upset about my poetry?  Not because of its quality or lack thereof.  Dad could recognize good prose writing but knew bupkis about poetry.  No, it was because my poetry was about strippers and sexuality.  He spoke with harsh tones when he told me that there were no similarities between strippers and artist's models.  "They take their clothes off in another room."  He might even have said that titillation wasn't part of their job.

And I got angry and confused when he said that. I thought he'd broken his word to me, of course.  But at a deeper level, I interpreted his rejection as a rejection of me, of my vision of the world, a vision that linked the naked female form to eros.

Is it wrong to think of life models as representations of sexuality?  Perhaps not.  Certainly, it's really wrong to hit on models.  And life-modeling itself isn't all that sexy.  I've worked as a life model and it's a painful and difficult way to make money.  Posing, holding one position for up to 30 minutes, challenges the mind and muscles.  It allows you to find all those little muscles you didn't know you had because they will hurt for days after.

Nevertheless, a picture of a model is different from the model.  The map is not the territory, you might say.  And even when I know that the work of a model or models is just that, work, I can still find the captured image of a naked woman erotic.  Was it just one of my typical solipsisms to think Dad found naked women sexy as well?

Sam Hanson at Lupin Lodge, 1957
Dad wasn't always a painter.  He spent most of his 90 years as a writer and journalist.  For more information about that aspect of his life, please see the blog, "Off The Beat" by Sam Hanson.   One of his favorite stories of his days in journalism was about his visit to a the Lupin Lodge nudist resort.  He won an award from the National Sunbathing Association  for the intelligence and sensitivity of his reporting. He enjoyed telling the story of how he interviewed the nudists while wearing only his clipboard.   He "dined out" for many years on his stories about both his visit and the way he reported it.  I found among his files copies of speeches he gave to such groups as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce.  While drawing humor from the image of the fearless reporting going naked, he also focused on the "just folks and families" reality of the Sunbathers.  His stories purposefully downplayed any hint of the erotic.  In his notes there were unpublished photos from this old assignment, including a picture of him naked in a swimming pool with a couple of naked women.  (I have drawn some artistic modesty on them.)  

Dad started painting seriously after he retired from the San Jose Mercury News in 1976.  A year after retirement he divorced my mom and moved back to Pocatello, where he'd lived as a child and young man.  There he also married again for the third time.  There  he developed as an artist.  For two decades he was a well known figure in the local arts community.  He  helped organize an artists' cooperative and had a shared studio downtown as well as a painting space in the basement study of the house owned by his spouse.

His primary subject matter was the female nude.  His paintings hung in various businesses around Pocatello.  He paid professional models, both as a member of his arts group and on his own.  He also had the chutzpa to ask complete strangers, like a waitress in a restaurant displaying one of his paintings, if they wanted to pose for him.

As much as I grew to like his final paintings, for a long time I found his choice of subject matter somewhat problematic because of personal and social history.

I experienced the household in which I grew up as highly sex- negative.  Sex education was left up to the public schools.  My very rare embarrassing questions were sometimes miss-answered or answered with obvious nonverbal discomfort and obliquity by my parents.

While sex was absent from family discussion, it was very present in my Dad's Los Gatos study where, in the days before he painted, he would go to read.  In 8th grade I discovered the stacks of Playboys in his private magazine rack.  When I was home from school sick, I would sneak into his study to peruse both the Playboys and the copies of Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterly's Lover he had locked in a glass-doored cabinet.  (The key was very easy to find.)  While I wasn't all that interested in the Playmate fold-outs, I did enjoy the cartoons (especially "Little Annie Fanny") and the famous Arthur Knight, Hollis Alpert articles on the "History of Sex in the Cinema."  It was while looking at these magazines in my adolescence that I made a personal connection between naked women and sexual arousal.  

So pictures of naked women were available in our house but allegedly not where the children could find them.  And of course there were no nudes on the walls.  Nevertheless,  European cultural traditions were highly respected.  My folks had a collection of slide shows about the world's great museums.  These were the Panorama Colorslide Tours issued in the early 60s by the Columbia Record Club.  A thin cardboard bar with tiny slides  slid through a projector as a famous voice on a half size vinyl record narrated the stories of different paintings.  Narration was provided by a small collection of art-interested Hollywood actors.   At the "Sound of Vincent Price" website you can find samples of his performances.  I don't remember if any of these "virtual" tours had nude ladies in them, though I can't imagine a "trip" to the Uffizi without Botticelli's Venus.  It's also possible saw a nude or two during family outings to the de Young Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The very art history I learned in childhood by visiting museums came under attack in graduate school.  I'd started reading Ms. Magazine as an undergraduate but didn't actually know the words "male gaze" until my masters and doctoral programs.  My first year at the University of Utah I graduate-assisted in a class that drew on John Berger's book,  Ways of Seeing, based on the BBC tv program of 1972.  The second episode/chapter is a complex essay about the meaning of the nude in the history of European painting.  "A woman in the culture of privileged Europeans is first and foremost a sight to be looked at."  Shortly after teaching that class in 1984 I sent a copy of the book to Dad for his birthday.  I doubt he read it.  Certainly, we never discussed the concepts therein.

I had a plan two years ago to put together Dad's Naked Ladies in a book with a long personal/academic essay.  I've scrapped that idea, but include here two quotes I was going to use:

The representation of the female body within the forms and frames of high art is a metaphor for the value and significance of art generally. It symbolizes the transformation of the base matter of nature into the elevated forms of culture and the spirit. The female nude can thus be understood as a means of containing femininity and female sexuality.

Nakedness is the most potent visual sign that a body is available for sexual encounter with another body. Since art stands between the artist and the spectator, it might be argued that art that represents the naked body serves the artist both as a sexual lure and as a shield against intimacy. 1 This might explain why the female nude has given rise to an astonishing variety of ambiguities related to the construction of gender and identity.  . . . the female nude became the most fascinating and disturbing symbol in Western visual culture. For centuries artists refined and exploited it, while art-lovers succumbed to and were shocked by it. Psychoanalysts and feminists, however, were the first to probe the ambiguity of its erotic appeal.

"The ambiguity of its erotic appeal."  What does the picturing of nude women mean, if not eroticism?  Why was Dad so drawn to painting naked ladies?   Here are some notes he made in 1995.

Why I paint nudes?
      Because they are there.
      Because the female figure is the most beautiful form in nature.
      Because -- unlike mountains, trees or barns -- they will come to where you are.
      Because they involve a matter of mutual trust.
      Because I like women as people.
      Because of the infinite variety of forms and the unending ways of presenting them.
      Because they are said to be the most difficult to draw and paint.
      Because without talent to draw or understand form or color, it is a never-ending challenge to     produce acceptable results.

Trust, challenge, friendship -- and nothing of eros.  An academic philosopher I knew in Pocatello once said that Dad seemed drawn to drawing the female form in the same way that  the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is drawn to making shape of the Devil's Tower in his mashed potatoes.  Certain shapes pull on the unconscious mind with a force that isn't purely sexual.

Dad might have thought that was horseshit. He was not someone who thought that he had an unconscious that  motivated him in ways not controlled by his rational mind.   Of course, a Jungian would say that denying the power of the unconscious (especially in the shape of the Shadow) just makes it stronger.

But no matter the "real" reason for Dad's focus on the female form, his persistent focus at last gave his work a kind of vibrant energy that got beyond his poor technique.  Although his work is derivative and he can't draw hands worth beans, his use of color puts him beside the best of the Fauves and their friends.  Or so say I.


That's why I want to make his works available to people who may enjoy them. In a few weeks I'm having a party and anyone who comes with a "ticket" will get to take home a painting.  If you, reader, are a friend, family member or local artist, be sure to email me if you do not receive your invitation.   Then sometimes in the fall, I'll have some art garage sales for whatever remains.

In the meantime, enjoy more of his work on Tumblr.

Or check out this video on Vimeo of the 124 pictures I inherited.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Stealing the Souls of Friends

I've been flapping about mentally, working on getting comfortable in this new identity:  Not-A-Teacher.  My shrink warned me that dropping a 30 year sense of self might be challenging and I made the mistake of assuring him that I was completely prepared for the change.  While this was true financially, it wasn't so real emotionally.  But over the holidays the winds of creativity have kicked up a bit as I've been sailing slowly out of my psychic doldrums.  As proof, I give you a video and some collage work I recently constructed after being inspired by some "Central Oregon Gothic" photographs posted by former work and current Facebook friends.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tissue, Kleenex and Kurasowa

"This is total rashomon . . ." 

I tripped over this phrase in an article by Mike Fleming Jr. on the Yahoo television news site.   Mr. Fleming's article is about why the Today show dropped an interview with actress Amy Adams. 

This is the first time I've ever seen a film title used as a common noun.  When I read this I wondered if the great Kurasowa's movie title was becoming genericized like Kleenex and Xerox,  each word often used for any kind of tissue or photocopying.  We are currently taught to capitalize both of those trade names but what about past proper names like Draconian (named after a tough-minded Greek law maker named Draco), aspirin (a name trademarked by Bayer), or frisbee (trademarked by Wham-O)?  Over time certain proper nouns have the rough nub of their capitalization rubbed off through overuse.  (For an interesting discussion of the question Boolean or boolean and other common/proper confusions you should check out the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange.)

I had not realized that this downgrading to the common had become true of Rashomon, one of the most powerful films ever made.  (Bad print available for free download from Internet Archives.)  But in my morning's Googling (or should that be googling?) I found a reference to lower case "rashomonism."  In 2002 Oregon Film reviewer D. K. Holm wrote in his review of the Criterion Collection re-release of Rashomon on DVD:

http://50anosdefilmes.com.br/2011/rashomon/"Rashomon — and, as it were, rashomonism — is now so embedded in the filmic culture that it's hard to imagine how much a revelation the film was when it was released in the west in 1951, after it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and before it went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film."

The core concept of the film -- the multiperspectival aspect of shared memory - has lead folks at the University of California to create a socially conscious site named for the film:  The Rashomon Project:  An open source tool-kit for assembling and analyzing multi-perspective video timelines.

Which all leaves me to wonder what other films titles will become common nouns?  They will have to be one word titles, of course.  Will people ever come to say, "I was casablancaed on that one" to mean, "I wasn't surprised" or "we have a shared past that we'll always remember?  No, I think not.  We shall instead say, "I was shocked, SHOCKED" or "We'll always have Paris." 

Are there any other film titles that could lose their proper noun status? If you can think of any, let me know!


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cross-Cutting with Caiaphas

This opening post will serve as something of an invocation as it deals with a rhetorical figure found unexpectedly in a religious text.  I began the first summer of my retirement by re-reading the Gospels and discovered that a story-telling technique thought by many to be little over one hundred years old actually has at least one ancient root.  
Christ Before Caiaphas, Matthias Stom (1640s)

As a former film teacher, I probably have the ethos to just fling out my definition of cross-cutting.  But seeing as how you might want the reassurance of legit sources, I'll link you to the Film Language Glossary at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), "Parallel editing is a technique whereby cutting occurs between two or more related actions occurring at the same time in two separate locations or different points in time. D. W. Griffith is often cited for his use of this technique."

So how is a film-editing technique a rhetorical figure?  Or, perhaps more appropriately, what is a rhetorical device if it isn't a "figure of speech"?

According to Aristotle, "Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." (Book I: 2, Roberts)  Anything that can represent something else to somebody, in other words, anything that is a sign, may be used rhetorically.  So photographs and film strips are signs that may have a persuasive meaning, as are the ways in which they are organized.

Almost since cinema's birth, both filmmakers and film theorists have recognized the persuasive value of image juxtaposition.  The great Russian thinking directors Eisenstein, Vertov and Kulshov wrote about the power and importance of editing in guiding the thoughts of the viewer.   When I was an undergraduate I used these Soviet theoreticians in a long and execrably written paper about the ways in which the work of Charles Dickens, specifically the novel Little Dorrit, presaged many of the narrative techniques of cinema.  More important writers than I have recognized similarities between literary and cinematic conventions.  In From Plato to Lumière: Narration and Monstration in Literature and Cinema, André Gaudreault notes that in literature parallel editing may sometimes be recognized by the linguistic formulation, "Somewhere else, . . . also . . . " as in "A girl was playing happily with her family while somewhere else there was also a girl who was sitting unhappily."  Thus he recognized that literature also had a method of placing scenes illustrating different settings together to achieve an effect.  Thus, parallel editing existed in literature before it appeared on the screen, in spite of the claims of experts such as David Bordwell that the technique was born with the art of the moving picture. 

Nevertheless, I was surprised to find this technique in the New Testament.  Most of the stories in the Gospels are written in a linear fashion, with one scene set in one place following the next.  But I found a situation in which parallel editing occurred in one but not all four of the Gospels.  And I think that the structure helps deliver an important message.

The scene occurs after Jesus has been arrested.  He is questioned and then spit on and beaten by the "scribes and elders" who are gathered with either Caiaphas himself or his father-in-law.  As the inquisition proceeds within a chamber, the apostle Peter is outside warming himself outside by a fire.   He is recognized and accused of being one of the people following Jesus.  The night before Jesus had warned Peter that he would deny his Rabbi three times before the cock's crow.  Peter had argued fiercely against this accusation.  But here at the fire among servants and officials,  he winds up disavowing Jesus three times before morning light.

Three of the Evangelists write about these two scenes in separate sections of their chapters, using one section for the questioning within the house and another for the betrayal at the fireside:  Matthew, 26:57-74, Mark, 14: 53-72, and Luke, 22: 54-71.

But the Evangelist John uses cross-cutting.  First, Jesus is arrested and taken to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphus (18: 12-14).  Then we cross-cut to Peter in the yard, standing around the fire warming himself.  Here, after being recognized by a female servant, he denies Jesus for the first time (18: 15-18).  "Meanwhile," as the NIV translation has it, back inside, Annas and others are questioning and slapping Jesus, then deciding to send him on to Caiaphas. (18: 19-24).  At the conclusion of that scene, we cut back to the yard where more people question Peter (including a relative of the man whose ear he cut off during the brief fight at Gethsemane) and he denies Jesus two more times before the rooster cries (18: 18-27).  In the chapter's final scene we're back with Jesus as He's being taken by the elders to Pontius Pilate (18: 28-40).
Denial of St. Peter, Caravaggio, 1610
What does this parallel editing do that the more linear structure doesn't?  Well, if the story were not so well known it might be argued that it creates a brief moment of suspense as we wait to see if Peter is really going to deny Jesus two more times before morning light.   But I think that this rhetorical device is used, instead, to forge a more complex response in the reader to Peter's decisions.  The first time we see Peter in the yard we dislike him for the denial -- how dare he betray his Lord?!  But after witnessing the pain and humiliation of the interrogation, we return to a man whose fear seems more understandable.  Thus, the Gospel of John can deepen our understanding of Peter's "failed" interior struggle between fear and love. 

Jesus said that he would build his church on a "rock" "Thou art Peter (Πέτρος, Petrus), and upon this rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my Church."   Although each of the four Gospels reveals a rock that crumbles, it is John who takes us into the parallel scenes so that we may experience the contest between love and fear with greater understanding.  And, in doing so, his cinematic narrative device has the potential to enlarge our compassion for ourselves as we too meet those moments which ask us to choose between safety and those dangers that sometimes accompany our love for God and His creation.