Still Life with Siamese

Calvin guarding my Texas hat
Calvin guarding my Texas hat

So I went to a concert Sunday night to watch a performer I had first seen in person twenty years ago. Both great shows, but it got me to thinking about time and the difference between the type of show a person does when he is younger and the type of show he does when he’s older. The younger show was brash and funny, the older show more thoughtful and introspective.

Apparently introspection is catchy.

Anyway, as I was getting ready to leave for work yesterday, two of my characters started a scene that takes place years from the present set of stories, my fictional equivalent of the gap in the concerts. I could tell it was just going to be a scene or two. Short, sad, poignant. But I had to get to work so I took off and hoped I’d get a chance to write it down later.

But when I got to work, it started to transform. More characters wanted in on the action, the poignant moment turning into an inciting scene for an entire story. And every scene that showed up diluted the original by half. Soon nothing would be left but a watery gruel. The argument in the men’s room was the last straw. Do I want this to be sad or stupid?

I chose sad.

As soon as I get home, I crank up the computer and get to work. And, yes, the characters have decided on short and sad as well. I am deep into it, typing as fast as I can and then….

“MwaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAA” at my bedroom door.

Which is Siamese for “Let me in.” Or at least it is Calvin for let me in. I’ve found that no two Siamese sound exactly alike. Calvin is more of a loud tenor, Hobby is more of a cranky baritone. And neither of them say “Meow.”

I ignore him and try to keep writing, but Calvin will not be ignored.

“MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

You get the picture.

So I open the door. “Okay, okay, come in.”

“MwaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAA,” he says, trotting around the bed and trying to judge the distance up to my Wacom tablet. I use a tablet instead of a mouse. Unfortunately, it has buttons on it that scroll or hide windows. I never use the buttons, but Calvin likes to sit on them and activate them with his butt.

“So what do you need?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Now the Mmmmmmm sound is a funny little noise made without even opening his mouth. It is a considering sound, a maybe sound. If he’s not quite sure what he wants or whether or not he likes something, he will mmmmmmm.

After two tries (he is seventeen years old so some days are better than others), he gets up on the tablet. I remove him before he can activate any buttons and set him on the bed.

“Do you want to go outside?” I’m hoping this is the right answer. Calvin likes to go outside and pee on the car tires. He learned that from our old Dobie Spencer. Spencer is gone, but Calvin still likes to pee on tires.

“MwaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAA.”

“Okay, give me a minute. I’m right at the end of this story.”

“MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

“Okay, okay, you can go out right now.”

I let him outside, leave the door open a crack so he can come back in and return to the computer. I get one sentence typed and then…

“Waaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Imagine whiny child inflection.

“Not right now, Hobby.”

“WAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Now Hobby has been sick (he’s also seventeen) so it is important that he eats. So if he wants to eat, I have to go feed him. Right now he will only eat tiny bits of chicken so I cut him up a few chunks, wash my hands, go back to the keyboard.

But before I can close the bedroom door…

“MwaaaaaAAAAAaaaaaAAAA.”

“There’s chicken in the kitchen, Calvin.”

He comes around the bed, eyes the tablet, wiggles his behind.

“Calvin, can I just finish my story?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.”

Of course, by this time, I’ve totally lost the flow of the thing. I’m not sure exactly how the story ends anymore, but I remove Calvin from the Wacom tablet and type something.

Maybe it’s finished, maybe it’s not.

I’ll try again when I have less company.

 

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Scarred for Life

So I back when I was in grade school, I started my first book. It was actually a writing assignment, but I knew it was going to be a book so I confidently titled it “Chapter One.” I’m not sure now what the exact instructions were. I was just excited that I was going to get to write something.

Back in those days, I was very into animal stories. Not the cheerful happy Disney kind. The kind where everyone dies at the end. I’d just finished reading one where the main character was a wolf cub who hides in a crack at the back of his den to avoid being killed with the rest of his littermates. I thought that crack idea was the cleverest thing ever. (Okay, okay, I was ten, all right.) And the murder of his family quickly paved the way for the wolf cub to become an orphan and have a series of adventures. That was pretty much the plot of all the books I’d been reading. Step one, protagonist animal’s family gets wiped out. Step two, adventures.

So I decided that I would write a story about a cougar cub because I liked cougars better than wolves. A cougar cub who was totally black like a black panther. (I know, I know, cougars don’t come in black, but I wanted him to be black. Ten years old, remember?) And he would have some kind of identifying white mark on his shoulder (because being a totally black cougar was not identifying enough apparently.) His siblings would all be normal beige cougars who would show up fine in the darkness, but because he was all black, he could hide in the back of the den and not be seen.

As long as he covered up that damn identifying white mark on his shoulder.

Anyway, Shadow or Midnight or White Spot or whatever his name was, survives a little cougar Armageddon by hiding in a narrow place at the back of the den. It was a variation on the crack thing only better because he was already pretty invisible to begin with.

We had a substitute teacher the day we turned our assignments in. She collected them all and went off to read them in the back of the room while we studied history or something. I was rather proud of my work. I mean it was about a black cougar. How could she not like a story about a black cougar?

Half an hour later, she showed up at my desk, story in hand. The look on her face was not promising. “You didn’t write this story. You copied it from somewhere.”

I felt a tremendous surge of guilt. “Well, just the crack thing. The wolf in the book hid in a crack.”

“So you did copy this from a book. Do you know what that’s called? That’s called plagiarism. That is illegal. These aren’t your words.”

“They are my words.”

“You said they came from a book.”

“No, the hiding in a crack came from a book. But it’s not exactly the same.” I was tremendously confused by this time. She was getting angrier and angrier.

“You can’t steal other people’s words.”

Everyone was staring at me. I sank down into my chair. “I borrowed the crack idea.”

She was practically breathing fire by now. “I don’t care about the crack idea. Did you write this yourself or not?”

“Of course I wrote it myself.”

She looked at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I was lying or not. “You wrote this all by yourself?”

“Yes.”

She tossed it down on my desk. “Then it’s very good.”

I threw the story away on the way out of class that day. I was so terrified by the whole encounter that I never wanted to show anyone anything I’d written ever again.

I got over it.

Sort of.

But still, years later, today to be exact, when a co-worker reads something I’ve written on a project and asks “Did you write this yourself?”, I totally freeze up. I’m ten again looking up at that lady who is certain that I’ve copied my entire first chapter from another writer’s book and I don’t know what to say.

Of course I wrote it myself. Why do people keep asking me that?

There wasn’t even a crack in it.

Revising Myself

Image
The Boot (little Tosca dog added for cuteness)

So let me tell you about the mental deterioration caused by having a boot Velcroed to your foot. The emotional arc runs like this. First, anger and self-pity. (“Why did I have to break my stupid foot AGAIN?” “Why am I the only one who has to drag this heavy boot around?”) Which segues into a sort of grudging acceptance. (“Well, my foot does feel better with the boot on.”) And, perhaps, even occasional glee. (“What a great time of the year to have a handicapped placard!”) But as time and patience wear on, the boot feels less and less like a help and more and more like an anchor. By the end of six weeks, I was ready to chew my leg off. Plus, it is pretty much impossible to sleep with the damn thing on so by the seventh week, I was not only depressed but severely sleep-deprived.

Which turns out to be the perfect state for doing a final reread of a novel because a) it keeps you from thinking about the Boot and b) your internal critic has fallen asleep in a corner.

Now I’m not recommending that anyone who is having trouble revising a novel should run out and break a foot. I’m just saying that rereading stuff you wrote years ago is much easier when you are semi-conscious.

Oh, sure, certain parts are fun. There are whole sections that are fine and then, suddenly, there’s an inexplicable scene, something so off the wall that you don’t even know why it’s there.  Then you spend several hours trying to read your past self’s mind. Failing that, you take the scene out and put it in the discard file. Not the trash, mind you, but the discard file, because sometimes, half a book later, you realize why you needed that inexplicable scene so you have to dig it out, dust it off and put it back in. Much easier to do when you aren’t totally sane or well-rested.

But then I got the Boot off.

About the time I hit Book Three which, well, needs work. A lot of work. First twenty-six pages are great, page 27 is a mystery to me.  Then there appears to be some important stuff missing which I didn’t notice when I wrote it originally but realize I need now. And as the pages go up, so do the places that need shoring up or rewriting or discarding or something. And I begin to wonder if maybe I should just abandon Drac and company and go see what’s on TV.

You know, like normal people.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie Oliver! where Fagin, master fence and pickpocket, has decided to give up his life of crime and work like everybody else. He is confidently walking into a brand new sunrise when suddenly, from behind a pillar box, out steps his prize pupil the Artful Dodger, all decked out in top hat and tails, holding up a stolen wallet. Fagin hesitates, reviews the situation, and decides that maybe he’d been a little too hasty about tossing aside his old profession. He takes the wallet from the Dodger and off they go to look for more.

That’s kind of how revisions are for me. I work until I’m frustrated, hip deep in the spaghetti of intersecting plotlines, no idea how to get out from where I am. I decide I hate everything, that none of it is good, that no one wants to read it anyway. And the burden of making all the little pieces fit together right falls away. I’m free, released, heading off into the sunrise. But then I turn a corner and there is Drac, a little smirk on his face, holding up a shillelagh.

“Bet you wonder what I’m doing in Ireland.”

“No, I don’t give a damn what you’re doing in Ireland. I’m done, I’m finished, I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

He twirls the shillelagh. “You know, it’s not actually my shillelagh.”

“I don’t care whose shillelagh it is.”

“And after the Ireland story, I think there’s one about Texas.”

“I’m not listening.”

He pulls out a Carney’s chili dog. “And, of course, there’s this story.”

I hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I like that story.”

He takes a bite of the hot dog and smiles. “I know.”

“All right, all right. Gimme that.” I tear the hot dog out of his hands. “So what happened in Ireland?”

“Hell if I know. You’re the writer.”

Good thing he didn’t give me the shillelagh.

Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.

Life in the Not-So-Fast Lane

So last night I’m on the 405 driving home from my niece’s baby shower when suddenly my Check Gauges light starts flashing. In a frantic panic-stricken sort of way. But I’m not too far from home so I think that maybe I can tough it out. People go weeks with their warning lights blinking. I can make it a few more miles.

But I was wrong. Less than a mile later, my headlights start to dim.

Now the last thing you want is to be on the freeway with no lights so I take the next off-ramp.

Into the darkest, most deserted area in the entire state of California.

Part of the darkness may have been due to the fact that I was pretty much done in the headlight department and my dashboard lights were beginning to go, irising in until there was just a barely visible glow in the center of the speedometer.

So I could watch the speed drop closer and closer to 0.

The street I am on, which seems to be a large street, comes to a sudden end at the next light. Maybe it’s the airport. Maybe it’s not. Whatever it is, I need to make a decision. Turn onto the dark scary street to the right or turn onto the dark scary street to the left. Since the light was red and slowing down seemed to accelerate the death throes of the car, I went right. Without even trying to stop. Half hoping a cop would see me and pull me over and give me a ticket and call me a tow truck.

But there was no one anywhere. No cops, no pedestrians, nothing. Just empty industrial buildings and streets without streetlights. Just me and my car and whatever was lurking in the dark.

So I flip a U and go back the other way. Ahead I can see something brightly lit. Gas station maybe, mini mart, football stadium. I’m not really picky at this point.

I just want to be anywhere but here.

It turns out to be a car dealership. I have to make a left into the driveway. Traffic is coming, but my car is threatening to die right there in the street, so I’m inching into my left turn, hoping the three other drivers coming toward me will take the hint and speed past before I die crossways in the road.

They do.

I pull my twenty-year-old car up to the front of the luxury car showroom. Hallelujah, there’s a security guard. I roll down the window.

“Excuse me, can I park here a minute to call AAA?”

“I’m sorry, the dealership is closed for the night.”

“Is there a service station around?”

“About four blocks that way.”

“Thanks.”

I step on the gas. My car flashes the Check Engine light, gives a little death rattle and ceases to function.

Great.

But the security guard is sympathetic and tells me that there are a few guys left inside the building. Maybe one of them can help me. I leave my poor burnt-smelling vehicle and walk into the showroom. It is full of cars I could never hope to buy ever. I wander up to the first person I see, a nice-looking man with a goatee.

“Excuse me, I’m broken down in your driveway. Would it be okay if I hang out in here while I call AAA?”

He smiles. “Of course. I’m stuck here until my clients finish up in Finance anyway.”

I thank him about a million times and pull out my phone. The battery is almost dead. For a moment, I have visions of being stranded in the dark with no phone and feel a surge of gratitude for this small oasis. In fact, if you have to get stranded somewhere, this is pretty much breakdown nirvana. Lights, bathrooms, water fountains, snack machines and a security guard.

I mean seriously.

Anyway, the tow truck comes an hour later. The driver apologizes and says that they are having a super busy night. He’s not sure why. Maybe the heat. I wave goodbye to the security guard as we pull out of the lot. She waves back.

Enough adventures for one night.

I’m going home.

Two or Three Degrees of Separation

 

So I lied about no more cemeteries. I had to see one more grave, the place where Buster Keaton was buried. Because Buster and I, we go way back.

Back in my wild Hollywood days…well, okay, they weren’t that wild. Mostly cruising down Sunset Boulevard and eating late night sandwiches at Canter’s Deli, but just go with me here. It’s my reminiscence and, in my mind, they were wild.

Anyway, Mike, Leah and I used to go to a lot of plays. They wanted to be actors. I just liked the excitement of hanging out in Hollywood all night long. During the course of these adventures, we met a wonderful lady named Jane who was a stage manager at the Las Palmas Theater. She’d been in the theater for years and had all sorts of fascinating stories about actors and acting.

Sometimes when some old movie that she thought we should see was on, we’d go over to her place, a duplex in North Hollywood, drink cream sodas and watch TV with her. (I never really cared for the cream sodas, but the only other choice was chocolate soda which seemed wrong on many levels.) She lived in the back house of the duplex, the smaller of the two. And on the wall up above the TV set was a huge oil painting of Buster Keaton, three or four feet high, with an expensive looking frame and a little key light at the bottom that threw light up onto his face. A small brass plaque on the frame had his name in fancy letters. Buster Keaton.

Just in case you couldn’t tell.

The painting was something of a mystery to us. I mean, anyone can have an obsession, but the Buster Keaton shrine seemed a little much. Beautiful, but totally overpowering. So one evening, Mike got up the guts to ask Jane why she had a huge expensive oil painting of Buster Keaton in her living room. She looked up at it a moment and shrugged.

“He was married to my sister.”

Now we had met Eleanor in passing once or twice. I don’t think she quite trusted us. I don’t know that we looked all that dangerous, but she would usually disappear into the front house soon after our arrival. But she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to have been married to Buster Keaton.

So Mike repeated it, just to be sure. “Your sister was married to Buster Keaton?”

Jane nodded. “Yes. That painting is from the Brown Derby. They gave it to her before they tore it down.”

We all look up at the painting as if it was a lost Da Vinci. So not only was Eleanor married to Buster Keaton, but the mystery painting came from the Brown Derby?

“THE Brown Derby?” Leah says, just to be sure.

“Oh, yes.” Jane gets out of her chair and goes to a bookcase over on the far wall. She pulls out a rectangular wooden case and sets it down on the dining room table. “These are his poker chips.” She opens the case and there are the most beautiful poker chips I’d ever seen. Mother of pearl maybe, dyed various colors. She took out a blue one and passed it around. “Buster loved poker.”

I just kept running the poker chip over my fingers, marveling at the color and the smoothness and the historicalness of it. Buster Keaton’s poker chip. I wanted to keep it, but, reluctantly, I handed it back.

Now we come to the most tragic part of the story. Because there we were, in that house full of Buster Keaton’s things, not ten steps from Buster Keaton’s widow, and not one of us had ever actually seen a Buster Keaton movie. At that point in time, they just weren’t available anywhere. So there I was, aching to ask questions, but having no idea what to ask.

Jane told us a few stories about what Buster was like and how he loved trains, but we were friends with Jane. I didn’t dare approach Eleanor without some concrete questions in mind.

Fast forward a few years. While I was out of state at college, I finally got to see “The General.” I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and see Jane and talk to Eleanor, finally full of all the Buster questions that I hadn’t had before. We made a quick visit while I was home for the summer, but Jane had been ill and we couldn’t stay long. She was happy that I’d loved “The General” and said Eleanor would love to hear my comments about it, but she was off at a silent film convention so I’d have to come back another time.

But that other time never came. We never saw Jane again.

But I’ve never forgotten sitting in Jane’s living room, watching TV under Buster’s mournful gaze. I’ve always felt very close to him, almost as if I’d known him for real.

So one last cemetery trip, to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, beside the wall near the Washington statue, to an elegant little tombstone etched with oak leaves. Someone had left him a huge bouquet of red flowers. And there was a little worn spot in the grass where people had stood to take a picture of his headstone. I leaned down and touched the edge of his monument.

So near and yet so far.

Mousey Gras

So I went to a Mardi Gras parade on Sunday. At Disneyland. Which is a little like going to Las Vegas by playing video poker at home. The basics are there, but the ambiance is not quite the same.

Not that it was horrible. True to Disneyland standards, it was painstakingly false. By which I mean that Disney can accurately reproduce anything on Earth. Take Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, for instance. Wonderful Tudor-looking mansion. Seems completely authentic.

Until you notice the Mr. Toad faces carved into the beams.

It’s like they’re saying we’re going to pretend that you’re somewhere else, but we’re not going to let you forget where you really are.

I think that’s why there was such an uproar when they changed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It was totally original. No Mickey, no Pluto, just pirates burning and pillaging as they sang. Only the coolest ride in the park. (Well, okay, Haunted Mansion is pretty close unless you are feeling like roller coasters, then, of course, it’s Space Mountain.) Which was great until someone somewhere decided that the ride had to look more like the movie that was based on it.

Which is a little like someone filming your life story and then telling you that you’ll have to change the ending.

Now I suppose a person from, say, Nebraska, coming to the park for the first time would be thrilled to find Captain Jack Sparrow hiding amongst the original Animatronics. But those who grew up riding Pirates of the Caribbean were outraged. It was like tagging a Picasso. The ride was perfect the way it was. People could recite the dialogue by heart.

And now it was different.

I have to admit, I was one of them. Not totally outraged, but kind of bummed out. This was my favorite ride that I’d seen seventy billion times and now it wasn’t the same.  Captain Jack Sparrow stood out like a sore thumb. Not that he was badly done. They did an awesome job creating him. He looks exactly like Captain Jack Sparrow.

It was just that Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t belong there.

Anyway, the parade was a little like that. A great brass band.  A band leader with an umbrella dancing wildly out front. People in festive outfits dancing along behind them. Totally authentic looking.

Until you got to Minnie and Goofy.

Now, Goofy did look pretty cool in his jester’s outfit. Minnie was dressed as a queen, but she could have been queen of anything really. I think a real Mardi Gras queen would have had more feathers. But it was fun, nonetheless. Beads and music and dancing. They even had beignets.

Even if they were shaped like Mickey Mouse.