Tag: irony

The Devastating Power of the Bow Tie in the Time of Guanajuato Swing

Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.


Bennett’s Bullets, or How to Be as Good a Writer as I Am

I say this in all modesty. No one knows more about writing a novel than I do. Except—and it pains me to say this—my editor. That’s my New York editor. Whom I forgive right straight out in front. I speak for my ego here, who at the moment could not come to the pen. Let alone, the lip.

Here’s what I have learned, and I’m talking about the construction of a page-turner—the kind a corporate sales manager might be interested in.

1 – Avoid framework structures. For example, a gripping story found in your grandfather’s effects, say, about a passionate love, terminated by a stray bullet during a revolution in a country whose citizens your potential readers are afraid of.

2 – The story has to start with a shocking event somewhere within the first three lines of the first paragraph. This paragraph should not exceed three lines. For example, your father is murdered, shot in the back while investigating an injustice in a mine. The injustice can’t conflict with the accepted narrative, i.e. the enduring innocence of the country you the writer come from and where your book will sell.

3 – Everyone knows this: show, don’t tell. This is harder than you might think. For example, she is a respected striking London feminist with a thick French-Israeli accent, with a large following, who writes important books. You meet her at a reception, there are not that many people attending, you notice she is isolated, there is a chair next to her, and you go over and say you wonder whether you can ask her a question. You have a short, agreeable conversation about other people’s guilt. An admirer approaches, you cede your place. Then you go visit with other people, laughing and joking. She catches your eye. Her lips are moving. You nod and lean forward to hear what she’s saying across two tables filled with people. She says, “All your irony, come to me after you have cried, then we can have a conversation.” Do not explain, or tell, readers what just happened between you and the famous London feminist. They are intelligent. They can figure it out for themselves, even if you can’t.

4 – Don’t say he said, she said when writing dialogue, if it is obvious who’s speaking. Especially in the case of animals.

5 – Contract verbs in conversation. Say, “When you’ve cried” rather than “When you have cried”—which is less natural.

6 – Do not anticipate something that will happen in the plot by saying it could, might or will happen, no matter how they did it in the medieval epic called the Nibelungenlied—thus robbing the text of suspense. Don’t find an Austrian telescopic sight in someone’s saddlebag and then have him use it to shoot Siegfried two pages later. The reader has already anticipated the shooting, and the suspense is gone.

7 – Also, keep track of the number of elephants, “seven,” in an Indian night-time attack on British colonial forces. The reader will notice if the elephants are suddenly horses, or if all “eight” of the elephants lie dead or dying after the battle. Also, decide whether the moon is out. If it’s not, it’s almost impossible to get a correct count on the elephants.

8 – Pay attention to time. Remember, if a character died on Monday, her body is not still warm on Wednesday.

9 – Logic. If your ex-husband is making a scurrilous remark to his neighbor standing outside the car but has the windows up, the air conditioner on and has driven more than half a block, his neighbor cannot hear him, nor take offense. Only you can.

10 – Beware of sentimentality. Never say a situation is sad. Minimize the appearance of tears. Also beware of showing your imperfect hero saving a child from a fire or a cruel stepfather. Instead, describe a young man rowing across a calm German lake on a beautiful Spring day to a grove of beech trees, where he saws planks from a fallen log, then planes them, whitens them with chalk and, standing amid his bright shavings, shapes a coffin for his sweetheart, who is still alive but dying of tuberculosis. And if this is not adequate, have him place a window over the place where her head will go—with angels engraved on the glass.

11 – Always kill off your hero at the end. Everyone is suspicious of happy endings.

12 – Age: Make sure your hero’s father is older than your hero, so that each generation has at least ten years between it and the one that precedes or follows it. This is especially important in family sagas.

13 – Explicit sex. Do not show the entire penis—only the tip. Have it peeking out like a frog, just above the surface of the bath water. It is well known that this image, mixed with a certain amount of steam in the room, is a turn-on for both sexes.

14 – “Extra words muffle tense dialogue.” That is a direct quote from my New York editor. You might say it’s conversational as well, since that man and I are having a dialog about my writing. Frankly, I find the quote not muffled enough.

15 – Another unhappy quote. “Smart editors muffle mediocrity.”

16 – I near the end by telling you that “that”—the word “that”—carries very little emotional or substantive plot value, and that you should leave it out, when you can, so that it doesn’t dilute the strength of your prose.

17 – Irony: Do not even think the word, let alone use it as a form of communication while writing. Some people do not understand it. See if you can name two.

18 – Again, wit should be divorced from moral comment, and from irony. It taxes me too much to say why.

19 – There is no 19.

20 – 20 is like 19.

21 – If you’re a writer and like metaphors and pithy phrases, make a note of these points and Scotch tape them to your computer, so you will have them when you put pen to paper.

I hope that was helpful.on a beautiful Spring day

The Men’s Writing Group

They approach the house in one’s and two’s. Some of them have been coming for fifteen years or more. Still there is fear, the urge to pee. But instead they reach down, gather up the strands of their intestines, the pieces they have dragged along behind them for years–the results of encounters with other men. They draw in deep breaths to ease the tension. They smooth a hand over the place on their stomachs, just below the umbilical wound, just above the pleasure wound, now shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, and stamp their feet to shake off the rain that has not clung to them. Like small boys, they have wide alert eyes and hope for the best. They step forward gingerly. Most of all they want to feel affection directed at them from other men. But they are not accustomed to offering affection in return—and therefore pitifully little of it is shared. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up for the greeting, or proffer a hug, and if so with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads, or their stricken stomachs where there is no feeling now because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men. And how is it even possible to gauge the possibility of reciprocated openness if we have not mastered the art of it, not in the course of thirty, forty, fifty or two million years?

And why should we really, when we sense–just beyond–the hidden carcass that one of us may have placed in a cave or the crook of tree or under a heavy rock, before entering the house? And isn’t that the smell of woman—whose woman?—that someone has carried in on his clothing, an odor that narrows pupils and asks the question: Exactly in what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Colt, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?

We ease ourselves into chairs. The smiles are inviting, there’s a tendency to over-compensate. At intervals, there is wheezing, laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down. The boundary between concerned inquiry and irony is thin. We can mistake openness for blood and start to peck at the sacrificial runt. Like turtles, we retract our necks and paws, our kindred feeling. And so, little is said and little is risked.

We write. We read aloud. We discuss. Carefully. We dissect without picking up the instruments, without incisions. And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our women’s questions, we are often at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? they ask. Did he mention his woman friend? Did you talk about hope, dreams, fears, illness, death, sexual tenderness, the miracle of touching, success or failure in being close with this or that companion, lover or wife?

And then, on hearing little, our mate begins her deep breathing–the soft engine re-starting at our side. We lie awake and run through the evening again, like old bears who have come back from lumbering through cold forests, where we smelled scat and scent, and anguished over the scratch marks of rivals on fifty trees, if even one, and pondered the prints and tracks and tail sweeps of countless threats–earlier prowlers passing over the snow and through the dampness of hollow, draw, ridge, and swale.

We retrace the path of gestures, tones and glances. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness. We re-measure the temperature, flavor, brightness or sudden movement, implications, signals and intent of everything we have taken in. It is a long chronicle, accurately kept and true, recorded carefully, in essence complete.

We see that we have noted exhaustion, boredom, vulnerability, pinched souls, even a lover’s bloom. The whole time as we watched on this evening the males in our group, we saw far behind them their dogs, leashed, but showing a curled lip and a yellowed warning tooth. Their eyes, the men, I mean, were soft with fear, their writing hands longing, generous perhaps–the pulse of their hearts beating out–each in a different rhythm–what remained of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.

As we write, at the men’s group, perhaps we forget for a while the meat, the scent of carcass, the stiffening kill, which would belong to the strongest of us in the end. But I have to say it–what I am thinking. I do not trust these men. We hunt momentarily together, as if in a truce required by nature–so that we don’t die of loneliness, but always at the risk of a blow of  irony that comes too quick and is hard like steel and cold.

Perhaps if the conditions were right, and if we were fishermen and our steel boat was sinking, I ask, would I give up my survival suit for any of them? Or they for me? I would for either of my children. I would give it up for my mate–the one who sleeps on, leaving behind for the moment her amazement at how little men know about each other.

Or would I give it to one of them as well? Since each one may be as kind as he is dangerous, as generous as he is treacherous, as much soft as competitive. Then the steel plates pop, in the middle of the icy night and sixty tons of boat roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other man along with it. This happens in less than ninety seconds and in the numbing water you have one immersion suit between the two of you, and you say to your companion: No, you take it, your children are young. And he says: No, you take it, you are older than I am and not as strong.

And in the end, one of us holds the other in his arms, and when he can almost no longer keep his gaze on you, and begins to slip away, you hold his face close to yours, and you say what has to be said, what it is you feel and what is true. O my dear friend, I love you. I love you. I have always loved you.

Mr. Sterling Bennett’s Obituary

Mr. Sterling Bennett’s OBITUARY

What follows is the text of the funeral address given by the Most Reverend Duane Allgood on the occasion of Sterling Bennett’s journey from this world to the next, given last Saturday at the First Unitarinan Church on Pitts Road.

“Dear Friends,

Let us stand, to commemorate the soul of one of us who has recently departed.

Sterling Bennett, Assistant Mosquito Control Commissioner and son of Gustav Bennetov and Josephine Moreland, of Bavaria, Germany and Cork, Ireland, passed on unexpectedly, on Saturday last, due to an accident, while mowing on Peck’s Hill.

His estranged wife Harriet Perkins, a paraplegic, who sat in the field, was helpless to prevent Mr. Bennett from killing himself with the cutterbar of his 1954 gray four-cylinder Ford tractor. According to Mrs. Harriet Perkins, who is the widow of Clarence Perkins–her first husband, the former principal of South Otselic Elementary, Mr. Bennett inadvertently mowed off the two rear legs of his Irish Setter, Sam, as the dog ran through the high rye grass, barking at a rabbit or perhaps the tractor. Seeing the dog crawling ahead of the cutterbar, spurting blood, and not wanting to turn off the tractor which only started with great difficulty—and entirely forgetting to take the machine out of gear, Mr. Bennett is said to have jumped from the moving tractor, stumbled, then picked the dog up in his arms.

According to Harriet Perkins, a stream of blood from the dog struck Mr. Bennett in the face, blinding him. He is said to have lost his direction and to have stumbled back into the path of the advancing tractor, which, with the over-sized teeth on the cutterbar, cut limbs from his body as he stumbled backward, still holding the injured dog.

Mrs. Perkins reported Mr. Bennett kept appearing above the rye, then falling as if someone had tripped him. Each time he appeared lower, until he didn’t get up at all again.

Firemen who reached the scene–coming directly from the Founders’ Parade at Beaver Meadow–found the tractor at the bottom of Pitcher’s Gorge, upside down on the dirt road and burned as black as night, having fallen fifty feet over Indian Leap Cliff. Mr. Bennett and the setter Sam were both at the scene, attached to the cutterbar and charred beyond recognition.

The fire was reported by Mrs. Dolores Higgins, who was returning with her daughters along the Gorge road, who are from North Pitcher. State Police found Mrs. Harriet Perkins in the Peck’s Hill rye field several hours later. She was said to be suffering from evening Fall chill and showing but a faint heart pulse. Dr. John Ward said she was suffering from depression due to the accident.

Mr. Bennett is survived by his companion, Mertle Wasent, a philosophy student at Mission University, and by his two sons, Markus and Dylan, a photographer in California and a reporter in Sidney, Australia.

Interment will be held at the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday, November 9, which is tomorrow so you’ll all be able to attend. Flowers should not be sent to her or the sons, as Miss Wasent is allergic to them. Trustees of the church will meet after the services. Members are reminded to bring refreshments, as usual.

Let us pray, please.

Oh, Great Lord of the Heavens, accept this man’s soul into Your bright rye fields, just as You accept what is left of him and Sam into the perfumed bosom of Your perfect earth. And may what was once their noble heads lie between Your sweet breasts, Lord. And may You cool the fires which burn in them– with the white softness of Your arms, Lord.

May You uplift him and Sam, and put them on their feet again, along the flight paths to Your Wide Heaven.

And, Lord, may You be as merciful to those of us who are still down here mowing and dashing through Your rye fields.


Nailed to Reality

There is a theory circulating, around me mainly, that Mexican writers–because of their national history, the church, the social structure, and their mothers–see reading their writing in public as the kind of adventure that can have no good ending. In all my considerable humility, I believe this is because, for Mexican writers, the distance between fiction and reality is not great enough. As if one were nailed to the other, and impossible to pry apart.

The writers I have seen at the local salon either don’t read at all or read so quickly that one can’t absorb what they’re saying. A cloud of anxiety rises around them and then streams out over their listeners like fog from dry ice.

My friend the fiction writer teaches Theology at the local university. He is a very good writer, but he will not read for others. That is, I suspect, partly because he has a built-in safety mechanism which keeps him from showing parts of himself that are not perfect. Comedy, irony, and the ridiculous are all too dangerous, even when only directed at others. He takes Goethe’s famous line from Faust I, Prologue in Heaven, most seriously: Es irrt der Mensch solang’ er strebt. Man errs however much he strives.

Mexican writers know instinctively that something like fiction, or irony, can be taken literally. For example, my friend wrote a story about a conversation with the Devil. When he read it to his wife, she looked at him with astonishment.

“Was that this morning?” she asked.

He thought she was referring to his writing session with his French writer friend. She meant, it turned out, an actual conversation with that lisping cloven-hoofed personage she would never invite to her house for all the reasons learned from the priests who have taken her confessions over the years.

After lunch, while washing the dishes with her daughter, she mentioned, “Your father had a conversation with the Devil.” The daughter, a lovely intelligent creature, assumed her mother was referring to her former boyfriend.

My friend published the story “A Conversation with the Devil” in a local literary journal, bowing to pressure from his French friend. Rather than use his own name, he chose F. Scott Fitzgerald Cruz as his nom de plume–and was immediately recognized by half of the city’s bureaucrats, municipal and ecclesiastical.

The results came quickly. The Federal Commission of Electricity moved him up into a consumer category no longer eligible for government subsidization. His wife and daughter, at communion, each received three red Cheerios on their tongues, instead of the holy wafer. When he went to pay his predial, his property tax, they directed him to a different window, one that had bars on it, as if the bars might offer better protection for the person waiting on him. Half of those who rented his several business properties began to pay their rent more than ten days late. The men who passed his house regularly in the morning, calling “Gaaaassss!” for natural gas and “Aawaa Ciel,” for water, which is a product of the Coca Cola Company, no longer came by, and his wife had to call the companies and demand delivery. Even then, the water garrafones and the gas tanques leaked, spilling water on their floor tiles and seeping gas into the family lungs. When he gave up his briefcase at the central university library, where he went to write, the receptionist and the guard, who accepted his briefcase for a numbered tab in return, gingerly examined the item, as if it might explode or have the capability to fly around over the city at night.

When I learned about the story, the fictional conversation with the Devil, I suggested he read it at the local literary salon. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You know the iron cages at the top corners of the Alhóndiga, where they hung the heads of Allende and others, rebels against the Spanish, and let them rot for years?”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s why they do it,” he said, as if he were talking of just yesterday.

I nodded again, as if I understood.

I told a friend of mine, who has written many books in Northern California, about my Mexican writer friend. I told him about the conversation with the Diablo, and that it was a fine piece of writing that should be published in the States. My California writer friend asked for a copy. My friend sent the story north, but then, after a week of consideration, asked that it be returned, since he feared that it might affect his visa status.

Hoping to help finalize things–move them along, so to speak, I mentioned, in a pique of disappointment, that the National Security Agency had probably already detected the word “devil” in the email transmission. It was, after all, a country where at least 40% of the people followed an orthodox religious conservatism. Perhaps a higher percentage in the intelligence agencies. And those people were probably sniff-sensitive to something like conversation with the Devil, and detected either the smell of heresy or a whiff of conspiracy.

That was several Mondays ago. Monday morning is when he and his French friend write at the café that has the best coffee in Central Mexico. His email transmissions have ceased, I learned from the Frenchman. Telephone calls go unanswered. He does not show up at the café. And I do not think he will be coming to the next literary salon reading, scheduled for a week from today.

Any good Mexican publisher who reads this report should consider sending men in black, at night, with flash lights, to find the manuscript. And take it. Out of his hands, so to speak. They should publish it, change his name entirely and, here and there, elements of his style, to protect him from recognition. Mexico’s federal attorney general will have to work out ahead of time the mechanics of full protection from any foreign or domestic governmental or ecclesiastical agency, observing the Constitution’s strict reaffirmation of the co-existence of fiction and reality. In this way, all of us will be able to read one of Mexico’s great writers. Whoever that may actually be.