Saturday, April 25, 2015

Shakespeare's Agent


 Bill, just read the screenplay treatment for King Lear, love it, love it, LOVE IT!

The studio boys have just a couple of minor suggestions, you know, just some minor tweaks, you know, we'd never dream of changing your script, just nudge it here and there.

First of all, Cordelia, what a great character.  Loyal, outspoken, tough.  We picture her being played by Anne Hathaway.  

Just one minor thing, the screenplay doesn't have a lot of ess-ee-ex in it, does it?  We were thinking, maybe during the storm scene, the rain soaks her thin cotton blouse to her skin.  You getting a visual here, Bill?  Maybe her whole dress could get ripped off altogether in a tornado.  Only problem is, Cordelia's not in the storm scene.  See the problem here?  Now Edgar's in the storm scene - we're hoping for Zac Ephron - and he's stripped naked pretending to be a lunatic.  Now that's great, only problem is, audiences won't pay to see a guy naked, even if  it is Zac Ephron.  We don't know why, it's just the way it is.  They'll pay to see a naked girl, but not a guy.  Anne's never done a nude scene, but she says she'd be willing to, if it's artistic, which this definitely is.  So here's what we're thinking: Anne Hathaway, Zac Ephron, storm scene together.  It's cold, it's raining, it's the tenth century.  They turn to each other for warmth.  You getting a visual here?

Speaking of Edgar, the producer loves, loves, LOVES the whole brother-against-brother thing.  For the evil brother Edmund we're thinking Hugh Jackman.  But, Billy Baby, you're killing us with these names Edmund/Edgar.  No one's ever going to keep it straight.  We don't want to change a thing, but maybe give them more distinctive names.  Like we could call Edmund, Cranio, and give him this huge outsized brain with pulsing veins running all over his skull see?  Like, because he's super-intelligent.  And Edgar, we'd just name him something ordinary like Scott, except, what Scott doesn't know, is that the fire-ant that bit him the other day, was no ordinary fire-ant, but a radioactive prototype the Pentagon was working on, and now Scott, has the super strength of an ant!  (They can lift 20 times their own weight) only he doesn't know he has super powers and has to discover in a final death match with his evil half-brother.

And Regan and Goneril - they are going to be the sisters audiences love to hate!  We're thinking Sophia Vergara and Angelina Jolie.  You might think of adding one small scene - when they're in their castle and Goneril has come all this way to visit Regan, I mean she's gotta be dirty, right?  And those old drafty castles, they couldn't have had up-to-date shower facilities.  So naturally, the two sisters are going to have to shower together, right?  Are you getting a visual here, Bill?  It's just pure realism, plus it would make the two evil sisters a little more sympathetic.

And the blinding scene, what can I say, but wow!  By the way, we're thinking Tommy Lee Jones for Gloucester.  But what if, and this is just a what if, because we don't want to change a thing, what if the whole time Gloucester is wearing a wire!  He's working undercover for the king!  And when Cornwall goes to blind him, he says, "Hey, I think this guy's wearing a wire," and Gloucester says he isn't, only he really is!  By the way, we're thinking Quentin Tarantino for Cornwall.  It'd also be cool if Gloucester knew some karate or some secret martial arts he'd picked up or was a sensei master or something.  You could still blind him and all, but that way if Lear goes over big at the box-office, we'd be fixed for a sequel: Gloucester running around, kicking butt and getting revenge.  We already got a promo line: "Gloucester: You'll never see him coming!"  Kind of a play on the whole idea that he's the one who's blind.

Anyway, like we said we all love the script and don't want to change a thing.  Oh, except there's one minor thing.  The whole King Lear/madness thing.  PR says the whole senile dementia thing is a big no-no.  Don't want to go stirring up AARP and get them mad at you.  So we need to take out the whole bit about Lear going mad, running off in the rain, howling at the gods, etc.  Instead, we're thinking Lear has unknowingly been bombarded with secret government radiation, and whenever he blows his top, BLOOEY!  He turns into this super-human killing machine!  We're thinking Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

You getting a visual?

(Originally posted February, 2013)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Musings of an Unacknowledged Legislator

Your average plumber wields more power
than the greatest writer who ever lived
(Originally posted January, 2011) Percy Shelley, or if not Shelley, someone like him, once said, “Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The fact Shelly spread around outrageous nonsense partly accounts for the reputation writers have as self-righteous fatheads.

Al Capone never had to tell anyone he was an unacknowledged legislator, Cardinal Richelieu never had to say it, no one in the Trilateral Commision, or the Diamond Cartel, or a Dan Brown novel ever comes out with something like that. So it looks fishy when Shelley says it,  It’s tooting your own horn.

It’s pretty unlikely that some conspiracy nut will ever finger a secret cabal of writers as the real Power behind the Powers That Be.  “You know the grassy knoll? The disappearance of Elvis? Those fake moon rocks? You know who’s really behind all that stuff? John Updike!”

Lots of professions could make better claims than writers for global legislative power. Plumbers might also feel themselves fairly unacknowledged, world-wide legislation-wise. Plumbers don’t write about plumbing, of course; they only plumb, and so their significance in the arena of global government doesn't get the attention it deserves. Even Alice Walker’s most ardent fan doesn't look forward to her next poem as want as someone waiting ankle-deep in fecal matter for the truck with the happy-face plunger logo.

Moreover, plumbers, three-year-olds, and others in positions of tyrannical authority have the good sense not to mope about it. Usually a writer who comes out with a line like being an unacknowledged legislator one moment, will begin whining about how little he earns the next. This makes us seem not only delusional, but bratty. Look, you’re either a world-ruler or a yuppie looking to make a payment on the Volvo; you can’t be both.

Imagine meeting someone who claims to be an Unacknowledged World Legislator. Certain that at any moment his keeper will pop from the shrubbery and strap him in a strait-jacket, you play for time. “Very impressive,” you remark, sidling away from him.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he mutters, “but I don’t have a dental plan.”

Imagine that: a megalomaniac on the verge of striking for higher wages.

I’ll leave legislation, acknowledged or otherwise, to Congress. The great world and wide has taught me my place. I’m not complaining. I don’t want to legislate in an unacknowledged or any other capacity. I’m happy with my lot in life. 

And I suspect that in whatever Star Chamber the true unacknowledged legislators of the world meet, they turn with a sigh from setting the price of petroleum, fixing all the presidential races, and determining library fines for the next millennium, and say to themselves, "This is okay, I guess, and it pays the bills.  But what I really want to do is write."

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Having Books and Being Rich

"The Sleeping Gypsy" by Rousseau
I used to imagine if I fell asleep outside, an
animal would come by and sniff me, too. 
(Originally posted January 2011) When I was a child, my sister asked my mother, “Are we rich?” At least that’s the way I remember it; my recollections are sometimes faulty, but as I recall, my sister was the one for asking impertinent questions, as I stood by innocently observing.

“Are we rich?” is one of those questions the wise parent knows to evade, and in the wisdom game, Mur, which is what we called my mother, was pretty hard to beat. “It depends on what you mean by rich,” I remember her saying, “Dr. So-and-so is a lot richer in books than we are.” Dr. So-and-so was not his real name, I don’t remember the name, but I do remember her waving a hand at our living room bookcase to demonstrate the books we did have, inviting us to imagine the far greater wealth of Dr. So-and-so’s collection.

My mother’s answer had the desired result; it silenced my sister without in the least satisfying her curiosity, because what Chris really wanted to know was did we have more money than other people. 

Even though Mur’s answer was a dodge, it left a deep imprint on my psyche. You see, we had a lot of books. Not only in that bookcase, which to a five year-old was a veritable ziggurat, but in a smaller bookcase in my parents’ room, and seemingly stacked on every available horizontal surface from coffee table to toilet tank. One in particular I remember was a book of reproductions called Pictures to Live With. There was a picture by Henri Rousseau of a sleeping gypsy with a lion sniffing at him. The lion didn’t seem inclined to do any harm, just curious, I suppose, and the gypsy had a mandolin lying beside him in the sand. I imagined that if I went to sleep outside, curious animals would come and sniff me, too. For some reason, this seemed like a pleasant thing to happen.

Another book was Thurber’s Lanterns and Lances. Mur had several books by Thurber. One time, Chris pointed it out to me and told me it was a dirty book. This did little to pique my interest. I wasn’t a very good reader yet, and from the cover art, what dirtiness it possessed offered little to interest a six-year-old. I’ve read it since, of course, and it’s not the least bit dirty. I don’t know where Chris got the notion it was. Maybe Mur had told her it was “for grownups.”

Pursuant to a New Year’s Resolution to divest myself of unwanted junk, I have been culling my own collection of books. For example, I had two copies of Aubrey’s The Yellow Admiral, and multiple copies of Huck Finn. It’s a funny thing with Huck Finn, no matter how many copies I get rid of, I always end up with more. I think they’re having litters. Also, college textbooks on Algebra and Introduction to Finance. Out they go. Out also go certain books on writing craft – I will not name these here – that I find either jejune or downright bad. When I die, having reached the pinnacle of immortal fame that is my destiny, I don’t want my biographers to find these among my bookshelves and say, “Huh! So this was one of his influences.”

Let it be understood, I still have a hell of a lot of books. Mur’s words made me subconsciously equate how many books I have with how well off I am. I may not have as many books as Dr. So-and-so, but I have a lot.

One book I will not get rid of is 101 to Ways to Checkmate, a book of chess problems Mur gave me when she was teaching me to play. It was already old when I got it, and the cover is long since missing. In similar sad shape is Build Your Own Monstrosities with Tooth and Nail, a weird little novelty item of goofy anarchic household advice such as how to construct a home guillotine. And The Book of the Hand, a massive, gorgeously illustrated palmistry book, also given me by my mother, when she was teaching me palmistry. (Ah, the things my mother taught me!) These books have no particular value, but they’ve seen a few years. The copyright on Build Your Own Monstrosities is 1959, the year I was born. These books I will never part with. They once belonged to my mother.

I am rich.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In Praise of Local Bookstores

Let it be said at the outset I am a libertarian/laissez-faire/free market voluptuary. You remember Barry Goldwater? Well, I’m just a little bit to the right of him.

But lately I’ve been wondering if we can trust the invisible hand of the market to have all the answers, especially when I learn that independent bookstores are going out of business at the rate of three a day. I read this in a book called Guerilla Marketing for Authors, and while it may be an exaggeration, personal anecdotal evidence goes a long way to support it.

As a child, my favorite place was a toy store. When I was a somewhat larger child, my favorite place was a bookstore. Atlanta used to have a legendary,independent store, Oxford Books at Peachtree Battle. Many is the happy hour Nancy and I spent browsing its shelves, and going upstairs for a bagel and coffee at the Cup and Chaucer Coffee Shop above the mezzanine. Barnes and Noble and Borders squeezed it out, and now, while Oxford Books is still on Piedmont, it is a shadow of its former self. Now Barnes and Noble and Borders themselves are in trouble, and the Borders down the street from us has sold off its inventory and gone the way of Blockbusters. This is not to say people have stopped buying books – of course they still buy books – but now they often go straight to Amazon where they can not only get books, CDs, and DVDs, but barbecue grills and motor oil.

Here is where my critique of the free market comes in.

There’s nothing wrong with buying stuff from the internet; it’s convenient, inexpensive, and you don’t have to put on pants.  But something is subtracted from the community when a bookstore disappears.  There’s no substitute for the warmth of a neighborhood bookstore, with its cheery abundance of things to look at and read, and not just cyber-versions, but real live books with pages to turn and pictures to look at, the enthusiastically bookish clerk behind the counter, and the dog or cat – many small bookstores have a mascot of this sort – strolling the aisles of Thackeray and Dickens to be petted. The bell rings on the door when you enter, maybe, and when you leave, what’s more wonderful than going to your car with a heavy sack of books, treasures to open up and relish when you get home?

Bookstores add substantially to community life, just as the local barbershop, house of worship, and corner grocery do. Life without a local bookstore is inconceivable.

Maybe if we want our communities to be livable and reflect our values, we have to make a concerted effort to patronize local stores and not just click the mouse every time we hear about something new to read, even though going to the shop is a little more trouble, and maybe they won’t always have exactly what we want, and they’ll have to order it and we’ll have to go back a second time. More trouble, perhaps, but it might be worth it for the sake of petting the bookstore cat.

The strange thing is, some brick-and-mortar businesses seem to have no trouble thriving in the world of e-commerce. For example, as bookstores have declined, I seem to have noticed an up-tick in the number of stores selling sex toys and porn. Maybe this is only my imagination, but I wouldn’t like my complacent trust in the free market to result in my living in a city with no bookstores but plenty of sex shops. (Do sex shops maintain a resident cat or dog as some bookstores do? If they did, would you want to pet it?) Perhaps if we bought our porn on the internet and our books from actual stores, the world would be a better place, but maybe that’s crazy talk.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Agnosia and Related Ilnesses

The man who never notices that while
he and his wife have brown hair,
his son's hair is red.
(Originally posted 2010) My niece Morgan and her husband Luke acquainted me with the neurological concept of agnosia.  As they explained it, this is the inability to respond to sensory-data that has nothing to do with impairment of sensory organs. For example, a woman with agnosia might make up one side of her face looking in a mirror and leave the other side untouched, even though she had no difficulty actually seeing both sides of her face clearly. A man might eat only from the right side of his plate, not taking a bite from the left side, being able to see the food but not to respond to it appropriately.

Morgan and Luke added a new wrinkle with something they term distress agnosia in which people are unable to respond to data that is too distressing to think about.  The man who never notices that while he and his wife have bron hair, his son's hair is red; the folks who never stop to wonder why the neighbor kid gets a new puppy every week; the residents of Buchenwald who never speculate where all those trains are heading or why they suddenly have to spend so much time wiping oily soot off the windows and dining table.  

Who knows what horrible instances of distress agnosia we ourselves may have been prey to?  By definition, we would be incapable of knowing because we would be incapable of thinking about it.  To have seen, perhaps, Satan Incarnate roaring like a lion in the subway, devouring screaming passengers right and left in his slavering maw, but our attention wandering to the more interesting-seeming advertisements for community colleges pasted along the walls.

To distress agnosia I would like to add distress hypergnosia: the inability to stop thinking about things that distress us.  Also, dysgnosia, the irresistible impulse to think about the wrong things -- recalling for example an especially hilarious joke during a close friend's funeral, or suddenly recognizing an anagram of your own  initials in the license plate of the careening log-truck bearing down on you.

It all gets pretty tangled.  Maybe I should think about something else.

Monday, April 20, 2015

William Cuppy, An Appreciation


(Originally posted December 2010)

At the school where I teach, I do occasional lunch duty with a history teacher named Zachary Taylor. (I’m not making this up; this is his actual name.) This week I presented him with my spare copy of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, William Cuppy’s posthumous masterpiece. (CBS Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and his colleague Don Hollenbeck once took turns reading from it on the air "until the announcer cracked up.") For the rest of the lunch period, I saw Zachary sneaking peaks in the pages and giggling. At the end of the lunch he said he was considering making it required reading for his AP Class. It is the most delightful experience to give a gift that thoroughly pleases the recipient.

I was very young when I first read Cuppy, too young to appreciate his erudite humor, but even then I could spot the topspin of his prose. I had never heard of Catherine the Great, and didn’t get the punch line, when he writes, “her early years were very unhappy, and she decided she would have a good time if she ever got a chance. Later on, she overdid it a little,” but even at a tender age there was much to laugh at.

David Foster Wallace makes quite a show using footnotes, but Cuppy was the pioneer of the footnote, which he uses to exquisite effect. He says Alexander the Great was called “the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time,” and then adds in a footnote, “He did this in order to impress Greek culture upon them.”

I never got to meet Cuppy, and I never will. He died by his own hand in 1949. There are hints of his life-long battles with depression in How to Become Extinct, but his satiric work was somehow never acerbic; there was a gentleness, even a sweetness, in his most barbed remarks. In 2003, the International Astronomical Union approved the name "15017 Cuppy" for an asteroid, but the real tribute is the glee Zachary Taylor has in discovering Decline and Fall for the first time. Of course, Cuppy would have been tickled by the asteroid too.1

1. He'd have written a footnote about it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

In Defense of Descriptivist Grammar (Now There's a Catchy Title)

"Oh, well. There's no such thing as a 'correct species.'"
(Originally posted December of 2010) The protagonist of my next novel, The Limongello Syndrome, is a grammarian of an unfashionable sort, a Prescriptivist, that is, not content merely to describe how English is used, he prescribes how it ought to be used. The Descriptivists, who hold sway in academe, maintain there is no “correct grammar.”   All dialects have their own grammar.  Yes, languages die out, including English, but change is inevitable. Some dialects, they admit, are used by the privileged class, but that is as far as they are willing to go.

So much for the highbrows. The middlebrows, at any rate, aren’t buying it, to judge from the popularity of Prescriptivist grammar books such as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

No less a writer than David Foster Wallace weighed in – with caveats – on the side of the Prescriptivists, saying that since Standard American English is the only dialect shared by people with access to money, power, and knowledge, he damn well expected his students to master it.

This is certainly a valid pragmatic reason for Prescriptivism, but there are perhaps other justifications. As I developed my protagonist, I studied Fowler’s Modern English Usage (It’s the more latitudinarian 1965 Edition, not the real hardcore 1926 version.)  Fowler is a notorious pedant, delivering pronouncements from an Olympian height, for example, denouncing the word “coastal” as a “barbarism.” Nevertheless, reading him, you begin to see his point. The English he defends is beautiful, sensitive, and – apart from certain ineradicable eccentricities – logical. When people callously abuse or misuse it – even if they are unaware they are doing so, even if they are mutually comprehensible, even if their particular dialect has a valid grammar of its own – violence has been done, an injustice to something great and fine. It is as if a person, without meaning to or knowing what he is doing, papered over the Sistine Chapel. The English language is a great human achievement and deserves our efforts to preserve it.

Fowler’s rationale, albeit unspoken, goes a long way to convincing me of the value of Prescriptivism, but there is another reason we are apt to forget, a reason keenly felt by 18th Century grammarians who were Prescriptivists even before there was a name for it; without a codified system of spelling and grammar, the rate of change of English was so great, that Chaucer, who’d written in the 1300’s was all but incomprehensible and Shakespeare threatened to be unreadable in another two hundred years. Granted, unprecedented forces were in play in the Middle Ages that were not likely to be repeated, but the fact remains our most revered writings are recorded in Modern Standard English – more or less – and if we abandon our efforts to maintain that dialect, those great works will become even more inaccessible than they are now.

Writings of great personal value to me – including my own – are in Modern Standard English. A lot of my personal identity is wrapped up in those works and, therefore, in that dialect. To want to preserve and transmit Modern Standard English is not just an act of elitist aesthetics, although it’s that too, it’s self preservation.

Seen that way, it's odd that Descriptivists are so blasé about the extinction of their own dialect. (They would insist that languages don’t decay or become corrupt.) Maybe such nonchalance is the inevitable precursor of all extinction – the hypothermia victim’s cozy sense of comfort as the ice crystals form in his bloodstream, the mother dinosaur who looks on in disinterest at the strange new creature prodding its pink whiskered nose into her last egg, sucking out the yolk, and thinks, “Ah, well. There’s no ‘correct’ life form. All life forms have their own valid biology. And change, after all, is inevitable.”