Finding the Right Words

Daylight was fading as he wandered the unending streets of Word City alone.  He didn’t want to go home.  He lived alone in a cheap one room apartment on the seventeenth floor of a decaying tenement high rise.  The thought of spending another night alone there with no heat or electricity, waiting for the phone to ring, depressed him too much.  He didn’t want to fall asleep again to the sounds of sirens blaring and glass breaking.  Instead, Idiolectal kept walking.  From the park he could see the brilliant high rises and architectural wonders of the east side, where the rich and powerful, the commonly used words, lived and exercised their power.   Words everybody knew and used, like it, this, be, from and they, lived in these towers, behind gated walls, and basked in their importance, knowing how indispensable they were to anyone trying to put together even  a few sentences.

Idiolectal could only imagine what it must have felt like to be that self confident, to be that important.  The best he could hope for were the end of college semesters, when students in linguistic classes had to finish term papers.  He could count on being used a handful of times, and for the week before finals, he was actually able to eat moderately well.

He felt the scorn, the superiority with which nouns and verbs looked down on him with.  He was merely an adjective, and a very specific one at that, A few adjectives, like good and new, had gained acceptance in the main stream and crossed over, and lived quite comfortably.  But the majority of adjectives still struggled to be taken seriously.  Only adverbs, crude and uneducated, occupied a lower rung on the word social latter.  Some adverbs embraced and exploited their vulgarity and made a decent living on the poorly written papers of sophomoric students or the messy novels of novice writers, but they were unable to crack the old world high society of long established verbs and nouns.

Night had fallen on Word City.  Idiolectal walked the streets, hunger gnawing at him.  He reached into his pocket and felt his last two dollar bills.  He could get a candy bar, or a small bag of chips, that would have to hold him until someone wrote him into a story or an essay or whatever, he didn’t care, he just needed work.  Stepping into the convenience store, he almost tripped over the bulk of another word, laying there passed out in the doorway.   The form rolled over to reveal itself, and, to Idiolectal’s surprise, a noun, a female noun lay looking up at him.  She was beautiful, even in her rags, and Idiolectal instantly fell in love.

Her name was Ostinato, and like Idiolectal, she suffered the poverty of neglect.  The two shared a common misery and began an intense romance. Ostinato told Idiolectal all of her  secrets, how she was defined as “a musical figure repeated persistently at the same pitch throughout a composition.”  Idiolectal told her how he was  “the language or speech pattern of one individual at a particular period of his life.”  They shared sound in common, and Idiolectal explained how, being born an adjective, he was destined to enhance a noun.

They married in the spring.  Nine months later Ostinato gave birth to a child, a preposition they named With.  With became wildly successful and made a fortune for the small family.  Together, the three words lived happily ever after.

The moral of the story:  anything is possible with love.

Isn’t That Remarkable?

One of my favorite moments in all of literature is the scene in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Biff Loman finally breaks down and breaks through a lifetime of lies and delusions and makes his father, Willy Loman, understand that he loves him.  It’s the same scene where Willy famously exclaims “I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman …” Willy’s response to the breakthrough is three simple words:  “Isn’t that remarkable?”

I’ve read only a handful of great American plays, but one theme that seems to consistently run through them is illusion versus the truth.   The Glass Menagirie, by Tennessee Williams, opens with the following speech from Tom, the younger brother of the play’s main character, Laura:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

The entire play is about the struggle between truth and illusion, responsibility versus escape.   It’s a theme Williams continues in his most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which becomes an all out war between the cold and violent truth, represented by Stanley Kowalski, and the fragile dream world of illusion represented by Blanche Dubois.

We also see the same conflict in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, about a group of drunken dreamers who are awaiting the annual arrival of their friend Hickey, the iceman.   Hickey arrives, but he is sober, and honest, and he confesses to the murder of his wife.  The harshness and violence of Hickey’s sober truth shatters the shallow dreams of the drunks.   Truth is again shown to be harsh and violent and destructive, while illusion is shown to be weak and wasteful.

These themes continue in almost all great American plays.  Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  is  about a night with an alcoholic married couple playing a twisted game of  deception and lies on their young guests until the light of dawn reveals the tragic truth they’ve been trying to hide.

Why does this theme show up so often in American theatre?  I think it might be because it’s at the center of our history, the core of who we are and who we wish we were.  The illusion of America is that it’s that shining city on the hill, where all men are created equal, and where life, liberty and happiness are guaranteed to all, and where anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard can make it.  These illusions cover up an uglier truth of genocide and corruption that have, since the beginning, been at the core of our history.  It took the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, who came to this country to escape religious persecution, less than four generations before they were burning “witches” at the stake.  While the ink was still wet on Thomas Jefferson’s self evident truth that “all men are created equal,” slavery was a major part of our economy and would remain so for another eighty nine years.  Our westward expansion wiped out the natives who’d been here for hundreds of years, through a combination of disease, pestilence and war.  It was actually documented government policy to exterminate the great herds of buffalo that roamed the great plains, thus crippling the primary source of food and clothing of tens of thousands of native Americans.

The illusions and the truth of America continue to this day.  The land of the free is also the country with the largest percentage of its population incarcerated.  The gap between the rich and the rest of the country is widening to cavernous proportions, shattering any idea that all men are created equal.  There are sharper racial and class divides and deeper wounds to our psyche.  We are the most violent developed country in the world.

But we still hang on to the illusion, to its ideals, and every now and then, we make the illusion reality.  It was the illusion that allowed us to join together in World War Two and defeat the most powerful evil the world has ever known, it was the illusion that landed a man on the moon, it was the illusion that granted women and minorities the long overdue right to vote, it was the illusion that has allowed men and women throughout the country to marry who they love, regardless of sexual orientation.   Every now and then, we hold up our ideals to the mirror of reality and shame ourselves into action.  The ugliness of the truth cannot disfigure the beauty of the dream.

Isn’t that remarkable?

Breathing Lessons

I grew up in an isolated, virtually all white small town in southeastern Wisconsin.  It was the 1960s, and my world was the small town streets and the shaded neighborhood backyards.  We were buffered from the bigger cities of Milwaukee and Racine by miles of farmland, and grew up in an idyllic world of fields and woods and backyards, isolated from the turmoil that invaded our homes via the television airwaves. While city after city was burning with race riots or bleeding with anti Vietnam War demonstrations, we were playing kick the can on warm summer nights or pickup basketball games in driveways.  The economy was booming, and most families were able to live comfortably with a single wage earner.  My mom, like a lot of moms, didn’t work, while my dad made a good living as an over the road semi truck driver.  From our vantage point, it was about as close to paradise as you could get, and adults and children alike couldn’t understand what the rioters and protesters were so angry about.

About the time I turned nine years old, in 1967, I became a huge professional sports fan, starting with football and the Green Bay Packers.  Soon I became a big fan of professional baseball and basketball.  I had many favorite players, with the great Packers quarterback Bart Starr becoming my hero.  Other heroes included Willie Mays and Bob Gibson in baseball, and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor in basketball, and Gayle Sayers in football.  Later, I’d grow to admire Muhammad Ali and later still Joe Frazier.

With the exception of Bart Starr, all of these great athletes had one thing in common:  they were all African Americans.  I really didn’t notice that.  They were all great at what they did, and they had skills that set them apart from the rest. They all imposed their personalities on the games they played, and they were all artists in the truest sense.  Meanwhile, in my isolated small town, I grew up and graduated high school never knowing a single black person.

My mom was a big reader, and would go to the library a couple of times a week.  I’d often go with her, and check out the books in the children’s section.  I remember graduating from the animal books I’d check out in the first and second grades to the slightly older section, and in fourth grade discovering the sports section, and the book The Willie Mays Story.  I checked it out and took it home and stayed up all night reading it.  The book told how Mays was born into poverty in the south (I think it was Alabama) and how he started his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues.  It was the first I’d ever heard of the Negro Leagues, and I remember being shocked when the book told about Jackie Robinson and Monte Irvin and how there was a time when black players weren’t allowed in the major leagues.

I loved the book, mainly for the stories about how young Mays, while playing for the New York Giants, would still play stickball in the neighborhood streets with the kids, and the patience his manager, Leo Durocher, had with him when he started his career in a massive slump.  Over the course of two or three years, I probably checked the book out and read it about ten times.

There were other books, too, like Bill Russell’s Go Up For Glory and Bob Gibson’s From Ghetto to Glory.  These books inspired in me a love of reading, and they also opened my eyes to what was going on outside my town’s limits.  I began to understand that not everyone in our country had the same advantages I had, and that there was real suffering igniting the race riots I saw on television.

About the same time I was listening to a lot of AM top forty radio and falling in love with the sweet and simple and innocent songs of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Temptations.  I’d see them on television and damned if they weren’t black, too.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the role that sports and music played in developing my sensibilities towards race. The fact that so many of the athletes and musicians I admired had to overcome so much was a revelation to me, and by the time Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics, I understood at least on some small level their courage and the symbolic power of the act.

Go forward about twenty years, and two of the most powerful black cultural icons are basketball players Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.  Jordan avoids getting involved in politics and becomes a corporate conglomerate, saying famously that “even Republicans buy shoes.”  Barkley stars in a television ad where he famously pronounces, “I am not a role model,” eloquently making the argument that parents should take responsibility for their kids and not look to sports figures to provide guidance.

Now with the events in Ferguson and the Eric Garner death, questions are being debated about whether it’s right for athletes to use their forum for political protest. I’d argue that of course it is, and I applaud LeBron James, this generation’s Michael Jordan, for wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt.  Barkley may have been right that parents shouldn’t look to athletes to instill values in their children, but the truth is that athletes and musicians and actors all have a platform that reaches beyond cultural and physical and geographic barriers and touches people that wouldn’t otherwise be touched.  They can use this platform to sell shoes or to increase awareness and effect change.  Cultural battles may be waged in loud and acrimonious front lines, but they are usually won quietly and over time, when people far removed from the front lines see something they recognize in those who choose to get involved on the periphery.

There is responsibility that comes with this platform, and it isn’t limited to African American athletes.  White athletes have an even bigger platform. Imagine the impact if, for example, Aaron Rodgers wore an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt to his weekly press conference.

Just like in the 60s, the front lines of these battles are the inner city streets where violence and poverty run rampant, but real change will occur only when those who are isolated and far removed from the realities of this landscape understand what is at stake, and that there are lives in the balance, lives that they can recognize through the eyes of the football or basketball player they cheer for.  Athletes have a unique opportunity to not only increase awareness but also empathy.  With empathy comes compassion and understanding, the foundation of change.

Running Away With Me

gerard hotel

The setting for much of my second novel, and for the recent short story I posted here called “The Silence,” is the fictional Mayflower Hotel in the fictional northern Wisconsin town of Neil.  While the events I’ve written about are completely made up, the Mayflower Hotel is based upon the very real Gerard Hotel in the town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin.  I lived in an efficiency apartment on the third floor of the Gerard from August 1977 until December of 1978.  I was eighteen years old when I moved in, and had just turned twenty when I moved out.

It’s a grand old building, rising high from the tall banks of the Flambeau River, and can be an imposing and eerie sight on mornings when mist rises from the river.

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to write about it so much lately, why I’ve set so much of my fiction there.  I have vivid memories of what the place looked like, and how the midday shadows hung in my apartment, and how I’d look out the dormer windows from my bed and see, every night before going to sleep, the red blinking of a radio relay tower on the other side of the river, and how when I opened my eyes in the morning, the same blinking red light would be the first thing I saw.

Last week, on Wednesday morning, while I was up at my cabin, I had to run to Ladysmith for some errands.  I had a little time to kill, so I thought I’d stop by the Gerard Hotel and check it out.  Maybe I could talk to the current manager and have a look around.  I parked in front of the hotel, the same place that thirty seven years ago I’d park my first car, a green 1974 AMC Hornet, and I walked up the steps past the little stonewall and the white columns and once again I stood on the immense front porch, and I put my hand on the doorknob and tried to open the front door.  It was locked, and there was a note taped on the door that tenants were to leave it locked.  I couldn’t remember if we left it locked when I lived there or not, but it made sense, at least in 2014, that they wouldn’t want people wandering in off the streets to bother the residents.  I peeked through the glass of the door, and I was surprised at how small it looked inside.  The lobby was hardly a lobby, the stairs that I always had to climb to get to my apartment were right behind the front door, and the front desk, where the manager sat and where I’d pick up my mail, was only a few feet to the right of the stairway, and was small and cluttered.  I looked to see if anyone was behind the desk, someone who I could ask to let me in, but there was nobody.   I looked inside for a while longer, and I wondered, did the hotel show its age as much when I lived there, or was it the additional thirty five years since then that had taken its toll?  I stepped back and off of the porch, and I could see on the side a hole had rotted out of the porch’s stone foundation.  The exterior looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint.

old gerard

I found this about the Gerard hotel in an article on the web about the history of Ladysmith:

Travelers arriving in Ladysmith by train in the early 1900s were met at the depot by representatives of the various hotels. Patrons looking for the finest hotel in town most certainly would have stayed at The Gerard.
When it opened in November of 1901, the Gerard was regarded as “the most modern and complete hotel between Minneapolis and Rhinelander,” according to the “Gates County Journal.” The hotel featured new furnishings and steam heat. Electric lights were added after the Ladysmith Light and Power Co. plant was completed in November of 1902.  
The hotel was piped for running water when it was constructed, and it had its own water system before the village had a water works. Aside from these “modern” conveniences and good food, the Gerard offered something no other hotel in town could equal – a beautiful location. Situated on the high bank of the river, the Gerard commanded a breathtaking view of the Flambeau. … 
The hotel, itself, is both charming and stately. The white clapboard exterior and third story dormers are characteristic of buildings from the colonial era. The hotel seems more imposing than it actually is because one normally approaches it from the south and sees the long view of the building and its expansive porch. The effect would not be the same if the building could be approached from the front. The Gerard’s most distinguished guest was Thomas Marshall, Vice President of the United States, who stayed there while in Ladysmith to give an Armistice Day speech in 1920. Governors and other notables, including James L. Gates (afterwhom Gates County was named) feasted there.


So the hotel was seventy six years old when I moved in, and now is one hundred and thirteen. I was eighteen in 1977, and now I’m fifty six.  I’m still a pup compared to the Gerard, but like the Gerard, I’ve weathered and rusted, and like the floorboards of her porch, I creak and ache.

I remember the Gerard of the late seventies for its cheap rent and the collection of oddballs and misfits (including me) who lived there.  Among the tenants I remember was a middle aged alcoholic disabled veteran, a recently divorced man in his early thirties, a humanities professor from the small, private liberal arts college that used to call Ladysmith home, and a pretty young girl who’d been thrown out of her family home and disowned by her parents.  I never got to know any of these people very well, just well enough to know their situations, and well enough to germinate seeds in my imagination that I’d use to breathe life into in my fiction writing. Aside from the unique characters the place attracted, it was also old and atmospheric and spooky, and just Gothic enough for me to use it as the setting for stories like “The Silence.”

gerard from the river

So while the place has become fertile ground for my imagination, the truth is that my time there was lonely and unexceptional.  Maybe that’s why I romanticize it so much; nothing much of real interest happened to me there. Maybe I’m trying to recreate that time and make it more substantive than it was.  Maybe I’m creating my own personal mythology.

Maybe it’s because I was young and healthy then, and I’m older and broken now.  Maybe it’s because I look back at those days and long for all of the youth and freedom that I so carelessly burned up.  Maybe it’s because I know that Hotels and people wither and fade.

I’m old enough now that I look back on the days when I was eighteen to twenty with a heavy dose of romanticism.  My past is looking more and more like a bad Bob Seger song.   The truth is, while I was physically stronger and leaner, I didn’t know anything about anything.  There’s a Seger song that contains the line “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”  What a load of crap.  I recognize that I was a complete and total idiot at age 18, and if nothing else can be said about the almost forty years since, I am happy to report that I am at least somewhat less ignorant today.

I can fictionalize my memories of the Gerard as much as my imagination will let me. It remains a beautiful, unique and spooky setting for whatever stories I might decide to tell. But I have to remember that, in the words of that great Motown group The Temptations, it’s just my imagination, and not let it run away with me. If I really think about it, and take off the romantic lenses I view the past through, I’m happy where I am, loose floorboards and peeling paint and all.