The First Few Friends I Had

First Few Friends Cover005

The Pondering Pig is relieved to announce his long-sought collection of stories about being young in San Francisco during the maelstrom of the early 1960s – is finally done, published and available on Amazon.  Here’s the link:

The First Few Friends I Had

and here’s what I said about it:

Someone asked me who the first hippies were, those unknowns who kicked off the psychedelic era of the 1960s. Were they born-too-late beatniks who arrived at the party after everybody had gone home? Or were they something else? Something new?
I actually knew some of those first freaks. In fact, they were the first few friends I had.
This trip starts in Nineteenth Avenue Park, San Mateo, California, winter of 1958, muddy raw subdivision streets, brine shrimped salt flats stretching to the Bayshore Freeway and beyond to sorrowful tract houses of Norfolk Street. The ground I sprung from.
But we won’t tarry. We’ll hit the road through the vast Sonoran Desert on solitary two-lane highways spring of 1961 to adventures in Mexico, then on to steaming East Village summer to swirling fog over North Beach, broken hearted spring of 1962.
Along the way, we’ll stop at the corner of Seventh and Judah Street in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset to watch a girl named Solveig rush out our door with ‘Ban the Bomb’ placards banging against her shoulder. We’ll scene shift till midnight to watch Peter Weissinger swing over the stair rail into teens crashing our big peacenik party and whomping on them in peacenik joy. We’ll contemplate a ghostly Carmen O’Shaughnessy stride through the archway in badass logger boots, tawny lionhair in long braids, brassy confident smile and my handmade Mexican chaleco.
Snow is falling over Long Island, the first winter rains are pouring into the sewers of Lily Alley, San Francisco. Carmen has jumped off the bus in Barstow, hitched home across the desert and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
Summer 1964 in the Langley Porter Psychiatric Day Care Center for Mind-Blown Proto-Hippies and Hysterical Teenagers, the passengers are unraveling hidden meanings within Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes. They hear the Bomb, the war, the police dogs attacking demonstrators, fire hoses of death, J Edgar Hoover vs the Commies, peyote, pot, fear, angst, and – hey everybody, it’s Mashed Potatoes Time.
Look, the sky has gone blue, the golden city beckons. It’s spring again. Let’s stroll down to the North Beach Arts Festival to find my friends. Come on, they want to meet you. The First Few Friends I Had.

It’s been getting great reviews so far – so I hope you have a chance to check it out soon.  PP

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Philippa Pearce or How I Became A Talking Pig

OR
Revenge of The Spotted Gypsy King

I’ve always thought Victorians had the best names for their novels, don’t you?  Why have only one name for a story, when you can have two or three or however many you like.  A reader might think, hmm, Philippa Pearce, probably about a poor but noble nurse who has to go to the North to care  for a rich mine owner with gout and she marries him at the end and gets rich as pigs.  Not my cuppa tea…WAIT, Or How I Became A Talking Pig. Now, that’s more like it!  I’ll have a go.

So our reader opens to the first page.

"I have not always been as I am today. (the author begins) Once I was a man like any other.  Well, not just like any other.  Actually, just like any other chubby fellow with long floppy ears.”

Well, this sounds promising, thinks our prospective reader, but where’s the part about Nurse Pearce and her noble mission to help shell-shocked soldiers recover their sexual appetites?"

So that’s where the Spotted Gypsy King, comes in, see? He’s been in the War and he’s come out all in spots.

Oh, maybe I’d just better start over.

I really did start out as a normal, although strange, kid.  There was nothing piggish bout me.  I flew my balsa wood glider into the telephone lines just like any other all-American boy.  But, when I was seven, I got rheumatic fever and it messed my aortic heart valve so bad that, by the time I was in my thirties, I needed heart surgery to replace my leaky valve with a…proper pig valve! This was not merely a name.  This was the valve from the heart of a living, breathing, dreaming, pondering pig.  Soon I began to have thoughts of becoming a detective.  I found myself craving Freddy The Pig stories. Worse yet, I discovered The Adventures of Pigling Bland and realized if I could only get to England I would find a world with talking pigs like me wearing proper coats and no pants.  I could rescue a pretty pig girl from an evil farmer like Pigling Bland did and then I’d be happy forever like they were.

Oh, you’ll never believe this.  Maybe I should start over.

Pigling Bland

Scratch the part about turning into a pig.  I was still an ordinary guy; I just had a pig valve where you have a human heart valve. I wasn’t turning bionic, but something else.

OK, the years roll by. My power trio, The Three Pigs, has made it to the top.  Then, one night it happens, my regular, not-bionic pig valve starts to leak.  I go into heart failure.  We’re putting the final touches on our debut album, The Revenge of The Spotty Gypsy King and I can’t finish the mix.  I’m in the hospital fighting for my life while the hard-hearted record executives gnash their teeth and throw out the master.  The surgeons replace my leaky valve with a new improved pig valve they found at the Saturday market, but this one, unbeknownst to them, is not a regular pig valve, it’s a magical pig valve.  It lets me see things that aren’t really there.

OK? Got it so far?  Now listen up.  This is where Philippa Pearce comes in.  One night after I get out of intensive care, I’m lying in my hospital bed and looking out the plate glass window at the owl flitting across the moon like you see sometimes when you’re loaded up on Percodan.  I’m wondering when that pretty night nurse will come in for my back rub when suddenly I see a vision!

Laugh if you want to.  Mock me. But I must tell what I have seen no matter how late you’ll be for the wedding.

I saw a late afternoon in midwinter.  The canal before my eyes was frozen solid.  Trees and withered sedge stood petrified by the frost. A grey leaden sky spread its headache light.  Then a young woman and a boy skated into view, down the canal right past me and skated on until they disappeared in the distance.  They had said no word.  They knew not I was there.  The boy was wearing pajamas.

Aficionados of English children’s books will recognize this as a scene from Philippa Pearce’s 1958 novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.  But, at that time I had never read or even heard of Tom’s Midnight Garden.  When the book first came out, I was sixteen.  I was planning on becoming Elvis Presley or James Dean, not reading children’s books.

Tom's Midnight Garden XXIII

So, one night two or three years later, I pick up my daughter’s copy of Tom’s Midnight Garden and I’m leafing through it.  I think, hmm, time travel.  I love time travel.  I think I’ll just glance through this.  So I’m sitting in the living room by the fire reading and loving this book when I come across the scene.  The pajamas, the skates, the ice, Tom’s little girl friend who has grown into a young woman while he has remained a little boy.  The leaden wintry sky.  The sense of endings and forlorn emptiness inside.  The whole deal.

All joking aside, folks, this is the strangest damn thing that has ever happened to me.  No author has, or could ever, affect me like Philippa Pearce did.  I must have a connection with her that goes far beyond books, that’s all I can think.  I found out today she died three years ago.  Which is why I wrote this post.

Complaint Of the Novelist Pig

As an aspiring novelist, I like to read about other writers and how they found success. But in books and magazine that write this sort of swill, I often find an implied assumption that an aspiring writer will, as a matter of course, enter an Master of Fine Arts program to get his or her graduate degree in Creative Writing.

Since I have no intention of embarking on such a course — how long would a talking pig last in a creative writing class? — I thought I would defend my intention by finding out how my favorite writers got their start and how many of them had MFA’s.

Danny Meadow Mouse and HootyI think I’ll attempt this in chronological order, beginning with the first writer who made an indelible impression on my life. I was five years old. The writer was Thornton W. Burgess, author of about a million animal stories for small children. I’m willing to assume that, in addition to creative writing, he studied wildlife management and child psychology too. I know he was pretty successful at what he did. In fact, while I was still in kindergarten, I taught myself to read so that I could devour more and more of his tales of the animals of the Smiling Pond and the Green Meadows. His characters acted like real animals except they talked to each other and had to solve little moral dilemmas that I could understand. When Hooty the Owl caught Danny Meadow Mouse and lifted him up over the snowy fields in the moonlight, I was, not exactly terrified, but unbearably excited to see what would happen next. One thing I knew for sure: Danny would escape. Thornton Burgess’ animal world was that kind of world. And that was just the way I liked it. Burgess wrote over seventy of those little books and I wanted to devour every one.

OK,let’s see what Thornton’s credentials are…hmm,what’s this? According to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, after high school he went to business college for a year to try learn accounting. Didn’t like it, and quit. Got a job in a shoe store. That’s it. That’s his entire advanced education! What gives here?

When he was twenty-one, he snagged a job as janitor/office boy at a publishing company. The publishing company put out magazines for farmers. Burgess didn’t know anything about farming, but he knew the editor, so he tried submitting a few little pieces. One thing led to another. He became a part-time, then a full-time reporter. He learned by doing! Found out what worked by bashing away at it day after day.

eye of needleWell, that was a long time ago. Let’s pick somebody more current. How about, Ken Follett, the thriller writer? His stuff doesn’t thrill me with delight, but neither do I despise it. I’ve read my share of Ken Follett thrillers and enjoyed every one. And, since he’s one of the most successful writers out there, so let’s see where he got his MFA in Creative Writing.

Well, according to British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series, Follett went to University College in London, where he took his degree in… philosophy. Philosophy? Well, he probably wanted to get his moral bearings in an ambiguous universe so his characters could agonize more about their despicable deeds, after he finished his advanced writing degree, right?

Actually, he went home to Wales and snagged a job for the South Wales Echo, writing their rock music column for three years. Then he became a crime reporter and started writing thrillers on the side. If he ever took a writing class, there is no record of it. Just kept bashing away to see what worked.

I know, you’re probably saying Pig, you’re only picking writers that you know never went to graduate school. What about those high-toned guys who write literary fiction? The kind that critics like and wins awards? They must have MFAs!

Listen, don’t get me started on critics. I wish they would all go shoot themselves.

Listen to what The Oxford Companion To Children’s Literature says about Thornton W. Burgess stuff, the man who opened the wide world of books to me forever: “an undistinguished mishmash in imitation of The Wind In the Willows…Beatrix Potter…and Uncle Remus, but (sniff) very popular in his time.” And please don’t mention that undistinguished name in my critical presence again. Hmmpf.

Frankly, I find it hard to open a novel that promises long pages of careful introspection and Scandanavian angst. A novel about a husband and wife not discussing their marital problems for 300 pages in their middle class kitchen in Connecticut only gets interesting to me when pirates suddenly leap through the kitchen window, kidnap the wife, and the husband has to rescue her before it’s too late! But that mostly doesn’t happen.

240x240_bio_percyHowever, there is one literary writer I actually enjoy. He was a Southerner by the name of Walker Percy.  I’ve read two of his novels and they both were about alienated Southerners walking around the South not thinking about things.  But, for some funny reason, I really like the guy’s work and want to read more.   So let’s look him up.

Ah, Walker Percy. Went to college back in the thirties where he studied…chemistry. He eventually became a pathologist, and while autopsying tubercular corpses, contracted TB himself. Through his long sanatorium convalescence he started reading — French and Russian literature, philosophy, psychology, anything to keep his mind going. Made him start wondering about things. How come if science is so great, men and women tend to be so unhappy and confused? And lead such shallow lives?

So he recovers, but doesn’t want to be a pathologist anymore. He decides to try writing books about this dilemma that has become real to him. Quits his job, moves back to Louisiana, lives off an inheritance from a relative, and starts bashing away to see what works. His third novel, The Moviegoer, wins the National Book Award. So he never set out to write literary fiction. He set out to use fiction to solve the problem that gnawed at him.

I am not totally convinced that going to graduate school is the best way to learn anything in the creative line. Has jazz noticeably improved since musicians started getting degrees in it? Actually, no. It’s gotten more boring.  Today, jazz lovers are still listening to the guys like John Colrane and Miles Davis who learned from bashing away in the clubs ever night.

What about movies? What film school did Francois Trauffaut or Frederico Fellini go to? I think it was called the school of life. They learned their trade by making movies all day. Did that school close down? It turned some pretty good guys.

So, in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ll just sit here and bash away until I finally figure out what works.

Shadows of the Spanish Civil War

men-in-battle

I received the following today from Eva Wilson and I think it’s important. Eva and I have been friends, despite great gaps of years and miles, since the fall of 1961, when I first met her on the foggy lawns of San Francisco State.  She was Eva Bessie then, and I didn’t know yet that her father was Alvah Bessie, Academy award nominated screenwriter and member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.  He was beaten up pretty bad by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, but never asked forgiveness for being a man of honor.  He went to prison for a year (“contempt of Congress’) and, when he got out, he couldn’t get work writing anymore.  Then he found a job stage managing for the old hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, working lights and sound for acts like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Professor Irwin Corey.

PILGRIMAGE

abraham_lincoln_battalion_buttonI had the great privilege of taking a dual pilgrimage in October to Spain and France with my brother and sister-in-law.  We attended a 70th reunion of the leaving of the Spanish Civil War Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from Spain in Barcelona. Even though their cause was defeated by the fascists, their spirit was a flame to encourage the determination to defeat fascists coming up in World War II. Our father, Alvah Bessie, was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and we followed some of his rigorous and perilous journey, with inadequate gear, freezing weather, and very little food, in our comfortable little car, stopping at sights and cafes along the way. If anyone would be interested in a great tale of this war, read my father’s book, “Men in Battle,” which is considered a classic in his genre. There were brave and strong soldiers, mostly untrained, from around the world, and some are still alive. “Spanish Notebooks,” also by my father, is another great journal of his experiences, edited only slightly.

After the grandeur of the Pyrenees Mountains, complete with snow and chalet villages, we went to Lourdes, France, to visit the grotto of Saint Bernadette, where she saw visions of the Virgin Mary on many occasions. She inspired me at age 13, through the Hollywood movie, and I choreographed a ballet based on her life. I was an official card-not-carrying mystic, in a family of lefty, cards-lost agnostics! Oh, well. I am still a mystic, and am proud of and delighted that I was raised in a free thinking family, devoted to good causes.

I enclose some meaningful snapshots of the journey, for those curious about this incredible trip. There are some Vets still alive, and I was able to get a snapshot of one, Jack Shafran. The event was in beautiful Barcelona and Sitges, a resort town.  People came from all over the world.  Music of the Spanish Civil War played and flags were flying from that period. The sixties was not the only time of inspiration!

eva-with-vet_edited-1

And now we have Obama. Trust him; he’ll do the right thing, I believe. I hope.

Eva Wilson

men-in-battle-pbackMen in Battle: A Story of Americans in Spain

spanish-notebooksAlvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks

More Books And Films By Or About Alvah Bessie

On The Road – Fifty Years Ago Today…

It was fifty years today
Saintly Jackie taught us how to play…

I think that’s how the Beatles song goes. Yes, on this exact day in 1957, the sky turned red over my high school campus and a voice spoke from the clouds: “Hie thee to the Hillsdale Bookstore right after school, oh feeble mortal, and learn how life is to be lived.”

It was kind of a screwy time (see my A Fifties Teenager pieces) , and for me, On The Road was a one way ticket out of a suburban wasteland into a thrilling new world that made some sense. I bought it all, and I still buy it. In fact I read On The Road three or four more times at different stages of my life and each time it spoke to me in a fresh way. As I got older I saw the sadness lurking behind the kicks. I saw the hurt of best friends breaking up because they didn’t understand each other any more. Later on in the sixties, I met the real Dean Moriarity a few times. He wasn’t a bit like in the story, although still cool and crazy. And I saw that, although Jack based his book on real people, he had recreated them and made them more than they were.

I still cringe for Jack when I remember the vituperation the literary establishment poured on his head for writing such a subversive, immoral and, worst of all, sloppily written novel. Celebrity writer Truman Capote said famously about it, “That’s not writing, that’s typing!”

Today On the Road is praised across the world as perhaps the dominant novel of the mid- twentieth century – (check Google News if you doubt me). They’re even teaching Jack Kerouac in high school! – not that this is a good thing. For the book to work right, you can’t be lectured about it. But Truman must be sulking in some infernal corner. I don’t think too many people look forward to reading In Cold Blood again.

If you’ve never read On The Road, give it a shot. Forget all the hoopla. Just read the book, okay? See if it speaks – or still speaks – to you. And watch for the Saint of the Susquehanna.

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A Walk To John Carter of Mars


I’ve always thought the best plan for writing or making a film is to first decide where you’re trying to get to, then strike out for it in the most direct way. That’s the ticket to success. Of course, you need a hook to get people interested. A hook is kind of like an invitation…”Hey, want to come on a walk with me? I’m heading for John Carter of Mars and it’s going to be fun.” Don’t waste a lot of time on exposition and backstory (deciding what to bring and packing it nice and neat) but just get out there and see what happens along the way. It’s a beautiful morning and we’re together and what the heck!

(Careful readers may notice this is not actually the best plan for getting to your destination in the most direct way. Shouldn’t that pig have a GPS unit and compass and maybe a map?)

Truth is, I often don’t much care where we’re going. We’re just out for a walk. Maybe the beach. Maybe the top of the hill. Maybe John Carter of Mars. What I know about John Carter can fit into a thimble with plenty of room left over for extra trail mix in case we get hungry. I don’t see why that should detain us a minute. We’ll find out together as we go along, right? Unless we get sidetracked! (Put in scary music stab here)

So off we go. We’re having a good laugh about silly science fantasy figures of long ago when suddenly there’s a snake pit, and I fall into it!

“Help, Help! I fell in a snake pit! There’s squirmy things down here! I hate this! Yow! Get me out!” So then you have to run a find a ladder and get me out before I have a conniption fit.

Phew! That was close! Fortunately for me, they turned out to be garter snakes.

So we’re walking along again and I happen to mention the first time I ever heard of John Carter of Mars. I was about eleven years old and there was a new Dell comic book for sale at Wincott’s Fountain, the kids’ local hangout and supply center. Dell made the best comics so I bought it and it was this great story about a guy who gets teleported to…YOW! Suddenly we’re both not on Mars but on Balboa Street in 1953 San Francisco and here comes the ‘B’ line streetcar racketing and ricketing down the street outside Wincott’s Fountain and – hey, there’s my brother Gary getting off the streetcar in his blue Air Force uniform and he’s coming home on leave and – wow, he looks so cool, I want to be a soldier when I grow up and the air is as crisp and bright as it can only get at 45th and Balboa on a sunny afternoon in September when you’re a kid and I got a Rocky Road candy bar, chocolate with marshmellow and nuts inside its crinkly red metallic wrapper, and you got an Abba Zabba, dusty nougat with peanut butter inside in a wrapper that looks like a big yellowjacket and we’re going to go climb the ladder and sit on the platform of the big signboard in the vacant lot and eat candy and read comic books and talk about what happened on the Jackie Gleason Show last night and…you’re starting to think “Why did I ever go on a walk with this zany pig?”

Back on the path, we pass some interesting little trails going off into the brush. One says, “Edgar Rice Burroughs and Willa Cather – both nearly the same age. Both lived through the same times and both were passionate about writing – what would they have talked about?”

Then a little further here’s a path that leads to “Is it possible to write a serious modern novel, a work of literature, about a bold, brave hero who must save a beautiful maiden from a wicked villain?” That path looks pretty good. I bet there’s view out there. Then, even crazier, we both suddenly think “would it be possible for such a story to be lived out in reality in our time?”

When we finally get up to the hilltop, there’s that incredible view – our time, our century, our world, that little kid down in the village crying. And no matter how beautiful it is you keep hearing the sound of her crying. And it’s distracting so you start talkng about that. Why does that kid have to cry anyway? Isn’t there something we could do? What if she’s all alone and deserted and there’s tigers? Maybe we should go back down and see…”
And that’s the end of our walk because now we’re on the run. What if it’s too late? I hope not. Let’s go faster!

Didn’t Solve World Hunger Again Today

Catherine Morely.

Passion doesn’t have to be raving or manic. The British, or in this case, Irish manifestation can be quite calm, even a little reserved. But you recognize it right away. Oxford scholar Catherine Morley cares immensely about a subject most people don’t give a rip about – modern American literature, sees it as full of meaning and, for her, it’s an answer to the existential question, “What’s the point anyway?”

When we met Catherine, she had just delivered a paper titled ‘Willa Cather: American Modernist?’ at the Willa Cather Foundation’s Annual Conference in Red Cloud, and she was staying on a few days to do some research in the Cather archives there for her upcoming book.

Catherine is charming, laughs easily, is wonderfully knowledgeable about modern American “literature”, and she is, as the British say approvingly, “a bit mad”.

How else could she have written a thesis named The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Fiction: John Updike, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo’? Seems ripe for satire, but we refrain because, when you talk with Catherine, her career choice makes sense. We talked into the evening about English/American literature in general and Willa Cather in particular. I listened and learned. I was taught.

But I didn’t ask her the question that was foremost in my mind: “Shouldn’t a woman of your education and ability really be solving world hunger or something?”

It’s a question that dogs me. When it comes right down to it, I get joy from art that’s pulled off successfully. It’s the solace of my life, and I care about it more than anything else (hyperbole warning). Art museums and libraries don’t bore me, I get stimulated and I make connections and the world gets more understandable.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, watching Laurel and Hardy trying to move that piano across the footbridge over a ravine in Switzerland when, for no reason, a gorilla starts to cross from the other side…that’s also art, comic art of the first order. Just thinking about that silliest predicament of all time makes me laugh. No spotlight can be too bright for those two guys. They pulled it off – just like Willa Cather and Jack Kerouac and Paul Strand and any other dead guys I’ve been writing about lately. I want to say, “Hey, look: joy and character and friends forever, and they made the world laugh its head off.” That’s Art with a capital T, folks.

Or that movie where Charlie Chaplin falls in love with the blind flower girl — I mean – that’s it. The end. Art gets no better. It cannot. That final scene is up there with the end of La Boheme as a defining moment in the western love story.

To get back to Catherine Morley, who I very much admire, I could easily spend the rest of my life pointing at the wonderful artists, both high culture and pop culture, who have been swept into the corner by time, and saying, “Hey, over here, look at this – joy and character and you’ll laugh your head off”. It’s not that different than Catherine’s career plan, although she practices at Oxford, and I practice at McDonald’s in Pismo Beach, California. (where I sit writing and posting this screed)

Yet there’s all this important work to be done. It really can’t wait. Little babies are dying because there are germs in their drinking water. Innocent little girls are being sold into sex slavery at this very moment. And the ice caps are melting, just like Tiny Tim warned us.

You can’t just leave solving these problems to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, God bless ‘em.

One thing I know is I’m a pig. I have a snout and I can’t change my spots. (Take that, clear and coherent metaphor master!) I have shelves full of important social treatises that I fully intend to read someday. Just not right now. Maybe after I finish this wonderful book about Victorian photography and this one about seventeenth century Dutch landscape painting and this one about Cowpunk Mamas and this one about medieval grail quests and then finish my own new work of literary criticism: Charles the Rooster: What Did He Really Have To Crow About? Then I’ll be ready to think strategy and really help solve the world’s problems. If only it didn’t sound so tedious.

I figure God made us who we are and He wants us to BE fully who we are, as long as we’re on the side of light. Let the ranters rant, the lovers love, the thinkers think, the doers do, and the ponderers ponder. Do it with joy and do it as best you can.

But I’m not sure. Maybe I’m fooling myself. I know the Bible experts in my readership can knock holes in that fool’s perspective in a second.

What do you think?