In praise of my writing hero

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, March 14, 2012 8:14 PM

He first appeared on October 4, 1950 but wasn’t officially named until November 10 when he was formally Christened Snuppa, a Dutch word for affection. Small in stature but possessing a great wit and infinite wisdom, which he dispensed freely, often without being asked, he grew to be well-liked and actually quite famous. His writing style was clear and succinct, bordering on rigid. He himself was said to be inspired by the minimalist writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and especially by the 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

As he became more and more famous, he often resorted to disguises, something nearly unheard of for a writer. The only other writer so famously known to the world may have been Ernest Hemmingway. Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now JK Rowling. Previously, perhaps, William Shakespeare, though if certain reports are to be believed, he may have been more famous for not writing what he supposedly wrote. That’s another blog post.

The disguises tended toward the flamboyant, an odd choice for someone trying to be incognito. He impersonated a World War I veteran, a 50s greaser, an attorney, a hockey player and a figure skater. But his true claim to fame was being ornery.

Born and raised in Daisy Hill, he was one of seven. His siblings never rose to his level. According to a memoir, their names were Andy, Belle, Olaf, Marbles, Spike, Molly and Rover, though he didn’t talk about them much.

Never married, he was purported to be in love once. Her name was Lila, and they did try living together for a while, but she had a cat. He definitely didn’t like cats. Instead, he returned to his former house, a sprawling manor complete with a pool table and an original Van Gogh painting. Still, he spent most nights on the roof, writing. It was a craft that didn’t come easily to him; he had to work at it, composing draft after draft, pacing back and forth. He wrote on an old-fashioned typewriter, using loose-leaf paper that he would periodically crumple into wads of trash.

He read and re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, absorbing the cadence of the words, examining the power of a good story. Some have speculated that it was his love of Tolstoy that got him through his own first novel. Entitled It was a dark and stormy night, it was hugely unsuccessful, panned far and wide.

But it remains a seminal work, profound in its brevity. It has always appealed to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer myself and know the pull of the written word; know the agony and defeat of being rejected by publishers but also the unbridled joy of finally seeing my words in print, from somewhere other than my own printer.

I have been a writer since I could write. As a child, I would sit high up in the trees across the street from our house, armed with a stubby pencil and a small notebook, something that would fit into the back pocket of my pants. Oh, how I loved to climb trees, reaching toward the sky. None of the other kids in the neighborhood dared to go as high as I did. I felt like I was flying. I would scamper up grabbing branches to pull myself ever higher until I reached the penultimate branch, one that I had designated from the ground as my destination. I would keep it in my sights as I ascended, then straddle it as I inched myself out over the ground. Above me, the branches, thinner and lighter, would dance in the smallest breeze. Below me, a blanket of discarded leaves awaited, as did the other kids who would call to me, whining, wanting me to climb down. They were bored, wanted to go to Adrienne’s house to play. I ignored them. Even then, I was more of a solitary figure.

In the large tree next to me, the carcass of a deer would hang. Our neighbor was a hunter. As a child I was both intrigued, because of death, and repelled. But armed with my notebook in my left hand and the pencil clutched in my right, I could spin my tales of revenge for the deer and for all others. They were always misguided adventures, and the heroine was always named Julie, probably because of Julie Barnes, played by Peggy Lipton, in The Mod Squad.

Over the years, my notebooks got bigger and my pencil became mechanical. I stopped climbing trees but I never stopped imagining different worlds populated with different characters seen from both above and below. Often they have been flamboyant, most times they are just tragic, and tragically flawed individuals who are fighting the demons of their lives. Like the hunter of the deer.

I’ve been published, I’ve been rejected, but I always remember my perch in the tree and I always remember one of my writing heroes, whose most important and profound work hangs framed in my office.

I look at it often for inspiration. It never fails to bring a smile.

Here’s to celebrating the literary gifts of Snoopy Brown. Because good writing IS hard work.

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I am a simple person

by Lorin Michel Sunday, February 12, 2012 12:24 AM

I am a simple person. I don’t have many interests or hobbies. I like what I like, which doesn’t mean I can’t like something else, but after years of experimentation, I’ve come to know what I know. And here it is: I love to write. I write, all the time. It’s my livelihood and my passion. It fills my day, feeds both my stomach and my soul. It’s more that what I do; it’s who I am.

I also like wine. And cars. And music. But my passion is words. The turn of a phrase, the crafting of a sentence, the seduction of the mind. This is what fills my days and my nights. I am of single purpose and focus. I am driven. I am a writer. I am … simple and simply boring, and I like it that way. I celebrate this simplicity.

I also celebrate finishing a short story today. In addition to all of the writing I do on a daily basis, largely for other people – my “real” job – I also write for me. I have had any number of projects over the years, some of them only mine and others that I’ve written tag-team style with Bobbi and others where one writes a part, then the next person writes the next part and so on. It’s fun, but it’s a little disjointed. Maybe we’re just not doing it right. Plus, we never seem to finish anything. It’s difficult when everyone has their own lives and obligations. One of my personal projects is a book of short stories called Goat. I already have the title story done. Today’s finished story is entitled Winter Solstice. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Charlotte moved in with her husband and his girlfriend on a late Thursday afternoon in December as the sun was dying in the Western sky, gray, cold. She nestled in Jeff’s arms as he carried her in from the cab, up two flights to the flat in Beacon Hill. Shane was waiting at the door, wrapped in an oversized sweater that Charlotte recognized as Jeff’s. She had given it to him for Christmas four years earlier. As Jeff crossed the threshold, Charlotte reached out a hand, frail and thin, a ghost already, to touch Shane’s arm.”

It’s always an incredible feeling to finish a first draft. While I know there is editing to be done, and it might end up being quite a bit different than what it is now, to have a draft done makes me feel accomplished, makes me feel like I’m moving forward. Makes me feel that my unrelenting focus on the written word is worth it after all.

Writers are a funny lot. We can be extremely inarticulate when speaking but much better on paper. We prefer to be behind the scenes rather than front and center. Most of us don’t do well in the spotlight. We write the words for those who shine in the light, and sometimes we get thanked. We scribble constantly. We keep a pad of paper next to our bed at night along with a pen and a flashlight so we can scribble in the dark when an idea strikes. As a writer, it’s impossible to know when the words will be good, when they’ll flow in the right direction. Getting a good paragraph every once in a while is cause for celebration; getting a good page is euphoric. Finishing something makes me feel like maybe this writing thing will work out.

I’ve written countless articles, and several books. I have several books in the works right now, books that I’m writing and/or editing for other people. I’m working on my own. I’ve won writing contests, and been published in a number of places. It’s a sickness, this writing thing. It consumes. An idea wraps me up in a cocoon only to break open into something else and I am forced to write. I write all day and all night. Last night I was up until after midnight, working on my story and when I got too tired to write anymore, I went to bed, slept for a few hours and then woke up, grabbed my iPad and started writing some more.

It’s a sickness but a good one. One I nourish and feed and relish daily. I am a simple woman, a woman of single mind and limited obsessions.

I think I’m OK with that. I’ll let you know once I read my first draft and see if it’s any good.

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A master storyteller turns 200

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 7, 2012 9:27 PM

He is generally thought of as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. His novels wove intricate plots easily in and around a cast featuring dozens of characters, some of whom we have come to know well. His honest and straightforward depiction of the early and mid-19th century working class are known for being both poetic and comedic. He was always able to capture the everyday man or woman, and create real people to whom any reader could relate. Each individual was believable and vividly physical. His friend John Forster described this as “characters real existences, not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves.”

I speak of one of my all time favorite writers, the eloquent and effervescent Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago today in Landport, Portsea. He lived with his eventually eight brothers and sisters and parents John and Elizabeth in Bloomsbury and then in Chatham in Kent. He was a voracious reader, especially the early picture novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding, words and pictures that would eventually influence his own writing. When his father lost his job as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, they moved to Camden Town, and John Dickens was eventually imprisoned in a debtor’s prison in Southwark, elements of both appearing in Charles Dickens’ most famous story, A Christmas Carol. Charles himself worked from a young age, even leaving school, and working 10-hour days at a blacking, or shoe polish, warehouse earning six shillings a week (just over $2) pasting labels on the cans. The conditions, which were both difficult and often nasty made an impression on him, forming his writing about socio-economic reforms and labor conditions.

An 1839 portrait of the young author

Here’s how Dickens described it: “The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”

Over the years, he would use many real people as characters in his books, including his first love Maria Beadnell as Dora in David Copperfield, a largely autobiographical novel; sister Mary whose death was fictionalized as the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop; James Henry Leigh Hunt an English critic and poet, written as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House; and even real people like the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Many of his stories and characters have also taken on lives of their own. To call someone a Scrooge is to call them a miser. Call someone a Pip, and they’re thought to have made something better of themselves. The Artful Dodger rightly describes someone who is crafty. The phrase “Merry Christmas” actually became popular after A Christmas Carol. He even has his own time period, called Dickensian, and used to describe Victorian society and the Victorian age from 1837 to 1901. But Dickens’ novels took place as early as the 1770s on through 1860, so the characterization is incorrect.

Dickens painted by Ary Scheffer, 1855. Dickens wrote of the experience: "I can scarcely express how uneasy and unsettled it makes me to sit, sit, sit, with Little Dorrit on my mind."

Over the years, I’ve read most of Dickens’ books though not all. He was prolific, writing 15 novels, five Christmas books, four short story collections, and several non-fiction books, some poetry and even a play or two. I have a special place in my heart for A Christmas Carol. I collect old editions of it, and know if fairly by heart. Next on the list would probably be Great Expectations, followed by David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House.

Charles Dickens used the power of his talent to highlight the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. He wrote of them with such care and detail that readers took notice. Slums were razed, debtor’s prisons like the one his father spent time in were eventually closed. Dickens depicted exploitation and oppression and condemned public officials. He brought the plight of those less fortunate front and center, in a society that chose to ignore and look the other way. We could use a bit of Charles Dickens’ today.

Dickens suffered a stroke on June 8, 1870 and died the next day. He was buried against his wishes in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. He had requested to be buried at Rochester Cathedral in a strictly private manner. His epitaph read: “To the Memory of Charles Dickens who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.” His own last words were reported as being: “Be naturally my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”

Today I celebrate Charles Dickens. I highly recommend it in the best of times and even more so during the worst of times. It’s hard to find a better storyteller. 

The pen is mightier

by Lorin Michel Thursday, January 19, 2012 11:59 PM

I have a fascination with writing utensils. I suppose that makes sense, given my profession. I love the feel of a wonderfully sleek, sexy pen, one that writes with ease, where the ink flows across the paper like silk in a gentle breeze, no effort, hardly any pressure needed. I prefer a black rollerball as fine as a pin. There can be problems with some fine points because many don’t seem to allow enough ink to flow, but when they work, they work oh-so-fine. I’ve dabbled with ballpoints, and I find them clumpy. I’ve long been fascinated with fountain pens, but they always seem to be messy, oozing ink everywhere. I don’t like blue ink; it must be black. It’s sexy. After all, you can’t go wrong with black. Black dresses up everything, even words.

I also like mechanical pencils, with thin lead. It’s my writing tool of choice when trying to come up with an idea. My current favorite is a blue pentel with 0.5 mm lead and a worn eraser. I sit at my desk with a blank piece of paper and my pencil and I begin to scribble. I’ve never been the kind of writer who can confront my computer, face a word document and begin. Instead, I work with just one sheet of paper. I put words together and take them apart. I write a sentence and cross it out, scribble another word and then add another to it, then another, cross out the first word, replace it with another. Write another sentence, and then another. Then just a word. And then, and then, and then. Maybe? Yes! An idea pops out from the end of my pencil and I finally move onto my ultimate writing tool: my keyboard. Anything I do professionally needs to be typed anyway, so it makes sense.

My pencil is a means to an end.

But a good pen in my hand makes me feel powerful, like I suddenly have all of the words of the English language flowing through me just waiting for use in the most unique story ever written. Of course, a good pen is hard to find. I haven’t found one in years. Luckily, Diane and Gene found one and gave it to me for my birthday. It’s an ACME Studio pen from a creative studio, founded in 1985 and currently based Maui. They started with jewelry, ventured into wrist watches, men’s accessories, designers, artists and architects. In 1997, they released their first collection of fine writing tools changing the way people think about pens. They actually developed several new pen-making techniques so designers can create new shapes using a variety of materials.

Ancient Indians were the first to use a pen, an instrument which consisted of bird feathers or a bamboo stick. Ancient Egyptians used thin reed brushes, and reed pens continued to be used for parchment writing until around 3000 BC. From then until the 7th century, reed pens were gradually replaced with quills which were first used to write the Dead Sea Scrolls in about 100 BC and until the signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787.

The first pen to hold ink was in 953 when the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt demanded a pen that would not stain his hands. It went on from there until a student in Paris named Petrache Poenaru invented the fountain pen in 1827. In 1888 the first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued to John Loud. In 1938, László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor started designing pens with a tiny ball at the tip. He ended up getting a patent on his ball point on June 15, 1938. The felt tip came along in the 1960s; rollerballs first made an appearance in the 1970s.

My pen was designed by Michael Doret, an artist known for hand-lettering, illustration and graphic design. He designed the logo for the New York Knicks, the Kiss Rock and Roll Over album cover and of course the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Add to that the QWERTY pen by ACME studios. My pen. The perfect black rollerball finepoint, a pen that is reflective of my profession and my craft. A pen that gives an outlet to my sometimes wild imagination. A pen that helps me write something as simple as my name, a linear scrawl across a page with occasional arcs, dips and loops.

It’s a mighty pen, and like all the best pens, it is wielded with determination, because to use a pen is to create something… with words, an illustration, a drawing. To use a pen is to make a statement, to say that words matter, that they are powerful, the ultimate weapon against ignorance and a closed mind. Words matter. As Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined in his 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, the pen is mightier than the sword.

Use yours wisely. And celebrate the tools of words.

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The word of the day

by Lorin Michel Thursday, January 5, 2012 10:55 PM

I start each day by settling into my chair at my desk, opening my laptop and pushing the tiny button in the upper right corner. With a tiny symphonic announcement, my previously black screen gently turns to light gray, a little mechanical wheel spins in the middle below the tiny apple, and after just a few seconds or so, it freezes. Both disappear as the screen flares to a vibrant blue that gives way to the photo that graces my desktop, a sunrise shot of a vineyard, taken from the doorway of the house we stayed at last time we were in Napa. The trees, green and lush, glow from the golden light that also kisses the tops of vines just beginning to grow fat with grapes. The light is both cold and warm. In the foreground, flowers; in the background, gray silhouettes of distant hills. As I sip my coffee, icons begin to appear exactly where I left them when I powered down. The hard drive, home, various folders and documents that require immediate attention. Once everything is in place, I begin to open the programs I need immediately. Safari, Microsoft Word, and iChat. These are my three staples. Throughout the day other things get opened including photoshop and acrobat. I type in google to check mail; I look at my buddy list to see who’s on iChat. I sip more coffee.

I don’t chat with many people during the day. I simply don’t have the time, nor the inclination. But I work alone, as writing is a solitary sport. I don’t mind; not usually. There are times, though, when alone can get a little lonely. I like to have someone to talk to sometimes without actually having to “talk.” It’s like having a virtual office worker or two, though the only one who’s truly constant is my “buddy” Bobbi. She usually gets to the office and signs onto chat around 10 unless there are meetings involved. Sometimes I’m off to see clients, sometimes she is. The rule is that we have to tell the other so there isn’t worry involved.

The chats begin quite nebulously with a typed “good morning,” often punctuated with a question mark. A nice way of finding out if the day has already gone to hell or if it’s not too bad. It’s not always good in the true definition of the word, but it’s not usually bad. In fact, rarely is it bad. Today’s chat began somewhat differently. I’ll share here:

Bobbi: “I have a challenge for us.”

Me: “uh oh.”

Bobbi: “No. It’s good. Every day, instead of saying good morning or hi to each other, we say one word that is our personal “theme” for the day.”

Me: “Wow. That’s interesting. Do you have one for today?”

Bobbi: “No.”

Her rationale: “I was thinking that the Olympics and the Rose Bowl and things like that have themes. And I thought, I wonder what my theme is. For my life, for my year. Then for my day. I thought we might do that.”

Eventually we each chose a word. Hers was ‘emerge.’ She’s been trying to emerge from being sick with a horrible cold/flu for weeks, fighting it through the holidays. She’s started feeling better just this week, emerging as it were.

I chose accomplishment. I have so much on my plate. Each day after booting up the computer and opening the needed programs, I dive in. I have a list of things to accomplish. I begin, I write, I edit, I re-write, I contemplate, I eventually get something that I think is good enough to send to a client for review, or good enough, in the case of this blog, to post for my readers to contemplate.

I don’t know what tomorrow’s words will be but she and I have vowed to do this until we don’t want to do it anymore. She’s going to keep track of them to see what kind of pattern emerges. The words don’t have to be positive; they can be negative and even vile, if that’s how we’re feeling. It will be interesting to see what words we choose and where they take us.

Either way, I think it’s a fabulous idea and I’m looking forward to the challenge.

If you had a word to choose for your day, what would it be? 

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The great first paragraphs from “The Tiger’s Wife”

by Lorin Michel Saturday, December 17, 2011 11:25 PM

“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he take me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”

"Then there is the popcorn cart, the umbrella stand, a small kiosk with postcards and pictures. Down the stairs and past the aviary where the sharp-owls sleep, through the garden that runs the length of the citadel wall, framed with cages. Once there was a king here, a sultan, his Janissaries. Now the cannon windows facing the street hold blocked-off troughs filled with tepid water. The cage bars curve out, rusted orange. In his free hand, my grandfather is carrying the blue bag my grandma has prepared for us. In it: six-day-old cabbage heads for the hippopotamus, carrots and celery for the sheep and deer and the bull moose, who is a kind of phenomenon. In his pocket, my grandfather has hidden some sugar cubes for the pony that pulls the park carriage. I will not remember this as sentimentality, but as greatness.”

The great first lines of The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a story about a young doctor’s relationship with her grandfather, about the stories he tells her about a deathless man who meets him several times in different places and never changes, about a deaf-mute girl from his childhood village who befriends a tiger that has escaped from a zoo. Ultimately it is a family saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout the wars in the Balkans. It’s Obreht’s first novel and was written largely while she was at Cornell. It’s quite extraordinary, vibrant, and fascinating. She weaves facts and folklore together and it just sings. 

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Making a commitment

by Lorin Michel Thursday, November 10, 2011 11:47 PM

I spoke to my mother tonight, about the damage the recent storm did to her property, about the cleanup; about how she’s feeling, especially her back, since the surgery; about the problems I’ve been having with roofing and tile contractors; about politics. All very cheerful subjects, and she laughed as she said that I would have plenty of fodder for the blog. If this was any other kind of blog, she’d be right. But when I began this little endeavor last February, I made a commitment to celebrate something every day. It’s difficult sometimes, to find something to write about that’s joyful and wondrous, which is why sometimes the posts are about seemingly mundane subjects like the wind. But in my mind, if I can find something good and positive and happy each day, I’m making my life better. In a never-ending sea of negative things and thoughts, perhaps one positive will be enough to turn the tide. That’s my hope.

Commitment is an interesting concept. We all make commitments every day; some we keep. They can be as innocuous as a commitment to cut back on coffee that day or to have lunch with a friend soon, to something bigger like a new job, or a marriage. Even those commitments don’t always last forever, some don’t even last very long. I’ve had a number of jobs in my life; the only one that has had longevity is my freelance writing. But I’m committed to writing. I do it, in some form, every day. It can be for a client, or for myself. It can be typed or scribbled on the back of a napkin. Some of those scribbles end up as the start of a blog post. I’m committed to the written word.

I made a commitment to Kevin and Justin. Yes, I made a similar commitment to my first husband but even then, I knew it wouldn’t be forever. As it turned out, it wasn’t even for long. Kevin and I are different. Short of something catastrophic, we’re committed to one another for as long as we both shall live. Depending on if there’s an afterlife, which I don’t believe in though I’d love to be pleasantly proven wrong, we might stretch our commitment into perpetuity. I’m committed to love.

I’m committed to my family and friends, to living a good life. My days can often spiral into frustration and irritation. Whose days don’t? Even a two-year-old gets frustrated. It’s impossible to literally be happy and celebratory every minute of every hour of every day. It’s not normal. I’ve met people who seem superficially happy, always syrupy and surreal. They never seem to have a harsh word let alone a harsh thought. They seem too good to be true. I hope they’re not, but in this world, it’s hard to believe such people exist. Committed to happiness is one thing; happiness that should be committed is another thing all together.

Commitment is a promise to do or give something, to be loyal to someone or something. It’s an attitude that is universally positive, if you commit to it. I’ve made many commitments in my life; I’ve broken as many as I’ve kept. But I like to think that I’ve maintained the most important ones. Because of them, I’ve found happiness in love, in family and lasting friendships, in my career.

Making a commitment for me has led to a renewed commitment to write for myself everyday. I made the commitment to put one post up daily. I’ve been successful so far. For 261 days I have found one good thing in each of those 24-hours to celebrate. I have no intention of stopping because to be committed to something is to find purpose. So it is in love; so it will always be in life.

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OP noir

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, September 6, 2011 10:24 PM

“The day began like any other. Hot, sticky, like gum on the bottom of a shoe. The sky was dusty white, like a ghost caught between heaven and hell on earth. She was wearing a pair of gray Big Dog boxer shorts and a white tank top with a rust spot on the side, unnoticeable to any passers by. She walked outside to stretch her legs, breathing in the scent of the heat already searing the freshly laid blacktop. It smelled dirty. A dog barked across the street as a cat scurried under a car. In the house on the cul de sac behind, the little boy was screaming again.

“In another town in another place in another time, this scene might have caused alarm, but not here. This was the OP, a town where there used to be a lot of children. Small children, the kind of children that end up in fairy tales living happily ever after. Most of those small children have grown now, including her own child, a boy who is now a man, but this little boy was new to the neighborhood. He and his sister screamed a lot, but they were young, younger than 7 and probably more like 5 and sometimes little kids screamed.

“The woman waited for five minutes or maybe ten and then she went back through the low door into the small house she shared with her husband. The coffee, thick and black, espresso beans freshly ground making mud in a pot, percolated. It smelled and sounded like morning. She liked morning. It was a chance at a new beginning.

“It was just too bad about the pig.”


I love noir. Film noir, fiction noir, any story told with high drama, usually revolving around a murder. Raymond Chandler was one of the greats, writing perfect fiction noir that was minimalist, melodramatic; prose that always seemed to start with a reference to weather followed by the discovery of a body. The stories often took place in Los Angeles, on a decidedly seedy street where the night oozed into the gutter like black ink. Thick, ornery, draining away the lifeblood of the city.

This particular murder, of a small stuffed piece of faux pork, was witnessed and photographed by one Mr. Roy Guzman on a recent Sunday night in Oak Park. Pig. Evidently mostly dead in the kitchen.

“She saw the body, small and pink, dirty like laundry that needed to be scrubbed. She stood over it, wishing it weren’t so, mourning the death. In her mind, all she could hear was Philip Marlowe. His voice gravelly, rough like the morning, hot and sticky like gum.”

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” From The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.


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In short

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, August 30, 2011 10:37 PM

My husband is a big fan of shorts. Each year he waits until just the hint of warmth starts after our cool rainy season and then hangs his jeans up for months while he slips into a pair of cargo shorts. He has at least 8 pair, and he is a happy warrior. As the winter approaches and the temperatures start to move south of 60, he clings stubbornly to his shorts. He’ll wear a long sleeve t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie, but refuse to switch to jeans. Finally about the time he starts to think about pulling up his socks, he’ll break down and pull out a pair of Levis. He does it begrudgingly and a little angrily. I’ve suggested marking days off the calendar with a big red slash as we move glacially through winter toward those first warm days of spring so that he knows shorts-season is coming.

I, too, like shorts but I don’t have the same obsession with them. I prefer jeans and I stubbornly cling to those through spring and into summer until it’s simply impossible to breathe in heavy denim. I’m not as particular as to whether my shorts are cargo or not, though my favorite is a ratty old pair of camouflage. They keep me incognito while I’m working.

Shorts, so called because they’re really only shortened versions of pants, can be traced to the skirts, like Scottish kilts, that men wore instead of pants. In the 14th century, breeches were introduced that were tight and worn with stockings. By men. Think Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Then came knickerbockers, or looser breeches, around 1863. Men wore them for golfing in the 1890s. Knee pants cropped just at the knee were worn by boys 8 to 16 in the late 19th century until after World War I, and were finally called shorts starting around 1920. The British military introduced Bermuda shorts right around that time in order to allow their soldiers to be dressed appropriately, if not lightly, for duty.

Still, it was only men and boys who wore shorts. Women primarily still wore long dresses even when competing in sports. Until 1933 when Alice Marble wore shorts for a tennis tournament in Easthampton, Long Island, New York, a day she ultimately played 108 games winning the singles and doubles semifinals only to collapse in the finals due to dehydration and heat exhaustion.

No one blamed the shorts.

Contrary to my husband’s preferred style, there are actually some 26 types of shorts including skorts which I absolutely refuse to discuss. Or slackettes. Not even sure how those are different other than the name. There are yimps, mens’ shorts with a vintage look; culottes = bad; bun huggers. Whatever. Boxers, and of course the cargo shorts that my husband loves, loves, loves.

And jorts. Jean shorts. I should love those. Not sure I do.

Still I celebrate shorts of all kinds but especially the kinds that my husband wears because he’s so damned cute in them. He has one pair in particular, a very light camouflage, and they’re my favorite.

He’s just so damned cute in those shorts, in shorts in general.

Did I say that already?

May summer never end.

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live out loud

Happily right now

by Lorin Michel Saturday, August 20, 2011 11:37 PM

There are certain days when the atmosphere changes for me. I don’t know what causes it though I suspect it’s more internal than external. The day is the same as most days. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, a breeze flows through the trees and in through the windows. Sounds of the neighborhood muffle in the afternoon. A dog barks, kids ride by on their bicycles, chatting over the sound of tires on the newly paved road. Across the street, one of our neighbors saunters to the mailbox, opens it, removes her mail and snaps the box shut. When she gets back to her house, she closes the garage door. It’s chain driven and raspy. A small plane, probably on its way to Camarillo, drones above.

The digital music channel I have chosen to accompany me on this Saturday is full of vibrating steel tubes, bamboo flutes and rain. Gentle drops fall through one of the speakers. It is lovely and makes the house feel cool.

I feel serene, relaxed. My atmosphere has changed. I boil some water and make myself some hot cider. Normally, in August, it’s too hot for hot cider. Not today.

I walk out of the kitchen.

Passing by a Marilyn Littman photograph that I purchased over 20 years ago. She does white on white photography with only the barest hint of light gray. The photo I have is “Dune with Brush.” I don’t know when it was photographed but the print number is 4/250. It is framed in white with a white double matte.

Dune with Brush by Marilyn Littman

It’s haunting and soothing; it makes me feel still. And its aura of vast nothingness, rolling sand dunes against a white sky, with no humans, no creatures, makes me happy. I’m not sure why. I’m only sure of the feeling I have. It’s a feeling I like.

Hundreds of years ago, the world introduced us to the concept of fairy tales, many of whose characters lived happily ever after. The prince would sweep in at the end of a story, the details of which never really matter, and he would save the would-be princess from certain death, often with a kiss. Sometimes he’d rescue her from a tower. In one particularly famous story, all he had to do was put a slipper of the right size onto her delicate foot. She would swoon, he would feel strong and virile, and they would fade into oblivion staring lovingly into each other’s eyes.

Disney perpetuated these tales, as did and does every romantic comedy in theaters.

I’ve always thought that happily ever after is unrealistic. It’s as if the prince and princess, beauty and the beast, never had a harsh word between them, never had to fight about money, never grew old and lost that loving feeling. They never had to work and look forward to the weekend and allow themselves to enjoy life. They didn’t need to. They were forever young and strong and beautiful and in love. They were never in the moment except for the story. I always wondered if they were really happy, if they knew the honest depth of joy, a feeling often caused by nothing but reality.

I believe in happily right now. That’s what I am today. With luck, that’s what I’ll be tomorrow. I live in the moment, I celebrate the serenity of the day, this day. Perhaps I’ll be happily ever after; I hope so. But for now, I’m content, I’m happy in the present. I’m living the life I love, in this moment. Right now.

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