Friday, June 29, 2007


PapaI don't remember which Christmas it was. We were still living in Texas at the time, but I was old enough to have been questioning the veracity of Santa Claus for a few years. We had come over to Papa and Joie's house on Christmas afternoon to open presents and run about and pester Papa to take us on rides in his golf cart.

The Christmases of childhood seem to have such established patterns: we did this and this and this for 700 years. For my family, the 700 years was spent going down to Lake Jackson. We stayed at my mother's parents' house and had a big Christmas in the morning, then went over to Papa and Joie's for another Christmas and lunch.

I can't remember if my father imposed this rule or if I imposed it upon myself, having developed his sense of propriety from an early age, but the Christmas spoils of the morning were never taken to the second Christmas at Papa and Joie's for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident with the other grandkids. The policy had positives and negatives. I never got in a fight with Shawn Jr. over whose Christmas presents were better (thank goodness -- he would have kicked my ass), but I spent the time at Papa and Joie's wishing I could get back to my new toys.

That sense of propriety stems from Joie, my father's mother, who gave each of the grandkids the exact same gift. This was the Christmas that she gave us all little AM radios that looked like Sunkist oranges. These were items collected at the local Texaco, where they had been offered for 99 cents with the purchase of a full tank of gas. At the end of the day, my brother and I were piling into the minivan when Papa came out with a secreted additional Christmas gift just for me.

A pen set.

Who gives a kid a pen set? What the hell kind of gift is that? A pen set would be no match against my friends' invasion-force-sized G.I. Joe haul. I muttered a thank you and got in the car. On the way home, my dad told me that I shouldn't mention getting an extra gift to the other grandkids. Yeah, Dad. As if I would.

We moved to Minnesota and Christmas tradition became me barbecuing a rack of ribs in sub-zero temperatures. I started writing. My journal; insufferable poetry aimed at getting girls to make out with me or feel really bad about not doing so; short stories. I wore a pen around my neck. I went to college.

In my first attempt at college -- in Moorhead, Minn., some 12 years ago -- I was particularly fond of writing letters and so managed to stay in contact with Papa better than I ever had or have since. In one of his letters back to me, he told me that he thought I was a pretty good writer and that he hoped I'd do something with it some day.

And I thought back to that pen set.

For the past several months, Papa has been in hospital -- unresponsive and in an existence that arguably goes against the wishes of his living will. On Wednesday, the family were all gathered in his hospital room, discussing with doctors the possibility of taking him off life support, of finally letting him go.

Then, click. Papa was there. He was slow. He was groggy. But he was there, suddenly talking for the first time in four months. The doctor started asking him questions to check alertness: name, date of birth, etc. Then he asked: what do you do for a living?


He's been retired for years, and hasn't been a sports writer for even longer, but the answer resonates with me. If he had been at his most lucid, I like to think that he wouldn't have answered differently. It's what he is.

These days I go around calling myself a writer (it's catchier than "Z-list foreign celebrity"). And much of what I am, and how I approach writing is inspired by him:
- Most notably, my policy on using profanity comes from him: "Sometimes it just fits."
- From him I get an admiration of (if not necessarily adherence to) athleticism in writing: removing cliché, unnecessary adjectives, etc.
- And from him I get the life lesson that the dumb option isn't always the wrong one.

The only person with a copy of my novel is my Papa. And the greatest compliment I've ever received about my writing came from that:

"I had to put it down," he told me. "It was so real, man. Really real."

The family gathered in Papa's hospital room sat and chatted with him for two hours, exhausting him with any questions they could think to ask, almost fighting with him to not go gentle. Everyone but my brother and I was there -- Jon and I tied to our worlds hundreds or thousands of miles away -- and they all got to tell him that they love him. It tears me up that I wasn't there, too. To shout: "I love you, Papa. I steal all your ideas!"

If you call yourself a writer, it's one of those things you feel is imprinted on your soul. You hope that if there is a heaven, you will spend eternity wearing a little name badge with just that word on it: "writer." And if you give someone the tools of your trade, what you are trying to give them is the ironically indescribable something that means so much to you.

I don't know where that pen set is now. I think it may be in a box, inside a box, somewhere in my parents' storage area. It doesn't matter. I've got what my Papa was trying to give me.

Monday, June 18, 2007

9 foot tall when you're 4-foot-5

"Gossamer" is an all-too-underutilised word in the modern English lexicon.

On the train this morning, I found myself listening to "Just One of Those Things," by Nat "King" Cole, in which he suggests taking "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings."

Personally, I would prefer some good, sturdy wings for a trip to the moon, along with a not-so-gossamer space suit. But I suppose "a trip to the moon in a quality-assured spacecraft with a few extra tanks of air, just in case," would have been a bit clunky in the verse scheme. And, of course, then he would have been forced to leave out the word "gossamer."

I have decided that I want to work "gossamer" into my lexicon, similar to the way I have been trying to work in "stud duck." The problem is, these aren't words and phrases that are likely to fit perfectly in my normal stream of conversation. I have to create places for them and then it feels weird and forced. Like when I try to wink.

Cool guys wink. It's got a sort of old-word charm, does winking*. But when I make an attempt, it comes off as really creepy (case in point the last six seconds of this video).

I think about these things because I feel the need to create my personality. I suppose we all do that to some extent, but I tend to want to mimic people whom I am nothing like. I am caught between wanting to be a less-buffoonish version of Bertie Wooster and a skinnier hybrid version of my both grandfathers.

Both my grandfathers are from West Texas, but are unique characters in and of themselves (Microsoft Word tells me "in and of themselves" is bad grammar, but I can't think of how else to write this). If Papa, my paternal grandfather, were a fictional character, a literary agent would make me rewrite him because of his strange mix of West Texas and World War II/hipster slang. He'll call people "hoss," "stud," 'stud duck," "cat," "man," and "Jackson."

Well, I'm pretty sure I've heard him say "Jackson." It's possible that I am confusing him for Phil Harris, the jazz musician who most famously voiced Baloo the Bear in "Jungle Book." Before "Jungle Book," Harris was band director for Jack Benny's radio show (Jack Benny?! Cripes, there's an ancient reference. Perhaps in my next post I'll yammer on about the Nicholas Brothers**). On the show, Harris would often greet Benny by shouting "Hiya, Jackson!"

Papa has a similar voice to Harris. And when I was a boy, I had a dream that Papa and I were laughing and dancing in his living room to "The Bare Necessities." The dream was so vivid and had such a profound effect on me that it rests precariously on the verge of being remembered as an actual event. The only thing keeping that memory out of the "things that actually happened" memories box is the fact that I have at no other time in my life seen Papa move that much.

Perhaps my dad (who occasionally reads this blog) can confirm whether Papa calls people "Jackson." Of course, my dad's memory is just as bad as mine, so if he disagrees with me I won't believe him. If my brother and I were to suddenly stop calling him "dad," my father would soon be confused by these two young men who are always asking him for money.

Other things I'm certain I have heard Papa say are "love a duck," and "I'm just Jake." There are a few other phrases that aren't coming to me at the moment, all of which I have unsuccessfully tried to work into my lexicon at one point. The only identifiable character traits that I have from Papa are that we are both unnecessarily moody and keen to stubbornly ignore good advice.

Grumpiness seems to be the key character trait I inherited from my maternal grandfather, as well. Breezy, as he is known, is not above character creating. There's a great picture of him as a young man smoking a pipe, and he readily admits that he only smoked because he thought it looked cool. He has since modelled himself somewhat after John Wayne, but, unlike me, he is successful in character creating.

If you go to Hollywood and look at all the celebrities' names and footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, you will see that John Wayne had shockingly tiny feet. He was probably, in fact, a rather smallish man, and my grandfather could have kicked his ass. Instead, I like to think of my grandfather as a sort of Stone Cold Steve Austin who doesn't drink or swear and who's really good at math (and this is the point where Anthony gives me shit for my man crush on Stone Cold).

One of my favourite books is Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," which I like for the same reason that a lot of people dislike it, in that it is a bit ridiculous in its machismo -- this good-looking roguish make-it-up-as-you-go, one-of-the-guys soldier who escapes death, is loved by women, plays billiards with counts and always gets it right. Whatever, bitches. It was Hemingway's book and if he wanted to write it that way, it was damn well his prerogative and it made him so great that they put his face on coffee mugs. Either way, when I read that book, I always put Breezy in as the main character.

I mimic Breezy most in my storytelling. If I tell a story to you in person, I physically hold myself like my grandfather. As my writing style develops, I find myself trying to mimic his use of detail.

Here's an audio clip of Breezy telling a story. If you can understand his Texas accent, you'll note that he provides a certain attention to detail in his storytelling. He gives the names of towns and people, tells whether a person is right- or left-handed, describes landscapes, gives the prices of various items and on and on. This particular story doesn't show it, but what's great about Breezy's style is what he leaves out.

For example, he will tell you a story about a car breaking down. He will tell you the make and model of the car, provide a summary of the car's overall performance, explain the exact circumstances under which the car broke down, what the day was like when it happened, where he was and why he had chosen that particular route, what exactly was wrong with the car, how long it took to get it to a garage, and on and on. Then, suddenly, the story will become streamlined:

"...and this old boy says to me, 'Mr. Cox, that's gonna be $10.'
And I say, 'Nah. That's too much.'
Well, we had a little talk about it and he decided he was only goin' to charge me $5."

Eh? Something really important is missing in there. This is Texas. The mechanic's got my grandfather over a barrel because he's the only garage for 100 miles. They have "a little talk." Suddenly the mechanic drops the price. What happened?

The omission of detail amid so much detail makes it a brilliant story, because it forces the listener to create their own explanation of what "a little talk" means. Maybe the two sat and haggled for 45 minutes; maybe the mechanic simply felt like being a nice guy; maybe my grandfather kicked that mechanic's ass (my preferred version). Either way, my grandfather has brilliantly told a story by forcing me to tell the story for him.

"Gossamer," though, is not a word that would show up in that story. It wouldn't even really fit my Papa's style, who I think is influenced by his years working in newspapers and public relations. Newsmen of the generation before mine are hardwired to treat adjectives as weight -- a story moves best when it doesn't carry them. On the rare occasion that Papa feels like telling a story, it can usually fit comfortably on a 3x5 card in 12-point font.

So, I am left to try to create space for "gossamer" in places where it doesn't quite fit. This seems to be my style -- a stumbling, incongruous amalgam of every little thing I know laid out in story form.

Uhm, was there a point to this post?

*I can't work "gossamer" or "stud duck" into my vocabulary, but strangely I have no trouble structuring a sentence like Jim Ross.

**They were fucking brilliant, by the way. That clip also features the ultra-brilliant Cab Calloway. It really speaks to the chasmic evil of racism that these guys weren't just overlooked but aggressively refused the audience they deserved -- 64 years later, that sequence retains a "holy shit" quality (extending from the ECW days; when a wrestler performs a particularly amazing feat, the audience chant: "Holy shit! Holy shit!").