Monday, July 30, 2012

A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco

The sun called to me today. 

When I first went outside to get coffee this morning, I looked west toward the ocean, and saw nothing but blue sky. 

Minutes later as I motored through my morning online routine fueled by breakfast, a depth charge, and cold water to chase, in the back of my mind I knew I had to get out of my apartment to where the action was. 

At the same time, I had novel revisions that needed work, so I decided to bring hard copies along for the day trip. The goal was to do close edits of four 5-8 page scenes over the course of the day, while soaking in the vibe outside. 

To make the revisions more bearable, I chose four different locations. At each spot, I'd edit one of the four vignettes at a leisurely pace (to allow space for people-watching, and breathing), then move on to the next location, breaking up the workload and rewarding myself with a series of little journeys. 

[Click on the following photos to see close-ups.]

The first stop was Mission and 21st Street, above. 

On this corner is a building with stairs out front where people sit, which was good to know. The management of most businesses aren't ok with folks just killing time in front of their establishments, but I'd gathered that this spot was safe. 

Below are two different angles of my vantage point. At the right in the first photo is Medjool, once a rooftop bar with a great view of the San Francisco skyline. The second photo is a garden variety sidewalk glance directly across the street.

While taking in the Mission Street feel - more Latinos and families than many other San Francisco neighborhoods, wide sidewalks, the heat of brick and asphalt, everyone minding their own business - I inked my manuscript with underlines, overlines, and notes in the margin. When I was almost finished, a 70-something Filipina who'd been on the stairs the whole time saw me take a photo and asked if I had a cellphone.

It turned out that the elderly man she was with was waiting to get into a doctor's office nearby, but there was no answer at the door. Were the staff out to lunch?

As she spoke the number, I pressed the keys, then put the phone to my ear. The ringtone went on and on and on, uninterrupted by an answering machine or live voice, but they were grateful for the assistance. The man spoke little English, but I clearly heard him say, "God bless you" just before they walked away.

Next, I headed to Alamo Square. On the way, I snapped a photo of an eggshell blue house that has caught my attention other times, when I didn't have a camera with me. The light colors really come out in the bright mid-day sun.

My trusty steed.

Alamo Square is known for the painted ladies, the interconnected Victorians in the photo below. Click on this photo to see one of the best vista shots in San Francisco.

I sat on the other side of Alamo Square, where there are few tourists and lots of dogs. Below, you can see the houses along Hayes Street, behind that Buena Vista Park, and behind that the Mount Sutro tower just behind Twin Peaks, which offers the most panoramic view of the city.

My next stop was the Panhandle (below), a narrow band of greenspace that introduces Golden Gate Park. 

As I basked in the physical beauty around me and slaved over my copy, a man sat down at the other end of the bench with a carry-out container inside a brown paper bag. Before starting in on his lunch he looked at me and said, "If people make lasagna, don't mess with 'em." 

I nodded politely and went back to my work while he ate and alternately cast words out to no one in particular ("One more time, that's all it took" and "It's an insane world, if you lose your grip...otherwise...shit") and made harsh comments to passerby.

Not long after he'd lit into a skateboarder who went by, an octogenarian approached slowly, crouched over a walker. The man said, "I was loving you every day as well." She seemed flattered, and smiled. He then got up, tossed his container in a trash can, looked me in the eye and said, "It's been nice talking to you. It's a beautiful day." I concurred; he nodded and walked off.     

For my last edit, I went to the casting pools in Golden Gate Park, one of the most tranquil spots in San Francisco. The first thing I saw when I emerged from a trail enclosed by treecover into open space was still, calming water. 

In a city of over 800,000, the only other people there were a man, his baby in a carriage, the grandfather, and a another man taking a nap (see lifeless white figure on the grass in the second photo below). 

It was just the five of us and chirping birds, the sounds of the streets far removed.  

Of the four locations, this was where I was best able to concentrate on my crowded revisions. 

Fittingly, the ocean was my final destiny, my final reward for slogging through twenty-plus pages of text. 

Before I got to the ocean, I could see that I wouldn't be encountering a picture postcard blue sky as far as the eye could see. The fog had crept in to the Western edge of San Francisco.

This was the view of the horizon:

This was my view as I felt cool sand on my feet:

I saw a bird strut,

a knotted wave as it washed up the shore, 

and the smooth-as-glass texture of the water as it receded back into the ocean.

Gray was the color along the Pacific coastline,

but it was beautiful. 
The air was warm, 
the wind was mild, 
the beach was bare, 
the scene was serene, 
and seemingly bottled up, 

for not a half-mile East of the ocean, 
as I made way back to civilization, 
Mr. Blue Sky awaited.

*click here for more "Truth and Beauty" photo essays

Friday, July 27, 2012

Charles Bukowski gets life-affirming

It has been a few years since I've read Charles Bukowski. My most recent acquaintance was a second viewing of "Born into This," a powerful and personal documentary from 2003. Unlike some bio-mentaries, "Born into This" didn't change my view of the subject; it simply built on the existing edifice. 

I went into the first viewing seeing Bukowski as someone who'd been beaten down, a jaded, observant soul who chronicled graphic sex scenes and the bleak moment-to-moment life of an alcoholic. 

Some readers stop at Bukowski's damage, as if encountering the scene of a bad car accident, and turn away to lighter reading. 

But within the roughness, the rawness, there was a beauty, both in the simple language and rhythm of his voice, and in his brutal honesty. Bukowski wasn't trying to be clever with gratuitous wordplay, convoluted plotlines, or slow reveals. He respected the reader enough to give them a slice of life on the margins, straight up.

On the margins were a lot of down-and-out characters. A futility borne of hard living and shattered dreams (who can say which came first?) was pervasive; inscribed on his headstone are the words "DON'T TRY." Bukowski's poem "Dinosauria, We" reflects this fatalistic, nihilistic worldview:

Born like this
Into this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
We are
Born like this
Into this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
Made violent
Made inhuman
By this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The gun
The knife
The bomb
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
The pill
The powder
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.


Fixed with a certain sense of Bukowski's worldview, I was surprised to discover "The Laughing Heart," here read by Tom Waits, another artist who has spun tales about people who slip through the cracks. 

In the moment he created this poem, the often downbeat poet of the street saw a sliver of light, a way forward, through human agency:  

Your life is your life

Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

Be on the watch.

There are ways out.

There is a light somewhere.

It may not be much light but

It beats the darkness.

Be on the watch.

The gods will offer you chances.

Know them.

Take them.

You can’t beat death but

You can beat death in life, sometimes.

And the more often you learn to do it,

The more light there will be.

Your life is your life.

Know it while you have it.

You are marvelous

The gods wait to delight

In you.

Monday, July 16, 2012


One of the most valuable things about the first writing workshop I took was the freewrite exercises we did at the beginning of every class.

It was 1997. I hadn't done any freewrites before I took the workshop, though I'd been writing for a few years already. The process of discovery was enriching:  being put on the spot and on the clock helped jar loose a lot of great ideas that would've lain dormant had I been working off of an outline, and I was fascinated at the different ways my classmates interpreted basic prompts. Every week someone in class had a spontaneous eruption, a freewrite that blew me away with sharp humor, beautiful imagery, or prose that sang like a bird.

Before the workshop, my process had been to brainstorm and compile notes of what I was going to write about, then boil those notes down into an outline, write the first draft, and edit until I had what I wanted. This method has served me reasonably well for twenty years in non-fiction, where the material is concrete, but I have found it inadequate for creative writing. Which is where the freewrites came in.

Not a year after the writing workshop let out I became a contributor to my employee newsletter. The assignment seemed easy at first - a 200-300-word prose poem per month - but it was more challenging than I'd expected. Other than holiday issues where there was an obvious prompt, I didn't have a lot of direction. This gave me creative freedom, but it also meant I had to come up with a different topic every month and make something out of it no matter how many ideas I started out with.

So I fell back on freewrites. Typically I did five on each subject (while at cafes or crouched in the back of the bus) over the first 7-10 days after the previous deadline, and photocopied them. Then I re-read, highlighted, asterisked, and made notes in the margins of the photocopied versions, found an overall structure, cobbled together passages to fit this structure, massaged the text up until I emailed my submission, then started over a couple days later.

I did this almost every month for two years - and used freewrites for the trickier scenes in a novel I was working on at the time - before I moved on to less free-form assignments for the newsletter (indie film reviews, employee profiles), and then largely abandoned fiction and freewrites for non-fiction writing.


One night last fall I happened to see an ad on Facebook for a novel writing class taught by one of my friend's friends. The novel draft I'd done many moons back had gathered dust. At first it had been put off because of time-consuming non-fiction projects, but after a while I had just lost interest (and, more importantly, confidence) in resuscitating it.

All along, while I'd slogged through a succession of heavily-researched, very involved journalistic writing projects, the unfinished novel - my biggest creative goal - had been a monkey on my back, so I jumped on the opportunity to take the class, thankful I had been on Facebook at that very moment and happened on the workshop post, a needle in the haystack of hundreds that'd passed through my feed that day unnoticed.

There was an electricity in the air at the first class, a group of eager engaged writers sitting in a small room with big ideas of what they were about to accomplish and perhaps not as much acknowledgement of the amount of work it would take to get there.

After introductions, meet-and-greet pairings, and a discussion of various texts, our instructor gave each of us a freewrite prompt in the form of a photo. In my hand was a photo of a long-haired young man in a t-shirt who stood up smiling, looking down at the picture-taker. The subject bore an uncanny resemblance to Tommy Bolin, a phenom '70s guitarist who'd died young that I had recently re-introduced myself to. Though the subject's torso and face were clear, the trees and foliage in the background were blurred. I thought for a moment and came up with this:

I was hanging around the apartment with my morning coffee next to me in the early afternoon when Steve burst into the room and said, "I got it!"

The enthusiasm in his face pulled me in, though I was nursing a hangover. But that's another story.

For months now we had wanted a photo or a painting or a drawing or anything that clicked for my album cover, and here it was, according to Steve.

As he crouched in front of me talking fast the details fuzzed out but he gained my faith and before I knew it he had pried me out of my lair across the street to the Panhandle. [A park in San Francisco.]

"Stand over there," he commanded. I stepped into a clearing and he lurched around, pulled a big stick off the ground, handed it to me. Didn't tell me what to do.

Then he said, "Oh yea, and this," and yanked a t-shirt out of his backpack. Standing there I switched shirts and waited.

A minute later he was kneeling in front of me with the camera pointed at me through me into the sky saying, "Yeeeaaa...that's it..."  
Once the time limit was up, everyone in class read their freewrites out loud. I was impressed with a couple of the readers and the range of approaches to the exercise. My creation wasn't much, but it tracked me back onto run-and-gun, free association writing, for which I was and am grateful. More to come.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Affordable Care Act, demystified

In between taxing novel revisions I was toggling over to Facebook the other day, where I stumbled on this eye-opening quiz about the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

To anyone who was paying attention during the healthcare debate, most of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation quiz should be a snap; the questions are simple and straightforward. 

But after taking the quiz, you get to see the answers - and the percentage of people who got each answer right - and realize just how staggeringly misinformed much of the American public were (and are) about the bill's details.

One of the main arguments made against the Affordable Care Act was that a majority of Americans opposed it. The implication was that voters are rational, informed actors who know best, and that the ACA therefore represented a major overreach of governmental power.

Aside from the obvious problems with the notion that elected officials should govern by public opinion polls, opposition to the Affordable Care Act isn't as overwhelming as it may seem. Roughly half of Americans in a recent CNN poll favored repeal, and this number included people who opposed the bill because it doesn't go far enough.  

Which leaves 40-45% who think the bill goes too far. When one drills down into the Kaiser quiz, it becomes obvious just how much of this opposition is built on a Great Wall of Lies, a translation of surreal right-wing talking points into hardened - and laughably inaccurate - opinions.

Remember the uproar over "death panels?" This referred to a part of the bill that allowed
for advanced care planning, so families wouldn't have to sort through a mess of an
estate while grieving the death of a loved one. When run through Sarah Palin's funhouse mirror, this eminently sensible measure turned into "death panels" (cue:  horrifying Kafkaesque images of faceless BIG GOVERNMENT minions deciding when to pull the plug on granny.) This talking point was so far-fetched that PolitiFact named it their 2009 lie of the year. And yet, because of the constant repetition of this falsehood - and the amount of oxygen it sucked up in the public debate - the Democrats removed the advanced planning plank from the final bill. Even despite this cave-in to crass and reckless stupidity, 55% of Americans in the Kaiser quiz still think the bill has "death panels."

Second, conservative Republicans, who have been trying to eviscerate Medicare ever since it was created, were up in arms about the Medicare cuts they claimed were in the ACA. In fact, the bill only made cuts in payments to providers, and to Medicare plus, a heavily-subsidized, privately-administered optional form of coverage used by a small fraction of Medicare recipients. And yet 60% of people who took the quiz bought this Republican talking point.

Third, the party that has always genuflected before Big Business made a hue and cry about the bill's purportedly crushing burden on ma-and-pa businesses. On the contrary, the ACA is helping small businesses by providing access to exchange pools so they can get more competitive premiums, as big businesses do now. Also, the ACA extends tax credits to companies of 25 or less to help cover their employees, and only applies token fines to businesses with 50 or more employees who fail to offer affordable coverage to their workforce.  75% of people got this wrong.

Fourth, Republicans once again went for the lowest common denominator - racist, anti-immigrant fervor among their palefaced base - by claiming that the ACA would give financial assistance to undocumented immigrants (God forbid!). This claim also false, but 58% of Kaiser quiz-takers got it wrong.

Last, and most importantly, the right-wing repeatedly presented the Affordable Care Act as a "government takeover" of our healthcare system, or "socialized medicine," as they'd done with every healthcare reform measure for six decades. This was the GOP's central talking point, running on an endless, zombie-like loop. The argument was so preposterous that "mild-mannered," generally non-partisan Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein referred to Republicans as "political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems."  More specifically, Pearlstein pointed out: 

"Under any plan likely to emerge from Congress, the vast majority of Americans who are not old or poor will continue to buy health insurance from private companies, continue to get their health care from doctors in private practice and continue to be treated at privately owned hospitals."

Pearlstein wasn't alone. PolitiFact named the "government takeover" meme their 2010 lie of the year. Yet the Kaiser poll shows that 73% of those who took the quiz still believe the ACA represents a "government takeover."

In essence, most of the attacks on the ACA were sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

Add in public ignorance of many of ACA's benefits (allowing kids to be on their parents' plans
until the age of 26, ending annual and lifetime caps and pre-existing condition discrimination, closing the donut hole in prescription drug coverage, creating insurance exchanges - to offer individuals lower-cost plans - and best practices studies to bring future costs down), and it's clear that public opinion on something as complicated as healthcare should be taken with a grain of salt.

Years from now, when healthcare reform has been fully implemented, most Americans - other than the ideologically-ossified few - will have forgotten the forklifts full of bullshit they were fed in the great healthcare debate of 2009-2010. 

For the moment, those with the longview are grateful that Nancy Pelosi pushed President Obama to give people what they needed, rather than leaving them with the horrific status quo (they thought) they wanted.   

p.s. the author is happy to post comments critical of the Affordable Care Act, provided they're policy-oriented and sourced