Book Review: The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan

I have to confess to limited exposure to the group of writers that Bill Morgan refers to in this book as the Beat Generation. Whenever I heard the term, I always supposed that it depicted a national or international movement similar to the social upheaval that took place during the sixties and early seventies. In fact, according to Morgan, the Beat Generation was not a revolutionary artistic and social upheaval, but rather a small group of loose-living friends who promoted each other’s literary endeavors, primarily poetry.

The only beat writer I have read extensively is Jack Kerouac. I came across his novel On the Road in my late teens and it, along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the biography Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone, changed my life. These books all in their own ways helped me break loose from social and literary strictures and develop my own voice.

The Typewriter Is Holy starts off slowly as it builds up the backgrounds of the characters. It is also soon obvious that the writers Morgan highlights in this book are not exemplary people. With the exception of one seldom-mentioned African American poet and one seldom-mentioned female poet, the entire group of friends that constituted the Beat Generation consisted of white males, most of whom were misogynistic, dismissive, and even cruel towards women. They were drug addicts, alcoholics, self-centered, self-destructive, and irresponsible. The binding force that held them together, according to Morgan, was Allen Ginsberg, but the King of the Beats according to the media was Kerouac.

The most interesting parts of the book, for me at least, are when Morgan describes the efforts these writers made to write their works and get published. They had a lot to overcome, most of it self-inflicted or brought on by the bad examples and betrayals of their fellows. Kerouac achieved the greatest popular success, but some of the others also gained a wide readership, particularly Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

As mentioned above, Kerouac had a great influence on me at a germinal stage of my writing career. His spontaneous prose technique combined with autobiographical material was not new – Henry Miller, for instance, had done similar work decades before, but at the time of the Beats his works were still banned in the United States – but it liberated him to devise a style that fit his road adventures. Reading Kerouac and Miller in turn got me out on the road, not only in the United States but also in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and it also ignited my own experiments with spontaneous prose, or as I preferred to call it, jazz prose. You can read all about that in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Near the end of the book, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other proponents of psychedelics enter the picture as the Beat era winds down and the hippie era picks up steam. Some of the Beat writers begin to experiment with hallucinogens, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This book is interesting from the point of view of literary history, but watch out. There are no heroes in it. For the most part, the Beat Generation was lost, confused, drug-addled, liquor-soaked men who somehow in spite of it all managed to turn out some good literary work. I want to emphasize, though, that in my opinion whatever decent literature they wrote was in spite of the drugs and alcohol, not because of it. I wonder what literary marvels they might have produced if they had managed to keep their wits about them.

Despite my hesitations about recommending the book, one of my main complains is that it is too short. Morgan moves at breakneck speed through his narrative, sometimes dismissing in a paragraph sections that deserve chapters. With a slower pace, a biographer would not only be able to put the stories of the various characters into better historical context, but also explore more of the important peripheral characters that the fast-paced white men seem to continually leave by the wayside.

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Book Review: Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Sounder

Before I start this review, I have to get something off my chest, because it rankles every time I see it. I can’t understand why the author of this biography titled it “A” life of John Steinbeck instead of “The” life of John Steinbeck. How many lives did Steinbeck live? After all, he wasn’t a cat; he didn’t have nine of them – just the one as far as I know. And I doubt that Sounder was considering a theory of alternate universes (fairly common in science fiction) in which there are an endless variety of John Steinbecks, each one of them a little bit different. I suppose that he or the publishers thought that since there were several biographies of Steinbeck already published, they would acknowledge that fact by their odd choice of title. Or maybe they figured that each biography about a person is a different interpretation of the life. If they thought that, they’re wrong. A biography is supposed to be nonfiction, not fiction based on fact. It is supposed to be accurate, at least as much as it is in the writer’s power.

All right, enough of the rant; let’s get to Steinbeck. John Steinbeck was one of the first writers that I deeply enjoyed, way back in high school. I was assigned to read his short novel The Pearl, and I liked it and sought out other books of his. I read the massive tomes The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, of course, but I liked even more his shorter works such as Cannery Row. Travels with Charley was a great read, and it made me want to get out on the road, which I eventually did. My favorite of Steinbeck’s books, though, which oddly enough is the one that Sounder is most dismissive of, was and is Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row. I loved that Steinbeck combined the gritty realistic and comedic feel of Cannery Row with a sweet love story.

The summer before last, two of my sons and I went on a literary road trip to northern California, and one of our stops was at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. It’s a great little museum with exhibits and displays arranged around his books. Later we drove to Monterrey and walked around Cannery Row and the rest of the waterfront. I haven’t read much Steinbeck in recent years, but on this trip I picked up a copy of Travels with Charley and reread it. It made me want to take off in a camper again. Go figure.

Anyway, despite my respect for Steinbeck as a writer, I had never read a biography about him, so I decided to check out this new one. It is well written and an interesting read. If anything, I would say that it is too short. It skims over portions of Steinbeck’s life, numerous portions in fact, about which I would have liked to have known more.

Steinbeck had the usual insecurities as a writer. He seldom thought that his work was good and usually read reviews, either good or bad, with apprehension and chagrin. He drank too much and smoked too much and often treated the people around him badly. Having five sons myself, I was especially disturbed by the descriptions of his frequent ill-treatment of his sons. Another thing that disturbed me was his lack of gratitude for his fame and fortune. He was an extremely popular writer, made a lot of money, and traveled extensively in his later years, and yet even these luxuries did not make him content. He was frequently moody, irritable, and abusive. As a struggling writer who works hard and hopes someday to break out into a measure of fame and financial security, I have little sympathy for someone who takes these things for granted and insists on clinging to a melancholy attitude regardless.

I have found, though, through studying the lives of famous people, that this is frequently the case. Steve Jobs, for example, was much more rich and famous but was also morose, frequently depressed, and abusive. It really is a truism that money can’t buy happiness.

Of course, we don’t read books about famous people because we expect to find solutions to our problems. In fact, most of the people I read about have (or had) far more problems than I do.

Before I close, I want to mention one of Steinbeck’s very good habits that he carried on throughout his entire life, and that is his schedule of writing every morning no matter what. There were gaps when he was ill or between projects, but for the most part he kept up his writing regimen. He had to write. His life revolved around it, and he did not feel fulfilled or satisfied unless he was working on something. That, at least, he and I have in common.

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Book Review: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges; Part 2: Later Writings

Now we come to the heart of Jorge Luis Borges’s work. As he matured as a writer, certain themes and subjects began to emerge. One of these is the concept of the double. Numerous stories deal with two seemingly separate characters who in the end turn out to be the same character. More than once, the characters turn out to be Borges himself. He frequently insets himself by name as a fictional character in his stories, which is an intriguing method of juxtaposing reality and fantasy.

One of the best of the stories about doubles, “Borges and I,” is less than a page long. It is actually not so much a conventional story as an explanation of the difference between the literary Borges and the Borges who lives his day to day ordinary life. The literary Borges, he writes, is the one that people recognize and the one who receives all the acclaim, while the other Borges is the scholar who reads and writes in solitude; in the end, the narrator is unsure about which Borges is writing the current story. In another story about doubles, “The Other,” a younger Borges and an older Borges meet on the bank of a river and have a discussion about their mutual life. The younger Borges is in Europe and the older Borges is in New England, and their timelines are decades apart, and yet they somehow link their realities together and share a conversation that they will afterwards forget.

Borges is best known for his fantasies, of course, most of which are elaborate thought experiments. Some of the best deal with fantastic objects or entities people come across that have a profound influence on them. For instance, one of Borges’s most famous stories is “The Aleph,” which is “one of the points in space that contains all points.” Someone who looks into it can see everywhere on Earth at the same time. The discoverer of this wonder is a poet who has been using it to create a grand descriptive work of poetry. The Aleph resides under a stairway in the poet’s house in Argentina, and he invites the narrator, Borges, to view the Aleph before the house is demolished. Borges’s description of the Aleph is one of the sublime masterpieces of literature.

Another story dealing with a fantastic object is “The Zahir.” The Zahir can take various shapes; in the time of the story it is a coin, while in another era it is a tiger. Whatever it is, when someone looks upon it, they cannot ever afterward get it out of their minds, and it eventually drives them mad. The theme of fantastic things leading to madness also lies in the last story in the book, “Shakespeare’s Memory.” In this one, the memory of Shakespeare can be passed from one person to another with their assent. A scholar of Shakespeare thinks that attaining the memory of Shakespeare is a wonderful thing, until it begins to overwhelm his own memory. Eventually he has to get rid of it before he is lost to reality.

One of the most compelling of the stories about fantastic things is “The Immortal.” A man hears of a city of immortal people living in a remote desert area of North Africa; they attain their immortality from the waters of a river. He goes in search of this place and finds the river, but the city is deserted. Near the river in caves live a group of sedentary people who at first seem to be subhuman. It turns out that these are the immortals, but immortality has caused them to become less active and live only in their thoughts. The narrator meets Homer, who has been alive for over a thousand years but now can barely remember how to speak Greek. The narrator realizes that immortality is more of a curse than a gift; he reasons that if there is a river that bestows immortality, then there must be another river that gives back mortality, and he goes in search of it.

Many of the stories are not fantasies, but instead are based on Argentinean historical characters or legends. These often deal with gangsters, gauchos, ranch life, and knife fights as indicators of manhood. In one particularly horrifying story called “The Gospel of St. Mark,” a student becomes isolated at a remote ranch with a family of ignorant laborers. To pass the time, he reads the gospel story from the Bible to the laborers. They react by constructing a cross and nailing the student to it.

All in all, reading Borges is a rewarding experience, but it is not always an easy one. Borges was a scholar of languages and mythologies, and he frequently inserted obscure references into the text. Fortunately, the translator, Andrew Hurley, has included a voluminous section of translator’s notes at the end, which you can refer to if you want to uncover the meaning of some of Borges’s more esoteric allusions.

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Book Review: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley; Part One: The Early Works

I recently gave a copy of Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges to a young writer as a Christmas present. This is not the same as presenting someone with a more or less standard or normal science fiction or fantasy novel. The short stories of Borges are much more challenging than the works of most other writers. You can’t approach him lightly or flippantly or you’re going to be blown away by the intricacy and intelligence. After he had read several of the stories, this writer and I had a long phone conversation about Borges, his significance, how to approach him, and what other writers can learn from his work.

In selecting this volume to give to this other writer, I perused my copy of it first, going over the table of contents, reading random paragraphs, remembering my reactions to the stories when I had read it in the past. I have read the book cover to cover twice, and have read some of my favorite stories many more times than that. Inevitably I got sucked in again. I had just finished my previous reading project and was waiting for another book to arrive, so I started to reread Borges. I couldn’t help it. By this time I had already ordered a copy to be sent to this other writer, and as I started at the beginning of my copy and read through, I realized the difficulties of encountering Borges, especially through this book, for the first time.

For one thing, the book is a compilation of all of Borges’s fiction, and the various books of stories that he wrote throughout his career are presented in chronological order. The problem with this is that there is a clear development from his early fictional experiments to the much more sophisticated works that he wrote later. This became starkly evident to me as I read the first two sections of Collected Fictions. It would be far easier for readers who have never before encountered Borges to begin with a Best of collection in which his best and easiest to understand stories are highlighted.

The first section of Collected Fictions is A Universal History of Iniquity, which was published in 1935. This is a collection of stories of infamous villains from all over the world, including the outlaw Billie the Kid from America, a female pirate from China, a courtier from Japan, a pseudo-prophet from Turkey, and a gangster from Argentina. Borges lists a variety of sources for the background of these stories, but it is evident that he has taken great artistic license in the telling of them, so that it is impossible to discern which parts are facts and which are Borges’s embellishments. These stories are characterized by the author’s attention to detail, or maybe it would be more correct to say pseudo-detail. They read like historical accounts but ultimately have to be classified as fabrications.

Part Two of Collected Fictions is The Garden of Forking Paths, originally published in 1941, which is Borges’s first real short story collection. Here we can see the progression of Borges’s art and storytelling skill, and the beginning of the evolution of themes that he would continue to refine in future works, including elaborate thought experiments, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and descriptions of made-up books and authors. Some of the stories take the form of pseudo-reviews of imaginary books. Some, such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery of Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel,” are thought experiments in which the elaborate ideas are the real protagonists and the human narrators do little more than introduce and describe them. The writer I gave the book to and I agreed that these idea-focused stories remind us of some of the stories of Ted Chiang, another extremely cerebral writer.

The last story in this section is the titular one, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and in this story, for the first time, it is possible to see how the evolution of Borges’s various paths of thought and technique have come together into a rich, dense, fully-formed short story. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is intricate, has a brilliant idea meticulously formulated, but also has fully-fleshed characters, historical background, and an elaborate plot that is a type of murder mystery. Here we see the fulfillment of Borges’s growth as a writer in a superlative, well-told, complete story. There will be many more to come.

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Book Review: The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager

From the descriptive material announcing this book, I thought it would be different than it is. I imagined each author elaborating on one book that changed their life. I supposed I would read in-depth evaluations of particular books that would help me determine whether I was interested in reading them. Instead, the authors interview writers on their general reading habits and a range of books that appealed to them at various stages of maturation. Some germinal books are mentioned only in single sentences or long lists in passing. It took me awhile to adjust from my expectations to the book’s format. When I did, I realized that The Writer’s Library is as much about the background, literary aspirations, and writing habits of the interviewed authors as it is about books that influenced them. With that insight, I abandoned my expectations and enjoyed this book as a series of light author interviews on a variety of subjects.

The subtitle is also somewhat disconcerting. The interviews promise to be with Authors You Love, but in fact I have never heard of some of the authors and have read works by only a few. I have read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, and volume two of Charles Johnson’s writing memoirs. That’s about it. I recognized some of the other names but have not gotten around to reading their works. That’s all right. You don’t need to have read these writers to benefit from the interviews. Short introductions at the beginning of each chapter provide some background of the various authors.

Although a few of the interviewed authors express their opposition to the partitioning of fiction into genre and literary works, others obviously express prejudice against so-called genre fiction. The editors who compiled the interviews in this book too seem to have ignored the influential writers of popular fiction. It would have been great to read interviews with Samuel Delaney, Stephen King, Greg Bear, Neil Gaiman, Ted Chiang, and Nalo Hopkinson, the latest author to have been named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Still, no one book can be all-inclusive; even a series would be unable to encompass all the authors that I would be fascinated to hear from. Despite its limitations, this book is light, easy, and fun to read. It is much less ponderous and ostentatious than the volume of interviews from The Paris Review I once read. That was a long time ago, but as I remember, that book was not easy to get through. Of course, part of its difficulty could have had to do with what I was experiencing emotionally at the time.

All in all, I recommend this book as a lightweight read if you enjoy learning about what literary influences have been important to a range of writers. One of its strengths is the diversity of the interviewees. There is a fairly even mix of women and men and also of authors from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.

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Book Review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose is a long, complex novel that is not easy to get into. At least it wasn’t for me. First of all, it sat on my shelf for years after I bought it at a library sale. When I finally got around to reading it, I managed around forty pages before I was hit with a description of a church door that went on for four or five or six pages. I couldn’t get past all the miniscule details and put the book aside for something more accessible. Fast forward to the pandemic, and with the library closed and my being unable to afford to buy books, I have been scouring my shelves for reading material. This time I struggled past the intricacies of the church door and kept going.

The book is set in a monastery in the fourteenth century. A Franciscan monk named Brother William and his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice and the book’s narrator, arrive to await a delegation from Pope John XXII. In the meantime, a monk has just died or been killed, and the abbot asks Brother William to investigate.

William is a sort of monk-robed version of Sherlock Holmes: brilliant, scholarly, and able to capitalize on the most obscure clues and references. The next day another monk is murdered, and in the following day another. William and Adso begin to uncover a convoluted plot centered in the monastery’s vast library, which lies within an intricate labyrinth on the top floor of a tower.

Eco’s references of labyrinths and the contents of obscure or imaginary books remind me of Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant Argentine master of magic realism. In fact, Eco names one of the important characters in The Name of the Rose Jorge of Burgos in obvious homage to Borges. The difference is that Borges works his literary magic in succinct short stories, while Eco draws his tale out in over five hundred pages of details that, as I mentioned, are sometimes hard to intellectually power through. The first four hundred pages or so are comprised of an elaborate buildup, and it only comes together at the end as William puts all the disparate pieces of information he has accumulated together and solves the mystery. Reading the first four hundred pages or so can be frustrating and confusing. The overwhelming volume of intricate details that Eco introduces can be as dense at times as the thick fog that covers the monastery and its dark deeds.

The Name of the Rose is primarily an elaborate intellectual puzzle. As I was reading parts of it, I could imagine Eco gleefully writing away with tongue in cheek. The characters are so bound in their rituals, superstitions, doctrines, and loyalties to competing religious authorities that though they appear to be conversing with utmost sincerity, their utterances come off as laughably absurd. It’s impossible, for me at least, to know whether Eco based his tale on historical facts, or whether he made it all up as an elaborate fantasy, much as Borges in his stories invents books and authors and then presents them as undisputed authorities. Ultimately, except to a few die-hard scholars, it doesn’t matter. Whether historically based or not, the novel is in fact a fantasy in which a monastery, where the spirit of God is supposed to reside, instead becomes a cesspool of hellish intrigue.

Would I recommend the book? Sure, why not? As I said, if you can manage to power through it, there is a great payoff at the end. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll have to go through some intellectual heavy lifting to get there.

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What My Blog Means to Me

Recently someone close to me suggested that I should revamp my website/blog. It was too cluttered, they said. It needed to be streamlined, more professional in appearance, and more intense in focus. I thought long and hard about the suggestions this person made; I pondered the ideas as I took walks around the neighborhood. We had online discussions in which he would explain his vision and I would counter with explanations about why I had initiated my blog and what I wanted to do with it.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that we were advocating two different types of websites. His was a commercial vision; he wanted the website to draw readers and help to sell books. Mine was a literary vision; I saw the blog as an autobiography or encyclopedia that explained and cataloged my work. The streamlined look was good for commercial purposes, but I was not enthusiastic about it if it meant burying all the information and work I had already put into my blog, which now amounts to hundreds of thousands of words and many pages of material. We decided to separate the two visions: to leave my blog more or less the way it is (although perhaps with some tweaks to its appearance) and also create a new website that highlights my books (hopefully coming soon).

So what does my blog mean to me, and why do I not want to substantially change it? As I mentioned above, I see it as an autobiography or personal encyclopedia that highlights much of my literary life. It’s not a billboard that you glimpse for a few seconds as you drive by. It’s more like a huge mansion with many rooms, and each of the rooms is full of wondrous things for you to explore and enjoy.

For instance, there is a comprehensive bibliography of my works. This includes lists and details about all of my stories and articles that have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and all the books and stories I have self-published. There are pages with lists of my books and stories available for sale that include covers, descriptions of each one, and links to the websites that sell these items. There is a contact page with an email address you can use to write me and a link to my Patreon site.

Besides all these features, there are the blog articles themselves. These include memoirs of my travels around the world, essays on writing, book reviews, lists of my favorite films and short stories, compilations of year-end statistics of my publications, announcements, contemplations on the state of the world, reflections on parenting, and other writings on a variety of subjects. You can access these articles by category via a menu on the bottom of the home page.

As you can see, my blog is a place where you can stop in for a quick visit, read the latest post, and find links to my books. Alternatively, it is also a place you can enter and explore, with all sorts of fascinating corridors and chambers and hidden secrets. I’ve been working on it for ten years now, and during that time I have posted an article a week for all but a few weeks. Welcome! Have a look around. You’re bound to find something you like.

(If you want to help support my literary endeavors, buy a few of my books.)

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The Senescent Nomad Seeks a Home

My new novel The Senescent Nomad Seeks a Home was published on December 25, 2020 (Merry Christmas) and is now available in both paperback and digital formats at the links below. It is a sequel to my novel The Senescent Nomad Hits the Road. You don’t necessarily need to read that one first, although it provides background to the present tale. Enjoy!

When the woman he has been traveling with returns to Europe, the heartbroken senescent nomad becomes disenchanted with his lifestyle on the road and decides to find a home. His search takes him up the West Coast from San Diego to Puget Sound. Along the way he encounters sophisticated transients at a makeshift homeless encampment, sinister campers in the wilderness, seductive members of a wandering sex cult, and idiosyncratic individuals at a gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers. As he travels, he discovers that abandoning the nomadic lifestyle is far more difficult than initiating it. Faced with the uncertainty, confusion, and perils of the open road, he wonders if he will manage to gain the stability of a place he can call his own.

To obtain a copy, just click on the links.

In print here.

At Kindle here.

At Barnes and Noble here.

At Kobo here.

At Apple iBooks here.

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What a Long Strange Year It’s Been

I had an internal debate about whether to write this essay because compared to other years nothing happened. That’s not exactly true, of course, but what happened was mainly restricted to the confines of our apartment, and my interactions were with very few people. My sons and I went on no road trips this year. The science fiction convention that my youngest son and I attend annually was cancelled. All the summer gatherings of writers that I usually go to were cancelled as well. Once COVID-19 reared its ugly head, my life was confined to my home and the few square blocks around it. A strange year indeed.

The world has been in turmoil, our nation has been in turmoil, and the economy has been in turmoil. For the most part, I have coped by sitting at my desk and working almost all the time, seven days a week, about ten or more hours a day. I counted myself fortunate to have work to do. So many people lost their jobs. I was able to struggle on because when the pandemic struck I was already a freelancer working from home, already working hard to barely manage to pay the bills each month. The disastrous tsunami of unemployment that swept the world didn’t really affect me – although lately my income has dropped a bit because an educational website I usually write for has fewer assignments available to claim. When COVID first struck and kids were having school at home, at first there was a flood of work at this site as children and their parents sought help and answers. Now, though, I think that people have wearied of homeschooling and have slacked off at it. As a result, the activity at this site has slowed way down.

I don’t keep track of the pseudonymous articles that I write solely for the money (and shit wages at that) but I would guess that this year it would come out to about two hundred to three hundred thousand words. Of far more interest is my creative work. This past year I have written two novels, nine short stories and novelettes, and about fifty blog posts, most of which have been reviews of books I have read. Of these words I have a more precise count. My creative work, which I do mainly in the evenings between nine and eleven when everything else is done, came out to 158,897 words. My best word count was in August, when I was deeply into writing a science fiction novel. That month I managed 16,919 words. The month with my lowest word count, 6,919 words, was October. That’s when I was proofreading a novel that I wrote earlier in the year. That novel was published on Christmas Day 2020. More on that in next week’s blog post.

I don’t know how other writers do it, but as for me, I feel depressed if I don’t write steadily. I’m not talking about those crappy articles I do for money (although if truth be told I put my best work into those too – there’s just not much of substance in them) – I’m talking about my creative work, my art. I have to do it or I feel unfulfilled, so I set a daily word count for myself of a minimum of five hundred words. I usually reach this quota about six days a week, although I set the quota aside if I am busy proofreading already finished work. If I don’t have an idea ready to go, I somehow come up with one, even if it takes a day or two of squeezing and pummeling my brain. Once I get rolling on a story or novel, even if I am unsure of its direction, I can usually keep going and make it up as I go along.

So that’s been my year: producing words, both commercial and artistic, while I watch the world burn. It looks like the clouds are parting and we’re going to have some healing ahead, but it’s going to be a slow, arduous process that will require a lot of patience. As I wrote previously in “A Christmas Lament,” dry your tears, bind your wounds, and anticipate the better days to come with relief, forgiveness, hope, and good will.

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A Christmas Lament

Sorry this one is a bit negative, folks, but sometimes I have to say what must be said.

I’m writing this a few days before Christmas Eve. I live with my eighteen-year old son in a small two-bedroom apartment. Another son had been staying with us for awhile, bunking in the living room, but he moved out a few weeks ago. Now it’s just the two of us.

We put up our Christmas tree and other decorations at the beginning of December, which is a little earlier than usual. We wanted to feel some holiday cheer, and it does cheer the place up, at least a bit. We’ve been watching some of our favorite Christmas movies, as well as Christmas episodes of TV shows such as Family Guy, American Dad, and South Park.

Yes, we’re trying to get into the holiday mood, but for me at least there is a bittersweet feeling to it all. There are only a pitiful few presents under the tree because we won’t be able to have any visitors this year. It will be just the two of us. The large gatherings of relatives, many of whom live nearby, are of course cancelled. There are some lovely displays of lights around the neighborhood, and it lifts my spirit to see them, and yet…

I can’t help but be honest and say it: there’s something wrong with Christmas this year. It doesn’t resonate as it usually does. Too many people are dying from a horrible plague. Too many people face eviction, homelessness, and starvation while the government in D.C. wastes time infighting instead of caring for the people they have pledged to serve. We can’t even take our minds off it all by going out and shopping for presents and having a restaurant meal. It’s too dangerous.

I’ve lived through difficult times before. I almost got drafted and sent off to Vietnam, for God’s sake. History saved me from that one by bringing the war and the draft to an end with about a week to spare. That was traumatic to be sure. It was also traumatic when my passport was stolen and I ran out of money while traveling in the Middle East. I had to beg on the streets in Tehran for two weeks before I raised enough money for a new passport and an exit visa. However, that was in the nature of a grand adventure. It was exciting as well as frightening.

This, though… What’s happening in the world today is unprecedented. I realize there have been plagues before – but the plague combined with the instability and uncertainty… It all makes for a perfect storm of discouragement, depression, confusion, uprooted lives, suspicions, death, and despair. How can something as lightweight as the Christmas message in these films and TV shows possibly alleviate any of the dark clouds that surround us all?

The origin of the expression “May you live in interesting times” is unknown, but it is supposed to be a curse. If that’s true, then we are all cursed, because the times we live in are certainly interesting, to say the least. There may be no solution to the melancholy we feel this Christmas season except empathy and shared sorrow.

Besides the books I read and the films I watch, I find solace in my creative work, my writing. I work almost all the time, in fact. It’s better than sitting around and brooding, and besides, we desperately need the money. My son is taking college classes fulltime and that keeps him busy. So it goes.

Someday we’re going to look back on these dark days and breathe a sigh of relief that they are all over. In the meantime, we have to keep up our spirits the best we can. Hang in there, everyone. Do your work, read a book, watch a film, take a walk, visit your loved ones online. You’re not the only one who is going through it – everyone is, all around the world. We’ll get through this. Chin up; dry those tears. There are better days ahead.

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