Friday, August 3, 2012

This is Not the Blog You are Looking For

So…after much pain and deliberation, I have decided to abandon Humoring the Muse, as I am just not that amused. Ah heck, I wasn’t maintaining the frickin’ thing anyway, right? I invite you all to head on over to Mott’s Ruminations to see what’s current and happening and, well, ruminating. Like it, follow it, share it with your friends. Cheers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

You Say Potato, I Say Potahto

There’s a lot of crap out there. People making music, and movies and writing books that…well, they suck, okay? Musicians who’ve never picked up an instrument, movie makers who’ve never seen the outside of their basement dwelling. And writers who couldn’t write their name in the dirt with a stick.
Or…but wait. Back up a minute, Sparky. These are all forms of art, yes? Sure they are. And what precisely is art meant to do in this day and age?


Does perfection at one’s art equate to clear communication? One could argue that the more proficient one is at one’s craft, the clearer the communication. Okay, I might be willing to grant that idea. But then the question becomes: What are we attempting to communicate? And is communication the end-all, or are we really talk about resonating?

Ah, now we’re cooking with gas, eh? Many artists are proficient but do not resonate. Or perhaps they do not resonate with everyone. Some of us raise a hand in salute, give a nod to excellence, while others yawn and look for the exit. And then there are the artists who somehow nail the bull’s-eye without the slightest idea how to notch an arrow (sorry, saw Brave recently).

Maybe—just maybe—art is not about the artist. Certainly not when it comes to communication and, ultimately, resonance.

An example, if I may: Rush may be one of the greatest bands of our time (don’t argue with me, you will lose). But what makes them great? Their musicianship? Of course. The complexity of the arrangements and unadulterated skill level at which they play? Yep, and yep. But (and this may come as a shock) some people like to dance to music. Uh-oh. Can’t dance to Rush. I’ve tried. Shifting time signatures and delicious syncopations make dancing to Rush virtually impossible. Suddenly my favorite band no longer resonates, at least not with everyone. Who can you dance to? Ummm, Justin Bieber. Lady Gaga. Dare I say it, the poster child for absence of musicianship: Techno? All danceable. All quite popular and selling records (or MP3 files I suppose).

We can do this with movies as well. Overheard at the water cooler: “Titanic was a suckfest.” Really? Was it? Why was it a suckfest? I took a good deal of umbrage with this statement at first, until I saw the interlocutor’s point. But screw their point, this is my blog. To my umbrage then: Here’s why I don’t think Titanic stunk on ice (pardon). Put aside some questionable acting (Leo DiCaprio has become a fave as of late, but not due to his performance here); look away from gratuitous period jokes (think Billy Zane and his dissing of the upstart Picasso’s paintings); let’s avert our gaze for a moment from Kate Winslet’s bare breasts…no, wait, that’s one of the good points (or two, if you feel me). Aside from all that, what did Titanic achieve? Cinematic excellence? Oscar-worthy performances? A gripping and unpredictable story line? Nope, none of that. What then? Here’s what, since you asked: Titanic took me somewhere I’d never been; somewhere I never could’ve been. What James Cameron did for me was give me the opportunity to visit a pretty convincing version of a historic vessel, and he placed me on that vessel in a moment in time (the moment) so I could imagine what it was like to see the iceberg looming, to experience something I really never, ever want to experience, which is to say the feeling of the boat going down beneath me. Titanic is a time machine—I was transported. It resonated with me. I do not know enough about the art and craft of movie making to see anything other than the story, to feel the deck pitch and sway beneath me and wonder just how testicle-shriveling cold that water’s going to be when I finally hit. Resonance, communicated clearly from Cameron’s brain to my ganglion. Bravo, sir.

I know a little about music—I’ve been performing for more years than I care to think about—so I can speak on the subject with some modicum of intelligence. I do not, however, know as much about the art of cinema; I only know how it makes me feel, and so I have many guilty pleasures, films and television shows that make me laugh and cry and cringe and whatnot. Books now…ah, here’s what we paid our nickel to discuss, yes?

I am a writer. This is what I do, and what I have spent a great many years learning to do well. What does learning to write well consist of? First, and maybe most important of all, it consists of reading—millions and millions of words that others wrote before me. Our libraries and bookstores and Kindle devices are the universities we writers flock to…or should that read: the universities to which we flock? Never mind. We read so we know what has been written, and to see how it was done. Then, and only then, should we write. Constantly. We write and throw it out and write some more. It is the only way to become proficient. What about writing courses, writing groups, etc.? Sure, if you’ve got the time. But if you’re writing and reading as much as you should be….well, you probably won’t have time for such extracurricular activities as writing classes. Basic English is all you need (if you happen to be writing for an English-speaking audience). Beyond that , you will learn everything you need to know about good sentence structure, dialogue, and description, from your reading. But this is not my point.

I’ve been working my way through some horrendously bad fiction as of late. Trading reviews with other writers, paying it forward, spinning the wheel of Karma. Bad writing is not easy to read; it can be torture if you happen to know what good writing looks like. Open anything by Dan Simmons, or Lawrence Block, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ray Bradbury, Robert B. Parker…sigh, this is making me want to read. These writers all have The Gift. That indefinable something that is hard to point to and say: “This is why it’s good.” Actually, if you can point to it, it’s probably not good writing—good writing is not aware of itself, does not stand up and say, “Look at me, look how clever I am!” Bad writing on the other hand…well, it has a smell. And it ain’t good.

So I’m reading these clunky efforts, and judging the crap out of them, and wondering why on earth these folks didn’t stick with Sudoku…and then I become increasingly aware just how many of these writers and books are out there. Anyone with a word processor and a junior high understanding of computers (and grammar) can publish an eBook. And if that weren’t enough, people are actually reading the damned things! Some of these books are at the 5th or 6th installment for crying out loud, and people are flocking to them. Because they are literary works of art? No. Because they speak to the human condition and enrich our understanding of the Universe? Hardly. Why then? For the love of Edward Cullen, why???

Ahem. Because they resonate. With me? Not so much. But when did what I like become the litmus test for what everyone should like? People flock to these books because they like the stories. Period. The subject matter, or hunky dude on the cover, or twenty-seven euphemisms for male (or female) genitalia moves them on some level. And as a lifelong lover of books, the hardest thing for me to admit is that I sort of envy them. They don’t see bad writing; they don’t see cardboard characters and implausible plotlines. They see (like me with Titanic) angst and glamour and fear, oh my. The things that turn me on in a book would likely bore them to tears. Does that make me smarter than they? No, it makes me interested in different things. I’m interested in the sheer craft of writing—and when it’s done well, the story hits me all the harder—when it isn’t done well…ah, the heck with it, I don’t’ finish a lot of books I start. But I sometimes wonder if these other readers (and writers) might not have tapped into something grand: they are in it for pure story, pure entertainment, pure resonance. And who is the better person here? Do they judge me for the books I like to read? Uh-uh. Yet I find myself judging them at nearly every turn, calling them names and questioning their genetics. What fresh arrogance is this? It’s akin to calling Itzhak Perlman a dullard because he doesn’t appreciate Charlie Daniels.

This has been a soul-searching rumination. I am interested in your thoughts on the subject, I only ask that you be nice. Don’t name names unless you are being complimentary. Tell me: What kind of art rocks your world? Who are the practitioners you particularly enjoy, and why? Are you able to see how your liking them does not in and of itself make them great? And that you not liking another artist doesn’t mean they’re no good?

Talk amongst yourselves. And talk to me. I’m all ears.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Relative Karma--Sample

Here's another freebee for you: Chapter 1 of my novel Relative Karma, currently available on Amazon for Kindle.  Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Jeff Vincent stands motionless in the shadows at the far end of the deck, undetected, listening…

Nick Grimmer gazes at a refraction of candle flame through blood-red brandy, brings the glass close, lets the vaporized fruit hit his sense of smell before allowing it to slide over his tongue.  “I wanna tell you what happened with Jeff Vincent.”
An early-Autumn breeze stirs the long chimes hanging from the Tinkhams’s deck rafters, mesmerizing in the gathering gloom, lulling in tune with the alcohol and tobacco haze.
Alex Tinkham takes a slow pull on his cigar, inspects the ash, pulls again.  “You mean that time he pulled the guy’s head apart, or is this something else?”
“That’s the time I mean, only Vincent didn’t pull the head apart, Lex, he just tried.”
“Fucking slim distinction, bro.”
“You wanna hear it or not?”
“Pour me another shot…thanks.  God that is some smooth shit.”
“Agreed.  You wanna hear this story or not?”
“You pretty much already told me this one, Grim.”
“You just got the highlights, mostly how it ended.  Even that was just bits and pieces.”
“I’m always up for a good story, but why now? This was a couple years ago, right?”
“Yeah.  But it’s one of the few times I’ve been involved in something that heavy when you weren’t there.”
“And you wanna share.”
“And you’re drunk.”
“That too.  And…I guess I don’t like it that so much doesn’t make sense.  I killed a man, Lex, and I still don’t really know why.”
“You did what you had to do, man.”
“See, you can’t really know that because you don’t know all of it.  Several people died during that shit and I never…I don’t know, I guess I never got to do what we do, you know?”
Alex took a slow sip of brandy.  “That’s because our job is to come in after and sift through the mess and try to make sense of it all.  You were in the middle of it.  You were too close to the thing for the brass to call you in to investigate after it all went down.  Besides, if I understand how it went down, there was nothing to investigate.  You knew all the principles, what they did, why they did it.  Right?”
“Yes.  And no.  I just never understood it.  Too many loose ends, too much weirdness.  And you weren’t there.”
“So, it’s a couple years after the fact and you want to do your job—our job—and see what there is to see.  Or was to see.”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Tell it then.  And, Grim, when you get to the parts with Shelley…speak very slowly.  There aren’t too many women I would put up against my Lila—”
“Or my Cassie…”
“Or her.  But my God.”
“I know.”
“Yeah, I know too,” he says from the darkness at the far end of the deck.
“God, Vincent,” Alex says, “you scared the shit out of me.  How long you been standing there?”
“Long enough to know I got here just in time.”
Nick hooks a chair closer with his foot.  “Sit.”
Jeff Vincent pulls a glass from the small bar and sits, removing a bottle from a coat pocket, stripping the seal and pulling the cork.  “That’s my story you were about to tell, Nick.”
Nick eyes the newly opened bottle.  “Yeah.  And it can stay untold if you’d rather.  It’s not mine to tell, I just—"
“I know what you just.  I was listening, and I understand, believe me. Not a bit of it makes sense, including the horribly mean shit I did to set it all in motion.”
Alex leans forward.  “What are you drinking?”
“The Macallan.  You said it was the best single-malt scotch to be had.  Have some?”
There is just enough light remaining for Alex to see the label as he takes the bottle.  “Holy shit, I’ve only ever had the twelve-year-old.  This is twenty-five-year.”
“So it’s like twice as good, yes?”
“At least.  And probably five times as expensive.”
Nick holds out his glass.  “Fill ‘er up.”
Jeff Vincent tosses back his scotch, grabs the bottle and pours another, tosses it back, pours a third.
“Damn, Vincent, if you just wanna get drunk quick I’ve got some cheap tequila in the kitchen.  You’re not supposed to guzzle the good shit.”
“You boys got a head start on me.  If I’m going to tell the story the way it needs to be told…well, I need to catch up with you.”
Nick says, “No one needs to tell the story, man.”
“Maybe someone does.”  Jeff tosses back the third glass, pours a fourth.  “I’ve never laid it out how it all happened.  Maybe it’s time.  That shit changes a person—everything about it changed me.  You can’t feel your thumbs pop through a man’s eyes and into the sockets and not have it change the way you think, am I right on that score?”
No one says anything, because there is nothing to say.
Jeff sips at his fourth drink, the first three having done their job.  “Your ladies due back anytime soon?”
“Gone for the weekend.  Took little Bella up the coast to Mendocino.  Show her the ocean.”
“Good.  We have all night.  I don’t know what kind of half-assed story you were going to tell, Nick, but with me you get it all, because I can’t tell it halfway.  This disaster is with me daily, even two years later.  Although, I guess it actually began three years ago; that’s when I really got the karma wheel turning, or whatever the fuck you wanna call it.  Some details of what happened are lost to me, or maybe suppressed, but I remember most of it vividly…too vividly.  I suppose that’s my penance, the ability to pull up the nastier scenes at will like my brain was a DVD menu.  But once this mess gets rolling in my mind there’s no skipping to the end credits—the devastation just unravels chronologically behind my eyes, and people are dying all over again, and I can’t even fucking pretend anymore that it happened to someone else.”
Jeff takes another sip, stares at the amber liquid for a long moment.  “Maybe it will help to tell it.  Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know.  But I will tell you what I do know.  I will tell you what happened.”
Another slow sip.  “I’d been dead for a year,” he begins, then he is gone from Now, from the deck, from Nick and Alex and everything that is going right.  It is two years before, and he is alone again, remembering…everything.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Relative Sanity--Sample

For all of you hesitators out there, here's a freebee for you: Chapter 1 of my novel Relative Sanity, currently available on Amazon for Kindle. Enjoy!


Nick Grimmer drained the last of his beer and placed the bottle on the coffee table next to an abandoned Jonathan Carroll novel.  He decided Carroll was okay to read when sober, but alcohol made his subtle reality shifts feel a little too familiar.  Especially lately.
He leaned back, fished between the cushions for the TV remote.  Across the small living room Cassie cleared her throat, an eyebrow slowly inching up.  He nodded, leaned forward and placed the empty bottle on a coaster.
Cassie had been home for a little over an hour.  Nick didn’t know where she’d been, only that if she wanted a little “her time” she got it.  She’d come home flushed, a little jittery-perky, as though she’d had a hit of speed and was on the downhill slide.  But there was no point in asking, no point in beginning a conversation that could only end badly.  Now she was lounging in the overstuffed leather chair wearing nothing but her tanned skin and a man’s long-sleeved white dress shirt, toned legs tucked out of sight except for a few inches of golden thigh, a slender finger marking her place in a Sue Miller paperback.
She smiled, nodded toward the empty bottle.  “You want another one?”
That empty bottle had been his second—twenty-ounce Kilt Lifters that ran around nine percent alcohol.  He should have been well on his way to a mellow buzz but all he felt was a thick-headed sluggishness; a third would not improve that feeling.  On the end table next to Cassie sat a condensation-studded tumbler of Tuaca she’d been sipping at for the last half hour.  The sweet Italian liqueur had eased the nervous edge off her voice, adding a throaty huskiness that Nick still enjoyed, despite everything else.
And she had that look in her eye.  Sue Miller must have turned up the heat.  Or maybe not—these days it could be anything.  Or nothing, he thought; didn’t have to be a damn thing at all lately.
Nick smiled back at his wife of twenty years and it almost felt real.  “You trying to get me drunk, ma’am?”  Part of him hoped she was, if only for the sake of old times.  A larger part hoped not.
She set her book aside, picked up the Tuaca, licked the rim of her glass with a pink tongue.  “Drunk or not, Detective, I’d appreciate it if you’d get over here and fuck my brains out.”
“I see.”  He used to love this game…used to love a lot of things.  “With or without my gun on?”  The words were rote, stale.  If she noticed, she gave no indication.  He figured it was unlikely that she noticed.
“Bring the gun…might be fun.  Hey, I’m a poet and don’t know it!”  She giggled.  The childish, babbling brook sound he’d fallen in love with so many years ago.
She sipped her drink, ran her tongue across her bottom lip to catch a drip.  This time it was not calculated sensuality, it was just she being herself, vintage Cass, and the utterly unselfconscious mannerism accomplished what the rim-licking, suede-throated come-on had not.  He wanted her.
Cassie’s drink seemed to float out of her hand to the coaster as he stood and walked slowly to her.  Her eyes widened slightly, glistening.
Would it be different this time?  Probably not.  Why should it? 
He stopped before her, took her in with his eyes, something miles deep inside him still marveling at the way she seemed sharper—more substantial—than everything around her, as though her presence required more energy than her mass could supply and had to borrow from things nearby.  What he’d always felt for her was beyond love and without definition, although he’d tried once explaining it to Alex:  It’s suffocating sometimes, he’d said.  Actually more than sometimes.  And it’s more than suffocating; it can be nearly debilitating.
His feelings at this moment were no less extreme than they’d been, but now there was an element of panic, a terror at the possibility of losing her to something unknown.
She did not raise her head, simply gazed upward at him through the wisps of blonde spritzed across her unlined forehead, a crooked grin tugging at the left corner of her moist lips.  Her crisp man’s shirt was unbuttoned halfway down, creating a V that pointed at a spot an inch above her belly button.  His eyes followed the edges of the opening up to where the gap widened to accommodate her breasts: perfect, natural, round and muscled.  The areola around the nipple of her right breast was just visible as a small crescent of pink.  The light caught a tiny bead of sweat—or maybe it was a drop of moisture from her glass—inching slowly down the elegant curve and into the shadowed cleft.  She was, as she had always been, beyond compare, beyond adequate description.
“Why do you love me?”  It was his voice but it seemed to come from somewhere far away; and the words felt wrong, as though they’d gotten mixed up between his brain and his lips and should have been: Do you still love me?  Apprehension clogged his throat, a need that had very little to do with sexual desire causing his heart to thud painfully in his ears.  He needed this to work.
She lifted her head, a quizzical look producing the hint of a line between her pencil-sketched eyebrows.  “Why not,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper filed at the edges.  And it was not a question—it was a challenge.
She shifted a little, her legs unfolding and opening slow-motion, delicate fingers sliding down her thigh, under the edge of her shirt, disappearing between her legs.  “I think I found something you’ve been looking for,” she said.  A fine sheen of perspiration glistened on her upper lip.
Nick smiled.  “Is that where I left it?”
And it was going to work this time.
Please, God.  This time.