Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Not drinking with Bukowski

Sunday, March 10th, 2024

I’m at a small-bore writing retreat somewhere in a small town in middle America at a string of scrubby individual motel rooms like one used to see, or still sees in resorts near, say, Big Bear, California, where each room is its own little building. Nearby there are classic decaying school buses, shallow puddles, patchy grass, and what looks like a rundown convenience store with some gas pumps.

I’m standing out there with my fellow five writers when our special famous writing guest walks up: Charles Bukowski. He looks the same as from all the photos we’ve seen. Except he’s wearing crocs. And he’s not drinking or smoking. Also, he isn’t ornery, just contrary. And useless as a writing instructor. When it comes time to read the first attending writer’s work, we settle into a circle of chairs and Bukowski decides that he will read the work aloud with her, and when he does so, he reads his parts as he imagines various characters would sound, filled with bellicosity for men or an off-putting flutiness for women. He’s putting his all into his terrible theatricality, at the expense of understanding any of the material. He’s so delighted by his own performance that he goes on far too long, leaving the rest of us to worry that he’s never going to get to our own material — although I’ve begun to think that I don’t want him to read any of mine anyway.

Recalling all the well-known people I’ve met in my life and never got a photo with, when we break and start for some reason to move into the surrounding woods, I ask Bukowski if I can take a photo with him. (I don’t use the word “selfie” because I hate the sound of it and because I’m sure Bukowski will mock me for using it.) He says, “Sure. Let me show you how it will look,” and takes my phone and starts taking photos purely of himself, framed by the trees and murky pools of water. I say no, that I want to be in it too, and he reluctantly allows this. The other writers stand around in judgment because I wanted a photo.

Somehow or other, we’re now inside in a cafeteria and Bukowski is getting passive-aggressively interviewed by a reporter. It’s clear she doesn’t like him and now I don’t either. Where did his fire go? Is this really the person whose novels I gobbled down, maybe 15 or 20 of them? Where’s the fun? Now she’s remarking to him that he hasn’t written a book in 20 years, and why not? And I think, Well, for one thing, he’s been dead for 40 years. Then it hits me: Waitaminnit, he’s dead!

And then I woke up.

Awards and rewards

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2024

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

That’s what someone I used to know would say during her Oscar party whenever the phone rang and she answered it. The joke being, of course, that that’s what nominees used to say in the press interviews when they’d lost:  “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

I say “used to say” because I haven’t watched the Oscars since I stopped going to that party, and that was… about 30 years ago… so I don’t know if the losers still say this. I don’t have anything against the Oscars, but I don’t have anything for them either. I don’t see many movies, the show isn’t very entertaining, if there is something entertaining no doubt it’ll be shared a zillion times on social media where I’ll come across it regardless, and overall I figure that rich celebrities already get enough attention.

So when Greta Gerwig got snubbed, with no nomination for Best Director, I couldn’t get worked up about it. I didn’t instantly assume that it was part of a vast anti-feminist conspiracy led by Academy voters, as evidently everyone on social media immediately began to claim. I just figured that most of the people who vote for these nominations gave more votes to other directors.

For the record, I thought “Barbie” was an astounding achievement. (Hey — a movie that I saw. And in a movie theatre!) But if we’re going to talk about theoretically deserving artists who never got the award that they were theoretically entitled to, well, that list will be very long indeed. 

Among many other distinguished personages, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley freaking Kubrick never won an Oscar for Best Director. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a Pulitzer. Although Edward Albee did win the Pulitzer (three times), in 1963, the advisory jury nominated “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but the board awarded the prize to… no one. (Maybe it’s not always an honor just to be nominated.)

The enormously influential Gertrude Stein never won the Nobel Prize for literature. (She did win the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.) Franz Kafka never won a prize of any sort (although there’s now one named for him).

Five times, Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, without winning once. Meanwhile Henry Kissinger won the peace prize for murdering millions of people, and Barack Obama got one for doing nothing that merited it.

I could go on with lists of scientists, writers, painters, playwrights, business heroes both local and not, animal saviors, environmental champions, people of high talent or a do-gooding nature and on and on, who never got properly recognized, sometimes because people didn’t like their work, sometimes because they preferred other people’s work, sometimes because they just didn’t like these people, and sometimes because the decision was arbitrary.

Case in point:

One story goes that in 1969, the jury deciding the Nobel Prize for literature was evenly split between Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, three-to-three, with much heated debate. It was finally resolved when, after lunch, one of the Ionesco supporters, who also liked Beckett’s work, simply changed his vote. Result: a Nobel Prize for Beckett (who called winning it “a catastrophe”) and none for Ionesco, whose plays are less widely recognized and less frequently produced.

What will be the result for Greta Gerwig of this terrible snub? Probably $20 million to direct “Barbie 2.” Not the worst outcome.

A death with dignity

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Went to the gym today. Not as crowded as I’d feared / hoped. “Feared” because when it’s packed and you’re standing in line for equipment or weights, your workout can take twice as long. “Hoped” because I’m always rooting for the new people who arrive at the gym every January armed with determination. As for me, an hour at the gym put paid to a lower backache so profound it was cranking my hip around as well. 

When I got home I found out on the Internet that Cai Emmons, a novelist and playwright I’d met through Twitter a few years ago, had ended her life with dignity. After just under two years of fighting ALS, she’d announced in advance that today would be her last day. 

Here’s the email from her that some of us woke up to this morning:

Farewell

Dear Friends and Readers,

Happy New Year! I feel an unexpected optimism about what 2023 might bring. I’ve seen promising signs recently of the backlash of love against hate, and I think that backlash is likely to grow. No one can say for sure, but my fingers are crossed.

It is January 1st, 2023 and I am planning to depart from life as I’ve known it through death with dignity on January 2, 2023. I have had a rewarding life and I love everyone who has been a part of it. Remember me with joy.

My body has become so weak that I have lost agency over my life and need help for most activities. We all have a line we draw in the sand regarding how much helplessness we can take, and I have reached mine.

I do not dread death. In an unexpected way I have come to look forward to it. I have no idea what awaits me–my only regret is that I won’t be able to share it with you.

The timing of my demise is odd because my career is currently in an upswing. Since 2018 I have published five books, and I am completing a new one now. There is interest in turning my blog posts into a book; a Hollywood producer is interested in optioning three of my books; and a documentary film is being made about me. It is not a bad way to go out, though I regret that I won’t live to see these efforts fully realized.

I can also see from my perch on the cusp of death that no amount of worldly success matters in the end. It is such a cliché thing to say so, but the thing that means the most now is human connection, friendship, and love in all its manifestations. I have a feeling that I’ll be returning to haunt a number of people–in a good way. So be on the lookout for me!

I encourage you to keep reading my books and to look for a new book (as yet untitled)–or books–from me down the line. My blog will be active until my death, and it can be found on my website www.caiemmonsauthor.comMediumFacebook, and Twitter.

So, farewell all, and thank you for the various ways you have supported me. Whether I’ve met you in person or not, I feel entangled with you all.

Much love,
Cai

I want to acknowledge here the legislators in the state of Oregon who 25 years ago wrote Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act into law, which allows terminally ill people to end their lives sensibly. I wish it were federal law, but I’m glad it exists in at least some places.

I didn’t know her well — not at all really, just through exchanges on Twitter — but I also have to note the clarity that her terminal diagnosis seems to have given her, and the bravery with which she approached her final days. All those words written these past two years while dying! And all the warmth that flowed through her interviews and her postings.  

Seems like a good way to go.

Reading through

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

My house is a cornucopia of books. And like a legendary cornucopia, it is always filled to overflowing: Just as soon as I’ve finished a book, more arrive. Either I order them online, find myself while walking my dogs picking up tomes from the Little Free Libraries liberally scattered around my neighborhood, occasionally getting them gifted to me, or buying them from bookstores. Bookstores especially are Venus fly traps for me — I have to work to avoid them, even the little ones in airports and bus terminals and the like, because once I’ve stepped inside, I’m sure to be walking out with more books.

We have bookcases throughout the house, and they are all stuffed with books. I do read these books, by the way. Just not always as soon as I’ve acquired them. A friend told me that when we’d had a party here at some point, someone stood back looking at some of our bookcases and said almost to himself, “I wonder how many of these he’s actually read.” And my wife responded, “All of them.” “Really?” “Really.”

Well, yes. Because those bookcases are downstairs. Upstairs I have two bookcases of books I haven’t read yet. But plan to.

The Japanese have a word for the endless accumulating of books that you intend to read but haven’t yet and maybe never will. Whatever that word is, it applies to me. A few years ago, when I was out of town at a conference with a friend and colleague, we fell into a discussion about books because I recognized David McCullough (!) at a table next to us and thanked him for his books and then he joined us at our table. Of course, I bought McCullough’s latest book directly from him (the one about the Wright brothers, from which I learned a lot*), and had him sign it. That kickstarted the later discussion about books, in which I told my friend that I had 78 books waiting to be read. “You’ll never read them all,” he said. So, ever since, I’ve been making a concerted effort to reduce the number of unread books I have, the books waiting in the queue, even while new ones arrive. (No thanks to Julian Barnes and Jonathan Franzen, and the other living authors I follow who keep coming out with new books!)

(*including about the vagaries of fate, the development of the airplane being immediately traceable to Wilbur Wright lying bedridden for months after a hockey injury, which afforded him the time to study birds and their flight from his window.)

Today I finished The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which I heartily endorse, and so, just before turning in for the night and after reading the requisite comic book or two, I went to get one of the unread books. I scanned the shelves to see what might interest me right now (generally, I look for a book unlike the one I’ve just read, in this case a novel set in India and the Pacific Ocean) and came across A Tale of Love and Darkness by the Israeli writer Amos Oz. This had been on my Christmas list one year, and my wife had filled the request for me, but I hadn’t read it yet. A memoir by a superb writer seemed like a great idea for right now.

I wondered how long I’d had this book.

It might’ve been four or five years since that Christmas.

Probably more like five.

I looked in the indicia to check.

2003. I’d had this new book almost eighteen years. Waiting to be read. In that timeframe, my youngest had gone from an infant to a strapping college student running an e-commerce business from my house. In that time, the book had been made into a movie — five years ago — and Amos Oz had died.

But, there’s been progress. I’m now reading the book. And remember the 78 books waiting to be read? I just did a count, and I’m happy to tell you that after five years of great effort, reading about 30 books a year, I’ve got the number of unread books down to just 94.

Like Sisyphus

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

A few years ago, when I was making my way through David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers, I fell into a discussion about reading with a friend. I was extolling the virtues of the Goodreads app, which helps me track the books I’ve read as well as, especially, the ones I want to read. This has proved very helpful at Christmastime when family members want to know what books I want, or when I’m in a bookstore readying for travel to another city and looking for something to read on the trip.

“How many books do you have on that list?” my friend asked.

“Seventy-eight,” I said.

“Seventy-eight!” he said. “You’ll never read them all.”

I did some basic math, and even while knowing that the average page count of books varies greatly, I figured I’d get them all read in four years or so. Sure, “War and Peace” was on there — a second attempt — but I’d knock that off at some point. And this year, it turns out, I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent (in content and in length) nearly 1,000-page biography of George Washington. I wasn’t intimidated.

But just now I checked to see, four years after our discussion, how many books remain in my queue.

One hundred and three. Numerically at least, that doesn’t equal progress.

See, what happens is this: Other books come along! So that even as you’re reading your way through the list, new books line up alongside them!

Someone should have told me this. Like, decades and decades ago.

I’ve read 32 books so far this year, a good number but not a great one, and that’s with counterbalancing the Chernow doorstop with two collections of the mildly diverting The Immortal Hulk. (It seems that, almost 50 years on, no matter what he’s getting up to, life is an ordeal for the Hulk. But somehow, yes, I do want to know more.) Before the year ends in a few days, I’ll definitely finish at least one of the books I’m reading now (The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball) and probably one of the ones I was gifted for Christmas.

My Christmas haul, by the way, included: two novels ( Luster by Raven Leilani — seeing it on Barack Obama’s best-of list was not an inducement; I had read an excerpt and was drawn to the writing; and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell); two non-fiction books (1491 by Charles C. Mann, about pre-Columbian culture in what’s now the Americas; and Uncanny Valley, an expose of sorts of Silicon Valley by a young woman who worked there); and what I can assure you was the terrifically fun “graphic novel” (we used to call them comic books) Black Hammer/Justice League:  Hammer of Justice!, which I read immediately, and which is filled with laugh-out-loud wit and clever insights and playful mockery of the history of superhero team-up comics, although — warning — you need a familiarity with the Black Hammer universe to make sense of it).

Others here got books for Christmas too: my eldest got The Ministry for the Future by the great science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (also on my list, and Barack Obama’s too) and the fourth book in a fantasy series I hadn’t heard of; my youngest got a fistful of financial management and investment books and also a memoir/self-discipline book with this pugilistic title: Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (this son of mine is an extremely determined 18-year-old); and my wife got a crime novel set in Los Angeles and also a photo book of grinning dogs with fun captions, the sort that should lift anyone’s day. To our daughter, down in Florida, we sent books exploring and depicting the inner workings of the human body, and also a book of pharmacological concoctions. She also asked for books on “murder and horror” — as though the medical books wouldn’t be enough.

A close friend also sent me three very well-selected books (and thank you again, sir!) one of them a biography of legendary stage director Alan Schneider, who worked with Beckett and Albee; the second an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ work; and the third an overview of Jack Kirby’s Silver Age work for Marvel Comics. So, no, my reading list hasn’t gotten shorter. But: Why should it? Even with a supermarket shopping list, you may buy all the food items you wrote down — but you’ll be back and buying others next week. Isn’t this like that? Who ever said one should finish one’s reading list? I doubt I’d feel a sense of satisfaction after actually reading the next 103 books and then having none on the list. Instead, I think I’d feel bereft.

This little lesson about the reading list illuminates just how right Camus was about Sisyphus when he said more or less that Sisyphus surprisingly leads a life of joy when pushing that boulder fruitlessly up the hill. Life isn’t about finishing things. It’s about doing things along the way.

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

This year the San Diego Comic-Con, which I returned from early Monday morning, seemed better planned than ever:  Although the event was as sold-out as ever, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the convention center and environs, there was a remarkable easing of the crush that has been squeezing all the attendees. How do you accomplish getting just as many people, but alleviating the sort of throngs we’re used to seeing in big-budget zombie flicks? You start by moving to RFID badges and requiring that attendees scan in, and out, of every passageway — thus eliminating all the counterfeit badges that, evidently, had been turning up. You move more and more events into adjacent locales, such as the Hyatt and the Marriott and the downtown library, thereby splitting up the horde. Finally, you work with the city to get the main thoroughfare closed to vehicles, and you restrict the main sidewalk to people with badges, thereby creating easier and more orderly passage for everyone who is there for the convention.

All tolled, it’s truly impressive how well-managed and well-organized this event is.

Because it was so much better organized, I was able to get into every panel and event I wanted to attend. In the past 10 years, it’s more of a crapshoot:  How early should I line up to see if I can get in? (Thereby missing other potential panels because I was in line early for something else.) This year? No problem. The result is that I went to more panels than ever, learned a lot, and had an all-around terrific time sampling from the wide variety of very well-programmed offerings.

I might want to go into detail here about some of those offerings later, but in the meantime, given my recent post here about the recently deceased Harlan Ellison, I thought I’d say that I went to his hastily organized tribute at the convention. I do not mean to poke fun when I note that the moderator spent much of his time choking back tears over Harlan’s demise (while noting that Harlan “hated crying” and would strenuously object were he there), and then devoted the first 23 minutes to an extremely mopey video from Neil Gaiman on the subject of how much Harlan’s writing meant to him. I am less of a fan, and didn’t enjoy my encounters with Harlan Ellison, so, as they say, your mileage may vary. Before arriving, I had been tempted to go to the mic during the inevitable Q and A and point out that Harlan spent a lot of time deriding fans (a visit to YouTube will help you verify this), fans being precisely the sort of people who were now attending this little tribute panel. But when I found out that his widow was seated in the front row, I thought better of it. She put up with him for 30 years; why add to her misery now?

What I will do, though, is link to three recent posts about Harlan Ellison on Mark Evanier’s blog.

Here’s the first one, in which Harlan insinuates himself front and center into someone else’s lifetime achievement award.  It seems like Mark thinks this is cute; I think it’s self-centered and childish.

Here’s the second one, in which Harlan runs around naked in front of other people because he believes he’s written the best sentence ever.

Here’s the third one, in which Harlan blows up a simple misunderstanding into an incident in which he’s physically threatening to beat someone, and urging the crowd to assist him. In this one, Mark, like some others, decides he’s had enough and keeps his distance thereafter.

I have a friend who suspects that Harlan Ellison was manic-depressive. That’s easy to say and impossible to prove. What it does seem fair to say is that he was a drama queen, and sometimes that was fun, and lots of times it wasn’t.

 

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

Monday, July 31st, 2017

I was sad to awaken this morning to the news of Sam Shepard’s death. Shepard is one of those playwrights who reignited my passion for the theatre while I was in college. I had a copy of “Seven Plays,” which includes Buried Child, True West, La Turista, and other plays I’ve grown to cherish. At one point, desperate for cash, I sold that book back to the college bookstore — and, of course, found several years later that I just had to buy it again.

Shepard’s dialogue and prose were seductively plainspoken, but the meaning of his work was always deeper and more elliptical — something that, to me, made his writing a cousin to that of Cormac McCarthy. I strongly recommend his book of essays, The Motel Chronicles, and the excellent filmed stage production of True West starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which is available in full on YouTube.

I’m just sorry there won’t be any more.

Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.

This is so haggard

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.

Haggard

I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.

 

 

A further trial for Kafka

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

This is just the sort of thing that would have driven the famously neurotic Franz Kafka even crazier. Now his visage is condemned to always face city hall.