Waiting for Christmas

January 21, 2014 I didn’t predict anything about how the year would turn out. Why not? I had no clue. I still have no clue. As I did not expect to have a clue THEN, I guess it’s turned out as I expected. Still clueless, still pressing forward, not knowing if I’ve made the right choices (but the Rubicon has been crossed). Waiting for Christmas is good practice for life. 




Hell on Wings, Part Two, Parigi

Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle, and I was rid of my two extremely annoying row-mates, who said good-bye cordially to me and growled at each other, I exited the plane to see a young man holding a wheel-chair while the mink-clad Nonna sat down in it. “Are you my savior?” she said to him in heavily accented English, accented with Italian. Her fifty+ years living in Las Vegas with the man who’d fallen in love with her after the war, an Army boy liberating Genova, hadn’t smoothed a bit of that away. “And you! Goethe! Dove vai?”
“Oh that’s RIGHT! We can go together!” She took my hand and somehow I felt privileged (do not ask me why — I couldn’t begin to answer that question).
“Can you carry this for me?”
“Sure.” I took a brown-paper wrapped package, and only later wondered why, as she was on wheels, she didn’t just set it in her lap.
“It’s jelly.” Like hell it was jelly. It was a mink jacket.

The good thing about accompanying one’s Italian grandma as she is whisked through an airport in a wheelchair is that you are whisked through, too. We were taken directly to the Alitalia desk. “You talk to them. You’re young and I’m not sure I can communicate well.”
Again, mysteriously, I felt honored. I didn’t think, “Whoa, you’re the native speaker. I’ve just learned a bit of Italian from friends in Switzerland and a CD rom!” Completely confident, I went to the desk and explained our situation. I was answered in Italian and all went fine. Finally our ideal was over…but not really. We had not gone through customs. We did not appear to be international travelers, in spite of our American passports. Our marginal but adequate French, her flawless and my adequate Italian, our appearance (mother and daughter?) provoked no questions. We were just another bi-national family returning to the home country. Later we would pay for these moments of fluidity and ease, but for now? We got nice seats on the next plane out.

All the seats on the small Alitalia flight over the Alps were equipped with what I’d call “mandatory” entertainment. We had to watch Mr. Bean whether we wanted to or not. By then La Nonna and I had been traveling for 22 hours. We were hungry and dehydrated and had reached a higher plane of human understanding by that point — or much lower. Hard to say. “I do not like that. What ever happened to peace and quiet?” La Nonna grabbed the steward and said, “Si prega di spegnere la nostra televisione.”
Mi dispiace, signora. Non posso. Lei vuole qualcosa di bere?
Si, si. Grazie tanti.” She thanked him but with an edge in her voice that said clearly, “You cannot pacify me with wine or Coca Cola.”

We flew over Mont Blanc — it was amazing — and then over Monte Rossa. The plane soon began its descent into Malpensa. We got off the plane and walked across the concrete (no wheelchair for La Nonna this time; she was strengthened by the air of her home land). “See, Goethe? La terra di Garibaldi! The air of liberty!”

Who was “La Nonna” you are no doubt asking, and what happened then?

But to answer the prompt; after 29 hours of travel all I wanted was food, a bath and sleep. Then I might be human again. But as things turned out, I’m not sure.

P.S. Here’s Part One in case you missed it!



List of Nouns…


My nouns: writer’s block, illusion, self-indulgence, activity, lamentation, self-importance, skepticism, novels

Yes, Bradbury might actually have SUFFERED from writer’s block; but he was supporting a family on the income from his writing. But generally, when I hear a writer’s lamentation that he or she is suffering from writer’s block, I wonder, “Why allow yourself to suffer from that? There’s no requirement that you write anything at all EVER unless you’re earning your living from writing. If you don’t have a story to tell, well, isn’t THAT some useful information? Doesn’t that tell you exactly what to do? Stories come from LIFE, activity.” There is no law that says a person must be constantly inspired — that would be pretty much the same as being constantly in a state of orgasm, right? It’s an illusion. Inspiration comes and goes, and is often a dead end. So-called “writer’s block” has a real use; it’s the time in the writing process to look at what one has already written and make it better. Maybe that’s a grind but it’s the difference between good writing and a mere “splooch.” I guess I view the whole idea of “writer’s block” as a kind of self-indulgence, self-importance. I have serious skepticism about the whole thing. I do not always want to write. I do not always know what I have to say. I do not always have something to say, but I have learned that the times I’m not writing, I’m writing. Somewhere inside ideas are forming, evaluating each other, and developing into a story. I learned a lot about this from Fellini’s “failed” film, The Voyage of G. Mastorna and a documentary about Fellini’s life. Sometimes a block — a creative block — is  a sign that the writer/artist is being too controlling  or a sign post. “Wrong direction, dude.”




Dusty Old Love

“That’s my dissertation, more or less.”

“I know. You know, some time back, I ordered it and read it. I was…”

“I know. It’s not all that great. I don’t know if I was ever meant to be a writer.”

“I don’t know, either. I wish you’d stayed around to find out, though.”

“I think the whole purpose of my life was to wrangle with the question of my sexuality. Pretty fucking stupid purpose if you ask me. It looks like your blog prompt wants you to take a Dickensian direction, right? Not my direction, you know, sex and death.”

“Remember when that professor of yours asked you why all your stories were about sex and death and you answered, ‘What else is there?’ Really, he was right but so were you. That’s one of those paradoxes.”

“Interesting paradox, but how useful is it?”

“Not very. I wonder now if a paradox is anything other than interesting — and a really effective dead end sign.”

“What are you going to do with that prompt? It’s actually quite interesting…”

“Oh, I thought I’d seek refuge in the shop. The shopkeeper — your shopkeeper — would come out, blue trousers and all — and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you. Peter left you this’.”

“What did I leave you?”

“That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet. You could leave me your dissertation — the story that begins in almost this way but not quite, or you could leave me a wooden chest holding your still beating still bleeding heart or you could leave your flannel shirt. I’m not sure.”

“Or my, you know, like in the dream you had?”

“That’s a definite possibility. Seems like that was quite troublesome for you, at least during your living years.”

“Intriguing idea, though. What WOULD I leave you?”




Use By

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, oh my god, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…”
“Are you OK?”
“Oh man, I haven’t laughed so hard at 7:15 am in YEARS.”
“What’s going on?”
“Today’s prompt. ‘Age is just a number, or is it a number you care about or try to ignore?’ Give me a break.”
“It’s just a prompt. It’s not important.”
“Age and I have always had an odd relationship. I was older than my age when I was young, and being hit on by 19 year olds when I was 50. And now? I’m a little old lady in a Clockwork Orange t-shirt.”
“You just LOOK like a little old lady.”
“Yeah, well, I feel like one, too.”
“You don’t think like one. Or act like one.”
“How does a little old lady act, dude? Someone not acting like the stereotype should invalidate the stereotype. That’s the weird thing. The stereotype remains stronger than actual real living experience — I’m sure I’m not the only ‘little old lady’ who doesn’t act like one. Maybe I am a TYPICAL little old lady. In any case age is NOT ‘just a number’. Try dating a 20 year old when you’re 41 and see how THAT goes down with your friends, family, co-workers and random people on the street.”
“Good point. Remember that older couple that saw you two kissing in the gay part of town and remarked, loudly, ‘Well, at least they’re male and female’.”
“That was hilarious. ‘When Prejudices Collide.’ That’s what I named THAT moment in the movie of THEIR lives.”
“That sounds like a Woody Allen movie.”
“Naw. Or yeah, actually. An aspect of age may be ‘just’ a number, though. I mean the stuff that happens inside the mind. Goethe wrote about it — or rather talked about it in his conversations with his assistant/secretary/amanuensis, Johann Eckermann. He explained how certain types of people have a particular ‘Entelechy,’ or potentiality, and experience a ‘renewed puberty’ — and I think he was pretty inclusive in this idea of “puberty” since he fell in love with a 17 year old girl when he was in his late 70s — but mostly, I think, he was thinking about himself and friends of his who consistently discovered and pursued new ideas, new forms of art — in other words never lost the so-called youthful enthusiasm for their own work, however, ‘…youth is youth; and however powerful an Entelechy may prove, it will never become quite master of the corporeal…’”
“So it doesn’t matter what you think of it, then…”
“Actually, many great things are attributed to youth with no real justification in fact. First, that young people are more willing to learn new things. That stereotype goes absolutely counter to my 35 years experience in the classroom. My older students — 30+ — were exponentially more willing to learn new things, were academically and intellectually braver and far, far, far more willing to do the work involved to learn something. Not just students, either. My really good friend — 28 at the time — visited me in China along with my 70 year old mother-in-law. My friend LEFT after 10 days into a 28 day trip because she could not adjust. My mother-in-law not only adjusted but learned enough Chinese to order certain items in a restaurant!”
“Interesting! Flies in the face of the stereotype, all-right. Anything else?”
“Sure. Young people take different risks than older people partly because the brains of younger people are not fully developed and they cannot yet imagine adverse consequences. Of course, we romanticize that whole crash-and-burn beauty, but it’s normally preferable to survive.”
“I read about the frontal lobe business. Is that the only thing you’ve got, though? Willingness to learn and adapt and a preference for survival?”
“No. Youth is supposed to be the best time in a person’s life — we hear that all the time when we’re growing up. But in my case — and the cases of a great many of my students — youth was very, very hard. It involves a lot of gruesome firsts. First failure, first broken heart, first major disappointment in life or self — truly, when a person is older and has survived failures and a broken heart and disappointment and STILL engages in life, that person is wise. It’s what a person does AFTER those sad firsts that is the reflection of the nobility of the human soul. I think about guys like Kerouac — who were blisteringly beautiful at that Roman candle thing, that being young thing — but who were never able to make it past those moments of life and who died addicted and bitter and sad. Ginsberg, who never carried the banner of ‘Youth is Truth!’ managed to live a constantly regenerating life into old age. He did this because his quest was more than the discovery of self and his own personal experience.”
“I had no idea you were a Ginsberg fan!”
“No, not really, but he’s one of the artists I know about who kept moving ahead in his life. Fellini did, Goethe did, Monet, Renoir, Matisse — even Hemingway. He was 54 when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. No way he could have written that at 24!”
“So age is not just a number?”
“Not at all. It’s stupid even to think it is.”



“99% of Americans”

“‘99% of Americans attempt to solve their problems by going on the road.’ Jack Kerouac said that.”
“Did he see himself as 99% of Americans because that was his stragedy.”
“Yeah. I dunno’ maybe, but he sure met a lot of people on the road.”
“So, Lamont, back to the prompt, where would you go?”
“I’m going. I’m going on a road trip in Colorado pretty soon, actually. Not far once I’m there, but in many non-mileage ways, it’s a pretty significant road trip. It’s a road trip to my future house.”
“You might well say that.”
“So, I’m not putting a map of my itinerary up here in the public interwebs. I hope the WordPress gurus understand why.”
“Is that your dream road trip?”
“I think that’s what you’re supposed to be writing about.”
“Ah, well, you see going on the road is an attempt to manipulate the future. You go on the road and suddenly everything is vastly simplified. That’s what’s so great about them. That’s why people feel so liberated by them — Americans, anyway. I think other nationalities as well, but if I’m going to make a huge generalization, I’d say it’s part of the American psyche. I’ve known lots of people from other countries who came here specifically to take a road trip. There are plenty of roads in other countries, but the idea of a road trip seems linked with the American culture. And, in my case, my family took road trips all the time. I think many of us have the same memories.”
“You just keep evading the topic, Lamont. Why? Does it bother you or something?”
“Not at all. It’s a pretty good topic. Road trips have changed during my lifetime, though, because of the nature of American culture. We seem to want to be on the road but we do not seem to want to experience anything unfamiliar. It’s a paradox. Where once the road offered us small towns and regional food it’s now a big gray ribbon linking one Denny’s to another all across the continent.”
“What about the ‘blue highways’?”
“That’s precious. Once that guy wrote that book, the blue highways were congested with people out of Woody Allen movies seeking the real America. I just don’t know. But I think, for the most part, people want to get in their cars and complain that things in other places are not as good as they are at home.”
“So you’re not going to write about your dream road trip?”
“OK. I like to get in my car with a dog and drive across the mountains to see friends. I like the dog, the car, and Motel 6 and friends at the end. I like the wide vistas of mountain and desert coming through my windshield into my eyes. I like all of that. I have taken a lot of road trips with a dog and they’ve all be great.”
“A DOG???”
“Yep. A dog, Or dogs. Sometimes dogs.”
“It’s fun. You stop at a scenic rest stop, take the dog for a hike, share a lunch, talk to people and still feel safe because the dog you’re with is large, furry and looks wolfish.”
“Not with people?”
“It depends. I’ve had some great road trips with people, too.”



Bella and Hermione Meet for Coffee

Martha Kennedy:

This is so fun — wise, wry and funny!

Originally posted on unsolicitedtidbits:

Bella sits at a booth, staring out the window and mindlessly tugging the strings of her drab hoodie, mesmerized by the overcast weather.

Hermione briskly enters the café, her full mop of red hair bouncing as she beelines for the booth to meet Bella.

“Sorry I’m late,” she offers and plops down with an armload of books on the history of the British Empire, specialty spells, wizardry, and Latin.   She explains, “There was this fascinating lecture at Hogwarts by one of the top scholars on Chemistry and I just couldn’t pull myself away; it was riveting, actually, and I had so many questions, the answers of which might come in handy for when my friends and I thrust ourselves amidst danger thereby saving the world from evil.   How was your day?”

Bella slightly frowned, let out an arduous breath and said, “Oh, you know, I’m just so entirely obsessed with…

View original 17 more words


Best Friend?

Didn’t I write this already? I did. I know I did because I would say the same thing now. Best friends? Sure, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. No, wait, wrong song. Bridge over troubled water, la la la. Friends are — well out here in California I would say friendship is kind of odd but everyone seems fine with it. A life-long friend has described California friendships as “transactional” and there’s something to that. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many people here — something similar to China, actually. Friends involve obligations and exchanges. As I imagine moving back to a place with different friendship values, I hope so much I haven’t absorbed the California philosophy and can actually be a friend in return, not just a friendly user. To read my take on the best friend business, you need only look here.




My Rules for Good Writing

I won’t guarantee anything if you follow these rules. You may never get anywhere as a writer and you might. But having read Elmore Leonard’s list, I decided to post my own. Bear in mind I am not a successful novelist, unless success means writing good books that  you can believe in.

1) Get to know your characters. While they may contain attributes of your personality (they certainly will) they are not you. Don’t force them or over control them. Aristotle was right in his description of unity of character. If you know your characters they will live on your page. The other unities — place and time — are a bit easier to control, but the people you create must LIVE in the world where you have placed them.

2) Proofread. This is very difficult for me because I’m dyslexic but it’s difficult for anyone to read their own work without just reading the meaning. If you can’t do this well yourself, get help. I read some really weird stuff on WordPress (I probably write some). Yesterday for “graduation” someone wrote “granulation.” You can’t be a good writer and do that. Hire an editor. An agent long, long, long ago sent back a manuscript saying, “Good story, but it needs editing desperately. Here is a list of editors.” I didn’t believe him. I figured that, as an English teacher, I already WAS an editor. Hubris, pure and simple.

3) Just because you’re inspired doesn’t mean you’re writing well. As Rilke said in “Letters to a Young Poet,” “…writing and loving in heat…” does not lead to really fine work either in love or poetry. It’s a great thing to be carried along on a wave of inspiration, but you have to go back with a clear head and calmly evaluate what you have written.

4) Find a writer whose work you admire and figure out why you admire it. See if your work has those traits. See if you can learn from that other writer.

I don’t think good writing has much to do with using “said” instead of “exclaimed” or avoiding the word “suddenly.” I think good writing is about reaching your audience, respecting yourself and your work enough to give it a clear, dispassionate read and humbly serving its purpose. I have read thousands of books by great writers in all genres. My take is that there are no tricks to this, but there has to be, beyond an egocentric attachment to ones work, a true love for the challenges of writing well.

“Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. After that, the whip came down.” Truman Capote


Wake Me Up

Fall semester 2013 I was already conscious that I was nearing the end of my life as a teacher. Though I hadn’t “set” a target date or anything like that, I felt it “in my bones.” I say that as if intuition were something special, but in my case it’s only my mind working things out on my behalf without allowing my consciousness to mess things up.

I had two classes in a building apart from campus in classrooms over Starbucks. Both classes were great and I was sure that they were great partly because we all felt a little less like we were at school. Both classes were alive and active and brave. In one of the classes was a student who was very attractive to me — no, no, no don’t get the wrong idea. Not that way.

As I got to know the kid I learned he’d been a junky. I learned the circumstances of that and how he’d pulled himself out of it. As with many addicts he was way more alive than most people. I sometimes think that some addicts begin using booze or drugs as a way to dampen themselves, to tone down their energy or intelligence, something just so they can fit in. Sure, lots of people use drugs or booze to have more fun, but I think others use them as a way to have LESS fun, if that makes any sense. This kid was one of those. So here he was, 33, back in school. He quickly fell in love/lust with a classmate, a hot and smart Russian girl who cheated on exams.

Driving to school one afternoon I heard this song by Avicii and I thought, “Wow that’s about the kid” and hearing it more often I thought, “Wow, that’s about me.” I heard the song often and eventually bought it. I was thinking a lot about addiction and intelligence teaching this kid. As the semester went on, I realized how much he looked like my brother,  another explanation for the instant rapport and fascination. “Look,” I said one day, pointing my laptop screen in his direction.

“Who’s that?”
“My brother.”
“Wow. That’s weird.”
“I know.”
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”

I walked to my car that night the song in my head, thinking, “But I am older.”
“You’re still not awake,” answered that random other side of my mind. “If you were you’d see things as they are.”
I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing and I started to look for it. Finally I did see it. I had to. It wasn’t fun to look at; it was disappointing. It made me sad and frustrated but it set me on the path I had to take.

People have often asked me how is it that I’m sober when my brother was an alcoholic and my mom, too. Why? Well, seeing that would be enough to sober up anyone, but I also don’t think I am sober. I learned a long time ago that work away from home could give me independence financially and personally. It got me out of the house and helped me move my life forward. Teaching always gave me an incredible high — that is until 2010 when a student physically assaulted me over an A-. At that moment, part of me began waking up. Was teaching my calling or was it a drug? What would I have done in these 35 years if I had not been a teacher? My brief stint as a free lance writer taught me that I didn’t want to be a “pen for hire.” The expense of being a painter was one thing that kept me from being a painter. I think. Or maybe deep in my soul I knew (or simply dreaded?) that I was not good enough. One thing about addiction is that it lets the addict off the hook. The direction is clear. Get more stuff. One imperative. An addict can succeed at the one thing the addict cares about — the stuff to which he/she is addicted. In addiction an addict hides from the failure they fear.  I saw that while I might love teaching (I did) I was also afraid of other dreams. The imperative to earn a living is real, and I never stopped writing and painting, regardless how many classes I was teaching. That should have shown me something but I was not awake to it.

“I’ve really enjoyed being in your class, Martha,” he said. Most students called me Professor Kennedy, but coming from him, that sounded weird. He had sensed this and didn’t use it.
Usually when we talked the conversation went off in the same kinds of crazy directions my conversations with my brother had gone. I really liked this kid. I knew he had been in my class to teach me just as much the other way around. “Thanks. I’ve enjoyed knowing you, too.”
“I’m sorry I won’t see you any more and we can’t talk any more.”
Unlike the kid, I’d been through this thousands of times. A teacher is an important figure in a student’s life for a term, or a year, or a few years, very occasionally forever. “Me too., but you know, I don’t make friends with students any more. I used to, when I was younger, sometimes, but I haven’t for a long time.”
“I can understand,” he said. “You’d have a shitload of friends!”
“Yeah. I don’t even connect with most students on Linkedin.”
“You’d have what, like a billion connections?”
We laughed.
“Here’s my real email.” I wrote it on a piece of paper that I was sure he would lose. “We can meet up next semester for a coffee or something.” Beginning to end it was a gesture. He put it behind his drivers license in his wallet. In that moment I made the break. I took the first step out of the world in which I had hidden for 35 years.

I walked through the parking structure that night knowing that I would be teaching only a few months longer. I didn’t want to live in a world any more in which I was a role and a function. I woke up. A little. So here I am in the summer of 2014, cleaning, painting, repairing and packing, hoping to be able to quickly shed the chrysalis.