Sunday, July 27, 2008

Me an’ Hem

When I first met up with Hemingway, I was eleven-and-a-half years old. I didn’t actually meet him. He had already been dead for a couple of weeks or so by then. But you could say that that was when he first came to life for me.

I was visiting my Grandma Myrt. It was summer and I had ridden my bike over to her house. Just to visit. I did that frequently, rode over to the house of one of my grandmothers or the other when I didn’t have anything else to do and it was still too early to go to the public swimming pool or to tool around town on our bikes with one of my neighborhood friends or with my cousin Greg. Other kids slept in on summer mornings when there was no school to worry about. But I liked to get up and see that new day stretching in front of me, full of possibilities and promise.

Grandma Myrt was an early riser, like her daughter, my mother, Reba Mae, and I had inherited that trait. Dad and two of his brothers had a restaurant called the Teddy Bear and Dad opened at 6 a.m. for the breakfast crowd. Grandpa Vern was superintendent at Greenlawn, the town’s main cemetery and started work at seven. Mom and Grandma always got up around five to see them off and to start the day’s chores. They seemed optimistic about it always, the women, I mean — the men always seemed grim — with their cups of black coffee right there handy on the kitchen counter and their radios on low, tuned to the local AM channels from Dayton and Lima, or to WOWO, the big voice of the big Midwest, out of Fort Wayne, across the West Ohio line in Indiana. And I never wanted to miss that magical time when working people rose to meet the dawning of a new day. In fact, on summer mornings, I took finding out what the day had to offer almost like an occupation, getting up, having my breakfast and getting out into the world like a man with a mission.

On this particular morning, a beautiful July summer morning, with a spanking new blue sky and some sparkling dew still on the grass, I decided to pedal on over to Grandma Myrt’s to hang out and talk to her for awhile, “but don’t make a nuisance of yourself,” Mom warned, “because Grandma’s busy”. It probably wasn’t much more than 9 a.m. when I arrived, but for a woman that got up with the chickens, that was mid-morning, and when I rapped on the back screen door and then strode across the enclosed back porch and into the kitchen, she was just pouring herself a second cup of coffee. Two in four hours might seem like slow coffee-drinking to some country folk but Grandma Myrt had this habit of making it last. She called it “letting it rot”. It involved pouring a big mugful of black coffee for herself at about a quarter to six when Grandpa Vern got up and setting it on the shelf in the cupboard. And as she took care of her morning duties, she would go from time to time to the cupboard and take a sip of java from the cup. Obviously, the longer she took between sips the cooler the coffee got, until, finally, it would be stone cold. But she didn’t seem to mind drinking cold coffee, as long as it was piping hot to start with. That too, I inherited from her — not from Mom who always drank hers hot enough to skin hogs — and I can still make a mug of coffee last hours while I’m working at my desk.

Anyway, what immediately grasped my attention on this morning, after Grandma had said, “Why hullo, honey!” and given me a hug and offered me a glass of milk and one of the sugar cookies she had made, was a magazine that was lying on the kitchen table, and which she had apparently been perusing. I recognized the masthead. It was Life and in those days, when television was a relatively new — if wildly popular — medium and print media still reigned supreme, it was hard to go into a Midwestern home that didn’t have a copy of the major “picture book” magazines like Life or Look, with their captivating, artful photography, on coffee tables, or in the living room magazine rack, or on a “library shelf” in the bathroom. But at Grandma Myrt’s it was odd to see a magazine — or anything else, for that matter — out of place and that’s probably what drew my eyes to it.

Although the house was on the edge of town, it was a big country barn of a place, with all of the inviting simplicity of country life and all of the clean, tidy look of the old German farms in the area. There was no big library of any kind in the house. Books cost money and my grandparents didn’t have much of it. What books there were, were Grandma’s and she kept them tucked away upstairs in her room. Grandpa had learned to read as a grown-up and liked cowboy novels but I suspect that once he had read them he passed them on to Grandma’s younger brother Jessie, who was way poorer than her but had scores of adventure novels and magazines, kept in neat stacks along with his arrowhead collection and other paraphernalia on a big table in the living room of the tidy but tumbledown house he shared with my great-grandmother. Grandma, on the other hand, had a really good education for a rural woman born in 1900, having graduated from high school with a vocational certificate that was sort of equivalent to the normal school diplomas that some of my grade school teachers had. She had a love of learning and reading, which she passed on to Mom and Mom to my older sister and me. And she was always looking up where any of her grandchildren was at any given time —in the United States or in the world — in her geography books, or reading to us from books of tales by Andersen or Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. And then too, we had a good public library in town. But there was a magazine rack in the living room and both she and Grandpa were partial to “looking at” magazines, as they said. It’s just that you were never going to find either books or magazines strewn around there. A place for everything and everything in its place: Their house was an illustration of that adage.

The cover of the magazine lying on the linoleum table top showed a huge head shot of an aging man with a still powerful face, big-boned, grey-bearded, uncommonly intelligent-looking, sensitive, yet every bit as intimidating as my own Grandpa Vern's face - and, believe me, Grandpa could look a hole right through you. It was a cover I would see many times after that, a classic, a collector’s item, the famous cover story of July 14, 1961, that Life published to honor, perhaps, it's most famed contributor ever.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Ernest Hemingway, honey,” Grandma said.

“Who's he?”

“Oh, a very famous American writer.”

And then she told me a little about him, about The Old Man and the Sea, about some other books. But mostly she told me about his being bigger than life, an American icon. Although she didn’t say he was an icon because people didn’t call other people icons back then. She said he was a hero, an adventurer, like somebody out of a storybook. I asked if she knew him and she laughed and said no but that he was so famous that it was as if just about everybody knew him. It was really sad, she said, a big strong man like that taking his own life.

And, of course, that launched us on a discussion of a grave we had seen once in a cemetery in some other town — we sometimes "looked up" old relatives in west central Ohio cemeteries when she and Mom and we kids would go on a Sunday afternoon drive — that had a wrought-iron fence around it and of how she had told me that in some places they did that, fenced off the graves of suicides, because they didn’t figure a person that took his own life was fit to lie in hallowed ground with the rest of the Christians.

But when she said she had to get busy with her chores, I asked her if I could have a look at the magazine and she gave me permission “if I was very careful with it”. And I sat quietly on the back steps of the house studying the pictures and reading the text, understanding what I could of it and trying to get as deep into the scenes as I could. So that when Grandma Myrt finally said, “Your Mom just called and said you’d best be getting home for lunch,” I was already hooked on Hemingway and was feeling a distinct loss, sad that I had missed out on knowing him, sorry I never would, that there would be no chance, even if, someday, I too became a famous writer.

That was the point at which I decided I really wanted to be a writer, stopped playing around pretending to be one and started trying my hand at writing little stories and puttering around with plotlines and reading more and more. I had done a lot of reading when I first learned how and now I returned strongly to the habit, going to the library with my studious sister, Darla, and asking her to recommend books that she had read when she was my age.

The following year or the year after, I really can’t recall exactly, I saw Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, the 1962 film directed by Martin Ritt. It was based on Hemingway’s famous Nick Adams series. This was a collection of short stories that he wrote over the years whose main character was an adventurous young man called Nick Adams, who was obviously the writer’s surrogate. The screenplay was put together by Hemingway’s long-time friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner (Papa Hemingway), and the cast included Richard Beymer (of West Side Story fame, as Nick), Paul Newman (as the punch-drunk fighter from Hemmingway’s The Battler), Diane Baker (as Carolyn), Corinne Calvet (as la Contessa), Ricardo Montalban (as Major Padula) and Jessica Tandy (as Mrs. Adams). The cast also included such heavyweights as Eli Wallach, Dan Daily and Susan Strassberg.

The film got badly panned by the most elite of critics, despite its five Golden Globe nominations. It was a time of growing interest in the psychological novel and in the film thriller, and critics that were busy learning psycho-babble probably found it naïve. But those stories were “boy’s life” tales at their finest and that picture brought them to life in my early-adolescent mind. I wanted to do exactly what Nick Adams had done: run away from home and go off to see the world. Following the lines of the short stories, the film has Nick riding the rails until a mean-spirited railroad agent heaves him off of a freight train. He then meets up with a has-been fighter (Newman) and a booze-sodden advance man for a traveling burlesque show during his journey in search of a job as a newspaper reporter. But after getting laughed out of a newsroom he finally ends up volunteering for duty as an ambulance driver in the Italian medical corps during the First World War, where he is severely wounded. While recovering, he falls in love and has his first real romance with a Red Cross Nurse (the part played by Diane Baker), before returning home a hero and bent on pursuing his writing career now that he has something to write about — all based, of course, on the real earliest adventures of Hemingway himself.

It was the summer after seeing that picture that a friend and I started climbing an apple tree onto the roof of the shelter house in the picnic grounds at Harmon Field, our town park. We would sit there after dark talking and smoking filched and stolen cigarettes, while listening to the freight trains that rattled and blew through town at practically all hours of the day and night, imagining the exciting places they were going and dreaming of riding along. That was also the year that I started gradually working my way through every one of Hemingway's books, buying them with money I earned selling papers and cookbooks, cutting lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow or working as an usher at the local movie theater. And by the following year, when I had turned 14, I was not only writing short stories but had started working on a novel, a cross between Moby Dick and the Nick Adams series, about an irascible retired sea captain and a young man that becomes his only friend. I would work on that book in fits and starts clear through high school, before promptly ripping it up and throwing it into the trash after showing it to my English 101 professor in my freshman (and only) year at Ohio State and reading her comments.

The point is that I cut my teeth on Hemingway and although hundreds of other authors came after him in my life, my real, first, deep and serious interest in writing grew out of not only reading him, but reading about him. And that, I think, is how it should have been, because Hemingway made a difference in American literature, marked a before and after, set a standard for concise, stark, yet beautiful writing that has influenced the writing of just about every American male author who has come since and a lot of foreign authors as well.

Hemingway matters, and later I’ll talk about some more reasons why. But as far as I myself go, although I have developed a natural style of my own over the years, me an’ Hem are bonded for life. "

  • Photo caption: Dan (background) and kid brother Jim by Grandma Myrt's back steps, July 1961.

Monday, July 21, 2008

So Why Blog?

Somebody who thought they were clever once asked a group of eminent writers this question: “Why write?” And, you’ve got to hand it to whoever it was, because they got an amazing variety of answers from a truly amazing variety of celebrated scribes.

My favorite one of all came, not from my favorite author (I’m not nuts about everything he writes, although I am fascinated by certain things he writes), but from someone obviously bored with justifying his own profession, apologizing for his obsession, making excuses for something that should be as unquestionable as the color of a person’s eyes, or a person’s limp, or a person’s stutter, something as indubitable as why anybody does anything as their life’s work: namely, John Updike, who said simply, “Why not?”

From as far back as I can recall, from even before the time I was literate, when I would scribble on a Golden Rod tablet pretending I was, I wanted to be a writer. And as I've gotten older, I’ve started thinking that maybe it really is like more than a few writers have said: something you’re born with. If not the talent, at least the need, that all-consuming desire to spill your guts – or speak from your heart – on paper.

Or on the computer screen, as it were. Writers my age have had to get used to that...thinking of the screen as paper, I mean. It took me a long time to give up my typewriter. Until, that is, I grew to see the logic that if Gutenberg hadn’t come up with his printing press, books would have been a rarity and that not getting “computerized” out of “artistic obstinacy” was a little like fighting for the right to perpetuate the use of the quill pen. But once I did, largely because work forced me to, I embraced the cybersphere wholeheartedly, and the fact that computers and the Web exist has been, I now readily admit, the only reason I have been able to enjoy the lifestyle I have led for the past 15 years.

Speaking of which, I make my home – when I’m not hanging out in the City of Buenos Aires or traveling back to the States to reunite my past with my present – in Patagonia. That’s a vast region in the Southern Cone of South America that spans the southernmost reaches of both Argentina and Chile. My little corner of it is on the Argentine side of the mountains, in what is known here as “the lakes region” where my wife and I live with our seven dogs and six cats.

In 1988, a friend of mine, Gabriel Griffa, then-publisher of the now-renowned Argentine magazine, Apertura, called me and said that he and his partner, Marcelo Longobardi, who was editor-in-chief at the time, wanted to talk to me about a story. I had given them a little hand with tips and contacts when they were first starting out, since I had a decade’s head start on them in both years and journalism, and Griffa just sort of kept me close by from then on. Anyway, this time Marcelo did the talking. He said they were re-launching the magazine. Up to then, Apertura had been a sort of eclectic "book", a “whenever-it-comes-outly”, with a bit of politics, a dash of art, a dose of macroeconomics and a spattering of entrepreneurial case studies. As the Spanish saying goes, it covered a lot and grabbed onto little. But it was lively and interesting, and reflected intelligence, budding professionalism and uncommon enthusiasm and promise. Now, the idea was to turn it into a business magazine, of the type of Fortune, BusinessWeek or Forbes, but in an inimitably Argentine style. It would be a regular bi-monthly at first, and whenever ad revenues allowed, it would go monthly. The first cover story was to be on The Future, and what Longobardi proposed was that I write the section on the future of news coverage.

I pointed out that I didn’t write in Spanish. Longobardi said he didn’t see why not, since I was fluent in the language. I said fluent was one thing but writing professionally was another. How about, I suggested, if I write it in English and then give it to somebody to translate.

“I’d rather,” he said, “you wrote it in Spanish and we’ll correct it here afterward.”

“Do I get a look at the final draft before it goes to press?”



So I struggled to write my first professional piece in Spanish. I was fairly happy with the result, considering. And I was even more pleased when Marcelo said: “We corrected very little…practically nothing.”

“What about my American style. It’s nothing like how Spanish-language journalists write.”

“Actually, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said, “a Yankee style in Spanish.”

Anyway, the content, more than the style was my problem. I didn’t really have a clue where news coverage was going, although my guess was, to hell in a handcart. But in the end, I took a sci-fi view and latched onto the then-incipient Internet and, at some stage in the article, made the point that someday soon, guys like me, who made their living doing research, commentary and translation, were going to be able to do that job from just about anywhere, even from a log cabin on top of a mountain. When I wrote that, it was just a thought that crossed my mind, a fleeting fantasy from the fevered mind of someone who had been trekking around Patagonia every chance he got for well over a decade. I didn’t really think seriously that within the next five years, I would be doing exactly that. But life’s funny that way, and here I am, installed in this cabin, considerable portions of which I’ve built myself, since 1993, working with clients all over the western world via Internet, while administrating 70 acres of natural forest on the fringe of a 2 million-acre national park in my spare time.

So why this blog? Well, as Updike would say, why not? But I can’t say anything that flippant about it, since I have to admit that I had to do a lot of thinking about it before I made the decision to start this blog. Who was I, I asked myself, to publish anything as grand-sounding as “a writer’s log”. My ultimate goal in life was always to be a madly popular fiction writer and, up to now, that dream has failed to come true in any decisive way. But then, in one way or another, as a newsman, editor, feature-writer, op-ed commentator, editorialist, travel writer and translator, I have been making my living in writing and publishing for the past 35 years. I mean, writing, in one form or another, is my day job, which is more than quite a number of really good writers can say. So if that doesn’t give me the credentials to talk about writing and writers from an expert standpoint, then I don't know what would.

Here I am, then, and here I’ll stay, until I don’t have anything to blog about anymore, which could be a very, very long time.