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Alan Ziegler
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327: My socks do match—they’re just not identical. 328: Two movies in which Robert Redford has a one-item, no-preparation, hand-held meal: All the President’s Men: Cellophane-wrapped grocery counter pastry. Brubaker: Chunk of raw cabbage. 329: If criminals really could turn themselves into the police they’d get away with almost anything. 330: Mr. Honeywell, meet Mr. Todd 331: From childhood through college I had a habit of playing with the hair behind my right ear. Playing doesn’t do it justice: I did masterful manipulations, curling my hair into satisfying textures. One day in a college class, a voice behind me said, “Stop it. You’ve got to stop it.” I did—forever. Now my habit is to manipulate words into satisfying textures, and I sometimes hear that voice: “Stop it. You’ve got to stop it.” I won't—ever. 332: Mr. Honeywell and Mr. Todd, meet Mr. Dithers. 333: When I was five, I was in the Peanut Gallery of The Howdy Doody Show. Buffalo Bob promised us a gift after the show if we behaved. I imagined perhaps a Mr. Bluster figure (I had to wait for Ebay to get one). But it was just a candy bar from a sponsor. Recently, I realized there must be archival clips from the Howdy Doody Show and maybe I could spot myself. I went through the openings of several shows (smirking like a kid when Buffalo Bob addressed "Mr. Doody"), and there I was, a tad awkward with absolutely no idea that the future me would one day be watching. But was it really me? Erin said no, but she didn't know me then. I sent the clip to my sister, who also said no, but had evidence: "I was sitting next to you." I was most disappointed, until I watched again, imagining it as a clip from the bio-pic of my life, with an actor who would be billed as "Alan at Age 5." Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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322: Footnote to “A Note on Memory in ‘On the Road with Phil Freshman’ When I visited the former boarding house known as Dixieland in Look Homeward Angel—now officially the Thomas Wolfe Memorial—I took pictures of various objects, including one of the beds. Rereading Angel years later, I came across a description of “the old cream-colored bed, painted gaily at head and foot with round medals of clustering fruit.” A few days ago, I excitedly wrote on this blog: “I saw that bed. Sure enough, ‘round medals of clustering fruit’ are painted gaily on it.'” I even included the photographic proof. But this morning—to adapt Max Jacob—“Now, as I looked at the photograph, I saw that what I had taken for a cluster of fruits was a medal containing a few exquisite flowers.” Did Thomas Wolfe remember fruit where there were actually flowers? Did he consciously change flowers to fruit. Were there medals of fruit and flowers? What is certain is that Thomas Wolfe's description altered the neurons and synapses in my cortex so that my memory of a photograph of flowers became a memory of a picture of fruits. This photoshopped memory would not be denied even as I stared at the picture with my lying eyes. Which was one of the points of the piece. 323: Little Sun, meet Snaker and Spider. 324: Whether or not we lived on the wrong side of the tracks was a close call because I could see the train from my window. 325: I didn't like tomatoes when I was nine, but there was a whole pile of them on the table alongside bagels, lox, onions, pickled herring. My father’s wisecracking friend Joe was the guest. I liked him because he always gave me ballpoint pens with the names of companies on them. I thought he worked for a lot of companies but my father explained that Joe only worked for one—a pen company. The tomatoes were so red that I decided to give them another shot. Incredible, sweet like pizza. I took another and another. Finally, Joe said, “Hey, Alan, why don't you help yourself to a tomato.” That day I learned I love two things: great tomatoes and expertly delivered sarcasm. 326: Booby, meet Trap. Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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[click for On the Road with Phil Freshman] Lauren Gravitz writes that autobiographical memories “begin to take lasting form in a part of the brain called the hippocampus…Neurons communicate with each other through synapses — junctions between these cells that include a tiny gap across which chemical messengers can be sent…Through a process known as synaptic plasticity, neurons constantly produce new proteins to remodel parts of the synapse…This creates a network of cells that, together, encode a memory…Over time, and through consistent recall, the memory becomes encoded in both the hippocampus and the cortex. Eventually, it exists independently in the cortex, where it is put away for long-term storage.” [Nature] My brain can’t wrap itself around the miracles executed by the billions of entities in its tiny space any more than it can comprehend the enormity of the Milky Way—or the design and construction of equipment depicting the infinitesimal and the infinite. Fortunately my brain can immediately grasp “As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar” (from Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata). I’d love to see how my synapses sparkled when I first read this. Some writers are blessed with great memories. Thomas Wolfe could remember watching his sister climb a hill on her way to school when he was 18 months old. He put that memory into Look Homeward, Angel. Also in Angel, he describes “the old cream-colored bed, painted gaily at head and foot with round medals of clustering fruit” in the boarding house based on the one his family ran in Asheville (where he hadn’t been in many years). I saw that bed. Sure enough, “round medals of clustering fruit” are painted gaily on it. A flawed memory is not a fatal flaw; sometimes it can be an advantage. Filling a memory gap with invented truth may produce something more interesting—and appropriate to the story—than the actual experience. Even when attempting a faithful rendering of the past, we fall prey to imprecision. You can tell the truth about all you remember, but all you remember may not be the truth. In his preface to Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, W.B. Yeats writes: “I have changed nothing to my knowledge, and yet it must be that I have changed many things without my knowledge.” My neurons and synapses were kept hopping in my medial prefrontal cortex (among other areas) while living through, remembering, writing about, re-remembering, and revising “On the Road with Phil Freshman.” The piece as a whole relies on good-faith fidelity to experience, but, as William Maxwell writes in his autobiographical short story “Billie Dyer”: “For things that are not known—at least not anymore—and that there is now no way of finding out about, one has to fall back on imagination. This is not the same thing as the truth, but neither is it necessarily a falsehood.” In the working manuscript for Based on a True Life (where this piece will reside), I have... Continue reading
Posted Aug 27, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
August 1969, after my stint at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, I hook up with my cousin Ellen and her boyfriend Greg in Berkeley. We will drive to Oregon and stay at Greg’s mother’s ranch. Ellen introduces me to Phil Freshman and tells me he is going with us. I barely know Ellen and have never met Greg, and I stiffen at the intrusion of yet another human being to deal with (though I love that his name is Phil Freshman). I tell him about my reporting job in Riverside and he replies with a wry smile that his most recent job was shoveling chickens for Colonel Sanders. By the time we climb into the car I feel comfortable with Phil Freshman and am glad we’re sharing the back seat. Past Mendocino, after Highway One merges with the 101, Phil Freshman notices a sign for Eureka and says we’ll have to get off the 101 because a few years ago he stumbled across a little town somewhere south of Eureka and always wanted to return. Phil tells how he befriended a couple of elderly women at an old-fashioned drug store/soda fountain. They bought him sodas and talked with him for hours. Phil promised them one day he would return and buy them sodas. Phil can’t remember the name of the town or where it is. He suggests that we drive around and see what happens. We have no schedule to keep and I am pleased when Greg says why not and turns off the highway. After taking random turns and going in and out of small towns (“Nope, this isn’t it”), Phil says, “This just could be the place.” Greg drives slowly up the main street. I point out a drug store/soda fountain and Phil screams, “That’s it!” We go in and sure enough there are two elderly ladies at the counter. One of them turns around and exclaims, “Phil! Come sit down!” Phil and the ladies sip and talk for an hour while the rest of us have lunch at a table, with me marveling how no one seems to think anything unusual just happened. At the ranch in Oregon, Greg tells me that his stepfather was a resistance fighter in Italy during World War II and, among other things, set up booby traps for German soldiers on motorcycles: he would string a thin wire from tree to tree about neck-high, and then hide and watch a Nazi continue riding from the neck down, while the head bounced around the road. Greg’s stepfather is quiet and somber; I want to talk to him about killing Nazis, but can’t bring myself to ask. If I was still working on the newspaper it would be my job and I would have no problem. The house is plush with books of all kinds. Greg’s mother invites us to pick up anything of interest and feel free to write in the margins if so moved. “I feel insulted when someone borrows one of my books... Continue reading
Posted Aug 25, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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313: “Are you back?” Yes, from every place I have ever been. 314: Citi Field offers Nathan‘s hot dogs with free sauerkraut out in the open for anyone to take in any quantity, just like in the 60s at the second Nathan’s, in Oceanside on Long Island, run by Murray Handwerker (son of the original Nathan), who set up a stage in the back where you could see the likes of the Dillards for free as you ate your hot dog with unlimited sauerkraut. Yankee Stadium also offers Nathan’s hot dogs, but not sauerkraut. 315: Here’s your petard back. Now go hoist yourself. 316: My elementary school music teacher, Dr. Frisch, selects all but five fifth graders to be in the chorus. I am one of those left behind. Instead, I join the school newspaper, and play drums in the band (run by another teacher), marching in town parades. (I can still play “Cadence Number Two” with my fingers.) One day in music class Dr. Frisch overhears me say something snide about the chorus. “You think because you’re in the band you’re a musician. You’re not a musician—you’re a drummer. Drummers aren’t musicians. You’re a faker!” A couple of decades later, I return to my high school as Poet in Residence, warmly welcomed by former teachers. In the faculty room, I spot an old man in the corner dozing in an easy chair, his few tufts of hair like spent tumbleweed. Dr. Frisch. I slowly approach him, and he snorts awake, as another teacher says, “Alan Ziegler has returned to us. He’s famous!” I indulge in a few seconds picturing the young Vito Corleone being reacquainted with Don Ciccio. “Dr. Frisch, your chorus made me a writer!” I say. He smiles and nods his head. “Yes, yes, Alan…” 317 (from the untold history of baseball—Pitchers and Catchers): Herbert Steadmire, after noticing a large number of early-season arm strains, was the first team owner to see the wisdom of having pitchers come early to Spring Training. The following season, his team outpitched early opponents, but the pitchers suffered an inordinate number of leg strains. “We’d better also bring catchers next year,” he told his manager. 318: Lyrics on the cutting room floor: You set me up just to knock me down You could win a prize at the carnival. You invite me home then you skip town Never enough is always that’s all. 319: At Allard in Paris, after the lunch crowd has thinned out, Erin and I have two things in common with the old man under the painting: fine food on our plates and precious time on our hands. We are luxuriating in our canard de Challans aux (beaucoup) olives when we notice the old man seems to have fallen asleep. The serveurs leave him be. This is Paris. As we devour our profiteroles, the old man calls out, twice. A serveur approaches and the old man continues his chant, clearer: “Camembert! Camembert! Camembert!” The serveur bows and returns... Continue reading
Posted Aug 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
309: I have an appointment with my room. But my room doesn’t show. I wait and wait but there’s nowhere to sit, nothing to read. My legs grow weary, so I go home. And there’s my room, looking very cross. 310: Edward didn’t sound like anyone else in the high school. He called boys Mr., sing-songing the first syllables of mister and the last name: Mister Ziegler. He was large but timid, especially afraid of electrical wires. A teacher told us his “brain was different.” The rude kids called him names referring to his mental development, but most of us were extra nice. He could tell on what day of the week any date in the past or future would fall, which he was constantly asked to do, though I don’t recall anyone verifying—or knowing how to verify—his answer. He played trombone in the school band without looking at the music, and during rehearsals he would occasionally step up to the podium and conduct, to the cheers of his bandmates. He did it once during a concert, and got a standing ovation. Someone had chalked a home plate on the back wall of the Water Company—across the empty lot behind my house—creating a makeshift stickball field. Off to the side was a small conglomeration of machinery surrounded by a chain-link fence with a sign warning of electrical danger. One Saturday, as I was mowing the backyard, I saw a couple of the rude boys hanging out with Edward, throwing a ball around, always over Edward’s head. I couldn’t hear what they were shouting, but I could guess. Edward was laughing, so I turned away. Then, a horrified, horrifying howl. The boys had tied one of Edward’s hands to the chain-link fence. He repeatedly screamed, “No, No!” followed by each boy’s name preceded by “Mister.” I knew Edward wasn’t in danger but he didn’t. I went into the house. When I next saw Edward in school he said, “Mister Ziegler,” and I asked him on what day my birthday would fall in fifty years. Half a century later, what haunts me is not that I didn’t do anything to stop Edward’s pain, but that it didn’t even occur to me there was anything I could do. I choose to remember that Edward immediately answered, “Wednesday.” 311: Early in my relationship with Erin, during our first full evening with her parents, Paul and Esther, I had a trick up my sleeve: a card trick I learned from a pre-famous Penn & Teller VHS tape. The purpose of part one of the trick is to fail. A modest amount of skill is required to force the Three of Clubs on the subject, then, following improvised card trick maneuvers, you triumphantly pick, say, the Ten of Diamonds from the deck and declare with brimming pride: “Is…that…your card?!” To which your subject either consoles you or gloats at your failure. You explain that you’ll work on it for next time and go on with your... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
In the early 1970s, cable comes to Manhattan, agonizingly one neighborhood at a time. The main draw is being able to watch Knicks home games. A company called Teleprompter (they write it TelePrompTer) is awarded the northern half of the island, with the stipulation that they offer Public Access channels. Teleprompter voluntarily throws in an equipped, staffed studio for anyone to reserve for live broadcasts. (Subsequently, they add commercial public access, spawning the likes of Midnight Blue and Ugly George.) Someone in my poetry workshop—which meets weekly at Westbeth—knows a curator at the Whitney named Tom with ambitions of producing for television and film. Tom invites a few of us to appear live on his Public Access show. My roommates will watch from home and give me notes. The studio, at 125thand Lenox, has a big T.V. camera on a dolly along with lighting and sound equipment, and even a room to apply make-up (we don’t). Before we go on the air, Tom hands me the title card and asks me to hold it chest-level when the opening theme plays. “The cameraman won't show you.” The show feels good, though I don’t know if anyone is watching beyond my three roommates. As we’re leaving the studio, I am approached by Taylor Mead—of Andy Warhol Factory fame—who watched from the viewing room provided by Teleprompter for locals not wired for cable. Mead says he’s about to go on the air but he loved my poems and maybe next time we can get a drink. When I get home I ask my roommates how I looked, and one of them laughs and says, “Pretty silly holding that piece of cardboard and just staring into space.” I ask about the rest of the show, and another admits, “After about ten minutes we turned to the Knicks.” Excited about this entree into the entertainment world, our workshop forms The TelePoets. Tom will videotape us reading poems in city locations, and edit the segments for his show. “Who knows, maybe a local channel will pick it up for their public service quota.” After a couple of unedited segments, we stop hearing from Tom, who doesn’t answer his home phone. He’s asked us not to call him at work, but we’re worried and I call the Whitney. “There’s no such curator,” a man tells me, and asks what he looks like. “Yeah, that Tom,” he says, then with audibly clenched teeth adds, “Tom’s no longer here. And he worked in the mail room.” That evening, my phone rings. “Hi, it’s Tom, did we have a misunderstanding?” “We sure did. Do you want to explain?” “Well, I had you down for 4 p.m. today.” And I realize it’s Ted—my therapist—and I flaked on that day’s appointment. The TelePoets never hear from Tom again, and our show dies in development. I hold out hope (against hope) that one day Tom will emerge as a highly successful movie producer, and will start his Oscar acceptance speech with, “It all... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Alan Ziegler said... Yes, Mays all days Better than Duke or Mickey Say Hey I says Ah, you got to see Clemente a few months before that tragic flight. --AZ
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I’ve never liked when sportswriters disdain great athletes playing past their prime, arrogantly asserting they should have quit before the sad decline. Willie Mays was well past his prime at 40 when my father and I took my seven-year-old brother Philip to Shea Stadium on August 25 1971, so he could see one of the greatest players of all time. The Mets drew 16,000 fans over the season’s average for the game with the San Francisco Giants. Willie struck out three times in a row, but my brother got to see that swing, even if it wasn’t so sweet anymore. (He also saw Mays’s teammate Dave Kingman hit the side of the Giants' team bus, beyond the left-field bullpen.) The following year, while batting .184, Willie was cast off to the Mets, returning to the city of his early grandeur, 21 years after turning his back on Vic Wertz and breaking Cleveland’s heart from 350 feet away. In his final year, 1973, Willie Mays batted .211, which was 91 points lower than his career average. Sportswriter Bill Madden was among those to place Mays with “the many Hall of Famers who could never quite concede when it was time to quit,” lamenting “the everlasting image of a 42-year-old shell of former greatness, stumbling and falling down in the outfield in the 1973 World Series.” I treasure Mays memories from the ’73 World Series: He got the first hit of the series, and, in his last at-bat ever, drove in the go-ahead run off Rollie Fingers in Game Two (and yes, he stumbled getting out of the box). But the indelible moment gracing my memory for 46 years came when the umpire called out Bud Harrelson at the plate after a phantom tag. Willie was on-deck, and he anguished over a play that didn’t involve him for a team he barely knew. Not for nothing, but Willie wasn’t the only player who had trouble with fly balls in the blinding sun. Here’s 30-year-old left-fielder Cleon Jones. And by the way, Willie also stumbled in the outfield during the ’54 World Series—after making that magic catch and throw. All this is in preface for a hypothetical question I’ve been trying to formulate for many years. This is the closest I’ve gotten: If you could relive just one season of one major leaguer’s career, would you prefer to be Willie Mays in 1973, a shell of your former self (six home runs) but with a career’s worth of brilliant memories? Or would you choose, say, 23-year-old John Milner’s 1973 (23 homers), without a whole lot to remember, but a future to dream? Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
299: The entrance requirement for The School of Hard Knocks is a degree from the Institute of Push Comes to Shove. 300: After listening to a bunch of Beach Boys songs, I wonder what their oeuvre would be like had they been raised in, say, Brooklyn. 301: Mishearing riding for writing: When I first listened to Son House’s “John the Revelator,” I heard: Tell me who's that riding, John the Revelator Tell me who's that riding, John the Revelator Tell me who's that riding, John the Revelator Wrote the book of the seven seals And I pictured: John riding into town on his faithful donkey, with a satchel full of books to sign. 302: Mishearing writing for riding: When I first listened to Bob Dylan’s “All the Tired Horses” I heard: All the tired horses in the sun How'm I supposed to get any writing done? Hmm. And I thought: Neat! Dylan is using tired horses in the sun as an objective correlative for writers block. Even now, when I can’t get any writing done, I think of those horses and take a sweet, restorative nap. 303: You want instant happy? Watch the last 42 seconds of To Have and Have Not. Don’t have that kind of time? The last 21 seconds will do it. 304: Now that I’ve reached an uncertain age, I find myself more and more living on my invented memories. 305: Is Schrödinger’s cat dead or alive? We don’t know! You want simultaneously dead and alive? Take Natalie Wood in my dream the other night: Natalie gives me her email address, and I ask her about Robert Wagner but she doesn’t want to talk about the night she died. 306: In the 60s, I never had a kumbaya moment while singing “Kumbaya.” Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
289: The best pitcher on my Little League team announces he doesn’t “feel like playing” and walks off the field. I’ve been making good throws from shortstop, so the coach escorts me to the mound and says, “Just throw hard.” I become the go-to pitcher, starting or in relief (moving from shortstop). Occasionally, while I’m at shortstop, the third baseman crouches and yells, “Come on Ziggie, no batter Ziggie!” 290: Sgt. Bilko: meet Uncle Fester and Mr. Bluster. 291: This happened long-ago in America: I ask the young woman behind the counter in a Boston pharmacy for condoms. She looks stricken and retreats behind the medicinal barricade. A white-jacketed man emerges and informs me I am breaking the law, and “how dare you say such a thing to a young lady.” 292: Dump: meet Truck. 293: Perhaps at some point in school I could recite how a huge piece of metal lifts off the ground and lands relatively smoothly at the destination of the pilot's choosing. If so, I've forgotten, and I probably never really felt it in my bones, which are not hollow, which is one reason—as I now recall about birds—why I cannot fly. 294: I discovered I could fly when a truck backfired and I fled with the pigeons, scampering then lifting off, fueled by surprise and companionship. I wonder if this is a one-shot deal. But the only way to find out would be to land. 295: Last night I spent four minutes untangling the wires connected to a pair of headphones I put in a drawer alongside assorted wired devices. I do not recall spending any time tangling the wires before I closed the drawer. I have spent several hours of my life untangling wires, and I have never consciously tangled anything. It must be something I do. 296: Walkie: meet Talkie. 297: I see a mother and small child out of the corner of my eye. Someone steps between us as the mother’s hand swoops down and I hear a slapping sound as the child screams. The person between us passes, and I see the beach ball slowly descend as the child squeals, “Mommy, do it again!” 298: My fifth grade teacher assigned us to memorize the helping verbs but I didn’t. When she called on me, the best I could come up with was “assist, aid, comfort” (not really, but wouldn’t I have been something if I had?). She said (really) with stern firmness, “You will know them tomorrow.” And tomorrow I did, and I still do, six decades later (you’re going to have to trust me on this): am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, can, will, should, would, may, might, must, can, could. Continue reading
Posted Jun 18, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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274: The case for religion: It is viable to live by that which cannot be disproven. 275: I have a closet full of unused items labelled Patent Pending. I’ve been meaning to contact the companies to see how it worked out for them. 276: We infantilize our dogs no matter how old they get. 277: Only a clairvoyant optometrist can successfully administer an eye-chart test to a clairvoyant. 278: Travels with Latte (1): Erin, Latte, and I are strolling the tiny Tuscan hill town of Monteriggioni (ringed by towers Dante called “horrific giants”). A woman approaches with a 5-year-old shyly behind: “My daughter fell in love with your dog in Florence!” 279: If Mount Everest weren’t there, we’d have no reason to climb it. 280: Has anyone ever “calmly” sunk two free throws with the game on the line? Has anyone ever “rested comfortably” in a hospital? 281: Early literary influences: Wrestling magazine caption: “A tangle of arms and legs.” Local sportscaster: “He beat him to a pulp. And then he beat up the pulp.” The comma in Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” 282: Travels with Latte (2): Erin, Latte, and I are sitting on a boulder in Central Park overlooking the Boathouse Café. A pre-teen girl asks if she can pet our dog, which Latte tolerates. A few hours later, as we wait to cross 92ndand Broadway, a voice through a car window: “Hello, Latte!” The Central Park girl waves as the car turns down Broadway. 283: Prophetic entry from my 8thgrade journal: “In Science we went over chemical equations and actions for how electricity is produced in a dry cell. I don’t get it at all. I doubt if I’ll ever get it.” 284: Fragrance-free aromatherapy for the allergic. 285: When I am nine, I fall prey to a T.V. commercial for a cereal containing, for a limited time only, a lucky charm ring. I want the ring badly. I repeatedly tell my mother the name of the cereal, and, if she forgets, “Make sure you get a box with a picture of the lucky charm ring.” “I know, I know, lucky charm,” she says as she leaves. She returns home and triumphantly, with a “ta da!” pulls out the last item from the last bag: A box of ring-less Lucky Charm cereal. 286: Travels with Latte (3): Erin, Latte, and I are crossing Lucca’s empty Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro, early-morning. We hear a calling voice getting closer: “Latte?...No?...Yes?...Si! Latte!!” It’s Simone, who met Latte in a café a year ago. “Latte forgets, but I remember,” Simone says. Latte wags her tail, and we all start our day with a smile. 287: At the coffee shop, my friend asks the counterman, “If I order a hamburger do I get French fries with it?” “No, if you order a hamburger you get a hamburger; if you order French fries you get French fries....” “…But sometimes you don’t have to ask…” “Here you have to ask.” My friend holds his... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
264: In a high school hallway Michael Brown sidles up to me and whispers in my ear, “Read On the Road it’s the bible.” I don’t know what he’s talking about until I do, and then I do. 265: Older than yesterday younger than tomorrow will be the way it will be until we will no more. 266: In Little League, I hit a bloop single over second base and go to third on a passed ball. The coach whispers in my ear: “The catcher lobs the ball back to the pitcher. As soon as it leaves his hand, you fly home.” I barrel down slide head down, and when I look up, the pitcher is still holding the ball. Later in the game, I wind up on third again, and the manager whispers, “Did you like doing that? Do you want to do it again?” The catcher awaits me with the ball and a grin, and applies a tag so hard the imprint of the seams can still be detected on an MRI of my past. 267: I’ve lost all feeling in my phantom heart. 268: Uncle Fester: meet Mr. Bluster. 269: In the 60s, we’d read that a new Dylan or Beatles or Butterfield album is about to be released and look for it almost daily at Sam Goody’s in the Green Acres mall, first checking the new release display, then scouring the alphabetical bins, one day hitting paydirt, until a salesman tells us that new releases only come in on Tuesdays, robbing us of daily hope in return for one day of either elation or week-long disappointment. 270: Once upon a 2 a.m. in the late 50s, the nice man on the suburban block wakes the neighbors repeatedly screaming: “Let me in! Unlock this door! Let me in!” I am still trying to write the novel. 271: I once wiped away the most beautiful tear in the history of sadness. 272: Soothe the savage beast’s breast. 273: Go to hell. Go to heaven. I don’t care, just get out of here. Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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After Hitting Snooze: Once again I am on a talk-show panel, and the host asks questions for which I have witty and insightful answers, often contradicting what another guest says. Once again every time I try to interject, a panelist talks over me, and the host never intervenes on my behalf or calls on me. Once again the longer I am ignored, the angrier I get until I start railing that no one is listening to me. Once again they continue to act as if I am not even there. I don’t know why I keep going back on this damned show. Newspaper editor to irascible reporter in There Goes My Heart: “You have to give me more respect. Or better copy.” The goal of poetry is to split hairs on the heads of however many angels fit on the head of a pin. I teach what I know. My students can cook sensational omelets, fingerpick “Guabi Guabi,” and make my wife very happy. But as I grade the final exams, my mind goes blank: I can’t remember my mother's maiden name, Xavier Cugat’s wives, the infield of the 1954 Brooklyn Dodgers, which corner had the best egg cream in midtown in the 70s, why the Senior Prom ended with everyone thinking I wound up in a ditch, what I said that got me this job, etc. I call my only A+ former student and ask him to grade the exams. He refuses. I am fired and he is hired. I am now in his class doing extremely well because I was one hell of a teacher. The rain is the river coming home. If you can’t follow a rule, enjoy being the exception that proves the rule. The movie theater of my early youth was the Kinema on Pitkin Avenue under the El in East New York, where I had to turn around in my seat during House of Wax, my first—and last—3-D horror movie. Years later a teacher corrected me for pronouncing cinema with a hard c. It happened so gradually I hardly noticed: one day I realized I could tell if it was John or Paul singing lead. Ko-Rec-Type: Two wrongs make a white. This sweet and salty trend has its roots, as far as I know, at Morris’s candy store in Lynbrook in the late 50s when my friend mischievously reached for a pretzel rod from the counter dispenser and dropped it into my malted. 256-261. Faits Divers fromThe Insect Times (with gratitude and apologies to Félix Fénéon) Remains found splattered on the kitchen wall have been identified as fly Bill Smits. Preliminary tests indicate a newspaper slaying. Police will be buzzing the usual suspects. In what is suspected of being a ritualistic cult murder/suicide, every member of the ant colony under the bathroom sink was poisoned. Investigators found traces of the poisonous substance on the feet of the Queen. With a bright future ahead of her, caterpillar Susan Sweet was stepped on last night by... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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245. While in college, my songwriting partner and I bus to Manhattan from Schenectady to audition for Vanguard records. We don’t get a contract and my guitar is stolen from the waiting room. Back in Schenectady, I call the A&R guy we auditioned for (“not ready”) to see if the guitar turned up. “No, but, hey we have insurance. Just come back down and file a police report.” “Not worth the trip down, it was a cheap guitar, a Guava written in the same script as Goya.” “I distinctly remember you had a pre-war Martin D-18.” “Not me…” “All right, if you insist…” Years later I hear the subtext and picture Mr. A&R hanging up the phone and just shaking his head. 246 (The Dr. Facci Fellowship). In 1971 I am rear-ended at a red light, hurt but not injured. The other driver assures me he has good insurance. An actor friend refers me to his “lawyer acquaintance” who got him a quick settlement. “Think of it as the way big companies support the arts.” The lawyer acquaintance hands me a card for Dr. Facci, with a Mott Street address. “Mafia country. The safest neighborhood in the city.” The dusty waiting room is filled with elderly women, but Dr. Facci waves me right in. He looks like the Orson Welles’s character in Touch of Evil ten years later on a really bad day. Ancient medical journals are strewn across his desk with several unmarked bottles of pills. “So, you have a case of whiplash?” “Yes, it hurts when I think.” Dr. Facci looks at me with a weary sadness, then seems to smile a bit, and growls, “Hippie and a smartass. But I’ll take care of you.” He lumbers around the desk, palpates my neck, and tells me to come in every week for six weeks. He jots down a note, hands me some pills, and says, “Here, for when you think too hard,” adding, “Don’t get excited, it’s sugar.” I like Dr. Facci. I enjoy roaming Little Italy each week, lunching on pasta, trying to spot Mafiosi. The waiting room is always full, and Dr. Facci takes me right away, palpates my neck, jots a note, and sends me on my way with a few sugar pills. At first I wonder how his career sunk so low but I come to realize he must provide an essential service to the neighborhood. Perhaps my scam is subsidizing medical care for the elderly. After six visits to Little Italy, I am awarded a $750 Dr. Facci Fellowship. Continue reading
Posted May 27, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Philip Roth made several (unpaid) visits to Columbia MFA classes (through his friendships with David Plante and Benjamin Taylor). He asked if he could have access to the library, so we applied to designate him as a Visiting Scholar. When the request was approved, I gave him directions to where he could pick up his card, and said, "Remember, you can take books home. Then you won't have to come down here every day." Philip looked at me quizzically, and for a few seconds I thought he might not have recognized the quote from Goodbye Columbus. Then he said, with that sliver of a grin I'd seen several times: "Are you referencing a mid-20th Century novelist?" And he went off to get his library card. Continue reading
Posted May 23, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four December 19 It is to our great chagrin that we will not be able to offer you a position, as our operations will be shut down immediately following completion of our open correspondence. There is widespread disagreement as to whether this cessation was precipitated by an inadequacy in our business plan or poor execution thereof. Suffice it to say, we all agree that had you begun this process sooner, the outcome would have been more felicitous. January 2 It was kind of you to surprise us at Chez Avec Amis (you remembered!), and to pick up the check. Bringing the glove was a lovely touch. We are intrigued by your offer, and we feel we have much to contribute. The requisite paperwork is enclosed. We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience. THE END Continue reading
Posted May 21, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Part One Part Two Part Three October 26 We have finally received completed reports from all those who attended your interview. (It is a good sign that we could barely pry people away from their computers.) We will now disperse into the field. November 9 We have completed a series of meetings with your references. Not unexpectedly in matters of this kind, several issues have arisen. Kindly respond to the enclosed questions. Please understand – as we do – that the quoted material is no more – or less – than one version of the truth. (Two questions were inserted by one of us over the strenuous objections of many.) November 15 We are pleased to tell you that we found your responses quite satisfactory; any new questions raised by your answers, we all agree, are better left untethered. And we are delighted to report that a suitable position has just opened up (please refer to parentheses in previous letter). As you can imagine, there is much paperwork to be done. You shall hear from us before the end of the year. CONCLUSION TOMORROW Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Part One Part Two September 17 Thank you for your interest in our company. Unfortunately, we do not have any appropriate openings at the present time. We shall endeavor to contact you should that situation change. September 23 Please disregard the previous letter, which was the result of a clerical error. We regret any inconvenience. We might add that we found your response quite understandable. October 9 We are pleased to offer you a personal interview. Due to renovations underway in our offices, we invite you to meet us at Chez Avec Amis, a cozy bistro in a quiet corner of town tomorrow at 6 p.m. We have reserved the back room. Directions enclosed. Kindly bring any available photographs from the attached list. We apologize for the short notice, and assure you it is not the result of a last-minute cancellation. October 11 Did you inadvertently happen to wind up with an extra left glove (the designer tag is: Vera Pelle)? CONTINUED TOMORROW Continue reading
Posted May 19, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Part One September 5 We are in need of additional supporting materials. You should be assured that our request reflects our voracious appetite for reading about you. Now that we are again at full-strength, we lack enough of you to go around, and several of us are feeling bereft. In the event there are no teachers or employers untapped by your extensive dossier, we suggest that you take a temporary position and enroll in an evening course. September 9 Could you provide us with a list of ex-lovers? If so, please describe the physical high and low moments of each relationship, from both points of view. Kindly indicate the circumstances in which each relationship was terminated and who, in your judgment, was at fault. Forgive the personal nature of this request. We are doing our part to ameliorate the blanket of anomie that pervades the workplace. September 14 What is the origin of your last name? Has it been shortened? Your answer will be used for statistical purposes only. CONTINUED TOMORROW Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
May 3 Your application has been received but not yet acknowledged. This response should not be inferred as being anything other than what it says. May 11 We are pleased to acknowledge your application. We will now set out to get a clear sense of who you are. This will take time, as we take nothing and no one lightly. We are nothing if not thorough and we are thorough, which makes us truly something. June 19 We write with the good news (to us– it will come as no news to you) that we have confirmed you are who you say you are and have done what you say you did. Now we address the task of evaluating who you are and what you have done. This is what we get up for in the morning, and what we think about when we fall asleep at night. August 12 Our silence should not be construed as neglect or negativity. We merely misjudged our vacation schedules (we were done-in by unintended consequences of the summer house share) and had a run of ill health (see previous parentheses). We barely have the people power to write these letters. We could use someone like who we think you are. CONTINUED TOMORROW Continue reading
Posted May 17, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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I received a gratifying email from a former Columbia MFA student—now a creative writing teacher—about a chapter in my book The Writing Workshop Note Book (Soft Skull / Counterpoint). I am reprinting the note, followed by an adapted excerpt from the chapter. At my former student’s request, I have removed details that might identify the school and am withholding her name. Hello Professor Ziegler, Our seminar-style classes have students of mixed grade levels—freshmen through senior. Recently, the returning students staged a bit of a mutiny. Three pulled me aside and complained about a lack of “professionalism” in the workshopping abilities of the several new students. Apparently, they felt that their own writing, comments, and insights were much more sophisticated than those of the younger students, and that they, the “experienced” workshoppers, took the process much more seriously, which had led to a desperate crisis. I heard them out and asked them what they thought we could do. They wanted to have an in-class discussion in which they could air their concerns (and, of course, also assert their perceived superiority, I knew). So, for our next class I handed out your first chapter in “Part Two: Notes on Workshopping.” We went around the room, each student taking a turn reading a paragraph or two aloud. Beforehand, I asked them while reading to make note of those sections that rang true to them or felt most meaningful or helped them discover something they didn’t know or felt they could use. (Worth noting: as soon as we finished reading, one of the discontented three closed her packet dramatically and exclaimed, “That was great!”) Afterward I asked each student to share what they learned they might be able to think about or do differently to get the most out of the workshop. We spent 1 1/2 hours of our 3-hour class reading and discussing your chapter, and each student (even those poor terrified freshmen) shared their feelings about their work and experience, ranging from fear of speaking because of feelings of intimidation (without mentioning any names or making eye content) and fear of “not being right” to acknowledgment of tendencies to dominate the conversation (one of those three upperclassman, remarkably). The effects were quite wonderful, and the group left class in bright spirits. So, thank you. I wanted to let you know what had happened so you could add this small moment to what I am sure is a long and continually growing list of success stories directly linked to your approach to teaching writing and to your invaluable notebook, which you so generously shared with all of us. Little did I know at the time how helpful both would be. With my thanks and best regards, (name withheld) Workshop Do’s and Don’ts (adapted from The Writing Workshop Note Book) DO be there. If you are absent you cannot “make up” the work any more than athletes in team sports can make up games they miss. Even if the teacher allows one or two... Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
234. As a young reporter in 1970, I was assigned to review a musical billed as a tryout for Broadway. I declared the production a “pleasant enough way to spend a summer evening, but in its current form, it’s not up to bigger and better things.” Always trying to spice my pieces, I concluded that the experience was like being served a full meal of melba toast—you come away “full but not satisfied.” A few days later, while I was reporting for a feature, a young woman recognized my name and said, “Usually these reviews are puff pieces.” She paused and added, “Yours was interesting.” And a few days later, I was interviewing a chamber group that would be performing at the same arts center where the musical was running. One of the musicians recognized my name and said, “The people from the show were talking about you. They hate you.” 235. “I’ve Got to Pass Your House to Get to My House” (written by Lew Brown, sung by Bing Crosby) 236. I spent ten minutes untangling the wires connected to a pair of headphones I put in a drawer alongside assorted wired devices. I do not recall spending any time tangling the wires before I closed the drawer. I have spent several hours of my life untangling wires, and I have never consciously tangled anything. It must be something I do. 237. In the mid-1970s I saved up to buy a reconditioned IBM Selectric II typewriter, the typesetting machine of choice for non-funded small magazines. The characters populated a tiny globe called an element. If you smooshed two keystrokes, the machine would remember which order you hit them and space the letters evenly on the page. (In effect, the Selectric had a RAM of one bite.) Writer friends came over to use my Selectric; someone commented, “Wow, I didn’t know civilians were allowed to have these.” I was told when I bought it that I would need to have a service contract with IBM because there’s a thin cable connected to a “gear shift” that tends to snap. And snap it did, every few months, but one quick call would result in an IBM repairman showing up, sometimes the same day; for the first time, I felt cared for by a giant corporation. When I took a writer-in-residence position at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan, I didn’t think I could write without my Selectric. I had it shipped, and a couple of weeks into the term I returned to my cottage to find the box on my porch. I plugged it in, got the motor humming and started to type. Snapped cable. The nearest service center was downstate, hours away. The next day a serviceman drove up and fixed the cable. Before long, people were knocking on my door to use my typewriter. 238. Molly Bloom: “Excuse bad writing am in hurry. Byby.” 239. On the way toward a glorious rainbow, a snake in the grass came... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Wow--what a fascinating movie! I wish I'd known to ask her about it. Thanks!