Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Creative lust and the unhealthy mind

This from today's Independent:
Creativity is sexually alluring, according to a study which shows that artists and poets have more sexual partners than ordinary mortals...
And also:
It is possible that the same genetic factors responsible for predisposing someone to creativity could also, under slightly different environmental conditions, lead to schizophrenia, Dr Nettle said. "If these genetic factors have been chosen by successive generations as attractive features in a potential mate, this could explain why schizophrenia is so common today..."
None of this is news, but when you find yourself tricked by your lust into behaving as you shouldn't, or when you're in the mood to slice off a piece of your ear, it's nice to know that you're not alone: biology and evolution have, over millennia, conspired against you.

On a side note, Ms. Lowell said she would come to my office tomorrow to discuss the missing Billy Clayhouse.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sexfoodwords

Ella called this afternoon and commented on the bleak pronouncements on prospects for fiction writers in my previous post. For some reason she and Billie have been reading my blog closely, as if looking for clues to my mental health and wellbeing. I'm glad that they're reading it, but also annoyed.

In any case, she's my brash daughter and also the consummate pragmatist, while Billie is the idealistic dreamer. Ella's attractive. Her beauty is raw and abundant, with huge, black eyes and a wicked laugh always hovering at the edge of her lips. She's a lesbian, and it's interesting that we share similar tastes in women, physically speaking. Spiritually, emotionally and intellectually I find that most or even all women tend to be my betters.

E.Trout: So anyway, Daddy, what's the point of it all?

B.Trout: Kind of a broad question, isn't it?

Ella: I mean writing...why would anyone do it if they, as you suggest, "should give up the notion of success?"

BT: Why not?

Ella: But if there's no hope of succeeding?

BT: It's not about success.

Ella: Then what's it about?

BT: It's a very basic and essential form of communication. It's kind of like cooking.

Ella: How's that?

BT: Cooking is probably the most direct form of human communication outside of sex. Sex, of course, being the most urgent and engaging of all of the senses, is the ultimate form of interaction, but then it's only appropriate in very specific circumstances. Cooking is a close second and more ubiquitous. If you don't eat, you die. In preparing a meal...whether for family, a lover, or a stranger who shows up at your door, you're building a conversation that contains the sum total of your culture and your life's experience. From the table setting to the spices. From the way you operate the flame on the burner to how you wield the wooden spoon. From everything you've learned from your grandmother to everything you've invented on your own, or out of necessity by way of poverty, abundance, season, climate, etc. You lay out this elaborate composition on the table. It's a delicate ritual. It is direct communication. It is something that you do with passion and care even if there's no hope of financial remuneration. You don't require "success" to cook. You do it because it's a part of the human condition.

Ella: But I'm studying to be a chef, so there's a financial aspect as well...

BT: True...you will eventually get paid to cook. But if there was no hope of ever making a living through food you'd still cook anyway, wouldn't you? You'd still be passionate about the table, right?

Ella: Of course.

BT: Same thing with writing. Storytelling, behind sex and food, is the third most direct way of communicating with fellow hominids. Music, dance, visual arts all follow after. When you read something that's written well, or when you hear a story told, you are living inside the author's brain. You are swimming with their soul. You are experiencing what it is to be human and alive. And let me say that I'm not talking about Tom Clancy here, or anything that is written with any consideration for a market. So, in order to write well, you have to take the potential of success out of the equation. If there's no feasibility of financial "success" and you'd be willing to spend five hours a day writing anyway...just like you'd still cook or make love without remuneration, then you'll be a fine writer. But if the possibilities of financial reward were removed and this would cause you to quite writing...then you're not cut out for it. If there's no book release party in a Manhattan apartment near Central Park, and no book tour, and no guest writer engagements in your future, and no options on the screenplay, and no royalty checks, and you go to your grave with a stack of pages read only by those with the patience to love you, or perhaps they'll never be read at all, and if this promise of obscurity lessens your interest in prose even slightly, then give up now. Go take the LSATs. But if you're still eager, despite all of that, to plunge ahead...then write. If the process of writing is as essential to you as eating and breathing, as inherent as the procreative impulse, then by all means continue.

Ella: I see. So...have you told your students any of this? Or do you just growl at them and basically tell them to quit?

BT: Well...

Ella: Daddy...you can kind of be a bastard at times.

BT: So true, Ella Trout, so true.

Ella: I think you need to lighten up. And maybe, just to be fair, the next time you give a reading and that guy asks for advice for novice writers, maybe then you should tell him what you've just told me. It might come off better. He might actually buy some of your book after you're done speaking. That might even bring you a little more satisfaction than your usual scowling and brooding. And then everybody wins.

BT: My dear, as always, you offer sound advice.

Ella: Just thinking, Daddy. Gotta run.

BT: Peace and love, Baby Trout.

Baby Trout: Peace and love, Daddy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Leading the children astray

Nawaz announced his intention to change majors from engineering to creative writing. I suppose I should be thrilled or at least flattered: after all, it was my suggestion.

But I also must admit to being a little troubled. The idea of being a fiction writer is infinitely more appealing than the life in practice. When I'm visiting colleges, someone eventually asks the inane question: do you have any advice for aspiring writers? After I smirk, roll my eyes or groan I usually respond by saying that they should give up the notion of success, steady income or ever having any of the stabilizing pleasures that most other middle class Americans take for granted. I tell them that they will probably spend most of their lives working at some job that they despise in order to buy time to write, either that or they will be living in the basement of their parents' home in suburban Cleveland until they are in their mid-forties, in which case masturbation will take up a bulk of their time. I'll also suggest that they try to marry rich, though unfortunately this is more difficult than it sounds.

But Nawaz was so giddy when he announced his intentions to me today that I decided I would hold back and let him bask in the glow of his expectation before breaking the truth to him. He isn't a bad writer. He's written some clever poems since he started working for me. One, about the recent earthquake in his home country, was so poignant that I pulled out my bank book on the spot and wrote him a check for fifty bucks (he's been collecting funds through the Muslim Student Assn.), my hand trembling as I signed my name. Only my dear friend Jesse Jackson, the master fundraiser, is able to shame me into parting with my wine allowance so easily.

Nawaz assures me that his father will disown him. He is holding out hopes that his fiancee will keep him, though. I will pray for this grinning beanpole who inhabits the stool in the corner of my office.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Salvation

Salvation arrived on Thursday morning when my daughters appeared at the door. Despite my preparations for a grand solo feast, I was not gracefully handling the notion of Thanksgiving alone. I was in the process of pulling on my boots for a trip to the convenience store to buy a pint of whiskey...very bad for this old fish...when the doorbell rang. I wailed like an infant, kissing and slobbering over the girls until my heart quivered from palpitations and I had to sit on the sofa. Evidently they'd been planning this surprise for three months.

Ella flew in from Denver with a home-cured ham in her carry-on bag...it was a culinary school project that she'd been working on for weeks. Billie drove through the night from D.C., and before she even kicked off her shoes she proffered a bag of dried morels that she'd harvested herself in the Virginia woods last April, and as soon as I saw this I started weeping anew. We hydrated the morels and they provided the foundation for a glorious stuffing, though we logged nearly seventy miles in search of an open grocery store with decent shallots to complete the recipe. Ella had checked a cooler on the plane with a farm-raised turkey, duck and game hen and these were roasted, one stuffed within another. She also brought white asparagus, inexplicably fresh despite being out of season. She refused to name her source, which I respected. I smoked my other turkeys on a Webber grill. The girls ate more than I did, and I have no idea how they stay so thin.

The girls brought the wine as well. We had a decent Chilean Chardonnay, plus a grand California Red Zin and two bottles of Pommard. All of these were less than fifteen bucks, which is an unwritten family rule. "Some people drink wine, and some drink labels," Hemingway once wrote. Following this guideline is a snap in Europe, but somewhat more difficult in the U.S. where wealthy people and their consumption spiral have conspired to price the middle class out decent wine, and good taste in general. This bourgeois phenomenon merely confirms (as does the very existence of George W. Bush) my long-standing belief that you can be fabulously wealthy and still qualify as white trash.

As we cooked we shared the usual family stories. Billie, the sensitive girl, made me call her mother, as well as my other two ex-wives, to send Thanksgiving greetings. It went off well. I rang up Billy Clayhouse thinking that he might enjoy Billie's company, but he wasn't home. Ella's a lesbian, and tough as nails, but Billie has gotten kicked around by her two most recent boyfriends. She's curious and trusting, a dangerous combination. I'm not sure why I felt Clayhouse might make a good match.

On Friday we fished local spring creeks until our fingers froze. Ella landed a three-pound rainbow on my 2-weight midge rod. I grew tired while wading and spent half the afternoon sitting on a stump, watching the girls work the river. This worried them more than it did me. Aging is a bitch. We caught five trout altogether, keeping three...they were hatchery fish but nevertheless delicious.

They left yesterday morning, and though my heart was sad to see them go, I was left renewed and feeling frisky. I called Shirleen, my hottest student, and we went out for drinks. Today I edited three chapters on my political novel and watched football, munching on cold duck, turkey and ham and thinking how the momentary acts of pollination that I performed during the procreation of my daughters were the most worthy deeds during my tenure on this great green and blue rock.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An ethical lapse

Alone this Thanksgiving. Despite her recent promise, my daughter Billie had to cancel. But at least she's not going to her mother's...I know it's crude, but if I can't have her, nobody should. My other daughter, Ella, has volunteered to cook at a homeless shelter in Colorado. She's in culinary school, so the less fortunate of Denver are in for a treat. Even Nawaz has abandoned me for the home of an American classmate.

I'm blue, and it's been compounded by my ethical lapse this morning. I've had to choose two of my students for a scholarship nomination, and I'm afraid I've bent the rules of better behavior. I won't mention which two of the three aforementioned candidates I've chosen, but suffice it to say that my selection procedure probably violates some campus rule. I wonder how many other "professors" factor the possibility of seducing a student into their decision-making process.

In any event, I'm going to prepare a proper fall table. I've been thawing the two wild turkeys...royalty among table birds...that I shot last April. One is to be smoked, the other roasted while filled with a miraculous chorizo stuffing that I concocted with assistance from my Mexican writer friend, Paco Taibo, during a happier Thanksgiving when I was still married to Wife 3 and the girls were home. I've got several good bottles of Ontario Vidal that I'll use to wash down the birds. I then intend to waltz through my apartment, naked, to the usual Strauss. A starlight hike in the state park should help to sober me up and then sleep dreamlessly.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Mystery of Mr. Clayhouse

No black ass today for the first Monday in quite some time. It was a bright morning, if brisk, and I took a stroll around the quadrangle to take in the trees in their bare winter glory. Started puffing after only a couple miles, and felt a bit dizzy. Aging "sucks ass," as my daughter Billie might say.

Still no word from Mr. Clayhouse since he stormed out of my class. When passing the ROTC office on campus, I entered on a hunch. I struck up a conversation with the pimply kid peddling brochures:

B. Trout: How's business?

Officer Zit: Slow.

B. Trout: Imagine!

O. Zit: That Cheney's a smart guy, but he's got to learn to keep his fuckin' yap shut.

B. Trout: You're half-right. Anyhow, have you seen Billy Clayhouse around?

O. Zit: Billy? No...it's been a few months. We had a little ceremony for all the vets at the beginning of the semester...

And that's how I confirmed my suspicion that Billy served. And did he ever serve...two seven-month tours in Iraq as a Marine sniper. Purple heart and all. I would never retract my classroom tirade on the war, as self-censorship in the service of pleasing others is the greatest of writerly crimes. But if Billy ever does return I must somehow take him aside and acknowledge his service. While I've opposed this war from its incipience as a pre-9-11 neo-con wet dream to its current disastrous state, and I've got the usual peacenik misgivings about militarism in general, I do respect the uniform. I've had too many students and friends over the years who served. Whenever I see kids in uniform in a bar, I'll always buy a round. In any case, I've decided to make Mr. Clayhouse my special project during my tenure at this program. He's got too much raw talent and compelling experience not to write.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The fiancee

Nawaz's fiancee is exquisite. I must apologize for creating another "pee pee post," which is the term my daughter Billie uses for any of my journal entries where I drool over a much younger woman. But today, as we sat staring out my office window at the passing foot traffic on the campus quadrangle, Nawaz explained his pre-marital status. Every passing girl to whom I called attention elicited a mere shrug from my lanky brown assistant. When I called him on this he showed me his fiancee's photo.

I'm not going to pretend to understand Pakistani culture. What I know about the country is limited to a handful of recipes, and these are as much oddly seasoned Indian, Afghan and Persian dishes as they are purely Pakistani, but then that corner of the world has always been a crossroads of the spice trade. Pakistanis work miracles with lamb, and a plate of Balti Gosht or Kunna, paired with Riesling or a Rhone, is quite an experience.

So Nawaz is promised to a girl. She's five years older than my friend, which explains how a gawky, squeaky-voiced loon like him can land what can only be described by the archaic term, "fox." Evidently, she's considered an old maid in her culture. The fact that Nawaz's father is a minister in the government also helped to raise Nawaz's stock.

The fiancee is a dusky jewel, with rich black eyes and a glistening smile. Her name is Aamira. In the snapshot, her black-brown hair tumbled down her shoulders, and her generous breasts strained the buttons on her white blouse. I was smitten instantly and said so. Nawaz, who has only met the girl twice, is also impressed, though he says they have little in common. Aamira works for a consulting agency in London, and Nawaz plans to get an engineering job in the States. They will share a house in Miami, though both expect to be on the road pursuing their respective careers. I suggested that he quit school, marry her quickly, and take up the role of doting house-man. He could shop for the wine and cook. Keep the house somewhat in order. When his south Asian treasure returns home at the end of her day, he can rub her feet, pour her a glass of Pouilly Fuisse and read her a poem. In fact, I told him that a writer of fiction would be the perfect complementary career, and I was surprised when he agreed. He's been reading voraciously, lately finishing Dr. Zhivago and Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave, both books borrowed from my collection.

In any case, this experience has caused me to revisit the practice of arranged marriage. I've always been a proponent of that silly American institution known as the "love marriage." I should know better as it has thrice failed me. Perhaps I should put myself on the Pakistani old maid market. Nawaz plans to meet his bride-to-be in Chicago during the Christmas break where she will be attending a business summit. He's asked me to attend as a chaperone (sic!), and I so look forward to meeting lovely Aamira.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Quandry

Shirleen Tomasetti is perhaps my most attractive student. She's mid-thirtyish, athletic, divorced. In a pre-midlife crisis she left her copywriting career to pursue an MFA in writing fiction. While her writing rarely suffers the flaws that typically set me to frothing, neither do I expect she will ever make a serious writer. Her language is flat, and she limits herself to revisiting her droll suburban upbringing. The last thing the world needs is more coming-of-age fiction set in Schaumburg, Illinois or the outskirts of Cincinnati. I've tried to coax her out of this literary ghetto on several occasions over drinks. She really is quite pleasant to talk with, and the last time we were nestled into the corner booth at O'Shannon's she laughed heartily at my jokes, patted my beard and rubbed my shoulders while we conversed. She even touched my knee under the table as I admitted my recent dark moods. The imprint of this sensation still simmers against my leg, an ethereal love-scar. It seems ages since I've had conjugal relations with someone her age. I really am like a big teddy bear, so that might explain my inexplicable ability to connect with attractive women.

So today she stops by my office and drops off an application for our department's scholarship. She was wearing a tight white sweater which caused me to suck breath for obvious reasons. Her shortish-blondish hair was nicely done, and the vanilla-tang hint of perfume followed her into the room. I generally prefer the raw scent of pheromone sweat to that bourgeois, bottled decadence, but still it was a nice touch. As she placed her form on my desk I noticed that her nails were lacquered red and her wedding ring, which she still normally wears to deflect idiots, was missing.

Applicants for the scholarship need the endorsement of a faculty member. Each faculty member can only endorse one application per gradudate-level class taught. This gives me two. The award covers tuition for an entire year, plus a small stipend. I know that Shirleen hasn't been working and needs the money. I'm certain that she'd be incredibly grateful for my endorsement.

The problem is that Ms. Elizabeth Lowell, the cocker-spaniel-cute fundamentalist, is a much better prose stylist. She's already submitted her application. Likewise, Billy Clayhouse is more deserving and also desperately needs the money, though he hasn't even applied. (And given his stoicism, he probably won't without encouragement.)

But neither of these more qualified individuals is capable, for various reasons, of offering the sort of gratitude that I expect I might receive from Shirleen.

So, Brown Trout...what to do, what to do?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Tears for dead kids

Today I had one of my more significant failures as a teacher. I don't pretend to have talent in this profession...it's just something I do because I can. I sold a few books in the late 70's, and I've been milking it like a bastard ever since. Some of the more serious instructors take offense, but mostly my colleagues give me latitude on the basis of three strong reviews in the New York Times literary supplement twenty-five years ago.

One might think me callus or opportunistic for taking this job, which is basically stealing money. And it's true I've at least attempted to get laid at every single writers conference at which I've appeared, and I meet with success more times than not. Not bad for a fat, obnoxious pontificator. The fact that I can both cook and dance, combined with my status as "published writer," makes me somehow irresistible to the mid-fortyish wife looking to recapture her literary aspirations. Their stories often suck, but I never share this little secret with them. Occasionally I'm surprised by the quality of their work, which makes the sex that much better. Some men fantasize about waifish models when they're in bed with a woman. I've never done this, though I've slept with several dumb beauties I pretended were intelligent.

This being said, my failure as a teacher today still stings and causes me great regret. It started when I awoke this morning at eleven. I fixed the usual triple espresso, downed three aspirin, then logged onto the computer. My first stop is the Economist. I know where I stand with these newswriters, and even these free market Nazis see Lesser Bush for the dangerously clownish nincompoop that he is. Their world coverage is grand. My next stop, more often than not, is the Post's Faces of the Fallen. It's a spiritual exercise for me, though I really can't explain why I do it. Three weeks ago I saw the face of a ninteen-year-old woman who was the spitting image of the vixen who stole my virginity. She was blown to bits by a rocket-propelled grenade. I wept inconsolably. This morning I lingered over the face of a scrawny, geekish Latino kid, and the tears flowed again. I see the war as a personal as well as national failure. I suppose the difference between myself and the average right-winger is that I feel responsible while they pretend to bear no complicity. "Freedom ain't free," they say, as if this makes it all okay. I saw a woman counter-protesting a memorial for the 2000th U.S. death, and her sign said, "Our soldiers are doing just fine!" Well gee, in that case we'll just let them stay a little longer. It's as if the bitch things it's all a big summer camp. Supporting the troops indeed. The average conservative might get misty when they see the flag rippling in the wind, when bomber jets streak overhead in formation, or maybe when they hear Taps played. But those of us clinging to the tattered shreds of our soul cry when we look into the eyes of dead children. Yep, at my age, even Sgt. John Doe (40, 3rd Infantry, makeshift bomb) is a child. The jolly visage of Specialist Bob Smith (22, 504th Parachute, small arms fire) in his jaunty red beret struck me as so adolescent that I dropped to the floor and wretched.

In any case, my MFA students are used to my prefacing each class with one tirade or another, and today's eager writers were greeted with a rant similar to that which I just shared above. The whole point was to encourage them to join the Peace Corps, go to med school, seek law degrees or some useful skill such as plant science. Unless, that is, they are truly willing to write something that matters. I told them that, in most cases, it was pointless to write fiction in light of the fact that three kids die every day in Iraq. And those are just the ones that speak English. Writing is a revolutionary act, and the domestic nonsense that seems to preoccupy the garden variety novel being offered by today's corporatized publishing houses, or the middle-class pap flowing out of the Iowa Writers Workshop and its ilk, already flood the market with garbage, so unless these students were willing to play for real stakes they should pack up their shit and go take the LSATs. It was a variation on my George Orwell-Zora Neal Hurston lecture, and I thought that it was a rather inspired. Then to prove my point, I started to read the story by Billy Clayhouse, about the mill worker who goes to the hospital to visit his daughter, who suffered a disfiguring wound in Iraq. This is clearly the best student work I've read in my tenure at this program. I spend most of our classes reading student work aloud, which is the only worthwhile literary exercise, so Billy shouldn't have been surprised that I'd read his story in front of everyone. I never give names of who has written what piece, though they tend to learn each other's voices by the end of the semester. That ridiculous "workshop" format where a story is read and then students offer "criticism" while the author cowers over his bond paper is one of the greatest snake-oil schemes ever concocted. When I read student work, I'll take the first page, flip it over to hide the name, and then pass it around the room. The students learn more by hearing their own work read and reading that of others aloud than they do cooking up nonsensical "feedback." The "workshop" format merely produces what Hemingway would call "the camp-following eunuchs of literature."

In any case, I started to read Billy's story, which is terse and dramatic without being silly. Since I always get emotional about the whole Iraq disaster, the tears were flowing before I finished the first page. It was then that I looked up to see Mr. Clayhouse striding out of the class on his long cowboy legs. His face bore no expression, but it was clear that I had ruined his story with my ostentatious preamble. I'd gone too far, and I'd sapped all the power from his work.

We ended up reading the entire story. I don't think any other students recognized it as Billy's work because it was so different from the cryptic animal fables he's produced in the past. When we finished reading the piece, a hush fell over the room. The silence was more telling than a dozen lectures by blubbering academics ever could be, and Billy missed this valuable lesson because he was chased off by my longwinded tirade.

In any case, I hope that he returns to class so that I can take him aside and apologize. I have no problem admitting when I fuck up...another trait that separates me from Republicans...and it happens all too often. I can even try to pull some strings and get the story in The Atlantic, though it needs a bit of polish first. On the way home I bought a loaf of French bread from the only good baker in town, then fixed a (frozen) lobster bisque, albeit with fresh organic cream and an astounding Pouilly Fuisse I rediscovered in the bottom of my wine fridge. I steamed some carrots on the side. This is a meal designed specifically for the riddance of guilt, and it was a resounding success. I am nonetheless going to try to make amends for Mr. Clayhouse.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A separation

And so my publishers officially released me. They claim this public journal to be a violation of my contract. This is ironic in that they've been refusing to undertake my memoir project for years. It's strange to think that we can never truly own our histories. I suppose the story of my life now belongs only to you, dear readers.

This is essentially the outcome for which I'd hoped, though now that I find myself without a publisher for the first time in thirty years I'm a bit disoriented. I'm like a brook trout plucked from her silver world, wide-eyed, gills aching for oxygen. What's more, my agent is beginning to lose patience. I've two novel manuscripts in my desk drawer that she hasn't been able to place. "The time is not right," was one of her comments. "Too political and not in your voice," was another. Oddly, I think they're among my best works. Perhaps the world is no longer interested in literary thrillers by an aging, leftist, overweight, overbearing sensualist. Better, I suppose, to allow Richard Clarke, Barbara Boxer and Scooter Libby to write novels. Why does the world need novelists when there are celebrities and politicians?

I've sworn off lamenting the state of literature--Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both do such a fine job of exemplifying the decline of American Letters. There's no need for me to stand by the side of the road holding a sign announcing the obvious. But still, how I mourn for that long lost Paris of the '20s and her scrappy American ex-pats. Now lovely Paris is burning, and I am filled with black ass.

On another note, Miss Puppycute stopped by the office today with bran muffins. I was touched. She said that last week she noticed how I have been gasping for breath when arriving to class, and that I've been averaging ten minutes late rather than my usual five. Her father (an SBC minister!) suffered a recent heart attack, and the experience attuned her to such things. She suggested I change my eating habits. I protested, making a case for red wine, garlic, foie gras, brisk walks and acrobatic sex. She blushed, but we had a nice chat. When she left my office, Nawaz said that he thought her a "lovely girl."

Woe

Talked last night with my first wife, Lila. She was terrifically clever and funny, as always, but also warmer than in the past. I wept as I hung up the phone. She married a Republican--a successful fellow by conservative measure, that being purely financial. Lila sounds happy on the surface.

But to purge the usual regret, I started cooking and called Nawaz, who is the closest thing I have to a friend in this place. He brought a whole chicken, which we opened like a book and doused in olive oil, lemon and sage then grilled. I made gnocchi, but it was too slimy. My chopped olive sauce tasted fine, though it was the consistency of toothpaste. Overall it would have been a failure save for a decent grigio I found at, of all places, Aldi. Nawaz left with a copy of Leaves of Grass and book of poems by my friend Ted Kooser, who is finally getting attention after years as the most underrated American poet. I was still blue, so I ran several student papers from my 101 class through the shredder, though oddly this didn't cheer me.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Second admonishment: seven sins of topic selection

Unfortunately, as part of the contract securing my employment, I am forced to teach one section of "Rhetoric and Composition 101," the prerequisite writing course for all majors. Fortunately, the interest level of these students is even lower than my own, so my workload is rather lax. Still, I feel it necessary to offer some advice should any student in such a course wish to avoid having her instructor crumple and then urinate upon her assignment, as I did last night while grading essays after a few glasses of tawny port.

The simple avoidance of the following themes or vehicles in an essay or work of fiction can greatly increase your odds of success:

1) Grandma dies - Don't they all?

2) And then I wake up to find that it was only a dream - Bad enough in a freshman with third-grade vocabulary, but middle-age graduate students? How did you get in the program? Whom do you read? What fucking planet are you from?

3) The [accidental death/suicide] of my [friend/cousin/sibling] makes me aware, for the first time in my young life, of my own mortality - Less stimulating than the account of your first bowel movement on a big-person potty.

4) The church mission trip to Guatemala - Hmm, let me see, how will it end? Do you, perhaps, return to suburban Dallas after having faced this direst of poverty with a renewed appreciation of how blessed you are to be a citizen of the USA? And did the Mayan family--for whom you slapped together a few bricks and handed a sack of corn, a case of bottled water, plus a trunkload of Jerry Falwell pamphlets--mention that they used to subsist growing their own maize until NAFTA and other "free" trade policies disrupted six-thousand years of corn culture, driving them off their ancestral land and slamming them up against our newly militarized border, forcing them to take factory jobs for three bucks a day (jobs, that, incidentally, used to belong to the likes of Uncle Johnny [now alcoholic] in Des Moines)? Of course, they weren't able to tell you because you never bothered to learn any Tzeltal, let alone Spanish. But I'm sure they appreciated the literature, as anything bearing the bloated visage of Rev. Falwell makes wonderful toilet paper.

5) Grandpa dies.

6) First hunting trip with Dear Old Dad - Courtesy of my good friend, Mike Curtis, fiction editor of The Atlantic.

7) Spring Break in [Daytona/Puerto Vallarta/NameYourBeachHere] - A sand-crusted, drunken orgy is neither original nor particularly appealing, and what really astounds the Trout is not the two girls from Ohio who sneak you past their chaperone into their motel room where they simultaneously fiddle with your privates, rather the complete lack of imagination American Youth show in selecting travel destinations. It causes one to wonder which is the greater of our cultural afflictions: fast food or MTV? Both seem manifestations of the corporate institutionalization of boredom...now there's a topic for an essay.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Black ass

"Black ass" is what Hemingway called his dark moods. Black ass is what likely killed him. My therapist tells me that my own depression is hardly lethal; apparently my ego provides counterbalance. Still, he says that it's something to watch.

Whatever the case, my visions seem to have brought the black ass upon me with a vengeance. I cancelled class, locked myself away, sneaking out only to buy a capon and truffles. I roasted it in, as the French say, funerary style with the truffles stuffed under the skin. Fresh sage and olive oil (xx), plus black pepper. New potatoes. Accompanied by my lovely '99 San Gimignano riserva, though my stock is dwindling.

Still this did not alleviate my condition. Ms. Puppycute came to my door. She plays by the book and probably couldn't stand for the cancelled class. I stood in my bathrobe, staring at her through the spyhole, and then I hid behind my sofa until she stopped knocking.

Finally, I called my oldest daughter, even though I don't like to worry the girls with my nonsensical brooding. They tend to fuss over me like mother hens. Ella is in culinary school and Billie is studying at the Foreign Service School at Georgetown. She hopes to join the Peace Corps and then serve in USAID. I tell her to say 'hi' to John Bolton, but she says, "Some of us need to fight from the inside." She's right, of course.

Billie Trout: Hello?

Daddy Trout: (attempting good cheer) Meine Engeleinchen!

Billie Trout: Oh no, what's wrong Daddy? You sound awful.

Daddy Trout: Nothing's wrong, just checking in...

Billie: You're lying.

Daddy: Drat! Just a black ass. No big deal. How's life, Daughter?

Billie: Daddy, tell me, are you okay?

Daddy: I'm fine. Just a little blue. This one isn't so bad. Lonely, I guess.

Billie: I'm sorry...we all worry, even Mom. Why don't you call her? That might help. She says how she misses you often.

Daddy: I'm glad she and I are friends again, but I couldn't handle that right now. Can I come to DC for a few days? We'll hit Etrusco and check out Francesco's latest menu. We'll drink too much wine, talk loud, act like rubes, snort at anyone who looks Republican.

Billie: Sorry, I'd love it, but I'm giving a paper at a conference in Miami this weekend.

Daddy: Rats. Next weekend?

Billie: I've got an exam...Thanksgiving's coming up, maybe we'll get together then.

Daddy: Isn't there a Harry Chapin song that goes something like that? (starts to sing)

Billie: Don't, Daddy...you'll make me cry. I promise I'll call you every day.

Daddy: Bless you.

She ended up recommending a brisk walk while there's still a few leaves and before the winter slop sets in. How I miss the pristine whiteness of my home country, even with the forty-below days and the cabin fever. I drove to a nearby state park and did a seven mile loop, laboring over some of the ravines. I sat on a cliff watching a redtail hawk coasting on the thermals. The walk served me well. At home I rolled some lobster ravioli, albeit the lobster was frozen. A cold tomato-cucumber sauce and the last of my San Gim. riserva. Tomorrow should be better.

Wrong

I refuse to read, or allow to be read in my classroom, a work of prose containing any of the following as a fictional character: a vampire, an ex-Navy SEAL, a talking unicorn, a dwarflike creature with hairy feet, a television celebrity, a private investigator, Spock, the President of the United States.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Memory as fiction

I saw her in the shower. (And, no, the Trout has not stooped to stalking coeds in their dorms.) Instead it was the apparition, that delicate afterimage of the young woman I loved in the last weeks of my childhood. I was wiping the steam from my shower door this morning when I saw her distorted visage through the melted glass. She haunts me relentlessly. She's appeared with regularity after each of my divorces, and also when the marriages in question were going badly, though I don't know what it means that she's returning to me now. My doctor fussed over my blood pressure during my last visit, so perhaps I'm nearing the end of the voyage.

In any event, this has all made me realize that when I write about events from more than half a lifetime ago, I know I'm not doing so as a journalist. Memory distorts, filters and shapes the past the same way melty shower door glass does ghosts. In essence, memory--paired with time--becomes true fiction. All good memoir is fiction. All bad memoir is a laundry list punctuated by self-congratulation.

I'm reminded of a student from one of my first workshops years ago around the time my novels stopped selling. This fellow was a rock 'n roller, with frizzy hair and decked in beads and baubles. He wore a flannel work shirt with the sleeves cut off. There was a wolf tattoo on one arm, and a skull and crossed bones on the other. I told the students to think back to their childhoods and fish out an image. Then see that image again on paper, telling it as if they're imagining it for the first time. They were given twenty minutes to write, and then asked to read. After each reading, there was a brief discussion (bad idea). I still vaguely remember this young man's opening: "I stand on the edge of the bay. The lights on the boats are like stars and there is no horizon..." When he finished, a brash girl...the sort to garner perfect grades through the force of her will and dominate classroom discussions...raised her hand.

Girl: I don't like it. It's weak.

Trout: How's so?

Girl: It doesn't really follow the assignment. It doesn't sound like a memory, it sounds like a made-up story.

Trout: Ahhh.

Of course, that girl's own scene started something like this: "It was the night of the big slumber party..." Need I say more? I suppose that some people will never understand fiction (or memory). And it's unfortunate, for me anyway, that so many of these people find their way into creative writing classes.

Incidentally, the young fellow from the workshop cut his hair, published three novels, and now lives in Shiprock where he works with a Native American youth violence program. I still receive his letters and enjoy them immensely.

Mr. Clayhouse evolves

Billy's latest story is an astonishing improvement. A mill worker from South Carolina drives seven hours to visit his recovering daughter, a nineteen-year-old helicopter mechanic recently returned from Iraq where an IED ripped off half of her face. He sits outside her hospital room, face buried in his hands, unable to go in. Significantly, none of this is sensationalist or even melodramatic. It's difficult material, but Clayhouse pulls it off with his clipped prose. To keep himself from trembling, the father character recounts recipes from his long-dead grandmother, a half-black, half-Seminole woman who concocted miracles out of butchers' offal and whatever she could grow in the red clay garden of her sharecropper's shack. Incidentally, I copied several of the recipes (pork jowls, lard-fried greens) for my own collection as they are so similar to my mother's German delicacies. Any would be grand with a Riesling or, better yet, a Gew├╝rztraminer. I'm debating whether to send the story to an editor friend at a large East Coast magazine, but then he always warns me that I can be swayed through witnessing a student's improvements. It's best to put it in a drawer for a time and give it a fresh look. At the very least, it would be solid foundation for the student literary journal, a project with which I'm afflicted next semester.

Monday, November 7, 2005

A Short History of a Salmonid: Answers to Some Questions

While my opinions on inane questions from novice writers seem to have left some leery of posting their thoughts (yes, there is such a thing as a dumb question), a few intrepid readers have emailed some worthy inquiries. I will answer them here.

Recommended reading? Anything and everything. I preferred the Great Russians as a youth. No other country has had such a literary run, and while the socioeconomic and cultural reasons behind this are fascinating and warrant volumes, I will only say: Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak, Gogol, Pushkin. One should even included Nabokov, especially his early German and Russian works. Next, read all of the Moderns. The world has never seen such a gathering as Paris in the '20s. Where you go from there is your choice. I preferred Hemingway because I grew up not three hundred miles from his boyhood home and because all youths essentially grasp Nick Adams. There's a literary line that, uniquely American in style, can be traced from Hemingway to Carver until the Iowa Workshop finally killed it off. And I'm not just saying this because I was fired from that program after teaching there for only three weeks.

Fraud? Yes, incidentally, people have accused me of imitating both Jim Harrison and Garrison Keillor. Also Rick Bass. In truth, all three are better writers than I, though Mr. Bass's first book, "The Watch," came out long after my last good novel was published. As for the other two, we are all largeish northerners with rural roots. There are obvious differences. I consider Mr. Harrison a dear friend and a better fisherman. I know Mr. Keillor only through radio, and I thank him for his work. If I've stolen anything, my only defense is lack of imagination and what Mr. Costello concedes: "Any good artist is both a thief and a magpie."

Origins of the species? My mother was born and raised in Berlin. Being Catholic and Jewish, her family fled before the war for obvious reasons. My father was likewise part German, and part rural Mississippi, hailing from Chicago. They met at a dance where he was the drummer in a polka band. They settled down on a dairy farm, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Music? Billie Holiday first stirred me. I initially thought there was an angel trapped inside the little transistor radio I clutched up in the hayloft as a little boy; it was the only place on the farm where I could receive the jazz station from Milwaukee. I was obsessed with her for some time. When I hit puberty, the sound of her voice alone could cause the ermine to stir in his warren...still the only woman who has been able to accomplish this feat through singing (discounting those saucy female hip hop artists). Ella Fitzgerald is glorious. Louis Armstrong. The flute concertos of Frederick the Great. The usual Germans and Austrians, including the Strausses, Beethoven, Mozart, even Wagner. More recently: Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash's later albums, John Prine, Bonnie Rait, Steve Earle. All the blues musicians, especially Buddy and Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, Son Seals and Big Daddy Kinzie.

If I could be any other writer, who would it be? An inane question, but still somewhat intriguing, so I'll answer it as my mood allows. It would be Arundhati Roy, who has created a new genre of music with her prose. I would give all my remaining hours on the stream to write like her for three minutes. I don't know if I'd actually want to "be her" as that would rob me of the pleasure of falling in love with her, which I've done on three separate occasions. The last time was when we were co-panelists at an anti-war roundtable, and I was so smitten that I walked for three hours through Central Park in driving sleet, contracting viral pneumonia. I eagerly await her second novel, which is long overdue.

Fishing? I actually prefer brookies to brown trout. I love fishing the clear streams of my home country where the fish are so skittish that a misplaced #22 midge on 2-weight line can clear a quarter-mile stretch. I don't mind those one-fish days at all. The roiling waters of the west are fine, but I'll as soon fish for bass, walleye or northern pike with a crank bait. In my newest "home waters" they tell me that a tan fabrication known as a "woolly bugger" is the best fly, but I've had no luck. I'd sooner use my midge rod for panfish. All trout, however, are gorgeous creatures, the fly being the best way to take them. But I'm no snob: I'll fish with a worm and bobber from a dock if it suits me.

Are any writing programs worthwhile? Sure. My good friend Ed Doctorow runs one of the best at NYU. Also, Columbia College (Chicago), which another friend, the longtime fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has called "the true home of the American story." Both are urban institutions, and the non-homogeneous nature of the studentry surely amplifies the rare ability of the instructors.

Food for fiction? Ah, the most intrepid question of all. My favorite meal is always my most recent excellent dining experience. It depends, too, on season. Braised lamb. Steamed asparagus. Sauteed oyster mushrooms (no more than 1 day from harvest). Pair this with a quality Coates du Rhone of your choice, or even a grassy Sauvegnon Blanc. I've also had luck with this fall table: crostini with tomatoes and olive oil (extra, extra), risotto con fungi al porcini, roasted chingili (Italian wild pig). This would be paired with a good Brolio or Montalpulciano (or even Montalcino). For dessert, apple slices with fresh lime-raspberry glaze and a glass of espirito santo.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

A dryad

Last night I awoke in a sweat, my head filled with a pale vision from my youth.

As a youngster I'd strip and swim upsidedown, underwater and upstream with my eyes open gazing at the willows and surrounding hills. The water in Black Earth Creek was so cold, clear and lazy that staring through it sharpened rather than distorted the landscape. When I tired of fighting the current, I'd surface and float on my back, the current carrying me to my point of ingress.

One September afternoon, as I worked upstream and studied the helicopter pattern of falling leaves from streamside trees, a pale shadow suddenly eclipsed the view. I felt like an ancient Phoenician staring down at a mer-creature, only in reverse. (Maybe this was the beginning to my affinity with the trout, this experience being so similar to their encounter with an osprey or heron looming from the bank.)

Startled, I bumped my head on a rock and surfaced, sputtering. Standing on the shore was a girl. She was whiter than new snow and wore her long yellow hair like a shawl. She had blue eyes, and she covered a giggle with thin fingers. I realized that I now stood mid-thigh in the stream, and my equipment was shriveled from the frigid water like discolored prunes. I sidestepped into a chestdeep trouthole, and tried to recover some dignity. She said that I was the strangest fish she'd ever seen, and I blushed purple and stammered, so captivated by her cool, white radiance.

The rest is a story for another time, but Gerda Tannhauser and I grew fast friends. She soon became something of an obsession, and though we often swam naked together in Black Earth Creek without so much as a twitch from the old ermine, I lusted after her, lying awake at night with my desire clenched in my fist like a hatchet handle. We kissed, petted, but no more than that because later that year she died in a car accident along with her whole family. Their father had taken them to the theatre in Madison, a drive of nearly three hours. On the return trip, a log fallen from a skidder parked alongside the road forced him to swerve into a stand of white pine. They were seven miles from home.

It was Gerda who stared at me this morning in the half-light between sleep and wakefulness, looming over me like the pale apparition I'd seen from the river all those years ago. I recalled her giggle, and I suddenly realized that were I to swim naked in Black Earth Creek now I'd be likely mistaken for a manatee. The mirth faded, replaced with a longing for all the women I've loved and lost, including Gerda and my three ex-wives; all of them had been perfect companions. It's hard to live life with so many severed limbs. I couldn't sleep, so I went to the kitchen and downed four glasses of Chinese plumb wine, music from a student house party pulsing at the edge of my hearing. I finally fell asleep with my head on the table, awaking a few hours later with a pinch in my neck, staring at a puddle of drool. I'm resigned to being haunted for the balance of the week, if not longer.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

First admonishment

Nothing so gives away the overeager novice, and annoys seasoned writers more, than talking about your fictional characters as if they're real people. This is particularly bad anywhere outside the confines of the classroom. I took a pair of students to a roadhouse after Tuesday's class, and one girl said, upon entering, "Callie and Hoss would love this kind of place...they met in a bar, you know, though I haven't written that scene yet..."

She's a decent writer, but that moronic comment has just cost her a whole letter grade.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Brown Trout as "Black Walt Whitman"

A fellow writing instructor recently said over drinks, in reference to my beard and complexion, "You look like a Black Walt Whitman."

So browbeaten has he been by political correctness that he immediately blushed and stammered trying to retract his statement, but I came to his rescue by laughing and then reciting the "grass, the uncombed hair of graves" passage from Leaves of Grass in a Brer Rabbit accent. Nothing so diffuses embarrassment over an accidental racial faux pas like blatant racism. In hindsight, though, I should have made him squirm.

I don't think of myself as African American, owing only 25% of my lineage to that demographic, but still I suppose most people see me and consider me at least as "black" as Colin Powell. In truth I can grow a mean afro. It's just that growing up in the Great White North, where I was a novelty being the only swarthy kid outside the natives (who kept to their reservation), gave me an appreciation of my unique condition partnered with a complete lack of cultural contact with the greater African American community. There are times, obviously, when I take great pride in my "dark quarter." I love being the only "black" trout fisherman on the stream. I love to say, for example: "My people are responsible for the only good and unique cultural qualities to come out of this nation: Creole cooking, jazz, rock 'n roll, blues, country (banjo), gospel, hip hop, Southern fried everything, Southern accents, &c, &c, &c." This sort of statement always comes off as patronizing and even loony when coming from a "white" person. I rarely mention that I'm three-quarters German Oom-Pah and only one-fourth Delta Blues, but who cares? I've got the color, and I use it as I am able.

Am I a black Walt Whitman? Dunno. I have published a few volumes of verse. But two of my wives were lily-white, and my daughters have been known to sunbathe to "get more color;" they look more Italian than anything. I suppose I'm light-brown with a touch of caramel.

My man Friday

Three signs that the Armageddon is upon us: our nation is lead by an aristocratic chimpanzee; the snows of Kilimanjaro have melted; I now have a new teaching assistant.

Of course, he is not the savory coed for whom I had hoped.

I at first thought that Nawaz was on the wrong floor when he showed up at my office door. After all, the elevator is rickety and unreliable. I saw his swarthy complexion, the shining part in his hair, the greasy smudge of his mustache; I knew right off he wasn't a writing student. Being brown myself, I'm acutely aware of how much darker I am that the rest of the writing program faculty and students; the complexion of your typical state university MFA student springs from somewhere between St. Paul, Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota.

My director had capitulated after my incessant grumbling and a few heated exchanges even though none of the other writing faculty has a teaching assistant. Our department is poorly funded as it's a relatively new program. What's more, no fiction writing alums go on to make a living wage, let alone enough to give charitably to their alma mater. But to her credit, the director turned the paperwork over to the student employment office. I did my best to skew the job description toward the feminine, as my main motivation for the position is to fill my office with what my blue collar friends refer to as "sweater meat." I specifically requested a strong writer with influences ranging from Jane Austen to Jane Hamilton, excellent penmanship, theatre or drama experience and a soprano singing voice. I also added a maximum weight of 120 lbs, though I left the reason for this requirement blank as I couldn't think of any way to justify it.

What I got was Nawaz.

I was, of course, livid.

This Pakistani architectural student does have excellent penmanship. And despite his six-foot frame, the gawky fellow probably meets my weight requirement. His English is passable once you get past the accent, but when I asked him who his favorite writers were he rattled off a list of engineering academics.

Prof. B. Trout: Tell me Nawaz, do you read fiction?

Nawaz: Feek-shone?

B.Trout: Heavens!

I tried to frogmarch him out of the office, but he clung to my desk and verged on tears as he begged me to keep the job. It turns out he was short on funds and was unwilling to write to his father in Islamabad, despite the man's wealth, because the extra money always came with unreasonable conditions and browbeating.

Nawaz: (visibly sweating) I can't go to my father...I would be shamed! Pleeeeze! Professor Trout, I need this work!

BT: How can you grade fiction when you don't even know what it is?

Nawaz, because of the terms of his student visa, cannot work outside the university. It being so late in the semester means that, if sent back, he will not find work until after the winter break. I took pity on his emaciation and finally resigned myself to not having a proper teaching assistant with which to decorate my office this semester.

BT: Okay, you've got the job. The rules: show up only on payday and I'll sign your time sheet.

Nawaz: But that would not be honorable. I will stay the required hours.

BT: Christ!

And so he sat on a stool by my window, grinning, reminding me of one of those dark and lanky Etruscan sculptures I saw in Volterra at last summer's workshop. I sat fuming, smoking my pipe despite the building's uncivilized ban on fumer. Finally, just for kicks, I tossed Nawaz a stack of papers and a red pen.

Nawaz: What shall I do?

BT: Grade these. Pick a letter...A, B or C. Write it at top. Circle a few words at random and place either an exclamation point or a question mark in the margin near each one. Scratch a few notes on the last page.

Nawaz: What sort of notes?

BT: Use your imagination. It's a fiction class.

Nawaz: Is this honorable?

B. Trout: It's an exercise (lie). I'm trying to teach them (another lie) to look at their work from a different, random perspective.

Despite my crushed hopes and my frustration at not having a female assistant, the mischievous devil on my shoulder looks forward to the outcome of Nawaz's grading efforts. After all, my students have been demanding more feedback. For my part, I've begun to put together a meal plan that will properly fill out this Pakistani skeleton. Nawaz is Muslim, albeit upper-class and secular, but I'm still careful to avoid pork. The South Asian section of my food library is robust, and I'm excited because I haven't put it to use in some time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Pork loin for Mr. Clayhouse

Had an experience today to make this entire writing school concept seem less inane.

A student, a laconic, tallish, thirtyish, square-jawed fellow, asked this lucid question after class: what should a writer eat? Like anyone who has toured the MFA reading circuit in order to whore up a few bucks for poorly bound reprints of novels long past their relevance, I hate the standard post-reading, eager-young-writer questions: when is the best time to write? is it better to write longhand or on a keyboard? do you recommend using an outline (Lord please deliver me)? do you have any advice for aspiring writers, &c, &c, &c.

Ah, but what a writer should eat...this is a question of literary merit.

Billy Clayhouse, the student in question, is an Okie with Kiowa roots. Unlike that playacting aristocrat that is Our Leader, Clayhouse has the bearing of a true cowboy. His western jeans, his crewcut and his pearl button shirts are not affectations. He hasn't said two words in class until now, except to read from his work, and then his voice is steady and clipped, like his prose. In his own way, he often tops Miss Puppycute when it comes to pure style, his only drawback being the fact that none of his work, up to this point, has featured any human beings. I'm all for dogs and cats as characters in narrative, but it's people that make fiction pulse. Clayhouse has featured an owl, a coyote, prairie chickens, a covey of quail, etc. But then, to the traditional Kiowa, animals are people and vice versa.

In any case, we spoke at length about the usual reduction sauces and the importance of restraint in a marinade. I recommended "Dad's Own Cookbook," which Harrison, the pre-eminent foodie, touts as essential for anyone starting from scratch. I've no doubt Clayhouse could do justice to a rabbit spitted over a campfire, but his skills are otherwise fairly raw. He mentioned macaroni and cheese as a staple, which caused me to shudder. I realized, then, that this was no pampered trustfunder or the recipient of suburban largess...this was a fellow working his ass off (golf course grounds crew) in order to eke his way through, of all things, an MFA program.

In any event, I shared a very simple grill recipe featuring pork loin ribs marinated in olive oil (extra, extra), fresh lime, orange peel and black pepper, then rolled in dried rosemary and seared before a gentle, slow grilling. Serve with steamed carrots (lime butter sauce) and some Ojibway rice. We strolled to my apartment where I bestowed on him a bottle of San Giminagno white, which I gave him permission to refrigerate, this being appropriate only for a novice.

For the first time in my playacting at professor, I feel as if I've made strides with a student.