Thursday, December 15, 2005

A double agent and a perfect nursemaid

Intrepid readers will recall that prior to the troubles with my faulty ticker, I sent a student, Ms. Elizabeth Lowell, on an assignment to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing Mr. Clayhouse. My idea was innocent enough, to have an attractive student befriend the stoic veteran recently returned from a war zone and ascertain if he is in need of special attention. She was then to report back to me and we'd plan an appropriate course of action.

Perhaps I was reading too much into the fact that he was skipping my classes. After all, if I were a student I'd skip my classes, nevermind the war. But in any case, Ms. Lowell is the pedantic sort to follow through with even such a strange assignment with all due seriousness.

And did she follow through.

Today could have been classified as a late, late Indian summer, or perhaps a hint of early spring. It was fifty degrees, warm enough to leave the flat in only sweater (and pants, of course). I was out for my morning walk. The doctor had advised me that I should be noticeably less winded after mild exercise than I was before last week's angioplasty, but I'm afraid I feel worse. I rested by the pond in the park and enjoyed the sight of a juvenile bald eagle feasting on a goose that had died and frozen in the ice of the lake. Feathers were scattered like tickertape, the rough hackles and pinions of the eagle making him appear brash and full of the youthful vigor that has so completely abandoned this old fish. I literally wept and was even tempted to rush home and phone a confession to both my daughters, from whom I've withheld any mention of my condition. They've enough to worry about.

After thirty minutes on the bench I was chilled, so I walked across the quadrangle and along sorority row in the stately district where the wealthy academics live. It was there that I was shocked to find Ms. Lowell strolling my way alongside the lanky Billy Clayhouse, their hands interlaced, engaged in energetic conversation. In their free hands they were both holding black, leatherbound copies of the Holy Bible (KJV!). I noticed that while Billy's copy was brand new, Ms. Lowell's was worn and bookmarked, and it had a yellow "Support Our Troops" sticker on the back. They were so engrossed in one another that they were startled when I came upon them.

Prof. Trout: (through clenched teeth) Ms. Lowell

Ms. Puppycute: Professor Trout!

P. Trout: Mr. Clayhouse.

Billy: (nodding) Mr. Trout.

P. Trout: (brusque, eyeing Bible) Ms. Lowell...I'd like to have a word with you about the assignment we discussed last week. Could you meet me in the office on Monday?

Ms. Puppycute: Of course! I think it's going well! (winks) We just finished Bible study at the Baptist student center.

P. Trout: (grimace) Heavens!

I left with a thumping heart, gasping for breath, my bowels quivering with rage and despair. Had the fundamentalist lass managed to convert him in less than a week? I cursed my stupidity. I should have known better than to trust her. Had she preyed (prayed) upon a young fellow in a delicate state of mind, converting him to her perverted form of what, until Constantine, had been a perfectly sound spiritual practice? I'm all for spirituality. I married a Catholic, a Jew and a Wiccan/Lutheran, and I found consolation in all of their respective religions. I own autographed copies of most of Elaine Pagels' works and I consider both Jim Wallis and Rev. Jesse Jackson true friends and spiritual advisors. But I was now astounded. Nothing can ruin a writer faster or more completely than "praise" music. I quickly ticked off the various disasters that engulfed many of the Vietnam Vets I've known upon their return: suicide, homelessness, heroine or meth dependence, financial ruin, divorce, alcoholism. Clearly fundamentalism is the worst possible scenario.

I waddled home and frantically downed two glasses of medicinal Pinot Noir (as a kind reader astutely suggested) and lay on the couch for an hour or more, unable to close my eyes.

Fortunately, Shirleen, my delicate flower and diligent nursemaid, came over. Reading my state, she instantly began to cook. She simmered the carcass of last night's grilled chicken for ninety minutes to make soup, throwing in a bit of everything in the fridge, most notably shallots, two full bulbs of garlic, carrots, shitakes, potatoes, celery, plus the neck and livers, which we saved. She fussed over me on the couch, taking my temperature and bringing a cold cloth for my forehead. I was reminded of the youngish nurse who tended to me in my youth as I recovered from an appendectomy. We used ether in those days, and I was sore, sick and vomiting, each bout of wretching causing my belly to burn. As miserable as I felt, I still was stirred as the short-skirted nurse busied herself about my room. And when she slipped her warm hands under the sheets to check the bandages on my belly, I coughed and blushed as my little soldier rose to greet her. "Oh my," she exclaimed and then winked.

Shirleen's ministrations had the same effect on me this evening, though I won't say more as I am a gentleman.

In any event, I'm quite worried about Mr. Clayhouse. Last month I thought that I was finally helping to create a writer for the first time in my teaching career. Now I fear that I've lost his soul to the dark side. Damnitalltohell!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Third admonishment: avoid the Great American Lobotomy Machine

Apologies to my late environmentalist friend, Ed Abbey, for the title of this little granule of literary advice.

The icepick lobotomy was a poignant harbinger of America's free-market free-for-all medical system. Dr. Freeman (sic), the procedure's founder, was a showman with entrepreneurial spirit. He made a great splash scrambling thousands of brains. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't...oh well, he profited from the practice. Kind of reminds you of the approach taken by the big drug firms these days, don't it? "Everbody's got to die sometimes," or so goes a line in my compadre Steve Earle's song about privatized medicine.

But there exists a more effective scrambler of brains than the famous icepick of old. It is known as the tee vee. I've read that the average American adult drools for twenty-five hours each week in front of the flickering tube. Even my literary friends are drawn to it more and more lately. But don't buy into this myth of "haute television," those programmes one finds on the non-network channels including "Sopranos" and that series about the funeral parlor. I've seen none of these, but you won't get me to believe for a moment that just because they're "racy," display the occasional boob or bared buttock, and incorporate taboo phrases (pee pee, doo doo, crimeny, crapola, darn, &c, &c) into their dialog that they've strayed far from the fifteen-or-so plot formulae recycled since the dawn of the serial drama.

And so my advice to anyone serious about the art of fiction is to chuck the flickering square beast out the window. As a writer, words are your commissary, and none exist in TV land. Fiction is about following image to story, not formula. Reading requires that you bring your brain to the table, while tee vee is spoon feeding.

I did the math. At twenty-five hours per week, writing at the pitch I attained when producing my three most successful novels, one could pen a long novel every two years. What's more, there still would be enough time left over to pick up a new language every five years (mine include German, into which I was born, plus conversational Spanish, Italian; workable French, Quechua and Tzeltal), learn a half-dozen classical studies on the guitar annually, and read a difficult novel every two months. This on top of your subscription to The Economist or the Guardian Weekly, and the essential daily Lorca, Whitman, Kooser, etc.

Of course the above schedule would require a healthy amount of self-discipline, of which I have little. I'm slovenly and slothful and given to month-long fishing tangents and culinary projects that can consume days, if not weeks. If I'd turned on the tee vee for anything other than the occasional football match on a Sunday afternoon (the closest I come to practicing a traditional religion), I'd have much less to show for my life than my few, meager literary achievements.

You can salvage absolutely nothing from an hour wasted in front of the boobie tubie. The occasional rented film is fine relaxation, at times verging on thoughtful art, but every additional hour you spend on the couch is an hour stolen from your literary life. Food, fishing, walking, reading, sex, and travel, on the other hand, are all pursuits that have relevance and tend to inform your craft. Given my faulty ticker, wasted time is much on my mind of late. Avoid the lobotomy machine, aspiring writers, and the odds that you will finish a novel or two during the course of your tenure on Mamma Earth will greatly improve.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Brown bears, walruses and my jealous angina

Angina sounds like the name of a muse. Perhaps she is. And maybe she's jealous of my lovely Shirleen.

I won't go into the details of our copulation out of respect for my new girliefriend. I've tweaked enough of the details of her appearance and situation, I hope, to render her unidentifiable.

We made love on the couch after dinner. I think that the athletic Shirleen was surprised by the quality of my performance, and the vigor with which I engaged the situation. "Not bad for an old fatty, eh?" I asked as we lay there sweating. She was on top of me, her head on my chest, one hand twirling the end of my beard. "Not bad," she said, with a smirk and a wink. She said that lying on top of me was what it must feel like to recline on the belly of a slumbering grizzly. That made me think that "Brown Bear" might have been a better pseudonym.

We were almost asleep when she groaned, wearily, "Professor Trout, what are we going to do?" I felt that this could lead us into an uncomfortable discussion of the pragmatics of our situation, being teacher and student, so I said, "Let's go for a walk."

There is a state park at the edge of town, and a trailhead within walking distance from my flat. We strolled under a thick mat of fast-moving clouds, occasionally a hole opening to reveal a patch of starlight. We hiked several miles until we were both breathing heavy. I led her up a crest where there's a grove of towering maples. We sat with our backs to the trunk of one of these massive creatures, staring at the lights of campus and the various church steeples visible in the distance. Our breath formed ghostly clouds in the crisp air as we spoke. We talked about a great many things, though every time she tried to circle back to the subject of our future I successfully changed topics.

By the time we returned to my apartment I was quite winded and cursing my age under my breath. But Shirleen exhibited her youth. "Why don't you warm up the shower?" she said with the wink that summoned my second wind and caused the ermine to stir once more in his warren. I warned her that fitting into that tight space with me would be like cramming into a phone booth with a walrus. She laughed and said it sounded like fun.

I changed into my lucky silk robe and had the water running at full heat, steam filling the bathroom. She entered the bathroom, startling me. She was undressed and I stared at her, tears forming behind the bridge of my nose. Had the words not caught in my throat I would have proposed to her on the spot. I've learned nothing from my three marriages. Then Shirleen reached under my robe with her bare hands. My pulse pounded. Her hands were still freezing from our winter night walk, and the sensation of chilled fingers on my warm belly caused my throat to tighten. Suddenly I was breathing heavy and my lungs felt as if they were being squeezed by a giant fist. I sat down on the toilet, struggling for breath. The pain in my chest increased, and it felt as if my heart were inflated, raw and bleeding.

Half an hour later, we were in the emergency room. We were unfortunate in that we ran into my department chair. She'd broken her ankle tripping over her cat in the night on the way to the bathroom. She looked me up and down as I stood clutching my chest in my bathrobe, and then studied Shirleen. I was sure I'd lost my job, but Shirleen later lied and said that I'd randomly selected her from my student phone list after experiencing the chest pains because I was too proud and cheap for an ambulance, and Ms. Chair swallowed the story. Perhaps Shirleen will make a fine storyteller after all.

I was quickly diagnosed with the jealous angina I mentioned before. I was fortunate that I didn't suffer a heart attack, the doctor said. "What were you doing?" he asked. "Brisk walk," I replied. They prepared a room and scheduled me for angioplasty first thing in the morning.

The upshot is I have a confusing array of new pills and a dietary regimen that completely obliterates everything that is pleasurable in food. I'm sure there are plenty of tasty low cholesterol meals, but the very idea that I'm to avoid tripe and foie de gras sucks the life out of lesser foods. Fuckitall. The doctor saw something that caused concern...he's hoping I won't need a bypass. He said I should be noticeably less winded on my "walks" very soon, but if I don't show signs of improvement we may need to consider surgery. I'm taking a week off, though I'm having some of the better students stop by the flat for some coaching and advice before the semester ends. Nawaz has offered to cook my new lowfat menu. Even so, I've got a heavy dose of the black ass.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Poulet Demi-Deuil

Translated into English, it is roughly "chicken in partial mourning." A truly poetic dish. I don't have much strength at the moment for reasons I'll explain at length soon, but the least I could do was share this recipe, which had its desired effect. I am officially smitten with Ms. Tomasetti. I've also done an overnight stint in the county hospital. It's a long story. But for now:

-1 oz black truffles
-1 farm-raised (free range) hen...3.5.lbs
-salt/pepper as desired
-peeled carrots
-large leeks (include most of the green)
-1 red onion (substituted for yellow, which I despise)
-1 bulb garlic
-fresh, flat-leaf parsley sprigs
-fresh thyme sprigs
-unsalted butter
-heavy cream
-1 peeled turnip

Clean/rinse the truffles. Dry on paper towel. Slice.

Rinse chicken and insert your fingers between the skin and meat of the breast, careful not to tear. Slip truffle slices underneath skin in an attractive pattern. Rub chicken inside and out with salt and pepper.

Place hen in a pot with the vegetables. Cover with water and boil, then simmer 1.25 hours.

Remove chicken. Strain vegetables. Place vegetables in blender with butter/cream. Puree until smooth. Taste/adjust as needed. Serve chicken on bed of puree.
I served with fresh sauteed shitakes and a simple spinach risotto. Two bottles of Vouvray and a Merseault for good measure. I am in love, and my heart is literally broken. I'm going back to bed. Shirleen is bringing Thai this evening, and we're going to watch a rented movie. I have to return to the doctor's in the morning.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

A recipe for the seduction of Ms. Tomasetti

I must ask, dear readers, for your assistance. I've drawn a blank. Although I've never suffered from "writer's block" and consider it to be a myth concocted by people who really aren't writers but like pretending that they are, I have, on occasion, suffered from "culinary impotence." You see, I'm having a young woman over for dinner and I am in need of a meal plan. I've been through dozens of volumes from my food library and nothing calls to me. Imagine...the Brown Trout at a loss for recipes. The horror!

She showed up at my office door yesterday. A trace of perfume festooned the air of the little room as she entered. I smelled, at turns, hairspray, fingernail polish, the tang of nervous sweat (pheremones!), shampoo, and crisp autumn air rolling off the black leather of her jacket. When she spoke I thought I could detect the sticky-sweet scent of a cocktail on her breath. This old trout's sniffer still functions well; I spend too much time in training in the woods with my eyes closed, inhaling wild smells, for it not to. In short, she appeared ready for a night out.

She sat down in my beanbag chair. She seemed nervous. She fiddled with her fingers and looked down at her lap. Finally she steered the conversation from small talk to what she had on her mind.

Lovely Shirleen Tomasetti: So, you've made your nomination, I assume?

Frumpy Prof. Trout: Yes. I have.

Shirleen: And...(looks away)...I guess you made your choice based solely on merit.

Prof. Trout: I did.

Shirleen: In that case, you probably didn't select me.

Trout: Why would you say that?

Shirleen: Because I know I'm not a good writer.

Trout: That's bullshit, Shirleen.

Shirleen: (surprised) You did pick me?

Trout: In truth...

Allow me to interject here. Intrepid readers will recall my recent quandry, where I had three students from whom to choose for only two slots for a full scholarship and stipend. Shirl was clearly number three, if she was that high. But she also offers obvious advantages should a lecherous old writer be intrested in lavishing favors upon a young divorcee. In truth, I did suffer an ethical lapse in choosing the two writers to nominate. Billy Clayhouse, the best writer in my classes, didn't submit an application. I also couldn't reach him. So I performed a no-no and forged his application. I submitted it along with that of the bubbly Ms. Elizabeth Puppycute. I ran Shirleen's application through the shredder, weeping as I did.

Trout (cont'd.): In I'm only allowed two nominations, and I had applications from two better writers.

Shirleen: (eyes glistening) I see.

Trout: But if you try to say that it's because you're a bad writer, that's a fallacy.

Shirleen: (a sigh)

Trout: You've got all the tools. You're good with language. You just need to find what it is you're going to write about.

Shirleen: You've said that before, but I don't know what else I can do. You talk all the time about the "middlebrow domestic Iowa Workshop nonsense," and I know you're referring to me.

Trout: Not to you...

Shirleen: (a single tear leaking down a singular cheek) Yes...because that's what I write. I'm a "suburban" writer and you know it.

Trout: (meltyhearted) Some writers need to search to find what they want to write about...

She was openly weeping now, and my blubbering didn't help. But being a big, soft teadybear, I began crying as well. I rose from my chair and knealt by the beanbag. I took her hand and proceeded to recall, line for line, a passage from one of her stories. It's not that I'd memorized it, only that I'd been reading the piece when she knocked at the door so it was fresh in my mind. In truth, it wasn't bad. It was almost poignant, though it was a clear violation of my topic rules. Though it wasn't about the death of a grandparent, it did feature a girl standing by the edge of her aunt's hospital bed. In all, though, it was a decent scene.

She stopped weeping and watched me as I retold the scene. I'm a good reader. I'm no Garrison Keillor, who could engage an audience merely by reading the label of a soup can, but I can manage to add weight and power to a story whether it's there or not. I did my best.

I follwed by telling her again that she had the tools, which is completely true, but that she just needed to "spend some time in the trenches." She needed to travel. Cook. Wander in the woods. My native American friends understand this as well as anyone, as do, oddly, most Mormons.

Shirl: I guess you're right. I just don't know where to begin.

Trout: There's so many options. But, unfortunately, an MFA program may not be the best place to start looking.

Shirl: Maybe...maybe you could give me some ideas. Over dinner sometime (OVER DINNER SOMETIME!).

Trout: (speechless)

Shirl: (blush/smile) I mean...if that would be apporpriate...

Trout: (recovering) No, no...that's perfectly fine. Very appropriate! In fact...I'll have you over some evening. We'll discuss this matter seriously. I'll cook. It's an important conversation to have, and I haven't found a restaurant in this town yet that's reliable enough to trust for such a situation. How about...

Shirl: Tuesday?

Trout: Perfect!

And there you have it, readers. I've been racking my thoughts for the past two days. I've started a shopping list, but at the moment it contains 1) olive oil (xx) and 2) eggs and nothing else. Cookbooks are strewn about my apartment. I've spent hours on my favorite websites. I called Lucy, Most Favorite Ex-Wife Number Two, who was a glorious gourmet cook. I called my daughter Ella, a chef-in-training. I still have no idea what to prepare. I'm sick. Lovestruck over lovely Ms. Tomasetti. Please share your thoughts as to what I should prepare. My heart is twittering like a teenager's. O, the agony!

Friday, December 2, 2005

Prof. Trout's secret mission

Ms. Elizabeth Puppycute showed up at my office yesterday. This always causes Nawaz to sit at attention despite his gorgeous fiancée. He's got a crush on the girl, and for good reason. My first impression of this fundamentalistic lass was that of a schoolmarmish director of the youth choir. She is the spawn of a Baptist minister, so it fits. But she's changed during the course of the semester, or perhaps I have. I once sat on a cypress stump in a sulphurous, tick-infested Missouri swamp for so long that a mating pair of blue damselflies landed on my nose. After five hours it became the most beautiful place on earth despite the mosquitoes. Time and proximity can make you appreciate a place, and the same applies to people. Elizabeth's writing has also improved immensely during the course of the semester...she's started to stretch out thematically in a way that complements her dexterity with language. Creative talent, as mentioned in my previous post, is also an aphrodisiac.

So Ms. Lowell showed up and took off her overcoat. She's freckelfaced and curly-headed. She's no bombshell, but she's got a compact cutishness that she showed off by wearing a frumpy-yet-tight outfit entirely unsuited for the weather. She sat down in my guest beanbag chair. She sniffed and crossed her legs.

Puppycute: (expectant) You wanted to see me?

Prof. Trout: Ms. Lowell, I've got a mission for you.

Cute: You do?

Trout: Yes. It concerns another student. Billy know him?

Cute: (deflated) Oh. Yes. Not well...just from class.
Allow me to interject that Lowell is a self-conscious writer, though the term is an oxymoron. She needs reinforcement and support to continue working well. She's perhaps one of those rare creatures that can actually flourish in an MFA program, though I still think writing degrees are largely pointless. As she chewed her lip I realized that, in order to work with me to help someone else, I needed to grease the wheels a bit.
Trout: This is important. I'm asking you because I don't think anyone else in the class writes well enough to relate to Mr. Clayhouse. You're both similar in that you strike me as diamonds in the rough.

Cute: (brightening) You think so?

Trout: Sure! In any case. I'm worried about Billy. Haven't seen him in some time. Did you know he was in Iraq?

Cute: I heard that.

Trout: I've chatted with some of his friends in the ROTC. Seems he's kind of a loner. In any event, he hasn't shown for the past few classes. I've called him at answer.

Cute: (leans forward) So you want me to track him down?

Trout: (pretending not to examine cleavage) Yes.

Cute: Then what?

Trout: Ask him out to coffee.

Cute: Ask him out?

Trout: Not on a date. Just coffee. Or anything innocent and social. The library. A guest lecture. You know..."I'm a writer, you're a writer, let's talk about it..."

Cute: (cautious) Okay.

Trout: I just would like to know if he has any...concerns. And if there's anything I can do to help. Let me tell you a story: My cousin Hartmut served in Vietnam. He was a plumber and a fine duck hunting partner. He was quiet, carved his own decoys, enjoyed waxing his truck. A stoic woodsman, the kind of guy to build his own house without asking for help. When he got out of the service, he married, had three kids. He's making a good living. He’s a deacon in his church. One day he takes off into the marshes to build a duck blind. They find him three weeks later, smelling like road kill and strung up in a red cedar. He hung himself with his belt and left a note. It was three words: "It doesn't stop."

Cute: So you think Billy is the type to wig out like that?

Trout: Probably not, but I don't know. With his disposition, it's hard to say if anyone does. War sucks. It's hard on people, especially those who bottle it up. None of us who haven’t been there have any idea.

Cute: That's why we need to support the troops.

Trout: (swallowing a snort at the notion that platitudes and bumper stickers will keep someone from biting down on the business end of a shotgun) In so many words...

Cute: Okay...I'll do it. I'll find him.
She left the office resolute. She's the pedantic type to follow through on an assignment. After she left, Nawaz looked at me and asked me what I would do if Billy truly needs help. I told him that I have no fucking idea.