Friday, December 15, 2006


This is the only useful book on writing that I've ever encountered. Finally, a fiction "how-to" guide that doesn't flog the usual inane questions: when's the best time of day to write; do you use an outline; who's your greatest influence; when did you first know you wanted to be a writer; &c, &c. I'm frankly tired of hearing that Nabokov composed his novels on notecards or that Hemingway stood at his typewriter. This book cuts to what's most important in literature: the authors' favorite cocktails.

I hope Hemingway and Bailey collaborate again in the near future. Winter's approaching, rendering me an indoor creature for much of the bad weather, and that's when I do most of my cooking. I'd cherish a collection of recipes. My dear friend Jim Harrison could fill an entire chapter. I'm getting hungry already, hankering for Joel Rubichon's glorious, hearty Burgundian sauce that he slathers over everything from eggs to fish when the weather begins to bite. Add to that some shaved gruyere and a delicate Mersault and I'd be well stocked for a night at the Remington Rand.

Friday, June 23, 2006


I took the train to Rome to have lunch with my good friend Gore Vidal. "Gorino," as the Italians call him, was in town for a literary festival. He's as spirited and instightful as ever. Our party was large, but he was gracious, being sure to work his way to each of the writers seated at the table. I knew that he wanted to give each of us a chance to say what we're working on within earshot of the hovering journalists. A man who knows how to hold court.

When he leveled his beneficent gaze at me, he leaned back in his wheelchair and smiled.

"So, BT, how've you been occupying your time?"

"I'm in Florence at the moment. With a class."

"Ah, you've a reputation of taking great care with your students." (Chuckles around the table) "Finish that novel you told me about? It's due out, isn't it?"

I froze. From the shadows behind Gorino, an attractive arts columnist from Il Manifesto leaned forward, her pen poised over her notebook.

"Should be out soon," I lied. "Just slapping on another coat of polish, Gore. I've been a little busy lately."

"Fishing, no doubt," he said. "So what's it called...this novel?"

I smiled. Scratched my beard. I hate lying. "Hurricane Lili," I said. In truth this is the working title of one of my new manuscripts. But when you no longer have an agent or publisher, it's bad luck to toss around titles.

It was hard to enjoy the meal. Classic Roman cuisine, but I much preferred dinning with Gore and Howard at La Rondinaia before he moved back to the States. Howard was a true gourmand. His cooking put mine to shame. "Boy, you sure no how to put on a feed, Howard," I once said. They enjoyed when I played at being a rube with one of my midwesternisms. I miss long has he been gone now? I remember sitting on their balcony so many years ago, staring at the sea, sipping a glass of Nero d'Avola. Slowly the great mother rolls on her side and we all slip into the darkness. Time does us no favors.

On the train back to Florence I wept. It wasn't that I was bothered by my half-truths: I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that I'm in the twilight of my writing career. What bothered me was leaving a mentor behind. When you part with an older friend it is always sad, but especially so with one as vibrant as Gore. You always wonder if this meeting will be your last.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Yesterday would have been the thirtieth anniversary of my marriage to my first wife, Lila. She was (and I trust still is) an Irish Catholic lass with freckles and a taste for mischief in her lovemaking.

We fought often. In fact we fought constantly when we weren’t in bed. She’s an artist, a perhaps that was the problem. Creative types are certainly self-absorbed, and as marriage is all about sacrifice, a writer who marries an artist is asking for trouble. Someone has to do a bulk of the giving, and neither of us were willing to compromise. Though we never grew to be close friends in the way that Ruth (my second ex) and I did, there was a definite fire--a mixture of lust and devotion--that I’ve never been able to recreate. She gave me two gorgeous daughters, my finest achievement in life being those two brief acts of pollination.

I celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the marriage to my first wife by almost calling her. I sat next to the phone in my bathrobe, hand hovering over the receiver for the better part of an hour. Finally I gave up and fired up the grill. I had two venison round steaks marinating in a ziplock of olive oil, black pepper, garlic, sea salt and Pinot Noir. I tossed them on low heat next to a foil-wrapped, organically grown baking potato. I then sautéed a couple pounds of shitakes and some greenhouse zucchini. Since this was an entirely local meal, I paired it with a friend’s homemade Chambourcin. It’s a delightful dry red wine with green pepper and grassy qualities that make it a nice fit for wild game. It’s grown in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as in New York and parts of Australia, where they make a lovely sparkling wine from this varietal. Chambourcin is one of those much-maligned French-American cultivars that is either derided or ignored by the likes of those insipid writers for Wine Spectator or that nincompoop of the first order, Robert B. Parker. It’s a tricky wine for food pairing, and it’s admittedly hard to find well-made (though aren’t all wines?). My friend’s bottle was delightful, aged two years and made without oak. I’ve come to regard the use of oak (especially by California winemakers) with the same level of contempt as someone who puts ketchup on a fine porterhouse or those who pour hazelnut flavored syrup into a cup of good coffee.

In any case, after this solitary orgy that took up most of the day and evening, I retired to my back patio with a glass of tawny port so I could work on a story by lamplight. It was a balmy evening, and I smelled the thickness of coming rain. My story is about the last black cowboy in Montana, a fellow hired by a Republican rancher to illegally eliminate the endangered grizzly bear that killed his prized bird dogs. Based on a true story. I’m slipping it to a friend who is slipping it to a friend at The New Yorker. If it’s published there I’ll let my readers know…it’s almost time I revealed my identity anyway. In any case, it’s the first short story I’ve written in ages, and I think it’s pretty fucking good, if I don’t say so myself.

Around midnight I was dozing in my lawn chair and a fine mist had begun falling, dampening the draft of the story and curling the pages. I heard a soft knock at the front door, so I stumbled through the apartment and undid the chain. It was a surprise as this complex becomes something of a ghost town after the students leave.

I found Yu standing there. She was wet and crying, her cheeks purple in the streetlight. Her hair was unbraided…the first time I’d seen her this way, and it hung about her shoulders like a main of kelp. She was gorgeous. “My husband kick me out,” she said. “He find me with another man.”

“Heavens, my dear! Come in.” She rushed into my arms.

I fixed her a roasted red pepper/tomato soup with fresh produce I had on hand. I have to admit that since I was in a hurry to serve I had to use a can of tomato paste, though ordinarily I’d allow time to thicken the stock properly. I cut parsley and fresh mint from my dooryard herb garden to garnish. Dab of fresh sour cream from a local dairy.

She ate gratefully and over a bottle of Vouvray I learned that her lover was none other than Billy Clayhouse, a student who had impregnated another of my writerlings last semester. I was angry at Billy and made a note to confront him. As a marine sniper who’d done a tour in Iraq (Falluja), Clayhouse had seen hell, though that doesn’t excuse his behavior. He was also a fatherless Kiowa whelp from Oklahoma with the (tragically) common Native American mother plagued by alcoholism. He was raised by grandparents who managed to give him some respect for the old ways. Over lunch he once told me he’d been poisoned as a fetus by his mother’s drinking and he now blamed all women for his fetal alcohol syndrome, which left him with a short attention span and made writing a horrible chore. This was, he said, why he treated women so miserably. I told him that writing was a horrible chore anyway, and that I also treated women miserably, but never on purpose. I also told him to stop his fucking whining: if he couldn’t tell that women as a gender were the only hope for this world then he had no soul and might as well quit writing and go for his MBA. He left in a huff and I haven’t spoken with him since. And to think that I once considered fixing him up with my youngest daughter, Billie Trout. The miserable fuck.

The upshot of all this was that Yu had finally learned that she loved her husband. “He a computer nerd, but also he is gentle and kind. He didn’t get mad at me but just cried and blamed his self for not paying enough attention to me. I don’t know what to do, Professor Trout. He said that maybe it be best if we divorce!”

She wept.

I held her on the couch, smelling her hair and feeling her little frame like some kind of strange and delicate bird in my arms. I was a perfect gentleman, though I’d be a miserable liar if I didn’t admit that the ermine stirred in his warren somewhere down below. I managed, however, to keep the troublesome creature at bay.

We concocted a plan. What they needed was a period of separation after which they could re-evaluate their relationship. I asked her to join the summer writing session in Tuscany. She protested saying they didn’t have much money: he was only an assistant professor and not yet tenured, and her parents in China, although wealthy, had disowned her. I offered to loan her some money from my wine fund, though in truth I don’t have much to spare. Oh well, these things generally take care of themselves.

She fell asleep in the crook of my arm. I fell asleep too, and I dreamed I was a black bear and she a fawn curled up in my claws. My bear-self watched the Yu-fawn, mouth watering.

Finally, I dreamed of my lost Lila, my first lovely bride. We were married thirty years ago, when I was as young and confused as delicate little Yu. I’m still confused, but I’m now old and have recognized that this is just how life works. All we can ask for is the company of a kind stranger who might fix us a bowl of soup and listen to our troubles, resisting his urge to ravage the young fawn curled helplessly in his ragged old claws. I am in love with Yu, and Lila. I’m in love with life. And I know that this too shall pass.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Who we were and what we've come to

Agent: Mr. B. Trout?

BT: The same.

Agent: Lana Landreaux…from the Williams, Carlos & Williams Agency. New York…

BT: Of course. Pleasure.

Agent: It’s my pleasure Mr. Trout. Listen, I just finished your partial and I wanted to talk to you…

BT: [ ears perk, tail wags, thinks to self: delightful young lady, and smart, too ] That’s wonderful.

Agent: Is now a good time?

BT: No, of course. By all means.

Agent: It was very good. You’re an amazing writer. I don’t receive many pieces that are so polished. Well crafted language.

BT: Thank you.

Agent: Have you published before?

BT: [ hesitates ] Why yes.

Agent: I expected as much…by the quality of your work. I wasn’t sure, though, because I didn’t recognize the name.

Allow me to interject here: I’ve never claimed celebrity, though I have dined with Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter (at the Little White House in Key West). I claim a number of fine writers among my close friends. I’ve been to all of the cocktail parties. I’ve overturned tables in all the right restaurants. My exploits, more affectation, I admit, than actual expressions of my personality, have brought notoriety in literary circles, if not actual respect or fame. But when Ms. Landreaux claimed to not know my name…this young woman who makes her living in the world of editors, writers and publishers…I was taken aback. After all, at my age, who we used to be makes up a large part of what we have left. I’m beginning to learn that who I used to be has all but dried up. A ghost in the vacuum. A stack of unread books in a storage locker outside D.C.

BT: [ smiles to self ] It was some time ago…when I last published.

Agent: I see. Well, your experience shows in your work. It’s very good.

BT: Thank you.

Agent: And that’s why I wanted to call instead of send a form letter. To offer you some words of encouragement.

BT: [sits down on kitchen table]

Agent: Because you’re destined to find a publisher. Maybe not for this manuscript, but sooner or later. It’s inevitable. It’s that good.

BT: May I ask?

Agent: Of course…this novel is just not for me. I mean…I’ve got a tight list. I can only afford to take on something that I’m passionate about. Very passionate. I mean…let’s say they got me in one of those East European torture centers, and a CIA thug offers me a choice between burning the only copy of my client’s manuscript or hacking off my own arm with a Ginsu--I would actually consider hacking off my arm. That’s how strongly I have to love a client’s book.

BT: Heavens…that’s pretty passionate.

Agent: Yes. I mean…I liked the first two threads in your novel, the old woman from Veracruz and the single mother from…where was it?...Mississippi. A mixture of composure and desperation. Mirror images in many ways. And the small town lawyer character with big ambitions…intriguing guy. But the other character…Michael Tuck…didn’t groove with him. Didn’t see where that whole thread was leading. He was a little weak.

BT: Wishy-washy is probably a better adjective…sure. His story braids with the others later…you’d have to read another hundred pages or so.

Agent: Well the writing was good. I see, peripherally, how he fits in. It’s just…I only loved 2/3rds of the book, so…

BT: You wouldn’t hack off your arm. I understand.

Agent: But I liked it enough to want to tell you to keep writing. I think it’s important. The issues you take on…illegal immigration, globalization…I mean they’re big issues. Heavy stuff. Unfortunately it’s sometimes hard to find readers for that real heavy stuff.

BT [ feeling the desperation of the telemarketer loosing his mark, the all-expenses-paid bonus trip to Waikiki slipping away ] But the demonstrations…the immigrant rising, millions in the street, people talking about these issues…seems like my material might be timely...

Agent: That’s news…we’re talking fiction here. It’ll be two years before this novel comes out…something else will be in the news. Hopefully the impeachment hearings of Our Great Leader.

BT: I’m with you there. But I’ve another manuscript that I’m finishing. And then there’s my memoir…

Send me partials. I’d be happy to take a look. But I just wanted to call. I usually don’t do this after rejecting a partial--but I thought the writing was that good.

BT: Appreciated.

Agent: Good luck Mr. Trout.

BT: Same to you, my dear.

Agent: Bye.

BT: Bye.

At this point BT hangs up the phone. Sighs. He’s been through it all before, but there was a time when it came easy to him.

He’s got one lonely bottle of San Giminiano Vernacca in the cupboard. He chills it in the fridge. Fires up the charcoal grill. It’s only nine in the morning but he defrosts a farm-raised hen in a sink full of cool water. He rubs it inside and out with sea salt. Fresh ground pepper. In the dooryard he gathers two dozen sage leaves. Chops them. Makes a paste with olive oil, more pepper, some parsley leaves. Splits the chicken along the breast bone and opens it like a book. Flattens it. Smears paste. Grills fifteen minutes per side. Pollo Diavolo, they call it in Toscana. He devours the bird like a barbarian, no side dishes, just meat, bone, bottle of Vernacca, gristle, skin, sage. His beard is greasy. Thumbprints on his glasses. Wine buzz, full belly, sitting on the back porch in a splash of sunlight. He’s got a notebook open. Uncapped pen lying across the page. He thinks about writing but hesitates, just soaking in the sun, the heat still damp from an overnight rain shower.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Et tu, Yu?

I am unable to write for several reasons, the first being financial stress. I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth, but the bills from my angioplasty and my surgery came due. Any conservative will say that state employees are coddled by their lavish benefits, but show me a corporate middle manager who pays higher deductible that us State U proles. Many of my older MFA students, returning to academia to pursue their youthful dreams, have earned more over their lifetimes than I have. One fellow who fashions himself the next Chandler (God, do we really need another?) worked his whole career as a telephone lineman, getting out just in time before cell phones and the obscene corporate practices of our new Gilded Age began the new war on the middle class. He was the union rep of his shop, a relic of a happier time when a blue collar fellow could send his kids to college, buy a house, a speedboat for the weekends, a trip to Hawaii or maybe Las Vegas. In any case, he shared with me his salary upon retirement over drinks one afternoon, and I was not so shocked to learn that it was more than I’d ever earned in a one-year period, even when my books were selling. He saved his pennies while I spent mine on wine and gourmet groceries, and now he was pursuing his writing ambitions in retirement, living on his pension. Good plan. I always stress to my students that they’ll need to find a means of sustaining themselves and their obsessions with the writerly calling. I usually suggest they study oenology or viticulture, but that’s just projecting my own interests. In my case, I married capable and well-heeled women as my means of sustenance. Thrice.

Ruth, the second of my happy ex-brides, has been much on my mind lately. This has been another cause of my literary impotence. It’s hard to write when your past has you by the horns. We’ve spent hours talking on the phone since our reunion tryst in D.C. I’ve been dreaming about her. I feel like a teenager in love, though as we can never return to our youth since we all know we can never swim in the same river twice. My age and life experience has left a bitter and sick coating on my emotional equipment. My mind tells me that it won’t work. You can’t return to your past. My heart is afraid.

Finally, a third contributor to my period of unwritingness, beyond the fact that it’s finals week and I’ve stacks of projects to grade, is this phenomenon of our immigrant rising. This is a good reason. It has me exhilarated. Finally I feel like an American again. I feel that swell of pride, a whisper from those hot summer afternoons back in Wisconsin when I stood on the Main Street sidewalk for the Fourth of July parade watching the WWI vets march past, holding aloft the flag, the swagger gone from their step but replaced by a specific dignity that resonates with a young boy. I also remember standing on a street corner in my mother’s lovely Berlin in ‘89, talking to an old gentleman in a brown suit too big for his wizened, shrinking frame. He was flushed with awe and respect for my American-ness. He was reverent from the recent crumbling of the Berlin Wall and still earnestly grateful for the Berlin Airlift. Good God, how far we’ve fallen in the eyes of the world! I always wonder if my daughters will ever know such a conversation with a foreign national as I had that afternoon. I returned to my hotel room and wept with joy. I even forgave Ronald Reagan his transgressions, but only briefly. All’s it took to ruin our stature was one more stupid war, and a group of oil execs creating for our nation’s presidency a fake, illiterate cowboy to bully the leaders of the world on their behalf. Not even a real cowboy, mind you! Just some well-heeled bumpkin from New England old money who spent a year or two of high school perfecting his fake western accent before returning to Yale.

But excuse my tirade. Back to the marching…I talked to my daughter Ella, who was in Chicago on Monday for a cooking clinic. She participated in the rally in Union Park. Though she has no interest in the Foreign Service, like her sister she’s good with languages. A hobby. At the demonstration she was able to use her Greek, some Russian, German and of course Spanish. Those who see this current immigrant rising as primarily a Latino movement are missing the point entirely, and to their peril. It’s a social movement. It is more American than a billion of those “Support the Troops (by keeping them in Iraq)” bumper-sticker displaying, flag-wrapped, Dixie Chick-bashing nincompoops could possibly understand. These immigrants represent the soul of our troubled nation trying desperately to right our ship of state. When they wave the flag, it is done with a combination of defiance and love. This is not as stupid as singing “God Bless America” at a baseball game. This is true patriotism. They are the rising tide that has the potential of lifting us all, if we allow it.

I marched, too. My mother was born and raised in Germany, only gaining her citizenship in my teen years. As a half-Jew, she had no qualms giving up her German citizenship for obvious reasons, thought she still loves specifics from her native country. My father was half African American…that 25% of myself that defines me upon first glance. Anyone pointing me out nowadays wouldn’t say: “that tall German guy,” or “that portly Jew.” They’d say, “that black guy with the beard.” In any case, we’ve all got immigrants in our heritage, whether we crossed the Bering Straight forty thousand years ago, or whether we came illegally, unwillingly, or by patiently following the archaic, inadequate and confounding legal process. Our march here in Campustown USA was pathetic but heartfelt. I cancelled Monday’s grad seminar, but the only members of my class joining me at the rally were the delightfully round and pregnant Miss Puppycute, and then Yu, my best student. The other students seemed disappointed that I called off the session. We marched with a scraggly band of peaceniks, a number of the campus international students, the Turkish family that owns the World Deli, a dozen tattooed field hands and day laborers looking squinty-eyed and amused, and the entire extended family that runs the town’s best Mexican restaurant, all twenty-five of them. Each of us carried an American flag passed out by the local Progressive Democrats group.

After the march, several of us went for beers. The party dwindled to just Yu and me, and I was surprised by her ability to hold alcohol. She did get teary in the end. She confessed that she was “basically illegal,” which was why today’s march meant so much to her. She’d married her computer science professor simply to get residency in our fine country. She’d grown estranged from her family back home because she switched from engineering studies to fine arts and they felt betrayed and enraged. Being married to a professor allows her to stay in country while also receiving a discount on tuition, necessary now that her parents in China have cut off her funding. “He not so interested in me,” she said of her young husband-professor, “He just play board game with friends on weekends and write computer program all night. I keep him happy with sex, but I neverless feel like a whore.”

I studied her face with interest. Tears hung in her honey-brown eyes, though she restrained them with her will. She smiled sadly, raising freckles on her rounded cheeks. She is beautifully complex, I realized. She is conniving, sacrificing her happiness and using this poor fellow simply to be able to pursue her writing. I instantly saw a kindred spirit. We talked for a long time amid the smell of stale beer and the “bleep bleep” of the electronic dart board. She sat with her hand on my knee. “Thank you for this day, for marching with me,” she said as we left. I wanted to kiss her.

Now I’m wondering again if a fourth marriage is such a good idea. Nothing happened between Yu and me that shouldn’t happen between a professor and his student, but still I feel like I’ve betrayed Ruth already. I’ve always had issues with fidelity, often a primary cause of the collapse of my various marriages. If the notion strikes me, I might pursue a girl like Yu as desperately as I pursued Shirleen Tomasetti.

Still, despite everything, there’s gladness in my heart. The people are marching again. On Mayday, of all days. They are standing up for all of us. I finally heard that controversial Spanish version of our anthem. It’s lovely.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Humping Warren Beatty

I should be grading final projects, but instead I’m drinking espresso and reading Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu. I stopped writing and picked up Paul’s book because I was broadsided with depression over the weekend after waking in the midst of a dream in which Ruth, my second wife, was marrying me again. We were back at the same Las Vegas chapel where we’d sealed the deal the first time.

Warren Beatty was the best man--at the real wedding, not in the dream--and a waitress, Lil, from the lounge of the Plaza Hotel served as maid of honor. I’d just met Warren as he sat across the aisle from me in first class on the flight out from La Guardia. He had my latest novel in his lap, and I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought. “My second time through,” he said. I asked to see it and when he handed it to me I began scribbling. He was annoyed until he read the inscription and realized I was the author, and then we had a lovely conversation during which he asked me astute questions that clearly showed he knew the book even better than I did. I rarely did more than one draft in those days. He thought the sloppiness was an intentional affectation of the narrator’s voice, and I must admit that it did fit the tone of the novel. Ruth, sitting next to me, was all moony because of Warren’s proximity and she whispered in my ear with her martini-and-peanut-breath to ask me if I’d be offended if she fantasized about him during our lovemaking on our wedding night, and I told her that it was fine by me. I’m humble enough to admit that my pear-shaped physique, natty hair and Walt Whitman beard offer no advantages over the suave actor. Ruth married me because she was a fan of my writing (bad idea) and because we laughed hysterically whenever we were together.

We met Warren for drinks the next day at the Flamingo, and that’s when he offered to attend the wedding. Lil was a buxom cocktail waitress at our hotel with whom I flirted, and Ruth asked her to attend so that I would have a fantasy object of my own in the chapel to balance out Mr. Beatty. Later that night, our hips entangled in the reverse missionary position, I cried out “Oh Lil, Lil, Lil,” while Ruth screamed, “Hump me Warren, you filthy bastard!” Later, after orgasms, we lay sweating on the sheets and laughed so hard that Ruth broke wind, which only redoubled our hysterics.

I’ve not seen Warren in years, but there he was in my dream, smelling of expensive soap, standing next to me at the Happy Hearts Chapel (now bulldozed to make room for a water slide and go-kart complex). Warren was clean, but also worn and haggard, and he was impatiently checking his pocket watch, a giant pewter monstrosity the size of a dinner plate. He reminded me of the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. The Elvis impersonator performing the service instructed me to kiss the bride, but when I turned Ruth was gone. Standing in her place was Shirleen Tomasetti, and she was holding hands with my lesbian daughter, Ella. I ran from the chapel to find myself in the middle of the desert, a coyote staring at me from his perch on a rock, his shoulders hunched like an irreverent teenager with bad posture. He was panting from the heat, flies fighting for the moisture in the corner of his eyes. He blinked in annoyance and sauntered off. I sat, puzzled, the shadow of a turkey vulture passing over me.

That’s when I awoke. I was in a lousy mood and couldn’t find words or bear to grade papers even though Yu, my current best student, had turned in a lovely piece set in her rural Gansu Province home country. To keep myself distracted, I grabbed Paul’s Hotel Honolulu, which is timely as it tells the absurdly realistic story of a burned out writer who runs off to manage a hotel on the Big Island. Paul’s brilliant…I haven’t seen him since he moved to that godforsaken volcanic rock in the Pacific, but reading his books always make you want to travel because he has a way of cutting through the travel-mystique bullshit to show you the real grit and heart of a place. I’m almost through with the book, but I’ve just stumbled across a passage that is particularly apt that I will share with my students tomorrow. The writer-turned-hotel-manager character is in the hotel bar with a patron. The patron, who knows the manager used to write, speaks first:

“I want to write a book, what’s it like?”

“Awful when you’re doing it. Worse when you’re not.”

Absolutely on the mark. Paul, being a contemporary, has always impressed me by his prolificacy balanced with real talent. The sort of writer I could have been had I a little bit more of both. In any case, I’ve called Ruth and left a message on her machine, suggesting we meet in Vegas for a few days. Perhaps there’s a fourth marriage in the cards for old BT after all.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fourth admonishment: 'show don't tell' is horse shit

"Show, don't tell" is certainly the most dangerous and misinterpreted advice given to young writers. It's well meaning, but nevertheless harmful. It is the enemy of "voice," and it altogether strips the role of the author from the finished prose. In essence, it turns Pommard 1er Cru into two-buck Chuck.

There are much better, albeit more complex, ways to encourage writers to focus on story movement, on pressing the narrative along, on cautioning them not to linger unnecessarily or stray off track. But ours is a culture programmed to love taglines, and "show, don't tell" has become a brand unto itself. It represents all of the bland, voiceless fiction that plugs the arteries of our literary world. I've never done a serious study, but it strikes me that the phrase has arisen out of the paranoia in the 50's and 60's that television and film would compete with reading and thus shrink the audience for fiction. The thinking is that readers are busy people, and they don't want anything to pop the "bubble of reality," this fantasy land created by the plot of a novel, lest they grow distracted and turn to the Great American Lobotomy Tube or to other, more spare writing that doesn't slow down their busy lives. If an author dares to bog readers down with subtle description, or to "tell" them the story in the inflated language of a narrator's voice rather than simply "show" them the bare bones of the action, then the readers will turn away.

This is bullshit. Readers read because they enjoy being "told" a story. Those who want to skip right to the movie will probably not purchase the novel in the first place. Some authors resonate with readers, and some don't, but stripping the prose down to action alone is rarely the right answer. People read specific writers over a long period of time because they've become attuned to the author's "voice," or in other words, the way the author "tells" the story.

Stories are told. Movies are shown. "Show, don't tell," I realize, is a rule. And it is a requirement of any serious writer to break every rule as soon as it's codified. But I still hear people I respect flogging this phrase, and I'm sure they don't realize the damage they're doing by encouraging incipient writers to turn away from their voices in favor of "showing" the naked skeleton of the plot. I understand that some tastes prefer such twiggy, undernourished storytelling, and that's fine. (Note, I don't put Carver or Hemingway in this category...what they were doing was lush and altogether different from "show don't tell") Taste in storytelling is subjective much in the same way that some men prefer women who look like that emaciated corpse Ann Coulter, while others...Trout included...require a little more. Some people...most in fact...prefer to be "told" a story. There is a reason my girls, when small, put away their video tapes and much preferred to hear Daddy Trout "tell" them a story, complete with my embellishments, exaggerations, asides, tangents, gestures and affectations. When you ask a young writer to "show and don't tell" you are asking her to strip out all of these things that make live storytelling so dynamic. Some say that's a good thing. I say not.

My good friend John Schultz has oft lamented the loss of the author's voice, and he's studied the issue more than I. Once, while antelope hunting in Outer Mongolia in the mid-70s, John and I weathered a three-day storm in our yurt, railing about the issue while the tent walls flapped in the wind. Incidentally, John founded one of the better writing programs in the country with a central platform being the flabbiness of the "show, don't tell" mantra. While I still find the notion of the MFA program dubious (namely because one such program has hired me), John's outfit is as good as it gets.

This diatribe is the result of an office visit this morning by Yu, a promising student. She's shown hints of a magnificent voice through spare, hesitant prose. I at first thought it was the fact of English being her second language that was restraining her, but in truth it was that she was struggling to adhere to all of the "show, don't tell" advice she's heard over the years from teachers, writers and those write-by-numbers rulebooks that one often finds in the do-it-yourself section of the bookstore. Still, the exuberance of her voice was unwilling to heed such restraint, busting through the seams of her skeletal plots. When I explained the nonsensical nature of that advice much in the same language used above, awareness crept into her big, honey-brown eyes. She smiled, covering her mouth with her hand. When I finished she leapt out of her chair and wrapped her arms around my neck, kissing me wetly on my cheek. I was surprised because her impulsive gesture of affection didn't fit my (probably racist) stereotype of demure Asian women, but that's another subject entirely.

In any case, I'm thrilled at her breakthrough and eagerly await Yu's next manuscript in which she promises to "tell" me a story. For the rest of you, I urge you to abandon that hollow-eyed, Ann Coulterish, meth-hound, bare-bones writing. I urge you to push your prose to the purple, stray from your skeletal plot on the most tangential and voluptuous of diversions just to see what the hell else is out there, feel free to flash back and then flash backwarder, interject your omniscient, God-like voices with impunity, pop that supposed "bubble of reality" and grab your reader by his ears, planting a big, wet storyteller's kiss on his forehead.

Monday, April 17, 2006

There and back again

Since we seem to be on the subject of marriage(s):

Making love to your second ex-wife after thirteen years of bitter separation is akin to reliving the happiest day from your childhood, fishing in your favorite trout hole with your favorite aunt, a worm and a bobber on the end of a cane pole, fresh strawberries from Knutesmeyer's farm along with a thermos of cream. The aunt is youngish--Mother's baby sister--and she dotes on you, her favorite nephew. You notice her long, wet legs (she's had to wade out to unsnag your hook) without really realizing why there's a warm feeling down below your belly. You carry home a creel of brookies wrapped in the big leaves of an old dogwood. Mother fries the fish in butter and your aunt tells stories of life at the far-away women’s college where she's studying art history with designs on being a sculptor but more likely teaching in art in an elementary school. She thrills you with a first-hand description of Michaelangelo's pieta, which she saw during a semester spent studying in Rome. You fall asleep on with your head on your youngish aunt's thighs while the family is gathered around a campfire in the back yard, your father picking out a claw-hammer tune on the banjo from deep within the blood from the sharecropper side of his family, his rich voice at the same time haunting and soothing, creeping into your dreams. "Her skirt smells like cedar smoke," is your last thought before you drift off for good.

I met Ruth Apfelstein, my ex, at a dinner arranged by my youngest daughter, Billie Holiday Trout, this past weekend in our nation's fine capitol. It was a combination Seder/Passover/Easter meal hosted in the back room of my favorite Tuscan restaurant outside of Castilina-in-Chianti. Francesco was out of town, but we were well cared for by Levon, his second. Levon, like many of the great chefs, has studied under the best and has had all of his education solely in the kitchen. He showed up on Francesco's doorstep one afternoon looking for work, his only credentials being that he "liked to cook." Francesco was skeptical, so he pointed to the walk-in cooler and said, "Show me something." Levon whipped up an imitation of his auntie's sweet potato pie and was hired on the spot. Six years later and he's nearing the top of his game. He recently spent six months in the kitchen of French genius Joel Rubichon.

How Levon managed a menu of kosher-Tuscan is beyond me. It was too elaborate to get into the details, but the twelve in our party were stunned and sated. He'd even located several bottles of kosher Sangiovese from a Jewish vintner with an estate near Montalpulciano. Ruth is not a strict observer of her faith, but she did go through a spiritual stage when our marriage began to deteriorate. The kosher menu was more seized upon as a challenge by Levon rather than designed to accommodate believers.

Ruth and I were intently conversing by the end of the meal, oblivious to the others. We raced as we talked, breathless, each eager to recount our exhaustive strings of unlucky relationships. I told of the end of my affair with Shirleen, and the final, unspoken marriage proposal. Ruth's latest lover had been a realtor from West Palm Beach who was much too proud of his deep sea fishing boat. "He didn't read and I found myself yawning whenever I was alone with him for more than two hours at a time. 'Why do you do that?' he kept asking, but I couldn't answer. Finally my jaw got stuck in mid-yawn one know my TMJ...and he took me to the hospital. I had my face in a towel to catch the drool. He dropped me off in emergency and left. He sent a cab to pick me up after they injected muscle-relaxants and unhooked my jawbone, but I never heard from him again."

She twirled her hair in one finger the way she used to do when we dated. When she finished the story I laughed so hard that I had to excuse myself to pee. When I came back she was still laughing. "Fuck BT, we're getting old, aren't we?" Then she left to pee.

When she returned we decided right then to see what else in our aging, decrepit, repetitively divorced bodies was--and was not--still working. We returned to her hotel in Columbia Heights to learn that, while some of our flexibility had atrophied, most other things were still in fine working order. In the morning sunlight I asked her to stand naked in front of the window. "I'm an old woman, BT," she said, but complied and I sat on the edge of the bed fighting tears. She was still as gorgeous as when we'd been married.

"What happened?" we both asked simultaneously. We left it open-ended, laughing some more at a corner café over a croissant and an espresso that made my heart skip.

Marriages (and the subsequent divorces) can rip your guts to bits more than any other experience outside the passing of a child, which is something I hope to never experience. When I stopped by Billie's to say goodbye and congratulate her on taking the Foreign Service Exam, she asked me how my night went. Ruth had been a good stepmother to the girls, and I know Billie thinks I'm no good alone, which is true. She had arranged this whole weekend to try and spark something lasting between Ruth and this old Professor. I told her that it was wonderful but that I had no idea what the future held. I’ve been writing well lately, so I don’t want to make any sudden changes. She frowned when I said that you can't swim in the same river twice, or so has said a wise old poet. I was a little disconcerted to see that Levon had spent the night at Billie's, and when she noticed my raised eyebrows when the big chef ambled into the kitchen in his PJs, she said, "Daddy, I'm twenty-four."

Now I'm back home and through with airplanes for the forseeable future. I'll try to finish out the semester by focusing on my students. The whole episode left me both healed and wounded anew. But such is life and such is marriage.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Disposable theses

It has always amazed me for how long some of my former students flog their Master Theses along. I keep in touch with many of them through email, and I'm stunned when they're still massaging the same material they submitted during their tenure in MFA programs from whence they've long since graduated.

I gave a reading a few weeks back in San Antonio, and a student I taught in a workshop back in 1995 cornered me afterward: "I'm excited about MY's finished almost ready to send out," she said. I smiled and didn't have the heart to tell her that HER NOVEL wouldn't be greeted with the same level of enthusiasm by the world at large. A novel isn't a unique thing, and the world is a cold, indifferent place. YOUR NOVEL is not a child, and you've no obligation to see it through to its fruition. It's something we make, like a piece of furniture, and nothing more. What's more, it belongs to a specific time and place even before it's finished. In most cases, it doesn't age gracefully. Try writing a new novel instead of embarking on draft seventeen.

I now tell all my advisees up front that they should plan on disposing of their thesis as soon as they finish the program. It's merely the price of the diploma. There are exceptions, but such publishable (if barely) work among the endless stacks of MFA theses are as rare as they are brilliant. Throw your 'script away and start something new even before your diploma arrives in the mail. You aren't the same person you were when you started that novel ten years ago...every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. The world has changed. You're entire belief system has likely shifted. It's time to move on.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Yu, me and writer block

Yu is perhaps my most promising student this semester. I haven't been paying much attention to student work, wrapped up as I've been in my personal soap opera. I admit that I'm a lousy and careless teacher. Yu is Chinese, from the Gansu province, which I understand is as wild as it gets. She's married to a young computer science professor. Her prose is cautious and spare, obviously due to English being her second language, but this seems to complement her work. She's written a series of vignettes on the Cultural Revolution. There's no story in her work yet, but good fiction always starts with images. The procession is like this: Image > Story > Character > Prose > Plot, with Story ultimately being most important. For more commercial work, it seems to go Plot > Character > Prose, leaving off Image and Story altogether in many cases. I've no problem with commercial or genre work, though I can't teach it and know absolutely nothing about it. It's as alien to me as screenplays and writing for television.

In any case, yesterday during our "nature exercise" as I watched Yu wading through a clear stretch of Ballard Creek, I was enchanted. Redbud petals were drifting down around her in shafts of sunlight while she chewed on the eraser of her pencil and an expression of recognition bloomed on her face. She pulled out her notepad and began scribbling, nodding her head excitedly, the long braid of her dark hair bouncing. Evidently my silly impulse to relocate our class to the woods for the afternoon was having some sort of effect. I dreamt of this scene endlessly last night, and not only because Yu's an attractive young woman.

After our exercise we all walked back to campus. Yu came to me timidly and asked how I felt about "writer block." I told her that it doesn't exist. I said that what exists is an unwillingness to compromise. People don't get blocked, they just choose not to write garbage. You can always write garbage. Writing garbage takes discipline, though. If you write enough of it eventually you crawl out of the hole you're in. Sometimes the garbage gets published, and I know from experience that your career can suffer. Filing the garbage away and moving on also takes discipline.

She nodded, still chewing on her eraser. "Writer block is a choice, hmmm, I never think of it like this before," she said. Her speech is more hesitant that her prose, but grammar typically does sort itself out in the writing. I'll have to keep an eye on Yu this semester. Now that I haven't heard from Mr. Clayhouse, and lovely Shirleen has moved on, and Nawaz is getting married, I need to find a new reason to keep my head in this job or I'll be fired for sure.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Recipes for recovery

I suffered through the blackest of asses upon my return from La Paz. Your garden variety depression: what have I accomplished, who loves me, why do I exist? The intensity of the self-pity, however, reached un-troutlike level so I self-medicated. I fixed a humble peasant dish of cabbage, tripe and onions that I’d learned from an old woman in Brittany from whom I rented a seaside cottage while writing my third novel. I’d been drinking heavily at the time, and her overwhelming cuisine saved my liver. It was there that I was introduced to Alsatian and German wines that so perfectly complement peasant food and thus slowly weened myself from the dangers of calvados and brandy.

Stage two of my recovery included three young, farm-raised hens served with a three-olive sauce. The olives cost me fifty-seven dollars at the import shop, and when I fished around in my pockets and several bolivianos spilled onto the counter, I broke down and began weeping. The Turkish boy at the register stepped back, eyeing me warily.

A bottle of a light Spanish Monastrell with the meal gave me pleasant dreams for the first time in a month.

What really set me on the mend, however, was a conversation with my youngest daughter, Billie. She took the Foreign Service Exam this past Saturday. A bit of background is needed: when she was thirteen we spent six months in Marseille where I was a guest lecturer as part of a cultural exchange. Our closet friends were career diplomats at the consulate who thrilled Billie with tales of life at their African posts in the post-colonial era. It’s been her ambition ever since to work for USAID or the State Department, where she hopes to be a force for positive change. She took the exam in 2003, only a few days after the start of Mr. Bush’s subtle brilliance of the Shock and Awe(!) campaign. She was among the 6% of the applicants invited to take the orals, but she declined saying she wanted to attend graduate school, but in truth she was depressed over the neo-con foreign policy nincompoopery. But two years out she still has the desire so she’s starting the process all over again. My point is that her entire life’s ambitions are tied up with the results of a silly standardized test. She passed it once, but what if she failed this time? But rather than acting stressed or fatalistic, she was chipper with a c’est la vie indifference to her future when I talked to her on the phone. “I’ve got backup plans, Daddy, no big deal.” All this made me fell silly in my self-pity.

So she invited me to D.C. for a back-room feast with our friends at Etrusco to celebrate three months of waiting for the results of the test. “Most-Favorite Mommy Number Two will still be in town,” she said, referring to my second ex-wife, of whom she is quite fond. I sense an ulterior motive. I demurred but will likely go.

And so I am on the mend. I probably won’t be able to write for some weeks, but I’m now distracted by my MFA classes, which I’ve been neglecting. It’s a lovely day today, and I have a four-hour grad seminar on prose style this afternoon. I think we’ll have class outside in the state park where there is a babbling brook under a ceiling of glorious redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom. I’ll make up some exercise, perhaps the translation of visceral and tactile sensations into prose. We’ll go wading and I’ll ask them to immediately transcribe the sensation into their journals. It’s all nonsense, but MFA students love this sort of thing. In fact, this touchy-feely pseudo naturalism is a trait of bourgeois writers everywhere: that’s why so many conferences take place in idyllic settings that somehow recall England’s Lake District. I've been there and it's lovely, but it's no more wild than a golf course. As sophisticated as our urban writers are, they're often clueless when it comes to the natural world. A brilliant sociologist friend from Manhattan once visited me in the Midwest and remarked that it was the first time he'd "seen cows in the wild." That being said, there is something primal about rivers and streams, and it will do my students some good. My exercise today, of course, will mainly be an excuse for me to be outside, and also to sit on the bank and study the women in my class wearing shorts, watching them emerge from the brook with pink dogwood petals stuck to their glistening thighs. Perhaps I’ll fall in love again. Several times, if I’m lucky.

Next up will be my favorite French recovery dish, which despite the damage it does in cholesteral is the ideal restorative for a wounded heart. A Syrah or Shiraz with big fruit should pair nicely. And so the Trout mends.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Prof. Trout contemplates fourth marriage in La Paz cafe

I sat in the back of the restaurant, waiting for her. Dirty tablecloth. Plastic flower in a collins glass with marbles in the bottom and greasy fingerprints around the edge.

I wore jeans and my tweed jacket and white shirt. I had a real flower pinned to my lapel, purchased from the woman in a bright wool sweater and bowler hat who stands outside my hotel silently proffering her sad blossoms. I buy a flower from her every morning and she never smiles. I'm never surprised, though nevertheless disappointed, when I find myself in a place where people are less friendly than the Midwest. Which is most everywhere. Exceptions include Italy when you're traveling with a baby, or the North African neighborhoods in Paris. Also Istanbul where shopkeepers invite you to tea ceremoniously before applying their low-pressure sales pitch. Midwesterners truly are affable, even when they are politicians stripping money from family planning clinics or killing school lunch programs. But then our states are no more red or less blue than the dream coasts when you consider the incredibly small percentage points on either side of the division, which is largely fictional to begin with. New York and California have Republican governors, don't they? I'm sorry for the digression. My thoughts are a mash.

But back to Bolivia, which is something else altogether. I haven't really been able to consider where I am. The implications of the Morales presidency, the left-swing of the Southern Cone, the newfound impotence of US influence in the region under Our Great Chimpanzee's administration, etc. None of this is evident on the street of another great and poor South American city. I'd love to learn what it's really all about, but then that's not why I'm here and I fly home tomorrow.

And so I sat in the restaurant, nervous, recently patched-up ticker all atwitter, recalling my first date in the Princess Cafe where I waited for Jeanne Blunkhorst before the homecoming dance, similar tweed coat borrowed from my musician father and similar sad flower pinned to the lapel. My hands, then and now, sweating profusely.

I sipped my Nescafe noisily.

There's a certain moment when you are surprising someone when you see, etched on their face, the effect of your ruse. You know immediately whether or not they appreciate the surprise from that subtle expression. And they always work to smother this expression immediately, so you have to be vigilant. I craned my neck waiting for Shirleen to arrive, desperate to see her before she spotted me so that I could read how she truly felt about my arrival.

It's a funny thing. I've found that by nonsensically stalking a woman half my age round the world, ironically, that I'm something of a realist. How did I expect it to end? Well, there was the cheep copper ring I'd bought at the mercado. Fifteen bolivianos. "Marry me," I imagined saying, "If your finger turns green it's a sign destiny." Do I really need a fourth marriage? Have I the audacity? I propositioned my third wife after knowing her only a few days, though she did take more than a week to answer. And that had been my longest marriage. I thought of my second wife and her request for a detente in D.C.

And then I saw her. She was wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters with horizontal stripes in primary colors that have become all the rage here, though it's mostly NGO people, aid workers and tourists. The colors mimic the traditional dress of the Quechua and Amayra. She craned her neck and looked through the crowd at the door, studying the tables. She looked down at a note in her hand. I'd left a message with her roommate saying that an old friend was in town to surprise her.

"Professor Trout!" she said when she saw me. I could read her lips across the room. I beamed and leaned back in my chair, spreading my arms in a gesture of welcome. Her expression was plain joy. Wide-eyed, genuine surprise. She was the child at Christmas receiving the unexpected gift who--despite not getting what she had wanted--is nevertheless pleased with the acquisition.

My unreliable ticker pulsed in perfect meter now as she threaded the tables. Her hair was longer than before, un-fluffed, flat and windblown. Her cheeks were likewise red and windburned and she had the healthy burnish of a backpacker on her post college tour. She looked ten years younger and five years wiser all at once.

We both ordered the lomo montado and lingered over a bottle of Chilean Malbec. Breaking convention, we finished with a couple of bottles of paceña, a beer that is surprisingly good. The steak lacked the hearty character of an Argentine cut or the flair of Brazilian grill, but it was nevertheless good and served as the ideal foundation to our commiseration.

"I'm delighted that you came," she said, earnestly. But the delight was clearly tempered by her absorption in her new life. I didn't admit that I'd come solely to see her. I lied and said that I'd been invited to speak at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. This wasn't far-fetched as I'd written two novels set in South America and Shirleen had read them both. I fingered the copper ring in my coat pocket. I enjoyed our conversation, not the least for her gushing over my advice.

"You were right, of course," she said. "I needed experience. I needed distance. I'm not sure I still want...or even be a writer. I'm doing an article on spec for Mother Jones, though. I've written a short story, but I won't show it to anyone. But for the first time since the divorce I feel like I'm on track again."

After she said this she leaned over and kissed me full on the lips, lingering so that I could feel the breath from her nose on my cheek. It was at this point that I almost proposed. But I hesitated. I leaned back and offered a parental smile. Something felt wrong. I realized then that while I was enamored of Ms. Tomasetti, I also didn't feel it would be fair to weigh her down.

We finished the lunch. I didn't linger. I handed her the ring almost as an afterthought. "Here," I said, "I picked this up yesterday in the mercado. A souvenir."

We embraced at the door. "Thanks again," she said, beaming. She didn't inquire about my fake lecture or offer to meet again. We were friends, no longer lovers. Another of my delusions punctured, collapsing like that little balloon they dragged through my arteries.

The angle of sunlight is strange on this side of the equator. I stood in a splash of it on a busy sidewalk for the longest time. I figured this would be the last I'd see of Shirleen, though my regret was leavened a bit by the notion that, despite the strange circumstances, I'd served her successfully in my capacity as a teacher.

Tomorrow I return home.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Llego en Bolivia

My hotel has an internet cafe. Well, not a cafe, more of a desk with a vintage computer that nevertheless fills the need. The desk clerk, a sleepy-eyed and indifferent fellow, said that it would cost me three bolivianos. I handed him one US dollar and he pocketed it with a shrug, gesturing toward the machine.

I'm waiting a day before I call Shirleen. I rang her three days ago to be sure she was still here. I hung up as soon as I heard her puzzled voice. I want to adjust to the altitude. Somewhere around fifteen thousand feet, can that be right? The weather is cool and rainy. Needless to say, I've a headache and the brief stroll along the terrace to the lobby has winded me. My heart is otherwise fine.

The flight was wonderful. I wasn't able to crack the cover of the Harrison book, nor accomplish any editing on a partial manuscript I intend to send to a curious agent upon my return. I didn't even pop the corks on the splits of Shiraz. During the longest leg, from Miami to La Paz, I sat next to a young woman with 6-month-old twins. She was a smallish woman with Andean features and a brownish complexion not dissimilar to my own. I had the window, she the middle, and a pale man with norteño features wearing a suit and tie inhabited the aisle seat. She struggled and I offered to take one child while the suited man preteneded to ignore us and cracked open a thriller with military jargon in the title. I figured him for Republican.

The woman's Spanish was no better than my own, but it was enough for us to communicate the essentials. I didn't ask her ethnicity. Aymara perhaps? Most among the other passengers were criollo and upper-class in appearance.

When we reached altitude the babes began wailing. It's a delicious sound. My own daughters are twins. We have a long-standing joke: I will often refer to either Billie or Ella as my older daughter depending on which has most recently used a scolding or mothering tone with me. Due to a mix-up at the hospital we don't know which of our girls was first out of the gates. They are identical twins but as different as spring and autumn. Some might think me perverse for enjoying the crying infants on the plane, but few sounds are so pure and earnest. No question what they wanted.

The woman began to feed them at her breast clearly making the Republican uncomfortable. I quite enjoyed the man's squirming. Due to the cramped space I held one babe while she fed the other, but as I was no replacement for the mother we finally arranged to place a child at each breast. I held one infant on my lap with one of my paws under the soft, velvet skull, the back of my hand resting on the woman's warm belly, my thumb pressed into the soft underside of a breast. This way she was able with her free hand to smooth the milk in her glands down toward the nipple and the babies' puckered lips. It was intimate, but in a decent, neighborly way despite the fact that I found the young woman undeniably attractive. Anyone who doubts we are all of the same human family is in need of such an experience as this. I felt grandfatherly for the first time in my life. I wished that I was a young, inexperienced father again. Ah, the miracle of it all. Perhaps with Shirleen? Now you're dreaming, Trout. I recall my dear student, Miss Lowell, and the tribulation surrounding her pollination.

The babes finished, burped, slept, crapped, and then the whole process started again. The Republican located a different seat around mid-flight, though none of us took note of his departure. I spent most of the time staring into the tiny faces, happier than I've been in ages. At one point a tear rolled off of my great, smushed nose and plopped on a chid's slumbering forhead. She wrinkled her nose as if to sneeze but remained asleep. I was reminded of a baptism, though I felt wholly unworthy.

When we landed, the woman smiled sweetly and thanked me as I helped her off with the children. But in truth she had been greater comfort to me than I to her. When I thought of the torment the four of us likely inflicted on those seated around us I was strangely pleased.

Thus I arrived in Bolivia.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


A reader reminded me of the altitude in La Paz, so I decided to test out the refurbished ticker before Sunday's flight. I hiked the state park this evening, and I handled the first hill okay, but the second incline hit me hard. I was chugging like a raspy steam engine by the time I crested the bluff. When I reached a favorite overlook I scared seven turkey vultures off of a dead elm. Jesus and Mohammed, they're massive birds when you come right up on them. Big, black shadows lifting into the gloaming, eyeing me sideways from their bald, prehistoric heads. I staggered backward and turned my ankle. My heart about leapt from my chest, and the scars from my quad bypass literally burned on my flesh. I thought of Hester Prynn.

I wound up on my ass in the mud, stunned, and for no reason in particular I began weeping. A trail runner happened by and she paused, staring down at me, bouncing from one foot to the other. Embarrassed, I made up some nonsense about my pet Pomeranian dying. I gathered myself and picked my way back down the trail.

When I returned home I found a message on my machine from my second ex-wife. She was livid that I hadn't told her about the surgery, and after a string of expletives she burst into tears and then insisted we meet in neutral territory (DC) sometime next week. We'd visit with Billie, share a meal or two at Etrusco, maybe take in a movie. She said that we needed to rethink our non-relationship. She said that I had been the best friend she ever had until I ruined her life, still the thought of my near death had crushed her. In short, she missed me. New tears formed behind the bridge of my nose. This reunion sounded lovely, but I'm leaving for Bolivia on Sunday so what can I do? I sat with my hand on the phone for the better part of an hour, feeling ridiculous for chasing my ex-girlfriend, a former student no less, halfway round the world on a whim. Call your wife, dammit, I chided myself, but to no avail.

I've already decided to cancel tomorrow's class. I'm two-thirds of the way through a bottle of my favorite Primitivo, and I already know the dream I'll have: the vultures will return and wait patiently while I lie in the mud. Every woman I've ever loved, including the first, will come by to collect interest on the happiness I've stolen from them, to be paid in vials of heart blood. The buzzards will then enjoy my desiccated remains.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The spring breaketh

I'm set for La Paz. I'm toting one carryon bag, the sum total of my luggage. One change of clothes, seven pairs of underdrawers. I've also just packed three splits of a delicious though pricey Australian Shiraz (Shotfire Ridge) for the flight, plus a small bottle of olive oil (xx). I'll pick up a loaf of French bread on the way to the airport. I don't know what to do about the corkscrew, what with the nonsensical airline security regulations. I've lost at least a dozen waiter corkscrews over the years to security agents as I'm never without one in my pocket. Perhaps I can borrow one onboard, though the flight attendants frown when you bring your own booze. Any suggestions?

Inflight I'll be reading my dear friend Jim Harrison's latest collection of novellas. I'm quite excited. I'm also packing some Graham Greene.

Thanks, too, to Miss Snark for her thoughtful advice on my agent predicament. I plan to implement her suggestions upon my return. I find the internet literary community refreshing after years of those stuffy university cocktail mixers and coffeehouse cliques. I recommend Miss Snark to all of my writing students. She's clever and funny, but most important "that chick knows her shit," as my daughter Billie might say. Her blog is more useful than five years in an MFA program, but don't tell the establishment as I'd be out of a job.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Spring break in Bolivia

I know that I've been less than diligent in my postings but trust me that it is only because I've been writing furiously. Billie gave me one of her old laptop computers, a clunky device without a modem, and it has released me from the Internet, thus magnifying my productivity. I'm reminded of my old Remington, which is what I used to produce my last worthy novel. The battery on this machine lasts two hours, and I've been hiking into the local state forest with my collapsible canvas chair to write. I spent the anniversary of the Bush War in frigid 40-degree sleet underneath a budding willow, typing until my fingers were stiff. The day was cold enough to silence the spring peepers down in the swamp, but I nevertheless managed two thousand words. At this rate I shall be finished by the end of the semester. Which would be ideal as I expect to be fired...but more on that later.

It's been difficult finding an agent for my two other new novels. They think I'm washed up, never mind that I used to be a sure thing to reach a third printing, if not more. This newest novel, though, should prove easier to sell: it is the best thing I've done since the 70s. Perhaps if I query under a different name. I'm afraid the New York literary establishment does not hold me in high regard due to some embarrassingly colorful behavior over the last twenty-five years.

I received my spring break tickets to La Paz. I expect that Shirleen will be shocked to see me as she has no idea. I assume that her decision to flee to Bolivia was not on my account. Billie thinks I'm crazy, but Ella recalls the nude photos and has endorsed my scheme. She takes it as a sign that my ticker is healing.

Elizabeth Lowell stopped by yesterday. She is quite pregnant, and accordingly attractive. Quite apart from the garden variety fetishism, I find pregnant women at the height of their radiance as a gender. I suppose I can empathize with the Republicans who so desperately want to keep them in this condition. She lifted her shirt to allow me to touch her belly, and I can still feel the imprint of her taught skin against my calloused paw. She is estranged from her Baptist family now, but I told her she could move in with me. I then fixed a simple Spanish soup.

Use frozen stock (porterhouse trimmings, livers, calves head). First sautee 8 cloves of peeled, degermed garlic in olive oil. Remove the garlic and pour in the stock. Simmer. Add cumin, ginger and parsley snips. Simmer. Crush the garlic with the back of a wooden spoon, return to soup, simmer. Next smear Italian bread slices with olive oil and toast on one side. Pour soup in bowls, crack one egg into each dish, lay on a slice of bread and stick in a 450 degree oven until the egg is boiled and solid in the bottom. Serve with a real Caesar salad (from scratch) and more bread.

Elizabeth sipped a nip of my discount Borsoa (5 bucks, World Market), and the meal was complete.

I leave for La Paz on Sunday. More upon my return.

Monday, February 27, 2006


The dryad who often haunts me appeared to me this morning as I stared into a wretched cup of homeopathic tea that my daughter Billie, who is taking her turn tending me in my recuperation, forced upon me. I saw the face of the girl from my youth shimmer in the ripple as I tapped a few granules of illicit sugar into the brew when Billie wasn't watching. Her lips moved, though I couldn't make out the words. I quickly stirred with a spoon and she vanished. I've been avoiding her since my surgery. I regard her as a bad omen, much in the same way the Kiowa of Oklahoma regard the hoot of a barred owl as a portent of immanent death.

And I was right. I learned today of the passing of both Octavia and Fred. I will miss you both. I've been, at turns, a humbled admirer, an inspired student, and a proud colleague. You will both be mourned but never missed as you have left us with so much of yourselves. I hope to see you soon at the place where the river flows back into itself again.


Thursday, February 9, 2006


I've always been easily moved to tears. Even before the surgery I cried over the Iraq War at least three times per week.

Literature and food make me cry. I've bawled over my Jane Austin. Tears are conjured by Lorca's poesy and Whitman's exuberance. Last week my daughter Ella (the chef) fixed me a risotto con fungi al porcini, and I wept expansively when she set it on the table. I slobbered like my childhood basset hound, and then redoubled my crying when I remembered that animal with fondness.

Over the years, folks have equated crying in men with, at turns, cowardice, girlishness and insanity. But I'll let all those macho red meat males sucking back their tears know that crying has gotten me laid on at least four separate occasions. Remember, too, that I weighed in at 255 lbs before my surgery, very little of that muscle.

But a reader reminds me that depression, what I call the black ass, is especially acute after quad bypass surgery. I'm not sure if this is the reason for my recent upsurge in crying, but tonight I finished a chapter of my new novel and was so moved (we writers do love ourselves on occasion, don't we?) that I went out onto the patio of my flat in my underwear and wept until my skin was stippled with gooseflesh. It is winter after all. Two coeds walking by on the dark sidewalk asked, "Are you okay, sir?" with genuine concern. The old farts who say our younger generation is soulless are bitter and stupid.

In any event, I'm a bit worried by the sheer volume of tears I'm able to produce. Visiting a friend, a young assistant professor in the Philosophy Dept., I sat on his couch with his three-year-old daughter on my lap watching her favorite film, "A Bug's Life." I cried like a baby when the animated ants vanquished the brutish grasshoppers. The child reached up and touched my beard, saying, "That's okay, Mister Trout, it's only a movie." I kissed both her cheeks and forehead, chuckling new tears of joy.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

A measure of pig fat

Kiss my big black ass, Doctor Crosby.

"You'll never improve unless you change your habits, Professor Trout," he scolded during my last visit. To compound my shame and anger, my daughter Ella stormed out of the apartment after fixing me a ridiculous concoction known as a "fruit smoothie" for my lunch.

"Christ Ella, you're supposed to be a goddamned chef!"

"I'm trying to save your life, you miserable old fuck!"

I was sure she'd return before long. We all know I can be a bastard. Maybe that explains my three divorces.

While Ella was out, I waddled across the street to the Snappy Mart and bought three packages of wretched bacon and a sack of mealy potatoes. Fortunately pommes de vendangeurs is a forgiving recipe that can be saved by imported Gruyere cheese, which I had on hand. I trimmed the fat from the bacon best I could and then clarified some butter. I buttered a round casserole and laid the bacon strips in spiral fashion, ends hanging out of the dish. I layered potato slices (gratin-thin) and then the finely grated cheese, repeated thrice and then folded the bacon over the top. I baked for forty minutes at 410 and then cooled on a rack. I ate most of it, saving one small wedge for Ella. When she returned she screamed at the amount of cholesterol I had ingested, though she devoured her slice and we then fixed a leafy spinach salad with chopped pecans and a dressing of sherry vinegar, ground pepper and XXV olive oil. Then came my one-glass ration of red wine, a Tuscan primitivo known as A Mano, which is brilliant at eight bucks a bottle. Fuck the Mondavi brothers.

Oddly, after this meal I feel better than I have at any point since the quad bypass. Perhaps I'm on the mend. I've written another ten pages on the new novel, and also revised the ending of one of my completed drafts. I'm heartened. Dare I think comeback? After all, I was once in print in thirteen different languages, though that was before some of my current students were born. Ach...I dread the thought of my return to teaching. Perhaps if I were to publish...

Je suis retourné

Loyal readers (yes, both of you!), I must apologize for my absence. Open heart surgery is "a pisser," as my daughter Billie would say. I'm on the mend, though I still feel as if I've just made love to the captain of the East German women's swim team. Shirleen sent me nude polaroids of herself from Bolivia, and it nearly finished me. My patchwork heart throbbed and I felt the staples in my chest ripping. I asked Ella, who has been taking turns attending me with her little sister, to hide them in one of the books in my food library to surprise me.

"But that might kill you, Pop."

"What better way to go?"

Ella asked if she could keep one of the photos to share with her girlfriend. I told her that while I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that she is a lesbian, I am no more inclined to hear about the kinky side of her relationships than if she were hetero. She apologized but kept the photo.

I've earned a sabbatical from the university through pity rather than merit. I've arranged for a former student to teach my classes this semester. He's just finished editing his latest novel, and he had some free time while awaiting the galleys.

I don't expect to post much in the coming weeks, though I do have much to report. I've started yet another novel and have been making great progress...the exhaustion brought about through writing being mental rather than physical in nature. I haven't worked this well since the late 70s. I've also simplified my cooking because my stamina won't allow me to stay on my feet for very long, and I consequently have some delightful new, easy recipes to share.

I'm winded and will go lie down now. Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Bush, as I know you are reading this, will you kindly spellcheck for me?



Thursday, January 5, 2006

New year, my ass

My New Year's Day fishing ritual notwithstanding, I've got none of the optimism that these resolution-making nitwits exude to the point of perversion. You could say that I'm a grouch or curmudgeon, and you'd be correct. My heart weighs heavy, both physically and spiritually. I've tried my best to cheer myself: I just drove four hours round-trip to the nearest Trader Joe's to stock up on wine. I even discovered a delightful garnacha/tempranillo blend from Spain. It's a big, fruity red, perfect for pork tenderloin and only six bucks a bottle. I uncorked a bottle in the store (always carry your corkscrew, friends) and sipped, then hooted in delight. The clerk helped me load up the boxes and said that next time I was welcome to taste the wines in the back room where it was more appropriate.

My car laden with cheap food imported from countries that understand the notion of cooking, I reached a momentary plateau before plunging again. My troubles are legion. Instead of a list of bubbly resolutions, why don't I jot down a few reason why this year already "sucks ass," as my daughter Billie would say.

1. After the briefest of flings, Shirleen Tomasetti has left me. "God, Prof. Trout," she said as she pecked my cheek on the front stoop, "You've opened my eyes." She's not coming back to finish her MFA writing degree. Ordinarily I'd say "good for her" if I wasn't so fond of sleeping with her. She's filled out the paperwork for the Peace Corps, and while she waits on that she's going to Bolivia to visit a friend that works for USAID. Said she wants to gather some life experience, "before I try my hand at this writer-thing again." I told her to give my regards to Evo Morales, and then I wept inconsolably as I watched her drive away.

2. My agent, Doloros, has fired me. Fired by an agent! Twenty years we've been together. "I just don't think I'll be able to move these books, hon," she said over the phone in reference to my latest two manuscripts. "I don't know what it is, but you don't take your work seriously anymore. It's a new year, and I truly need to start fresh. I'm picking up two young writers, and they're amazing. And prolific. They will keep me very busy. Also, I'm tired of apologizing for your behavior." This last bit was in reference to a writers conference last summer where I became a little too friendly with the program director's spouse. She was gorgeous at sixty-eight. She was also smart, frisky and lewd, an irresistible combination. If only he hadn't found us out.

3. My ticker continues to labour. I'm surely a bypass candidate. My department director, though, with her typical lack of compassion, has insisted I take a full schedule of classes this semester.

4. All three ex-wives are still ex-wives. And too they grow lovelier by the year.

5. Billie wants to continue her post-graduate studies in London. She'll be farther away. She'll probably marry a slimy Brit with no sense of cuisine.

6. And perhaps most dreadful of all, Ms. Puppycute, my dear Lizzie Lowell, is preggers. What's worse, Billy Clayhouse seems to be her pollinator. I can only blame myself, as I encouraged her to find him and spend time with him. I, of course, feel bad for the girl, but I also worry about Billy. A thing like this could very well ruin a writer. I spoke at length with Elizabeth, as she can't talk about this sort of thing with her father, his being a Baptist minister. I'll record a transcript of our conversation soon. Needless to say, this is a soap opera which I do not need at the moment.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Black ass on the river

(With apologies for the double-pun in the title.) I spent the first day of the new calendar year as I always have for the past thirty years: waist deep in trout water. At least I didn't have to contend with sleet and frostbitten pinkies this year, though the day was gloomy, windy, drizzly, gray. Though I'm suffering in the throes of a serious black ass for various reasons I will elucidate shortly, my mood was leavened slightly when I landed four scrappy little rainbows on pheasant tails. I dislike fishing nymphs, but dry flies don't cut it in January. I then spotted an adult bald eagle surfing the gusts above the blufftops. She shadowed me for the rest of the afternoon, warming me from the soul outward.

My angioplasty hasn't worked. If anything, I'm more winded than before the procedure. I had to wade two miles upstream in a rush to get back to the car before dark, and I was so exhausted I sat on the bumper for a full thirty minutes, gasping. I fear I may need the bypass.

And then, when I returned to the apartment, I met a young woman whom we all know at my doorstep:

Young Woman: (weak smile) Greetings Prof. Trout.

Prof. Trout: Imagine finding you here. (hug) Happy New Year!

Young Woman: Happy New Year.

Prof. Trout: What brings you here at this hour?

Young Woman: (looks around, then bursts out) I'm pregnant.

Prof. Trout: Goodness! Are you sure?

Young Woman: Yes.

Prof. Trout: Heavens! And do you know who the father is?

Young Woman: Yes, it can only be one person.

Prof. Trout: Heavens!