Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why I Didn't Take The Cathoholic Writing Course

It was around 2000. A friend told me that ambitious writers were always enriching their grapevine of contacts with the lush manure of workshops, readings, schmoozing in coffee shops, writing fawning reviews and above all, joining a writing class. I'd never taken one.

"It's time to stop picking daisies. You need formal credentials," Friend told me sternly. She recommended someone that we'll call Maxwell. She said he was a good creative writing teacher who could give me gobs of great advice.

As a prerequisite before signing up for Maxwell's course, I gave him a short story that I'd labored over. It was about a very troubled kid who'd been a child soldier in his home country. In America, he's often beaten by a priest in his parochial school. At the end of the story the tormented boy vandalizes a church.

My story had already been published, and well-published. But I hoped to improve it.

Maxwell had a pitying but implacable look when he handed back the story. He looked like a hanging judge about to stretch your neck with a really big haul on the rope, but more in sorrow than in anger. I should have paid attention to his expression. After all, it was right in front of my face. But instead I waited like a goofy puppy, eager to be praised. Maxwell said (and I remember the exact words):

"As a practicing Catholic, I find the portrayal of the priest in your story deeply offensive." He folded his lips tightly together and frowned. This was the full extent of his critique.

To say I was surprised doesn't go far enough. I was astounded. Maybe the English word Gobsmacked is best, because it means both flabbergasted and speechless. I couldn't have been more shocked if he'd suddenly taped peacock feathers to his butt and started dancing the Texas two-step. I said nothing. But within a few seconds,two assumptions had shifted in my mind.

I gave up the idea that this man had anything of value to teach me. I decided to take an El Paso on his guidance in writing Vatican-approved stories. I thought: Include me out, Maxwell. Writing well was hard enough without Pope John Paul II peering over my shoulder. I also felt sorry for Maxwell. Any writer who tries to ignore the commotions of the wide world is going to fail.

And I felt angry. Nothing Maxwell said could really harm me, because I'd already been writing for years and was also indestructibly stubborn. But what about an insecure young pup of a writer, someone fragile and just starting out, unsure of his powers? He might find such a slap of criticism devastating.

The friend who'd recommended him threw up her hands: "That isn't like Maxwell at all! He's a real sensible guy normally. I bet that Cathoholic wife of his dictated what he should say."

I'd never heard the word Cathoholic, and was intrigued. Friend explained that it doesn't necessarily mean someone who drinks too much. The person doesn't even have to be a Catholic, "although they usually are," Friend claimed. It means an obsessive member of any religion. A Cathoholic is hopped up on arrogance, snakebitten out of her gourd with delicious delusions about her glorious spirituality. She thinks of herself as God's sensational darling, while those in other religions are his stunted stepchildren. Needless to say this has nothing actually to do with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the saints or (God forbid) God. And a true member of this tribe thinks that Jesus was having a wimpy, pinko, Bernie Sanders kind of moment when he suggested things like Help one another, and Love your neighbor as yourself.

When I heard this, I felt even sorrier for Maxwell. If a writer doesn't have the guts to
fight the Cathoholic in the house, what can he amount to?

Soon after this incident, the international scandal broke about abusive priests being protected by bishops in the Catholic church for decades, if not centuries. I wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell had heard the news. Did it affect their worship schedule at all? Also, did they recollect the events in my story? Probably they did not.

Years passed. Mrs. Maxwell and I live in the same area. I sometimes walk my dogs down her block.To this day, when she sees me she looks surly and, I'm sorry to say, quite unchristian. Sometimes she'll even mutter and sputter to herself, like Donald Duck in a cartoon when he's especially pissed off. This fascinates me. This majestic lady wouldn't tolerate a speck of dust on her white slacks or sparkling car, but she's perfectly comfortable with raging, squawking, farting little Donald scampering around her brain. She even thinks that God wants him there. Her behavior is odd; her motivations are mysterious; but her performance as a whole is devilishly entertaining.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Poem for Annie's Curls

How strange these strands of silk, buckeye chestnut, mustang brown, not long enough to wrap your hand around, and each by itself insubstantial as dragonfly's flight to breast the wind, to guard against fire or ice, to add one dot to wisdom or peace or justice in the world-- yet each to its own, a coiling spring of joy. This single tendril a bolt of chromium steel with might to bind a strong father's heart for life. Written in dearest blood, his wish that his tiny Rapunzel will never know a tower, witch curse, careless climbing prince, that a loving dragon-father can keep her safe no matter how fierce the fanged shears of the world.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"MAXIMUS, I Want To Have Your Baby!"

We've all seen GLADIATOR, right? When you think about it, why wasn't Maximus Decimus Meridius simply chosen to be the baby-daddy of the whole world? He was a Spaniard living in Rome (hybrid vigor), could carry about 75 lbs. of fetish-y steel armor and leather with ease, kicked up a heck of a fuss in the Coliseum (energy, joie de vivre), had Alpha Hunk written all over him but had his soulful moments too, and even his furs looked noble. By contrast we have the Roman emperor Commodus (see picture), who warmed up by murdering his father--which was tradition among aristocrats of the time--but went hogwild after that, and wanted to marry all the close relatives he didn't assassinate. The photo above shows Commodus in one of his HAPPY moments. In my opinion he might possibly qualify, at a stretch, as Funny Uncle. But Baby-Daddy? No. A reader has asked me if Commodus and Maximus were the only two choices . 180 A.D., maybe.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


I just learned from the delightful blog PaperandSalt that the Marquis de Sade, on top of everything else, was a chocolate fiend. He once threw a chocolate party so wild that he was put in prison. I'm surprised that he had the energy. After all, it's not as though he didn't have anything else going on. A true French aristocrat, he hardly allowed solitary confinement to slow him down. The rambunctious Marquis regally demanded of his long-suffering wife (who remained free, since she hadn't been invited to the party) that she bring him a better grade of chocolate "than the infamous rubbish you sent me last time." He also schooled her in the perfect cake, saying, "It ought to have the same taste as when you bite into a bar of chocolate. I wish it to be of a chocolate so dense that it is black, like the devil's arse is blackened by smoke."

Don't you suspect that, in the Marquis's childhood, little Donatien Alphonse was never satisfied with just ONE marshmallow in his cocoa??

Friday, November 22, 2013


I admire the old-time movie freedom fighters, especially Ingrid Bergman, who won World War II several times without ever breaking a sweat. In fact, as these scenes from CASABLANCA and NOTORIOUS show us, she saved civilization in diamond chandelier earrings,  romantic garden hats and a ruffly bolero.

We know that the Nazis will totally fail at world domination when Bergman symbolically rests her exquisitely manicured hand on the globe.
In NOTORIOUS, her fellow warrior is Cary Grant.
No reason you can't beat the Axis Powers in silk socks!
If you're Bogey, you can be sad, fight the Nazis, drink champagne and wear black tie all at the same time.
Well, maybe Sam won't ever play it again... but these thrillingly
invincible and glamorous combatants, plunging bravely through their hair-raising world-saving adventures,
will always make my heart glad. I stand, raise a glass and cheer.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


You'll rarely find a more interesting read than the memoir/cookbook/rant, EAT ME: THE FOOD AND PHILOSOPHY OF KENNY SHOPSIN. Shopsin is a tough, eccentric New York diner cook, one of the best in the city and certainly the most articulate. He says what's on his mind. Not every cookbook writer will tell you that in his youth he'd been in Freudian analysis, five days a week, for years. He sometimes uses language that would knock a buzzard off an outhouse. And you can tell that he's a strong family man. His adult children are the energetic crack crew who run the restaurant. This sometimes includes his son Danny, who is a talented artist and is also bipolar. Danny has a home with Shopsin, a job at the store and the protection of everyone in the family, whenever he wants them. You also know, reading between the lines, that Shopsin fears that Danny's mental struggles arise from his own. In Shopsin's young years he suffered intensely from what was then called manic depression.

The restaurant is Shopsin's kingdom, and he makes sure you know it. There are rules. For example, a party of more than four will not be seated. He doesn't want larger parties hogging space in his diner, and he also feels that conversation becomes inferior when the group is big. Don't try to sneak in extra friends a few minutes later. He'll throw you all out, and remember it forever. Shopsin remembers things the elephant has forgotten. Another rule is that he refuses to do substitutions in a listed dish. He figures that with 900 items on the menu, you should be able to find something you'd fancy. He will also sometimes take a dislike to new prospective diners and refuse to seat them, saying, "They're nothing but strangers."

But if you happen to be a very longtime friend, or if he likes your face, or if he just feels like it that day, he might suspend the rules for once. And although he never makes home deliveries, friends who become seriously ill will often find vessels of delicious hot food at their door.

The book is a headlong gallop of Shopsin's redhot opinions and fearless recipes, but there is a peaceful spot for your eyes on rest on, if you need one. This is the portrait of Shopsin's late wife, Eve, on page 100. She has a gentle, kind, dark-eyed face and rich, reddish-brown hair. Apparently she put up with her proudly impossible husband with patience and grace. Shopsin does not wear his heart on his sleeve, but you know that he has one. The book is dedicated to Eve, her name is huge type. And you sense his tenderness for her in his description of a meal they often shared when they were young and poor:

"Around that time Eve and I were in the habit of going to a restaurant on Bleecker Street," where they always ordered a dish called the Brown Rice Special. Kenny goes on, "It was hot rice and melted cheese drizzled with soy sauce and with a bunch of crunchy vegetables and walnuts strewn throughout. They served it on a cake stand: a big gooey mound of stuff all piled there on top of the pedestal."

The hungry young couple would sit on opposite sides of the Brown Rice Special and attack it with forks, stabbing and securing the luscious nuts and vegetables, digging in with such passion that every time, "we'd end up tipping the freaking cake stand over."

Shopsin's advice on how to eat this meal has to be told. It's not much of a stretch to see that he's also giving his opinion about how to savor your life.

"The rice is what I call 'mouth food' get a bite you stick your fork through the rice and cheese. You then take your fork and stab through a vegetable, and you score a little lettuce along with it. You now have a bite of every ingredient in your mouth at the same time, and when you chew, all those flavors and texures transform into something that didn't exist until that moment. If you pick at it and separate the ingredience like a persnickety ass, you are not going to have the same experience, and the experience you do have will be inferior."

Shopsin has not been a "persnickety ass" in the way he lived his life. He found relief from severe depression when he bought an old grocery store. He worked incredible hours to revive it, and this seems to have dovetailed with a manic phase which was useful for once. He and Eve developed the store into Shopsin's diner. He found that he could keep his demons at bay by working hard at tasks he loved, projects which made sense to him, every day. And that is what he still does.

And the Brown Rice Special? Shopsin perfected his own recipe as a tribute to Eve. Many a fine valentine is not made out of chocolate. You can figure out on your own how to make a good version of Kenny and Eve's Brown Rice Special, or you can buy Shopsin's book. And when you eat this food, keep in mind all the meals shared by struggling young lovers in their early days--including, no matter how many years ago it was, or how it turned out, your own.