Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Building a Story (Part One)

I thought I’d write about writing. People ask me a lot about my routine, the path I take to tell a story from inception to completion. Usually I shrug it off as some indefinable, somewhat magical process that cannot be explained. But there are nuts and bolts to the process. It is never mechanical for me, but there are some systematic steps that happen when I write.

Keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. We all dance to the beat of our own accordions. But if you find some inspiration in these segments, I’d love to hear. Here we go.

I write a pretty strong first draft. As long as you don’t need any of those non-sensical things, you know, like details. I am comfortable in the language is what I am saying. Nothing is more important. The language can set the tone and mood of your story simply by the words and phrases you use. One writer, I don’t remember who, once said, “You have to like to roll around in the language.” For me that quote changed the way I told stories. I grew as a writer much faster when I realized the power of language and how it can be used. As of today, the lessons continue, but I have a better understanding of language and how to use it.

This does not mean I don’t rewrite. For me, rewriting is where the true work comes in. I’ve got my story down, and it is pretty good in my humble opinion, at least worth the investment of time to give it a chance at life. It has progressed sometimes begrudgingly, from wherever I started right along to some sort of conclusion (more on this later). So now that I know where the story is going, it is time to figure out what the damn ting is about.

That may sound strange, figuring out the meaning after the tale has been told. But it is how my brain functions. And, right or wrong, it seems to work. At least for me. What will follow over the next few weeks is a primer on the way my mind works when constructing a story. The creative process really is about building, and each of these vignettes will hopefully explain the way I build the structure. The brick and mortar you use to build your stories -- to reinforce them, will determine how solid they are, how long they last, and how long they resonate with the reader which after all, is the whole point.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Children see the world as it should be, as we try to teach them it can be. If they are young enough, they see all of us better than we truly are. They don't see the dishonesty and deception, the darkness of our souls. They don't see our failures and our character flaws. They see only a person that they love and that is enough. I am a believer in children, they are smarter than we give them credit for, and can spot a lie at fifty yards. I am not sure if the following list is true or not, but it should be

A group of teachers posed this question to a group of 4 to 8 year-olds,
'What does love mean?'

The answers they got were broader and deeper than anyone could have
imagined:

'When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint
her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even
when his hands got arthritis too. That's love.'
~ Rebecca- age 8

'When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.
You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.'
~ Billy - age 4

'Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne
and they go out and smell each other.'
~ Karl - age 5

'Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French
fries without making them give you any of theirs.'
~ Chrissy - age 6

'Love is what makes you smile when you're tired.'
~ Terri - age 4

'Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip
before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.'
~ Danny - age 7

'Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of
kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.
My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss'
~ Emily - age 8

'Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening
presents and listen.'
~ Bobby - age 7 (Wow! This one is my favorite.)

'If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend
who you hate,'
~ Nikka - age 6

'Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it
everyday.'
~ Noelle - age 7

'Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still
friends even after they know each other so well.'
~ Tommy - age 6

'During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked
at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling.
He was the only one doing that. I wasn't scared anymore.'
~ Cindy - age 8

'My mommy loves me more than anybody
You don't see anyone else kissing me to sleep at night.'
~ Clare - age 6

'Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken.'
~ Elaine-age 5

'Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford.'
~ Chris - age 7

'Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone
all day.'
~ Mary Ann - age 4

'I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old
clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.'
~ Lauren - age 4

'When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars
come out of you.'
~ Karen - age 7

'Love is when Mommy sees Daddy on the toilet and she doesn't think it's
gross.'
~ Mark - age 6

'You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you
mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.'
~ Jessica - age 8

And the final one

The winner was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an
elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife.
Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's
yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there.

When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy
said,

'Nothing, I just helped him cry'

Doing the Jelly roll


I am loved. I have an amazing girlfriend and an incredible group of friends. I am as comfortable with them as with my own family, possibly even more so in fact. So, after a day of hanging out, we decide, our friends and I, to go to the marina and look for jellyfish. We found dozens, floating on or just below the surface of the water. Many of these alien blobs floated right next to the boat docks. Close enough to lean over and touch! So I did.

I turned to the people I love and announced my intentions, and they all encouraged me to follow my dreams, if this was indeed a dream, and if I was stung, they all volunteered to pee on my leg. Well, all but ML. If a classier woman exists, I do not know her. ML will play along with most of my schemes, but she has a dignity and grace that allow her to choose when to participate and when to walk away. My other friends, though, all jockeyed for prime peeing position in the off chance that I got stung.

A jellyfish sting is said to be horrifically painful, and urine is said to alleviate the pain down from excruciating to merely throbbing. Of course, vodka has proven to be just as effective, but not nearly as much...um...fun to talk about. So, armed with the knowledge I gleaned from Finding Nemo, specifically that you can touch a jelly on top, I walked down the dock to a swarm of jellies. Of course, I do have some intelligence, that ain't just a hat rack on top of my shoulders, and wasn't about to just thrust my hands into a swarm of these freaky things. But isolated a few inches away from the group, was the king of the jellies. A Frisbee size, (regulation issue, not those cheap 99 cent store discs), jellyfish bobbed to the surface, daring me...taunting me to touch. Tentatively I reached out a finger and brushed the top of the transparent glop. It felt like rubberized Jell-O, so I poked it again. Jell-O yes, but you could feel the life there too. The freaky thing pulsed and moved and slowly descended from my probing but I had accomplished my goal while my friends all looked on.

I suddenly wanted to do it again, but somehow the jellies sensed the threat, and soon formed a tighter bunch, with their tentacles lying across the tops of their buddies, so it was hard to tell their gelatinous mass ended and stinging pain began. I decided not to press my luck.

Sure my friends all sent me out alone to face the flying saucer of the deep, but it was comforting to know that they all stood by ready to drench me if needed. Of course one still wanted to pee on me anyway. But that's friendship for you.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

White Hats




House Peters, Jr died last week of pneumonia. He was 92 years old.

Probably best known as the original Mr. Clean form the 50's and 60's,
House was a character actor who shared the screen with Gene Autry and
Roy Rogers in numerous westerns, as well as roles in such shows as
Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Lassie, and Gunsmoke.

I met him two years ago where, at ninety years old he was appearing in
a charity event with other actors from the old Gene Autry and Roy
Rogers TV shows and movies. He signed autographs and stood for photos
with anybody who asked. Not content to sit behind a table in the
shade, House walked around on the uneven dirt of the event grounds and
spoke with people wherever he found them. He told humorous anecdotes
about old Hollywood, and of working with Gene and Roy on the old cowboy
pictures he loved so much.

The thermometer hovered near one hundred degrees and the crowds were
light that day, and for a stretch of about two hours we talked about
all manner of things. Here was a man who had enjoyed a lifelong career
in a business known as much for its ugliness as for its glamour and had
somehow remained untouched by it.

As the day drew to a close, House sought me out to shake my hand.
"Hope to see you again sometime down the trail," he said.

In the old days he was usually cast as a heavy, a bad guy. It used to
bother him, being the black hat, he wanted to be a good guy. I'm
writing this to set the record straight. House Peters, Jr. was one of
the good guys. Believe it.

My Batman Moment

I once prevented a rape. When I was in my early twenties, I managed a bookstore at the Brea Mall. Working late one night shelving an endless delivery of new titles, I left after most of the mall employees were gone. As I walked across the parking lot there were maybe six cars in my section, scattered sparsely hundreds of yards apart from each other. Making my way to my car, yawning, I dug into my pocket for my keys. That's when I heard a muffled yelp.

I turned in the direction of the noise and noticed a pair of women's shoes jutting out between two cars parked next to each other. Her feet kicked weakly and I thought maybe she'd fallen and hit her head. I ran to assist her and found a guy laying on top of her, pinning her to the ground and holding his hand over her mouth. Her eyes found mine and there was fear in them like I had never seen before. "What the F*ck!" I screamed as I reached for the guy's collar. "Get the F*ck off her man!" As he rolled off the woman my grasp on his collar slipped. He spun and kicked me hard in the stomach. I doubled over as I slammed into the car behind me. The rapist gained his feet and as he turned to run, I dove for his legs but missed. By the time I got up off the pavement, he was leaping a fence a hundred yards away.

I turned to the frightened woman, who was already fumbling for her keys, trying to get into her car. She was crying, and her hands shook badly.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"I'm fine." She spat. "I just need to get home to my kids."

"We should call the police." I said.

"I'll call them from home…I just…I just need to go." With that she dropped into her car and looked up at me. "Thank you," she said before speeding off. I should have taken her plate number and called the cops myself, but it didn't occur to me at the time. She'd been wearing a nametag from one of the shops in the mall and I went to check on her the next day only to be informed that she'd quit. I hope she called the cops.

Rape is a crime that goes unreported most of the time. I wish I had been able to catch the guy. I wish I had thought to call and report it. I wish I really was Batman.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Books Off the Beaten Path

My taste in books varies widely. I can read most any genre without preconceived prejudices. If a book is good, it will speak to me, perhaps not in the same language it speaks to you, but a connection is established. Here then is a list of books that I have compiled which you may not have heard of, but which might speak to you as well:

Funniest Book: LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore

Far and away the funniest book I have read thus far. It tells the story of Jesus Christ as a child from the perspective of Biff, his best friend. As the religious undertones are set askew, you must first be able to laugh at faith in a good-natured way. The way your best friend will tease you about the important things in your life. That’s what best friends do. And Biff delivers the goods. Besides, you will find out the true meaning of the Easter Bunny and those visions of Mother Mary. And Finally you will find out what the ‘H’ stands for in ‘Jesus H. Christ! Nobody's perfect. Well there was this one guy but we killed him.


Scariest Book: The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

I was thirteen or fourteen when I read this demonic ‘true’ story. I remember reading the last hundred or so pages late one night, the house was dark and silent, I sat on the couch with a single lamp shining on the pages. I wanted to stop…I couldn’t stop. The thought of going to bed before reading the final, horrific conclusion did not sound appealing. So, with my heart racing, and my mind assigning too much weight to every little sound in the house, I pushed on. As I turned the final page, the hall door whipped open and my father stepped out. Scared the bejeezus out of me and I jumped about two feet straight up from my seated position on the couch. True or not, the book is intense.

Hopeful Book: Once Upon A Town by Bob Greene

If you are in need of a reminder that people are mostly good, that in this world of selfishness and greed, people can be compassionate and caring…or at least used to be…pick up a copy of this book. The story of the people from the North Platte Canteen will restore your faith in humanity. This is a book about the best of America.

Unique Book: Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin

Somebody is bumping off the biggest iconic Fairy Tale characters of our
time. When Humpty Dumpty winds up dead…cracked open at the base
of a wall, the police assume he has fallen again and this time all the king’s men could NOT put him together again. But when Little Bo Peep is found impaled on her own staff, Detective Eddie Bear, (a talking teddy bear with a drinking problem) assumes they’ve got a serial murderer on their hands. The prime suspects are an organization known as the Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. And yes…they are actual chocolate bunnies…the kind you get at Easter.

Romantic Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Before it was a brilliantly made film by Rob Reiner, it was a
brilliantly written book by William Goldman. No greater love story has ever been told. Giants, Swordsmen, Cliffs of Insanity, King Bats, ROUS’s, Fire Swamp, not even The Pit Of Despair can stand against True Love. Read it, watch it, love it! Rhett and Scarlett ain’t got nothing on Wesley and Buttercup!

As an aside, the play Love Letters by A.R.Gurney is also one of the greatest love stories ever. Though it is available in book form, it is a play and therefore not eligible for this list. But now that it is here, go read it!

Twisted Book: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

This is a book that your grandparents would have tossed on the fire at
a good old-fashioned book burning. Never before have I read something so deeply twisted and disturbing. This was a difficult book to get through. It made me squirm. Beware, for once you read it you can never un-read it, much like seeing Two Girls and a Cup.

When the characters in this book turn to cannibalism to survive, and cut strips of flesh from the ample buttocks and back of the thighs from another character who they believe dead it is bad enough. When that character, unaware that she has
been sliced into filets, walks in on the group as they are microwaving her flesh it gets even worse. But when she grabs a strip of her own flesh from the steaming, microwaved pile and begins eating it…game over. I’m done! But I wasn’t…I read until the end, knowing that this man is a master at the written word. I am a jaded reader, and he got intense reactions out of me. Kudos.

Biggest Disappointment: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

In his annual list of the year’s best books, Stephen King said about this book that it was far and away the best book of the year. It was, he said, a stylized mystery with several storylines that all melded together with grace and subtlety. He claimed to have read it four times just to figure out how she did it. Well, I read it once and once was enough. The language was elegantly crafted and the writing was beautiful and I didn’t care in the slightest.


Biggest Surprise: Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout

Assigned to us in high school, I read the book only because it was forced upon me. I had no interest in reading about a group of troubled kids at summer camp, and the moment when the took a stand. They were losers all their lives, never fitting in with society. All of that changes the day they witness a huge injustice and set about to make things right. What could have been laughable and trite in the hands of a lesser author, the story of these boys on this adventure is touching and sad. In the end their triumphs remain bittersweet. It is still one of my favorite books.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Five Mundane Things You Don't Know About Me

1. I still have dreams that I can fly. Not as graceful as Superman, in my dreams I have to frog-kick through the air, like you do when you swim underwater, arms pulling you forward and legs kicking to propel you. The flying dreams are my favorite ones, there is a sense of peace and tranquility as I swim through the air. As I wake up, the ability to fly leaves me, but I do not plummet to the Earth, I simply begin to lose altitude, no matter how hard I kick; I float to the ground unable to fly anymore.

2. I consider 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' to be one of the best shows ever on TV. Also on the list is 'Freaks and Geeks', 'West Wing', 'Wonder Years', 'Firefly', 'MASH', 'Brisco County Jr.' Alas, none of them are on the air anymore, what's that say about my taste?

3. My first book came out in 2006; SARAGOSA is a western I wrote for my father. Recently it has been picked up by Hollywood and is in pre-production to become a feature film!

4. I used to be addicted to Pepsi. Stop laughing. I would have a Big Gulp on the way to work in the morning. I’d have another for lunch, and a two-liter almost every evening. I quit cold turkey about nine months ago. Now if I could only quit the chocolate!

5. As a photographer I have worked with countless celebrities, Dennis Hopper, Kirk Douglas, Benjamin Bratt, Ellen DeGeneres, Christopher Lloyd, Dean Cain, the entire cast of My Name Is Earl. But the most rewarding project I worked on is the Heart Gallery. Professional photographers all over the world were invited to donate their time and talents to a charity designed to raise awareness about children who need permanent homes by displaying professional portraits that capture the children's individuality. The program has demonstrated unprecedented success in finding adoptive homes for foster children.

Five Wierd Things You Don't Know about me

I can’t gargle. Nope. I can’t.
Every single time in my life that I’ve tried I came close to drowning myself. I get the concept of gargling, I really do. Water in the mouth, tilt the head back, bounce the water at the edge of the throat, start gagging uncontrollably, spit water out and hock up a lung for the next half hour. I always end up there. Sputtering, coughing, gasping in convulsions. People around me try to perform CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. It would be funny if I wasn’t drowning over here.

Take one look at me and you can pretty much see that I am not athletic. I am in no shape to exercise. But there are a few things I can do fairly well in that world. In High School I was on the basketball team. I was a decent player, but never a star. I only had one shot, but it was a beauty. Deep down in the corner, in three point territory at the side of the basket, I had a sweet jump shot that went in more than not.
I can also dive pretty well. As a kid I was a fearless swimmer, and soon took to diving. jackknife, swan, high dive. I can even flip off a diving board. My form and technique are pretty good.
I can serve overhand in volleyball accurately. I learned that way, I’ve never done it underhand. I’m not a bad player either.

I’m not ticklish, never have been. Back of the arms, knees, feet...nothing. I don’t get it. I mean, I’m a pretty happy guy, I like to laugh. Maybe I don’t need to be ticklish because I laugh too much as it is. Who knows?
Along those same lines, until recently I had never experienced Goosebumps, Goose Pimples, Goose flesh, or any other waterfowl type sensation. About a month ago, during an emotional, deeply felt embrace, my skin erupted with an amazing rush of sensitivity. Problem is they didn’t look anything like geese.

I was struck by lightning. I was eighteen or nineteen, driving my 1980 Mustang hatchback. That baby was light blue metallic, four cylinders, and could go from zero to sixty in just under four days. A nasty storm was pounding down, visibility was murky and flashes sporadically turned night into day. After white-knuckling my way home for over an hour, I was finally a half block from my house. I was just starting to relax when lightning struck the hood of my car and the intensity of all that electricity engulfed my car in a fireball of blinding light. Thankfully I wasn’t touching metal and as quickly as it came, the lightning was gone. I pulled into my driveway, ran in and breathlessly told my mom who didn’t believe me. Parents. Sheesh.

I saw a UFO once. My sister and I were flying without our parents back home from vacation. I must have been nine or ten. I was scared to death of flying when I was a kid. I would get pale and talk non-stop to mask my nervousness. But my big sis was with me and she promised to keep me busy the whole way. Twenty minutes into our late-night flight she was sound asleep. Head back, mouth open kinda sleeping. I did my best not to lose it. I read the on-board magazine...twice. I looked around our cabin a lot. I stared out the little window into the inky darkness. Suddenly a light appeared, some distance away but very bright. It stayed alongside for a bit, then shot forward out of sight ahead of us. After several seconds, it returned for about a minute before slowly drifting straight up and out of my view from the window. I shook my sister awake and explained what I saw. She turned away from me, pulled the window shade down, and went back to sleep.

Mother of Our Country

“Why do we celebrate the 4th of July?” I asked.

We were walking back from a local fireworks show. I was about five years old, my sister about six, and my younger brother still two years away. I may have been riding on my father’s shoulders, but more likely I was chasing fireflies on the walk home. His answer stopped me in my tracks.

“The whole country celebrates your mom’s birthday.”

I had never before made the connection that mom’s birthday was also the country’s birthday.

“Really?”

He grinned. “Yup, it started a couple years before you were born. First just locally, but after a year or two, the whole country started celebrating.”

I looked at mom, awestruck, but she only smiled.

“What did you think of the fireworks tonight?” My dad asked.

I paused. At five, fireworks still scared me a little. I understood the concept of fire and how easily it can get out of control. I shrugged. “They were OK.”

He knew I’d spent most of the display with my head buried into my mom’s sweater-covered shoulder. She always wears sweaters, with pockets for her tissue of course.

I walked the rest of the way in contemplative silence, mulling over this new information and thinking how special my mom was. It was a couple years later, while in school that I learned the truth of the holiday. But I still think my mom is special enough for a holiday of her own.



I bought myself a Super Hero Kit the other day. Yes, you read that right. The contents of the kit are as follows:

~ A Super identity-hiding mask (Red with black lightning bolts on either side)

~ A ’Special-Person’ sticker to proudly display on my super vehicle. (Though
I suspect that others may view that as short bus kind of special)

~ A celebratory horn for those after-lifesaving parties (Said parties for us
superhero types only)

~ A handsome superhero award (Suitable for framing)

~And a handy instruction booklet on becoming a super hero (Complete with
the super hero secret oath and several brain-boggling quizzes)

All that is left is to pick out a cool, superhero name. A name that at once strikes fear in the hearts of evildoers everywhere, yet inspires confidence and pride in everyday common folk. Something majestic. Something pure. The kind of name that Batman would wish he’d thought of first.

I have no special powers that I am aware of, and no super suit came with the kit. Quickly donning a Winnie-the-Pooh kitchen towel as a cape, I leapt through the door and out into the chill night. My senses tingled as I sought out crime. To the left a dog barked, while overhead the moon crossed behind a cloud. Rounding a corner I came across certain wrongdoers, leaning beneath the hood of a car, assuredly fiddling with some sort of doo-dad for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc.

“Stop, Fiends!” I cried with my best superhero voice. Without hesitation, I slammed the hood down upon them and leapt back, prepared for battle.

“What’s the matter with you?” My neighbor The Nefarious Steve exclaimed. “Who are you supposed to be in that get-up?”

I adjusted my identity-hiding mask and repositioned my kitchen towel cape. Thinking swiftly I said, “I am Pooh Man”

Their gale force laughter filled the night as I went back to my not-so-secret house and packed my superhero kit away safely. I will live to fight another day, but not in my own neighborhood, not where people know me.

Drop me a Line

Joe Rogan, the comedian/actor was judging a contest for new comics. After watching a guy do his thing, Joe said simply, “It’s not often that I hear a joke I wish I’d written, but you had one.” As a writer, I can understand where he’s coming from. Once in a while, I come across a line or phrase, or snippet of dialogue that is so good I wish I had thought of it first.

In reading ‘Forever Odd’ by Dean Koontz, I came across just such a line. It is the first line in Chapter Four and it reads,

“When you take maybe fifty thousand volts from a taser, some time has to pass before you feel like dancing.”

Now, I’ve never been hit by a taser, and I am not a very good dancer, but I imagine a truer sentence has never been written about the experience. This got me to thinking of some other great lines that pulled me further into a book. Consider the following:

“Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.” ~ Ken Grimwood’s REPLAY

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” ~ Stephen King’s DARK TOWER; THE GUNSLINGER

Other times, a line or phrase will sneak up on me somewhere within the story:

“Daisy just sat there and studied me for the longest time, with a kind of fascinated expression on her face, and then she said, ‘Mom, was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?” ~ Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel BREATHING LESSONS.

All of these books took me on an amazing ride and opened my eyes to possibilities I’d never imagined. What are some of your favorite lines from novels you’ve read? Send them to me at gnubill@yahoo.com. I am looking for the unique lines that captured you, but try to stay away from the standards.

And that joke that caught Joe Rogan by surprise? “Surfing is the most dangerous sport on earth, because it is the only sport where sharks are involved.”

A Pilgrimage

A truly gifted writer invites you into their world and makes no excuses for it. The words lead the way and you follow, trusting the author to know the path. Through the twists and turns of the dark highway of their minds you emerge out the other side, better somehow than you were when you entered. And if you’re lucky, the story and places they present will resonate within you for a long, long time. Thus was the case with SUNSET TOMORROW by E. Ervin Tibbs. Within those pages I discovered new friends who felt familiar the moment I met them, and their haunts and hang-outs became mine for a time. The Shack, a tiny dive bar on the beach, became a sort of Mecca for the characters in the book, all were welcomed and more importantly for the invisible people of our society, they were accepted.

I was so moved and affected by the story of these people and this bar, that I took a pilgrimage to Sunset Beach, my quest was to find The Shack and have a beer. Of course, the name had been changed in the novel, and in order to find the bar, I needed to find the author. Erv Tibbs is an unassuming man with a simple ease about him and he informed me that the place I was looking for was actually named MOTHER’S, and then he offered to tag along. It was a place of legend for me, and I was going to be guided through by the man who brought it to life.

Pacific Coast Highway is a long meandering road stuffed with cars controlled by angry drivers. But where it cuts through Sunset Beach, a feeling hangs in the air, an epiphany waiting to happen, as if the town as a whole wants to say, “What’s the rush?”

We arrived at MOTHER’S ten minutes before the doors opened, and I was awed just leaning against the freshly painted red building. As we stood there, Erv recanted a few wild stories from his days on the beach and all but one took place right here at MOTHER’S Bar. Cupping our hands against the glass we peered through the tinted windows, he with eyes of remembrance, and me with eyes fresh and new. What I saw was a place of legend – hallowed ground upon which he and his characters had walked.

A shack it truly was, a rough-hewn bar jutted in a u-shape from one wall, a juke box stood opposite, and covering the walls, every square inch of them, were photographs of people, patrons old and new, past and present.

“I can’t believe it,” Erv said. He pulled away from the window and glanced at me with a grin. “I helped build that bar 35 years ago, and it’s still standing.”

At that moment, a local resident came around the corner. He tried the doorknob and said, “They’ll be open in a minute. I heard what you said about that bar. I been coming here 20 years myself, and helped ‘em re-do the floor a few years back.”

From inside, the jukebox sprang to life and a few minutes later, the doors opened. I let the others go first because I wanted to take my time. I steeled myself for disappointment for I had learned that in life the legend is rarely so legendary in the light of day. Just as the junkyard dog…a bloodthirsty hound of legend, usually becomes playful pup in the harsh light of reality.

MOTHER’S Bar was the exception, for in the hands of an honest storyteller, she had been faithfully documented. The air felt electric cool and full of promise. Everywhere you looked, there was life. The photos on the walls, the TV over the bar, the bras hanging from the ceiling, autographed and hung by adventurous women throughout the years. The regular patrons took their seats and studied us as we entered. They seemed to peg Erv as one of their own immediately and accepted him, but as for myself …well, I was an outsider and therefore subject to scrutiny. Further judgment was held until more data could be collected. I asked Erv which stool was his back in the old days and he pointed at the one closest to the door. “Easier to crawl outta here when my legs were rubber,” he said. I took his original seat and, for the first time in over twenty years, I ordered a beer. It was the right thing to do. I could not, with good conscience, leave this hallowed ground without sharing a beer with my friend.

At some point, the locals figured I was ok and we all talked. They discovered Erv had written about the place they loved, and he became a local celebrity for a bit, but when he bought a round for the house, he was nominated for sainthood. “This is a comfortable place,” I thought. Inside those walls all pretense was swept aside, and you were suddenly stripped bare of preconceived notions about social classes and political views. Inside MOTHER’S you were who you were, naked inside your own skin and if you found discomfort there, you didn’t stay long.

There aren’t many places left where pure honesty and simple means coexist in our violent, money-hungry world where everyone is hurrying through life. And soon there will be one less. MOTHER’s lost their lease and, at the end of the year, will simply fade away into the mists of memory, marking the end of an era for a way of life that is misunderstood by society’s upper crust, and so revered by the invisible people among us. The novel then, becomes a loving tribute to a way of life that for some, is the only way to live.

Love Letters

I have never been accused of being particularly refined…I am not polished, nor am I cultivated. In fact, I am not very cosmopolitan at all. I reflected upon these shortcomings as I sat, a fish out of water, in an auditorium filled with the upper crust, or those who purported to be. We had come to attend a play, a very important, very timely, and ultimately very boring production. As we waited for the curtain to rise, I remembered the last play I had attended, this one a much smaller spectacle, in the tiny makeshift theater of a High School cafeteria last winter. There were folding chairs lined up in semi-straight lines, and in the far, back corner of the room a gray haired woman sold Kool-aid and cookies for a dollar. On stage there were minimal props; two chairs and an occasional table between them. The audience was filled with people you would meet at the local church bingo game, or at a book club meeting. Casual attire was the order of the day at this community production of the play by A.R. Gurney entitled, ‘Love Letters’.

Words are powerful, but in the hands of a master, they can transform your world. There were only two actors in the play, a man, who sells cars for a living, and a woman, who is a teacher’s aide in her son’s class two days a week, and a full-time housewife the rest of the time. There is no action to speak of in ‘Love Letters’, the actors walk onstage, sit in the chairs and read letters to each other. That’s it, and that’s all. The words spill forth in a tidal wave of emotion and symbolism, and soon engulfed our ragged band of unrefined attendees. The words took us, together and individually, to places we wanted to go, and some we didn’t, and their power was unmistakable. Will these actors ever win a Tony Award for their performance in a high school auditorium? Doubtful. Will those in attendance remember the play…the standing ovation leads me to believe that they will. ‘Love Letters’…find it…read it.

Lisa Delmonico

Lisa DelMonico.

I heard that name yesterday for the first time in fourteen years. This is not to say that the name hasn't crossed my mind in that span of time, just that it hadn't been spoken aloud in my presence. She was the girl who supplied me with my first kiss. The year was 1972, Nixon was President and I was seven years old.

We’d met in the first grade and instantly disliked each other. Sitting to my right in the next row, she was the one I picked on most during rainy days and recess and vice-versa.

In second grade, Lisa sat behind me and we got to know each other pretty well. I told her jokes and she laughed. We played games and hung out together at recess. Other kids started making up rhymes about us, "Billy and Lisa sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, first comes love, then comes..." You know how it goes.

Things began to get serious, we graduated from sitting together to actually holding hands, after that came hand-held walks around the playground. It was on one of these walks, that she kissed me. I was caught off guard, but rallied my senses enough to kiss her back. That was the first and last kiss we ever shared, as if to have done it and got it over with was the important thing, now we could move forward with our friendship. Too shy to discuss it and to chicken to try again, we remained inseparable through the end of the school year. My family moved over the summer and we never saw each other again.

Every now and then, I find my mind turning back to that brief moment in time, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot supply a face to the memory. I seem to remember it as perfect, the most beautiful in the world. Maybe that's why I can't picture her.

Maybe it's better that way.

Peace

Lately the concept of peace has been on my mind. Not because of the war and whether you support it or not, but mainly because as I get older I find myself attracted to the idea that coexistence in the world does not always have to be violent and angry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that every country on the planet could or would lay down their weapons and exchange sponge cake recipes, but if you think on a smaller scale, your own circle of influence let’s say, how difficult could it be to choose peace? Change your mind and you change your life. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has.”

I wear a peace symbol around my neck, not the bling of current fashion, but a simple sign that I believe in something greater than myself, and as a reminder that I can affect change in the world around me. I may not be able to make a big splash, but a tiny ripple can grow as it spreads.

Consider this, a child sets out to change the Sahara Desert, to affect it, and he is told that he is too small to change such a vast area. He replies, “All I have to do is pick up a single grain of sand and move it a few feet and I will have changed the Sahara.”
Think about that for more than a second and the enormity of it will strike you. John Lennon said, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Maybe some day you’ll join us.” Can you dig it?

Beware of Cyclops

The greatest conversation I ever heard took place on a shuttle bus to the Griffith Park Observatory. A singular windy road leads up into the hills with a sharp drop off along one side. Behind me were two kids, ten and thirteen would be my guess – a boy and girl respectively. As we ascended, they became fascinated with the cliff and, in a macabre conversation that only children seem to have, began ruminating as to what type of creature it would take to lift our bus and toss it over the incline. The younger allowed that a large African Elephant might do the trick, but perhaps three elephants, all working in tandem, would be more likely. They discussed all of it scientifically and with intelligence. These were bored, smart kids allowing their imaginations to take them away and set them smack dab into a comic book world.

Finally they determined that there were perhaps two creatures they could agree on. The first, a nine hundred foot Cyclops with hooked fingers would have no problem picking us up like a toy and tossing over the cliff. After a slight pause, they also agreed that a Giant Cookie Man with an army of bears would be just as effective. Why he’d need the army of bears, I could not imagine, nor did she offer an explanation. A giant anything, it would seem, could chuck us over the side. But a Cookie Man it had to be. Thus ended the conversation and I fear they knew I was eavesdropping and became self-conscious. I knew that never again would I hear such a conversation told with such detail and knowledge. We rode the last few hundred yards in silence and as the doors of the bus opened, the younger one said, “Y’know, he wouldn’t have to be a Cyclops…”

The world through her eyes

Wide-eyed wonder and unmitigated fear seem to be the two reactions children have to the world about them. A few years ago, I decided that for gifts throughout the year, I would give my nieces and nephews experiences instead of toys. Take them places they wouldn’t normally go, and share knowledge and fun along the way. In 2004, when my niece was four, I took her to the circus, the big one, three rings, cotton candy, sno-cones, and clowns, let us not forget the clowns. She was four and I was forty, and neither of us had ever been to a circus. We went alone, just the two of us. If you haven’t been to a circus lately, let me explain the pre-game show for you. The clowns all stand around the edge of the arena, and if you have purchased a program, they will autograph it for you.

At forty years old, the prospect of visiting the clowns was high on my list, but my four year old counterpart…well let’s say she was less than excited. Ultimately a very kind, very patient, and very funny clown approached slowly. He towered over both of us at a height of six foot four but my niece, who clung to my arm, stood her ground. As he approached, he shrunk , speaking to her, crouching as he came. When finally he reached us, he was duck-walking at her height. With a glance at me, he produced a daisy from behind his back and held it out to her. She took it cautiously and buried herself in my side. The clown, Dean, told her simply, “If you want to come say hi to me, I’ll be right over here.” After he left, we sat while she gathered her courage, she asked if we could go see Dean again. He acted delighted to see her and she held out her program. Dean signed with a flourish and held out his hand. My niece shook it tentatively and grabbed her book. There was a strange sense of awe in her eyes as she looked first at the signature, then back at Dean. When we turned to find our seats, another little girl was hiding behind her mom. My niece held out the daisy to the girl and told her to go see Dean. “He’s nice,” she said.

Legendary

Like most fathers to their sons, mine was immortal, a legend really. Some of my favorite memories are sitting around as a family and listening to his tall tales, all of which he swore were true. Some stories could be verified, like the time he rescued a puppy he didn’t like from a man he liked even less all because he loved my sister. One of my favorites involves him coming upon a concrete bridge that was on fire, and walking across it anyway. Perhaps one day I’ll tell that one, but for now it remains too close to my heart, too personal to share.

My father raced stock cars in the early days of the sport. During the years 1957 through 1963, he and his best friend helped define a sport. They raced on the East Coast circuit in cars that they built themselves. They entered as many races as they could afford, close to three hundred, alternating the driving and pit duties between them. It has been said that my father was fearless when he drove, chewing up the oval track when there was room, making a space when there wasn’t. I never got to see him drive, but I’ve seen the fearlessness in him all my life.
Though he loved the sport, and had the chance to be one of the greats, he quit when the first of his children were born. It was a dangerous sport in those days, and he wanted to see his kids grow up.

He could have been legendary to the world. In his racing career, he took first place in every race he ran.

Every single one.

Nearly three hundred in all.

He could have been legendary to the world, but instead he chose to be legendary on a much smaller scale.