Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bobby at 15

I'm a visual writer. I need an image to help me frame a story, and as I write I often think about the look of the space where the stories take place and what the people look like.

I came across this picture in my old photo files. I remember where I took the picture, but I don't know the kid's name; he was in a group shot that I was asked to take when I went to visit a friend and his family in Colorado back in the summer of 2000.
I cropped it down and fiddled with the contrast, and the result was what I imagined Bobby Cramer looked like when he was about fifteen. He's looking hopeful, but a little wary.

Anyway, that's what I see.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

Office Space

NTodd had the guts to put up a picture of his home office space, and I commented that it looked "like a goat went through the buffet line at CompUSA and then exploded." Snarky, yes, but some people work well in a space like that. Considering the output NTodd gets from that Hell's Mouth of clutter, I'm doubly impressed.

I can't work in a mess. It's not that I'm a neat-freak, but I like things organized and presentable at work and at home. In most of the places I've lived I've had a designated space that's been considered the "office." In the last few places it's been the second or third bedroom, and in the last ten years I've acquired furnishings that are actually designed to be used for the home office. I'm not sure if it adds to the productivity, but at least I can (usually) find things when I need them, and if people come over I don't have to shut the door. (The closet is another matter -- Fibber McGee would be proud.) I've not always been that way -- there was a point when I was in grad school where my office looked like NTodd's, and I incorporated it in the set description of my play Can't Live Without You:
It is a quiet May morning in the home of DONNY HOLLENBECK. This is a nice house on a quiet stretch of beach in the Florida Keys. It is not a fancy home and the furnishings are not too modern, but they’re well appointed and the walls are clean and brightly painted. We are in the living room. The furniture is tropical – rattan or bamboo – and there are the usual decorative touches of a house in the tropics: floral prints on the walls and bamboo blinds on the windows and doors. In the center of the room is a couch, chairs, and coffee table combination with a standing lamp and magazines – “Caribbean Travel & Life,” “The New Yorker,” “Architectural Digest” – on the table. There is a TV set on a stand in one corner of the room, and a bar set-up on a rolling cart. Upstage center is an open French door that leads out to a patio. Patio furniture, including a small outdoor café-style dining table and chairs, can be seen outside, and the background is the sky, which is bright blue and clear. There’s also a door Stage Right that leads off to the patio. Stage Left leads to the rest of the house. Upstage right is an office area in the corner of the room consisting of a desk, bookshelves, desk lamp, and a desktop computer with a printer. This area is in contrast to the rest of the room: the desk is old, beat-up, and cluttered with papers, books, files, newspapers, coffee mugs, pencils, pens, office supplies, and a telephone. The bookshelves are cheap, packed with old books of every type, in disarray, and somewhere in the middle of it is a stereo system. In short, this area is a messy corner of an otherwise neat space.
My current office does not look like that, but it is a reflection of me just as any other living space, and as I look around as I write this, it says what's important to me.

I have a large Georgian-style desk that was acquired from Office Depot; it's part of the Sauder Executive series, and I have the matching computer credenza with bookshelves and storage spaces. I also have three matching bookshelves out in the main room of the house that serves as the main library and three short bookcases in here for additional books, the stereo, and a printer stand. There are pictures on the wall; two of Northport Point, Michigan: one is an aerial photo taken in the late 1950's of this beautiful little peninsula, and the other is a watercolor of the Stony Point bridge. There are also my diplomas -- all four of them, ranging from high school through grad school. Interestingly, the size of the diplomas is in inverse proportion to the amount of time I spent at each school. The smallest is from the private school where I spent eleven years and the largest is from the University of Minnesota, where I did my masters in a little less than two. I spent a lot of money getting the first three framed, but when it came to my last one, my Ph.D. from CU, I found a simple frame at K-Mart, I think. There are posters from plays I've written or directed, and one from the William Inge Theatre Festival of 2001, which I bought at the silent auction last year because it was the year we honored Lanford Wilson, my friend and subject of my doctoral studies. There's also a framed rendering of the set for the 1971 University of Miami production of The Beaux' Stratagem, designed and directed by my friend whom I refer to fondly here as The Old Professor. It was the first play I was in at UM -- I was a freshman -- and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

There's a beautifully hand-carved cedar rocking chair from Nicaragua in the corner that's on permanent loan from a friend. It lends a touch of tropical charm, lightness and grace to an otherwise dark tone of the furniture. The bookshelf next to it has my collection of car books, and on top is a wooden hand-carved fiddler crab I picked up in Jamaica, a painted mallard decoy duck, and a whimsical piece of cut glass that looks like the hot rod from Grease.

The bookshelves that surround the computer have knick-knicks and mementos: pictures of the mountains in Colorado including Longs Peak, a picture of Sam, a picture of me standing on the deck of a house in Colorado taken in May 1983 when I weighed all of 150 pounds, which was sixty pounds ago. There's a foot of snow on the deck and on the trees behind me -- it snows late up in the mountains. There's another shelf with mugs from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (1987 and 1988) and the Inge Festival. There are miniature flags from almost all the countries I've visited and my old collection of pipes from when I smoked tobacco. A row of model cars is parked on one shelf -- a 2002 Thunderbird, a 1965 Mustang, a classic woody wagon, and a 1950's tow truck (probably there to get the woody).

Behind glass doors there's a special collection: trophies from my sailing-racing days with my dad when I was a kid; my medal from the 1972 American College Theatre Festival in Washington, DC; my high school letter for basketball -- I was a manager; the door knocker off our old house; my NOLS pocket notebook that was my diary of the trip that became the basis for my first play; gifts from foreign countries from my late grandmother and my parents; a hand-blown Christmas ornament made by my late cousin, and other little trinkets that mean nothing to anyone else but me -- an eagle feather given to me by an Indian that I carried in my cars for good luck, a rock from the summit of Longs Peak, and a little wooden box with two rings in it that used to signify something very dear and now are gentle reminders of a time now past.

I keep the desktop pretty neat. There's a deskpad calendar, an in-box that collects miscellany, and a brass letter opener that I got as a graduation present.

I've also found room for a small TV, a VCR, and a phone and the answering machine. Considering the amount of time I spend in here, it's a surprising I don't have a microwave oven and a bed. Maybe if I had more room...

I'd be interested in hearing what your space is like. What does it look like, and what do you think it says about you?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Three Little Words

Saturday morning I found myself going through my desk looking for my old checkbook when I came across a legal pad where I'd jotted down some notes at least four years ago about the novel. I know it was at least four years ago because I last used the notepad when I was working for a tutoring company in Albuquerque, and that was in 2001. Anyway, scrawled on the pad was a simple bit of dialogue: "You smell smoke?"

I remembered what I wanted to do with it and I knew exactly where it was supposed to go: in the narrative I was working on at the time. But I either forgot about it or thought better of it and left it and the whole part of the plot that went with it out.

So when I found it the other day I went back some two hundred pages, put it in, and began to interweave the things that took off from those three little words. It's not going to change the course of the story, but it adds another layer that I wanted.

Still didn't find my old checkbook.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Small Slice

This is the section I was running over and over in my head (see previous post). It's a scene between Bobby and Mr. Beckerman, his teacher and advisor, on the day Bobby returns to Winchester from spring break during his junior year. He and Mr. Beckerman have gone to a local pizza place for lunch, and Bobby is telling him what he did on his vacation.
Later, much later, Bobby wondered what compelled him now to say “I met a guy.”

Mr. Beckerman looked at him, chewed, and swallowed. “You met a guy? As in...?”


There was a long silence. Mr. Beckerman’s eyes narrowed, and he slowly put down his slice. “Who was it?”

“He, uh, he goes to T.U.,” Bobby stammered. “His name’s Mike.”

“T.U.? What’s that?”

“University of Toledo.”

Mr. Beckerman stared. “You had...” he suddenly looked around and lowered his voice, “you went to bed with a college guy?”

Bobby nodded slightly, suddenly aware of the tension in the room.

“Jesus Christ, Bobby. Does he know how old you are?”

“Yeah, I told him. Afterwards.”

“So he didn’t know.”

“No. Not -- not the, uh, not the first time.”

“There were other times?”

“Uh huh.”

Mr. Beckerman held up his hand as if to stop the thoughts. “Hold it. I don’t want to know any of the details. Bobby, I can’t believe it. What the hell were you thinking?”

The two teenagers picked up their coats from their table and left the restaurant. The jukebox was still playing I’m Moving Out.

“It’s not like he was some hustler or something.”

“So what? Jesus, Bobby, that’s incredibly stupid. He could have been a whacko into some kind of who-knows-what. Not to mention getting VD or worse.”

“Well, he wasn’t. And all we did was --”

Mr. Beckerman held up his hand again. “I said I don’t need all the details, okay? Look, you just don’t do something like that. Where’d you go, back to his dorm?”

“He has an apartment near the university. He’s a grad student.”

“How old is he?”


“How did you meet him?”

“At the gym. He was working out one day. We started talking, and he invited me over.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much.”

Mr. Beckerman leaned back and shook his head. “I thought you had more sense than that.”

“What is the big deal? I knew what I was doing. He wasn’t some nut job. We just hit it off, that’s all.” Bobby leaned in over the pizza and said softly, “What would you have said if I told you I’d met some girl and boned her? Huh? Would that have pissed you off, too, or would you have said, ‘Hey, kiddo, waydago!’”

Mr. Beckerman leaned in until they were almost nose-to-nose. “I would have been just as pissed. Kids your age shouldn’t be screwing around, period, especially with people that much older than you. It has nothing to do with who it was or what gender.”

“Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how many guys are gonna come back from vacation bragging about some chick they scored with in Aspen or Palm Beach? Kids my age screw all the time. You’re just pissed ‘cause you spent the whole vacation pulling on a cow’s tit.” Bobby stood up, dug in his pocket, pulled out a five dollar bill and dropped it on the table. “Thanks for the lunch.” He grabbed his jacket and stomped out before Mr. Beckerman could reply. It wasn’t until he was a block away that he realized he’d only eaten half a slice of pizza, but he didn’t care. He kicked a stone off the shoulder of the road and trudged up the hill.

It took almost forty minutes to hike back to the dorm. He kept looking over his shoulder while he was on the road, expecting to see the black Jeep barreling up the hill behind him, but it never appeared. The sky had clouded over, a strong wind kicked up, and he was cold and out of breath when he pushed open the door to the dorm. It was still quiet; no one else was back yet. He flung his jacket on his desk, found a half-empty box of stale Wheat-Thins in the bottom drawer of Garrett’s desk, and ate the rest of the box, swallowing hard past the lump in his throat. Fuck you, Beckerman; you and all the people who want to run my life, tell me what to do, tell me who to love. Fuck you all. He stuffed the empty box in the trash can, and then, hoping against hope, found a flask of Stolichnaya with about a quarter-inch of liquid in it under the bottom layer of socks in Garrett’s dresser. He drained it, welcoming the warmth and peace it brought him, and after hiding the empty bottle under his camp duffel bag in the closet, lay down on his bed and fell asleep.

A door closing awakened him. He rolled over. A Sully’s pizza box was on his desk next to a half-empty liter bottle of Coke. He sat up groggily, looked inside the box and found half the pizza left. There was no note, but his five dollars was taped to the outside. He wolfed down two slices, drank some of the Coke and felt better. He heard voices in the hall and recognized some of his classmates. It was almost four o’clock. He knew Garrett wouldn’t be back until the last stroke of eight. He finished the pizza and tried to go back to sleep. But now the memory of the argument with Mr. Beckerman came back to him, word for word, echoing in his ears, the boiling rage he once felt now tempered by the silent gesture of the pizza box on his desk. He knew what it meant. It was a peace offering, with strings. And he knew what was expected of him. But this time he wasn’t going to cave in. He stripped the bill off the box, stuffed it back in his wallet, and put the pizza box in the trashcan in the hall.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Little Things - Again

I spent most of yesterday at work revamping a series of spreadsheets. That kind of work is not rocket surgery - or brain science - so to keep myself entertained I kept thinking about a paragraph in the novel that I knew I needed to add. I didn't write it down but just kept turning it over and over, phrasing it a certain way, choosing words, listening to it over and over, and imagining the scene.

By the time I got home I had it pretty much the way I wanted it, and when I finally got around to inserting it, it fit in very nicely. Once I saw it on the screen I found ways to make it an even better fit, and then this morning I thought of a couple of other touches, too, that would help without going overboard.

I don't often take that long to write just a couple of lines, but it was exciting to play with the words and anticipate adding them to the story, and it's the unexpected surprises that make it so much fun.