Issue #35 - June 29th - 26th, 2003
Roger does Janice
The Long Lost Diasy of Miss S L Gleaden (part 8)
Roger Does Janice
Sister Janice is the Friends Of The Heroes agony aunt. She used to be a nun, but after becoming involved in an accident at her convent involving a papal emissary; the mother superior; the convent dog and a bottle of 'citrus fresh' bleach, she decided it was time to find herself a new career.
These days she travels through the galaxies in a converted garden shed. Write to Sister Janice Slejj care of Friends of the Heroes. She will answer your problems and questions with the insight unique to a disco-loving alternative-gardening defrocked clergy member and cosmic adventurer...
Roger is a bloke she met in a burger bar. Hewants us to tell you he's a serious, sagacious soul and poet, but we don'tknow if he's just one of those dodgy people sister janice picks up from timeto time.
Dear Earth Bound Beings, I hope this missive finds you in fine fettle.
It is I, Roger of Cheshire, Sensitive, Serious, Sagacious Soul Poet and Chronicler of the Cosmos in verse. I write to you from the midsts of eternity, and from the centre of nothingness.
I am writing to you this week, as my fellow space-explorer does precisely what that title suggests - experiences her part of the universe to the fullest extent possible.
She is space-walking. She has been doing so since last week. She floats, as we speak, several hundred feet away from the shed, in the blackness, at one with the absence... no light, no conversation, no distractions.
No distractions, that is, apart from the dance music that pulses through an electric connection, through the void, and into the space-suit of our intrepid explorer.
I questioned her about the wisdom of this latest venture. I advised her that chasing inner-peace may be incompatible with having 'Do You Wanna Funk' pumped into one's cranium at a considerable volume. She only smiled at me, sadly, switched on the music, and ejected herself into space.
'Roger' she said 'Disco music and weightlessness are two of the wonders of existence. Until you've let yourself go completely to either of them, you'll never understand the effect they can have'.
And so, the distinction between us is made clear.
Sister Janice spacewalking - make a lewd remark, switch The Crown Heights Affair to maximum volume, and float away.
Myself - walk to the edge of the space-craft, peer over it. Walk away again.
Walk back again. Look over the edge again. Walk away again.
Get dragged to the edge by the nun, told to close my eyes, and pushed into space. Feel everything flying away. Feel myself being sucked into oblivion. Scream. Panic. Scream some more.
Get rescued by nun, who apologises that she ommitted to attach the rope.
Don't do it again. Not yet.
Perhaps one day. I tell myself, one day.
She informs me that with emptiness comes fulfillment.
She informs me that with abandonment comes redemption.
She informs me that if I want to make myself useful, I can clean the oven while she's away.
I nod, and attempt to offer support which she does not require. And I watch her until she fades from view.
Until I let myself go completely, I'll never understand. She tells me this, and it feels correct. I attempt to imagine how it would feel to throw myself at the mercy of the galazy, to plummet into nothingness, where I am confronted by the contents of my head in their full awfulness. How it would feel, furthermore, as even these negligible semblances of self slipped away, and left...whatever lies underneath.
Would it save my life? Would it destroy the person that I am? And, are the two really so different?
I ask Sister Janice, and she says:
'Get a grip, kiddo. Life is for living. Ditch the philosophical crap and go with the flow.'
I have heard this many times. Life is for living. I wish I knew how to go about doing that. Until then, I cling to the self-image I have created, the tenuous construction of words and abstract ideas, and I remain in the safety of the space-craft, unwilling to chance the full life, unable to be content with anything less. At the same time, the fuller character, the woman who has experienced so much of life, can risk everything, on a journey into nothing. Why shouldn't she? It is her way of finding happiness.
This week's letter
Okay, I'll admit it, I didn't like you the first time I met you. Or for a while after that. Or for some time after that. Or - anyway, I'm going off the point. If I didn't think you had at least SOME redeeming features, I wouldn't have let you into my spaceship. I did, here you are, and its been a good time, so far, hasn't it? I'm sorry I left you in that intergalactic bar, especially with the nature of some of the characters who were lurking in there, and you being physically intact and everything, but you'll loosen up soon. We'll find you a good woman, or a man, if that's your thing. Or even an inanimate object. Don't be shy about it. Some of those dull religious types I used to live spent most of their TIME in the vegetable patches.
Anyway, I'm going off the point again. I wanted to say that I'm actually quite glad of the company, and I know you're sad, kiddo, I can feel it, and I've been there. You want to know yourself. You want to know where you fit into the grand scheme of things. You're looking for some meaning to everything, convinced that when you find it, everything will fall into place and you'll never have to worry about existence again.
Take it from someone who read The Book - well, bits of it. I never could be doing with a whole book. Especially not that crap they throw at you in convents - all that blethering about goat sacrifice and joss sticks, gimme a break. Anyway.. .take it from me. That's not where the meaning lies. Not in searching through words, not in reading every ancient manuscript you can find. I spent fifteen years of my life amongst people who could quote Leviticus from start to finish and were they happy? Were they buggery!! They KNEW everything it was possible to know about their subject, and yet it served them nothing. What they forgot is that the greatest answers can only come when your mind isn't full of your own ideas. When I said you had to let yourself go, I meant it. That's how you find yourself. Your real self. The one that matters.
One day, you'll find it. I know you will. I've seen you looking, I know you can be brave. One day, you'll step out of whatever ship you're in - mental or physical - and you'll realise how beautiful it was outside all this time. Once you've opened up the door, you'll never want to close it again.
She didn't send this to me, of course. I found it, screwed up underneath her alternative herb garden. The note she actually left said 'Roger. Back in two hours. Have kettle on. Mine's a green tea.'.
Did you want me to answer a problem?
Perhaps I already have.
Be happy, my friends.
Rebecca's Birthday (part two)
It had all happened on a beach not very far from there. What Rebecca was doing on that beach is quite a long story even though it can be told in one word: sandcastles. It's the story behind why Rebecca had found herself on the beach trying to make sandcastles that is long. It involves her grandmother dying; a rainy spring; her dad being sad and even more quiet than usual all through it; and her mum deciding they needed a holiday. It also involved a certain lack of money that had turned the holiday into a day out on the beach and Rebecca's birthday being in the middle of a week with brilliant weather.
So they had taken the day off, put a denim dress, a red hat and red shoes on Rebecca, bought her a bucket and a shovel, packed a picnic and took her to the beach where she had come up with the brilliant idea of sandcastles. The trouble was the idea wasn't working half as well as it was supposed to. Rebecca had lifted her eyes from the miserable pile of sand in front of her -trying to decide whether to cry or not- only to see a slightly strange looking boy standing in front of her, making faces.
She could have sworn there was no one there a minute before and she hadn't heard him coming. But even if Rebecca was the sort of girl to get scared or surprised by something like this - which she wasn't, how could someone who had grown up around Odin possibly be - she was only four years old then and four-year-olds don't get surprised very easily.
"Who are you?" she asked while noticing he had dark blonde hair that fell onto his red cheeky face and sparkly blue eyes. He was wearing some rather old-fashioned pale brown clothes -quite in the colour of sand. Rebecca had spend the spring learning the names of colours and she used her newfound knowledge at every opportunity. He was also wearing a funny hat and he looked as if he was about to burst into laughter anytime.
"Not telling!!" he replied and bounced up and down a bit. So he was as cheeky as he seemed to be!
"Then," Rebecca said crossing her arms on her chest, "I'm not telling you who I am either." He hadn't asked but assuming that someone wants to know who you are when they appear out of the blue in front of you and your ruined sandcastle is reasonable enough. At least Rebecca thought it was. She was quite proud of her reply too until her mum went and spoilt it all.
"Rebecca! Don't wander too far off!" she shouted which made Rebecca look down, defeated. However the site of her red shoes cheered her up even as the strange looking boy almost fell over laughing. When he managed to contain himself, he said in an amused voice: "I know who you are. You are Rebecca, the girl who wants to build sandcastles."
Rebecca contemplated that. She quite liked it as a description but she wasn't going to show it just yet. She had a battle to win. She lifted her head once again, looked straight into his eyes and said "and you are Peter".
Of course she had no idea who he was. Peter was just the first name that had come to her mind. But she was a brave girl and she was hoping she could be right. It was hard to tell though. The little boy had fallen over laughing once again but he didn't seem to be laughing at her. He just seemed very happy and Rebecca had to try hard not to start laughing too. For some reason this boy being happy made her very happy too.
At the memory of that moment Rebecca smiled at the moon and the mountain. She didn't just smile to herself: through the years, Odin had taught her that everything is alive, everything has a soul and everything understands. He had never needed to speak a word about it - it was the way he was that said everything. So now she sighed quietly and she hugged herself - because it was getting colder - and asked of the moon that overlooked that purple evening and the mountain that was Odin's home to bring him back to her.
She wasn't worried. Odin came and left like the tide and if there was a pattern behind it, she hadn't been able to tell. She didn't mind that. Another thing she had learnt from Odin - the first thing, actually - was that some things you had to accept the way they were.
She wasn't worried. She just missed him.
To be continued...
The Long Lost Diary Of Miss S L Gleaden
The sky was bluer than blue, the sea was calm and the sun warm but gentle. A faint perfume from the small plants that lined the cliff mingled with a tangy salt breeze. Vera and Chad were in paradise as they sped quickly around the narrow windy roads of the tiny islands in the middle of the pacific. Vera clung tightly to Chad blissfully unaware of the poor diary of Miss S L Gleaden which seconds earlier had fallen from her apron pocket over the side of the cliff to almost certain death.
As the diary fell its covers opened, its pages fluttered and its thoughts raced. Most people who have ever fallen to almost certain death will tell you that their whole life passed before their eyes. The diary who did not have eyes did not experience this, but it seems fitting that we take brief recap of events that lead the diary to this point in its life so we can fully appreciate the anxiety the diary must have been by now feeling.
At the ripe old ages of 4 months and 16 days the diary had begun its adventure accompanying the ever so nice but slightly flaky S L Gleaden. Its reward for being a faithful travelling companion, not once complaining about the use of inferior quality biros or its cramped living quarters in the left side pocket of her rucksack, was to be absent mindedly forgotten.
Since then it had encountered: a hungry seagull, 16 hungry sailors, a wayward piece of driftwood, and a dreamy boy named Ralph. To date it had travelled between 5 countries, been sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, and was now falling to almost certain death for the second time.
As it tumbled erratically downwards it passed a very inquisitive bird perched on a delicate nest. It blinked and wondered what on earth a book was doing falling to almost certain death in the middle of nowhere at this time of the day. The bird's eyes followed the book's progress. The bird was unsurprisingly surprised when the book managed to hit a long forgotten rubber dinghy floating in the middle of the vast expanse of the ocean. The book bounced worryingly, before falling safely to rest on the drifting dinghy.
The bird who knew nothing about the unfortunate catastrophes which had previously befallen the book and thought to himself: "that is one lucky book"
But perhaps he had a point. Only the luckiest of diaries could possibly survive such bad luck.
Many random events later of course the diary washed up on the shores of a small town in the long forgotten county of Cumbria. Locals were impressed by the story contained within, not to mention the book's ability to wash up on the shores of a landlocked town, and after many hours were able to track down the explorer herself and made sure that the book returned to her but not before they had read it from cover to cover of course...
It was about an hour after we first got up that the rain started again. Big drops of rain landed with such force that they jumped half a metre in the air after hitting the ground. The air burned with the smell of wet dust and the roads became rivers in 5 minutes flat. There was no point in hiding from it, and there was no reason to hide either. The water ran down my face in sheets, through my clothes, and onto my skin. I and Es hair became almost invisible against his skin. The tension that had been in the air ever since I'd landed in Burma had vanished. I walked with the freedom of a newly released convict.
I and E had been right when he said that it was a good day to walk. It was a good day to talk too.
"I'm scared" said I and E
I was surprised and wondered what I and E was scared of.
"I'm surprised I and E! what are you scared of?" I asked
"I'm scared of what will happen when I find the flower. When I went looking for it before I had doubts about its existence which always brought me down to earth...
I looked at I and E with some disbelief.
"what do you mean?" I asked
"strictly speaking you see I should tell some who is in charge of my country if I find the flower. But I know if I do that my discovery will go unrecorded, hidden from the rest of the world. Hidden from the rest of the people in my country even..."
I nodded sympathetically.
"and you are scared that people will start calling you an old fool again?"
I and E laughed.
"no if they did that it might hurt my pride, but it doesn't scare me. I'm scared because I know that I won't tell the people in charge of my country about it...
I understood. I and E was right, it was important.
"I'm scared because I don't know what will happen to me or my family when that happens…"
I looked at the brave man walking by my side and felt honoured that fate had decided that the two of us should meet.
We walked the next few miles in near silence thoughtful and about I and Es fears slightly in awe of the beauty of the countryside. The sun had come out and was shining through rain. A rainbow stretched over us. And then we stopped in our tracks…
"The poor beast!" I shouted upon seeing our deserter of a travelling companion…
At the same time as I and E shouted:
"The flower!" he was jumping up and down holding his head in disbelief.
Deciding I and E's observation was more important I looked over to where he was pointing and although far away I could clearly see the flower. It was white. So white it shone. So fragile looking too I felt sure that a single drop of the heavy rain could destroy it.
The poor beast felt slightly snubbed by our lack of excitement upon being reunited with him and looked at us distainfully. It looked at our pointing then casually went to investigate.
Upon seeing this I suddenly decided that my original observation had been the more important one after all. My legs bacame glued to the spot. My voice got lost somewhere in my stomach. I heard I and E shout:
and helplessly watched the poor horse munch the delicate flower with some satisfaction.
I and E fell to his knees. The poor beast shuddered and began to glow. We ran toward him anxious to see what was going on. The wrinkles dropped from the poor beasts face, it's legs straightened and its coat became glossy.
I and E now beamed
"see I told you the flower existed! And now I have all the proof I need!"
That night I and E, the youthful horse and myself returned to Mandalay. The horse anxious to make an amends ran like the wind, until we reached I and E's small round house.
The Cumbrian locals notice Miss S L Gleaden did not write for a few days and hope that she is alright...
Although I and E never spoke of his discovery word spread like wildfire throughout the city. A little spark of hope for all the closet daydreamers and a gentle nudge in the right direction for the unbeleivers. The last few days there have been so many visitors that I haven't had a minute to myself. I and E who has been going around smiling for the last few days came told me today that he was scared.
"Of the government? I'm sure they can't do anything about your horse! And you haven't said anything to anyone. I'm sure nothing can happen to you..."
I and E laughed.
"no I'm scared because I no longer have a dream..."
"I see. Yes. That is something to be scared of..."
I looked at I and E's weary but paitent wife...
"I bet you could get quite a bit of money if you sold that horse of yours…and I could probably use some help to get out of this country...and your wife looks like she could do with a holiday..."
I stopped short. I and Es case was packed. He looked at me knowingling.
"I bet you're going to say that you have a good feeling that we should set off in the morning aren't you?"
I smiled and nodded.
So cross your fingers dear diary, hopefully we'll be leaving Burma soon!
John Fante: Still Full of Life
"Fante was my God", he said.
When the writer you consider God extols the virtues of a writer HE considers God then you are moved to listen. And that's how I got to know Mr John Fante: By virtue of my own literary deity, Mr Charles Bukowski.
And now you, there, perusing this saintly tomb, are going to ask me: Who the hell is John Fante?
The deftest writer nobody knows-perhaps the greatest writer Los Angeles has ever produced-lived first in Wilmington. As a young man in the early 1930s, fresh off the box cars from his hometown in Colorado, he toiled angrily at the smelly lines of a cannery on Terminal Island. He suckled his first encouragement in English classes at Long Beach City College, banging out some of his first short stories at 3 a.m. on a borrowed typewriter in the basement of the Long Beach Press Telegram. And he mined the streets of the harbour neighbourhoods, the canneries, the waterfront and the dripping red sea planes whisking their natty cargo off to Catalina, even as he dredged the Depression era indigence and impotence of his own youth, to create his emotionally blistering and initially unpublishable first novel, Ask the Dust."Fante thought he was better than Hemingway," said Stephen Cooper, a professor of film and English, who published the first ever biography of Fante.. "His son told me that he remembered the old man sitting there, typing like mad and saying, "that old bastard Hemingway couldn't write anything this good." And if you're talking about his best three or four or five books, I wouldn't argue with that. "He was a magnificent writer who deserves to be known and read as much as Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West and Joan Didion and all the others. Without John Fante, you are overlooking a major voice, maybe the major voice, in and of Los Angeles literature." But it's not only his biographer, who has spent years immersed in the late writer's life, manuscripts, odd papers, friends and relatives, who shovels such praise. Robert Towne, the esteemed Hollywood screenwriter, stumbled upon Fante's masterpiece, Ask the Dust, in the early 1970s while doing research on '30s Los Angeles for Chinatown. In a newspaper story at the time Towne declared, "If there is a better novel about Los Angeles, I don't know about it and that includes West's The Day of the Locusts." Michael Tolkin, another Hollywood screenwriter/director whose work includes the script for Robert Altman's The Player, said in a recent Los Angeles Times article that if any school system was serious about what it does, it would include Ask the Dust in its mandatory curriculum.
Like Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, Fante's alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, relies heavily upon the experiences of Fante himself to the extent that, to all intents and purpose, Fante IS Bandini. Bursting with genius and nourished on the philosophy of Nietzsche and Spengler while those around him "fooled around the Church on the Wilmington side of the harbour, decorating the altars with all kinds of flowers," he vents his rage at his impotence in delusions of superiority, capriciously slaughtering hundreds of crabs under a pier at the water's edge while he narrates the action aloud as a commentator would. Later in the book, he "murders" the women he loves by ripping the photos to pieces. He can't really love, so he invents elaborate back stories and personalities for each magazine pin up he stores in a box in his closet.
Fante revered and studied the great Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian, Knut Hamsum, perhaps the father of modernism, whose first novel, Hunger, published in 1890, predated James Joyce and Marcel Proust in chronicling in prose a character's deeply interior voice, self-awareness and the dawning of consciousness. But Fante, in a way, one-ups his master by allowing the savagery of Bandini's consciousness, held painfully inside by Hamsum's genius of a protagonist, to gush forth in crazy bursts of cruelty and self-humiliation. While Ask the Dust the saga of Bandini a few years older, living on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, struggling to survive each day in order to write his celestial prose at night and falling unrequitedly in love with a beautiful hophead--is indisputably Fante's finest, The Road to Los Angeles, while unrulier, less masterful, certainly less mature, is more purely, emotionally riveting. It's not pornographic. It's not perverse. It has few dirty words. Yet you cannot read the book without your mouth falling open.
Fante started the book in Long Beach in 1933 after receiving a $450 advance and a contract from Knopf. In 1936, he wrote a letter to a friend: "The Road to Los Angeles is finished and boy! I'm pleased . . .Some of the stuff will singe the hair off a wolf's rear. It may be too strong; i.e. lacking in "good" taste. But that doesn't bother me." It bothered his editors. Knopf rejected it. Other New York publishers shunned it too. In the literary age of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, pre-Henry Miller, pre-Burroughs and the Beats, one of America's superb first novels was exiled to a box for nearly fifty years. The earthquake in 1933, which he described in Ask the Dust and some of his short stories, sent Fante scurrying, scared shitless, out of Long Beach for good. But just as he survived "the wrath of God"-one newspaper article at the time reported that Fante had fallen sixty feet as his building collapsed in the tremor-he survived the failure of his first novel too. In 1937, he married Joyce Fante, now 85 and the critical, cooperative source for Cooper's biography, and immediately wrote three grand books: Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which recounted the childhood years of Arturo Bandini in Colorado, published in 1938; Ask the Dust in 1939; and Dago Red, a collection of short stories, in 1940. Bandini and Dago Red, especially, received glorious reviews and ended up on several national "ten-best" lists. Time magazine named Dago Red the best story collection of the year. But Fante's first publisher, Stackpole Sons, was successfully sued for copyright violations when it published an unexpurgated version of Hitler's Mein Kampf in an effort to show the real monster he was. That sapped its promotional budgets, its attention, its strength. Then the war came and Fante, just 32 when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, went to work for the Army in an office in San Francisco. He wrote crappy screenplays under contract at Hollywood studios.His concentration is shattered. He turns into the alcoholic he always had been. He takes up golf, and basically fritters away the 1940s.
Toward the end of the decade, his wife fell through the termite-infested floor of their Los Angeles house and read him the riot act. He used the incident, the walls of the house crumbling around them, the good woman falling through the floor, in a new novel, Full of Life. It was a big success when it arrived in 1952. He made a bundle of money from various movie options and moved with Joyce and their four children to Malibu. There, by the sea, in a house today worth millions, he toiled on movie scripts, but nothing even a good film buff would recognize. His career as the real writer, the rare writer, the one-in-a-million writer he was, was done. His books slipped out of print. The generous view is that all writers have x-number of books in them and Fante didn't have more than half-dozen and that was that, but the other side of me says, My God. What if he had just stuck to his guns and kept at it. There's no telling what other masterpieces we might have. John Fante died in 1983. But his alter-ego-L.A.'s own madder, wilder and more delusional Holden Caulfield-lives on.
Who is this man, so dapper on his bicycle - with the rain falling round? How long has he had that pointy little beard, so grey and yet so neat? Where does he mean to go, and why is he riding so, his three-quarter tweed coat flapping behind him lightly, though it must be sodden, heavy, damp?
Well, I guess there really is no way to know short of stopping my car and getting him to step down too, and I guess it really isn't worth either of our troubles, doing that. Still, my mind is free to wonder, and to follow him home, for home is anywhere we are eager to go. That's a theory, just of one of the many ones I have, a whole mixed-bag full for every taste, like a bag of candies designed to please every single person with all the different flavours and colours; every situation like a rainbow passing by my eyes. But I digress, when I had only planned to follow one man of years on the advanced side of middle, dressed nattily - and on his bike - home, or wherever it is he is going. This happens too, perhaps more often than I'd like to admit. (The digression, I mean of course, not this following. Really, what must you be thinking of boring old me!)
So let's see. A little background colour is perhaps in order. Not only to give you that starchy staple of the writer's trade, atmosphere, nay, nor even the fresh lemony smell that comes with every picture of a distant town you have never seen when it's raining and you have not been smoking for too long, but because in there somewhere is a clue, perhaps. One can only hope and speculate, I suppose. So, there we were, a rainy autumn Saturday and the whole world shopping in spite thereof. It is Stellenbosch, and I am home again, having been away. Initially I was convinced that I had definite plans but for each strategic parking-lot that would creep nearer sneakily, my laziness would shift poles, always finding the right one, somehow, to bend me away into another direction altogether from my previously so magnetic purpose. (As I write I always seem to find the sneaky tiger of extended metaphor creeping up ever so stealthily onto my page, spurred into hungry action by the scent of my entanglement in the undergrowth of overwriting.) For a while I was pretending still to follow some sort of schedule, promising myself that I would, really would, attend to some business here today. The rain came sifting down, and the dust sifted from my filthy little car onto the streets, paving them, so I fancied, with my good intentions, until I had made peace with the fact that I was merely drifting around in the contours of my hometown, basking in its welcome curves and kerbs. (And lest you think that that's exactly what this page is starting to look like, let me assure you here and now that a point is lurking just around the next paragraph, or even closer, so don't you be startled now, all my little darlings, when presently it jumps leeringly out at you, fiddling obscenely with its lengthy trenchcoat... but where was I?)
Oh yes, so as I was ambling along pleasantly, playing out a ball of yarn behind me like a distinctly kittenish and confused Ariadne, I banked around yet a further corner, and there was Monsieur, pedalling away like a fragment from a documentary on eccentric '40's Oxford dons. No modern bike for señor, rather a vintage darkish bike with solid frame, what looked like leather-covered handle-bars and an old-skool bike-lamp pulsing with each pump of his corduroyéd legs. The coat I've told you about, the beard alluded to, but no mention has been made of the pert peaked-cap perched petulantly but securely on top of the distinguishedly marbled head. But of course, no clothes can make a man like this. What I cannot quite convey to you, I'm sure, is the way he was poised on that bike, so at home, and yet so single-mindedly bent on getting… where? Somewhere important, no doubt, and I still have no idea where that could be.
Imagination fails me, and for all the thoughts of welcoming fires and yellowed first editions waiting to be read by candle-light and mellowly matured whiskey's, I'm afraid it is only the image of that ageless man wheeling his way so deftly through between the lumpy crowds, so gracefully purposed that abides. A glimpse of elegance - a character - caught for a helpless moment from a floating car, on a rainy autumn Saturday in Stellenbosch - and clutched at for the lifetime that I sense drifting away from me, today.