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The ambitious editors of Superstition Review have been assembling a massive collection of audio and video clips by their authors, and they invited me to add to it. Hence I’ve recorded a brief audio segment discussing my story “Ranger Ringo” that the magazine published in 2008. Originally I titled the clip “The Role of Memory in Autobiographical Fiction,” and it’s basically a guide to writing about your childhood when you can’t remember your childhood. Here are a couple of links that take you to the clip:

http://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2016/12/13/authors-talk-sam-gridley/ (This includes the editor’s intro., a link to the original story, and a picture of my late dog Simon—who is obviously the best part of the enterprise.)

https://clyp.it/dutuwwzm (the audio clip only)

Please don’t tell Fergus (the guy grinning out at you from the top of this blog) about his predecessor. He thinks he’s an only child.

Generally Pissed Off

May 18, 2015

I thought people had given up noticing my novel The Shame of What We Are, but it’s found one new reader: Ken Dowell, who blogs at OffTheLeash.net. Dowell seems to think the portrait of the 1950s authentic: “Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things,” he writes, “beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.”

That patch may have been a metaphor in the novel—I don’t remember. In our current era, however good your eyesight, I think it’s best to squint. Or cover both eyes, which I’ll be doing tomorrow during my city’s primary elections.

Interestingly, of the several passages Dowell quotes from the book, one is about the political outlook of Art Dennison’s father: “People who liked [Adlai] Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’” And Dowell comments, “His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father.” Dowell also notes that the father is “generally pissed off” throughout the book.

I feel like the novel just got a knowing nod from someone who knows what to nod at. Guess I’ll have to stop being generally pissed off for a while.

The author, metaphorically (photo by Jjron, from Wikipedia)

During the periods when I’m working too hard, which occur far more often than they should—a form of self-flagellation because, as my wife points out, no one required me to accept so many large jobs—a “last straw” feeling often overtakes me, the sense that, like the proverbial camel, I can’t manage one single additional task, no matter how tiny, or I’ll snap. Can I figure out why the copier insists it’s jammed when there’s nothing visible stuck in it? No, I can’t, not another chore, there’s just too much, it’s impossible, ask me next month or next year, or trash the damn thing, I don’t care, but I can’t spend five minutes on it, I can’t possibly do one more thing…

Of course I know this is nuts, a result of overstress, a psychological imbalance, and when the work eases a bit, I recover my good humor and willingness to delve inside the copier in search of a stray paper clip.

Yet the more I look around at our culture, the less unusual my fits of stress seem to me. Not only do we have crazies who have gone well beyond the snapping point—the ones who shoot up malls or schools—but we sprout flaming lunatics on the radio and in Congress, nasty snipers on the Internet, road rage on the freeways… So many of us seem just two or three straws from the breaking point.

Lately I’ve been sampling advance proofs for a forthcoming book from Temple University Press, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, a volume that attempts to sum up the ways current historians view major eras and themes in the nation’s history. The main audience, I assume, is scholars from other fields who want a brief overview of what the historians have been up to lately. A chapter by Kim Phillips-Fein of NYU takes on the near-impossible challenge of summarizing recent scholarship on the era defined as “1973 to the Present.” The post-1973 years, she writes,

have been viewed as a time of economic uncertainty and widening inequality as compared to steady growth; as an epoch of ambivalence, skepticism, and even hostility toward politics, in contrast to the idealism and optimism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; and perhaps most of all, as an age of conservatism that rejected the liberalism of the postwar years.

Of course, economic uncertainty, inequality, and even skepticism are hardly unique to our era; these are recurring themes throughout the country’s history, dating to before the Revolution. What’s different now, I think, is that we’ve become terribly anxious and insecure—more so, for instance, than in the 1950s when we had Joe McCarthy, nuclear bomb scares and sheriffs clubbing civil rights leaders; or in the 1960s, when we killed two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of our own soldiers. Is it 9/11 and terrorism that have made us so jittery, brought us so close to the edge?

I think it goes deeper than that. The “economic uncertainty” that Phillips-Fein points to probably plays a role. We got accustomed to being prosperous, and now that we seem to be running faster and faster merely to stay in the same place—those of us who still have jobs, that is—we lack the emotional resilience to handle the situation. Then there are the many social changes we’ve absorbed in a few short decades. It’s great, for instance, that we can define a “family” in more ways than before, so that two adults of the same sex with three adopted children from various countries are as much a family as any other; yet all of our families, old-fashioned and new-, have become fragile, with divorce rates approaching 50 percent for first marriages and soaring far above that for second and third marriages. (Luckily, by the time you have a sixth wedding like my father, your life will probably end before your marriage.) The best way we’ve found to reduce the divorce rate is for couples not to marry in the first place, a solution that doesn’t do much for psychic stability and calm.

It’s a truism that, after all the gains made by women and minorities in the past decades, we have plenty of stick-in-the-muds uncomfortable with such change, or worse, severely ticked off about it. Yet I also wonder if our recent social advances make the gainers themselves feel more secure. If you’re a minority person in a corporate position previously closed to those of your ethnicity/gender, does your triumph bring peace of mind, or does it give you one more thing to worry about?

It’s my theory that such economic and social conditions have produced a long-running, low-level anxiety that is always with us, magnifying our personal and public stresses and bringing us closer to the snapping point. You might test this idea next time you’re in a traffic jam. Doesn’t one part of your psyche wish you could whip out an assault rifle and start shooting?

Being untrained in psychology, social science, history and just about every other subject matter, I’m totally unqualified to form such opinions. But this too is a prevailing American characteristic, the having of strong, unfounded convictions. There’s a reason bigoted talk-show hosts are popular.

… Oh hell, dammit, the smoke alarm over the stairwell started beeping again. I changed the battery two weeks ago! Now I’ll have to search for another new battery, fetch a ladder from the basement, climb up there and perch precariously while I try to fix the thing with clumsy fingers—or else drive to the hardware store and buy a new alarm, maybe the whole thing is defective—but that store sold me this cheap junk in the first place—no, it’s too much, dammit, I can’t take this anymore! Gimme a broom, I’m gonna knock that stupid piece of crap off the ceiling, take it out on the porch and jump up and down on it till it’s a thousand plastic splinters…

There! Whew! Now I feel better. I’m leaving the shards on the porch to teach all goddamn smoke alarms a lesson.

What was I saying?

SHAME on Saturday

December 1, 2010

Click image to enlarge

It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.

Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?

I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.

*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.

After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)

One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.

Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.

Joanie & Bobby in 1963

Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.

So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.

It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.

It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.

So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”

I want to hide under my chair.

Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.

Interview with Noel Farrell

October 13, 2010

Many thanks to Noel Farrell, a.k.a. Don Booker, for posting an interview with me on his blog, The Writing Life and Other Absurdities. Click on the image above to go there.

In future posts I may try to explain some of the answers I gave him, such as why my favorite writer is Ford Madox Ford (is that still true? I have to figure it out).

Of Cowboys and Comedies

July 31, 2010

1950s TV show by Tom Jackson

As the advance copies of my novel The Shame of What We Are ship to reviewers, I’m appreciating even more the wonderful illustrations done for the book by Tom Jackson. Here’s one of them, a 1950s TV set with weird images of characters from The Danny Thomas Show, or Make Room for Daddy as it was originally known. In the chapter this picture accompanies, the nerdly young hero, Art Dennison, has horrific associations with that program. On the whole, though, he loves the TV shows of the era, and he’s as mesmerized as that inert hand on the armrest implies.

Me, too—I had a real passion for TV in the old days, nothing I can summon up now, and I’m wondering why that’s the case. Is the difference just a child-adult thing, the magic worn off because I’m older? Then why is old-time TV a cult fascination for so many other people, both older and younger than I am?

Video itself was brand-new then, with a freshness we can’t duplicate today. Too, the shows were feel-good concoctions that tapped into a cultural reservoir of notions about right and wrong, good guys versus bad guys. Even though the real world offered the Red Scare, civil rights struggles, and a nuclear arms race, when you trundled off to bed you could be confident that all was right with the world. Comedians like Danny Thomas made it so, along with Superman, Joe Friday on Dragnet, and all the wonderful cowboys who pranced across the screen.

Now our action shows are ambivalent, our comedies uneasy or cringe-worthy. Our reservoir of agreed truths has sprung a BP-sized leak.

Of course, one of the premises of my novel is that the seeds of our bitter, depressed times were there in the supposedly naive postwar era, not just in the political machinations and social injustices but deeper in the American psyche. We killed off our own innocence, pardner. Plugged him dead. I guess that big white hat was just too much to take.