Jefferson National Expansion Memorial – or The Arch?

Evening Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, 2014

Evening Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, 2014

It’s the Arch.

One is tempted to add, “Stupid,” as in Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, Stupid.” But I come from a more civilized time. Which followed a less civilized time that is embodied – I am forcefully reminded – by Thomas Jefferson himself. ­

It’s my brother-in-law who brings this point home, as we stroll past a bronze statue of our third president that stands at the museum entrance. “Hypocrite!” he hisses, practically spitting on the placid effigy. “Slave-holding fraud.”

Yikes. Some passions still run strong.

I am of a more forgiving nature, thinking in large part that if we continue to hold old grudges, we’re going to divide ourselves like some of those tired European countries that still can’t get over 500-year-old insults and atrocities.

Besides, I like the museum. Almost always have. It’s built underground, so as not to disturb the disturbing image of the Arch itself.  I confess that as a kid I found the exhibits a little confusing because they are laid out in a semi-circle and not along the maze-like lines that I once thought museums were supposed to occupy. Now I see how it works, radiating from Jefferson’s feet and that single jumping-off point in St. Louis, out into all points west. The museum’s got some cool stuff in it: massive old French trading medallions, covered wagons, tipis – and some sad stuff, too, mostly in the form of weary words gathered from both Indians and pioneers.

But like I said, it’s the Arch above that draws people.

It is one of the weirdest and most memorable monuments in the nation. A gateway in concept, it’s a croquet wicket to kids, an anorexic triumphal arch to others, and the hook of a giant Christmas ornament to me – the world being the ball that dangles below. It could only have come from the middle of the 20th-century, when we thought we could do anything and welcomed diverse interpretations. Take a look at our more recent national monuments, especially those in Washington, DC, and you’ll see that they are less daring than this odd thing, more didactic and down-to-earth.

Not the Arch. It came from the days when we reached for the moon.

The base of the massive legs are, of course, graffiti scarred in much the same way that pioneers once carved their names into the soft rock of El Morro in New Mexico. This is a forgivable human compulsion, I suppose, never to be abandoned. But quickly enough the three silver sides rise out of reach of even the tallest vandal and sail up into the blue. Quickly enough, the Arch becomes impossibly fragile, and if clouds are sailing by, it looks always to be falling.

You hear a lot of people saying “whoa!” as they look up. A lot of those same people would never ride the interior tram to the top, and not just because the lines are long.

I’ve been to the top more times than I can count – I watched the thing being built when I was a kid and have visited it frequently over the years – but I rarely think of the view when I think of the Arch. Being inside at the top is like occupying a single point on a curve: You lose your sense of direction.

Also, being up is not the same as being out, and it is forward movement that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial celebrates. Better to stand on the river front, I think, and look westward through that arch – the eye of the needle through which so many of us have been threaded – and see how much city, land and sky it doth contain.

Credit is due

MusicPhilosophy2-16I saw this image in Redbook magazine and it touched on a pet peeve of mine.

Notice the credit: Judy Garland Over the Rainbow. As if she wrote these words.

Sorry, but Garland is famous for singing them, not creating them, and as a piece of print media, this poster is by nature a celebration of the words and sentiment by lyricist E.Y. Harburg. You want a celebration of the performance? See a movie clip. (And, by the way, the proper line should be “the dreams THAT you dare to dream…” which is not only how it’s written but how Garland sings it. Pay attention, folks.)

I’ve seen this kind of problem most often in movie quotes, where the credit is given not to the screenwriter, not to the person who actually created them, but to the character (Scarface, Alex DeLarge, etc.)  At best such mis-attributions can be a compliment to the writer, that he or she has come up with characters so memorable that they seem to be the creators of their words. But in even weirder instances, I’ve seen movie lines credit not even the characters, but the actors who speak them, as in the above image “quoting” Garland.

As I understand movie making (not very well, I admit) actors do sometimes create lines, so I can see how this can get a little complicated. But when the source is clear, lets give the writer the credit he or she deserves.

The claws that catch

Rufhous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

Rufous Hummingbird female, Oregon, July 2013.

I like found moments in photography nearly as much as I like finding things in my writing that I didn’t plan – when images or words come together and you think, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

Here’s a picture of a female Rufous Hummingbird in my garden. Over her head hovers a skeletal hand – nearly bird-like, nearly human – also seeming to reach for the flowers.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird (female), Oregon, June 2013.

Anna’s Hummingbird (female), Oregon, June 2013.

Not much to say about this, except that whenever I see a hummingbird in the backyard, I try to get a photo. This one came out OK, considering I have a low-end pocket camera and well, it was a hummingbird and they’re fast movers. I like the little feet.

Good advice from John Gardner

GardnerI never met John Gardner, the mid-20th century writer and teacher, but I talked to him on the phone once and we exchanged a few letters. I remember little of the phone call except that his voice was brighter than I expected and absolutely upbeat about the topic, which was writing in general and my short story in particular.

He made my effort to finish the work seem not only possible, but worthwhile, and many times since I’ve wished I had a recording of that conversation to spur me on. Fortunately I’ve kept his letters, and since they are writing itself (and he was foremost a writer) that’s probably a better thing.

From those letters, here are a few very Gardnerian quotes:

Stories must first be told for their own sake, because they’re good stories. The back-up stuff is fine (symbolism and all that) but only in its place.

Write from life, not in imitation of art you know. Life will not trick you; art is sure to.

Remember, fiction is a competitive business: people read the most interesting stories they can find. So you’ve got to prove your story interesting, and right away. (Interesting, that is, to the sensitive, smart reader….)

The cheapest thing a writer (I mean a good writer) can do is end with a symbolic shot. Symbolism at the end of a story is always an evasion of the end of a story.

Great art is thrillingly affirmative, recognizing all the darkness.

And then this clencher from his last letter, after he had helped me through several edits: The story is terrific!

It still makes me smile, and keeps me writing.


Footnotes and Norton Critical Editions

I have been enjoying the hell out of the Norton Critical Edition of the New Testament (what they call The English Bible), and finding it very inspiring in my writing. But it’s the footnotes more than the gospels that are moving me to ask questions and then create.

NCE-BibleThat amused me at first, but then I remembered that way back in 1978 it was a footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of “Faust” that inspired me to write “Sanctity,” a story that the novelist John Gardner admired. I still have that edition of “Faust” and that footnote page is still marked with a slip of dingy paper. And I see that I, being at that time a serious student, had underlined the text and in the margin written an exclamation point. From such little things…. Which is part of the joke that Mephistopheles is making in the poem: “In words belief is safely vested, From words no jot or tittle can be wrested.” The footnote references not only Matthew 5:18 but a debate about spelling from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Etc. (You can look it up, of course: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1976, p. 316.)

I’ve long been interested in footnotes and read them carefully, believing they help me understand, while my partner hates them and finds them distracting – and yet she finds them hard to ignore when they’re right there on the page. It is that tension between knowing and unknowing, of how readers respond to a text, that led me to write “Sanctity” – a longish short story about footnotes and religious doubts that develop out of scholarly minutia.

Gardner picked it up and published it in his magazine “MSS” back in 1982, but only after recommending some changes and giving me a lecture on being an honest writer. The gist of his argument, not unique to him but vigorously argued (he called one of my plot points “bullshit”), was that I need to follow through on the character of my characters. It’s something I’ve pushed myself to remember for years – to develop the thoughts and actions of my characters as they would develop them, and not as I would have it or as a neat plot twist or easy ending might suggest.

“MSS” is long out of print, folding after Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. I’ll have to see if I can republish my story somehow.

Someone else’s sirrush, part 2

mushussu_sirrush_by_demonml-d4unbicHere’s another re-imagining of the sirrush from Babylonian legends. The artist DemonML has meshed the cat and lizard elements, and in the process created a creature that seems powerful and just nightmarishly possible. Certainly it doesn’t look like the kind of thing you’d want to meet in a stone pit.

By the way, the artist uses the original Babylonian name for the beast – mušḫuššu; “sirrush” is a European corruption, which I chose to retain in my book both because it is the more popular name and, I think, easier to remember.

This is from the Deviant Art website, which includes some other illustrations of the sirrush as well. The link is here. (Obviously this is not my copyright, but I hope the artist doesn’t mind me featuring the work.)

How the Babylonians saw the sirrush

One of the original carvings from the Ishtar Gate, now held in Berlin. Photo by Allie Caulfield.

One of the original carvings from the Ishtar Gate, now held in Berlin. Photo by Allie Caulfield.

This is similar to the first image I ever saw of the sirrush, in an encyclopedia article suggesting its relation to dinosaurs. From that and through a long process of writing – a short story, a one-act play, and now an ebook – “A Feast in Babylon” was created.

Some folks have made much of the fact that the art is on the wall next to images of a lion and an auroch, both of which exist, and therefore wonder if the sirrush did not also exist. It’s fun to think about, but  Babylonian art features a plethora of man-headed lions and bird-footed women, so I don’t think we can make too much of the proximity.

The beast is real in my book, however, and I make the incongruity of the image – with its bird feet, lion paws and tufted tail – indicate that many have heard of the sirrush (there is only one) but few have been allowed to actually see it, so attempts to depict it are spotty, at best.

You can see the online image here.

Someone else’s sirrush


It’s fun to wander online and find other interpretations of the sirrush. The one here seems to be from an online card game, and it surprises me that I didn’t find a similar image from “Magic The Gathering.” Anyway, we’ve got sword and sorcery drama here – fire, lightning – not at all what the sirrush is in my story, with the sword-like feathers that impressed so many.

This is not my copyright.