How I Became a Writer II

The mindful reader will recall that my series by this name began on-line in The Broad Street Review until I would not abide by the editor’s demand that I use people’s real names. Ms. Medvedev (See installment one) got by him, but Dr. Leviathan raised his suspicions. Anyway, here’s the chapter that did me in.

Sophomore year, I had Humanities II with Miss Steinberg. She had a moon face, tortoise shell glasses, brown hair braided into a bun, and sat one George Eliot thesis short of a Harvard PhD. (If we were alone, I thought, and I was Humphrey Bogart, the glasses would come off and the hair shake free.) She liked me, but I tried her patience. The biggest trial was my explication of Nat Hiken’s superiority to Moliere. My thesis was simple. Comedies were supposed to be funny; Sergeant Bilko made me laugh; Tartuffe did not. (The term “sophomoric sense of humor” may have been invented for me.) Then I compared the unpremeditated murder in “The Stranger,” which I dug, to that in “Lafcadio’s Adventures,” which I really dug. “You should consider a creative writing course,” Miss Steinberg said.
She would have startled me less by announcing that Andre Gide thought he could take me off the dribble. No one in my family – parent, uncle, or aunt – wrote or painted, sculpted or composed. My family did not seem a fertile breeding ground for writers. It contained no alcoholics or drug addicts or sexual or physical abusers. No one at our seder had even committed infidelities or contemplated divorce. (Or if they had, no word of it had reached me.) My relatives were doctors or lawyers or school teachers. It was expected if my cousins and I did not become (or marry) doctors or lawyers or teachers, we would starve. The most on-the-job creativity was represented by my mother’s half-brother Abe, who mixed paints at Glidden’s.
Then there was the Brandeis perspective. Writers wore black turtlenecks and jeans. They played guitars at Chomondeley’s, the campus coffee house. They went to Cambridge for New Wave festivals at the Brattle. They carried, for God’s sake, green book bags. I wore crew necks and khakis. I played three-on-three in the gym. If I went to Cambridge, it was for roast beef specials at Elsie’s. (I knew someone who saw “The Four-Hundred Blows.” “Not even one,” he reported.) The only person of my acquaintance with a green book bag, Mike Gaunt, had lifted it from a shelf in the book store to fill with texts he wanted to swipe.
But I had the judgments of Mrs. Medvedev and Miss Steinberg in my head. Plus, something Brandesian was working on me. A rebel stream had run through the 1950s sea of repression and conformity in which I’d grown. It had flowed through the books and movies in which the protagonist woke up, at age 40, with a wife and 2.4 kids, a house in the suburbs and station wagon in the garage, and realized he had lost his soul. Anyone who had applied to fraternity-free Brandeis – yes, we had a coffee house but no fraternities – had already been carried some distance by that current and being there, no matter how uncomfortably, accelerated its rush. I still planned to go to law school, but law school was for sell-outs, and writing…
Writing was cool.

Brandeis offered two one-semester writing courses. The most highly regarded was taught by David Leviathan, PhD. He was a gaunt, chain-smoking Brit, who was given to brilliant pronouncements that came out sounding like, “Kafkamumblemumbledespair mumblegrumble-futilityofexistencemumblerumblemumble: OBLIVION!” His one published novel – New Directions – about a patricide, exceeded the output of the rest of the faculty within the prior two decades. All the striving would-be writers on campus fought for room at his sandaled feet.
I made an appointment with Dr. Leviathan. He wore a black suit, white shirt, bolo tie. He looked up from “Journey to the End of Night” and regarded me as a botanist would a new species of lichen. I explained my Hum. II instructor had suggested I take his course. My English Comp. teacher, I said, buttressing my presentation, liked me too. These straws hovered in a draft from the void. “But I haven’t actually written a story since 11th grade. Do you think that would present a problem?”
“Bloodymumblefumblemumbleinsurmountable, I should imagine.” He blew me away like ash from his Gauloise.

How I Became a Writer

Several years ago, at the now defunct Red Room, I blogged a seven-part series entitled “How I Became a Writer.” The first four of these were published on line by “The Broad Street Review, but then the editor discovered I was not using people’s real names. He insisted I do so. I insisted I wouldn’t. It was his court and his ball, so the other three never played.

So I will blog the complete set here. This is the first.

Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, April, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”
I should add, at Brandeis in 1960, everyone was as unhappy as Don Nussbaum. The athletes were unhappy because most of the student body regarded them as on an intellectual plain with elm trees. The party people were unhappy because the school’s idea for a for a blow-out weekend headliner was Odetta. The political activists were unhappy because of unfair play for Cuba and the bomb. The scholars were unhappy because the library closed at 11:00 and they only had exams twice a semester. And the artists were unhappy because their art demanded that.

Based on a free-choice writing sample, freshmen were exempted from English Comp. or assigned a section. The sample was to determine if we could organize simple, declarative sentences into coherent paragraphs. Only no one had told me. My lyric essay about a West Philadelphia pool hall won me a slot with Mrs. Medvedev.
She was a green-eyed redhead, with a tattoo on her wrist from Auschwitz. She was married to Yankle Medvedev, the chairman of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, and, according to worldly sophomores in my dorm, having an affair with an untenured abstract expressionist from Fine Arts. She was also, when it came to grades, “Brutal.” After our first assignment – describing how to tie one’s shoes – she flailed us like Xerxes the Hellespont.
The second assignment was to describe a character we admired. That, let me tell you, set competitive juices flowing. Irwin Selzman was doing Paul Tillich. (I had never heard of him.) Victor Goldblatt had Reinhold Niebuhr. (I had never heard of him.) Celia Peltz chose Eleanor Roosevelt. (Okay! One for three.) I picked Garnet “Sugar” Hart, a Strawberry Mansion welterweight, who had earned my fascination by spicing his training regimens with emcee-ing gigs in Ridge Avenue bars.
I sat beside Rick Feldman, an aspiring Beatnik from Darien. (He had gone with Jean-Paul Sartre.) “These papers are not bad,” Mrs. Medvedv said. “They are abominably bad.” My eyes were on my desert boots. I would have settled for a C, easy. “But one of you shows promise.”
I saw a familiar paper clip.
“That’s mine,” I said.
“That might be yours,” Rick Feldman said.
“‘He was tall and thin and could hit with either hand,’” Mrs. Medvedev said.

Adele and Bob: Together Again

A major new piece by Adele (or as she is also known to readers of my comic-related writing, “Ruth Delhi”), entitled “Roger and Me,” concerning her relationship with Mr. Federer, the only man, she writes, she’d leave me for, and a minor one by me has gone on line, along with other articles of merit, at The full announcement begins thus:

New Posts at

Read protests (against racist atrocity in Israel and “industrial” medicine in America), fans’ notes (on the World Cup, “fierce and athletic girls,” Roger Federer, LeBron James, Zinedine Zidane and Al Green), a critique of Buzz, musings on modern romance and post-heart-attack style at


The above-titled piece, co-written with my wife, the fabulous Adele, is up at

Gordie, Adele’s brother, an AmCiv professor at Amherst and a lovely man, began his weekly call by dolefully announcing that his wife’s closest friend’s divorced daughter’s significant other had been murdered – perhaps by his ex-wife. I received this bulletin by speaker phone and Adele’s responsive “That’s awful!” direct. We had met the friend once, and I had exchanged e-mails with the daughter seven or eight years ago. We had not known that she had married or divorced or that the significant other existed.

How History is Made

When Ephraim arrived at his hotel in New York, the sidewalk had been cordoned off, limos were parked at the curb, and ominous, dark-suited men in dark sun glasses abounded. Ephraim knew that a conference of the leaders of Jewish organizations was being held in New York that week. When he asked himself who would warrant such security, he answered, “Netanyahu!”

When Ephraim asked the desk clerk if he was correct, he was told, “I’m sorry, sir, but we keep the identities of our guests confidential.” Some hours later, when Ephraim asked the concierge the same question, he received the same answer. “But their body language,” Ephraim told me, “confirmed my reasoning.”

That wasn’t all. Neither the evening television news or the morning papers reported Netanyahu’s presence in New York. They maintained the fiction that he was in Israel, where, as it happened, an invasion of Gaza was about to launch. “It shows,” Ephraim went on, “the media can not be trusted to tell us what is happening in the world.”

I don’t know how many times Ephraim told his story. I don’t know to how many people he passed along his lesson. But the next time I heard him tell it, he added that his cab driver’d said, “I think it’s Peres.”

When I got home, I Googled “New York City Shimon Peres.”

It was Peres. But I only have the word of the New York Times and Wahington Post for it, and we know who they’re in bed with.

Plus, the guy telling you all this still thinks Oswald shot Kennedy.

From the Vault

Since I may be getting into my daily life, I ought to provide some background. So here’s something I wrote two years ago. The first editor who saw it didn’t think it would play outside of Berkeley. The next one was sure it would, but hasn’t found the right mix with which to surround it yet. But not wanting to deprive my faithful readers any longer, and knowing he won’t mid…

Café Society
The Wrench (not quite itsw actual name), my coffeehouse of choice, occupies the ground floor of a two-story, red brick hotel which, when I arrived in Berkeley from Philadelphia in 1968, housed a laundry. The cobbler, hardware store and gas station that had been nearby have been replaced too, by designer women’s clothes, a unisex beauty salon, a Pilates studio. Peet’s was already in place, but Chez Panisse had not arrived. The neighborhood, then too undistinguished to be named, is the Gourmet Ghetto now.
The Wrench faces east. A bulletin board announces that a relaunched Sopwith Camel can be heard, spiritual transformation obtained, peace still fought for. The fire engine red San Marco espresso machine draws greater interest. It is the ceiling of this Sistine Chapel, its deliveries masterpieces of viscosity, strength, and flavor. The barristas, Bartolo, thirty years in residence, and Leon, with tenure slightly less, adorn the steamed milk of the favored, whether “Maestro,” or “Chiquita,” with chocolate roses and breasts. News of marriages and children pass above the biscotti jars. The one-pint tip glass fills.

For decades, I came to the Wrench weekend and holiday afternoons. But since my retirement from the practice of law, I arrive mornings, usually before eight. The sidewalk offers tables; but most action, though still not free of inconvenience from the elements, is within. The back room’s glass roof admits rain. Its windows do not close, so the fog chills; and when it lifts, the rising sun glazes the eyes of the seated. The view this costs is of a supermarket’s parking lot. The front room has its own flaws. One of the four heavy wood tables, strung single-file along the south wall, is too near the door; one is cast aslant by a lopsided floor; one is perversely small and one dimly lit. Four additional tables stand perpendicular to it, before a mirrored wall. At three of these, a bank of folding chairs links the seated too closely, and the fourth reposes directly across from the hotel clerk’s ringing phone. Music from a Spanish-language station caters to the staff, rather than the jazz or classical which would suit the clientele. If you do not mind edges to your bagel, these toxicities bemuse.
The Wrench is tres Berkeley. Customers include an anaesthesiologist, cartoonist, contractors (two), fine artists (several), folk musicians (several more), high school teacher, mathematician, mime (retired), photographers (several), plumber, professor emeritus (anthropology), psychotherapists (several), river rafting guide (retired), roadie (formerly of the Allman Brothers, now homeless), union organizer, yoga instructor. I can identify delegates from Brazil, Bulgaria, Ethiopia (or Eritrea), Israel, Poland, Syria. A Thai waitress, Vietnamese grocer, Chinese auto mechanic get theirs to go. I can count four octogenarians named “Sam,” all with Greek fishermen’s caps. I hear “Guten tag,” “Bonjour” and “Buon giorno.” Robert Reich stands behind an obese woman with matted hair, bare midriff, and flip-flops.
As coffeehouses go, the Wrench is of the social persuasion. By offering only two electric outlets, it deters the roosting of the silent, studious, lap-top dependent. The chatter level dissuades attempts at chess or go. (But not the two scholars who translate Homer to each other.) There is a morning crowd, an afternoon’s, an evening’s; overlap occurs. Groups as large as twenty congregate; others confine themselves to trios or quartets. A minority customarily solo. We learn each others’ schedules and habits. If our favored tables are taken, we know upon whom to keep an eye and when to grab up cup and pounce.
I read; I write; I stare out the open door at passers-by. I accept recollection’s jolts or the encounter that will generate conversation. Memories of marches, three-on-three games, hot tub parties surface and fall away. This week’s discussions included the Oakland A’s, Billy Collins’s poetry, and the social consequences of growing up haole in Hawaii.

The first coffeehouse I entered in Berkeley, back when less milk steamed in the entire city than now hisses within a mild ramble from the Wrench, was the Mediterranean, on Telegraph. My youthful forays into Philly’s Guilded Cage had not prepared me. The Med’s bill de fare, posted on the wall, clubbed me dizzy. I had no clue what to order, which required cream or permitted sugar. I was certain an error would mark me as a narc or F.B.I. informant. The bearded, black turtle-necked assembled, huddled together as if plotting to storm the Winter Palace. I clutched a spoon to wield in case the nearby Hell’s Angel, full colors flying, lunged for my throat.
But time has transformed me as well as my surround. Berkeley now seems more threatened by mountain lions than Hell’s Angels, and real estate more frequently discussed than revolution. I have become proudly bi-lingual when it comes to “short double espresso” and educated to more than choice of beverage. I came to the Wrench, as one comes to many things in life, from chance and circumstance, experience and process of elimination. Then, with fit established, as with wife and home, I ceased to wander.
Without an office or the links profession forges, the Wrench provides a new community. It called for shifts in dress and speech and eliminated entire channels of concern; but it more than supplied what I sought. (I am not alone in this regard. “The Wrench is my church,” I heard Pug, who fenced for Columbia and fought in Vietnam, explain to his grandchildren one Sunday morning.) People find companionship, encouragement, affirmation of belief – even romance – all good reasons to look forward to rising for another morning when reclining at night. Patrons display art, announce gigs, and publications. Sections of the Times and Chronicle pass hand-to-hand. Hugs happen.
The Wrench hosts memorial services too. I have known those who passed from lung cancer and heart failure and their own hand. I see those who labor with pace-makers and the ravages of chemotherapy. Arrivals became dependant on canes, then walkers – then ceased. A friend visiting from across the bay told me of the hip, young people filling the cafes on Columbus Avenue. “You mean we aren’t the hip, young people any more?” I said.
That was years ago – and is still difficult to swallow. But once down, an expanded vision may follow. As one may find a new place to repair heels and soles and learn to bridge the gap left by each departed pal, one may focus on the table at which one sits, shuffle aside the attendant discomforts, and focus on the wonders that remain.


This comes from an e-mail correspondent. I forwarded it to several friends, all of whom withheld their comments, except for one who replied, “BAH!” Still I think it is worth looking at from time to time. Take from it what you will. There is no passing grade.

Handbook for the Good Life

1. Drink plenty of water.
2. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a beggar.
3. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants..
4. Live with the 3 E’s — Energy, Enthusiasm and Empathy
5. Make time to pray.
6. Play more games.
7. Read more books than you did in 2013 .
8. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day
9. Sleep for 7 hours.
10. Take a 10-30 minute walk daily.

11. Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
12. Don’t have negative thoughts or things you cannot control.
Instead invest your energy in the positive present moment.
13. Don’t over-do. Keep your limits.
14. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
15. Don’t waste your precious energy on gossip.
16. Dream more while you are awake
17. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need..
18. Forget issues of the past. Don’t remind your partner with
his/her mistakes of the past. That will ruin your present happiness.
19. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. Don’t hate others.
20. Make peace with your past so it won’t spoil the present.
21. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
22. Realize that life is a school and you are here to learn.
Problems are simply part of the curriculum that appear and
fade away like algebra class but the lessons you learn will last a lifetime.
23. Smile and laugh more.
24. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

25. Call your family often.
26. Each day give something good to others.
27. Forgive everyone for everything..
28. Spend time with people over the age of 70 & under the age of 6.
29. Try to make at least three people smile each day.
30. What other people think of you is none of your business.
31. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your
friends will. Stay in touch.

32. Do the right thing!
33. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.
34. GOD heals everything.
35. However good or bad a situation is, it will change..
36. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
37. The best is yet to come..
38. When you awake in the morning, thank GOD you’re alive.
39. Your Inner most is always happy. So, be happy.

Last but not the least:
40. Share this to everyone you care about, I just did.

I Just Finished (2)…

…for the third time (not counting the Classic Comic), Moby Dick. The first time was at camp the summer the movie came out, and all I remember is thinking a lot of time was spent on blubber. (I already knew how the story came out, which, at the time, seemed the point of books, after all.) The second time was in the 1970s, and I have no idea what I thought then. This time I was struck — and surprised — by how funny it was. Walking down the street, at the Spouter Inn, bunking with Queequeg, enjoying Mrs. Hussey’s chowder, meeting the Captains Peleg and Bildad… It’sa lotta laffs.

He’s one interesting narrator, Ishmael, if that’s even his name, “Call me…” not exactly being the same as “I am…” (And by “interesting” I don’t even mean his ability to report conversations he could not have overheard or thoughts to which he could not have had access.) Since the Pequod was the first whaler he shipped on, his account of its voyage reflects knowledge gained from so many others, he could not be spinning this tale until some decades later. And in between trips, he must have spent a lot of time ashore in libraries and museums. He studs his narrative with references to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Cartheginians. He name drops Pythagorus, Euroclydan, Elephanta, and Mungo Park. He is well versed in the history of whaling, whale anatomy, the whale in literature and art, and the symbolic import of “whiteness.” And this is revealed by a brief skim of the first couple hundred pages.

But to me, the most noteworthy thing remains that humor. It is not unrelenting. As he nears his calamitous end, Ishmael’s tone and rhythms become suitably biblical and Shakespearean in their solemnity and power. Still, the presence of humor, while telling a story that he knows will end in the destruction of an entire company of men with whom he has been in service, including one who’s become his closest friend, seems instructive.

Maybe the lesson is that, after experiencing a multitude of decades and all that surviving them brings, the ability to reflect upon them without having been entirely stripped of good humor may be a valuable thing.

Anybody got a good biography of Melville to recommend?

We interrupt this program…

The blog I was planning for today has been temporarily (at least) postponed due to my realizing, if I added 110 words, it might fetch cash money. So what to do instead…?

Do people want to actually hear about ordinary days? From what I understand of Facebook and Instagram, could be… So…

The Wrench (not its real name) Cafe was so crowded this morning, I had to sit outside for a while. Then when I’d scored a table, a later-arriving regular asked to join me. It is a courtesy of the Wrench that people ask and no one refuses. When another table opens, the visitor usually departs. If you are working, the visitor is usually maintains silence. If you wish to chat, that usually becomes available too. We went with silence, signaled by my keeping Pandoa on (tuned to Bill Evans, after opening with Dave Alvin) and a yellow pad in front of me.

Last night, my brother Larry, the best selling author in the family (“Oogy: A Dog Only a Family Could Love”) was interviewed for 30 minutes on an internet radio show whose purpose seems to be the refurbishing of the public image of pit bulls. If anyone is interested and the show maintains its archive, I can provide a link.

I think that’s about it. See what happens when these entries aren’t planned in advance?

The Grannie

In 1937, when Leo McCarey won the Oscar for Best Director for the comedy “The Awful Truth,” he said, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” McCarey preferred “Make Way For Tommorow,” for which he had also been nominated. It has been called “the most depressing movie ever made,” but I had never heard of it until alerted by The Amazing Milo’s indispensible monthly guide to TCM’s showings

Good film. Tears await. But my first YOICKS! moment came when the ill-fated Beulah Bondi, as the sweet, frail, white-haired, tottering grandmother who has lost her home, says, “Well, I’m 70…” Seventy! I thought — and I’m 72!!!

Bondi was always playing grandmothers. She played Bobby Driscoll’s a decade later in “So Dear to My Heart,” one of my favorites before I was ten and started going to moview on my own. (“The Monty Stratton Story” was its only rival. Boy, I must have been a sucker for lumpy throats.)

Before MWFT had gone much further, I’d Wikipedia-ed her. Bondi was forty-eight in 1937. She lived another 44 years, making films most of the way and, no doubt, never getting cast much younger. She never married; no soignificant others are noted; and one hopes the archtype she was selected to represent for America amused her slightly.