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Archive for February 2013

How not to become a writer . . .(last part, . . .sort of)

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It didn’t take long for everything to fall apart.  It wasn’t ugly but it wasn’t pretty, either.  We both threw ourselves into the roles of parents; first as prospective parents, then actual parents, mother and father to a beautiful, smart, curious daughter, Samantha.

At first it was exciting; an adventure shared by two people determined to be the best possible parents to our daughter.  At the same time we wanted — needed — to maintain some semblance of our lives before parenthood, before all those plans and hopes and dreams had to be re-examined in light of their effect on “Sam” and the family.  Things we never thought about, or discussed only in passing, before now took on paramount importance.  Where would “Sam” go to school?  Where would we live?  Where to find the best doctors?  What about insurance?  All of these things required resources Cathy and I hadn’t developed.  We would, of course, but it was a difficult process, one I wouldn’t want to undertake again under those circumstances.  there was tension, of course.  I don’t suppose it can be otherwise when personal goals and dreams require giving way to family needs.  When you start to lose sight of your dreams, resentment is, I guess, a natural result.  We both had dreams, many dreams, but they were gradually subsumed by the demands of family.

Strangely enough Cathy’s dreams were the first to fade.  She had always dreamed of being a photographer, a photo-journalist.  She had converted an extraneous walk-in closet to a darkroom and spent many hours “closeted” (forgive the pun) with her rolls of film and chemicals, producing hundreds of prints which she dutifully catalogued.  As her pregnancy progressed, she spent less and less time in her darkroom.

“I’m not really comfortable around the chemicals,” she explained, frowning at her ever-burgeoning belly.  “I’m not sure if they’ll harm the baby.”  I said I understood, that it was only temporary.  She would be able to return to the darkroom and develop her film after the baby was born.  There was plenty of time.

I said I understood but I didn’t, really.  I didn’t understand those frowns weren’t only concern for the baby, but for the beginnings of the loss her dream, for the reality of things being put off.

I didn’t have the same concerns about writing; tapping computer keys were no threat to the unborn, were they?  But they were.  The hours spent hunched over a keyboard were hours away from Cathy and, since her birth, Samantha.  I found myself wondering if the time I spent writing weren’t selfishness on my part.  the one or two articles I managed to have published in obscure journals were not really contributing to our financial security.  Truth be told, they were just shy of “net-zero” in the finance department.  Maybe I should ease up on the writing and spend more time with the family.  Besides, when Samantha was older, in school maybe, there would be more time for writing.

If I put my mind to it, I could probably list all the reasons the marriage failed.  The dreams set aside, opportunities missed, decisions made (and not made).  There were myriad other things that, viewed in hindsight, seemed inconsequential but weren’t.  Eventually, it all became too much.

Looking back, I often wonder why, given our mutual dedication to parenthood, we chose divorce over “sticking it out”.  I can’t really speak for Cathy; we never really talked about the “whys” of our decision.  But the simple truth of it is we were just too physically and emotionally exhausted, too hurt and resentful to carry on until there was no feeling left, nothing to salvage.  Best to separate now, while we still felt something for one another..  It would be “for the best”.

Little changed, really, after the divorce.  The lawyers negotiated a “shared custody” agreement Cathy and I jointly ignore as we see fit, to accommodate Samantha’s sundry enthusiasms.  Strangely, we seem better parents since the divorce that we tried to be before.  Samantha, our joint creative project, seems happy and well-adjusted.  She graduates from Columbia University next year.  She says she wants to teach English (her major) in China after she graduates.

Cathy landed a gig as online editor for a travel magazine (I see a trip to China in her not-too-distant future).  I managed to land on my feet.  two years ago I bought a half interest in a restaurant.  It’s doing really well and has garnered some good reviews in the local press (I never realized how hard restauranteurs worked!).  As for my writing, I still get what Virgil or Cicero (I forget which) called, cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble” now and then but there will be plenty of time for that; maybe after Samantha graduates . . .


How not to become a writer. . .(pt. 2)

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It’s funny, really, the things you remember about certain events in your life, like where you were when JFK was shot, or the moon landing . . .

Cathy was standing in the kitchen doorway; not standing, really, leaning against the door jamb, bare feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.  She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and nibbling on her lower lip the way she did when trying to decide on the right moment to . . .

She righted herself in the doorway, deciding, I guess, now was as good a time as any.  “Steve,” she said, padding across the livingroom toward me.  “We need to talk.”

I knew, even then, that particular line meant something serious, something requiring my undivided attention, needed to be addressed, and the way Cathy was standing over me, arms folded across her chest, confirmed that hypothesis.  I closed the book I was reading and as casually as possible so as not to betray my anxiety, said. “Okay, babe.  What’s up?”

Her expression softened a bit (Cathy always took on, I guess you could call it a “flinty” expression when broaching a serious subject; like she was prepared for a shouting match, if it came to that), and she settled onto the sofa, shifted around to face me and tucked her feet up under her.  Cathy was tall — 5′ 9″ in her bare feet — with a tall woman’s feline grace, and the way she folded herself onto the sofa enhanced the effect.  (Did I mention I love cats?)  “Steve, I think it’s time you got a real job.”

I can’t say I was shocked.  We’d had this conversation before.  Well, not exactly this conversation but one very like it.  They usually involved me explaining, yet again, about the need to have ample time for writing, how it was only a matter of time, one good break and our present difficulties would be a thing of the past.  Cathy would tell me how good my writing was, how it wasn’t really my fault I couldn’t catch a break and that she understood how important the writing was to me.  It would go on like that for a while, then we would hug one another and resolve, each of us, to do better in the future.

“But I have a real job,” I said, barely trying to conceal my indignation.

Cathy reached over and laid a hand on my arm.  “Honey, I know that,” she said.  “And you’re really good at what you do.  But it’s been four, nearly five, years and you haven’t made any real, significant progress.”

“Getting published doesn’t happen overnight,” I countered.  “It takes time.”

“I realize that.”  She withdrew her hand and assumed a no-nonsense attitude.  “But you, we, have to face facts.  We haven’t been able to save any money, the car needs work, and with the baby coming we’re going to need a bigger place to live.”

“Cathy, I know money’s tight right now,” I said, preparing my usual rebuttal when something . . .different registered in my consciousness.  “Wait a minute!  Did you say, ‘a baby coming’?”

Cathy didn’t say anything at first.  She just looked at me with a sheepish, almost-but-not-quite contrite expression and nodded.  Her ponytail shook happily as her head bobbed.  “I’m pregnant,” she said, finally.

That night, lying in bed, listening to Cathy’s steady, contented breathing, I stared into the darkness and tried to imagine fatherhood.  Doctor bills.  Clothes.  Food.  School. Orthodonture!  What if we have a girl?  Dance classes.  Dresses.  More orthodonture.  Boyfriends!  Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to ‘get my head around it’.  And underneath it all, peering out of the dark like a cat from a paper bag, was the question, When was I going to find time to write?  The answer was going to have to wait, for now.  First thing in the morning I would go down to the restaurant where I tended bar and talk to the owner, Bill.  Maybe, if I explained the situation to him, I could pick up another shift of two.

With that I started to drift off to restless sleep.  But the question was still lurking in the dark, waiting for an answer . . .(to be continued)

How not to become a writer . . .(pt.1)

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This is going to be a long post, so I thought I’d break it up and write about this topic over several posts.

When I first decided to become a writer it wasn’t because I wanted to help people, or thought I had anything important to say; no “Great American Novel” lurking in the furthest recesses of my admittedly limited imagination.  I just thought it was a really cool way of earning a living.  I was twenty-two, recently discharged from the Navy and casting about for some means of making a buck.  Writing seemed an ideal choice.  Of course, I had no background in writing and no training other than a couple of English Lit. courses in high school.  But I read a lot while in the Navy (mostly “trashy” novels and pulp spy thrillers) and thought, naively, I could write as well as the guys whose work I was reading.  After all, I thought,  “How hard can it be?” 

It turns out it takes almost as much skill to write “trash” as it does to produce “quality” fiction.  Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.  Back then what I knew about writing was, come up with an idea, write it down, send it to a publisher and wait for the money to start rolling in.  Doesn’t work that way. (Duh!)

It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed help.  I decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enroll in the local community college.  I could get both help for my writing and an education that would allow me to get a decent job if this “writing thing” didn’t work out.  (By the way, don’t ever embark on a writing career with the idea that, at some point, “it may not work out!”)

Time passed and my life began to take on a routine of sorts.  I was still writing more or less regularly, but the demands of married life (I had gotten married shortly after college) began to intrude on the writing.  I took whatever work I could find; drove a cab, worked in a pizza shop, tended bar part-time in order to leave time for my writing which, after three years, was beginning to show results; meager results, but results nonetheless.  I managed to have a couple of op-ed pieces published in the local paper (no money, but published clips to show editors); a piece on Hemingway was published in a literary magazine (contributor’s copies).  All I needed was one good break.  Then everything changed. . . .(to be continued)

Written by stevewthomas

February 16, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Chasing the “WOW” . . .

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I have spent a good portion of my life in pursuit of an experience I can’t adequately describe.  I can only describe the circumstances of my first encounter with this elusive interaction.  

It was during a creative writing class in college I first had the “encounter” that would become my life’s obsession.

The class had been given an assignment to describe, in a few hundred words (I think it was 300 hundred words), an inanimate object of given dimensions.  I chose an old Smith-Corona portable typewriter.  It was a hideous thing; a compact combination of turquoise body with fat, white keys encased in its own turquoise carrying case.  My parents got if for me for Christmas one year.  I think I was thirteen or thereabouts.

Anyway, back to creative writing class.  For the assignment I wrote my description as a “conversation” between myself and the typewriter (one that has, for better or worse, continued through the ensuing years), describing it in skeletal terms; a “death’s-head” smile of grinning, fat, fat white teeth and shock of white paper protruding from the roller; how I sat silently before the thing, waiting for the words to come.  I forget now, after all these years, everything I wrote to describe our “conversation”.  I do remember struggling with it for some time before I felt it would be acceptable for the assignment.  I also remember I was not especially eager to read it in class.

I waited patiently as my classmates read their pieces; each one better, at least to my thinking, than the last.  When my turn to read came, I hesitated for a moment or two, then launched into my reading with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.  It took less than two minutes to read the piece and when I finished I steeled myself for the inevitable criticisms I felt sure were to come.  The class was silent.  I guess you could call it a “pregnant pause”.  Then from somewhere behind me, a single word, “Wow”.  It wasn’t an explosive “WOW!”; more a subdued expression of incredulity.  I don’t know who said it.  I didn’t turn to look.

I don’t recall the grade I received for the paper, or if a grade was given.  The paper has long since disappeared.  There is only one thing I remember about that class: that single “Wow!”.  I’ve been chasing that “Wow” ever since, trying to capture, or recapture, the feeling of doing, or having done, something special, something no one else could do.

I came close once, several years ago.  But that’s a story for another post . . .

Written by stevewthomas

February 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm

On Becoming . . .anything

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I’ve been a practicing professional cook for 30 years — nearly half my life.  In that time I’ve learned becoming a good cook takes more than memorizing a few recipes.  Becoming a good cook as much about how you do something as it is about what you do.  and it takes as much practice, if not more, to learn how as it does to learn the what.  Like any craft, cooking is a matter of practice, of acquiring a skill and using that sill over and over and over until it becomes second nature, then acquiring another skill and practicing it, in combination with other skills, over and over and over until it, too, becomes second nature.  In this regard, cooking is very much like any number of other skilled occupations.  Just as doctors or lawyers or painters or musicians or writers are said to practice their craft (or profession, is you prefer) so do cooks.

There is another similarity these apparently diverse professions share, aside from the need for continual practice.  They all follow a similar recipe.  The ingredients are perseverance, creativity, audacity, unwavering belief in their own ability, humility and, above all, a love for what they do.  These ingredients, in varying proportion, comprise a “recipe for achieving excellence (or at least competence) common to these and countless other occupations.  There are, of course, other ingredients to be added to the recipe.  What those ingredients are and how they are combined are the little extras that make each version of the recipe unique to its creator.

It has been said, “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”.  It’s true, perhaps more true for cooks that others. (There’s a reason they say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”).  It has also been said in order to succeed at anything, you have to “pay your dues” or “put in the hours (or days, weeks, months or years)”.  This is also true.  There are no shortcuts, no easy way to succeed.  There is no such thing as an “overnight success.”

As I said at the outset, I’ve been a professional cook for 30 years; years filled with excitement and apprehension, aggravation and satisfaction, success and failure.  I’ve missed birthdays, holiday celebrations and weekend outings.  I’ve worked ridiculously long hours for insane lengths of time under less than ideal conditions.  I’ve lost weight, patience, my temper; at times I thought I would lose my mind.  But through it all the one thing I never lost, the one indispensable ingredient in my personal recipe was the love for what I was doing.  I don’t cook professionally anymore, but I still “cook”.  After 30 years, it’s time to apply my recipe fo something else, something new.  It’s sor of like creating a sauce you can use with a variety of dishes.  I may have to tweak the recipe a bit,  It’s a process I’m familiar with.  Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t.  Doesn’t matter, really.  I still love the process.

How to Cook . . .

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In 1987 (I can’t believe it was that long ago!) I was one of 5 grand prize winners of the Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese “Hall of Fame” Recipe contest.  What follows is an account of how it happened.

My wife and I are coupon clippers.  You know, people who spend most of Sunday sprawled on the livingroom floor, poring over advertising supplements in search of “bargains”,  That’s where the entire episode started; on the livingroom floor.

I had just finished eviscerating the Sunday paper and removed the few coupons we could use.  It’s amazing how many coupons you find for stuff you never use.  Anyway, I had completed the operation and was gathering the remains fo the paper for recycling when Ana, my wife, stopped me.

“Honey, did you see this?” she asked, waving a page from the paper.  It was a contest announcement: “Kraft Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese “Hall of Fame” Recipe Contest”.

“So?” I replied, frowning at the page in her hand.

“Wasn’t the chicken you prepared last week made with cream cheese?”  I could tell from her expression what was coming.

“That was a fluke,” I pointed out.  “A happy accident.  Besides, there’s no recipe.  I made it up as I went along.”

“So, make one up,” Ana countered.

“Yeah.  Right,”  I said over my shoulder as I carried the remains of the newspaper to the recycling bin.

Of the two types of cooks in the world, the “classic” type who follow a recipe so closely you’d swear it involved recombinant DNA, and the “slap-dash” type who doesn’t own a cookbook, wouldn’t know a recipe from a nursery rhyme and simply tosses whatever is available into pot or pan and hopes for the best, I fall squarely into the latter grouping.  When I get an idea, I rummage for ingredients, substituting with abandon and then it’s “Katie bar the door!”, as my mother used to say.  Even I don’t know how it’s going to turn out (if at all!).

The chicken dish Ana referred to was a something-less-than-faithful recreation of a dish my mother prepared years ago.  I had elected to “recreate” Mom’s recipe for an upcoming dinner with some friends.

As the appointed time for dinner approached, I began to rummage around the kitchen in search of ingredients.  As I neglected to do any advance shopping, the search netted very little in the way of ingredients.  Onions, some less-than-fresh mushrooms, a forgotten pepper, chicken breasts, butter, cream cheese, a few disparate spices and a package of pasta were all I could come up with.  While Ana repaired to the bedroom to dress for dinner, I popped the top on a can of Coors and considered dinner possibilities.

As I sat ruminating over how to assemble the collected ingredients into a passable dinner, Ana’s voice “wafted” from the bedroom.  “Dinner is in one hour,” she called.  “I don’t smell any good smells coming from the kitchen.”

That was my cue to stop cogitating and start cooking.  I grabbed a knife, sliced mushrooms, onions and pepper, stripped the skin from the chicken breasts and cut the breasts into strips.  Butter went into a large sauté pan, more went into a saucepan.  Heat applied to both began the cooking process.  I cut the cream cheese into chunks and added it to the butter in the saucepan.  It was cheese, after all, and cheese melts.

The chicken and vegetables were simmering nicely but something was missing.  I grabbed some spices; oregano, basil and marjoram, I think, and tossed them into the mixture.  Ana would definitely smell something from the kitchen now.  I put a pot of water on another burner, added salt and oil, turned up the heat and waited for the water to boil.  Now it was time to turn my attention to my “sauce”.

The cream cheese was indeed melting, but a couple of stirs resulted in something resembling badly curdled cream.  It definitely needed “something”.  I took a sip of my beer and. . . Wait a minute!  I splashed some of the beer into the saucepan and attacked it with a wire whisk.  The “sauce” began to smooth out.  A couple of splashes more and it really began to look like a sauce.  It was beginning to look as thought I going to pull this off.

Guests are usually complimentary when it comes to a free meal and ours were no exception.  Requests for recipe copies were gently turned away with, “It’s just something I threw together.”  It was true but no one believed me.  Eventually, I was persuaded to provide copies of the “recipe” as soon as possible.  I promptly erased the matter from my mind until that Sunday, when Ana showed me the contest announcement and reminded me of my promise.

“You might as well make up a recipe,” she said upon my return from the recycling bin.  “You did promise a copy to Claudia, you know.”  A couple of days later, I managed to produce a list of ingredients and instructions approximating a recipe and gave it to Ana to copy.

Two months later I was interrupted in my “enjoyment” of a Phillies game by a knock at the door.  Upon opening the door, I was greeted by a Federal Express deliveryman.  “Please sign here,” he said, extending a clipboard.  I signed where instructed and accepted the envelope with the return address, “Kraft Foods”.  Ana had evidently entered my “recipe” in the contest.

Did I?  Could I have?  Nah!  It wasn’t possible.  It’s probably just a letter thanking me for my entry.  All of those thoughts flitted through my mind as I dropped the envelope on the coffee table, dropped into my chair and returned my attention to the ballgame.  Still, the envelope distracted me.  If all it is is a “Thank You” letter, why not open it?  I was still pondering the contents fo the unopened envelope when Ana entered the room.

“What’s that?”

“A Federal Express package from Kraft Foods,” I said, feigning interest in the game.

Ana almost choked on the coffee she was sipping.  “Kraft Foods?”  Coffee splashed from the mug as she reached for the envelope.  I beat her to it.

“Open it!  Open it!” she squealed, coffee sputtering over her chin.

“Okay, okay,” I said, tearing the zip-strip from the envelope revealing a single, typewritten page.

                     “Dear Stephen Thomas, I am very pleased to inform you that your recipe, “Sautéed Chicken Breasts in Philly Cream Sauce”,

was selected as one of five Grand Prize Winners in this year’s Kraft Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese “Hall of Fame” Recipe

Contest . . .”

I stopped reading.  There was more about prizes, a trip to San Francisco, awards banquets, spending money, etc. . .But all I truly remember about that moment was Ana saying, “Not bad for something you just threw together!”


Written by stevewthomas

February 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Thomas Edison, the lightbulb & God . . .

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I was watching National Treasure, the Nicholas Cage movie, the other day when a particular segment of dialogue caught my attention.  Two of the characters were talking about how to go about stealing the Declaration of Independence when Cage’s character said, “Thomas Edison tried and failed 2000 times to invent the light bulb.  When asked about this, the inventor said, ‘I didn’t fail.  I discovered 2000 ways how NOT to invent a light bulb.'”

 It could be God, good scientist that He (She?) is, didn’t give up after several (dozen? hundred? thousand?  You pick a metric) attempts and didn’t throw everything away and start again, from scratch.  I good scientist never throws anything away and God, after all, is “The First Scientist”.  His method may have been a bit primitive; being the first at anything means you don’t have anything to use as a reference.

I know there are some who would say, “What about evolution?  Isn’t that proof of experimentation?”  Well, yes and no.  Within the context of the Universe as we know and understand it, evolution could be seen as proof of experimentation but it could also be an “accident”, an “unintended consequence” that resulted in this universe’s classification of “failure”.

Oh, I almost forgot . . .I don’t want anyone to get the idea I’m espousing any kind of religious theory, here.  All this talk of God, evolution, experimentation, etc. . .is simply a “hypothetical construct” designed to place these questions in some kind of context.  I do not believe in “God” in the accepted sense of that word, not do I believe the supposed “theory” of Intelligent Design.  Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory.  It is a religious argument first put forth, officially, by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) some four hundred years ago.  It was formulated as a way of “filling in the gaps” between what we (at the time) understood about the physical world and what we didn’t understand and, according to the Catholic Church, could never understand.  It was, in essence, a myth created to explain how thing worked; the same way early man sued stories to explain where storms came from, or lightening, or earthquakes, or anything else the cause of which was not readily apparent.  The Church, it seemed, had a rather short-sighted view of human beings’ ability to acquire knowledge and, given the Church’s penchant for curtailing that ability, had every reason to believe their view would prove the correct one.  I didn’t.  But I digress. . .

I started this post with a question.  How many times did God try to create the Universe before He (She) came up with this one, the one that worked?  It’s an intriguing question.  I wonder if there’s an answer?

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