The Maestro

”Once writing has become the principal vice and the greatest pleasure, only death can put an end to it.” Ernest Hemingway.

I decided early on that I could do a lot worse than to learn the story telling trade from Ernest Hemingway. Add a bit of Scott Fitzgerald, some Shakespeare and a few licks from Dickens, throw in a helping of the King James Bible, and I could be one heck of an writer.

But Ernest Hemingway, he was the one I really took to for my writing teacher. Who else would begin a chapter, much less a book, with these words: “Then there was the bad weather”? What other writer would take the chance of being a laughingstock? Yet there the sentence is, laying on the page, a perfect beginning to “A Moveable Feast” about his years in Paris. There are the words, clear and simple and saying all that is needed to be said in an opening sentence. They make me want to read more. They make me think I am not at the beginning of the story but in the middle of something. Which is always a good place to begin.

Now you may be thinking that I read Hemingway to imitate him. I do not. If I did, it would come off as very bad Hemingway. No, I read him to discover the excesses in my own prose, my authorial commentary, my character’s thinking when he should be doing, an excessive passive voice, and anything to avoid the action. It all has to go, including my favorite little ditties that bear witness to excess. What more could I want to say than “Then there was the bad weather”? I just wish I had said it. It is kind of like Dickens beginning “David Copperfield” with the first chapter titled “I Was Born”.

I’ve never considered “The Sun Also Rises” as his best work. Oh, it’s okay Hemingway but not really first class. He has too too many scores he wanted to settle. With Henry James, with James Joyce, with H. L. Mencken, maybe even Gertrude Stein. It is not nearly as good as his short stories. But he had been talked into believing that the only way he could be considered a “real” writer was to write a novel. It is “A Farewell to Arms” where Hemingway really shines.

The opening paragraph is one of the best in American literature, up there with “Moby Dick” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It opens this way: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Very little latinized English and a hell of a lot of Anglo Saxon.

Some darned fine writing. And there are so many other examples of this writing. Things like: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Or “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” He makes it look so simple, so easy to write prose that well that he has fooled many a writer into thinking the can do it, and never do. Some come close but most fail, and fail miserably.

And one of the things I love about Hemingway is the theme that seems to move through much of his fiction. That theme is loss. The loss of sexual potency in “The Sun Also Rises”, the loss of the love of your young life in “A Farewell to Arms”, the loss of your dignity in “The Short Happy LIfe of Francis Macomber”, the loss of not just a fish but of a living in “The Old Man and the Sea”. Loss is written all over Hemingway’s fiction. The question he keeps asking is: How do you face loss, the devastating kind which can suck a life dry? I don’t think he ever came up with an answer but he came close in “The Old Man and the Sea”. You accept it, and you accept it with dignity.

Oh sure, there is machismo, the macho world of the hunter and the bullfighter and the soldier. But none of those people are winners. Much of his fiction is about losers, about men who suffer great loss and soldier on. Underneath all that machismo is a sensitive soul for which Hemingway gets little credit. You see, he was constantly playing a bluffing game and he got away with it most of the time. I think the bluff is why feminist critics don’t like Hemingway. I also think that his sensitivity is what attracted quite a number of women to him, and women who were strong and independent like the war correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became his third wife. They saw beneath the machismo and the bluff. They saw a very sensitive soul.

At the beginning of this blog post, I referred to Hemingway as Maestro. I got that from the great Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the late 1950s, Marquez was in Paris and walking down one of the boulevards. He looked across the street and there was Hemingway with his lady. Marquez struggled with the words of what he would say to the great writer. Finally he could only get one word out. ” ”Maaaeeestro!” Hemingway acknowledged the young writer by turning and calling out, ”Adiooos, amigo!’

For me, Hemingway is the master and I will always be his pupil. And that is why I continue to read him.

The First Day of School

Under the sign of the A-B-Cs
a teacher auditions for a semester run
as actor, director and stage manager,
standing before a new class
ready to loot and pillage his emotions.

A moment, just a moment of stillness,
before a return to a hue and cry
of gossip, comradery, and spit balls
thrown across the room with an accuracy
of a Major League pitcher,
thirty mouths filling the air with chaos.

Suffering from stage fright and first day jitters,
his balloon of molding young minds
crashing to the hardwood floor,
he turns his back to the mongol horde
who has slashed and burned his enthusiasm
into a thousand humpty-dumpty pieces,
folds his arms and faces
the giant musical notation on the blackboard.

And he waits.

A September breeze eases through the open windows.
One by one student voice after student voice
drops off a cliff until silence fills the air.
The teacher unfolds his arms,
turns to his audience,
and the play begins,
neither a comedy nor a tragedy
but a semester of moments
when stars are born
and Shakespeares emerge
and young minds released
to play with unicorns,
follow yellow brick roads,
and grow wings and fly.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator of the Week: Leonard Bernstein and the Joy of Music

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is Leonard Bernstein:

When I was growing up, Leonard Bernstein was the one I thought of as a classical orchestra conductor was. Thinking back to the times, I can imagine other conductors being envious. So very envious. His personality looms over the classical world of the last half of the twentieth century more than any other personality.

Leonard Bernstein & Glenn Gould

Bernstein wasn’t just a classical conductor. He was a pianist. He was an educator with his Young People’s Concerts on CBS. He was a composer for the stage. His “West Side Story” is still considered one of the best stage musicals of all time. He composed ballets, classical, opera and film scores. He crammed more into his 72 years than most would get into 200 years.

Bernstein teaching

The reason Leonard Bernstein matters is he thought, spoke, played and passionately cared about music. And he communicated music to those who might not know it the way he did. He gave us an in to the music of Mahler, of Stravinsky, and Bach. And he treated us as adults. If you go to You tube and type in the name of Leonard Bernstein, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches. Watching any of them will not be time wasted.

The Kennedy Center Honors, 1980.

Mr. Smith Teaches a Superhero Class

Mr. Smith stood before seven students on the roof of a twenty-story building.

“For today’s lesson, we are going to fly. Not learn to fly. But fly. Jimmy, you had a question.”

Jimmy, the one with his hand raised, nodded yes. “We’re not birds. We can’t fly.”

“No, we’re not birds. We’re superheroes.”

Emily raised her hand and asked, “Will there be a net?”

“No, Emily, there won’t be a net.”

Jason, the kid with the glasses, didn’t raise his hand. He just asked, “Are you sure? I’ve never flown before. I tried jumping off my dad’s barn. If I hadn’t fallen on a load of hay, I would have broken something.”

“Jason,” there was frustration in the teacher’s voice. “You can’t break something. You’re a superhero.”

Margaret looked scared. “Are you sure, Mr. Smith?”

“Of course, I am sure. I’ve been teaching twenty years and I’ve never lost a student. Now, class, step up to the edge.”

The seven twelve-year-olds turned and stepped onto the ledge. They looked down. It was a long way to the concrete below.

“Now jump off. And don’t forget to land on your feet.” Mr. Smith stepped behind each of his students, confident that they were going to fly.

Well, you’ve heard the old saying that turkeys can’t fly. Mr. Smith’s class couldn’t fly. His students hit the concrete below. And they hit it hard. When he heard the splats below, Mr. Smith’s mouth dropped open. What happened?

Just then, Miss Pettigrew, his assistant, rushed into the classroom. “Mr. Smith, what happened?”

She took the clipboard from his hand and read it, then she looked up at his face. “Didn’t you read this? It says here that this class is the X-ray vision class.”

He took the clipboard and read. The script was blurry. He squinted. Yep, it said “Flying”. He was sure of it. He looked down at the pavement below and said, “Darn kids.” Then he ripped off the page and handed it to Miss Pettigrew. He looked at the next class roster. “Well, it’s not my fault that they didn’t fly. Now, on to the Able-to-jump-tall-buildings class.” He passed the clipboard back to Miss Pettigrew.

She read the class title to herself. “No, Sir, it’s the Shapeshifting class.”

He grabbed the clipboard from his assistant and read, then he looked up at her. “Miss Pettigrew, do not argue with me. It’s the Able-to-jump-tall-buildings class.” There was a lot of frustration in his voice. He was starting to turn blue. When he went dark blue, all hell broke loose.

To calm him down, she said, “Yes, Sir. You’re right.”

Her soothing words brought him back to a state of calm and his body went back to its normal tan. Then he said, “Miss Pettigrew, I think you need some glasses.”

As he left the room, Miss Pettigrew said under her breath, “We know who needs the glasses.”

Patsy Finds Love

The creative life of story making can have the most amazing moments of surprise. From time to time, the piece I am working on unexpectedly yields up a gem of a poem or a stand alone short story. Unplanned, this new work comes about because I was listening and trusting the work. Recently it happened to me again. The following thirty-two-hundred-word story came out of the novel I have been working on since March.

Patsy was thirty-five when she fell in love with a woman. When it happened, it was the first right thing she felt she had done in her life.

Pregnant, she married her high school sweetheart, Jack Pendledon, as soon as she turned 18. She lost the baby a month after the wedding. After several years of marriage, the couple settled into a comfortable existence. They took a yearly romantic cruise, but the passion never returned.

When she was thirty, Jack died of a massive heart attack. His insurance took care of his funeral and paid off the mortgage. She sold the house and decided she was going to college. She was going to be a teacher.

In her sophomore year, she signed up for a Beginning Drama class out of curiosity. She walked into the class. There were no desks, only chairs in a circle. The professor didn’t stand behind a lectern as in other classes. She wasn’t even sure who the instructor of the class of fifteen was.

Unlike students in other classes, these students were dressed not casually, but wild-like. One woman was in goth, wearing dark fingernails and black makeup. She wore a transparent black dress that revealed a black bra and panties. One of the eight guys had pink hair and earrings. Some were tattooed up the wazoo. One woman wore a mohawk. Another was dressed as if she were Mary Poppins’ evil twin sister. Patsy felt like she was crashing a Halloween costume party. She went to leave.

“Looks like we are losing our fifteenth passenger aboard our Titanic.”

Patsy turned and said, “What?”

A small man with a goatee and bowtie said, “Looks like you want off our sinking ship.”

The others laughed.

Out of stubbornness, Patsy took the only chair left. It was between pink hair and goth makeup. She wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into but she was not going to run away. She came from stronger stock than that. But for a churchgoing, cookie baking, suburban housewife, this was a scary place.

She looked around her. The classroom had open windows. A fall breeze squeezed through. She dropped her books next to her chair, settled back, her purse clutched onto her lap, and listened to the bowtie and goatee.

“Now that we’ve gotten that settled, perhaps we can get on with the agenda. My name is Drew. Not Mr. Such-and-such. Just Drew. Most of you are freshmen. We do have a sophomore in here.” He pointed at Patsy. “She’s the one who can’t seem to make up her mind as to what she wants to be when she grows up. The rest of you pretty well know that something in drama is in your future. Either theater, tv, movies or you just want to be the clown in the circus.”

Drew paused and waited for his words to sink in. There were a few coughs. Patsy realized that she wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

“So, students, close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Visualize yourself in ten years. Where you are, who you are with, what you are doing.”

Patsy was seeing herself in front of a classroom of high school students. She couldn’t figure out what she was teaching but she was teaching.

Drew let the vision sink in. He let the students enjoy their little adventure. Then, “Now imagine a stick of dynamite blowing up that scene. Ka Pow!”

Several opened their eyes. They were thinking, “Why the hell did you do that?”

Drew clapped his hands. “Wake up people.” He was standing in the middle of the circle. “Get the hell out of my space. Don’t come back until you are ready to have your dreams fall apart.”

The students got up and walked despondently out into the hallway. One held back. It was Patsy.

Drew looked hard at this woman in her early thirties. “What are you doing? Get out of here.”

“No,” she said.

“NO?”

“No,” she said in a sinking timid voice. She felt like crying but she had done that way too much in her life. She did not leave. She shrank in her chair.

Drew walked out of the room, frustrated and wondering who this freak was.

Patsy stared out the open window. The oak trees canopied the campus park-like. The autumn leaves were still green but would be coloring soon. The breeze felt good against her face. She swiped the tears from her eyes. She didn’t care what was going to happen. She was not going anywhere. She belonged where she was. She didn’t imagine or daydream herself anywhere else. She just sat.

Thirty minutes later, Drew Baker slipped back into his classroom. He watched Patsy with a curiosity he usually didn’t have for any of his students. For the ten years since he had left Broadway and come to this classroom, he had never come across a student like this one. Tears began to flow from his eyes. He had finally found a real, live student who would empty themselves of all their previous lives to become a totally new person.

“Patsy,” he whispered from across the room.

Patsy’s eyes turned toward her teacher. “Yes?” she said.

“Thank you,” he said. These were the only words he could get out. Then he followed those words with the most welcoming of words. “I’ll see you in the small theater Wednesday morning at 10. You think you can be there?”

She nodded yes.

Drew Baker left the room. Patsy gathered up her things and walked outside into the hallway. It was empty.

Nine other students joined Patsy in the small theater Wednesday morning. Five had dropped out.

The ten students took seats on the chairs in the circle down front. From the rear of the theater Drew Baker yelled at his students, “Did anyone tell you that you could sit?”

The students stood up as the teacher ran down the aisle, yelling, “Did anyone tell you to sit? Huh, huh, huh.” He went past the group and climbed up onto the stage and looked down on them. “Has anyone here earned the right to sit?”

A tall eighteen-year-old male student said to the others, “I’m out of here. This guy is nuts.” He started walking toward the exit.

Drew said, “That’s right. Get out of my class. Go back to your momma and bitch.” The exit door slammed close. “The rest of you. Up here.”

The students held back.

“C’mon. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.”

The nine climbed the stairs at the side to the stage and stood before him.

Drew went up to each of his students and sized the student up for several minutes. He said, “You’ll do.” And moved on to the next student. When he was done, he went back to the front of the group and faced them.

The teacher continued, “I want you to spend the next hour exploring inside this theater. Don’t partner up. Understand?”

The students timidly said, “Yes.”

“You cannot leave the theater. Under any circumstance. You understand?”

They nodded their agreement.

The teacher left the group. One went toward the back of the auditorium. Another started walking up and down the stage. Still another headed to the actor’s dressing room. Each did their own thing. Patsy went backstage and found that there was a basement. In the basement, she found a costume room and another room with props and scenery.

About forty-five minutes later, the fire alarm went off. The students gathered on the stage, trying to figure out where the fire was coming from. Paul, a student with tattoos, jumped down from the stage and headed toward the exit.

Fae, the goth woman, called after him, “Where you going? You can’t leave.”

“I am not going to stay here and get roasted.” Paul slammed the exit door behind him.

The others looked at each other and wondered what to do. The fire alarm stopped. From backstage, Drew Baker walked out on stage.

“Where’s Buttface?” he asked.

“He left. The fire alarm,” Trey, the pink hair and earrings, said.

“I see,” the teacher said. “He just decided he didn’t want to take my class. Right?”

“But—“ Fae said.

Paul opened the front door and ran down the aisle and up on the stage. Out of breath, he was smiling.

Drew Baker couldn’t believe the arrogance. But he kept himself in check and smiled. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?”

Paul answered, “Rejoining the class.”

The other students moved away from Paul like he had leprosy.

Drew Baker walked up to the student. The teacher must have been two inches shorter than Paul. The student shrank with Baker staring at him eyeball to eyeball. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” the teacher repeated his question.

“Rejoining the class.”

“Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” Baker repeated his question.

Suddenly Paul got it. He had disobeyed the instructions not to leave under any circumstance. Now he had to face the consequences. Paul turned around and left the stage and down the aisle toward the exit. Patsy had never seen anyone so dejected in his life.

Drew Baker turned to the other students. “Tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Here. Now go.”

The eight students still in the class walked slowly out of the theater, not sure what had happened, but glad they had survived. There was nothing they would let stop them from attending the next drama class. On their way to their other classes or events, each imagined themselves as a part of something special. Drew Baker could have told any of the group to jump off a cliff and they would have done it.

That evening Patsy was studying in her dorm room alone. There was a knock on the door. She opened it. There stood Drew Baker. “Drew?” she said, surprised to see him.

“May I come in?”

“Of course.” Patsy opened the door further. She invited him to sit at her desk.

He took the chair and turned it around and straddled its back. “Sit,” he said, pointing to the bed.

Patsy did what she was told. She looked confused.

“Do you have something you want to ask me?” he asked Patsy.

“Yes, sir,” she answered.

“Don’t call me Sir. My name is Drew.”

“Yes, Drew.”

“Go ahead.”

“What’s going on?”

“Good. I like that. You don’t mess around. You get right to the point. Don’t like to waste time, do you?”

“No.”

“You don’t like my methods, do you?”

“No, Drew. I don’t.”

“Good. That’s good. You are willing to face your fears. What do you think I am doing?”

“I really don’t know. I just want to know. Am I wasting my time?”

“Do you think you are wasting your time?”

Patsy thought for a couple of minutes. The past two classes of Beginning Drama had thrown her off-balance. But off-balance was okay. Then her teacher showed up at her dorm room wondering what she thought. Finally, she answered, “No, I don’t.”

“Good. Very good. Now I have a favor to ask of you.”

Uh-oh, here it comes. Patsy had been through this with professors before. Two had wanted to sleep with her. She had refused. For some reason, she didn’t feel that from this teacher. “Yes, you can ask.”

“I want you to show up to my class at 7:15 pm tomorrow night. Not 7:00. Can you do that?”

Patsy hesitantly nodded yes.

“There will be no consequences. I will just go on with my lesson. Totally ignoring your lateness.”

Drew Baker left.

Patsy didn’t know what to make of his visit.

At 7:15 pm the next night, Patsy walked into the theater. Drew Baker and the students were down front in the circle of chairs. She hesitantly walked down the aisle, feeling the other students’ eyes on her. There wasn’t an empty chair for her. Drew Baker turned to Trey and said, “Will you get another chair and let Miss Pendledon have yours please?”

Trey reluctantly got up and went backstage for a chair. Drew Baker beckoned Patsy to take his place. Trey returned with a chair and joined the circle.

“Thank you, Trey,” Drew Baker said and smiled. “Now I want each of you to give me your impressions of the theater yesterday.”

Drew Baker focused upon each student and listened. No student brought up the fire alarm. After the students had finished, he asked them, “How many of you students think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon?”

The students were stunned at the question. Patsy most of all. They were thinking it but they were too scared to say it out loud.

“Let me see your hand if you think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon.”

Slowly all the students, but Patsy, raised their hands.

“What makes you think that?” Drew asked.

Fae said, “You didn’t kick her out when she wasn’t on time.”

“Is that your only evidence?”

Trey said, “I saw Patsy leave after you went back into the classroom the other day.”

“Couldn’t I have requested an academic meeting with Miss Pendledon?”

“Yes, Drew,” Fae said.

Drew then spoke, “Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that I am not sleeping with Miss Pendledon.”  Then he dismissed the class.

The students slowly left the theater, shaking their heads, wondering what the hell was going on.

The next morning Patsy was five minutes early. The rest of the class was already in the theater, none taking any chances on getting kicked out of class. They weren’t sitting. Mostly they were standing and waiting and not saying a thing. It looked like no one had slept the previous night. Patsy nodded good morning. The others nodded good morning back.

Drew Baker came out from back stage. “Good morning. Please have a seat.”

The students made a semi-circle to face their teacher on stage.

“Welcome to the world of the theater. I suppose all of you have been wondering what the hell is going on. Who is this crazy guy?”

They nodded their heads. There were two or three yeses from the group. Mostly they waited and listened. Drew Baker had their attention.

“Here’s the deal. I have spent the last few sessions weeding out those who think the theater is a game. That it’s a job. That they can damn well show up if they want. If you are not willing to show up and do a show with a 103 degree temperature, you don’t belong here.”

Drew Baker unknotted his bowtie and pulled it off. “Damn thing. I hate these damn things.” Then he jumped off the stage and pulled up a chair. “Circle please.”

They all joined him in the circle of chairs. He scanned each of their faces. Then he said, “I didn’t choose you. You didn’t choose me. You are here because the theater chose you. Some of you may do very well. Have fame and fortune. I can’t tell you which. All I can tell you is that your life will never be the same. This is your world now. Love it and it will love you back. Not with rewards you can see or touch or feel or taste or smell.”

Drew Baker touched his heart. “But here. It isn’t the most talented that succeeds. It doesn’t matter a bit whether you have talent or not. You now belong to a family that goes all the way back to the Greeks and well before that. Since man first lived in caves, there have been theater people. So welcome. You are a special breed. Never forget that. The others that dropped out or that I kicked out don’t belong.

“Now let’s begin. I want each of you to take a turn and go to the stage and face the audience and just look. Pretend the seats are full. Just look for five minutes. Then come back down to your seat. The next person will take your place.”

When the students completed the exercise, Drew Baker said, “Our next class is Monday here at 7 p.m. Prepare to work all night long. One final thing. Please do not share the process you went through the past few days. If I find out that you did, you will be out. And don’t think I won’t find out about it, I will. I always do. Now go.”

On the way out, Trey and Fae pulled Patsy aside. “Patsy?” Trey said. “Fae and I were wondering if you want to share a house with us.”

Patsy nodded yes.

One of the other students, a student dressed like James Dean, moseyed up to the three of them. “Can you take a fourth?”

The three new roommates looked at the student. He looked young, real young.

“I’m 18. Okay? Okay. You can call me J D. That’s who I am.”

The three breathed easy. Fae said, “Yes. We can have four. Let’s go find a house.”

J D piped in. “I have a house.”

“Let’s go look at it,” Trey shouted. The four went through the front door and out into the afternoon air. They locked arms and began to dance through the parking lot, singing.

Drew Baker watched from his second story office above the theater and smiled. “Yep, this is going to be a good group. Maybe the best he had ever had.”

The students were an hour early for class Monday night. They were anxious to get started on their new life.

“Have all of you seen Romeo and Juliet?” Drew said from the stage.

They nodded yes.

“Okay. Everybody scatter out in the audience and take a seat. Settle in and imagine you are watching Romeo and Juliet on stage. Do not sit next to another student.”

Five minutes later, Drew called them back to their chairs. “Describe to me what you saw.”

He went around the circle, each student detailing what they had seen.

Then Drew said, “Theater is an art of illusion. Nothing that happens on stage is really happening. It is a re-creation. Creating this illusion is a work of imagination. You have just used your imagination to re-create Romeo and Juliet. I have four films about magicians on reserve in the library for you to see before the next class. See if you can figure out how they do their illusions. Now, let’s get to work.”

All semester of the Beginning Drama class was refreshing to Patsy. She had never experienced anything like it. By the end of the semester she knew what she would do for the rest of her life.

Thirty-five years later, lying in the hospital bed dying from cancer, she vividly re imagined each class and how alive she felt. Sewing Fae’s costume was the last thing she remembered as she fell asleep. She did not wake up. Fae leaned over and kissed her lover goodbye, then she left the hospital room, crying.