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Thomas Sullivan: HORNED OWLS & OTHER HORNY BEASTS

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

Oh, Lordy, here I dredged the rusty bottom of my brain for something that could pass for wisdom in last month’s column, and everyone who emails wants to know about the beautiful young thing and the owls. How embarrassing. Not because the wisdom was specious, but because – choke – I never hooked up with the fair maiden, and even the owls have abandoned me. Details about the owls later, but no film at eleven.  First I need to pick up the threads I spun last time about a writer’s philosophy of language.

You may recall that I described isolating the use of three aspects of life in writing: 1) emotions, 2) things & events and 3) ideas. I chose those aspects for no better reason than I can see where they weigh into fiction and in what proportions. Each one is a distinct bias that tends to shape a story by genre. If you want to go back to the details, here’s a direct link to that column – http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/08/01/thomas-sullivan-spiders-and-spuds/#respond . I also promised to relate those aspects of life to categories of writing at the end of this series of columns. That’s an association that can help you understand who you are as a writer and where to aim your fiction.  So now, if you will, allow me to make the case for the first aspect or language: THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTIONS.

This is the only language that is completely natural and so universal that it may even be pre-natal. Think about it. We spend nine months in the womb celebrating a Utopia where we don’t have to breathe, eat, drink or change our diapers. We have perfect shock absorbers, sound control, temperature control, and then suddenly – plop!

We are born.

We are born wet and naked into a room full of strangers. Strangers who are dressed. Strangers who are wearing masks. We are turning purple and gasping for breath, but one of them jerks us up by the heels and parades our privates to oohs and aahs. Sexual exploitation is soon followed by violence, as we are blindsided by a slap to a very personal place.

Welcome to planet Earth!

Very negative experience. Some people never get over it. They become . . . literary critics. And if the slap upside the derrière is merely humiliating, the next act is downright dangerous, because another of the masked felons ties a knot in our lifeline to the mother ship and…and CUTS IT OFF!  Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to speak.  So we do. We give it our first word…

“WAAA-A!”

Now where did that come from? Who told us to make a vocal noise?  Was there a loquacious twin in the womb? Who taught the twin?  No one. Spontaneous verbal communication.  Language.  Pure emotion.  It’s in our basic wiring.

And it never really changes.  Language proceeds emotionally for a while: the feed-me cry, the TLC cry, the there’s-a-pin-in-my-fanny cry.  In these more specific outcries there are the hints of a more specific language to come, but it is still our personal statement of being.  Our feelings say that we exist as entities, as individuals.  It is a life-long need to declare emotions per se. Oh, we will get sophisticated about it, learning to couch feelings behind all kinds of verbal rants and rationalizations that address complex and intricate circumstances, but the purpose is the same: to vent emotions. Waaa-a!

So whatever else more formal languages (English, Italian, Chinese et al) do, they must answer the fundamental mandate of emotions.  In addition to communicating facts and sophisticated thoughts, we need our languages to simply tell each other how we feel. Good writing does that, directly and indirectly.  Apart from writing, one gender expresses emotions better than the other.  They are called female.  Not surprising then, that the most lopsided female literary audience favors writing that deals strongly and overtly with emotions.  Males, schooled in the need to never flinch before the tiger, are more reticent in real life.  Their emotions must often be inferred and tend to show up expressed as actions.  Here’s a gross generality that has a little truth to it: women feel; men think.   I hasten to add that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. We’re talking tendencies here, gender reflex.  And if you let me get away with that, here’s another, even worse: women talk; men act.  Can you see why women universally shun me?  Again, I hasten to point out that this is just a predilection toward one strategy for problem-solving over another. Men incline toward physical resolutions, each a kind of triumph of physical resources over resistance; women incline toward persuasion or psychological manipulation or emotional resolution, thus causing change in the obstacle. Hoo boy, which way to the exit?  Anyway, if you’ll buy into just a 51% to 49% trend along those gender lines, then grant me a similar nod in the way this gets expressed in fiction, by genre, and in reading tastes. I don’t mean simply with the gender of the characters here, but rather in the way the author exploits the characters, the handling of the conflict, and what she/he tends to emphasize – emotions or actions?  Do you start to get an idea where I’m going with this?

It is not neatly divided, however.  Languages of the type I’m describing – arbitrarily dividing, really – do not exist in a vacuum. When I cover this in a speech, I can usually play off an audience for examples and direction that make the interplay abundantly clear. There are ardent devotees of language types just as there are ardent devotees of fictional categories.  Think of your own stages in life and what you were consumed with at a given point and how language cued into that. Think Junior High.  Think college.  Think personal life.  Think career.  And if you are old enough, think where you ended up when all those stages finished pounding you into a conglomerate pulp.

You are still being pounded.  If art is a mirror of life, then maybe your fiction is a mirror of where you’re at.  Duh. The stage is now set for the second language: the language of things and events.  But that’s the next column.

And the final column in this series will try to put it all into balance in a way that lends some direction to self-analysis of the writer (and the reader, really).  He said.

Okay, back to the owls.  If you didn’t catch the last column, I am referring to an owls nest and a chance meeting with a comely young thing training in a nearby nature preserve. The owls went one at a time – like the von Trapp Family Singers fading out of the spotlight at a Nazi rally. First the sexually ambiguous parent disappeared.  Actually, that makes sense. Abandonment was probably a subtle cue aimed at telling the owlet chilluns to get out of the nest and find a job.  But then the nest itself disappeared.  Don’t ask me how or why.  The two “watermelon-size” chicks were still there, jammed more or less into the crotch of a tree, scowling down at me like juvenile judges at a felon’s trial.  Hey, I’m not a house burglar, and if I was, I wouldn’t steal a house any more than a cat burglar steals a cat. Watermelon #1 was gone the next day.  And Watermelon #2 hit the airways the day after that, I guess.

So I’ve been left to my lonesome, clop-clopping up the trails where women occasionally flash me America’s most famous digital gesture but little else.  I am a pariah, destined to die unloved in the wilderness.  But, hey, I’m a writer, I will make something of this. Writers suffer, right?  Must suffer.   So far I’m doing great. If you don’t feel life in its excruciating extremes, you can’t write about it.  This is where you find the people for your books.  This is where you internalize the psychology that will bring your characters to life. Take today.

Out there blading when my radar pulls in a leggy blip in pink shorts on the horizon.  I turn on the after-burners and in a couple of hills I’m closing in on a delightful mirage, moving like a racing blader. The pink shorts contrast a gorgeous tan, one of those I-hang-out-at-the-beach-with-buff-bronze-guys tans.  I’m more the Casper the Friendly Ghost type.  But hey, albinos can be buff too.

Another hill, and it’s confirmed: female, exemplary specimen.  Add competitive.  Because now she sees me and begins to pour it on.  She is no doubt one of the femmes training for the Tri who I run into every day on the trails or in the pool.  I’m out here for the “Try” myself, so we’re sorta compatible already.  The first curve (not counting hers) reveals the 5-wheel skates of a serious athlete.  I am wearing Fischer-Price Tonka PlaySkool 4-wheel jobbies with little yellow duckies on the side.

Now, the number one rule for these spontaneous races is that you must never show effort.  She is showing no effort.  Long, easy strokes, one hand working the turns, glide, glide, glide.  I am going clip-clop, clip-clop, stagger, stumble, stutter step, pant, pant.  I give up trying to breathe through my nose.  If I swallow one more species of insect, I will have ingested one sample of all the entomological varieties available in the park. I am a veritable Noah’s Ark in Nikes!  Mere mortals on bikes veer out of our way, as do family gaggles and terrified infants.  Mile after mile (that’s two miles) we yo-yo uphill, downhill.  Finally she slumps into a long glide, exhausted.  I’m thrilled to see it’s hurting her, ‘cause it’s killing me.  When she goes left at a juncture in the trail, I go right, happy to be able to slow down and too whipped to pursue conversation. Gorgeous tan goes one way, the Friendly Ghost the other.

Back at the car I discover the carton of HeartSmart that fell out of a grocery bag yesterday.  Keep Refrigerated, it says on the label.  I’m out a couple of bucks. Stuff makes good suntan oil, though, and “tomorrow is another day.”

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

posted by Sully at 12:10 AM   

6 Comments:

David Niall Wilson said…

Hah…if the ladies don’t string you up, you’ll be remembered for these words. I thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly the part where the girl in pink shorts gave you a run for your money, and your watermelon chicks hit the highway…now I’ll have to watch the trees for them.

Near home we now have a nesting pair of American Bald Eagles…truly majestic, and very startling if you happen to catch them out of the corner of your eye while driving…unexpectedly catch them out of the corner of your eye, I should say.

We’ll be getting the columns and interviews linked to the side soon.

DNW

10:55 AM  

Sully said…

A fine line between strung along and strung up, but I’m always game for the game.

Eagles are common fare around here, too. Actually see one land in my yard some times, and I chase them down the twilit shore nightly when canoeing (me canoeing, not the eagles).

11:05 AM  

Janet Berliner said…

Thans for the chuckles which, as always, hid many kernels of good sense and arguable logic. [g] I wonder if The Lady in Pink knows The Lady in Red? –Janet

7:16 PM  

Sully said…

Oh, I live dangerously, don’t I? Romance Writers of America once dressed me in a $700 tux for fun at their national convention and let me do my thing as far as irreverence. When I think back on those three days, I feel like I walked a high wire across the Grand Canyon during tornado season. Must find safer ways to get my kicks…
–Sully

8:13 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

Ah, women. Gotta love ’em, right? (My wife certainly thinks so!) 😉

Entertaining stuff, Sully. Many thanks.

–M

10:05 AM  

Sully said…

Vive la femmes. Thanks, Mark.

–Sully

11:50 AM

 

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

Thomas Sullivan: SPIDERS AND SPUDS

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

I am not – strictly speaking – writing a column.  I am avoiding writing a novel.  This is a switch, because for days now I have been avoiding writing a column by writing a novel.  But the deadline is upon me, so it’s time to face the question that’s been mired in my thoughts like a spider in the mashed potatoes.

But do I want to attempt a single column on a subject that used to take me an hour in front of an audience to cover?  When I get talking a hundred words a minute (gusts up to two hundred) for an hour, that’s a lot of potential column.  I think you can relax – me too – because the answer is “no.”  Small servings, that’s the way to do it.  A dollop of mashed potatoes here, a spider there.  Yum, yum.  And besides, the subject I am writing about divides itself naturally into three parts.

The three parts add up to a philosophy of language.  Every writer should have one.  I’m not talking about vocabulary here, but rather what language represents in ways we humans look at the world.  The ways I chose to sum up the world are: Emotions; Things & Events; and Ideas.  I chose those because I could see where they weighed into the writing of literature, and in what proportions.  The areas I’ve chosen are arbitrary, and maybe you could do better in making divisions, but these worked for me when I first saw the need to get a handle on writing many years ago.  So, I’m going to do them in several columns, because this stuff travels a bit, and in order to say everything I want to say, and to relate it back to specific fiction, I need some room.  Otherwise, it would come out too many spiders and too little mashed potatoes.

Now, there is nothing holy about my particular method, just as there is nothing holy about language.  Language is a bunch of grunts and scribbles that people agree upon.  That makes it a social contract.  If you and I agree that the term “scudburgers” are paddies of pre-masticated dead cow, incinerated and laid to rest on biers of stale bread served at the Porcelain Rooms (White Castles), then “scudburgers” it is.  No one can tell us we’re wrong.  That’s an example from real life, BTW.  Ex-Frogman (now called Seals) named Harry Hauck (pronounced “Hawk”) christened them, and he and I lived off them in the Caribbean for a time back in another millennium.  The point being that the social contract of language is whatever people say it is.  It isn’t ordained by God with every falling in and out of usage and it does not come to us on tablets of stone.  It changes when enough people have misused something enough times, or coined a usage long enough, for it to enter the common culture through media of every form and in every day communication.  Sometimes a famous quote can make it in one scream, as with Howard Dean (though no one has yet figured out what he meant), or in the lyrics of a hit song (which also are not figured out). Meaning is shifty. And change is resisted by some, as in India where 300 dialects may be spoken in relatively small regions and bloody language riots ensue. Often language changes are a corruption, a shortcut, or something jangly and colorful, like “ripped off” or “stonewalled.”  I have personally made up tons of words.  So far no one else has used them.  They are called “grammatical mistakes.”

But my philosophy of language is not meant to pioneer new directions, only to identify existing ones.  Grammar books try to do that, and they are always out-of-date.  English teachers die with them clutched in their cold, dead hands, but they are still out-of-date (both the Warriner’s and the English teachers) — passé, dinosaurs, last week’s lunch.  I wanted to create divisions that would not become dinosaurs.  So I based my divisions on the purposes of languages.  And I did this with an ear toward the different categories of writing.  More on that in the final column of this series.  So that’s where all of this is going: a way of understanding what types of writing go where in the marketplace.  Because, if you once get that, then you will be able to analyze your own writing and readership and understand what makes it what it is at the root level of wordsmythery.

Check that.  Indulge me while I qualify a bit of semantics here.  “Understand” is a bad word in my method.  “Understand” implies that you can learn creativity as if it were a set of principles. Learning what can be learned that way might qualify you to be a critic (yuk), but it certainly won’t give you two main assets of any creative person: insight and imagination.  Insight and imagination are native abilities that allow a person to take a little information or experience all the way to the horizon.  They are probably a limited resource, different in amounts for each of us, but they can be sharpened and maxed out in any person.  “Learning” them, “understanding” them, is too often packaged and sold along with snake oil to hopeful writers as if the magic beans, the SECRETS (shhhh!), are available to all if you just memorize the quality of “insight” on page 269 of the text they are selling.  Can’t be done.  If you don’t have your own secrets, your own magic beans, and your own potentially successful voice already inside you, you need to get out and live a little until you awaken and develop those qualities.  For sure no one is going to graft them onto you.  You can’t lead by following; and writing is an attempt to be original, unique.  So a word that comes closer than “understanding” to what I’m trying to convey here is “recognize.”  I’m hoping (betting) that you will recognize some things you already know but maybe haven’t ever consciously sorted out, if only I can get this little language perspective I’ve outlined down in a couple of columns.

If you wait for fully formed stories to put on a lampshade and dance for you, creativity will slip right out the back door. You have to make something out of whatever is at hand. The universe is in a grain of sand, and if you’re a good enough artist, that’s all you’ll need. That ringing phone that is annoying you, distracting you, keeping you from thinking that great thought hovering just out of reach, has an entire world on the other end of the line.  Pick the damn thing up!  Use your imagination.  Get interested in life.  Go out to meet it with your eyes and ears open, and it will give you something every time.

Hmmm.  Full moon out as I write this.  Gibbous anyway.  And the air is the temperature of life tonight.  Can’t tell you what a longing that puts in me.  You know what?  I’m gonna practice what I preach.  Time for a little research, time to fill the well, find some impromptu inspiration.  Tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll have a whole new set of associations to fire my imagination.  This night will not end without an adventure.  Met someone blading yesterday and showed her an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons.  She was entranced – with the owls, drat.  But maybe a little with our conversation, too, because she wanted to exchange email addresses.  Said she was a compulsive person.  Said she hoped we’d see each other again.  Whatya think?  Too quick to email?  Of course.  Am I not gonna email now anyway?  Nay.  An hour or so hence, with or without her, I’ll be canoeing on the lake behind my house past swans on black glass, looking for owls.  With a little luck I/we won’t find any.  But I/we will find the moon….

In the coming months, my writer’s philosophy of language: emotions…things & events…ideas. A column for each. Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

 

posted by Sully at 3:25 AM

6 comments:

David Niall Wilson said…

Though I have reams of email dealing with many of these concepts…I never get tired of “hearing” you write/talk about them. Good luck with the moon, and the owls, but maybe the owl IS wiser…all snuggled in with a pair of cute chicks while you paddle about?

D

Sully said…

Alas, you had to point that out. The owl was much less a bird-brain than I was. Nevertheless, it was an adventure…

Teresa said…

I can’t reconcile this as an image in my mind…

an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons.

WATERMELONS??

Sully said…

Teresa –

Well, if u read abt and author found dead at the base of a tree in Minnesota with a tape measure in his hand, you’ll know what happened. From the ground they look like tawny feather dusters, or if you like, bigger than a football, smaller than a duffel bag. The mother (or father, as I’m told they share housekeeping) looks like something out of a Japanese horror film – horns inclusive. For all that, he/she takes wing about half the time I stopped to gawk, electing to watch from a more remote perch. The chicks seem fearless, “watermelons.” But what do you expect from a guy who thought Audobon was a German Expressway?

Janet Berliner said…

“…a guy who thought Audobon was a German expressway?”

A brilliant writer and a comedian, too. How does he do it?

Sully said…

Brilliant fans.

Wish I could live up to your praise, Janet. But I’ll tell you, being in touch with quality people is much the best part of this biz.

AN UPDATE ON ROBERT CARL JONES

An update on Robert Carl Jones as he is recovering from the accident that put him in ICU. His situation is still dicey, but he is out of the main medical facility and in an assisted care environment where he can receive prompt medical attention if required. It is an observational setting while he acclimates to getting around. For the time being he cannot get to a computer or do the research that has produced so many fascinating essays here. He’s looking forward to a time when he can and wishes everyone well. I am in touch with him by phone and will post any new news.

— Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

Thomas Sullivan: TABOOS, JEALOUSIES & CROCODILES

I search far and wide through old emails to keep these Q&A’s specific, though your welcome correspondence is often broadly philosophical and psychological. Granted that creativity, as well as authors and artists in general, and personal questions about this particular author, are all relevant, a lot of your sharing reads like Ann Landers. And I’m deeply grateful for those candid glimpses. Your daunting questions into the complexity of human nature inform my own people stories and add to my grasp of characterization. Read on for this latest assortment of wall-to-wall questions:

Q: [Baltimore, MD] Are there any taboos you won’t write about?

A: Not if I think a theme has something valid to say about the human condition. True, graphic shock wears thin quickly for me. Little boy Sully 1.0 wanted to know the literal guts and bodily fluids of everything whether it was a bloody murder, drenching sex, or evolutions eating evolutions. But Sully 2.0 is more interested in the three M’s: METHOD, MOTIVE and MEANING. If you dwell on a roaring locomotive vividly splattering a child in visceral detail, I’ll wonder what your point is. The shadows and echoes of things are much more sustaining and informative to me. I’d rather get the shock, outrage and obscenity by seeing the blue steel rail vibrate, hearing the roar of the engine and the scuff of running tennis shoes, followed by an awful silence. Physical stuff is important as long as you point the camera at nuances and subtleties in imaginative ways. I can explore any subject as a writer as long as I’m not pandering to the reflexes I wore out as a child.

Q: [Traverse City, MI] Have you ever written under a pseudonym?

A: Um…lemme see – oh, yeah, there was William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain [wheezing laughter]. OK, none of the above. But I ain’t tellin’ my nom de plumes. You might like them more than you like me.

Q: [Zephyrhills, FL] My novel is about two people who try to kill each other out of jealousy, but I end up with two unlikable characters. Just showing instead of telling doesn’t work for me. I know this is pretty vague but any suggestions?

A: Sounds like you may have a relentlessly downer narrative. Do both your protagonists have to be victims? What if one of the jealousies is justified and the other not? That opens up all kinds of possibilities. Here’s a test you might try. Put into words a description of what each one does to make the other one feel betrayed. Do it completely and in detail. Then compare them. If they just sound interchangeable, maybe that’s your problem. Now play with the quid pro quo. What if they are both loyal but paranoid; or what if one is a concrete betrayal and the other not? Doesn’t that open up a psychological tour de force? You could play that out in any number of ways from tragedy to redemption. See if that doesn’t make your characters come alive with change, growth or ultimately a failure to escape themselves, any one of which could make a meaningful story with relatable characters.

Q: [Huntington Beach, CA] I tried to friend you on Facebook and you didn’t respond.

A: Oh, that makes me feel bad – don’t like to do that, but I’ve had to be somewhat discreet. Just too many bad actors, status chasers, sex peddlers and scams. If an ulterior motive is obvious in a request, I ignore. If it’s a gray area, I just leave them in a group I call “purgatory,” which I go back to now and then to see whether their site seems to be legit and not a self-serving crusade. Right now I have six people in purgatory, three from very nice ladies who don’t wear very many clothes and may turn out to be two guys in an apartment in Moscow, another half-written in Arabic that may turn out to be worse than political, and two that are either commercial enterprises or hackers trying to mine settings from the inside. Now that I know more about you, I’ll be on the lookout, if you’re willing to reach out again.

Q [Norman, OK]: When are you going to get older?

A: LOL – well, for sure I have Peter Pan’s terminal immaturity (he said with pride). If only I had “negligible senescence” as well. That’s a quality crocodiles and some other life forms have that keeps them from aging. Seriously. Crocodiles do not lose their physical capacities over time, from hunting to mating. They don’t stop growing either, and outside of disease most of them die of starvation because they get too big to sustain their size in a limited food chain. I have plenty of food in the fridge, but alas, I do change my lifestyle to fit the passing of time. Like water, time always wins. I may be ahead of the norms, but inevitably age catches up to all of us. My goal then will be to make sure my mind stays young!

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

Robert Carl Jones note to friends and fans…

Probably should’ve posted this before, but Robert Carl Jones sends his regrets that he couldn’t post on his usual date due to an accident that has put him in an ICU. Hopefully everything will turn out just fine, but he has to wait out some observation for an indefinite length of time. Gifted writer that he is with an impeccable character and integrity, he wanted me to let people know he hasn’t forgotten or ignored them.

— Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

Thomas Sullivan: AGENT BINGO & THE CANNIBAL SNOWMAN

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

K-Y, K-Y – not “KY,” Sully. “KY” is what Rodan shrieks when it is lumbering out of the ocean or flapping through Tokyo popping tourists for fingersnacks. Yes, my bad in titling last month’s column wrong (KY JELLY & THE HEADLESS SQUIRREL: http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/04/15/thomas-sullivan-ky-jelly-the-headless-squirrel/#respond )Titles aside, last month’s column introduced Cannibal Essays or How to Edit Life, my attempt to inspire writers and people in general to see the content of their lives and to put frames around it. Agent Bingo was supposed to be part of that ramble, but I ran out of space blathering about roaring down the expressway with my arm out the window until a bug flew up my cast. Cast, cast, I said a bug flew up my cast.

That essay was mostly lunacy, life in a funhouse mirror. I was going to balance it off with a switch in tones and some further comments on drawing stories out of events and relationships. That’s what I’m catching up to here.

Most of the time I like to go alone out in nature, but if I meet someone special who I think can get something out of it, I very much like to share it. And to be honest, about half the time that I go out, I wind up meeting someone and sharing it that way. You can make transcendent things happen in your life. In fact, if you’re sitting around waiting for them to happen, you are living in slow motion. As a writer, you must not only learn to recognize life, you have to go out and meet it. Here’s an example of something that had plenty of spontaneity, unknowns and wild cards, but it also arose because I knew it would happen sometime, somewhere and with someone.

Anyone who has read even a little of my writing, knows that exquisite journeys into nature each day are prime resources for me. Whether I’m soaring along rivers of light cascading through autumn leaves in a pristine forest or gliding phantom-like through gluey green shallows in a canoe, I breathe ether outdoors. Naturally, I have special places and things to share, and they hold the potential for indelible memories. For me. And for someone I might invite to an inner sanctum.

Just such an epiphany of elements came together for a friend and me last winter. But part of the point here is that this occasion wasn’t left entirely to chance. It was different from just running into a friend or a stranger, as I seem to do every day on the trails or elsewhere. The latter are terrific but distinctly random: a gymnast rehabbing her knee, a recovering alcoholic who has discovered the runner within himself, a solitary cyclist who has grown away from her sedentary husband, the serious Olympic team contender who wants one more shot before her college career fades, a young architect who reads Ayn Rand while she walks until I show her the living cathedrals of light and motion all around her. Each of them offers me a glimpse of their life and I reciprocate, as if we share a yellow brick road and a Technicolor adventure in an Oz of our own design before returning to the black and white Kansas from which we entered these escapes. These are stolen hours, secret lives where the ordinal things of prescribed days are suspended. It’s very addictive and impossible to adequately describe. But a lot of it has to do with choice: what we talk about, knowing that it is said in a sanctuary that won’t carry over to the rest of our lives, what we see along the way, and how we interact with our surroundings and ourselves. It’s a full sensory press when you’re out in nature, when you’re using your body, mind and spirit to capacity. And there are settings that are just wrong for some, right for others. So I had this set of things I wanted to share, and it had to be with the right person.

Enter Agent Bingo, aka Katie Hilpisch, a young biomedical engineer, who has a literary side to her. We met at a hockey game, and she is one of my muses. I have a number of those, some who failure test my work, like Elizabeth Fortin (who always influences what I am working on), some who inspire thoughts and conversation, some who do not even know they are my muse. Agent Bingo is not my demographic of age or background. That’s a plus. She reads a ton of books. Another plus. She knows where I’m coming from. Not necessarily a plus, but inevitable if you are lucky enough to find a good muse or two that you can utilize close at hand. She is blunt and honest and has no need to prove her insights. Plus, plus, plus. If I dig for her thoughts, she provides them – thoughtfully – but is immune to any leading of the witness I may commit. I don’t remember why I call her Agent Bingo, but she calls me Snowman or Ninja or whatever names we have made up in our correspondence, which seems vaguely set in a pseudo world of espionage and missions. We keep the farce going and share occasional sojourns in the great outdoors, which we both love, or wander bookstores and chill out at coffee bars. At 29, she plays hockey, softball, blades, bikes, triathlons. Until last winter she had not skinny skied, but I guessed she would love it, and that she would feel the rhythm, get the poetry, and add to both.

So Agent Bingo was the right person to share some elements that were gathering that winter, if only she would accept my invitation; and her enthusiasm for the idea when she did accept seemed to confirm that. I knew it would be memorable and that sooner or later I would draw on it as part of my life and my work, if they are not the same thing. And they often are. I stress that this “making of memories” is anything but formal or even dramatic. On the contrary, it is subtle. One of the mistakes I think people make is believing that the high points of their lives center around some distant vacation or organized event. Not that those things aren’t highlights, just that if you need to be orchestrated full symphony like that, then you are missing a lot of duets, solos and combos in the interludes. Life happens. Be there. It is not necessarily over the horizon or glittering with planned perfection.

Planned perfection. There was some of that at the vast and varied Three Rivers nature preserve called Elm Creek the day Katie and I went out. Well, unplanned perfection anyway. It was the night before Valentine’s Day. A full moon. Air as thin as ether. Crystalline snow that makes a caressing sound as you carve through it on cc skis. Animated silhouettes slipping through the trees on wing or hoof or furry pads. Actually, Katie took off from work at noon, giving us time for a little anticipation and spirited talk looking out my window at a frozen lake where eagles make daily visits. Include Christmas visits. Because it was a holiday gift of Godiva chocolates and black cherries in brandy from Eagles’ music legend Glenn Frey and his talented wife Cindy that we stowed in my backpack. The plan was to reach a certain distant deer overlook I knew of where we could sit on a promontory, eat 78% of the world’s chocolate reserves while Willie Wonka lurked in the bushes, and gaze out at vistas of white diamonds and yellow reeds brushing a cobalt sky. But, of course, whatever you imagine, it will be different and better. A short drive and we were fitting rental skis on Agent Bingo, and then we were out on the trails.

She took to it like I knew she would, an athletic natural but heedless of a few soft falls and the breathless challenge. Check out some photos in my free newsletter (email mn333mn@earthlink.net and I’ll send you one every month). We didn’t push it, just enjoyed the climbs and exhilarating downsweeps, pausing on stone bridges or wooden bridges, finding stories in the tracks in the snow, playing an espionage game when I clued her to uncover an overgrown windmill almost invisible in a thick and towering woods. We put the hemorrhaging sun to bed on one horizon and birthed the full moon on another. The latter rose like a luminous pearl over the crest of the trail. Then down phantom blue lanes into near midnight where Agent Bingo discerned a deer I missed in a copse as thick as a pile of Pick-Up-Stix. And now the moon was louvered by cloudy fingers as we reached a high meadow, climbing, climbing, until that “ghostly galleon” sailed free on top of us (shades of Pirates of the Caribbean) and we were sitting on a stone bench.

We ate Godiva chocolates and sampled the cherries in brandy, and as if cued to perform, the most eerie chorus of coyotes erupted close by. They do this sometimes. A corybantic frenzy from somewhere just around sunset or moonrise. You never see them. But their discordant howling chimes in suddenly as if their territories have converged or they have found an atavistic trigger in the galvanizing moon. Blood-chilling and beautiful.

And then we were coming off the meadow in graceful sweeps, down into the woods and along a picturesque creek lined with sentinel pines and dotted with quaint wooden bridges. I showed Agent Bingo where beavers were building a dam, and we skied through silent moonlit awescapes you just can’t describe, because that would be only visual and these are palpable to all senses.

Agent Bingo is a trooper. I should be shot for taking her on a two-hour first journey that lasted four. But she never complained, and she was exhilarated – is still exhilarated over the memory a year later. We came back in through a series of runs, knowing we owned the world and maybe the universe. Hard to think otherwise when you are standing steaming under the cosmos looking down an escarpment at an ephemeral white lake. And orange trail lamps beyond, like ordinal spotlights, lead you home, decompressing you back into the black and white world. Except you can never really go home again, as Thomas Wolfe said. My colleagues have been bandying that notion around of late, but in this case, once you’ve been to the White Room like that, a piece of you stays out there.

So that’s another life edit for me, a series of moments savored for themselves but which accumulate simultaneously in my artist’s soul. Like I said, my life and my work are the same thing. It is cannibalism, but it isn’t exploitation. A writer must do this. Though, of course, you don’t have to be a writer to let life penetrate you that deeply. Anyone who wants to live freely, fully, should surround themselves with inspiring places to be and people with light coming out of them to be with. Your companions are as important as your solitude. Ironically, while I was writing this, an email came in from another friend, Mystic Vixen (writer and Stumblebumstudios.com reviewer Jennifer Hairfield) whose connections with nature and poetry are equally eclectic. She writes: “Winter is already coming again. It seems like yesterday…I do tend to follow the fairy path, so when the moon is full and the flesh is willing I let them take over and play. It usually leads to a very interesting evening.” She has introduced me to the charmed backwaters of Oklahoma known as “fairy groves,” and I don’t believe I would have learned that had I not presented her with a Minnesota winter. Is she a Technicolor person or b/w? Do you think she gets it? The quid pro quo of life starts with you if you’re a writer. You’ve declared yourself a chronicler, a messenger, and you cannot be that without at least becoming an observer, and you cannot know the fuller meanings and insights without becoming a participant. “…when the moon is full and the flesh is willing I let them take over and play.” This person won’t miss the poetry if she gets close enough to it, and with a chosen name like Mystic Vixen you already know she will resonate it with words to match the deeds.

Confession. I am utterly bankrupt when I’m mired in formal situations or with individuals who are terminally narrow. They just leave me uninspired. That’s the flip side of finding those special people with whom to spend special times. Maybe that’s selfish of me, and if I were a better person I would be more tolerant, but I cannot stand to waste life. People who resist everything, including ideas, passions and communication are just down time for me. Especially communication, which can even include shared silence but never apathy. Fortunately the people who really don’t open up when you get them one on one are never writers and seldom readers. And if they are readers, then they have a closet wish to escape their narrowness. I try not to give up on people, because the most recalcitrant types have the most passion when they finally yield, but more often the bottom layer is just fear and inhibition – a selfishness as bad as my own.

Is this mercenary of me as a writer? I guess. But it isn’t just mercenary. Always nice when your work and your life are the same thing. I don’t think I’d be different in my life if I stopped writing. In fact, most of my writing is one on one – emails. Definitely not mercenary.

In both writing and life, you have to give in order to get, though. Non-judgmental honesty and sincerity will take you further in understanding people and your own character inventions than will clinical observations you make from behind a wall of your own insecurities. Just a fact. If you can’t disarm fears, don’t expect to get past the foyers of other people’s lives. And you won’t disarm anyone if you aren’t “for real.” Being a writer – the best writer you can be – means living to the max. You just happen to be a mirror of words along the way.

Check out my novel, CASE WHITE, if you will. There’s a free chapter at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O79GQTE . Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
www.thomassullivanauthor.com

posted by Sully at 12:10 PM   

8 Comments:

Teresa said…

Thank you, Sully. More than you know, thank you.

5:11 AM  

David Niall Wilson said…

I used to think Sully just went out skiing and blading to meet young women (:

Beautifully done, Sully, as usual…but it would be interesting (just for perspective) to see a similar piece sometime about someone lost on the inner streets of somewhere, gray walls, too much traffic, alleys and backwaters of civilization.

I love nature, as you know…I have my swamp here…but to add to your comments, you can’t write about life if you live out in the woods either…unless you’re Sully or Thoreau…all the characters (the most warped and intriguing, anyway) are scattered through the woods, valleys, and cities….

At least on the blading trail you are less likely to get mugged when perchance you meet…

Dave

6:59 AM  

Sully said…

Thank you, Teresa. Coming from someone who writes as poignantly as you, I feel redeemed today.

And, Davey, thank you for reminding me of my roots. Yeah, the woods came later and you are so right about the vitality of people/stories being vested in urban jungles as opposed to the woodsy type. I lived the streets and alleys for most of my life, and a lot of what I know about people came out of that. I’m going to cut/paste your post in my notes and address some of those instances for future Cannibal Essays.

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

10:56 AM  

Janet Berliner said…

Magnificent.

Janet

12:45 PM  

John Skipp said…

Dear Sully —

Magnificent, indeed.

And much as I loved the entire vivid journey, the line that stuck with me hardest was “If you can’t disarm fears, don’t expect to get past the foyers of other people’s lives.”

Just another diaphonous but startlingly apt layer on your already infinitely layered cake.

Thanks for sharing the actual experience of being alive.

Yer pal,
Skipp

12:56 PM  

Frank Wydra said…

Hey Sully, another great post.

But, man, even though you are contagious and your spirit elbows everything else aside, not everyone is you, though I suspect, more than a handful wish they were. It is easy to get wrapped in your exuberance. At the very least the ride will be wild and the course uncharted.

Keep cool, man. Summer is on the way.

Frank

4:40 PM  

Sully said…

Janet, thanks, and I’ve been meaning to suggest about those posts that get eaten up when you “word verify” or try to hit “login and publish”: I lost a lengthy post like that and ever since I’ve simply highlighted what I typed and copied it BEFORE hitting those dire buttons. Only had to use that backup once thereafter.

Hey, Skipp, I’ll bet you get past foyers all the way to the penthouse and the inner sanctums. Me, I usually walk into a closet or get led to the basement. Of course, that beats the bathrooms.

And, Frank, yeah, I know I’m a bit on the edge with some of the stuff I do, but that’s just ’cause addictions build tolerance and I’ve been addicted to nature and physical activity for a long time. Principals apply at any level, though. All you really need is people. It’s like that time in the Bahamas. You and Karen stayed on the beach and counted stars and I played with the sharks, but we all found whatever else was to be found on that island and it was damn near the whole universe.

Thanks, all!

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

8:19 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

I’m addicted to nature too; I like to get away from anything resembling humanity as often as possible. I agree with Dave, too — you’ve got to experience all that other life to get your -real- material.

Great stuff, as always…

–M

10:11 AM

 

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:

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Robert Carl Jones – IT’S IN THE SEEDS

Tom Sullivan here, just letting you know that if this appears under my byline, it’s because the tech gremlins in Bob Jones access to SU are acting up and I’m posting this for him. The following is 100% from our illustrious encyclopedic compatriot Robert Carl Jones! …

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. The ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of this essay contains material found during research. It is not always closely related to the main subject of the essay, but is thought to be interesting.

Living in New York was a Chinese National named Cheng Le, who hatched a murderous plan. He wanted to obtain a supply of ricin and sell it to others. He went to the right neighborhood and talked to the right person. The right neighborhood was one that included what is referred to as a “dark web.”

A dark web is basically a number of criminal marketplaces that sell items such as drugs, firearms and hazardous materials. Its websites are visible to the public. Its IP addresses, however, are not, they being hidden by an encryption tool known as “Tor.” The right person was one who sold ricin, a poisonous substance that is not only strong, it reportedly has no antidote.

Le had a several dozen conversations with the person he had found in the dark web neighborhood. They revealed much about Le and his thoughts. It is indeed fortunate that his contact was not a ricin dealer, but an FBI employee.

According to published comments made by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, “In Le’s own words, established at trial, he was looking for ‘simple and easy death pills’ and ways to commit ‘100 percent risk-free’ murder.”

Thanks to the FBI, Le was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

 

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Castor oil is commonly used for a variety of medicinal purposes. It is produced from pressed seeds of castor plants (Ricicinus communis). A great many persons have benefitted from its use. The internet even lists “20 strange, but effective, everyday uses for castor oil.”

Ricin is related to castor oil, but there is no ricin in castor oil.

Thomas Sullivan: ELECTRIC PURPLE & HALF OF EVERYTHING

With all the correspondence I have going back through decades it’s not hard pulling out questions for a Q&A column. But for a specialized Q&A column like this one that deals only with favorite things, the search takes longer. Moreover, the answers in some cases have changed over the years from when someone wrote the question. Double moreover, almost certainly no one gives a hoot about some of these generalizations that had relevance in the context of personal correspondence, SOO-O…I’ll try to include some extra info that may be of interest to friends and fans along the way…

Q: [TN?] Why do you like Christopher Walken? I think he’s weird.

A: Exactly. As in writing, characters come to life through their eccentricities. Walken’s odd pauses in dialogue, arresting mannerisms, and counterintuitive physical expressions are great character developers in his roles. You see the same thing in Gary Oldman, Jack Nicholson, Bette Davis, Brad Pitt, and sometimes Johnny Depp among others. Walken does it effortlessly, and that’s what I find arresting. (Also, he looks like my dad…)

Q: [UK] Who is your favorite female singer?

A: Currently Taylor Swift or Adele.

Q: [Shaker Heights, OH] I liked what you wrote about synesthesia. It’s strange how colors relate to things in our lives. Do you have a favorite color?

A: Electric purple (unrelated to Prince). But anything with a glow or a pulse stirs a sense of magic in me. Luminescence, iridescence, phosphorescence – I used to call them “trauma colors,” though I don’t really know why except that they hint at hidden worlds and excitement. Guess you could say cheap, tawdry neon attracts me like a moth.

Q: [Can’t find the question, and maybe it was in a conversation, but I recall being asked about my favorite Broadway show and live theater star]

A: Hands down, my favorite Broadway show is Phantom of the Opera. Sutton Foster (multi Tony award winner) was not in Phantom, but I’m a big admirer of hers for personal as well as objective reasons. She used to call me her #1 fan going back to when she was 11 and in my son’s professional child actors troop. I have many stories from those years that testify to her sterling character and talent; and now her ability to project energy and emotion is legendary among theater royalty.

Q: [Boston, MA] Who do you think are the best male and female authors?

A: “Best” has many measures, and I must fudge this, but for my tastes I very much admire Vladimir Nabokov and Annie E. Proulx. Both can write about nothing and find the universe therein. They do it with an elegance and an ease that is virtually peerless. Proulx has the added virtue of simplicity. Nabokov, quite the opposite, is wonderful for his deceptions, double entendres of infinite variety, and incredibly rich prose. Proulx reaches out to you, but VN makes you chase him. Pedantic, obscure, full of self-told jokes, Nabokov could care less if you hang on for the ride. But the journey’s the thing! And his is art for its own sake, very much shaped by the depthless magic of his perceptions. Both Nabokov and Proulx have one foot anchored in insight, the other soaring on flights of poetic imagery.

Q: [Scottsdale, AZ] Is Glenn Frey your favorite singer?

A: Yes, and in part for what I said about Sutton Foster. Our personal friendship cast a light into his genius that I’ve been privileged to witness from over his shoulder. Plus, we also share a drive and admiration for perfection. The man had a phenomenal ear for discriminating levels of sound. I used to tell him that he could hear a fly masturbating on the wall in the middle of a march. Now, I don’t know that that’s a particularly useful talent as far as flies go, but it was fundamental to his ability to write, arrange and express music. Glenn was eclectic. He could pick out the best of everything – people, things…and above all music.

Q [Cape Girardeau, MO] What’s your favorite quote?

A: I haven’t written it yet. Bwahaha! Bad, Sully – not even original. Well, I’ll give you a bit of self-propounded wisdom that sounds super obvious but becomes ever more meaningful the longer I live. Essentially it’s this: YOU HAVE CONTROL OF EXACTLY HALF AND ONLY HALF OF EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS TO YOU. It’s a simple statement of what the world visits upon you and how you choose to receive it. But the implications of that are enormous. Recognizing and accepting what you CAN’T control is the first step in becoming free of that Jr. high game we all play to protect our tender self-esteem wherein we demand lip service and maintain appearances. And if you truly do escape the prison of appearances in your adult life (few do), then honesty and truth are within your grasp. But here’s a painful truth you may encounter along the way: most people would rather rationalize deceptiveness or live outright lies than risk losing aforementioned lip service and appearances. Facades, after all, prop up security in the social order. Pretenses, however, do not prevent people from creating hidden lives in order to survive (many do). All that said, it’s just as bad to miss truths by being overly cynical. That could cost you a lifetime of happiness. Escaping across your own moat and tearing down paranoid defenses is at least as critical as detecting insincerity. Anyway, not trying to control anything but what’s inside me is the wisdom in charge of my life. Pretty innocuous sounding, huh? People seldom get the implications when you communicate that, because it’s counter-intuitive. They think you have surrendered half the battle in human relationships. But what you’ve really done is freed yourself from facades in a game of quid pro quo. Your truth – the part of life you control – doesn’t change with someone else’s words and deeds. And that makes you real, free of ulterior motive, and capable of truth in life, love and discovering the world.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

Robert Carl Jones — BUT IS IT ARSON?

Tom Sullivan here, just letting you know that if this appears under my byline, it’s because the tech gremlins in Bob Jones access to SU are acting up and I’m posting this for him. The following is 100% from our illustrious encyclopedic compatriot Robert Carl Jones! …

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. The ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of this essay contains material found during research. It is not always closely related to the main subject of the essay, but is thought to be interesting.

*******

It is not rare for a person to attempt to hide a crime by setting fire to whatever might be used as evidence of the crime. Sometimes, in an effort to ensure possible evidence is destroyed, fires are set in a number of locations. A forensic case where there had been four separate fires in the basement of a house was assigned to an arson investigator. In view of the plurality of fires, past experience immediately led the investigator to suspect that the fires had been set and that they had most likely been set by the owner of the house.

A more experienced investigator, however, noted that propane was used in the subject house to heat and cook. The observant investigator knew that propane gas is heavier then air, so it could very well have settled in a number of places in a basement and be accidentally ignited. In view of that fact, during a subsequent trial, the house owner was not found to have been guilty of arson.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Propane has an autoignition temperature of 878 degrees Fahrenheit. As a comparison, the autoignition temperature of gasoline is about 495 degrees Fahrenheit.

Propane is a gas at standard temperature and pressure, but it can be compressed to form a conveniently transportable liquid.

One need not worry about the world running out of Propane. It is not a scarce commodity. Reportedly, Marcellus Shale alone is capable of supplying more than two billion gallons of propane per year.

 

Thomas Sullivan: KY JELLY & THE HEADLESS SQUIRREL

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

They aren’t making peanut butter jars like they used to. Twenty years ago that’s all I would’ve gotten out of last week’s fiasco. But at this stage of my life I got a story out of it.

Authors have to learn to think like that, learn that life is footage waiting to be edited. I meet countless writers who were straight-A grammar students, who read a lot, and who majored in lit in college but who don’t recognize when life hits them squarely between the eyes. They may grasp the obvious macro sources – a grand vacation setting or a tour in the army or going through a divorce or a long illness (if those last two aren’t the same thing) – while missing the countless comedies and dramas happening around them every day.

I’m going to set up a format for future columns here – call it Cannibal Essays or How to Edit Life – designed to inspire people, whether they write or not, to cannibalize their lives for stories. As a writer, you learn to serve your fellow man…with gravy.

The writer in me is like someone I know but whose face I keep forgetting. If I don’t make an effort to remember that he’s there, he becomes a partial stranger – out of sight, out of mind. Take last week when I met myself. Again. I can tell you the mundane facts in one buck naked sentence: it was down-time from wrist surgery, the lawn needed mowing, and I wanted to be outside.

That’s it. Dull prospects and I couldn’t wait to be free of the cast on my arm so I could start living again. The cast was from a second carpal tunnel op on my left wrist, more extensive this time, ‘cause the doc said the last one healed up so fast that the nerve didn’t have time to abate. Oh, I r from the planet Krypton, all right. You can’t slow me down. So there I was slicing up cardboard boxes in the garage with a sling-bladed right hand, using my feet to move the pile. Except that without his cape Superman fell on his ass. Ass and cast. Pile-driver straight down on the healing wrist. The five stitches out of fourteen that popped didn’t become known until the plaster was cut off today. All I knew was that the forearm felt like it had been disconnected from the elbow. Didn’t register as spectacle at the time, but there are dark forces in my life who would pay real wampum to see a film clip of my feet going out from under me galley west as I slashed around like Freddy Krueger in a scream flick.

And it got more humiliating. The week before the carp ‘n’ tuna surgery I had had a little deviated septum op, which was an experience in itself. I had even gotten past that miserable day far enough to see the humor and write about it in my broadcast newsletter, Sullygrams, which go out free to friends and fans. But even that turned joyless, because the sawbones who carved up my nose told me I should snort KY Jelly through my right nostril for two months to help heal the surgery. Now I guess I’ve inhaled KY before (different circumstances), but this is proof that modern medicine was founded by Robin Williams. I am going to end up with a Q-tip embedded in a frontal lobe.

So you get the picture. Aching contusion of mummified jelly sets out to mow lawn. Push mower, but the arm cast is pushable. Mandatory bitching all the while. They are tearing up the street, and there are little utility flags all over the lawn that I try to avoid up and down slopes, while keeping an eye on huge broken branches hung up and threatening to fall from the crown of a basswood tree. I throw a chunk of the latter off the lawn and the move feels like I cast the cast with it. I stop mowing, doubled over in extreme pain. But a redeeming epiphany is coming. Because when I finally get up and resume mowing (now with one arm) what should I chance upon but a headless squirrel. I suspect an ulterior motive directed at me. An eagle or an owl has left it there in my path to run over with the mower as some kind of avian humor, like those crows in the ad for Windex where they close the glass patio door so that the homeowner walks into it. The decapitated squirrel seems to be saying, “You think you got it bad, at least you’ve got something to smile with,” and suddenly everything falls into place. This is funny. Hello, writer.

Really, it’s how you look at things. So now I’m registering the day’s little adventures in the third person like my craft demands, and to keep the ball rolling I decide on a whim, hell, I should change the oil while the mower is still warm. This is because a couple weeks earlier I totaled a Yardman on a landscape timber and the new Toro is on break-in oil.

Now the peanut butter jar. The one-armed man removes his belt and ties it around the mower handle to keep the motor running until the gas burns off. Then, pants falling down, he concocts a Rube Goldberg ramp arrangement to tip the Toro so that the oil runs into a plastic peanut butter jar sitting on the drive. Plastic…hot oil? Yes, Bunky, you did that. When the plastic jar appears to sink into the asphalt while filling with hot oil, I finally get it. “I’m melting, melting…what a world, what a world!”

Up curtain, next fiasco: see Sully run. See him run around to stem the black sea flowing everywhere from the shriveling jar. See him frantically grab bottles, garbage cans, newspapers – black and white, mostly black. Fade to black. Black gold. Hey. It’s okay. I’m a writer; this is material. Ha, ha. The black plaster cast looks like a Rottweiler addicted to licorice has chewed it to bits, but what the hell: fashion statement.

Cheered in the postmortem by my own noble attitude, I decide I can do my usual rollerblading at nearby Elm Creek, one of the country’s largest municipal nature preserves (5,600 acres). So I skate my 16-mile loop, and the cast, of course, gets soaked with sweat against my skin. I hate this. Itchy, itchy. The exhilaration has blanked out the previous part of the day, and I’m back in my “ain’t this a bitch” mode about the wrist. Since the cast has loosened up quite a bit, I usually hit the highway and hold it out the window so that the wind can funnel in and dry my wrist up to where the plaster seals to the forearm. Tooling along at sixty, I suddenly feel something prickly inside the cast. At first I think it’s another chunk of the plaster broken off and stuck in the wrap, but plaster doesn’t buzz.

Are the visuals coming through? Sailing down the expressway with a trapped UFI (Unidentified Flying Insect) scoping out its new prison, half plaster, half vulnerable flesh. Five alarms now. I’m beating the cast against the door to no avail and holding it into the wind as I press the accelerator, hoping to immobilize the UFI with air flow. My remaining stitches are on fire from all the banging and twisting, but I can’t be sure it’s not saber teeth or a venomous stinger, so I’m trying to press the flesh against the cast wherever I feel a candidate lump, and that brings on a Charlie horse from the surgically weakened wrist. When I finally exit the expressway, copious fragments of something black and metallic blue shake out of the cast, along with a shred of red. I’m thinking the Red Baron flew his bi-plane in there and left a thread from his scarf.

Now maybe this all sounds kind of ready-made for the prime-time of the writer’s own journal, but it isn’t. Remember the drill down of vapid essentials: down-time, mowing, going outside. The rest of it is maxing out what I saw, felt and thought about it. It’s not that atypical a day for me. Or you. Whether you are a writer or just a person with a story to relate, something happens to you all day long. The battle for a writer – or for any person trying to put life into focus – isn’t with the physical details. It’s with the interpretation and expression thereof. You have to see the drama and the humor, and you have to feel passion of some type. It comes down to who you are and what you are irrespective of what happens to you. And you can train that to a point. You can learn to put frames around things. Empathize. Apply unjudgmental insight. I stress that you can’t just wear these attitudes like discardable garments. On the contrary, you must be naked. You must be real. You must BECOME that observer and interpreter, wholly open-minded and ready for adventure.

Repeat after me: “I do not want to remain clueless.”

Okay. So you’re ready. But that’s just the internal half of it. Now you have to go out and live. Helps if you have a mentor, companion, relationship with someone who is like that. Kills you if you have someone just the opposite who dulls you down, smothers you and inhibits your potential. Most of the time I have no one. But I’ve had my mentors. Perhaps two. And I attract unusual people like human flypaper. I’ve also been locked into a suffocating relationship that shut me down. But that was my choice. The worst thing is if you miss a catalyst in your life. In my experience, catalyst people are rare indeed.

You can do it with memories, of course, with passive interactions, but there still must be a bedrock of living behind that.

For a long time I thought I just had a very strange life. Incredible things happened to me, I met fabulous people, found myself in unbelievable situations, had fantastic experiences. I was grateful. As a writer, it gave me insights and a sense of the improbable I could never invent. But I’ve come to understand that most people are fabulous, that the unbelievable exists in your own backyard (especially if you have headless squirrels), and that you can dispose yourself to extraordinary experiences if you make yourself that kind of person. The downside depends on the demands of your emotional security. How independent are you? If you escape the norms that stultify most of us, you may lead the crowd but you will seldom be part of it. Accept only the borders or boundaries that you want, and you will sometimes alarm conformists. Or you can just lead multiple lives, which is what a lot of people do. My visa is stamped “Admit Anywhere.” I write. But that’s merely a symptom of who I am.

Oh, dear, this post-mortem of 10Wpeanut oil was supposed to segue into another Cannibal Essay vignette. I wanted to tell you about Agent Bingo and Snowman and a fabulous night last winter, which would have painted another tone to the kind of examples I’m trying to inspire you with, but as usual I’m running way over length, and I have to get over to Walmart’s where Kara, my tight-lipped pharmacist, will sell me KY Jelly under the counter. Next time for Agent Bingo and Snowman.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

posted by Sully at 12:11 AM   

17 Comments:

Rick Steinberg said…

Thanks, Sully, for making me feel better about my own life. That’s a gift!

People live lives. Characters live strange lives. Writers are just plain cursed . . . and thank God for that!

12:54 AM  

Teresa said…

That was a real slice of life, Sully. Funny too. Snorting KY? How do you keep staight face while you do that?

A friend sent me an e-mail wishing me a good weekend. I said I hoped it would be and wished for something cheerful to happen. I got my wish. If the weekend hits a sour patch I’ll imagine a grown man snorting KY. And i won’t tell anyone why I’m smiling. It will be our secret.

2:35 AM  

Sully said…

Ah, Mr. Steinberg, you are bigger than life. How could you not feel permanently good about that? But knowing my little “rah-rah” piece took affect on someone of your dynamic experiences is a hoot for me. Thanks, Rick.

And, Teresa, I know our little secret is going to haunt me, but I claim statutory limits! Had occasion to return to the shnooz sawbones two days after he told me to snort for two months, and he took another look and said, “You really heal fast.” Yup. No more snorting KY. I could qualify that, but I feel a sudden attack of debilitating carpal… Anyway, if I had the wit, I would’ve played Tom Sawyer and convinced everyone it was the “in” thing. Try it, you’ll like it. I like to think some people who read that ARE going to try it. You think?

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

3:12 AM  

John B. Rosenman said…

Snort KY Jelly up your right nostril for two months? Man, you are taking a chance when you give me a straight line like that.

Sully, I’m inspired. You’ve given me the ingredients for a story, dude, and I’m gonna write it. As you say, it’s not just what happens, it’s what you think and feel about it.

Thanks for a great piece. Your days are so much more interesting than mine. All that happens to me are goodlooking women who throw themselves at me. There’s not a headless squirrel to be found anywhere.

1:07 PM  

Sully said…

I have not tried to determine the gender of the headless squirrels. Do you think there are prospects there for me?

Anything that inspires a story from you, John, is going to mitigate my sins and omissions elsewhere. I stand proud. Thanks, amigo.

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

1:17 PM  

Janet Berliner said…

Delightful essay and you’re so right. It’s all there for everyone. We’re just lucky enough to see it. Person #1 person stands at the deli counter of life, orders cheese, takes the package, pays for it and goes home. Person #2 orders the cheese and is distracted by the toes in the sandals next to him because they are all the same length. He forgets to wait for the cheese, goes home, can’t finish making the lasagna. Cooks something else, something new. His guest turns out to be allergic to one of the ingredients and has to be rushed to the hospital and upon taking off her fancy shoes has, you guessed it, toes all the same length. And….

Read the beginning of THE WATER WOLF and can hardly wait to read the rest. I’ll put it on my website to encourage sales. May it rise on the bestseller list like KY up your nostril, thereby healing your bank account.

Janet

1:59 PM  

Sully said…

See, you’re in an example in kind, Janet. This is why and how you’ve inspired so many luminaries in your life. You see with the eye of unlimited possibilities. Thanks for doubling down on my thesis out there in Las Vegas where — I am convinced — the lights wouldn’t shine without your energy.

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

2:31 PM  

mikepaulle said…

Recently a website published the 100 best novel openings. For me ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times’ is still the best of the best.

However, you might consider doing yourself a favor and reading the opening of Sully’s The Water Wolf.

3:57 PM  

Frank Wydra said…

Hey Sully, great story! That headless squirrel, one of the pack that follows you everywhere, a lot like John Irving’s bears.

And what a point you prove! It is possible to capture a slice of the writing life in story rather than essay format. For my money, ten times as powerfrul and square that entertainment-wise.

Cheers, Frank

7:50 PM  

Sully said…

Are you referring to that squirrel on my front lawn that was tripped out on mushrooms? That’s the same Edgar Allen Poe squirrel that was caught in the walls of the house. Will tell that and a few other squirrely stories some time…

— Sully

8:06 PM  

David Niall Wilson said…

If you make a book of your cannibal essays one day, you should make the melting peanut-butter / oil / mower image the cover… (lol). I’ve lived days like that. Once you’ve deteremined you are in one…it’s best to go back to bed and wait for it to blow over…but I admit to snorting coffee through my nose (which is painful) over the mower, oil bit…

Dave

10:28 PM  

Janet Berliner said…

Received a note from Kathy about Charlie. I told her how sorry I was about her loss and how proud of her I was for her love and constancy. Charlie, I know you’re with the good guys, smoking without ill effect and writing and joking and serious. Watch over Kathy and know that we’ll all miss you.

Janet

1:12 AM  

Sully said…

Amen.

— Sully

9:56 AM  

Anonymous said…

I read the title and the first line and started cackling. I laughed so hard, my tummy hurts and cheeks are still warm. My son (12) came in to find out what was going on and when I read it out (although there was an interesting moment explaining what KY jelly was for…), he was laughing right with me.

(Do you know how hard it is to read something out loud when you’re laughing?)

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

A newbie

11:29 AM  

John Skipp said…

Dear Sully — THANK YOU! That was SOOOOOO HILARIOUS! I love laughing out loud for breakfast! What a beautiful, beautiful piece.

And yes: isn’t it great to be helpless victims of the old Chinese curse, wherein ALL OF THE TIMES are interesting times?

Every day, I thank God that I’m so easily amused.

Dear Janet — How did YOU know that I forgot to buy the cheese?

And, yes, your vision of Charlie Grant is the one that I like, too. Thank you.

Dear Charlie — SEE YOU LATER, MY FRIEND!

12:52 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

Sully — How much are you asking for the rights to your tube of KY? It’s unique.

This not only slayed me, it gave me that desire to damn everything, buckle down, and write for the rest of the day. The yard, the trash, the wife…all those can wait. 😉

–M

3:42 PM  

Sully said…

Dear, Newbie — Reading out loud while laughing is the most infectious laughter I know. Welcome, aboard. Glad to hear from you, as I think while some people don’t want to take the trouble to make a user name and password, others have the idea that this is just for author posting. Someone on one of the last two columns this week mentioned that — that they were under the impression they couldn’t post here. Contrare, contrare. Hope to see you back.

David, Cannibal Essays in a book — come to think of it, the best-sellers are cookbooks…

Janet, Charlie (and Kathy) are two more benchmarks that have taught us by example how to handle adversity.

Hey, John, “laughter for breakfast” — now there’s a title!

And, Mark, are you SURE you want to keep the little woman waiting? Now that’s really living for excitement.

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

4:21 PM

 

 

AllyBird said…

Late to this but Sully thank you so much for that. I can’t drink my tea I’m laughing so much. I live in England and have to make the decision whether or not to move to New Zealand soon. After the headless squirrel I just keep thinking what you would write about possums and the way is suddenly now clear… a need an adventure.

5:24 AM  

 

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

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