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Be a pro: practice, practice, practice

Where do I go from here, Karl?

I’m asked this question by fresh-faced high school grads, by people with advanced degrees in the humanities who are working the drive-thru window, by successful but unsatisfied boomers seeking to travel new and gratifying avenue in mid-life, by retired folks eager to remain viable. And, heaven knows, there are a lot of retired folks standing on the edge of Viability Cliff. The plunge seems inevitable, and they are desperate to remain every bit as important as they believe they once were.

Here’s my answer: Become a writer — a columnist, a shrewd cultural commentator. A simpering fool. Just don’t go public with your work if you are not paid to do so.

How to be a professional writer? Keep a journal and record your stunning insights as they occur to you. Remember, if you are like most folks, the mere fact you have a clear insight of any kind qualifies it as “stunning.”

You must have a method, though. You need to develop a journal theme.

Many people who keep diaries or journals jot down observations and ideas, report on emotions — perhaps even write a stilted and pain-puddled poem or two — but with a tendency to ramble, following an unstructured path, a random course without a center.

Not me. I am a professional writer. I have a theme.

I keep a food and tube diary. I am, after all, a “culture critic.”

I relate everything to food or television, noting in great detail what I eat and the television shows I watch.

Mostly, I concentrate on food. I cement a fluttering assortment of perceptions to food and the act of eating. The mnemonic device works well. As I ponder a journal entry at a later date, trying to duplicate a dish or to improve it, I am led inexorably to memories of the events that surrounded my initial culinary experience — to people, places, things. To momentous realizations.

Once in touch with the memory, via the record of the facts and my reactions, I begin to write a column.

Here are some recent journal entries. Read them. Each entry contains the germ cell of a column.

Use this info as a starting point for your work. You have my permission. Extract the pertinent information. Write. Practice, practice, practice.

June 4. Durango to Denver, Denver to Burbank. United flight 2537 from DIA to Burbank: a “snack flight.” Turkey and Swiss sandwich, macaroni salad. I am seated next to a sweating salesman from Sacramento — a falsely friendly, tense young man with chubby fingers, a laptop computer and a load of “industrial fastener” accounts. Crumbs from his snack fall on his keyboard as he furiously adjusts line items in a spreadsheet. We pass over Lake Powell and part of the Grand Canyon. The salesman refuses to look out the window. He excuses himself to go to the restroom. I nearly succumb to an urge to snatch his laptop and adjust some of the numbers in his work, perhaps leave him a couple of aphorisms from Schopenhauer — some snappy sayings guaranteed to brighten his outlook.

I can reproduce the sandwich if, and only if, I can locate a small bun, perhaps eight days old; the proper degree of dryness is hard to duplicate. The macaroni salad is easy: overcook elbow macaroni and douse it in polymer-like mayo, add a bit of limp, chopped onion and pickle. Yum. My macaroni salad has an expiration date of “Mayrch,” in an unspecified year.

There is an interesting mother/daughter combo on the flight. They wear matching wrist braces (no doubt bowling-related, carpal tunnel injuries) and each sports a garish-colored T-shirt with “Warning: Estrogen Problems. I bite” printed in glittery letters across the back. Each of the gals brings a large slab of pizza and a 32-ounce Slurpee with her on the plane. Their names are Lorene and Cissy. I know this: the names are embroidered on the shirts. I like them. I like pizza. We need a bowling alley in Siberia with a View so our Lorenes and Cissies will have someplace to go where they can hurt themselves.

June 4. Burbank. After the shopworn 737 nearly slides off the end of the runway at the Burbank airport, I stroll through the terminal, trying to figure what makes it different from any relatively small airport in 1980 Eastern Europe. The answer: Bulgarian airports had better music. I find a car rental concession — “Larry’s Cars” if my journal note is accurate — and Larry himself rents me a superb “economy” car. With but two stops on the shoulder to cool off an overheating engine, I am in Pasadena. The wrong side of Pasadena.

I go to Fu Shing, a joint on Colorado Boulevard, and order shredded beef in garlic sauce, with an order of shu mai. Rather than the regular dipping sauce, the restaurant provides a small bowl filled with rice vinegar and julienned ginger, and a second bowl with red chile and garlic paste. The vinegar, ginger and paste are blended on the plate with some bits of cilantro. I make a mental note: a good accompaniment to grilled beef.

A small man wearing a lime green double-knit suit, a red silk shirt and white patent leather shoes comes by the table every five minutes or so, smiles, places his hands in front of his chest in a prayerful gesture and says something that sounds like “Oh, how hot am I.” He looks like Fuji from McHale’s Navy. I smile and nod and he moves on. As Siberia With a View grows, we will no doubt have more of this cross-cultural dialogue in public places. It is refreshing, international.

June 4. North Hollywood. Bunking at the Universal Sheraton. I switch on the television and watch the hotel channel, previewing the amenities over and over — the room service menu, the adult pay-for-view selections, the detailed directions to the health club, pool and jacuzzi, to the three bars and the grossly overpriced restaurant. Directions are provided in English, Japanese, Korean, French and German. The Korean phrase for “valet parking” sounds like “Oh, how hot am I.” I repeat the phrase to the parking attendant; he is Honduran, but he is amused. As Siberia With a View becomes cosmopolitan, we will have Honduran parking attendants. Things are changing and we must change with them.

June 5. I watch the “What’s Up in LA” show on television and decide to drive down to Wilshire to the LA County Museum of Art to see a Diego Rivera retrospective and visit the permanent collection to look at a personal favorite — Nolde’s “Cows.”

I listen to the radio on my way to the museum and try unsuccessfully to pull over and use my phone. I am convinced I can be the ninth caller to KROC and win the Malibu Beach Party with the GoGos. I have a vision of a sadly aged Belinda Carlisle and an even sadder me dancing on the deck as the surf crashes on the shore and the sun glows orange on the horizon. We hold brightly-colored drinks in our hands. Belinda laughs at all my jokes; her teeth are spectacular. They are, of course, not the originals, but they are spectacular. She smells like tropical fruit and she loves my Hawaiian shirt. Alas, I am trapped in the inside lane and can’t make the call, and by the time I turn on to Wilshire, some dink from Encinitas has scored the prize. We need more radio giveaways in Siberia With a View as we transform our community into one of America’s key destinations for this new millennium. With more and more traffic jams, we will need the entertainment. We will need a chance to win Belinda Carlisle. Or an elk backstrap.

All is not lost, however. The Portillo’s lunch wagon is parked, as always, on a side street next to LACMA. A sign on the side of the brushed aluminum wagon says “Jorge y Mama,” and Jorge and Mama do not disappoint. As a result of previous trips to the wagon, I am terribly fond of the Portillo’s carnitas, and the adovada burrito is tops, but this trip I opt for a tuna burrito  — chunks of tuna grilled with onion and pepper, the tuna rare at center, layered on a soft white flour tortilla, bathed in a garlicky cilantro cream sauce and graced with a sprinkling of queso fresca and some sliced jalapeno.

I sit on the grass next to the street, two feet from a pile of pit bull poop, and consume my treasure as I discuss the persistent graffiti problems in South Central with a loquacious museum guard named Quenetta. She eats chili fries and sips an extra-large root beer. I am happy we are discussing the subject; there will be more and more graffiti in Siberia With a View now that it is one of the top retirement destinations in the Milky Way Galaxy.

I tell Quenetta this. She nods knowingly.

“You know how them retired folks are,” she says.

Yes, Quenetta, I do. If they can’t become professional writers, they need to make their mark somehow.

We agree that a cold Tecate would be nice.

The Rivera exhibit is substantial but crowded, featuring several top-line examples of his Mexican Life series; the Nolde is still relegated to a wall space above a glass-enclosed display of cheesy German Expressionist playbills. Pity.

I make the mistake of journeying to the third-floor contemporary gallery where there is an exhibit of the work of a New York conceptual artist. Hmmmm. Art … concept … who woulda thunk?

A schoolteacher leads a group of fourth-graders past a card table on which are placed four picnic-ware place settings and a ball peen hammer. The poor wretch attempts to explain the paltry mess to her students. Her explanation is a perfect example of the unschooled relativism that pervades the American sensibility. Her students will go to their summer vacations knowing there are no enduring standards, no ways to discern quality.

“Well, of course it’s art, children. I mean, different people like different things and if you feel something is good, well, ummm, then, well, ummm, it is!”

Plato dealt long ago and simply with the problem of opinion. What if what I “feel” is right is that everything you ”feel” is right is wrong? (All this considered here without dealing with the significant difference between what one “feels” and what one “thinks.”)

I attempt to ask the teacher about her relativism, but one of the kids has an embarassing accident and she has to hustle him to the restroom.

Few people realize the connection between aesthetics and morality, but it is real. A breakdown in one area presages or mirrors the breakdown in the other.

The fact we have had more than one president who can look at us, wag his finger and lie – and still be in office – should come as no surprise if you realize the American aesthetic in visual art now centers on two extremes: decoration and inside jokes. The first extreme is represented by a proliferation of soulless rehashings of realist themes (often in the form of images of cowboys and Indians, roundups and wagon trains, clowns and balloon dogs), semi-photographic renderings bereft of intellectual content, smoothed by a kindergarten sense of irony, scoured clean of meaning by a tidal wave of easy sentimentality where the only possible grace is harmony with an interior decorating scheme. The second type of work occupies a quasi-academic pole where place settings sit on card tables, where bags of sand are placed randomly in a huge space, mirrors spin on walls,  scrawls become “gestures,”  feathers are added to the surface of painting and wave in a breeze created by a small fan — where the pretense is that there is significant content, yet where, in reality, the only content is a feebleminded joke. In either case, nothing challenges you. You needn’t know anything, or think about anything. No demand is made other than that you follow the dictates of “feeling.” Beauty is a pre-modern concept. Rembrandt rents a room in Jeff Koons’ condo, if you “feel” it is right. And the president really didn’t have sex with an intern in the Oval Office if you “believe” oral sex isn’t sex, and he continues to serve if you “feel” he should. Or he can start wars on the basis of a lie and tell you to go shopping. Or he can tout freedom and knowingly encourage blanket surveillance on his own people. No demands. No depth. No thought. Just decoration and jokes.

I “feel” kind of queasy, but I’m not sure I want to go into the restroom just yet. Not till little Bobby is tidied up.

Fortunately, I turn a corner and Jay DeFeo’s masterpiece, “The Rose,” hangs huge, heavy and crusty on the wall, its center split by a fault line revealing layer after layer of tortured paint. I breathe a sigh of relief. I sit. I think. I take it in. I see her, alone, depressed, cigarette dangling from her mouth, her hair rough-cut, her backlit silhouette outlined against the San Francisco sky, beatniked to the Nth degree. The drawings she made at the end of her life were spectacular. She never made much money. There was no idiotic representation, there was no joke. I guess she didn’t get it.

June 5. For dinner, more fish! Shellfish, at Gladstone’s. I discover a nearby franchise in a commercial sandwiched between Montel and Hollywood Squares. Linguine with clams, the well-prepared, tender bivalves in shell and without shell, bedded on the pasta, sustained in a broth of their own juices, a bit of garlic and some parsley. An easy dish to prepare, given you can obtain decent clams. An easy dish to consume.

Gladstone’s is at Universal City. We need something like Universal City in Siberia With a View: A promenade of false fronts packed with geeks, lots of noise, lights. After all, some local idiot once trumpeted the “fact” that Siberia With a View will be one of the only safe places to be when civilization collapses, so why not build a suitable attraction for the new arrivals? A series of opportunities for transient stimulation, in underground bunkers! We will have clams. We’ll hire militia members as greeters.

June 6. Breakfast at a small restaurant in Toluca Lake. I order an omelet with chile (excuse me, “chili”). Once again, I am reminded that the chile reigns supreme in New Mexico and Colorado. Elsewhere, forget it. They have a sad way with the chile on the coast and ordering it is much like ordering Opah in South Dakota.

At noon, I attend a college graduation ceremony. Speeches, awards, blah, blah, blah. As I watch the graduates walk across the makeshift, creaking stage (is this conceptual art?) I am reminded of seeing liners leave the docks in New York City. Bon voyage, have a nice crossing. Hope it’s not too stormy. Hope you don’t sink.

On to the reception and the food. There is a satisfying but somewhat ordinary array of crustless sandwiches and odd-looking things the caterer tells me are called “vegetables and fruits.”

There are cakes. The cakes are great, and a world-class cake is hard to find these days. These are tender, buttery — one golden, one chocolate —  each blessed with egg and iced with a genuine butter cream. Florence Henderson is standing nearby, eating cake. Ma Brady. Tony winner. I start toward her, to ask her if she intends to retire to Siberia With a View, but a stray Mimosa diverts me. As Siberia With a View grows, we will need to attract more celebrities to town. We’ll need people to point to as they sit in restaurants. Timeshare salesmen need to be able to say things like “Oh, Florence, sure, I know Florence.” It helps with the close.

June 6. Off to dinner. I whip along, the vehicle trailing blue smoke on the 101 and I hook a turn on the 10. I am doing 75 miles per hour and there is a woman driving a car next to me. She is reading a book and has a cell phone caught between jowl and shoulder. We need more cell phone towers and better coverage in Siberia With a View now that we are a prime retirement destination and one of the only safe places to be in the entire universe. There will be plenty of important people in Siberia With a View soon — people who were really, really important somewhere else, with important things happening to them, around them. As our pace of life accelerates, we will need state-of-the-art communications in order to stay on top of the wave.

A trip to the 3rd Street promenade in Santa Monica terminates at a restaurant (oops, a “trattoria”) with a sidewalk dining area. This is the equivalent of eating in an aquarium: A steady stream of spectators passes by, ogling my food, talking loudly, making odd noises and emitting bizarre odors. I have eaten at sidewalk cafes in many cities, on different continents, and I’ve found nearly all of them to be disagreeable (with the notable exception of a swell place in Barcelona, in the Barri Gotic). We need a sidewalk cafe or two in Siberia With a View, to provide a sophisticated atmosphere for the people arriving in the most desirable retirement location available to the species, in order to survive the imminent collapse of civil order.

Overcoming a high degree of self-consciousness, I order a dish I’ve not had in a few years and I am more than satisfied. As a dreadlocked street entertainer plays all my Middle Eastern folk favorites on a Farfisa organ, I consume a plate of penne with sausage and cream sauce and I am one happy fella. In fact, I am so happy with what I order, I prepare a version of the dish the next night in Siberia With a View: the most incredibly wonderful, safest and darned friendliest place anywhere. A place with mountains nearby.

I’m not one of those people who thinks foods must be seasonal and locally sourced (here in Siberia With a View that would consist of jerky and some moldy potatoes during most of the year). If something is heavy, fatty, hot and creamy-good, I don’t care whether it’s the dead of winter or the height of summer, I’m gonna eat it. Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? Load up on this baby and just groan your blissful way through it.

You need a bunch of bulk, hot Italian sausage. I par boil the sausage a bit in order to render some of the fat, breaking the meat into reasonable chunks as it cooks. Once I’ve poured off the little bit of water and the fat, I add a touch of olive oil to the skillet and I brown the sausage, crisping it up and leaving those marvelous brown bits on the surface of the pan.

Once the sausage is browned, I turn down the heat and add three or four cloves of minced or mashed garlic and stir, making sure the garlic does not brown and turn bitter. I add a cup or so of heavy cream (look out arteries, we’re headed for the ICU!) stirring and scraping those delightful caramelized proteins into the cream. Once the pan is, in effect, deglazed by the cream, I add salt, fresh ground black pepper, ground nutmeg to taste and a tablespoon or so of finely minced fresh mint. Last in is a cup or so of frozen green peas and half a fist-full of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

While I’m preparing the sausage and sauce, I cook the penne in lightly salted water until al dente. I put the drained penne into the skillet with the sauce, add a couple hunks of butter, stir to coat the pasta, then I let it rest a couple of minutes before serving with fresh, hot, crusty bread and greens dressed with a simple balsamic vinegar-based dressing. Wine snobs be damned, I find the dish goes very well with a cheap California red blend.

I take a bite, pound down a mighty swallow of the red, and I gaze out my front window. The neighbor’s dog harks up a pinecone and I hear the sound of a jet taking off from Stevens Field. I am full. I am content. I am safe from any problem a worldwide disaster might bring unfortunate souls elsewhere on the planet. I am home, in Siberia With a View and, with my journal full, I am ready to work.

So, there you have it: the journalistic carcass from which the prime cut of a column can be carved.

Practice with the material. Use it to write something that reflects our current condition — something witty, surgically precise.

If you succeed, send your piece to me at P.O. Box 9. I’ll put my name on it and use it next week.

After all, I’m a professional writer.

This story was posted on December 12, 2013.