Recommended: Stoney Places by Frederic Berthoff

First, a mild disclaimer. I knew the author of this novel – Stoney Places: A Twenty Year Sentence when I was a child. His family were friends of my family, his sister a friend of my oldest brother and he himself a close friend of my other old brother. That said, I haven’t seen Fred in more than 40 years, and knew only of his story second-hand. I knew that he had been a drug smuggler. That he’d been caught and sentenced to a long term in federal prison. He’s been out for some time now, and has written and published a novel based on his experiences. This is that book. I’ve been pouring through it, not because I knew him as a child, but because it’s a strong book boldly told, engaging and compelling. Here is my Amazon/Goodreads review of this tale of crime and punishment:

Orange may be the new black, but a long-term federal prison sentence for drug smuggling and conspiracy is not a heart-warming soap opera drama. It’s hard time with hard cases and there are no two ways about it. It’s natural to compare this novel with that autobiographical tele-drama, and to come to the conclusion that both are equally worthy, both equally compelling and revealing. Stoney Places, in contrast to Orange, does not tell the story of a naive young person who did a silly thing and was later betrayed by an ex-lover. Quite the contrary. In Stoney Places, the protagonist, Hardwick Graves, knew exactly what he was doing for many years, and exactly what he could expect to befall him someday. He did it anyway. It was his life, his lifestyle, his choice, and the book is not laden with regrets or any self-pity whatsoever. It’s a clear-eyed narration told ice-cold and straight-ahead, in beautiful writing about ugly times and places. Highly recommended.

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Notes During Earthquake Weather

There’s something to be said about characters ultimately being undone by their greatest strengths – we do see this all the time in real life. McCain the gambler who gambles and loses. for example. Often the quality is a good one – loyalty, for example, or bravery – that can cost someone their career or even their life. Sometimes it’s a small and meager quality, like a sense of duty, that can manifest in triviality and misplacement. I was thinking of this in the most recent version of my doomed screenplay, where the hero turns back, at the last second, to let the dog out of the locked house – the very dog who got him into that bad mess in the first place, a dog to whom he owed nothing, really – just because he and the dog had been through a lot together and he was a person with a misplaced sense of responsibility. He was already punished for this once – by linking himself needlessly with his mental sister – but he never learns. For Myron/Golden, once he has decided to ally himself with someone or something, he sticks to it, no matter what.

A colleague of mine does a similar thing with his attitude. He locks it in, and never changes it, regardless of the circumstances. We can convince ourselves of a reality that does not exist, that could be altered easily by a shift in our perception of it, but that would be too undermining of our self-image. He has decided to by a pessimist about his situation, and there is nothing that can alter it.

You can see yourself as a leader, but then one day you find your leadership position taken from you, quite unexpectedly and immediately, and suddenly you are not that anymore. I remember a transition I once made from store manager to stock clerk. I walked around in a daze for awhile, until I understood that nothing was my responsibility anymore. Eventually, it was liberating. This time around, as my role goes from significant contributor in a small company to minor cog in a giant machine, I need to draw on that experience.

I ran into a red faced man who does not know when to stop talking. He told one embarrassing story after another about his painful youth, while most of the people at the table were strangers and not interested. The lunch went on and on and I was only looking forward to the chance of getting back outside and forgetting everything I’d heard.

Close Encounters

My wife and I had a bit of a scary incident today around noon, just in front of my office front door.

She had pulled up in front of the door to meet me for lunch. I was in a meeting at the other building, so I was late, and was coming up through the parking lot to meet her. In the meantime, a late 80’s model Honda Civic sedan (black, but with a mismatched white front hood), circled slowly around the parking lot and pulled up right behind her car, and idled. There were two young men inside the car.

As she saw me approaching from the other building, she slowly pulled out to come towards me. At the same time, the other car also pulled out and followed her closely. When she pulled over to stop and pick me up, they went on ahead, but then made a U-turn later in the parking lot and circled back slowly around the back end of the lot, watching us all the time. We waited until they had left the parking lot at one end, and we went out the other exit.

We had the feeling that these guys were up to no good, possibly casing the gym next door around lunch time for victims of opportunity.

It was one of those close encounters that remind you all too sharply that everything can change in an instant.

resonance

there were a few themes that resonated with me from the Timothy Levitch tour guide movie, that i wanted to write a little about.
1) the search for perfection
2) being appreciated by the flower
3) the enemies rant

in the search for perfection, he describes how he seeks it in each tour loop, because for him, the tour is a performance for and an interaction with strangers, centered around his deep love and knowledge of the city. i remembered feeling that way about certain bookstore shifts, or especially, at the Compact Disc Warehouse, where I worked 12-14 hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays while completing college, and I would consciously strive to make each of those long shifts perfection. And why not? When you have to work a haul like that, you need to have an overriding goal. And there would be opportunities for customer service, colleague relations, little enjoyments throughout the day, and to drive home the thirty miles over the windy mountain road through the dense fg in the middle of the night, with the feeling that the shift was near that perfection, it was nice (the run-on sentences here are courtesy of Anton Chekhov, whose stories I am in the midst of, and which I am enjoying very much)

In one scene, Levitch describes how it’s nice and all to appreciate the flowers, to be the flower even (said like Snagglepuss, even), but he would also like the flower to appreciate HIM. It’s nicely put and is a truth of his, but I think it’s not so much a truth for me. My recent bout with publishing has confirmed my original sense, that writing (for me) is about the writing, not about the reading by whomever. I’m still so excited by my Orange Car With Stripes, it means nothing to me if anyone else ever feels that way about it.

In the enemies rant, Levitch goes off on everyone who’s ever done him wrong, very succinctly and angrily, and I loved that scene. I wish I had it in me to do that scene of my own somehow, but I don’t have the investment anymore. Most of the people who’ve done me the most wrong were practically strangers, people who never meant anything to me anyway. I’ve been fortunate that way. What could I say to the people who held knives to my throat, or the people whose bullets whizzed past my head, the women who “cheated” one me, the bosses who fired me or passed me over, the friends who were no longer my friends, or the people who made fun of me behind my back, who were cowards to me face (and no one , not even my best friends, ever had the courage to show me the comics that a certain one-time friend had made about me; apparently they were that cruel. But still, I’d love to see them!) Also, I am no longer who I was, hardly at all, I feel.

I understand that at the time of the movie, Mr. Levitch was still a young man (mid-twenties, perhaps?) – I imagine he might feel less intense about those people now, or maybe not. Maybe it’s only me. A lot of bitterness has dropped away this middle age. I have really no resentments left.

Chestnut Trees

Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan – Paul Cezanne

As a child, my parent’s house had a chestnut tree hanging over the driveway, and every autumn we would collect the chestnuts, slit them open and roast them in the over or sometimes in a metal basket in the fireplace.
There were hardly any trees of that kind left, due to a famous blight which had destroyed nearly all of them. I loved that tree, and the smell of it, but my father and mother would only complain about the mess its droppings made, and eventually they took it down.

Filed Under "Did Not Want to Know That"

Yesterday I’m driving across the bay to take my little niece home, she’s sleeping in the back and I suddenly notice the gas gauge is almost at E. This is a shock because I rely on my odometer to let me know when I need to fill up, so I rarely look at the gas gauge. Turns out the wife had reset the odometer for some obscure wifely reason. So, yikes, I don’t want to run out of gas on the freeway so I pull off at the next exit. The neighborhood’s pretty sketchy but I think, it’s okay, I’ve gotten lost here before. It’s true. I know this much – it’s not the way to the Oakland Zoo, and the onramp back to the freeway is right, right, oh good, it’s right there. I figure there’e bound to be a gas station nearby and sure enough there is one at the next light. I pull in and discover it’s the first gas station I’ve seen in ages that does not take credit cards, so I have to leave my little sleeping angel in the car while I go to the booth to pay the man. Of course, there’s a line. I wait. The guy in front of me says to the cashier (seated in his bullet-proof enclosure), “say, isn’t this the place where that guy was shot and killed the other day?

Did I want to know that?

No.

The cashier nods and the man turns around and asks me, “did you know that? There was a guy who was shot and killed right here just the other day!”

Did I want to hear that again?

My turn comes. I give the guy a twenty, even though I know this means I will have to stop and fill up again before I head home. I rush back, she’s still asleep, I pump that gas all the time looking around for someone with a gun.