Mash Note Dept.: Bob Fosse



I have been pacing the floor for a year, entangled in this theory that Bob Fosse— dancer, choreographer, filmmaker— is at the heart of the American subconscious.

Look, I know it sounds nutty to say the guy who created Cabaret is one of the fundamental American ventricles through which we filter our deepest thoughts, but hear me out first before you give me a good talking-to.

Most people know who Bob Fosse is, or they’ve heard Fosse’s name bartered and bantered in connection with something, somewhere.
You may know that he’s the original book writer (the plot of a musical) of Chicago[i] and its first choreographer/director. 

(The recent film choreography for Chicago is derivative.  That choreographer tried to get as far as he could from the Fosse influence.  It didn’t work.  Fosse will seep into your limbs.)

If you’re not aware of Fosse’s omniscient presence in stage and movie musicals, you’ve seen the fey Robin Williams in Birdcage, the remake of La Cage Aux Folles— shouting “Fosse!  Fosse!  Fosse!” while he waves his hands around angrily giving the gum-smacking ingénue stage directions.

Even the “jazz hands” joke that gets play still— you know the one— really comes from all Fosse choreography, which is distilled down to rolling hand gestures that flourish from the wrist to the palm to the fingertips.[ii]

Maybe you saw one of Fosse’s movies?   

All That Jazz— a singular achievement of autobiography, strangeness, and prescience. 

Lenny— a black and white biopic of Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman. 

How about Star 80 with the sad death of Dorothy Stratten? 

The non-musicals he wrote and directed were frighteningly good and truly original work.

Now that I have reminded you of the man, shall we open up the American subconscious and take a peek? 

I’m convinced you’ll find Bob Fosse in there, uncurled like a sun-warm snake, his smoke-carved face staring straight into the depths of America’s id  (which wants a lot of things, both venal and spiritual, things Fosse had in spades) and grinning.  Oh, that Fosse!

Common wisdom states that writers (and artists) only have a pack of five or six themes that we shuffle around in the big deck, and what we do with our entire creative lives is look at these relatively few themes from a variety of different angles. 

If we’re lucky.  If we’re good artists.  If we’re terrible, we just make the same thing over and over again in a fugue of ego that everyone else can see, but we cannot.
Fosse had his themes, surely, but he was not one of those tone-deaf artists with one interesting trick.  Fosse was the original trickster-figure himself, all angles, all the time, all-American.

His art wrap arms around the big stuff that Americans do, and do not, talk about openly— the connection between sexuality and power; the visceral feel of desire— any desire; boredom as a kind of small death; manipulation of the body, of one’s life, of someone else, of an object.

His characters were tricksters, Americans, all of them, but some were more practiced than others.

Fosse liked people with visible character flaws. (And so do we.  We never admit this preference, do we?) 

Fosse enjoyed putting his characters in dark and gritty situations. (Quick.  Check your TV.  How many American crime or hospital procedural dramas are on tonight?  Mm-hmm.  I thought so.)

Everything in the Fosse world feels like it has a lot of soot on it that needs wiping off.  Underneath the soot, you’d find a diamond or an angel or a perfect baseball.    

The problem with Fosse’s soot isn’t that it’s there.  The problem is that he’s so damn casual about it.

The American subconscious is like that too, by the way. 

Consciously, we vocally show our appreciation for Precious Moments figurines; low-cal fusion foods; Madonna’s halftime show at the Super Bowl; and straight, white teeth. 

Secretly though, the American subconscious[iii] craves vampires; extra cheese in crazy amounts; Janet Jackson’s halftime show at the Super Bowl; and back tattoos.

We cannot reconcile one half with the other, so America tries to shove its subconscious off onto particular areas of the country.[iv] 

The real trouble is that we’re not seeing that these are two halves of the same whole.  They aren’t even halves.  You don’t get the venal without the spiritual. 

The same American body that can fold its arms into so many different forms of prayer can also slip into the sinewy walk that crosses our television screen daily.

Fosse knew this fact of the American Heart of Darkness.

You can see it in All That Jazz when he obsessively takes us through his breakneck day at a breakneck pace, cigarette jammed soggily into his wry mouth in every single scene. 

We love our obsessive, success-oriented Americaness; we love the workaholic; we even love sexuality, though it makes us flinch instinctively.  

He was, and is, one of us.  And we can’t embrace his art.  It freaks us out.
Here’s the real truth of Fosse, Fosse as America’s sooty guardian of the subconscious—

Fosse saw who we were, and he didn’t judge. 

He took our neuroses in long-legged stride with long-fingered urbane humor.  He showed them to us, prettier, funnier, darker.  Sometimes we didn’t appreciate it.  Fosse rolled his eyes and moved on to the next thing.  And that’s a truly American trait.

I can stop pacing now. I think I’ve made my peace, to myself anyway, with this recent cycle of my Fosse obsession.

(It never goes away.  There are angles within angles of Fosse left for me to consider.)

Here.  Come closer.  I will whisper a little more truth if you care to hear it—

Fosse is one of my touchstones. 

That man is seated at the table of my soul taking the measure of me, and my honesty.

When I blink closer at my own desires, they are not abstract at all. 

They have Fosse-esque flourishes.

Should I look deeper still, Fosse’s smoke-carved face stares back at me with a jackal’s welcoming grin.

My soul loves a talent; my soul loves a trickster. 

And my soul?

My soul believes the talent and the trickster are one and the same.

More Fosse, More Love:

*Instant Bluebird! The Fosse Legacy Vs. The Michael Jackson Controversy

*5-Minute Dance Party [40 Day Dream]

[i] Chicago was originally written in the 1930s by Maurine Dallas Watkins as a play.   It was a commentary on a real wave of crimes of passion in Chicago and the media ridiculousness that surrounded these murders.

[ii]Other Fosse dance attributes— touching the hand to the hip and then to the hat and back to the hip; long, long, long leg extensions especially while seated or leaning; slouching; a pelvis thrust done in profile; sinewy rolls of the arms.  You’ve seen all of these things, everywhere— it’s easy to forget that they all come from one man.

[iii] Just so we’re square— yes, I am speaking in broad strokes.  No I am not an expert on the American Way of Life.  (All caps intended.)   Thank you for letting me take liberties, and for your graciousness, let me give you a hug.   (I am a hugger!)

[iv] I live in a “flyover” state.  I am fighting the temptation to say something ugly.  I need to sit here for a second until the feeling passes.  Okay.  I’m good.  Let us continue, shall we?  Take my arm, my friend.

The Bob Fosse Mash Note is probably my favorite of all of the Mash Notes I’ve written to date. I’m not sure if I love it because I love Fosse, or if I love it because I was surprised at how strongly I felt, and still feel, about Fosse’s legacy. This story originally ran on April 11, 2012, and its original reception wowed me.

Why a repost? Go here for a partial explanation as to why we’re reposting this week.

A NOTE: I mentioned late last week that I was going on a trip, right? Well, I am in BIG BEND U.S. NATIONAL PARK. It has panoramic vistas and one verrrrry crowded WiFi spot. (See the Bluebird Blvd. FB Page for pictures and links.)

Y’all know that I said I would do my darndest to be online each evening for a bit during these three nights in Big Bend to chat here on Bluebird Blvd, but the fact is— it’s too darn cold and dark, and the next time I will have access, the conditions will be… cold and dark.

What that means is that I’m going to have to catch up with everyone on Saturday afternoon. (Sorry for that!)

I took my very first hike today—ever— and I cannot wait to share some of those pictures. As I said yesterday and it still holds true— I feel very, VERY lucky to know all of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


THE BLUEBIRD BLVD. GENUINE PHOTOGRAPHY/STORY CONTEST CALL FOR ENTRIES: The GENUINE call for photos/self-portraits/100 word stories is open! See the link for deets and rules.


Mash Note Dept. | Diana Vreeland



Diana Vreeland in profile, smiling and giving the side-eye.



“For years I am and always have been looking out for girls to idealize because they are things to look up to, because they are perfect,” she wrote in her diary. But since she had never discovered “that girl or that woman,” she announced, “I shall be that girl.” [i]



I went through puberty in the mid-to-late 1980s, which to this day still feels like a rarefied hell of impossible tight dresses and supermodels with large teeth and big strange hair at odds with gravity.

It was a weird era in which to grow up, and weirder now to discuss it, but it’s summer as I’m telling this story all these years later, and summer is no time for trickery and flash.

When it gets as hot as it is today, it’s time to tell a front-facing truth.  Better yet, it’s time to tell a bare-faced truth about a woman I love a great deal.

But her story is tied up in mine for the moment, and to tell the story of Diana (pronounced DEE-ana) Vreeland, I must first tell you a bit more about myself.  At fifteen.

I told you today would be about the truth.



The summer I was fifteen I realized I was not going to be what was once called “a great beauty.”   A smooth door clicked shut.  I found myself on the outside of that singular experience, one I’d been second-guessing the whole of my sentient life up until that point, and, yes, I had lost.  I would not be “a great beauty.”

What no one can tell a fifteen year-old girl is that being “a great beauty” is no guarantee of a good life.  Beauty can be useful, or a nuisance, depending on your own temperament, and that a particular kind of early beauty carries a weight that can twist character.  Or not.  So much depends, again, on temperament.

Standing in that metaphorical hallway with the rest of my life stretching in front of me, I realized I had been freed up to be whomever I wanted. Who did I want to be? What did I want?

What I wanted was to find out what happened to other people like me who had been faced with these facts of geometry and the golden mean and time.  What did these unlikely figures do?  Which ones had gone on to find a way through the middle of beauty while still remaining themselves?

Ah.  There’s my real question, my friends.  I wanted to find a woman, the woman, who was no great beauty but cultivated the means of beauty.

A woman like that is a sword that can cut through silk.



Diana Vreeland laughing with model 1960s.



History is made by these rare creatures.  I know this now.

Women whose existence sliced wide swaths through beauty, shaping it to their own hip, and shoulder, and eye can be found in every dynasty and every culture.

They are the manicured finger that turns the axis of the world.

And who best typifies the kind of woman who gets the best cake?  Who shaped the style of three generations?  Who was once referred to as looking like “a cigar store Indian?”

Enter Diana Vreeland.

You can hold your applause to the end.



My mother bought me Vreeland’s autobiography, D.V.  After four pages of her breathless narrative I had found a muse, a maker, a weapon of great beauty, and a striking example of strange kindnesses.

Diana Vreeland (née Dalziel), in brief, was born in France to an American mother and British father.  She was raised mostly in New York, a budding scion of New York society, but bucked against that dull role by marrying the handsome, feckless Thomas Reed Vreeland.

Because Vreeland’s husband Reed was so unsuited to work (he did work though, always, just unsuccessfully), Diana took up the reigns of their finances when she was in her mid-30s after the pair had had had two sons.

Her society connections, her flamboyant graces, and her innate sense of style opened doors that would have normally remained closed to a woman like Vreeland.

She wasn’t connected enough.  She wasn’t pretty enough.  She wasn’t moneyed enough.

But, by golly, she had style to spare.  That’ll pick a few locks.



A broad sense of style is how Vreeland became the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and the ’50s. Through the whole of the 1960s, Vreeland maintained herself as Editor-in-Chief of Vogue.

When Vogue turned her out for the next generation of editors, Vreeland ran the newly created Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s[ii].

That was another thing to admire about Vreeland— she opened her own doors throughout her career.



Everything you love and appreciate about modern fashion, you owe to Diana Vreeland.  She discovered Lauren Bacall.  She shaped photographer Richard Avedon.  She inserted whimsy into fashion at the fore.  She made fashion magazines viable for women of all strata of society.  She created the role of fashion editor as scene maker and star.



It’s Vreeland you can thank for America’s budding awareness of the “Youthquake” of the 1960s and our knowledge of the great beauty Edie Sedgwick.

In fact, you can even thank Vreeland for helping Jackie Kennedy create her signature style during the White House years.  Vreeland advised the incoming First Lady to ask Oleg Cassini to make her clothes.  Pill box hats and silk Shantung suits anybody?


So, great beauty?  I love great beauty.

My life has been an unrelenting pursuit of the beautiful.

Do you know what I love more?

I love a woman whose idea of the world was so huge and so outlandish that she threw around amazing ideas as if they were tinsel.  And when those got used up, she came up with a dozen more.

I love a woman who lacquered the walls of her apartment a hell-brawny red and wrote an outrageous autobiography.

I love a woman who has strangeness and hugeness, a love of the new and the wild, and a respect for the old and the trusted.

I especially love a woman who has the skill to rearrange the world to suit her belief regarding what beauty could be.



But beauty is a small thing in the greater scheme of the world.

Vreeland taught me that too.

Vreeland taught me to live for bigger things, extraordinary things.

She taught me to make something of myself, to live in the world as we imagine it and as it actually exists.

In her autobiography D.V., Vreeland says that since antiquity the Dalziel Scottish family motto has been “I Dare.”

That’s the biggest thing she taught me, you see—to be almost always fearless in the face of terrible odds. So, Ms. Vreeland, if you’re listening, wherever you are—

I dare.






BB - MND - Diana Vreeland in Office


[i] That quote comes from a great story on Diana Vreeland in New York Magazine


[ii] You know that one event in New York every year where people get really, really, REALLY dressed up?  More than the Academy Awards? And the clothes are amazing? That’s the Met Costume Institute Gala.  You can thank Diana Vreeland for that, too.



A Bit More


On Bluebird Blvd.

I’ve written a bit about Vreeland before in In Your Image, Jolie-Laide (A List).

I’ve also written about my current theories about magazines in A Short and Only Slightly Bitter Guide to Shame-Inducing Periodicals.



You may want to read Diana Vreeland’s autobiography. It’s wonderful: [amazon text=D.V. – Diana Vreeland&asin=0810997436].

Shortly after I wrote this story, Her daughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland put out a definitive collection of Vreeland’s work with accompanying essays called [amazon text=The Eye Has to Travel&asin=0810997436]. It’s fantastic!

And there’s a new book coming out! [amazon text=Diana Vreeland: The Modern Woman: The Bazaar Years, 1936-1962&asin=0847846083] by her grandson, Alexander Vreeland. I’m exceedingly excited about this one—I really like Vreeland best when she’s brash and doesn’t give a d-a-m-n, which is her exemplified at Bazaar, I think.

Mash Note Dept.: The Dick Van Dyke Show


All noises become a single hum at the center of summer, and, should you squint at the center of the center of that local hum, you will see me bent into the shape of an s with one dog crooked under an arm and the other dog crooked behind my legs, watching The Dick Van Dyke Show.

I’m not looking for escapism. I am trying to keep hold of my sense of humor with both of my sweaty strong little hands. To do that with alacrity, I need to reach into my secret arsenal of books and movies and stories told with the curtains closed and the fans going strong and the dogs panting.

In short, I need everything I’ve have to give everything I’ve got.

The Dick Van Dyke Show makes me so ridiculously happy that it’s the first thing I consider when I am trying to keep my sense of humor intact.

It’s funny because it’s a show I never had any interest in watching. As far as classic television goes, The Dick Van Dyke Show remains overlooked in the most obvious places.

Syndicated television programmers tended to pass this show over in the 1970s in favor of other, quirkier offerings from the same period. I would have been too young to experience any early syndication, and I never did catch The Dick Van Dyke Show on current cable revival channels.

I’ve only had cable television twice in my life for brief instances because I just don’t like cable TV. I have no valuable qualifiers to offer. It’s preference at work here.

Know also that I didn’t watch TV much at all until I was an adult.

When I finally did watch TV (on DVD, from the video store, and, later, Netflix), I tried a little bit of everything at least once.

It was only a matter of time before I worked my way into the early 1960s world of Dick Van Dyke.

The show itself is a simple situation comedy based on the ensemble-comedy model that had started to come into vogue in the early 1960s. (No single character dominates the plot lines in an ensemble sitcom.)

The ensemble of The Dick Van Dyke Show proved to be a great mix of people who knew how to play well with one another and play off of one another, beautifully.

Dick Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie, head writer of The Alan Brady Show (vaudevillian-type variety comedy based around a single star— very popular in the 1950s), who splits time between home and the office.

At home are his wife and his son. At work, Rob Petrie interacts with his two writers, Buddy Sorrel (played by “The Human Joke Machine,” Morey Amsterdam, veteran vaudevillian and TV pioneer) and Sally Rodgers (the aptly casted Rose Marie, another veteran vaudevillian and multi-talent).


After watching one or two episodes five years ago, I realized three things:

First, The Dick Van Dyke Show is shockingly modern. You had women in the workplace like Sally Rodgers and the various professional performers who provided color to bigger stories.

You have two married adults, Rob and Laurie Petrie (the ingenue Mary Tyler Moore) who defer to each other over large matters. The Petries have one son, Ritchie (Larry Matthews), who, while not dumb, is not some cute, wisecracking adult-in-miniature.

Second, to understand comedy’s evolution from vaudeville to contemporary TV offerings, you need to watch the places where vaudeville transitioned from the stage to the small screen, which was vaudeville’s natural jumping-off point. The Dick Van Dyke Show is a great example of the second wave of television (after, say, the late, great Ernie Kovacs).

While less broad experimentation in the medium happened in the early 1960s, more refined offerings, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, started to emerge in unexpected places.

Third, my friend Phillip pointed out recently that the vocabulary of comedy is as closely guarded as the techniques of stage magic. And he’s right. Like stage magic, there are tricks and techniques and these all have names— but we, the audience, don’t know them. Unless you’ve delved deep into that world, you won’t know what goes into the making of a joke.

In both stage magic and comedy, knowing how it’s done tends to kill the sustained illusion of effortlessness.

However, should you want to learn the techniques of comedy— the set-up/knock-down joke; the triple; the straight man; the pratfall— you don’t need to go any farther than The Dick Van Dyke Show. Van Dyke himself was a self-taught wunderkind who could do everything from tap dancing, to playing the piano, to playing the straight man, to pratfalls and pantomimes so open and expressive the genius of it is stunning.

Then you have Mary Tyler Moore, a dancer with excellent comic timing, great at a set-em-up/knock-em-down joke, and capable of playing the straight man or the comic. Rose Marie, who played Sally Rodgers, was a former baby vaudevillian who was known for her gorgeous, throaty voice, but she also danced, played the piano, did imitations, and could also play the straight man or the comic.

She, along with Morey Amsterdam, who played Buddy Sorrel, perfected TV’s first experience of “the triple”— where the straight man sets up a joke, the comedian gives a funny unexpected answers, the straight man gives another funny unexpected answer, and then the comedian completes the triple by giving the one answer you’d never expect.

Back to the couch, the hum, the dogs, the s-shaped me and the summer heat— should ever I forget my sense of humor, The Dick Van Dyke Show is there to urge me to sit up a little straighter, to take my overheated state a little more lightly, and to consider all the possibilities that are in front of me, right on this magical TV screen.

While I’m not looking forward to the brutal temperatures of South Texas summers, I am leaning into what I have learned— humor is powerful, my friends. It can turn the crankiest overheated Bluebird into the grand imaginer of pratfalls, of perfectly-executed jokes, of song and dance routines, of ordinary, everyday, interpersonal magic.

Morey Amsterdam 1952



Why did I not watch TV most of my life? Mash Note Dept.: My Friend Phillip will answer this odd question once and for all time!
Should you want to read more on The Dick Van Dyke Show— because there is SO much I haven’t discussed here about its progressive politics and its techniques, you can go to the Museum of Broadcast Television. For more tidbits and factoids, IMDB has done a great job of putting together the fundamentals of this seminal sitcom.


Mash Note Dept. : Elizabeth Gilbert

Colorful WPA poster from Iowa recommending summer reading.

Last Thursday, I zigzagged aimlessly through the fiction area of the main public library.

I had forgotten my list of books, and I am terrible with names.   With no list to map my way, I wandered up and down, up and down the rows, squinting sideways at titles, trying to remember a single thing I wanted to read.

What I wanted was a beautiful book.   Any beautiful book.  I wanted to be blown away by a story.

I stood there with my heavy bag of books cutting into my shoulder and I waited for a magic book to appear.

Sometimes that works.

Sometimes I turn and there it is!  Exactly the book I need, when I need it.

And sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and I look like what I am:  a grown woman wearing a puzzle for a face in the middle of the fiction section of the library.

My hand grabbed the strap of my bag and slung it down on the carpet, followed by the rest of me.  I sat on the floor of row AL through AZ, craning up, making increasingly squinty sad faces and scanning the shelves.

Finding that magical book, whatever it is, cannot be planned.  In 2006, I walked outside a small antiquarian bookshop and found a brand new copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love on sale.   Somehow I knew of this book—it was already in paperback.  It was already a bestseller.  Still, Eat Pray Love had not yet become the worldwide phenomenon that would be made into a mega-budget movie.

The book was merely a memoir, and it opens like this:


    When you’re traveling in India—especially through holy sites and Ashrams—you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks. 


Simple and direct.  I fell in love with Gilbert’s prose.  She has been a working writer all of her life, and the lean muscle of all those years of writing professionally shows through on the first page.

I sat down that afternoon with The Husband with my newly-purchased book, and drank iced coffee at the Starbucks next door.  He let me read while he stared at birds making nests in the new spring branches.  I chuckled to myself at certain parts.  Shook my head.  Gasped.

Gorgeous, gorgeous writing.  Gilbert cuts close to the bone with the things she has to say about her life, her failure, her desires, and her discoveries about who she is as a woman.

The greatest irony of the super-mega-boom-bang worldwide bestseller sensation  Eat Pray Love is that—oh, you are going to love this—prior to this book, Gilbert was known primarily for writing great masculine prose.

Let that sink in for a second, will you?  Yes, as it turns out, we’re still dividing writing up by gender.  There are women’s books and men’s books and  “masculine” prose and “feminine” prose and all that color-coded behooverloofah that I cannot stand.

However, consider, maybe, the implications of Gilbert’s background as “masculine writer” on this handcrafted memoir about her experiences with divorce, travel, language, spiritual exploration, and yes, unexpectedly, love.

Does this knowledge in any way change your perception of super-mega-boom-bang worldwide bestseller sensation Eat Pray Love?

Should it change your perception of Gilbert’s memoir?  What about her other writings?

What I’m scratching in the dust to find is the answer to this one question (and it’s a biggie):

What do we expect from a novel?

Oh, wait. Belay that. The questions are bubbling out of me, now.  I am a veritable fount of questions:

Does it need to be a bestseller to be good?

Must it be “masculine” or “feminine”?

Do readers care whether the writing is decent?

And what’s decent these days?

Does it have to be a particular genre?

Do genres drive us away? Attract us?

Does the bestseller status turn more practiced readers off?

I have no absolute answers to any of the above questions.   

Really? Really.

When I find myself wandering the fiction section without a map and I do not want to read the umpty-ump thousands of novels I’ve already read, I start to get a little, a lot nervous. 

And I don’t want to be nervous, I want to fall in love with lines like:

    After the staid sobriety of Venice, it’s nice to be back [in Rome] where I can see a man in a leopard skin jacket walking past a pair of teenagers making out in the middle of the street.


A good writer, I think, is someone with whom you develop a relationship. 

It’s a relationship built on some pretty strange devices—words, which are inadequate and lumpy—but the contract between these friends is simple:  I will tell you a story, and if it is good enough, you will listen all the way through

What I loved most about Eat, Pray, Love and an earlier biography Gilbert wrote, The Last American Man, is that she’s exactly the kind of friend you’d want to write a successful book.

Gilbert speaks well of the people she meets.  She’s enthusiastic about new ideas, new foods, new places.  She’s full-to-brimming with faults that she readily admits to cultivating, and she doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for her or fix her life.

I don’t feel the need to know her, personally; I’ve got three of her books—(including her most recent and insightful follow-up memoir Committed)—in their proper places on my bookshelves.  That’s more than enough.

(It would be nice to meet her, I guess, right before the part where I have a heart attack in her presence.   I go gawp-faced around people I admire unless I’m interviewing them professionally.  As a civilian, I am—what’s the word?  Ah, yes.  Freakishly nervous.)

    My habit of wandering through this world oblivious to my physical orientation, in addition to my decision to have stepped outside the containing network of marriage and family, makes me—for Balinese purposes—something like a ghost.


When I read this book the first time, I was standing at my own crossroads outside of the comfortable intersection of the American concept of balance.   I wasn’t looking to run away to Bali.  I was looking to see how other women had gotten unstuck from a bad turn, how other women had crossed over to the next thing, and the next.

I can’t say that Gilbert’s book fixed my figuring out my balance at-the-crossroads problem. I fixed it. Time fixed it.

Reading such clean prose helped a great deal to soothe my worries. 

It doesn’t hurt that I “hear” the writer speaking as I read, and I read quickly. 

It is like listening to a conversation at a normal clip. 

Gilbert’s voice as a writer is similar to listening to someone who sings without a great deal of ornamentation, but with a clarity and a power and a style all her own.
So, this afternoon, when I am wandering the aisles of the library (because I will have forgotten my list.  Again.), please do send me some kind thoughts about finding a book. 

A beautiful book. 

A magical book, even. 

I am getting ready to work on my next big writing project this summer and I’d like to be sent sailing with a nice cool drink of beautiful writing.  It’s not too much to ask, is it?

A book like a bird, like a song, like a voyage, like a friend who knows how to catch your ear with the simplest sentence—

    I said, “So if heaven is love, the hell is…”

    “Love, too,” he said.

    I sat with that one for awhile, trying to make the math work. 

Okay, I was too shy to ask this question earlier, but I’m going to pose it now:

I’m looking for new reading.

What book or books do you consider magical?

Your book(s) suggestion does not need to be fiction. It can be history or science or cartography or children’s lit. Anything!

(I’m gonna make sure I get out of the house with my list this time!)

Mash Note Dept. | Jacques Tati





The universe holds a special place in its starry heart for comedians.

And at the core of its deepest heart, you will find [amazon text=Jacques Tati&asin=B00LUSUVB4].



Jacques Tati was a filmmaker and a comedic actor— at least that’s how his biography is phrased.

His real vocation was pointing a stylized lens at the baffling post-World War II world, then inserting his own stork-tall, childlike visage at the center of it.



His magic knows no boundaries of date or age or time.

I first saw Jacques Tati in M. Hulot’s debut film, “[amazon text=Mr. Hulot’s Holiday&asin=B00005A8TV]” (Les Vacances de M. Hulot — 1953), which I watched with my husband.  (He saw the film as a child in a revival movie theater and loved it.)



Tati is most famous for his silent character, Mr. Hulot.

What amazed me then, and now, is the clean cut of Tati’s movie, combined with the frivolous gestures that moves the action along.

Nothing in particular happens during Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, but there’s no fat, no self-indulgent noodling around by Tati as Hulot.

Considering he also directed this film, it stuns me how tightly wrought the movie was, and is.



jacques Tati stares down a modern sculpture for Life Magazine



The undergarments of comedy are built of daily tragedies.

Hidden details of Jacques Tati’s life invoked new speculation in the last two years, due to the posthumous animated film “[amazon text=The Illusionist&asin=B003UESJII]” (L’Illusionniste).

The recent film is based on a buried script penned by Tati, but made by animator/cinematographer, Sylvain Chomet (known for [amazon text=The Triplets of Belleville&asin=B0001IN0MQ]).

The release of “The Illusionist” brought up a lot of unsavory questions about Tati and his first romance— which resulted in a child he never saw.

Those old, resurfaced rumors intimate that this script was Tati’s apology to his first daughter, but it is, as many things are, utterly unverifiable.



I watched twenty minutes of The Illusionist and had to stop.

While Tati’s original films put a baffled man at the center of a baffling world, “The Illusionist” takes a darker turn. This animated feature puts an unnamed performer in a world that does not need him any more.

These days, I am not interested in the story of someone who no longer belongs to this world.

And if I am going to read, watch, or listen to the story of a man displaced by modernity, please show me the comedic moment— take me deeper into the truth inside the truth.



Laughter is keyed to open those hard locks. Give me laughter.

Give me Tati’s Mr. Hulot, trying and failing to understand the nuances of the fresh and unfamiliar.

Let me see his wide eyes once more, blinking wonderfully at a future filled with the bright gadgetry of distraction, and then, I will laugh.

And I think you will laugh too.

Mr. Hulot is familiar. Mr. Hulot? He is us.





PSST!  I thought you might enjoy Roger Ebert’s original review of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.



Mash Note Dept. : Sylvia Plath



I spend a meaty amount of time thinking about Sylvia Plath. 

My thoughts on Plath aren’t moribund or peculiar— I got over the facts of her death as a teenager.  What I obsess over in Plath is what anyone should obsess over in Plath and that is her poetry.

Plath was the first female poet I ever met who said the things I could not say.  She was only the second modern poet who made me want to write poetry in a way that is near-deadly (the first being T.S. Eliot, a fist in a three-piece suit, really.  In poetry circles, he’s a god.)

And when I say I met her, I mean I met her on the page, where she still lives and where her words crackle and drag.  She’s one of those writers everyone loves, or hates.  Her work polarizes people, and violent arguments have been known to break out in college lecture halls over the meaning of her work. Fistfights.

Yeah, the lady is that powerful.
What I think is often misunderstood about Plath is what she wanted.  To know who someone is, first know what they want.  Plath wanted to be a poet.  A big, famous poet. 

She didn’t give a flying fig for much else besides poetry.  Plath did love her husband, but she loved him first as a poet.  And she did well by her children up to a point— and that point is the ending of her personal story, one we all know well enough that I feel comfortable sailing past it right now.

Plath was a poet’s poet.  In her early years, she wrote reams of technically brilliant poetry that works meter up to a sweat, but does not exhibit the fury in the soul of her later works.

The “ear” of the early poems is akin to one of those brilliant child prodigy musicians who can’t seem to find the heart of a piece of music because they have not experienced non-musical disappointment yet.
Unfortunately, Plath grew into disappointment in her twenties.  Fortunately, she also grew as a poet.  Her ear improved.  Her pain deepened. 

Hughes is largely responsible for pushing her forward into finding the dangerous language that makes up her later work.  First, he was her reader.  Secondly, he was her folly.  Lastly, he was the fulcrum that set her final poems in motion, the furious ones, the vivid ones, the ones we love best.

Second-wave feminists later claimed that Hughes metaphorically “killed” Plath.  That he was largely “predatory” and she was his “prey,” which does not reflect the nature of their marriage as much as it shows the level of victimization those early second-wave feminists felt at the hands of the Patriarchal Gods of Literature.

They weren’t wrong about the victimization; they were wrong about who the victims were in the Plath-Hughes story.  In that tale, everyone gets hurt.
Because of sticky wickets like the predator-prey killing whatnot, it’s hard to write about Plath, and harder still to explain why I think she’s more relevant now than ever. 

She was her generation’s literary reality television star.  She outed her husband’s mistress in her poem Lesbos; she called her father a b—–d in Daddy.  Her words swung wide and hit their mark.  Again.  Again.  And again.

For younger writers, discovering Plath was akin to discovering the “other” history of women’s writing.  Instead of candles burning at both ends in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sweet but naughty world, Plath douses entire rooms in metaphorical kerosene and strikes a match off of her teeth.  Blammo.

I was shocked to watch someone be so ribald and rough on the page, but not cruel.  (Anne Sexton?  Mean.  Can’t stand her.  Mean and weird.  I know some of you all love her, but I find her derivative of Plath at best.  Sexton is one of my blind spots, so don’t take my word as poetic gospel truth.)

I was shocked to discover that you could throw in words from the street and swirl them with other languages and make it come out all right.

I was shocked that she revealed everything about herself that she could in a sharp fan-dance of language without blathering all over the page.
I’m still shocked by Plath. 

When I sit down to write a draft of a poem, Plath is never far from my thoughts.  She is both my literary ancestor and my Mount Everest.  To read her work is to immerse myself into a world where words, all words, count for something, and that roll of the wrist that looks so random?  It’s not.  It’s practiced.  And it’s deadly.


If you would like to know a little more about Sylvia Plath and read a few poems on your own, I adore The Academy of American Poets as a resource.  Their page on Sylvia Plath can be found here.


Mash Note Dept. : My Friend Phillip


NAB Seal of Good Practice

I came late to television watching as a pastime. Very, very late. 

In fact, I didn’t own a working television set until my mid 20s, and I really didn’t watch that television set with any serious intent for at least three years after its— and my husband’s— arrival in my life.

Before you get weirded out by my limited television upbringing, keep in mind the following facts that are germane to this discussion:  I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a time when TV provided such scintillating offerings as Full House and Charles In Charge. I was raised during the end of the era where television went off the air after a certain hour and every TV set sported a spiffy pair of rabbit ears.

Frankly, TV is not that interesting when there are only four channels available and three of them have sitcoms where the lead actor is wearing suspenders and the fourth has the Murfnerp-Larrer Newsing Hour for two hours each evening.

Despite these soft-serve shows, my mother put strict parameters around my television viewing so that I would not mindlessly watch whatever was on the screen.  (Also, there were limits to my mother’s patience with bad television.  She exercised veto power gently though.)

The best answer I can provide about my limited television watching as a child is that I was so busy doing the things that I wanted to do and I never felt as though I was missing out on much of anything.
Here’s the short version of my childhood:

I had six hours of dance classes a week and practiced at home every day.

I had piano lessons, which meant I had to budget time for practicing piano.

I read a great deal and I made things and I listened to a lot of music and went to the library every week.

At seven, I started studying writing, first in short stabs, then in longer stretches.   (My mother enrolled me in my first writing workshop when I was fourteen.)

It may not have been your ideal childhood, but some of my best memories rise like steam from a coffee cup when I think about sitting in my room on the second floor of my mother’s house with a notebook on the vintage lap table my grandmother bought me from the thrift store, listening to one of my mother’s first-pressing Beatles records on the bed my mother built in a woodshop class.

Light streamed through the trees in golden ribbons that wrapped my windows in a gentle glow, and all was fine in the world as far as I knew it.

Family watching television 1958

Not everything was perfect about this arrangement.

Minimum TV watching means that I lost the thread of references passed in childhood conversation.

Some shows I was not allowed to watch out of hand— The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance, was a show my mother thought would make me addlepated.

(Given how absorptive my brain is for visual goofiness, she was probably right.)

Those few times I insisted on watching the worst television had to offer,  my mother sat there saying, “And now this character is going to say this.  Then that character is going to do that.”

I was baffled.  “How do you know?”

“I just do.”

And wouldn’t you know it, she was right!  Every single time!

I thought my mother was magical, you all, just magical.  How in the world could she predict the storyline or the punchline to almost everything we watched together?  I was in awe.

Still, I didn’t watch much television.  Even when I moved out of the house, I didn’t seek it out, really, because what I needed most when I lived on my own was a working toaster.  And I had one of those.  So, I was pretty well set.

Grundig Labor 1952

In adulthood though, my situation changed.

I found myself having to do menial tasks for which television is a perfect partner.  The problem was— I didn’t know how to watch the damn thing.  Or what to watch.

The Husband tried; he really did try.  His favorite program is The Andy Griffith Show, so I teethed on that at first but I really wasn’t getting it.  Our friend Phillip had to step in when I didn’t understand what else there was to watch; he gently took my hand, and put a bunch of TV shows on DVD in my upturned fingers.

“Start with Babylon 5,” he said.  “It’s one of the first television shows to be designed with a long-arc narrative form, like a novel.  The clothes are silly, but the plot is not.”

Oh!  I thought.  It’s a show that’s like a book!  I can watch that.

And I did watch it— from start to finish.  The Husband watched also.  Babylon 5 isn’t a show that The Husband or I would have picked out of a lineup, but it turned out to be so good, I couldn’t stop consuming episode after episode, quickly.

(Now, keep in mind the costume designer was obviously working with a limited budget for the first few seasons, which means it looks like she sourced all of her character garments from a fire sale at World Market.  Lots and LOTS of kente cloth pillbox hats turn up early on.  I don’t mean to badger on about it, but the clothes are pretty silly at first.)

TV-kamera 1950

Three weeks later, I called up Phillip.

“Okay.  I watched Babylon 5.  What’s next?”

You watched the whole thing?  said Phillip.

“Well, yeah.”

“All the miniseries and the spin-off show?”

“Everything but the spin-off show.  I tried.  I didn’t like it.  But I watched the extras.  Did you know they put all sorts of things on the extras?”

“Yes,” said Phillip.  “I did.”  ( Phillip is a journalist and film critic of many years standing.   His education on these subjects is enormous.  But, thankfully, so is his patience for the TV and movie unintiated like myself.)

“Let me think,” Phillip said.  The line went quiet for a moment while he ransacked his brain sorting out what I should watch next.  I heard a pencil scribbling on paper.  Was he working out equations involving bluebirds and television?

He came back on the line.  “There’s a new show out.  To be honest, it’s not new, but it’s a reinvention of an older show.  It’s called Battlestar Galactica.”

I wrinkled my nose and looked at the phone.  “Are you sure?”

“It just started this year.  It’s like Babylon 5 in that it works with a long-arc narrative structure.  It will help you tighten up your plots as a writer, and that’s something you’ve been worrying about lately.  Look.  I’ll mail you my copy of the first season, which just came out on DVD.”

I hesitated.  “Okay?”

“Check your mailbox in a few days.  I’ll get it in the mail today.”


Captain Warren Chaney (seated) on set of U.S. Dept. of Army Broadcast Production

Since that conversation, I have seen an immense amount of television.

I’ve watched everything from Deadwood to all of the PBS “House” series to last fall’s opening line-up. I have seen television shows from many countries all over the world (when I get ahold of them, anyway). I have even seen the truthitudiness of reality television many times. Fascinating!

Once Phillip wedged open the door and helped me walk through it, I learned to adore television. The miracle of video stores, the public library, and later, Netflix made my first crude searches for TV shows easier, then revealed their sophisticated offerings once I knew what to consider.

At the same time, Phillip took me— patiently, so patiently— through each and every trope and trick in the television medium.
Because of all this coaching and watching and learning, today I watch television with a discerning eye.

Phillip was right— if you want to understand how plot structure works, you need to watch TV.

And if you want to know how to structure dialogue, go no further than the big, flickering box with the moving pictures.

These days, before the opening scene of a new show finishes playing out, I know exactly what the writers were trying to do and (more or less) how they plan to execute their ideas.

It’s like knowing a series of intricate magic tricks, a slight of hand, a bit of verbal patter to distract you so that you will gape in disbelief when the doves emerge from the magician’s sleeve.

All basic plots since the beginning of time follow a pattern, and that pattern shows up on television every single day.  You merely have to know what you’re looking for when you’ve got the thing on.

Keeping a notebook handy helps— especially if, like me, your short-term memory is squoodgy like fudge left out in the sun too long.
Because of Phillip, I love television. And movies. What an amazing gift Phillip has given me. It’s a whole world in and of itself.

He taught me something I could not figure out on my own.

He talked me through learning to watch TV so quietly that I didn’t get spooked.

(Please forgive this almost hyperbolic sounding statement, but understand that if you never watched TV, TV watching is a really weird experience.)

TV stoffen met plumeau / Dusting the television with a feather-brush

To this day, my friend Phillip is amazed that I didn’t watch television until I turned 28.

“But you taught me how to watch television,” I say, when the subject comes up.  “And now I know how plots work.  Thank you so much for opening up that world for me.”

I can hear Phillip smiling on the other end of the line.  Phillip is a writer.  A real writer. His laugh is a fist fight between an accordion and a stack of sandpaper, and when he laughs, I laugh, and that is a wonderful thing.

A pencil scribbles on a notebook pad.  He’ll have a suggestion for me soon, I just know it.  I can’t wait.

“Okay, so have you seen Walking Dead yet?”

“No,” I say.  “But I’m listening.  Tell me all about it.”

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R26738, Kombinierter Fernseh- und Rundfunkempfänger

Hey! Do you want to hear Phillip reading one of my essays in the voice of Christopher Walken? It’s really flapping great! The audiobook version of my essay is called “Walken Bare-Legged in a Dry-Land.”

Mash Note Dept. | Joan Didion



Once, a long time ago, I moved to Los Angeles, a city so large it defies the description of city.

The traffic from my apartment sounded as thick as an ocean, day and night, and the ocean, the few times I got near it, sounded like traffic, volatile and crashing and endless.

And in this place a long time ago, I discovered a writer I had not read before— whose voice, brittle and hard, made me tremble at the knees.  I was brash then, and a little mean on the inside, and I was under the mistaken impression that I knew what I was doing.

I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem in a single afternoon while sprawled on an olive green vintage couch with a curved back and brocade upholstery.  I was cloaked in jeans and a black t-shirt and a scowl.  (That was my uniform when I lived in L.A.  I wore a pair of broken-down black cockroach-stomper boots too.  It was all of a piece, really.)

That warm musty gold light of a Los Angeles sunset flamed and flared over the dingbat apartments through my useless picture window.

The view was traffic and crumbly ‘60s apartments like my own.  I turned the last page of the paperback copy of Slouching.  I closed the back cover with care, and still lying on the couch, I set the book on the cheetah-print hand-painted coffee table to my left.  I stared at the popcorn ceiling for five minutes, ten, and then, I swung my legs over the side and sat up abruptly.

And as I sat up to watch the sun burn out like the last red ash of a big fire in the window behind me, I knew then for the first time, really, something somebody should have told me, anyone, a stranger on the street, even.  Someone needed to put a hand on my mean little shoulder and say:

You don’t know what you’re doing, and you never will.  That is why you are a writer.

Well, to be honest, I don’t know if I would have listened had someone gently or rudely passed along this important bit of information.

It’s possible someone said this to me and I brushed it off.

It’s also possible that, had someone said this to me, I would not have understood what she was trying to say.

Joan Didion had to say it to me.  Not personally.  In one afternoon, and one book of essays, I learned the hardest lesson I had learned to that date:

You’re never gonna know what you’re doing.  Nobody does.  Especially writers.

Let me unfold myself off of that old olive green couch for a minute, and look you square and make Didion plain.

Joan Didion is a writer that many people picked up in the last few years due to a memoir she wrote about dealing with the death of her husband.  Now, she has a second book out that covers the horror of losing her daughter Quintana Roo, within months after her husband died.

What I find though, is that most people aren’t rooting around to see what else she has written.  Had they read The Year of Magical Thinking closely, they would have noticed that Didion’s first reader, the one who read all of her drafts, was her husband.  A fellow writer.  Had they read a few other things, they might have discovered that she lost her editor Henry Robbins, 33 years ago.  He was her second reader.

Here’s something to know about writers–all writers have primary and secondary readers.  These people, whether they are writers, editors or mainly a keen friend with a good eye, are the ones that the writer is writing for and to and any other preposition you can think of. 

We don’t even fit in the picture.  We are what arrive after the thing is written.  We are not participants in this process.  We are observers of the artifact that is left after the writer and her readers have done the dance of draft and redraft, revision and notation.

Didion’s readers were gone.  She remained.

It’s in her soul to survive, and when you read her early essays and fiction, you get the sense that she was rooting around, even then, looking for the survivors, trying to understand what makes a person take this path instead of that one.  This choice instead of that one.  

She wasn’t mean then, nor is she mean now.   However, Didion had an uncanny knack for hearing sirens in the night, for being with the wrong people at the right time, for watching things fall apart.

And between the lines of the essays in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and the one before that, The White Album, you know she too is trying not to fall apart, trying to hold it together.  She picked up her pen in a quiet room.  And she took out her notes and her clippings.  And she thought of her first reader, her husband John Gregory Dunne, in the next room. 

And she thought of her editor Henry, all the way in Manhattan, as she sat in that room in a row of dying mansions in Los Angeles of the mid-’60s.

Her pen touched the paper.  Her mind stroked the match of an idea into a light.

I imagine this essay, On Self Respect, written for Vogue, was first scrawled in this way in the middle of the night:

    In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues…. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Should you decide to read more Didion, I will tell you her words will trick you into thinking that what is happening in front of her was all under control. 

You may even mistake the reading as a pleasure because her hand is so steady with words and phrases, starkly poetic.  When you walk away though, you too may learn what I learned that long ago day on a couch in a dingbat apartment watching the sky flame and go out over Los Angeles:

We don’t know what we’re doing.  We’re trying to know what we do.  That’s why we’re human.

Today I still read Didion.  She’s another touchstone for me, a reminder of the way words can be tools or weapons.  I handle her work carefully; keep an eye on my own pulse.  Didion may be small in stature but she knows her weaponry and she knows how to use it.

Four years ago, I found a copy of a first edition of The White Album.

I tucked it into my bag the day that I took my old sole-broken cockroach stompers to a cobbler who specializes in hard luck cases like these old black boots of mine.  I sat in the waiting room of his small building, staring over the counter at the heavy machinery and the man weaving in-between it, a small man with a starched oxford shirt and an old heavy apron that brushed against his knees as he walked.

As I waited and watched, I read the first sentence of Didion’s White Album:

    We tell ourselves stories in order to live.


The cobbler called me to the counter.  He carefully looked over my boots, the broken seams of the fancystitching on the shaft , the trim pulling away from the dip at the tops, the bombed out interior where my feet had beaten down the insoles, and finally the soles themselves, splintered into so many pieces.  He sighed.

Mi’ja, these boots. You see this?  Had you brought me these boots before you tore the seam here, maybe then, I could have repaired them.  Like the ones you see up here on the shelf.  They look new, but they are not.  You did not care for these boots, and now…”

The cobbler shrugged expressively.

“…I am sorry.  You will have to find a new pair of boots.”

I thanked him in a small voice, and took my broken boots home.  I put the boots on a shelf and let them gather two year’s worth of dust.  I put The White Album on a shelf in another room, and that too, gathered dust.

Someday soon, I’m gonna get me another pair of boots.  A pair that I will shine and moisturize and love.  I’ve learned to protect my books from dust. 

And I learned how to wash away that mean little streak I’d been carrying around like a pebble in a boot for years. 

I may not know what I’m doing.  In fact, I’m glad I don’t.  What I do know, most days, is how to protect and nourish what I love.  It is good enough.  It is the toughest thing I own these days.


The Cultured Cowboy provided me with a well-written refresher on the names of the anatomy of a cowboy boot.

As you consider this essay, and Joan Didion,  please keep in mind that I only really discuss two of her early collections of essays.  She is an accomplished novelist as well,  and with her husband,  wrote several screenplays that became famous movies.

To know more about Didion, I find my way in her work by reading this interview from The Paris Review published in 1977.  Though this interview did not inform this essay,  I think it reflects Didion in a light that is not overly precious.  And I love that,  as I do not think Didion sees herself as overly precious.


Mash Note Dept. | Ernie Kovacs



Ernie Kovacs and his equally talented wife Edie Adams played off of one another beautifully on television.


I have the dubious distinction of being two types of person in one goofy package:  I am both an early adopter and a late adopter of trends, technology and general goods. 

Never at the same time, of course.

It’s equivalent to being the annoying friend who shows up an hour early to your party when your still in the shower, which is one type of person, and also being the friend who cancels at the last minute, with lots of apologies and a real, actual emergency, which is another type of person all together.

So, I fall on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to discovering trends, technology, and artists of all stripes.  I’m either early or late, but never quite on time.

This bowlegged extended metaphor is my hackneyed way of saying, “I’m so very sorry Ernie Kovacs, that I never knew you existed until four months ago when your rare footage was released on Netflix Instant via Roku.”

(And here is a great case of The Husband and I accidentally being early adopters by accident. My mother got The Husband a first generation Roku for his birthday.  Four years ago.  No one knew what Roku was then.  Even though I kept explaining how fantastic it was, everyone said: “Uh-huh?” and went on TiVoing everything for a few more years. I’m not exactly persuasive, even though I am ebullient. Oh well.)

Back to my apologies in fake beat-poet form:  “Ernie Kovacs!  You are the king!  Of modern television, both comedy and technology!  We owe!  A great debt!  To your freewheeling genius! And I’m sorry!  That!  I just! Found out!  About youuuuuu!”

On a whim one day, I added The Ernie Kovacs collection to our Netflix Instant Queue and let it sit there for a few months.  Right before Thanksgiving, when everything gains the gloss of pre-Christmas stress, I turned on this show after dinner because we both needed to not be additionally freaked out by our TV entertainment choices on top of looming holiday fun-time.

Within minutes of watching Kovacs glide his way through some great deadpan jokes on a grainy copy of a then-local morning show, I had fallen in love with him.

He was funny and lovely on television, a new medium at that time for Americans.  When a joke went splat, Kovacs shrugged, and threw another one at the camera.  That one might  fall flat too.  But, the third one, my friends, will hit you with the flaming arrow of spastic laughter.  It’s hard to imagine what I felt like watching this mustachioed grinning man talking to the camera (and the cameraman, an unusual comedic trick, even now) with the playfulness of a professional dancer.

He makes it look easy, this brand-new-at-the-time television comedy, and he makes it look fun to do.

And that, by anyone’s standards, is really, really hard.

When I was learning to dance and started to do solos, I was told, “Your job is to make dance look effortless.  As if it were nothing.  That’s the real trick.  It will take everything you have, and require stuff you don’t even know you have, yet.”

The rest of my artistic life has been in pursuit of this ideal:  the appearance of effortlessness.  And Ernie Kovacs has this quality of effortlessness naturally.  Or he makes it appear effortless.

And, in art, one is the same thing as another.  Because art is gestural playfulness and practiced illusion in a blazing package wrapped in a pretty bow, just for you, you, you.

Did I mention he’s television’s premier pioneer of comedy? 

If you watch SNL from the beginning of its inception, you’ll see the Kovacs influence.  Bringing out all the players at the end to wave at the cameras?  Kovacs.  The trope of talking to the producers and camera people like they do on late night talk shows?  Kovacs.  Playing around with the technical aspects of the medium such as adjusting the horizontal and vertical ratios and doing theme-based shows?  Kovacs.

Go and watch a little of the genius himself, that playful man, and you’ll come away wondering how you ever lived without him before now.

And we almost didn’t have any of his TV work at all. 

His second wife took what little money she had after he passed away unexpectedly in a car accident, and did a smart land grab of every bit of footage of every show she could find because his work was getting erased to make space for other, more contemporary shows.   (Edie Adams was an amazing, amazing singer, comedic artist, and person in her own right. You should look her up when you get a chance.)

    Here are the magical tricks and techniques I took from Kovac’s too-short  life and career:

    You can never hit a moving target.

    If one TV show wasn’t working out, he pitched another.  When that was in hiatus, he wrote a brilliant piece for early Mad Magazine.  Failure was about as normal as his eloquent, comedic shrug at a failed joke.


If you’re going to fail, fail as big as possible.

    And don’t whine about it.   If no one got his jokes or his TV show got yanked off of the air, he moved on and didn’t look back.  His life is a walking example of “Small people talk about each other.  Great people discuss ideas.”  Or something of that sort.


Everything will teach you what you need to know.

    I make it sound as though there was this great mysterious quality about the appearance of naturalness in his work.  Don’t be fooled.  He paid attention to everything was around him, and absorbed it, which leads to:


Play to your strengths and know who you are.

    He described himself and a “sound and sight man.”  And his jokes and gags are based off of sound and sight riffs, piled on top of one another like a delicious arrangement of falling dominoes.  Had he spent all his time trying to make jokes off of something that wasn’t his natural bent, pushing himself in areas that weren’t his native language, he would have gotten bogged down in  the details.


Keep trying new things.

    Although he played to his strengths, Kovacs was always, always trying something that he had not done before.  And he paid close attention to what he was creating behind the scenes.  He was always trying a trick you wouldn’t expect, and sometimes those tricks bombed in his face— which, with his panache, was even funnier than the original idea.

And Kovacs didn’t take himself too seriously.  He did his thing, which was comedy and early television, and he didn’t make a huge deal of his fame.  Kovacs was bigger than TV and TV comedy, and we know that, and he probably knew that, so there was no reason to mention this foregone conclusion.  And that makes me love Ernie Kovacs all the more.

There are two premier, made-with-love fan website that have been on the Internet for a long, long time.  Ernie Kovacs Dot Net is one of them, and Kovacsland Online is the other.

Ernie Kovacs is the official website. It is very, very nice!

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I actually had seen Ernie Kovacs in old issues and reprints of Mad Magazine from the early days. Here’s a short and sweet essay with pictures on his Mad articles.

You can find The Ernie Kovacs Collection, released in 2011 on Amazon or Netflix. But, here for your pleasure is a little snippet of Kovacs’ special magic:

Mash Note Dept. | Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson at the height of her writing powers

A rare photo of Shirley Jackson, famous writer and accidental domestic inspiration.

I consider myself domestically feral.  It’s a much nicer way of saying that I am about two steps above idiot when it comes to household chores.

Now, before you go off half-cocked thinking I wasn’t raised properly, I will state that I was taught how to clean, and I like it when things are clean.

But, given the choice between cleaning something the right way and discovering the one product or solvent that will damage the furniture, I tend to choose the latter.

I’m gifted in the art of destruction, I guess.

After nearly killing a window air-conditioning unit five years ago while attempting to clean it, I decided something must be done about my feral domesticity.

Portrait of William Faulker in middle-age with a wise or cautious look on his face.

William Faulkner would not worry about his feral domesticity

And so, I did what I always do when confronted with my lack of knowledge on a subject— I went to the library and looked up everything I could find on cleaning and domestic life. It may sound goofy, but it works.

That is how I crossed paths with Shirley Jackson.

Most of you know this writer from her famous short story, “[amazon text=The Lottery&asin=0374529531].”  You read it in high school or college, and found the end shocking.  (I’m not going to spoil the plot for you if you haven’t read it.  Go find a copy.  It’s amaaaazing.)

In addition to one highly praised short story, Jackson wrote six novels, all in the mystery-occult in a small-town vein, all literary and exquisite, and from my limited understanding (having read only one of her novels), all twisted as heck.

Her short story output was enormous, elephantine, and several collections are still in print, while older editions might turn up at your library.  Some of her stories have never been published for one reason or another.

As was typical for writers of her time, she wrote for major magazines, both heavy-hitters like The New Yorker as well as women’s magazines, like Good Housekeeping. (Those women’s publications had way more clout than they do now.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be asked to write treacly anecdotes about his children.  (Press photo by Carl Van Vechten.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be asked to write treacly anecdotes about his children. (Press photo by Carl Van Vechten.)


Jackson also wrote two memoir-esque books:  [amazon text=Life Among the Savages&asin=0143128043] and [amazon text=Raising Demons&asin=0143127292].

To say that I love these two books would be misleading.  I adore them.  I read both books twice a year, at least, and dip into them throughout the seasons just for the sheer pleasure of Jackson’s world.

Jackson didn’t go for the cheap thrills version of discussing her personal life.  She constructed two novels, essentially, episodic novels, using her children and spouse and townspeople as characters.  Jackson is her own character here— humorous, light-handed, and vague.

I hope I’m not exploding anyone’s fairy book dream here, but no memoir is “real.”

You know that, right?

A memoir is a construct, just as a novel is a construct, and the only difference is that we, the readers, pretend that the fourth wall is missing and we are walking around in the writer’s world.  Whereas, we the readers of novels know we’re walking around in some made up bullhockey.

Jackson cuts through all that double-pretending of the real-not-real personal story, and makes plain by her tone and stylized dialogue that this, too, is just story.  Not her life.  A narrative.

I think that’s brave.  And, strangely, real.

Besides teaching future generations how to write in different mediums, Shirley Jackson had to deal with being a writer during one of those periods when women who were writers were becoming increasingly ghettoized due to a rise of the “man’s man” writers, such as Ernest “Papa” Hemingway*.

A middle-aged Ernest Hemingway smiles from a seated position holding a drink in Cuba.

Does Hemingway appear concerned about his housekeeping skills? Nope.

Women writers were expected to pen floral and domestic tales, or Grand-Guignol soap operas about “ladies’ problems.”

(I’m not even sure how to qualify what that means, except, well, it’s definitely pejorative.)

So, she went the other way with her work, as women writers had done before her, during her time, and since her way-too-early death in 1965.

The issue that made Jackson different from some of her women writer contemporaries is that she had children.

Yup.  A serious woman writer with three children and a literary critic husband.  How revolutionary.   (Read those italics as bitterly sarcastic, please.)

Before penning Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, she spent most of her time writing novels and short stories that shocked readers into writing hate mail about this terrible woman and her scary stories.

Smiling Tennessee Williams in a tuxedo

Tennessee Williams was not asked about his favorite name-brand detergent.

Jackson turned her bright eye to her domestic life.

It was stylistically fresh at the time to write humorous anecdotes about raising children and household drudgery, as compared to the 19th century in which household work and child-rearing was akin to a sort of starched linen sainthood.

Writers like Jackson set fire to that starched linen saintly mother-housekeeper effigy and danced around it with silly glee.

At one point, Jackson even described Life Among the Savages as “a disrespectful memoir of my children,”  but it’s so much more than her pretty little quip claims.

This book, along with Raising Demons, provided me with a roadmap between the worlds of making writing (and photographs/drawings) and making a domestic life.

Jackson speaks plainly of her home. She enjoys her children without glorifying their ordinariness.  She loves her husband, but is not immune to his (hysterical to us) flaws. She makes ordinary meals and does ordinary chores.

Yet, in Jackson’s domestic life, anything can and will happen— refrigerators leak poison gas; her husband gets invited to judge a state beauty pageant, much to the curiosity/ribbing of local villagers; a child dreams an entire family of imaginary children who create real havoc in a department store; and life goes on and on.

Press photo of Graham Greene in middle age.

Graham Greene would not get excited over a new vacuum cleaner, I can assure you. (Press photo by by Yousuf Karsh, bromide print, 1964.)

Modern readers (and writers) may find it that curious not once does she ever mention writing in either of these books. Writing was the fundamental fact of her life.

And Jackson wrote prolifically.

My take on her choice to omit the daily writing details in her accounts of domesticity is that her readers knew she was writing, and these accounts were more evidence of that fact.

Also, for my taste, modern writers whine a bit about trying to “have it all.” Jackson’s generation knew you couldn’t “have it all.” What they had was enough, and if it wasn’t enough, they did more, or did without. (“Having it all” is a post-1960s construct anyway.) Jackson had her family and her writing, one informed the other, sometimes in ghastly ways through her fiction.

And to be utterly clear, I tried to have it all at one point because that is what women, and writers, of my generation try to do. The effort of attempting to make everything perfect turned me spastic. So, I stopped. (It took me awhile, but I did stop chasing this idiotic myth.)

What remains beloved to me is the of the pragmatism the character-version of Jackson in these two memoirs.  She and her family roll up their sleeves and deal directly with their lives.

I continue to learn so much from Jackson’s view of her time, even though she kept the fourth wall of her private home firmly intact.


Book: Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages.

Shirley Jackson – [amazon text=Life Among the Savages&asin=0143128043]


In the spirit of sharing, let me give you a glimpse into what I’ve gleaned from her two memoirs:

  • Writing books and keeping house do not require dramatic flair.  Drama is going to happen without your consent and invitation.  So, just get on with it.
  • Ordinary life is ripe with inspiration.  All the time.  Every day.
  • Never tell a story about someone who you wouldn’t tell, word-for-word, to his/her face.
  • There will always be dust.  There will not always be time to write books.
  • If you’re naturally macabre as a writer, lean into it and listen to the strange music it creates.  Jackson did, and never apologized for her taste or style.
  • Do you think “Papa” Hemingway was lambasted for his lack of domestic skills?  No, he was not.  He was a writer.  And so was Jackson.  And, so am I.  And if you’re reading this, I am assuming— so are you.
  • So, put down that dust mop.  Go get your pen.  And write, dammit.

*It’s odd that Hemingway is considered to be exclusively a writer for men because he wrote female characters who had dimension and complexity and actual human qualities. I adore Hemingway, which you can read about in Death of the Tarantula.

A new collection of Shirley Jackson’s work (!) was released in August 2015! I actually bought out-of-print editions of essay collections in order to read some of the works in this latest collection. Enjoy! [amazon text=Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings&asin=0812997662]