Sunday, November 6, 2011

Under the Influence

"Then I fell under the influence of Earnest Hemingway's short stories and Bob Dylan, and moved to Paris."

My dear wife, love of my life, listens to public radio to and from work. Whenever she hears something she thinks I'd like (NPR and I had a falling out when they canned Bob Edwards) she calls. This week, it was British actor Bill Nighy discussing his work, and his early life. He described moving to Paris "under the influence." I get it.

Good writing doesn't just tell a story, it moves the reader - to laugh, to cry, to action. Good writing empowers, it creates such intimate relationships that the characters become life-long friends, or mortal enemies. A local film critic wrote a fictional bicycle racing murder mystery that was brilliant. Two books later he killed off a main character, the wife of the original protagonist. I was devastated.

Even average books can leave a reader under the influence of a character, or a place. Shoeless Joe spawned the movie "Field of Dreams" but was an especially uneven read. Nevertheless.... A corn field baseball diamond that the spirits of dead players find? Incredible.

Almost forty years ago, a security guard working graveyard shift at Xerox Corporation in Upstate New York, I read Mitchner's Centennial. Suddenly, it was so clear - my destiny lay in Colorado. Don't ask me how I got from one to the other. In 1977 I loaded my meager belongings into an old Chevy and headed for Denver. Thirty-four years later - still here.

The writer in me celebrates these captivating works, and at the same time struggles to replicate those moments. If that seems a bit pretentious, it is the aspirational aspects of writing that drive my daily migration to the keyboard. Not for the notoriety, and the money isn't all that great for all but a few. The desire to move, to stir.... To have, for example, a J-school graduate daughter (I have two of them) effuse about something I've written, or to make my PhD candidate wife laugh. I'm often frustrated with my meager writing talents.
I'm not half bad for a late-in-life amateur (it's my blog, I can say so myself and my publisher, who sometimes reads these posts, would remind me that I work for her and to please be positive with prospective buyers within eyeshot). But I see things, think they'd be great additions to a story and then.... It all falls flat on its face. Allow me to offer a recent event as Exhibit A.

We were called to a vehicle on fire at an off ramp from C-470, a sort of interstate ring around the metro area. Burning cars and trucks aren't all that uncommon, especially on the roads that lead out of the mountains. Truckers occasionally cook their brakes, the resulting fires fairly tough to put out (something to do with the fire triangle heat thing). This one was unusual, for two reasons. First, it involved a small box trailer being towed by a pickup truck. Second....

It started a ten acre grass fire.

Grass fires are impressive. A slight breeze kicks in the afterburner, and one burning acre becomes five or six between "holy" and "shit." Consequently, the fire department sends an impressive array of big, expensive toys and a ton of folks to deal with each conflagration. And when the Big Red Machine gets rolling, little old me and my folks turn out for traffic control. The firefighters are very busy, setting up the incident command system and, eventually, putting water on the fire. Traffic control is what the "blue canaries" take care of.

Let me pause for a second. We have an extraordinarily good relationship with our firefighters. They are brave, capable men and women who often sleep in hour-long increments on a busy night, CUT HOLES in the roofs of burning buildings and come running when one of us is hurt. I can say that firefighters impress me every time they turn out. That doesn't stop me from indulging in a little rivalry banter. Anyway....

The off ramp was completely blocked by fire trucks and police cars, lights flashing, engines rumbling...we thought. Somehow, this business-suited thirty-something driving an expensive Saab picked through the maze and motored toward the blaze, now shooting flames thirty or so feet into the air. One of the cops had the presence of mind to intervene before the Swedish paint started to cook off. He pointed the way back to the interstate and provided escort. Walking toward us, he shook his head, an astonished smile on his face and he said....


Did you have to stop reading because you were laughing your ass off?

I didn't think so. That's the problem. Fifteen cops (three different jurisdictions) laughed so hard that ANOTHER car tried to sneak through while we were preoccupied. It was one of the funniest things I'd heard in weeks (and I carry a notebook and write a lot of this stuff down). It just doesn't translate to paper, because I don't have those kinds of skills.

Perhaps that is my lot in life - ringside seat to the greatest show on Earth, hit and miss on telling the stories. If only I hadn't fallen under the influence.

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