The Irreplaceable Memoir

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People are driven to express themselves. Each of us has a story and an urge to tell it. In my estimation no other medium is as effective in revealing the self as the irreplaceable memoir.Below are thoughts of various media for self-expression.Flash Memoir

In a world of texting and Twitter, the urge to self-express is constricted but still vibrant. A new ‘literary genre’ called Flash Memoir has emerged: storytelling within the confines of six words. (It’s close relative is  Flash Fiction!) The most famous of these Flash Writings is “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Attributed to Mr. Earnest Hemingway, it is purported to be a ‘novel’ produced to win a $10 bet. For writers less gifted than Mr. Hemingway, the best I can say about Flash Memoir is that it is brief. Most examples compel me to edit for wordiness.

Poignant as Hemingway’s terse ‘novel’ may be, too much is left unsaid. If one calls six words a ‘novel’, then arguably, the name on a headstone followed by the birth and death dates is a ‘memoir’. But that hyphen separating those dates doesn’t measure up.

Speed and brevity are not always an advance.

Letters

One long step backwards in our march to progress is the loss of writing personal letters. When did you last get a letter? I know people who have never, ever gotten a letter.

Consider what that loss means. My mother recently sent me a packet of letters written decades ago by her mother. My Gramma wrote Mom weekly and frequently more often. It was a conversation.

What a revelation. Each letter revealed Gramma’s personality and style. Her distinct voice and gentle wit brought innocuous events to life in a few lines. Descriptions of others were warm, revealing and conversational. Her hand writing was beautiful. They don’t teach cursive in schools anymore.

Historians always mined old letters for hints about the lives of writers beyond the names and dates. What can historians do in the future? Will anyone eagerly pour over millions of emails or ‘tweets’ to find that telling phrase? Better get started.

Of course, paper records are ephemeral too. I recently assisted in researching a man’s life. Born in Eastern Europe, he immigrated to the United States before WWI. He became a master carpenter working on the assembly lines in Detroit. However, two world wars and the communist regime destroyed the church in which this man’s birth records were kept. Statements he made about his past were contradictory.

He spelled his name so idiosyncratically that no record of him, nor anyone with that surname could be found. Alternate name spellings discovered far from his stated home town made a sure connection impossible. His origins and ancestry remain obscure. No letter or irreplaceable memoir exists with which to piece together a biography for his family. Was he was trying to obscure his past?

Family Trees

Another problem is posed by family trees which contain the barest sketches about possibly hundreds of ancestors over centuries. Names and dates may be associated with piracy, ministry, royalty, wars and migrations. But family trees share much with ‘flash fiction’ in that a very few words say but little. Without an irreplaceable memoir the names are familiar but remain bloodless.

Irreplaceable Memoir

The full-length memoir stands alone as an in depth, first-hand account, told as remembered but filtered through experience of life. Letters are invaluable but lack the cohesiveness of the memoir. Written in the heat of the moment, letters lack the long view a memoir offers.

Nothing matches the depth, breadth, and the context of the memoir. It can take interesting detours when desired but always has that unity of an individual’s life providing perspective.

Everyone has a story. Anyone can write a memoir. Often, the personal account of someone on history’s edge offers perspective that a major player cannot provide. A fresh, sustained point of view is simply unavailable by other means. A personal account can reveal emotions that inform the reader of far more than a ‘just the facts’ approach could convey.

A well written memoir of a multi-faceted life is a joy to read. Those who lack writing skills but still wish to tell their story may employ a ghostwriter.

Technology can be used to good effect here. Recorded interviews ensure the accuracy of the telling while preserving the flow of the narrative in the individual style of the story teller. The memoirist needs only to tell their story, in their words, as they remember it, and leave the paper work to the ‘ghost’.

Black Ice Breakdance

I didn’t want to get out of the car. It was very cold out there. And that wasn’t the worst of it.

Black ice can be deadly.

In what is darkly known in Minnesota as “the Theater of Seasons,” black ice could be the curtain call. A sunny winter’s day and melting snow promise a spring thaw. Come sunset, that runoff freezes into an invisible sheen sending unsuspecting drivers careening out of control and spinning off bridges or into oncoming traffic.

My friend Paul and I were driving to a W. C. Fields film festival.

Paul took the freeway exit and downshifted into the grade. But we hit the ice and spun out. Moments later his ’64 Ford became intimate with a towering snow bank accumulated over the last few months. Aiming back up the icy lane toward oncoming traffic, we were stuck.

The Ford’s radiator had a slow leak and a dense fog bank rose above the car.

My philosophy of cold weather clothing used to be based on intention. I intended to spend as little time outside as possible. Therefore, I didn’t encumber myself with boring items like gloves, mittens, hats, long underwear; anything which would be too warm, bulky, easy to lose, or geeky. Who needs all that crap when your sole purpose is to get from vehicle to building with record speed? I don’t need no stinking galoshes!

Though still in high school, I was old enough to know better. Now I keep blankets, extra jackets and ice scrapers in my trunk. And I live in Los Angeles.

And yes, now you know why that geek (me), wears socks to the beach. Nerve damage makes my feet feel cold in even the warmest weather.

The temperature had dropped about 30 degrees since dusk and now hovered around zero. I never liked negative numbers. Anything below zero was simply too damned cold.

We had no choice but to dig ourselves out before some driver with a bumper car fetish used us as human impact barriers. It actually wasn’t down to ‘we’, but to Paul, who had gloves.

One of the hub caps flew off when we hit the snow bank and that served as a makeshift snow shovel. I was pretty useless. While trying to keep my fingers from falling off, I warned on-coming drivers of their peril by waving my arms like Kevin McCarthy in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

“Wake up! They’re coming! The glaciers are coming!”

Then a cop arrived with his flashers on. He pulled into the ramp and idled his well heated car. Nothing slows a driver down like police flashers.

He rolled down his window when we got to him.

The cop said, “Do you know you are headed the wrong way up the ramp?” He stopped to tell us that? Did he think we were idiots?

“Uh, yes officer. We spun out on the ice and are working to get turned around now.”

The cop nodded and rolled up his window. I would hate for him to get a chill.

Incredulous, I asked, “Isn’t he going to help us?”

Paul said, “Shut up.”

Paul redoubled his efforts with the hub cap. I worked at restoring sluggish blood flow to my toes by jumping up and down. I worried that the jarring would break my ears off like frosty potato chips.

I briefly considered what I could get me into that warm cop car, but opted for the cold.

This weather was a confirmation of what I had always believed; I was witnessing the beginning of another ice age. Minnesota’s biggest industry would be melting mile high glaciers to provide the world with fresh water and ice cubes. I was certain of it. Global warming is not a threat but a salvation.

Paul freed his car and he safely pulled it around the police car and onto the boulevard. He pulled over and killed the engine.

Then we watched as the cop tried to back his car back down the ramp. He was stuck. His spinning rear wheels couldn’t gain traction on the slick ice to free the frozen front wheels.

We approached the cruiser and the cop rolled down his window.

I asked him, “Do you know you are headed the wrong way up the ramp?”

The cop looked at me about the same way I looked at him a few minutes before.

Paul interjected, “We’ll help push you.”

The cop closed his window and we positioned ourselves at the front of his car. Our efforts combined with high speed revs finally freed the car. We nodded to him and the cop left without further incident.

Paul and I got to the screening in time to see Fields’ “A Fatal Glass of Beer”. The main laugh line in the film was Fields repeated declaration, “’Tain’t a fit night out for man… nor beast.”

Ain’t it the truth?

Sunny, Sleepy San Raphael

The drive up the California coast is one of the most beautiful journeys in the world. My wife and I drove it a while back, and we still talk about it.

We planned to tour the wine country around Sonoma. I was pleased to discover a reasonably priced hotel located in the ‘gateway to wine country,’ San Raphael, CA.

Ah, San Raphael! It sounds like a sleepy little village, populated with charming neighbors and tasteful tapas bars. By day it is an attractive town. But don’t let the sun set on you in sleepy San Raphael.

More likely, those villagers lack sleep because of the revving of motorcycles in the wee hours of the night. Should I have been concerned that the motel’s website is spelled ‘villainn’?

San Raphael may be the gateway to wine country, but it is also the back door to San Quentin Federal Prison, ‘freeway close’ as they say.

San Raphael appears to be the ‘other city by the bay.’ This is where the prison guards and other service personnel live. It is also where friends and relatives of inmates await their release. And, I suspect it is the first ‘home away from home’ for many who do exit from San Q.

Incidentally, San Quentin is legendary as prisons go. Many of my favorite jazz musicians made their residence there. How bad could it be? Yet, as finishing schools go, I wouldn’t want my daughter to attend it, nor to date any of its residents.

The scenic neighboring town of Tiberon appears to have more lawyers per capita than any municipality outside of Washington DC.

That morning, I awoke with the distinct memory of the word ‘sloat’ appearing in my dream. This is not a word I commonly think of or dream about. However, as we drove up to our quaint motel in San Raphael, directly across the street was a gardening nursery bearing the name “Sloat”. How curious.

On check in, I inquired about the restaurant, across the parking lot, which advertised Basque style food. The restaurant was closed for business and only served our complimentary breakfast from 7-10am. But the proprietor assured me the bar, also on the property, was open and very popular. Oh, good.

My wife and I joked about the convenience of having a popular bar in walking (and hearing distance) from our room. It was kind of like whistling past the graveyard.

Our jocular tone soured a bit on entering the room itself. Where do I begin? Our first impression was that a contest had been held in there. The winner smoked fifty packs of Lucky Strikes in the previous 24 hours while the loser had smoked only forty-nine. That the housekeeper neglected to air the room was surely an oversight.

Our suspicions were confirmed by the copious cigarette burns on every piece of furniture in the room. I have never understood why people rest lit cigarettes on arms of upholstered chairs. Then it hit me. This being a ‘non-smoking room,’ there were no ash trays available.

At least the stale smoke discouraged any bedbugs from setting up camp.

It was too late to find another motel. I assured my wife that all her fears were unfounded and we went to dinner. We found a place downtown that was good but I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding about our stay. A bright moment in the evening was our discovery of a good book store, something that Los Angeles struggles to sustain.

We returned to the motel and joked about expecting motorcycle gangs to congregate in the parking lot. I pulled the blinds for privacy only to discover that the previous tenant’s chimpanzee had attempted to make a dress from the curtain. It would not shut. We could not see out but anyone could see in.

I solved that by deftly propping our luggage against the window, securing ourselves against prying eyes. Piece of cake.

My wife slept while I stood first watch. When the motorcycle revving started around 11pm, I looked to ensure my wife was still asleep. I hated to think she would win the bet. She didn’t stir.

But when our immediate neighbors started pelting our common wall with objects, punctuating the increasingly shrill argument, all bets were off.  This marathon went on from midnight to about 3am.

Judging by her word count, the woman was winning. But we had to acknowledge he made some very impressive points with his rare interjections. With each well placed comment, the girlfriend would tally his score with another barrage of items thrown against the wall.

I would have liked to have been the proverbial fly on the wall but I know that flies like to get their sleep.

Eventually the motorcyclists revved off into the night. Our neighbors wearied of their dispute and slept like the just. And we, having nothing else with which to entertain ourselves, also found rest.

Our breakfast was ample and satisfying. We debated about who of our fellow diners occupied the room next to ours. No one seemed to fit our composite picture. Perhaps they were snuggling the day away.

We left on our tour of wine country determined to find other accommodations for that night. As we drove through Novato, my wife spied a Best Western near the freeway and made reservations by phone.

I have never had a better night’s sleep.

The Best Solution to the Problem

Job seekers need to focus on the two questions that will inform all aspects and steps in the interview process.

These are: What problem does the company look to solve? And how can you best demonstrate your experience to be seen as the best possible solution to the problem they are solving?

What is the problem the employer seeks to solve?

I had dropped out of college and my parents made broad hints that I should find work. While reading the paper, not the want ads, it hit me. The front page was filled with typos. There was hardly a sentence without some glaring error. I knew I could solve their problem.

I applied for the proof reader position. The editor asked me, since they had not advertised for a proof reader, what inspired me to apply?

I smiled and said that I was not responding to an ad but rather, their front page cried out for a proof reader.

When the editor grasped what I was saying, he laughed with me and admitted the front page needed attention. However, budget constraints kept him from hiring anyone. I didn’t get the job.

Will you always get the job? No. I am talking about getting an edge.

It is expensive to add personnel. Companies do not hire for charitable reasons. They won’t hire unless a problem demands a solution.  How can you expect to get hired unless you provide the best solution to the problem?

The job description in the listing will specify why they are hiring. You need to get your own ad to them, tailored to suit their needs, in the form of a resume.

The Resume– an abstract of your problem solving ability

 Much has been written about resumes’ optimal length, formatting and the best quality of paper on which to print them. However, before submitting it, examine your resume through the prism of – does it present you as the best solution to the problem?

You did not do A, B and C. You solved problems A, B and C using a variety of skills. Or you used a multi-faceted skillset to solve similar problems to A, B and C, those problems the company will hire you to solve.

Use active verbs. They add energy and allow you to pare your word count.

Tailor your resume so that point after point presents you as the perfect solution to their problem. Obviously, your skills exceed those needed for one particular problem. Nonetheless, you can show the depth of your experience and the breadth of your ability by using every bullet point to focus or support your main argument: Hire me, problem solved.

Interviews – auditioning your problem solving ability

Everyone has seen lists of the best questions (and the answers) you need for the interview. Forget them. What if they ask questions from a different list? Memorized answers will not get you hired.

Those lists of questions miss the point. The big question is: what impression will you make when you first walk through the door?

Everyone hates first impressions. They aren’t fair, and they are unavoidable. If you are alive, you cannot help but form opinions of people within about three seconds of first meeting them.

It is sometimes known as ‘the survival instinct’. Any infant learns to quickly judge the intent of that stranger who just entered the room. Can you blame it? Somehow, we never unlearned that primal impulse. Make it work for you.

Obviously, you don’t want to look like a troll when entering the interview. You want to look good. But besides grooming, what makes ‘good’?

More to lose

Believe it or not, your interviewer(s) have more to lose by hiring the wrong person, than you do by not getting hired.

If you don’t get hired, you will have spent some time, met some people and left them with the gnawing sense that they missed a good bet by not signing you on. Hopefully you learned something. But you are no worse off than before the interview.

If they hire the wrong person, that curious scent they detect when that wrong person moves into his new office, may be from a bad attitude, poor hygiene or maybe a juicy law suit smoldering under the newbie’s collar. Bad hires are expensive, in both time and money.

The Solution

Back to you. You are not begging for a job. You are there to solve their problem. You are their solution. You have arrived.

The most important thing is to create an impression of self-confidence. They are anxious to find the right person. Everyone else they met had clammy hands and nervous laughter.

How would the best solution for their problem act?

Right. Like you.

You walk in, are calm, self-assured, and are in command of your persona and the skills they are seeking. What’s not to like?

You are more relaxed than anyone else in the room. You carry yourself like you already have the job. Not arrogant. Self-assured and with nothing to lose. You are your humble best. The best doesn’t need braggadocio because the best stands on solid ground. Like you.

You deliver because you have the stuff – the best solution to their problem.

Over Qualification

Being told one is over qualified sucks. It is a ‘nice’ way to say ‘we don’t like you’. How does one argue with ‘you are too good for the job’?

The flaw, however, is in your presentation. Somehow you made them feel you didn’t really want the job. Perhaps you indicated your purpose was to get in the door and then impatiently move beyond the job for which you were hired.

Your purpose must be to get the job they are hiring for. You want that job. If you over shoot, tip your hand, or wax grandiose in your description of your accomplishments, they won’t believe you desire what they can offer.

Tone down your presentation. Don’t lie, and aim for the job they are offering. If your skills are better used elsewhere, once you are in, they will see that and find a way to challenge you. No one will believe a brain surgeon wants to be a janitor. They won’t.

If you present yourself as the best solution to their problem, they won’t think you are over qualified. They will ask, “When can you start?”

Clown Fear Masquerade

It is only September and the Halloween décor already fills the shelves of retail stores across the country.

It is a damned shame that a holiday like Halloween has been commercialized to the detriment of the holiday itself. The original meaning of the day has been lost to this incessant grasping for the almighty dollar.

The original spirit of Halloween has been completely obscured. Why can’t innocent children be allowed to celebrate the eternal damnation of their souls without someone making an unseemly profit from them? It’s un-American. Well, it’s completely American but it just ain’t right.

Halloween was approaching and some co-workers and I at Roger Corman’s movie studio, got to talking. I happened to mention that I didn’t like clowns. My co-worker admitted that she hated clowns. Further investigation proved clown anxiety, ranging from discomfort to sheer terror, to be universal. And I had thought I was alone.

This was decades ago, in a more innocent time. Clowns were not commonly portrayed as evil or malevolent beings back then. This was soon after the shocking revelation of the John Wayne Gacy serial murders. Who would describe a time when 33 children could be murdered by a clown as ‘innocent’?

Mr. Gacy may have started something regarding public perceptions of clowns. Could it be that clowns have been unfairly maligned in the aftermath of Mr. Gacy’s crimes? I don’t think so.

Please understand, I don’t hate clowns. I’m not a hater. I dislike them though. And I admit I used to ask women about their potential for bozophilia, as a filter, before considering any serious relationship with them.

I have always been a fan of the classic clowns of the cinema. The great silent movie stars, Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, Harpo and Laurel and Hardy were my favorites. But they were funny. Danny Kaye, in the “Court Jester” still makes me laugh. In high school I excelled in prat falls, some intentional.

Back in the studio, our course was clear. Halloween was nigh. I had always seen Halloween as an opportunity to face our fears with the aim of purging them. How better than to host a clown party? Everyone was welcome but no one would be allowed entry unless dressed as a clown.

To set the scene, I provided a poster of Ronald Reagan in clown make-up surrounded by a field of jelly beans. I borrowed a mannequin from a friend and dressed it up. I attempted but failed to become a scary clown. Thankfully, the concept eluded me.

In Sarasota, Florida, the Ringling Circus sponsors a clown college. Imagine meeting your girlfriend’s parents and getting asked the inevitable question, “What is your major in college?”

Quite a variety of clowns showed up to the party. There was a punk clown with a Mohawk fright wig. There was a lady ventriloquist and dummy. She cleverly pretended that the dummy was pulling her strings. Many people gave clownishness an honest try with more or less elaboration. Multi-colored fright wigs abounded.

There was a mime, who wouldn’t shut up. It was a party after all.

In my youth, friends needed to restrain me when mimes chose to provoke me. Why did they pick on me? You don’t see mimes too much anymore. Now, its gold or silver robotic guys. They don’t follow me around. They are okay, I guess.

Mimes are not really clowns. They are more like tools of the devil. There is considerable literature about the nature of mimesis and how primitive societies used to kill those prone to mimic as diabolical. What is so primitive about that?

Masks are the origin of the concept of ‘plausible deniability’. But masks have long held the power to reveal as well as to disguise. How many stories depict those attending a masquerade and feeling liberated to act without fear of exposing their true identity? The mask becomes a metaphor for the inner self, and reveals the true character of the wearer. But of course, those are just stories.

One guy from Corman’s studio showed up barely meeting the entry requirements. Wearing street clothes, his only gesture to the theme was a red nose. Too cool for the room, he observed rather than fully participating. But standing amidst a few dozen clowns, he stood out, an imposter. Was that big red nose masking his true mask?

The other guests, in bizarre or cute costumes, were relaxed and felt liberated to be more themselves than they might otherwise be. This guest, masked only with his spongy red nose, (squeak not included), seemed more masked than anyone. And ironically, he was more transparent in his discomfort and his desire to only participate in word but not in spirit.

Nowadays, no one takes clowns seriously. All this negative portrayal in the media has thankfully diffused the anxiety produced by clowns. The world has changed. There are truly scary things out there now. Clowns are not so scary as once upon a time, except perhaps for those clowns in the U. S. Congress.

For me, it all started when my mother sewed a clown costume for Halloween. It was brightly colored motley with enough material to make a tent. My two older brothers rejected it and so did I. We wanted to be scary. Halloween is supposed to be frightful. Mom said she thought it would be “cute,” or “darling”, or some other repugnant term. Yuck! Who wants to be cute on Halloween?

Hmmm. Cute? Darling? Repugnant? Maybe Mom knew more about how to be scary than I gave her credit for.