Dutch’s Immortal Words

The late Cecil Day-Lewis, once Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, writing as Nicholas Blake, noted that a book “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit.” Nothing makes reading more pleasurable than experiencing a masterwork written by a master craftsman.

leonardOne of the masters of the hard-boiled crime novel passed away yesterday. Elmore Leonard was 87. He died at his home of complications from a stroke he had suffered a few weeks back.

From the 1930’s on, American crime/mystery fiction in the 20th Century, and to some extent today, was dominated by two interrelated genres: hard-boiled and noir. The only real difference between the two is the subject matter. Both concern crime, but hard-boiled generally revolves around a lead character who is a detective, while noir involves a male protagonist who is often an “average Joe” (although he can be police or a criminal) that meets up with femme fatale who leads him to his downfall. Leonard’s fiction straddled both sides of that fence with a definite lean towards noir.

The writing style of both hard-boiled and noir fiction is essentially the same, and it’s built around economy of words. These writers approach a novel in much the same way as a Japanese poet does haiku. Another key ingredient is great, pithy opening sentences. Consider the opening line of Leonard’s Freaky Deaky:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”

In just twenty-four words he tells us quite a bit about one of the chief characters in the novel, his job, employment status, his attributes, and gives us a good feel for what is to come. Other writers would have used many more words to tell us all that. Hell, Proust would have spent three or four pages on two in the afternoon alone.

Style may be king in hard-boiled and noir novels, but it’s rather empty without a good story and characterizations. The latter must be believable. And you’d be hard pressed to find any character in a Elmore Leonard story who wasn’t. They were gritty, quirky, misfits who spoke snappy, laconic dialogue that matched perfectly the narrative voice. Hollywood loved Leonard’s characters. 26 of his stories were made into movies: 3:10 to Yuma, Mr. Majestyk, Stick, Get Shorty, Be Cool, Jackie Brown . . .

I’m going to take my cue from “Dutch,” as Leonard was often called, and be concise here. As far as I’m concerned, he was one of the great American novelists. I will refer you to the obituary at the LA Times to learn more about Elmore Leonard’s life and career. For my tribute, and for your edification, here are his 10 Rules for writing, composed in 2001. It’s aimed at writers, obviously, but I think readers can learn a lot about reading from it, too.

WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle


These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.


Extraterrestrial Highway

ET-Hwy2The U.S. Government has finally admitted the existence of Area 51, the secret base where many people believe that for decades the Air Force has been studying crashed alien spaceships along with captured, or stranded, extraterrestrials. Area 51 is located 100 miles from Las Vegas, near the small town of Rachel, on Nevada State Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, so named because of the numerous UFO sightings and reports of other strange alien happenings along the road.

Unfortunately, according to the new declassified documents, Area 51 was just home base for the U-2 spy plane program and other aerial surveillance programs. How boring. But there is a caveat, and that’s that this information comes from the CIA, not famous for their truthfulness, so there is still a small ray of hope for UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.

marvinI believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and I’d certainly like to meet up with an ET. Nothing would be cooler. Unless, he, she, or it wanted to zap me with a ray gun, or was intent on destroying the earth. That’s definitely not cool.

But believe me, the threat from space is real, and as it stands right now, we’re about to become less protected. The United States Air Force says that because of the sequester cuts, it can no longer afford to maintain the “Space Fence,” the space surveillance network that scans the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could destroy Earth. This is disturbing news because when the Space Surveillance System shuts down in October not only will we be vulnerable to global devastation from incoming comets and asteroids, but we’ll also be unable to detect impending interplanetary attacks.

This is serious stuff. This June, NASA announced that more than 10,000 asteroids and comets are near Earth, which means they could come within 28 million miles of the planet – that’s uncomfortably close. I guess.

Speaking of space, Lama Govinda notes that “According to the ancient Indian tradition, the universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as motion, and as that in which motion takes place, namely space . . . space is called akasa . . . derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore also the meaning of ‘ether’. . .” *

In Buddhism, there are two kinds of space, local or limited space (akasa-dhatu), and infinite space (ajata-kasa). You really got to hand it to the ancient Indians, because when most people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, those guys in India were envisioning multiple universes, multiple planes of existence within these universes, life on other worlds.

It’s really mind-blowing. Take the Lotus Sutra, for example. In this text, the Buddha explains that he didn’t actually become enlightened under the Bodhi tree as he said, but in fact, he became enlightened in unimaginably distant past.

He tells the assembly on Vulture Peak:

It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of kotis of kalpas (eons) since I in fact attained Buddhahood . . .  Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi thousand-million-fold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, traveling east, passing another five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi worlds he drops one particle of dust. Then, suppose he continues eastward like this until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what do you think? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?”

Well, yeah, they can. A kotis is 10 million, and a nayuta is 100 million. It works out something like this: 5 x 100 x 1000 x 10,000 x 100,000 x 100, 000, 000, 000 x 1,000,000,000,000[4] x 1,000. On my calculator it comes out as 2.e+41, whatever that might be. Let’s just say it’s heck of lot of worlds. Actually they’re ‘world systems’ or galaxies.

By the way, I know you are very impressed with my calculations, but I have to admit that I got it from a book called Lecture on the Sutra by Josei Toda.

Then the Buddha says,

Suppose all these worlds, are once more reduced to dust, and each particle represents one kalpa (eon = 4.32 billion years). The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi kalpas. Ever since then I have been in this saha (mundane) world, teaching the dharma. Likewise, I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayuta asogi worlds.”

Not only that, but Buddhist tradition holds that there have been countless Buddhas in the past, although several eons usually go by between each Buddha’s appearance, and there are Buddhas presently teaching in other worlds.

I’m a bit pessimistic about all that, but at any rate, this passage in the Lotus Sutra is where the Buddha reveals that he is not the mundane Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha of history, instead, he is the cosmic, Eternal Buddha. Naturally, this shouldn’t be taken literally, because it’s allegory. Just as the Buddha says he has always existed in this world, the potential for awakening to Buddha Nature has always existed in our life.

We could say that in this allegory, infinite space represents the infinite mind. As a physical object, our brain, may not be a vast as space itself, but it does contain 456 trillion trillion atoms, and our brain can hold more information and process it faster than the most powerful super-computer on earth.

Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed the concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought.” These worlds, which some translators call dharma-realms, are basic conditions of life that interpenetrate one another, possess certain factors or qualities, and are manifested within the three spheres of existence: the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness), the realm of sentient beings, and the realm of the environment.

Chih-i arrived at the number of 3000 through a particular formula, but enough calculating for one post. Suffice it to say that the number of worlds is not important but rather what it represents, which is the interpenetration of all reality in a single thought. This is also stated as a single moment of thought permeating the universe with all phenomena in the universe contained within that single thought moment. Figuratively, then, the mind is a vast as space after all.

Chih-i’s identification of all reality with the mind was his way of equating the mind with Buddha-nature. All worlds or dharmas are Buddha-worlds or Buddha-dharmas, so the takeaway here is put succinctly by Chih-i himself in the text, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra,

If one contemplates the thoughts of one’s mind . . . with the understanding that all dharmas (realities) originate from the mind, then the mind is Buddha-nature.”

Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived roughly two hundred years after Chih-i once said, “Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

Just as with space, we are really still in the early stages of our exploration of the mind. The mind is the true Extraterrestrial Highway because it can take us beyond our saha or mundane world. I don’t mean to formless realms or twilight zones, but rather to a dimension of space and time where we transcend the desires and illusion that bind us to a world of suffering.

The mind is said to be quiescent like space. Nirvana is also said to be quiescent like space. It is through quieting the mind, allowing Buddha-nature to ‘to radiate, to shine’ that we can find Nirvana, right where we are in a single moment, in the present moment.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960


Study says Facebook is a bummer but don’t let it ruin your day.

The LA Times reports that according to new research, “Facebook is a bummer that makes us feel worse about our lives.”

A study was conducted by the University of Michigan and Leuven University in Belgium. You can read the research article here. The researchers examined “how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives,” and concluded that “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

It really bums me out to learn that using Facebook will bum me out.

Actually, I can’t get no satisfaction with Facebook, ’cause I try and I try . . .  When I’m scanning down my news feed and all of the sudden it hiccups, and new items slide up and I lose my place. I normally log off by the third time this happens, and I am left with a momentary sense of frustration, but then I move on. I figure my average time on Facebook any given day is less than 5 minutes. I don’t think I am a typical FB user.

At any rate, both you and I know that you can’t find lasting happiness in something like Facebook. But, we know also that people look for happiness in the darndest places, and often in the most futile ways. But happiness, or at least some life satisfaction, is really not that hard to find.

Want some happiness right now? Well, when you finish reading this post, sit back from the computer, or lay down your mobile device, and take a few minutes to reflect on what a beautiful day it is. Better yet, go outside, the perfect place to meet a perfect day. Rain or shine, hot or cold, even if you have a ton of problems, it’s a good day.

In his book, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, Thich Thien-An, the Vietnamese teacher who founded the International Buddhist Meditation Center here in Los Angeles, notes,

The practice of [Buddhism] should not be confined only to periods of sitting in meditation, but should be applied to all the activities of daily life. If we are diligent in cultivating the way, we will find that every day is a good day. There are no bad days at all, not even Friday-the-thirteenth. Whether a day is good or bad depends on the mind.”

The key to realizing the full value of what we call mindfulness is through cultivating a mind of appreciation. Mindfulness should be more than merely having some awareness for the present moment. Awareness by itself is nothing special. If you live in the present moment without any appreciation for it, then you’re missing something truly significant. We should try to discover ways to develop appreciation, not only for the present moment, but mostly importantly, for being alive. That’s what I’ve always thought was meant by this phrase in the Lotus Sutra, “Earnestly desiring to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives.”

I won’t belabor the point. Go. Check out the day and harvest some appreciation for it, and everything around you. Unless you are beyond any hope, that should bring some satisfaction and happiness into your life. But, before you do that, click on the arrow below and listen to a tune by Peggy Lee that will help get you in right frame of mind.



Grasses and Trees

“The appearance of pain in grasses and trees is no different from the countenance of suffering among human beings. When they are watered and the like, they grow and appear happy. When they are cut and fall, the withering of their leaves is no different from the death of a human being.

Their pain and sadness are not known to human beings. And when grasses and trees look at the sadness of human beings, it is just like human beings looking at them, and they probably think we have no pain and sadness either. Simply, it seems that we do not know the affairs of grasses and trees, nor do they know ours.”

Zen Master Takuan Soho (1573-1645)

From “The Clear Sound of Jewels” translated by William Scott Wilson, The Unfettered Mind, Kodansha International, 2002


Being Everywhere

The Time Warner Cable/CBS dispute continues, with all CBS programming blacked out. The two multimillion dollar companies fighting are squabbling over a $1 per customer increase and digital rights. And it is we, the viewers, the people, who are suffering. Naturally.

Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.
Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.

For the second week in a row I was unable to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan on Showtime (owned by CBS), so I watched The Grapes of Wrath on TCM instead. That’s the 1940 film based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, his protest novel about how capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation. How fitting.

I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. It’s been even longer since I read the book. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family forced from their farm by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They journey to California along with thousands of others in search of work and a new life.

John Ford was the director, an odd choice because The Grapes of Wrath was regarded as a “leftist” novel, and Ford was a staunch right-winger. But he was also a humanist, and no doubt identified with the plight of the migrant workers in the same way as he did with his ancestors who suffered through the Irish Famine, and with the struggle of the Welsh coal miners whose lives he depicted so beautifully in his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley.

Although his conservatism, and at times, his brand of patriotism, is not my cup of tea, I consider John Ford a great filmmaker. It seems to me that his version of The Grapes of Wrath follows Steinbeck’s novel closely, even the political part. The film was produced 73 years ago, and yet it is a thoroughly realistic portrait of that time, rather atypical for films of the period. Shot in glorious black and white, Ford’s cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who a year later would perform the same duty for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.

Watching the film this time around, I was stuck by the scene where the Joad family finally finds some work in California. They’ve already been preyed upon, and they show up at a ranch where work is a sure thing. The migrants drive through the barbed wire gates of the ranch in their overloaded vehicles, past the guards who act like Nazi thugs – it’s more like a German concentration camp than an California work camp, an eerie parallel considering not much was known about the Nazi camps in 1940. And, at the same time, a premonition of the Japanese internment camps two or three years later.

The first night, young Tom Joad meets up with some “agitators” who are planning a strike against the oppressive landowners, and he ends up killing a deputy who has in turn killed his friend, the former preacher, Casy.

Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, the basically decent man who finds himself thrust into some violent situations that turn him into an outlaw. Tom Joad’s journey is not just from Oklahoma to California, but also from self-interest to selflessness, and as he becomes a fugitive, his sense of family grows larger to include all humanity.

The climactic scene in the film is when Tom has to say goodbye to his Ma. He figures that since he is already an outlaw, he might as well go out and “do something, maybe find out what’s wrong.” The words he says to his mother are not word for word from the novel, but close enough. It’s doubtful that either Steinbeck or screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Buddhism on their minds, but I’ve always thought Tom Joad’s short speech is about as good a description of the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as I’ve ever heard.

Ma Joad accepts that Tom must leave but how will she know where he is and if he will be all right?

grapes-fondaTom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Being everywhere . . . being a piece of something that belongs to everyone . . .