The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reality Hunger

In a press release which I put out about the publication of The Pastor’s Kids (to which I got no response; apparently newspapers are inundated by this kind of thing), I contrasted people’s desire to read fantasy fiction with the opening to wonder that good realistic fiction can bring. I have always preferred realism and have not taken the time to read many of the great fantasy classics.

Perhaps there are truths suggested by fantasy, or magical realism in its many forms, and certainly every writer of fiction embellishes his perception, to make his work even more ‘true.’ But the work I am trying to do is realistic, describing a world which loosely holds my characters together, while showing how their perceptions of it interlace and enrich each other’s evolution into the adults they seek to become.

Jean Renoir, the great humanist filmmaker and son of Pierre Renoir, in the Christmas issue of Cahiers du cinema in 1957, wrote: “I love reality, and I’m happy to love it because it brings me infinite joy. But it happens that many people hate it, and most human beings, whether or not they make films, whether they’re workers, store owners, or dramatists, create a kind of veil between reality and themselves. … If we live simply and make our living in any profession – say as an employee in a business – we can still try to break through the kinds of veils that surround us and to see things as they are, since they’re so beautiful, so enchanting. People say, ‘If only film brought us more enchantment and put us in a pleasant dream!’ But instead, it’s reality that’s the pleasant dream.”

I will admit that representations of reality in the current culture are degraded beyond any recognition. In a highly acclaimed recent television series, the hero is a high school chemistry teacher who produces and sells crystal meth to make money before he dies of cancer. Really? In politics, the right and the left struggle to tell a story about our country which includes a majority of the people, while insisting that the other side is “totally out of touch with reality.” Who wins in this scenario? Don tells the story of the Kendrick Lamar video he shot at Christmas in Compton in which an angelic chorus of six to ten-year-olds behind him sang along with the lyrics: “Pussy and Patron will make you feel alright, Pussy and Patron, that’s some great advice.”

Lately, I’ve been looking backward to nonfiction and biography, in which reality is the aim, though recreated from historical papers and documents. I just finished Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, the wonderful work of Paul Hendrickson. It’s a biography in which Hendrickson participates, reporting and imagining how it was for Hemingway in his real life, especially as it was in Key West, Cuba and on the Gulf Stream. Hendrickson doesn’t stint on the cruelty of the man, but sees him in his complexity with his own large heart. Hendrickson cuts through some of the veils which have obscured Hemingway, who sat down almost every day and tried to put down one 'true' sentence, followed by another.

Jesse Starnes at the Roosevelt Apartments
Don and I drove to Spokane, Washington, last week. We rolled through gorgeous spring landscapes, full of mists and rain, while listening to an audio book: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin. In almost 2,000 miles, we didn’t finish the book! We loved the story of how Teddy Roosevelt developed a progressive agenda, using the unique collection of journalists at McClure’s Magazine to connect to the American people. It is also the story of Roosevelt’s friendship with his successor, William Howard Taft, and how it ran aground. So many details were wrapped into these chapters, including the stories of wives, daughters and sons, giving us a picture of a time quite unlike ours. We arrived to find Jesse, Don’s son, living in his first-ever apartment! Now that’s an awesome reality!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

An Interdependent Family

After almost five years of planning, The Pastor’s Kids, the first book in the series So Are You to My Thoughts, is out, published and available! (You can buy it here or direct from I’m amazed at how long it is. 270 pages, given the white space that I like to see on the page. It’s a journey, for those who are willing. I’ve been struck recently by the lost world described in the book, in which inner aspiration is more important than material riches. And words are actions, so real they must be used carefully.

The Pastor’s Kids breaks all the current marketing rules. It is a coming-of-age story, narrative fiction, but has no fixed age group for which it is intended. And, its only plot is an unfolding, like life. As my brother Dave wrote, “The reader has no idea where (s)he is going, or why (s)he should go there,  but finds him(her)self curious about how these little lives will unfold. This absence of a ‘central driver’ to the stories is very refreshing. Unfortunately, however, I think it may make it less likely to be attractive to some readers, who are addicted to the captivating quality of a problem thread to be resolved, a question to be answered. Loved the book.”

The Mikkelsons grow up in an interdependent family, as Gish Jen uses the term in her book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self. Jen believes that in Asian narratives individuality is subsumed in family and culture. I maintain that many family cultures foster this sense of interdependence, in which each member contributes to the survival, the health and the joy of the others. Line, Marty and Paul are deeply aware of each other and their Norwegian Christian culture. Each chapter is told in the point of view of one of these three narrators, and in this first book in the series, we see the bedrock of the family’s story.

And there are things to resolve. One question is Paul’s bout with polio. He is sequestered in clinics for part of the book, then has two major surgeries to try to undue the damage polio has done to his muscles and tendons. Will Paul get to have the life he wants? Another question is what is going on with Ellie, the oldest Mikkelson sister. She lives alongside her active siblings, but seems to have a secret life. What is she thinking?

Overall, the series So Are You to My Thoughts shows that growing up in a powerful family structure allows the kind of individuation in which a person can become the self they were meant to be, to align their inner and outer worlds over time. And it does take time. Line, Marty and Paul are very different people and love and work happen for each of them differently. Their ideas and desires take them far from home and force them to make their own lives, as people of their generation did. But the circle of family their parents generated is very strong, and they never lose the sense of being in touch.

So! The Pastor’s Kids unfolds in a particular place and time, the Eisenhower years between 1952 and 1960, in the upper Midwest. Though post-war optimism and a growing awareness of diversity affected everyone, I am still amazed as I look back, at how the Scandinavians managed to maintain an isolated, unique culture for so long. Line, Marty and Paul begin to push against this in subsequent books in the series, developing their own individual stories. But The Pastor’s Kids, true to its time, reminds us that dignity once had value. Words and actions expressed it. I guarantee you will not be ashamed to read it to your kids!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Covers!

Nothing makes a book seem more like a reality than it being given a cover! Don, in charge of all things visual, has now designed four covers for the books Lightly Held Books will publish this year, using photographs which give a sense of the times to these fictional works.

When you put out books for sale, you must have the rights to any photographs or text you use in them. I was lucky to have not only great photographs, but also great friends who authorized their use. Susan Korn, a friend from Ann Arbor and Chicago days, took two of the photos, the one of Marshall Tate, and the one of my sister Solveig and me. Susan graciously allowed their use, and Marshall, writing from Puebla, Mexico, said “Of course you can use my photo. It would be an honor.” I love the eyes of Lenny Bruce staring down from the poster on the wall, and Marshall’s eyes looking intensely at the photographer.

When I first saw it, I minded the bare feet sticking out at the base of the photo of Solveig, my sister, and myself. We are sitting on the concrete structure along the beach in San Francisco. But what better representation of the 1970’s than bare, sandy feet and long, stringy hair!

The other two photos are from my family archive. When I look at them, I see a lot of back-story. For instance, in the photo taken in the canoe, I am sick, one of my eyes ulcerated and aching. But, we got through that one, in time.

I believe the photograph of my parents with their first four children was taken by a Canadian friend named Gus Cherland. We are out in the yard beside the Buxton, North Dakota, parsonage and behind us you can see the hollyhocks which we learned to make into dolls with long, colorful skirts in the summer. The photograph is spread out across the front and back of the book and only shows Dad on the cover, but if you want to see the whole thing now, go to the website and click on the cover. You will get the WHOLE photograph, and a brief description of the book.

 I keep telling people that Don can do anything, from constructing furniture, machining parts for camera equipment, coding websites and designing book covers to what he really likes to do, filming and directing movies! In addition to the book covers, Don has set all of my work in a new, clean and simple website which allows the reader to sample the books and buy them! The new ones will be available in the coming months. A thank you, to Don, for all his work. And one to you, Gentle Reader, for your attention.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"A Truly Humble Cottage"

I finished the first draft of Pulled Into Nazareth today. Finishing a draft is always a memorable occasion. I will spend the rest of the year editing it, but at least some of the suspense of is over. Five years ago I laid out the over-arching scenario of the series of books I am writing. But the details! I never know how the details are going to go until I write each chapter for the first time.

As I write, I keep in mind my desire to be “truly humble.” Christopher Alexander writes: “I say that even humble buildings cannot be made, because the infection which comes from our mechanistic cosmology is mainly one of arbitrariness – and the arbitrariness breeds pretension. In the presence of pretentiousness, true humility is almost impossible. A truly humble cottage even, seems beyond the reach of most builders today.” [Footnote, p. 24, The Luminous Ground, volume 4 of  The Nature of Order]

This small paragraph, an aspect of Alexander’s research and attempt to get beyond a mechanical world view to one in which value has an objective place, strikes me as getting to the heart of the problem writers have as well. Much of current literature certainly seems arbitrary to me, the corollary being that pretension is required to insist on its importance. But pretension doesn’t get you very far.

Of course striving for humility too can also be a dangerous. I keep in mind Neil Innes’ (of Monty Python fame) “Protest Song,” which he introduces by saying “I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” As Don says, “When you give people something it should be a gift, not an invoice.” I certainly don’t suffer as I write, and I do hope my work is a gift to others, and not a demand for attention.

This month also, through the heroic efforts of my brother and sisters, nieces and nephews, the small beach house my Dad built at the edge of a Minnesota lake was reconstructed. The little one-room beach house was a blessed retreat for many of us, but it had become uninhabitable for the last few years due to rot and foundation problems. It is no longer possible to build so close to a lake in Minnesota, but existing buildings are exempted from the rule.

My sister Naomi wrote of her stay in the beach house in 1981, “Never having had a chance to stay down there by the water before, I was overwhelmed by its magic. A small square room with a bed, a rocking chair and a lamp, it perches above the shore. The only thing you can see out of any of the windows is trees and sky and lake. At the head of the bed there is a low window so you can lie on your stomach and look out at the stars over the lake at night. The effect is rather like living in a treehouse – the breeze blows in and out the windows and sings in the branches. And at night if it’s rough you can hear the sounds of water lapping the shore as you lie in bed – or if its quiet, sometimes there’s the eerie cry of a loon echoing across the still space.”

The beach house is indeed “a truly humble cottage.” It of course plays a part in my fictional writing, as do many other aspects of my extended family.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Patterns of Wholeness

Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language in 1977. It turned up at my architectural firm almost right away, its thin Bible-paper pages dense with ideas, photographs and diagrams. He felt that he and his associates and found a ‘timeless way of building’ which enabled people to design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities.

The impact of this, and other books by Alexander, has been far-reaching, going to the heart of a larger debate about ways of making buildings. Alexander followed up with a four-book series The Nature of Order [2002-2004], in which he pointed out that the limited mechanistic view of the world we now use must begin to include statements of value as matters of objective truth. Though skeptical himself, he tried to show in these books how this could be done.

In 1990, Christopher Alexander’s “unique, world-class Oriental rug collection” was placed on display at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. It began to be clear that Alexander’s study of ancient rugs and carpets was an essential part of his work. In 1993 he published A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets. In it he writes, “to study wholeness we must have an empirical way of distinguishing it from preference”[p. 27].

It did not escape my notice that, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, the architects who were able to were buying Oriental [for lack of another inclusive word] carpets. Rooms generally had white walls and modernist furniture made of leather and steel, sitting on colorful patterned floor coverings as ancient as the person could afford.

In 1971, long before I knew anything about Alexander, I bought a camel bag at the Alameda flea market because it was there, because it was lovely and I could afford it at $25. It had a small piece of masking tape attached to it at the back with the word “Caucasian” on it. The camel bag has hung on the wall of every apartment or house I’ve lived in since. As you can see from the photograph, it has strong natural colors, and wonderful designs. Having lived with it so long, I surely take it for granted, but at the same time it has probably influenced me immensely.

Nowadays we must be sure that the carpets we buy are not being made by children who are not getting an education. The Rugmark Foundation in India has set up a certification process to ensure that a rug has not been made by child labor. Other groups, such as Azerbaijan Rugs, strive to bring life to forgotten traditions, studying ancient designs, returning to hand spinning, carding and natural dyes.

Georges Gurdjieff, whose books we also read in the 1970s, traded in carpets throughout his life. A more beguiling description of wholeness than what he told P.D. Ouspensky of the rug-making process would be hard to imagine! Gurdjieff “spoke of the ancient customs connected with carpet making in certain parts of Asia; of a whole village working together at one carpet; of winter evenings when all the villagers, young and old, gather together in one large building and, dividing into groups, sit or stand on the floor in an order previously known and determined by tradition. Each group then begins its own work. Some pick stones and splinters out of the wool. Others beat out the wool with sticks. A third group combs the wool. The fourth spins. The fifth dyes the wool. The sixth, or maybe the twenty-sixth, weaves the actual carpet. Men, women and children, old men and old women, all have their own traditional work. And all the work is done to the accompaniment of music and singing. The women spinners with spindles in their hands dance a special dance as they work, and all the movements of all the people engaged in different work are like one movement in one and the same rhythm. Moreover each locality has its own special tune, its own special songs and dances, connected with carpet making from time immemorial.” [P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, 1949, Chapter 2]

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paradigms New and Old

I went to college a little before structural analysis set in, so I didn’t know what a syntagm was (though I had some idea of paradigm) until I met Don Starnes. Don went to San Francisco State in filmmaking. I’ve seen him, when editing a piece, plot the paradigm, what the piece means, against the syntagm, the sequence of things that happen. This is the simplest way I have been able to understand it. In filmmaking, it means that a visual language delivers the meaning, plotted against things that happen on the film’s “timeline.”

Don laments the lack of meaning in much of our current “entertainment.” This morning he told me about a reality show he has agreed to work on briefly. “It’s horrible,” he tells me. “Philosophical people don’t make good television,” I remind him. “They don’t even make good Facebook!” Nevertheless, people are hungry for stories that involve them, that encompass the complexity they live in without demeaning their sense of themselves and their possibilities.

Duane Elgin has taken this problem head-on. He notes that we are in a time of transition. New stories could involve the ideas that the human race is growing up; communication is awakening our consciousness to a global, rather than a local scale; and the hero’s journey could now be a story of return to living in harmony with the earth and each other. He suggests that the despair and destruction we see around us may be part of the difficult birth we are all going through. The project on which he collaborates to develop new stories is described here.

We will always need new stories. But, like most people deeply involved in literature, I am also happy with the old ones. Humans and their patterns have not changed very much, and a richly told story invites us in to watch. As Kenneth Rexroth says, in his book Classics Revisited, all great fiction is “the story of the immensely difficult achievement of personal integrity.” He is here referring to The Dream of the Red Chamber, sometimes called The Story of the Stone, a novel written in China between 1754 and 1764. In it, Cao Xueqin looks back at the aristocratic family he came from, writing in poverty at the end of his life. I am reading an English translation by David Hawkes.

Bao-yu, the protagonist, is surrounded by a hierarchical family structure which requires daily filial obligation. He lives in a beautiful garden, and knows the poetry of China so well he excels in composing allusive poems. His father, however, wants him to study the Four Books, the basis of the Confucian philosophy which structures Chinese society. When Bao-yu doesn’t, his father beats him badly “for the honor of the family.” His friend says, “I suppose you will change now.” But Bao-yu is intransigent. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I shan’t change. People like that are worth dying for. I wouldn’t change if he killed me.”

The paradigm of this book is unlike any Western novel. The syntagm is well-populated! One thing happens after another, the action shifting from one part of the huge family complex, in which more than 300 people live, to another. Servants and masters all take their turn. Characters die and are mourned. The family fortunes sink. Infighting and chaos begin to undermine the household. It’s a big melodrama which draws you into it with its lively characters, said to be based on real people.

Though willful and mercurial, gentle Bao-yu struggles against the hate that results from the difficulties around him. Rexroth suggests he embodies the Taoist principle of non-action, that of water seeking its own level and eventually wearing away mountains. It is a feminine, yin principle, reflecting the way the Chinese people see and interact with nature. Neither yin nor yang is evil. They alternate, each containing a little of the other. Knowing it cannot last, Bao-yu is determined to enjoy, appreciate and celebrate his young life.

The yin/yang interaction of the rise and set of phenomena is a more grown-up way of looking at the world than seeing it as black and white, good and evil. It does not pit people against nature, as we somehow do in the West. Evil certainly exists, and heroes and heroines must fight it where it arises. But the interaction is messy and our heroes and heroines would do well to look into their own hearts and motives as they go forth into battle. The paradigm of fighting and battle itself should be questioned. As Duane Elgin suggests, the hero’s journey might now be more about a return to harmony.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Buffy St. Marie
The great writing of my generation does not always appear in novels or poems. It’s mostly been spent on songs, which, in performance or recorded, had a lot more audience. The great opening out of American culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s absorbed amazing lyricists. Especially if you count the Canadians among them! It is hard to write about the music of this time in a short blog post, but also impossible not to mention how much we lived, and learned, from the messages in songs.

Civil rights marches and the protests against the Vietnam war were powered by song. I’ve read how the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, starting point for all of the civil rights marches out of Selma, reverberated with songs and spirituals. All of the marches I was on began and ended with speakers and singers. A friend of mine was in love with Phil Ochs, whose songs were very much to the point at the time.

I bought a cheap record player to be able to buy and listen to albums. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell albums were the first two, and after playing them over and over, I knew the songs by heart. This became a pattern. I didn’t listen to the radio or buy pop singles. I bought the albums of songwriters for whom the lyrics were as important as the music. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love a good rocking beat. I remember how we danced! But the albums I knew best were about the words.

Bob Dylan and John Lennon were perhaps the most influential songwriters. We had The White Album and George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass.  We waited for Dylan’s albums: Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks. I loved Kris Kristofferson, for both his writing and his acting. He wrote some of the anthems of our lives, such as “Me and Bobby McGee.” I knew all of the songs on Music for Big Pink, many written by Robbie Robertson. The title of my current book, Pulled Into Nazareth, comes from one of his songs.

Kris Kristofferson
Buffy St. Marie’s voice and her lyrics as well were mesmerizing. They are still wonderful. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics grew tiresome pretty early for me, and Carole King was way too poppy. Carly Simon was everywhere, and therefore uninteresting, though I got to love some of her work later. We all hoped for a lot from Phoebe Snow, but we only got one album. Linda Ronstadt covered Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s wonderful songs, though I didn’t know them until later either.

I resonated to the words of John Prine and John David Souther, as sung by Linda Ronstadt. Sad songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Silver Blue.” But also I loved Boz Scaggs, who was from our town (San Francisco) and wrote his own unique music. I had Moments and Silk Degrees, his best selling albums. I cut photos of him dancing out of The Rolling Stone and taped them to the walls of my office! I also loved Ray Charles, who was a little older, but actively writing and performing during this period.

By this time I wasn’t in much control of the stereo. These were the days that, unless you put on headphones and shut everyone else out, everyone in the house (and maybe the apartments above and below you!) listened to the same music. I loved Bob Marley, but only got to know him thoroughly later. Same with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne, whose work I find amazing. These are only a few of the many wonderful songwriters whose lyrics and music soared through our lives.

Recently, Neil McCormick wrote of a 2010 performance by Kris Kristofferson at Cadogan Hall: “At 74, standing tall and straight at the centre of an otherwise empty stage, he held a London audience completely spellbound by the magical power of an open spirit and truly great songs … Now that Cash, his first public champion, has passed away, Kristofferson provides a rare link to an old idea of a mythic, honourable America. His English audience responded with generosity and respect.”

My character Paul is a reasonably good folk guitarist. He is often made welcome because of it and the number of songs that he knows. I can’t help but quote some of these songs in the stories I am writing, and I hope that the songwriters will be happy with my declaration of “fair use” as commentary and criticism, as noted in copyright law. Their great work united us and expressed what we were thinking. Literature may have been the poorer, but public life was enriched.